William W. Whitson


from Apprentice Warrior

(Photographs reprinted by permission of the
San Diego Air and Space Museum)


When World War I began in 1914, the principal roles of the airplane were reconnaissance, photography, artillery support and minor bombing. Measured by any practical criteria, the warplane didn't come into existence until early 1915, when a Frenchman, Raymond Garros, installed a Hotchkiss 8mm machine gun on a Morane-Saulnier "N" Bullet, arguably the first fighter plane in history. Garros used two deflection plates on the propellor to deflect bullets. The obvious alternative to such a primitive system was the pusher design, the engine and propellor behind the cockpit and a clear line of fire for a Lewis machine gun mounted on the nose of the plane.

By June, 1915, the Germans were able to design a synchronization mechanism for firing through the propellor arc. That design made the Fokker Eindekker E-III the most dangerous fighter at the front. Six weeks after West Point Cadet David Harrison reached France as an observer in June, 1915, the "Fokker Scourge" began. At that time, ten squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps were equipped with only about 100 aircraft: 40 B.E.2c's, and a few Avro 504's, Vickers F.B.5 "Gunbusses," Morane "L" Parasols, Bleriot XI's and a sprinkling of single-seat "scouts" (fighters) like the Bristol Scout armed with a single Lewis machine gun, mounted on the top wing and firing above the arc of the propellor.

Air supremacy would not swing back to the Allies until the late spring of 1916.The competititon for air supremacy depended not only on evolving pilot tactical skills but also on the imagination of aircraft designers who raced one another to build aircraft with endurance, higher speeds, higher ceilings and greater rates of climb.

By the end of the war, France would build 51,000 planes; England would build 55,000; Germany would build 49,000 and Italy would build 12,000. By the spring of 1918, Allied aircraft strength at the Front reached 10,000 versus only 2400 for the Central Powers.

Morane Parasol L The Morane-Saulnier series, beginning in 1911 in France, yielded the "H" model in 1913. It was the forerunner of the Parasol "L" version, of which 600 were built, perhaps the best aircraft at the front when the war started in 1914, better than either the early Aviatik B.I or the Albatros B.II reconnaissance planes. By early 1915, a Gnome 80hp engine could lift the Parasol "L" to a ceiling of 12,000 feet.  With a sea-level speed of 71mph, it had range of 289 miles.  On June 7, 1915, a Parasol pilot, Sub-Lieutenant Warneford, won a Victoria Cross for shooting down a German Zeppelin over London. In July, a future French ace named Guynemer won his first victory with a Parasol.

The most reliable airplane in the British Royal Flying Corps in 1914 was the B.E. 2, affectionately called "The Quirk" because it was stubbornly unmaneuverable. Manufactured by the Royal Aircraft Factory, it used an RAF 8-cylinder, in-line, 90hp engine. It could lift 2100 pounds of plane, a crew of two and 224 pounds of anti-personnel bombs to a ceiling of 10,000 feet and a range of two hundred miles at a maximum sea-level speed of 72mph. Armed with only one machine gun, the crew were very vulnerable. Nevertheless, this machine carried most of the burden of photographing German trenches for the first two years of the war.

Bieriot XI Based on the same design in which Louis Bleriot had flown across the English Channel for the first time in 1909, the Bleriot XI equipped eight squadrons of the total French air service of 138 planes at the beginning of the war. Powered by a 70hp Gnome rotary engine, the plane weighed 1800 pounds and had a top speed of 66 mph. With a crew of two, it could fly for three hours but it could reach a ceiling of only 3800 feet. Unarmed, by the summer of 1915, only one still remained in the RFC.
Vickers FB5 The Vickers F.B.5 "Gun Bus" did not reach France until February, 1915. It was not until July that a fully equipped squadron (Squadron 11) arrived to try to protect unarmed Allied observation planes from the Fokker E-III Eindekker. By November, it was all too clear that its speed (70mph) and its ceiling (9000 feet) could not compete with the Fokker Eindekker.
Fokker Powered by a 100hp Oberursel engine and carrying a Spandau machine gun, the E.III "Eindekker" soon became the most formidable warplane at the Front in the summer of 1915 with a high ceiling of 12,000 feet a speed  of 87mph). In general, one or two were assigned to reconnaissance squadrons as protection against Allied fighters. Using that plane, Immelmann and Boelcke developed offensive tactics for a single fighter that paid off with a rich harvest of poorly trained British pilots in under-powered Quirks.
Fokker Fully equipped with the F.E.2b, powered by a 160hp Beardmore engine, four squadrons (20, 22, 23 and 25) went to France in early 1916. With a speed of 91mph and a ceiling of almost 12,000 feet, the two-man crew in a Fee could compete with the dreaded Eindekker. However, the life expectancy of the gunner/observer in the front seat was notoriously short. With a Lewis gun facing forward and a second Lewis facing to the rear atop the wing, the gunner had to stand in his seat in order to manage both guns. On June 18, 1916, Lieutenant McCubbin and his gunner, Corporal Waller, shot down Max Immelmann. Even after they were outclassed by faster Albatros fighters in 1917, Fees could still form a defensive circle to protect their blind spot under their tails. The Red Baron, Manfred von Richtofen, was badly wounded in a fight with a Fee.
Aviatik C1 Based on the earlier B models, the Aviatik C.1 emerged in the German air service in 1915 to become its principal aircraft for air reconnaissance. Using a 160hp Mercedes in-line engine, it could reach a maximum speed of 89mph and a ceiling of 11,480 feet. Armed with one machine gun, it had a range of nearly three hundred miles. It remained in active front-line service through the summer of 1916, when nearly 200 were still flying photographic missions.

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