Military Demand for Aircraft



Rumpler Taube

Instantly recognizable by its sweptback, birdlike wing tips, which warped for flight control, the Austrian Taube (“Dove”) had its origins in the Etrich-Wels glider of 1907. Manufacture was initially licensed to Rumpler, and the design is now generally associated with that company. Although a pre-war design, its initial success as a reconnaissance machine on the Western Front led to it being built by Albatross, Gotha, and D.F.W.

Although airships were added to the resources of both navies and armies, aeroplanes generally proved themselves more useful and reliable. They were also far cheaper to produce – a very important consideration. It was only in Germany that zeppelin advocates held their ground, diverting major resources away from aeroplane production.

Between 1911 and 1914, European military establishments became major buyers of aeroplanes and the main influence on the development of the air industry. Military competitions set manufacturers targets to aim at, with lucrative contracts at stake. The lure of profits brought substantial investment from the likes of German banker Hugo Stinnes, arms manufacturer Gustav Krupps, and Russian industrialist Mikhail Shidlovski. Some private firms experienced rapid growth. Henri Farman (see page 32) was employing around 1,000 workers by 1914, and the Gnome aero-engine company operated on a similar scale. Governments also set up their own establishments to encourage aircraft development – notably Britain’s Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough.

However, the situation in the United States was strikingly different. America was not preparing for a major war. Its armed forces were under no pressure to embrace cutting-edge technology, and its politicians were reluctant to vote funds for military hardware. By the summer of 1913, when the biggest European military air arms were already numbered in hundreds, the US Army had 15 aeroplanes. Without substantial military contracts, the American air industry stagnated. In 1914, only 168 Americans were employed making aircraft.

Aircraft Designs

The domination of European aviation by military contracts brought a distinct change in priorities. Since they did not yet take seriously the prospect of combat in the air, the armed forces demanded sturdy, reliable aircraft that could be flown in most weather conditions by average pilots and still carry a reasonable payload. Sporting pilots willingly risked their lives in treacherous high-performance machines built for speed or for stunting, but the military wanted stable aeroplanes that would survive prolonged use and keep their newly trained pilots alive. Although light monoplanes continued to be ordered for army use – for example, Taubes in Germany and Morane-Saulniers in France – there was a strong prejudice in favour of solid biplanes. A typical example was the two-seater B.E.2, designed by Geoffrey de Havilland for the Royal Aircraft Factory in 1912.

The record-breakers for speed around 1912–13 were the light monoplanes produced by French manufacturers Nieuport, Morane- Saulnier, and above all, Deperdussin, all of which made an attempt at streamlining with a fully enclosed fuselage and engine cowling. In comparison, a biplane such as the Farman Shorthorn, used for military training, was described by a cynical trainee pilot as looking “like an assemblage of birdcages”. But although the monoplanes were sleek and fast, their thin single wing generated inadequate lift for carrying much weight. It was also structurally frail, and was still braced by external wires attached to struts on the fuselage. Their control systems also made these aircraft difficult to handle.

At the time, a thin wing section was considered obligatory by aeroplane designers. In fact, as aerodynamic research would soon reveal, a thicker wing section provided improved lift, as well as a stronger structure. In 1910 a German high-school professor, Hugo Junkers, took out a patent for “an aeroplane consisting of one wing, which would house all components, engines, crew, passengers, fuel, and framework”. This flying wing was never built, but the idea led the way to the cantilever wing, requiring no external struts or bracing wires, that Junkers would incorporate into aircraft design during World War I. The cantilever wing would eventually make the monoplane the aircraft of the future. But in 1913–14 the machine that established a new benchmark for performance was a biplane, the Sopwith Tabloid – the first British-designed aircraft to compete successfully for speed with the French. The Tabloid pointed forward to the leading fighter-aircraft design of World War I.

First Bombing Raid

In the autumn of 1911, Italy declared war with Turkey in a dispute over the territory now known as Libya, then part of the decaying Turkish Empire. The Italian army possessed a number of foreign aircraft – French Blériots, Farmans, and Nieuports, and German Taubes. An air flotilla, initially comprising just nine aeroplanes and 11 pilots, was sent off with the Italian force that embarked for the Libyan coast in North Africa. In the short but brutal war that followed, the aeroplanes performed creditably, carrying out reconnaissance missions, mapping areas of the desert, and dropping propaganda leaflets promising a gold coin and sack of wheat to all those who surrendered. On 1 November, Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti dropped four grenades over the side of his Blériot on to a Turkish military encampment at the Taguira oasis, in the first ever bombing raid by an aeroplane. Despite the fact that they faced little opposition, the aviators were hailed as heroes by patriotic Italians. Although the 1899 Hague Convention banned aerial bombing from balloons, Italy argued that this ban could not be extended to aeroplanes.

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