The Airplane

By Edwin Bidwell Wilson

[The Yale Review, July 1918]

Long before America entered the war, the performance of courageous American volunteers in the Lafayette Escadrille had captivated our imagination. The deaths of Kiffin Rockwell in September, 1916, after three victorious aerial combats, and of Norman Prince in October, after four victories, were at once recognized, indeed celebrated, as chivalrous sacrifices in a great cause from which our government was still holding aloof. In those comparatively early days of military flying, the machines were relatively poor and few, and their physical performance mediocre. But the spirit of the fighting aviator was and is now that of the bold knight of long ago who went forward to single combat armed with his trusty sword and riding upon his ardent steed. The modern rifle or machine gun and the swift, agile airplane are merely the evidences of scientific and engineering advance.

Neither Rockwell nor Prince lived to be an "ace;" that coveted title is reserved for those who have five victories to their credit. Our allies, our adversaries, and now we ourselves have an ever-lengthening list of aces, some with dozens of accredited successes, whose exploits will furnish material for an epic in which Guynemer's, Lufbery, Richthofen, and their followers may be the Patrols or Hector, the Achilles or the Paris. Lightning-defying Ajax could have been no stouter-hearted at his best than the artillery observing and directing airman skimming high up on the two or three mile level amid bursts of shrapnel from hostile anti-aircraft guns.

The information which filters through from "over there" has not yet furnished data for reliable accounts of individual prowess and adventure, nor is the time ripe for poetizing. But one great victory of the airplane over the Zeppelin cannot go unmentioned. In the autumn of 1917, an armada of five Zeppelins, returning from a raid over London, lost its route, probably owing to an unexpected wind, drifted out over northern France, was attacked at a height of nearly four miles, and the individual members were either destroyed or captured by French aviators. Since then much less has been heard of Zeppelin raids; apparently Goliath is still no match for David.

So striking has been the development of the airplane during the last ten years, so stirring the use of airplanes in the war that there is a temptation to disregard, if not to forget, the previous years of patient scientific labor that have contributed to the present success. The frequent tragedies which a few years ago put an end to the endeavors of individual intrepid pilots to break one record or another, attracted much public attention and deserved lament. Yet more poignant to the man of science must be the heartbreaking accidental failures, after long years of most careful scientific investigation, such as those that twice spoiled the launching in 1903 of Langley's airplane.

Langley's airplane, or "aerodrome" as he called it, still merits our attention, partly because it was the work of an eminent American physicist, partly because it may truly be considered the first flying machine. The design was different from any now in vogue. Instead of having a single spread of wings as has the monoplane, or a superimposed pair as has the biplane, it had a tandem pair with the driving mechanism between them. The gasoline engine was designed by C. M. Manly, a Cornell engineer; it was remarkably light and powerful for its day. There is no reason why in fair weather the "aerodrome" should not have flown continuously for several hours at moderate speed, and probably the chief reason that Langley and Manly do not have much of the credit that now goes to the Wrights is that an accident in the first launching crippled the front wing-pair, and in the second, the rear pair. The machine was flown in 1914 as a seaplane, and showed good aerial behavior; in 1903 its failures were a cause for unjust criticism and ridicule.

In the latter year, the Wrights, after several years of experimenting with gliders, in which they had greatly perfected their flying or rather gliding technique, converted their glider into a powered biplane by the installation of a small motor. As a scientific invention their machine was hardly comparable with Langley's. It could not fly for more than a few minutes. But it flew, and the Wrights were encouraged to continue their efforts. Within a few months they had several times flown a distance of three miles, remaining some five minutes in the air; and before the year 1905 had closed they had to their credit a continuous flight of 24 miles at a speed of more than 38 miles an hour.

Langley worked quietly as is the wont of most scientific investigators; the Wrights worked privately as engineers and inventors must who have patents in mind. The incentive to public interest in aviation was fated to come not from America but from France where Santos Dumont had already attracted general attention with his dirigibles. Twice in 1906 he made public flights, in an uncouth type of airplane flying tail first, and secured the prizes offered for the first flights of more than 25 metres and of more than 100 metres. His machine was not comparable in design with those of Langley and the Wrights, and his performances were far below the Wrights' but he stirred the imagination and initiated a rapidly increasing measure of success in flying in France.

