BY MIKE LOMBARDI
The second decade of flight saw rapid progress in aviation and the aviation industry, as the events of World War I proved the utility of the airplane as a weapon of war.
By 1910 most people viewed airplanes as a curiosity with no major purpose. But the major powers in Europe had seen the military potential of the airplane.
When war broke out in August 1914 they used airplanes to observe enemy movements on the battlefield. Soon they developed other aircraft with the purpose of shooting down these scouts. The French called them pursuits, the Germans called them hunters, and today we know them as fighters.
The toll and devastation of the war stunned the public, who grasped the romantic image of military aviators as modern knights, jousting in the clear air above the mud and horror of the trenches. After accumulating five or more victories, an aviator earned the title of "Ace" and instant celebrity status. Pilots with the highest scores became legendary. The war's leading ace with 80 victories, Germany's Manfred von Richthofenalso known as "The Red Baron"is still well known today.
World War I accelerated progress in the design of the airplane as well. The planes that started the war were of fragile wood, wire and fabric design and could reach speeds of 80 miles per hour and altitudes near 10,000 feet. In less than four years Germany was using metal to build the frames for rugged aircraft that could achieve speeds near 120 miles per hour and reach altitudes of 20,000 feet.
These were the planes that American pilots faced when the United States joined the war in April 1917. The United States trained several thousand pilots, who flew mostly French-built aircraft and quickly were able to make important contributions to the war effort, including many American aces such as Eddie Rickenbacker and Frank Luke.
After the triumph of the Wright brothers in 1903, the United States had quickly fallen behind Europe in most aspects of aviation. On March 3, 1915, rising criticism for the lack of progress and government support for aviation led to the formation of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, predecessor of today's National Aviation and Space Administration.
One of the first jobs for the NACA was to assist the military in developing a plan to produce the 22,625 airplanes the United States pledged when it joined the allied war effort.
The government decided to enlist the production know-how of the automobile industry, and it also decided to produce established foreign combat designs such as the French SPAD fighter and the British de Havilland DH-4 bomber. Ultimately, wartime aircraft production did not reach the over-ambitious goal, and the government produced only about 12,000 airplanes. Of those, around 200 actually reached the front lines by the end of the war.
With the Nov. 11, 1918, Armistice, the demand for military airplanes quickly evaporated along with most of the United States' aviation industry. Of the private firms that participated in the war effort, only a handful survived the postwar slump, including Curtiss, Martin and a small start-up, the Boeing Airplane Company.
William Edward Boeing founded his airplane company on July 15, 1916. The fledgling company was able to win a handful of wartime contracts that included building 25 Curtiss HS-2L flying boats and 50 of its own Model Cs for use as Navy trainers.
Convinced that aviation had a future, William Boeing used his own money to keep his company in business though the postwar industry decline. His perseverance and vision would serve him well, for within 10 years William Boeing had become an architect of U.S. commercial aviation and the captain of one of America's largest corporations.
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