The first airplanes

In 1900s when man was realizing his dream of flying with persistent zeal, it was inevitable that many enthusiastic young men with a love of science would turn to this field. Two of these youths were the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright who lived in Ohio.

Confident of the success of his heavier-than-air test flight, Samuel Pierpont Langley began to seek financing at the start of the 1900’s for the design an aircraft of suitable proportions for carrying human beings. Receiving the backing he desired from the government, he set to work on a design known as the Aerodrome. But the aircraft crashed to earth within a short time in the first two test flights carried out in 1903. Breaking off his experiments in despair, only a few weeks later Langley succeeded in flying a glider called the Flyer, which had been designed in the U.S.

In this period when man was realizing his dream of flying with persistent zeal, it was inevitable that many enthusiastic young men with a love of science would turn to this field. Two of these youths were the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright who lived in Ohio. Taking Chanute’s biplane glider as their model, the Wright brothers thought it would be better to use a depth rudder in place of a tail to maintain balance, and to attach this rudder at the front of the craft. Widening the lift surface, they produced a glider that eliminated all the flaws in Chanute’s and Lilienthal’s designs. Following the several glider flights they made up to 1902, the brothers started to work on a motor-powered craft and soon reaped the fruit of the trial-and-error method which they followed with scientific zeal. In the wake of these efforts, which are regarded as the foundations of flight engineering, they carried out their first controlled, powered flight in North Carolina on 17 December 1903. It lasted all of 12 seconds.

The Wright brothers solved the problem of controlling the plane through a system they called ‘wing warping’ - a system that not only engraved their names forever in the history of aviation but also laid the groundwork for the airplane models that would be developed later. Building in 1905 their Flyer III planes which could lie on their sides, turn upside-down and trace circles in the air, the Wright brothers in America were taking steps towards conquering the skies. As they did so, developments were also proceeding rapidly in Europe.  The first airplane engines were being produced; Santos-Dumont made a public flight on 13 September 1906; Paul Cornu was developing the first helicopter; in 1908 an Englishman by the name of John William Dunne was successfully flying a plane called the D4, which is regarded as one of the best early designs; in 1909 in France planes called Antoinette and Bleriot were crossing the English Channel; and in 1910 Henri Fabre built the first seaplane. Biplanes and propeller planes were now being built, and the French Breguet and English Avro emerged as the noteworthy designs of the day.

As developments in the air proceeded apace, international tension on the ground was steadily mounting and the parties to the First World War were gradually becoming clear. The war would end with the use of aircraft in military operation.

Development of both the zeppelin and the first ‘flying machines’ was a constant driving force behind scientific endeavors, and it suddenly acquired momentum due to war and the international power struggle. In the tense period when mankind was moving rapidly toward the First World War, great importance was naturally accorded to the development of military aviation. Oceans of opportunity lay before the inventors who were motivated by this ‘passion to fly’ - even if it meant disaster for mankind. When war broke out, almost all the parties involved in the conflict possessed an air force for offensive purposes. The zeppelins, for example, which the Germans dubbed their ‘midnight cowboys', set out directly for England in the twilight, dropping their bombs on its cities. As the conflict steadily heated up, it became clear that the zeppelins, filled as they were with readily explosive hydrogen gas, were not powerful enough for military use. The ‘flyers’ or airplanes that were being rapidly developed and enlisted for military needs almost the minute they were invented eventually came to be the most crucial force in the war. Planes of this type, known as fighter planes and responsible for attacking enemy aircraft, were employed in war for a multitude of purposes, undergoing continuous development during the period in which they were used.

It didn’t take long to realize that planes could be used not only for reconnaissance but also for attack purposes. When the First World War began, the model for the first air attack took the form of a revolving machine gun positioned in the back seat of a plane. Particularly in models like the Vickers F.B. 5 Gunbus, the area in front of the machine gun was not obstructed by any gear whatsoever. But control both of the plane and of the gun posed a problem for the pilot. The struggle for hegemony over the skies eventually took on such momentum that a solution even to this problem was soon forthcoming. Designed by Anthony Fokker, the E-1 fighter briefly had the advantage with a fixed machine gun that could be fired without hitting the propellers. Its supremacy came to an end however with the development of fighter planes like the De Havilland D.H.2 and Farnborough F.E.2b, both ‘pusher’ planes, and and the propeller-driven Nieuport 17.

In 1915 a heavy bomber called the Sikorski Ilya Mourometz was developed, a Russian-built craft and the heaviest up to that time. But the most famous plane of the war was the English Sopwith Camel. Despite an impracticable control system which resulted in the deaths of several pilots, it earned fame by winning far more air victories than any other craft.

Undergoing steady development, air attacks began to determine the outcome of the war, producing their own heroes in the process. Many of these ‘aces’ became household names for the successful air attacks they carried out. Some of the best known of them were Manfred von Richthofen, nicknamed ‘the Red Baron', who downed more than eighty planes, and the Frenchman René Paul Fonck, who was responsible for a number of victories. But the reality that went hand in hand with these tales of heroism was without a doubt the thousands of losses suffered every single day, losses that unfortunately were not sustained ‘in the name of science'.