All through 1907 and late into 1908, the Wright brothers maintained their reserve while a number of French aviators were outdoing one another in public exhibitions of their art with biplane and monoplane, yet without ever surpassing the Wrights' private performances of 1905. Then in September, 1908, Orville Wright in America, and Wilbur in France, came out before the whole world and out-distanced, in every respect out-flew the entire field of competitors. They flew with and without a passenger, remained in the air well over an hour, exhibited remarkable ease of control, and in December 31,1908, Wilbur made the distance record of seventy-seven miles. This was real flying; it was less than ten years ago. Remarkable as the achievements were, the altitude reached was only a few hundred feet and the speed only about forty-miles an hour.

Contrast these wonderful exploits by the first real airman—l'homme-oiseau as the out-classed French magnanimously and enthusiastically acclaimed him—with the everyday flights on the battlefronts in 1918. Dozens of fighting airmen can now drive their machines to altitudes of thousands of feet (a machine has been shot down from an elevation of 21,500 feet) and race through the sky at speeds approaching 150 miles an hour maintained for several hours at a stretch!

In 1909 Blériot created a sensation by flying from Calais to Dover in his monoplane. With that exploit, the insular isolation of Great Britain passed, and invasion became a possibility despite control of the seas by the Grand Fleet. The English and the Germans had been spectators, as it were; the development of flying had been American and French. About this time, however, the English started systematically and scientifically to work upon the airplane, with its attendant mechanical and aerodynamical problems, by the appointment of an Advisory Committee for Aeronautics made up of eminent engineers and scientists. The Germans backed Count Zeppelin and his great dirigibles; they did not seem to take a very great interest in the airplane.

It would not be true to say that English students had taken no steps in the theory of flying. For many years, Lanchester had been experimenting on small models, and in 1908 his large two-volume work on "Aerial Flight" was published. Even to-day no theoretician can do without this epoch-making treatise. Bryan and Harper had also been dealing with, problems concerning the dynamics of flight. Moreover, as the major English mathematical training had for decades, yea centuries been specialized in mechanics and mathematical physics, the work of Lanchester and Bryan was on sympathetic ground, and could, however little it may have been appreciated at the time, develop rapidly into actual aeronautical engineering when the need arose. It was only in construction and operation that the English had allowed the French and Americans to take the lead.

During the years 1909 and 1910, great progress was made in aeronautical sport. Records of all sports were broken. The daily papers were full of enthusiasm for the accomplishments of this or that pilot with one machine or another. It is interesting to see how one student, who had followed the science and art of flying from the early nineties, summed up the situation at the close of 1910. A. F. Zahm in his "Aerial Navigation" wrote:

The practical utility of aviation began now to be questioned. The aeroplane had passed the primary epoch of experimental development and was becoming a standard article of manufacture representing a considerable industry. But what was it all worth? Aviators had flown faster than the eagle, higher than the clouds, farther than the common distance from metropolis to metropolis. Schools were licensing new pilots from day to day. But what career had these before them, and what essential function in the affairs of humanity could, they perform? Some, indeed, might fit themselves for aerial service in warfare, some for the pleasant profession of amusing and entertaining mankind; but in the serious business of life, what important rôle could the airmen hope to play? This was the pertinent inquiry, and it was largely a question of the reliability and economy of the aeroplane.... These improvements would require careful research in the laboratory and patient trial in workshop and field. The refinement and perfection of the aeroplane might therefore be looked for in those communities where men have sufficient foresight, enterprise, and liberality to endow research, and to encourage the science and the art of aviation to supplement each other.

The remarks omitted from the middle of the quotation furnished a discussion of the commercial carrying possibilities of the machines. There was no other reference to possible utility in war than the passing mention quoted. It is apparent that the author was looking chiefly to peaceful uses. Some will recall vague rumors coming in those days from the Wrights' grounds at Dayton that, while others might be striving for extreme record-breaking types, these thoughtful inventors were chiefly occupied with producing a safe and sane machine, salable at a moderate figure and operable by almost anyone—a sort of aerial Ford. Apparently we are still a considerable distance from that; whereas the war uses have been prodigious.

By the close of 1914, the time a pilot could remain in the air was limited only by his endurance and the amount of fuel and lubrication he could carry. The speed on the long flights was not great—something under 50 miles an hour—but in speed contests it had risen above 125 miles an hour. The altitude reached had been raised almost to five miles. During the war public competitive flying has been reduced to nothing, and the records of 1914 may be regarded as still holding. There has probably been, however, a slight increase in maximum speed attainable.

