Now back at the turn of the century
in the clear blue skies over Germany
came a roar and a thunder like I’d never heard
it was the screamin’ sound of a big warbird!
Snoopy and the Red Baron by The Royal Guardsmen
Little more than a decade after the Wright Brothers made their famous flight at Kitty Hawk, some enterprising young French or British lad with a certain skill at piloting these newfangled “aeroplanes” convinced his commander to let him take one up just to “see what the Huns were up to over the hill.” The commander obliged and the daring young man in his flying machine returned a little later breathless and excited at all the amazing intelligence he was able to gather for his fellow soldiers. Obviously, some enterprising young German lad saw that “reconnaissance flight,” as did HIS commander so the youngster had little trouble convincing a nearby officer to let him go fly over the Allied lines. He went and came back safely, and so began the earliest use of airplanes in warfare.
Things went along splendidly for a few months with almost daily flights over the lines by both sides. The pilots were quite chivalrous with one another and usually exchanged a wave as they passed in the air. They were enemies on paper, but kindred spirits at heart. Then, one of the nastier young men figured it would be good if only HIS side were able to fly over and spy out the other side’s troop movements so this cretin carried a Lee Enfield or Mauser K98 up with him the next time he went aloft and instead of waving at his fellow recon pilot from the other team, he shot the guy with the rifle which, of course, the other man found quite unsporting and he complained about it bitterly to himself all the way to the earth whence he crashed and died.
The offended side, and I like to think it was the British for reasons which will be clear in a moment, thought this shooting at another plane was certainly NOT CRICKET! (see, only the Brits say that) They decided to one up Fritz and did so by sending up a plane with an “observer” in a rear seat. Now, this observer happened to have a Vickers machine gun mounted on a swivel in his cockpit and this machine gun made short work of the first German recon plane the duo encountered. Now the cat was well and truly out of the bag. Pilots had decided, mostly amongst themselves, it was open season on each other and the arms race took off, quite literally. I cannot help but admire these first air warriors. I am terrified to think of flying in the most modern airliner the world has to offer so the idea of climbing into a jumble of wires, wood, and cloth with an engine out front . . . usually anyway . . . is to me nothing short of madness.
At first, the most daunting task facing the early aircraft engineers was how to best arm the new “fighter” type planes. The rear facing machine gun was a start, but the chance always remained that an overzealous “backseater” might track a trailing plane too literally and end up blasting his own craft’s tail off with predictably disastrous results for him and his pilot. What was apparent to everyone almost from the start was the finest place for armament was on the nose of the airplane. With guns on the nose, the pilot could fly the plane and shoot the guns resulting in fewer men in the plane and less weight. The only drawback to guns in the nose was the particularly pesky problem of the propeller. Early attempts established what most suspected, any attempt to fire through the spinning prop would result in shooting one’s own prop to bits with more predictably disastrous results for the pilot and plane since planes before the invention of the jet engine tended to fly quite poorly without propellers.
The first attempt to remedy the problem was put forward by a Frenchman named Roland Garros. His solution was to place steel plating on the propellers at the point where a bullet would otherwise strike the wooden prop. This method did work. Mssr. Garros shot down three enemy planes using the steel plate technique, but it did have one nasty bug. If a bullet hit the steel plate at the right angle, it would not zing harmlessly to the side but instead came ricocheting back at the pilot seated behind the gun. Since the bullet traveled much too fast for the pilot to duck, he would usually end up shot in the head with, again, predictably disastrous results.
As luck had it, a German engineer of some renown, Anthony Fokker, (yes, let the puerile joking begin) got hold of a crashed plane with the steel plates on the prop and realized immediately what a truly stupid idea the whole thing actually was. Within a few weeks, he presented the German High Command with his masterpiece — the interrupting gear. This was an ingenious device that wedded the shaft of the propeller to the firing mechanism of the machine gun. Essentially, it had a “bump” on the gear wherever a blade of the propeller crossed the plane of fire from the gun. The bump would “interrupt” or lock the gun momentarily so the blade could pass unharmed.
Once a German fighter equipped with the interrupting gear crashed behind Allied lines, It didn’t take long for the British to get their hands on one of Fokker’s inventions even though the Germans tried like the devil to keep it secret. Once both sides possessed the ability to mount guns firing through the propellers of planes, the true age of fighter aircraft began as planes still famous today like Spad, Albatross, and Sopwith began taking to the air flown by men of equal fame like Buck, Rickenbacker, and von Richthofen. Air power was out of the cradle and by the end of the war would give glimpses of just how awesomely powerful airplane mounted weapons could be as well as how crucial control of the air would become.
More about all those in later episodes!
Love y’all and keep your feet clean.