In the early years of aviation, many variations of design were tried. More recently there has been a general tendency on the one hand towards standardization, on the other towards specialization. The Wrights had controlling surfaces forward of the main planes and used a propeller behind—the "pusher" type. Most modern machines have the propeller in front—the ''tractor" type. A few of the largest machines have two propellers in front and one or two behind. The forward controlling surfaces, so conspicuous in the early Wright models, have disappeared; vertical and horizontal rudders are provided in the rear, and the wing tips may be warped to aid in turning. In the search for stability, Dunne used sharply swept-back wings, giving a V-shape to his plane, but no pronounced "sweep-back" is now employed. A straight wing, with proper general design, will give sufficient stability. Various amounts of "dihedral" have been tried; that is, the wings have been set at an angle so that the outer edges are above the central line. But no excessive dihedral is now in use. In biplanes and triplanes the wings have sometimes been "staggered;" that is, the upper wings have been pushed out somewhat forward of the lower, or drawn back behind them, to change the effects of interference between the wings. The latest type of fighting machine is heavily armored.

In the main, however, the designs of 1918 are those of 1914 except for refinement of detail: there has been a striving for neat stream-line shapes to reduce wind resistance; the structural features have been improved so that the machines are stronger; the motors have been increased in power. The improvement in the motors has been especially rapid and marked. In 1914 the ordinary military tractor flew 60 to 80 miles an hour and mounted an engine of 80 to 110 horsepower; in 1915 the power had risen to 125 to 160 horsepower. Now, except for training machines, engines of less than 150 horsepower are rare; and those over 250 are not uncommon. The 18-cylinder Sunbeam motor develops 450, and the 12-cylinder Fiat 600 horsepower; the Liberty motor is supposed to give between 400 and 500. The increase in power of the prime mover adds considerably to the need of structural excellence and greatly to the rapidity of climbing. For manoeuvring purposes, fast climbing is very important and some modern machines can rise 2,000 feet in the first minute, 15,000 feet in ten minutes, 20,000 feet in twenty minutes—and come down much faster.

Apart from seaplanes, military airplanes may be divided into two chief classes: those designed for reconnaissance, artillery observation, and bombing expeditions; and the chasers and scouts. The latter are the smaller and faster, carrying a pilot only, with speeds from 80 to 140 miles an hour. They are fundamentally fighters and ordinarily fly at an elevation of over 12,000 feet. Indeed, as the range and effectiveness of anti-aircraft guns has increased, the flying level has gone up until, in the not distant future, it may well normally reach 20,000 feet. One great desire for a high level is the tactical advantage it gives; the pilot who is on top may come down at great speed, sometimes towards 300 miles an hour, and get into a strategic position for attack, against which the lower machine, slowed by efforts to climb, cannot compete.

Before the war there was much criticism of professional exhibiting aviators who, to thrill spectators, put their machines into all sorts of dare-devil attitudes and frequently themselves came suddenly down to death. In fighting, the ability to do all manner of "stunts" is essential. The more completely a pilot can control his machine, the more easily he can toss it hither and thither—cutting figure-eights, looping the loop, nose diving and tail diving—the better chance he has for his own, life and the more certain he is to get his opponent. Sad as are the continual reports of death by accident at our aviation training camps, we may rest assured that for an undertrained pilot to go overseas to the front is almost certainly fatal, and that for every life lost in training, many are saved in fighting. Fortunately airplanes to-day are so much stronger structurally and so much better equipped and controlled than before the war, that this necessary "stunting" in school and on the field is no longer really dangerous—the real danger now lies in physical inability to "stunt." Not only must the pilot of the single-seated fighting scout be thoroughly expert on the wing, he also must be a crack shot with his machine gun. Small wonder that it takes months and months to train an aviator who may develop into an ace.

The other type of airplane, used for artillery observation, for bombing, and for reconnaissance behind the enemy lines, is larger and not quite so fast. It is a "two-seater." When dropping bombs, it may venture down to a relatively low level for added accuracy; when making a long distance reconnaissance, it may fly at 18,000 feet altitude; and when engaged in artillery observation, it may be found at half that elevation. Some of the bombers reach very large sizes—the British Handley-Page driven by two 280 horsepower Rolls-Royce engines; the German Gotha with two 260 horsepower Mercedes engines; and the Italian Caproni, of which one model has three engines, developing over 1,000 horsepower in all, and a carrying capacity of five tons of explosives in addition to fuel for twelve hours. As the weight of these cargo-planes goes up and the wing surface needed to support them increases, there must come a point where the length of wing is so great as to be awkward in landing; then recourse must be had to the triplane structure, and it may be, eventually, to machines with more than three wings.

The temperament of the operators of artillery or bombing machines must be decidedly different from that of the scouting fighter. To swing around and around, back and forth, over a relatively small part of the field, spotting hits, controlling artillery aims by wireless messages, and repeating the work day after day, is a job to try the courage and patience of the steadiest soldier. Bombing by night or by day is likewise an occupation for which skill and nerve and long training are requisite. A flyer like Laurens, who has led hundreds of midnight expeditions out over Germany and back, need not have the élan of a Guynemer; he must be possessed of the stoic boldness of a Leonidas, so little attributed to the French before the war.

During the spring drive of 1918, much has been made of the use of Allied airplanes in flying low over the German trenches or troop formations and emptying machine-gun "bursts" into the hostile ranks. This practice will doubtless be increased as the war goes on, and the machines and aviators will become more numerous. It is to be expected that frequent surprise visits of this sort will be detrimental to the enemy's morale. In a widely different field—that of submarine hunting—the seaplane or flying boat is looked to for a similar moral influence. We are now shipping flying boats in quantity to European waters for submarine patrol. If the water and weather are reasonably clear, there is no difficulty in seeing down to a considerable depth from a machine at a moderate altitude; once the submarine is sighted, a signal brings a chaser with the dreaded depth-bomb. In the long summer days, a large number of flying boats, with their speed several times that of surface patrols, should make submarine operation in clear waters very nervous $and discouraging work.

Though military airplanes have been divided into two classes, though a certain standardization, or a tendency towards it, is evident in each class for the accomplishment of its special purpose, one cannot fairly say that at present there are few types of planes at the front. Probably well over thirty makes or models are found in the Allied camp and half as many on the side of the enemy. This multiplicity is awkward. At the beginning of the war, however, there were a number of airplane manufacturers in France, England, Germany, and the United States, who had individually perfected some particular design; and the most natural, indeed the immediately necessary, thing to do was to go to these manufacturers for whatever machines they had. Moreover, for the makers themselves the easiest thing to do, as further improvements became vital in the fierce struggle for supremacy in the air, was merely to improve their individual designs as much as might be. This, with the new machines which have been planned and built in England through the activities of the National Physical Laboratory and the Royal Aircrafts Factory, accounts for the variety of Allied airplanes.

America led the world in airplane invention. America has almost limitless natural and manufacturing resources, and our aircraft manufacturers have perfected a number of serviceable types of craft. But America has been far behind England in seeing the need of establishing scientific aeronautical laboratories for the study and the improvement of design. When we entered the war our people at once seized upon the slogan: "Win the war in the air." It is a good slogan, but how shall it be carried out? Are we to add to the number of makes of aircraft at the front? Are we in a position to improve upon the design of airplane and engine? It is possible; but progress, except that favored by a good fortune hardly to be counted on, must be slow.

Was it wise to make a Liberty Motor, or should we have begun by turning out the best type of foreign engine? Is it wise to design an all-America fighting plane, whether scout or bomber, or should we copy the best Allied machine with whatever minor refinements its use has suggested? Is it well to spend time testing various bizarre models, of which several have recently come to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for testing in the wind tunnel now under government control?

Probably the safest and surest course for us would be first to manufacture foreign machines and engines, and only second to use the residual effort to improve them. A good machine that can be had early in quantity is better as a starter than a superior instrument that cannot be had until later. There was talk, much of it irresponsible, about our having 20,000 machines upon the western front in 1918. If the manufacturing experience of the Allies had been considered, it would have appeared that no such figure was likely to be approached even if our resources were first concentrated upon producing in quantity the, best foreign designs of the two chief types—scout and reconnaissance. Moreover, the development of personnel would have been a serious difficulty, because it seems to be the experience in France that between forty and fifty men are needed on the ground for every fighter in the air. As a matter of fact, personnel is now far in the lead, and it is pessimistically stated that instead of 20,000 we shall have only about 20 planes on the front this year—many aviators with nothing to fly. A part of the present disappointment may be due to mistaken policy, but much of it can be attributed to former over-sanguine estimates. A fighting airplane is as different from an automobile as a chronometer is from a "dollar watch;" quantity production is an entirely different matter in the two cases.

There was a scandal about our shipbuilding programme, and Mr. Schwab has been put in charge. The expert has at last supplanted the amateur. It may well be that he finds matters not so bad as some newspapers would have us believe. There is a scandal over our airplane production; and some official, semi-official, or unofficial investigations and reports might lead one to suspect that nothing has been accomplished. The cry of "a wasted year" rings through the press. When, happily, the expert shall have taken the place of the tyro in airplane production, he will find many things that have been well begun and some well finished. Our manufacturers have turned out on short notice a large number of good training machines which are in daily use at several aviation camps. The aerial programme of the navy has gone steadily forward under competent direction with encouraging quietness and dispatch.

We are a people of mechanical genius and should have confidence that the Liberty Motor, now extolled, now damned, will rapidly be refined into a first class aero-engine. The really powerful gasoline motor is a brand new thing. Less than two years ago, I was personally informed by one of this country's leading gas-engine experts that he was quite at a loss to design a 200 horsepower motor or to explain the foreign reports of such high powers. What if we are not yet on the field with large numbers of fighting machines—given the reasonably necessary time, we shall overcome the obstacles.

But we must hasten to place the real expert in charge. Our National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics is an aggregation of some of our most eminent scientists and engineers—in other fields than aeronautics. Our organization all along the line is graced with great men who have had to learn their aeronautical engineering since the war—our war—began. It could not well be otherwise in a country which had not seriously and scientifically and systematically turned its attention to the manifold problems of aerial warfare. Experts will soon be found or grown.

The slogan, "Win the war in the air," is good and will yet be realized. It is a commonly acknowledged principle of tactics that under modern conditions an overwhelming force for concentration on a particular object is of vital importance to success. This subject has been treated theoretically and mathematically by Lanchester. His reasoning may have doubtful elements in it, and there may be exceptions to it; yet in the main great tacticians seem to have worked perhaps unconsciously on some such principle. If eight machines attack four, the number of hits should be as eight to four, and if eight hits will put the four out of action, the four hits can be expected to put out only two. The larger force actually suffers the lesser attrition. The British, in a long drawn out and unsuccessful campaign at Gallipoli, suffered many casualties; if they had taken their objectives in short order, their losses might have been smaller. It is reported, though perhaps falsely, that if three or four German airplanes meet a single British or French machine they will attack; if they meet two or three they will flee, and wait for even greater odds. Discretion may be the better part of valor—not in any sense derogatory to German bravery but in truth inculpatory to British tactics. If Lanchester is as right as he is plausible, the Allied flyers who attack a German squadron against odds are not more courageous than foolhardy, and the officers who allow them to do it, except as a necessary self-sacrifice in a crisis, should be court-martialled.

There are growing evidences that the Allies have learned their lesson and that their machines no longer ordinarily go out singly or even two or three together; they fly in sixes, eights, twelves, sixteens, or twenty-fours. To fly like the wild bird migrating in close formation is an art in itself. Squadron or platoon flying must therefore be learned by the young aviator at a considerable extra cost of time in training. If on the field of battle he flies in line with his mates, he probably will not be attacked except by anti-aircraft guns or by an enemy squadron of greater numbers than his; but if his motor should fail and throw him out of formation he would be in great danger of attack in overwhelming force, and safety would lie in agility, in "stunts." To keep formations true, good airmanship in the pilot and absolute reliability in the engine are necessary.

If our aerial programme is behind, so is our shipbuilding, and our army and its armament. Yet it is not very far behind reasonable expectations. We are a young and giant people, over-sanguine and nervous, and we were held strongly in leash with official admonition and soporific verbiage. Pershing's "Lafayette, nous voila" was just. Soon it will be Lafayette, nous voici. And when we reach the field, let it be in overwhelming force for the ultimate saving in casualties. Twenty thousand airplanes on the front and a multitude of men to care for them and fly them is a fine ideal, for it means that complete supremacy which is tactically essential.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —


A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury