Beyond the Clouds Lies Victory

By Laurence La Tourette Driggs

[The Independent, August 17, 1918]

Assuming that the deadlock along No Man's Land must continue except by sacrifices too costly to contemplate—there remain the free and open avenues of the air! Free and open but for the aircraft of the enemy! Yet, undeniably, there lies the line of least resistance. Our first task then is to clear the skies of enemy craft.

The history of war aviation began on August 4, 1914. Only from participants since that date can helpful information be secured. And those active survivors now most familiar with its details find themselves for the moment so overwhelmed with the struggle for life or death that they are able to devote less tame and brain power to its improvement than are we remote ones who are free from that exacting burden.

Let us examine then the existing status of air fighting, striving to so familiarize ourselves with its incidents—its limitations as well as its possibilities—that we may eventually help to devise the superior armament that shall render to our beloved America—aviation's birthplace—-the true mastery of the air that is essential to victory.

Aircraft includes airships and aeroplanes. With airships we shall not he bothered beyond classifying, them as compromizing all gas balloons or lighter-than-air conveyances, such as Zeppelins, dirigibles and observation balloons. They are all slower moving than aeroplanes and offer a larger target to the enemy, hence they have occupied an insignificant position in air fighting as compared to the heavier-than-air machine, the aeroplane.

The aeroplane is either a pusher or a tractor. They are thus distinguished by reason of the propeller either "pushing" the machine from behind or "attracting" it from the front. Experience has shown that the tractor is swifter and more easily handled than the pusher, so we will herewith abandon the pusher type and concentrate our scrutiny upon the machine of proved superiority.

With the tractor propeller buzzing rapidly before the face of the pilot, he finds himself in an awkward position when it becomes necessary for him to hurl bullets or other missiles at his enemy pilot. He can move his craft ahead, but in no other direction. If his missile touches his own swiftly revolving propeller, the fragile slice of wood breaks. Even a handkerchief or a pilot's cap striking the whirling propeller breaks it upon occasions, compelling the aeroplane thus losing its motive power to glide down immediately to the nearest landing place.

Yet if the pilot veers alongside his opponent and fires a broadside across the intervening space at the enemy, he but wastes his ammunition. He must Steer his own machine while he is firing. The vibration of his throbbing engine as well as the rush of wind past him renders aiming sideways out of the question. He must-shoot straight ahead and his gun must be a fixed-part of the aeroplane and sheltered from the wind, to enable him to aim with accuracy.

If he carries another man in his machine to act as gunner, this extra weight so burdens his aeroplane that the enemy in a single-seater machine can fly circles around him. He must fly alone then, and must devise some method of firing ahead without breaking his propeller.

When war suddenly broke upon a peaceful world, aviators in general little dreamed of the coming importance of their art to warfare. For several months after hostilities began aeroplanes were used only as a means of spying on the movements of the enemy armies, with an occasional feeble and inconsequential bombardment of enemy positions by dropping hand grenades and light bombs. Enemy aeroplanes were carefully avoided for fear of collision. A sportsmanlike gallantry was punctiliously observed even between enemy airmen and courteous gestures of greeting invariably passed between them when meetings in the air occurred.

Little by little the impression dawned that aeroplanes alone could prevent enemy pilots from carrying on their daily reconnaissance. Then began that rivalry in armament of aeroplanes which today is recognized to be of crucial importance to the determination of victory together side.

Crude devices gradually gave way to more practical inventions. The earliest offensive armament consisted of:

August 4, 1914-- (1) Short cavalry carbine. This weapon was of no value to the pilot, as the vibration of his aeroplane made aiming difficult, the swiftness of the enemy plane presented a target elusive and momentary at best, while the force of the wind against the extended barrel rendered steadying the rifle practically impossible.

(2) Bags of bricks. This primitive weapon was used in obedience to military orders in France at the beginning of the war in the hope that close proximity to a hostile aeroplane might enable a pilot to hurl a brickbat into the enemy's propeller, thus breaking it and dropping the hostile craft to the ground. Strange as it may seem, two German aeroplanes were actually brought down by this "weapon." Its limited range, however, quickly caused its retirement as an aeroplane Arm.

(3) Automatic pistol. To this day the pilot carries a light automatic for defense and offense at close quarters, tho Its value during a flight is practically nil.

January 1, 1915. Machine gun mounted on upper plane.

The French Nieuport was the first aeroplane constructed to carry a rapid-fire Lewis gun weighing twenty pounds on the upper wing, where it fired over the top of the propeller. It was aimed by pointing the aeroplane itself and it was fired from a string in the pilot's hand.

German airmen quickly followed suit. They mounted their Parabellum light gun in the same way.

But while this invention was a decided improvement over previous methods the difficulty of reloading the gun from the pilot's seat limited its usefulness. when he fired one magazine of forty-seven cartridges the pilot had to descend to the ground to reload his gun.

February 1, 1915. Machine gun firing thru the propeller.

Roland Garros, the famous before-the-war aviator, devised for France the first method of firing the gun from the fixed mount on the engine hood, straight ahead thru the revolving propeller. Midway along each blade of the propeller a band of hard steel protected the wood from the bullets, deflecting the 7 per cent which hit it, the balance passing thru without striking. The aeroplane itself was sighted at the enemy and the gun was, exactly in line with the sights.

Garros was captured one day in June, 1915, and the Germans again quickly copied this French patent without asking leave. But this device, tho extremely interesting, proved not an unmixt advantage, for the steel bands on the blades lessened considerably the efficiency of the propeller and the speed of the aeroplane was correspondingly decreased.

July 1, 1915. The synchronized machine gun.

The German Fokker aeroplane first appeared with gun fixt atop the engine hood, the tripper synchronized with, the propeller shaft so that bullets could issue from the gun only when the blades of the propeller were out of the way.

As the two bladed propeller revolves 1400 times per minute, the muzzle of the gun finds a blade in front of it 2800 times each minute. But there are likewise 2800 empty spaces each minute. As the gun fires only 400 shots per minute the device is so timed that one shot issues thru each seventh space. This ingenious contrivance remains in full vogue to the present time, affording as it does ample convenience of reloading and perfect ease of operation to the pilot. Often two guns are synchronized to shoot thru opposite sides of the revolving propeller. A push button on the steering bar fires both guns simultaneously while the pilot keeps his eyes on the enemy target thru the telescope sights lined up squarely in front of him. With the capture of the first German aeroplane so armed the secret was out, and soon both sides were provided with this great improvement in arming, thus balancing the scales again until something still more deadly could be devised. It was two years in coming.

July, 1, 1917. One-pounder gun.

The celebrated George Guynemer, then captain of the famous Cigognes, the elite fighting escadrille of France, used the first 37 millimeter canon on a tractor single-seater aeroplane. Its appearance marks a new epoch in the annals of aeroplane fighting.

Convinced that the 37 mm. shell could not be safely fired between the blades of the propeller, Guynemer sought to evade this difficulty by shooting thru the hollow hub itself. Any V-shaped engine lends itself to this style of gun mounting. The gun is built into the very crank case of the engine, fitting snugly down in the lower crotch of the V, its breech and feeding mechanism within easy reach of the pilot's hand, while the muzzle of the gun extends ahead thru a hollow revolving shaft on the far end of which the propeller is attached. This hollow shaft is driven by the crank shaft of the engine to which it is connected by gears.

The barrel of the canon protrudes two inches beyond the edge of the hub, so that the sudden shock of explosion will not injure the delicately poised balance of the propeller shaft. Some three inches in diameter, this shaft barely permits room for the free slide backward of the gun barrel after each recoil. The recoil amounts to some eight or ten inches, depending upon the muzzle velocity with which the projectile is discharged and the amount of recoil force that is absorbed by the recoil chamber. Any tendency to "whip" upon discharge is checked by a sliding brace at the rear of the barrel.

This recoil force is utilized to operate the devices which eject the empty shell case and the next instant feed into the chamber of the gun a fresh shell. As the fresh shell is some seven inches in length, the recoil must carry back the breach of the gun at least far enough to the rear to permit the fresh shell to drop into its place.

With this powerful weapon Guynemer brought down his forty-ninth, fiftieth, fifty-first and fifty-second antagonists, and its superiority over the smaller .30 caliber machine gun was incontestably established. His type of canon was semi-automatic in operation, that is, the recoil of the gun ejected the empty case but the pilot himself must fit in the fresh shell. This operation required two or three seconds, and in two or three seconds the adjacent enemy aeroplane had opportunity to either get out of range or possibly to reverse positions and become the attacker.

Therefore the full automatic canon tho necessarily weighing at least 150 pounds, as against the 100 pounds weight of Guynemer's type of canon affords the already overburdened pilot such valuable advantages that it is essential to provide him with this superior type of operation, seeking at the same time to reduce by a like amount the weight of some other commodity that the machine must carry. Increased effectiveness may naturally be expected as this powerful weapon is developed. Already automatic canon are being built into aeroplanes, relieving the much overworked pilot from any further effort in firing than merely pressing a button when his aeroplane is pointed on the target. The gun does the rest fires, ejects the empty case and refills the chamber with a new shell; fires, again and repeats this performance if desired until the ammunition is exhausted.

Thus 120 shells weighing 1.5 pounds each are discharged each minute, making a total of 180 pounds delivered at the target each minute from the 37 mm. gun, as compared with 400 bullets per minute from the ordinary machine gun weighing approximately twelve pounds, a distinct advantage in amount of missiles delivered aside from the vastly increased effectiveness of each projectile that strikes the target.

The increased weight of the automatic one-pounder gun limits by just so many pounds the supply of ammunition or of fuel that the aeroplane can carry and still keep up with the enemy craft. To overload the machine means that your enemy can overtake you while you cannot overtake him; your advantage in gun power is quite useless to you unless you do overtake him.

Not only in the weight and power of the gun does greater destructiveness lie, but in the character and effect of the projectile itself will be found the greatest opportunity for advance and improvement. To this end an understanding of the vulnerable spots on an enemy aeroplane is essential. What is the enemy target?

Briefly answered, it is the pilot's head!

Tho the fuel tank may be struck with bullets repeatedly, it is not always punctured nowadays, as several devices have been perfected to prevent the leakage or ignition of the gasoline.

The engine may be hit in a vital organ, or the indispensable propeller may be shattered by a lucky shot but the enemy pilot can still glide miles back into his own lines without any other power than the pull of gravity. An aeroplane thus wounded can glide back more than a mile for each thousand feet elevation. Once landed within his own territory the pilot jumps into another aeroplane and returns to the combat while his mechanics busy themselves with repairing the damage.

The pilot sits atop his fuel tank deep within the protective shelter of his cockpit, which is armored amply on the sides and bottom against the ordinary .30 caliber bullet, only the top of his head appearing above the rim. Over his head the top wing spreads its concealing shadow. Below him the pursuing airman cannot accurately select the exact point in the floor thru, which to direct his stream of lead. Conscious of the position of his pursuer the enemy pilot maneuvers his adroit aeroplane so that no opportunity is offered for an open target. Under these circumstances a victory seems impossible.

The pursuing machine circles about him but is easily thwarted by a parallel move of the enemy. Too bold a venture results in a reversal of position and the attacker becomes the attacked.

In such a common dilemma the heavy projectile becomes of prime importance. One or two hits by a one-pounder shell can demolish the structure of the enemy craft and it collapses and falls to the ground. A one-pounder charge of buckshot scatters thru the fragile upper wing and finds the pilot's seat. A "fireworks" shell bursts in the enemy's tail and sets his craft aflame. At what distance from the enemy does an experienced air fighter open fire?

This question "becomes of great importance, to the designer of the aeroplane gun, for upon the range, that is, the distance of fire, depend many vital points. If the projectile must carry on a level flight for a mile after it leaves the muzzle of the gun, then more powder must be packed behind the missile than for half that range.

If more powder is packed in, the force of the explosion is greater, and a stronger, heavier gun must be built to withstand this shock. Also the recoil is greater, and heavier contrivances to absorb this recoil must be provided. These additions of course add many pounds weight to the load of the aeroplane. It is essential, as we have seen, to cut down this load to the lowest possible point so that an abundant supply of fuel and ammunition may be carried and still enable our machine to keep pace with the light enemy aeroplanes.

The writer in a recent visit to the front secured the opinion of a score or more of the French and British air fighters on this important question of range.

While various diverging opinions were collected, varying from fifty yards to 300 yards, it was noticeable that the more experienced airmen saved their ammunition and waited for the most favorable opportunity of a bull's-eye, while novices at the game were not so daring as to await the precise instant for opening fire but preferred a comparatively long range.

Obviously it is more difficult to hit a target at two hundred yards range than at fifty yards. Pilots opening fire at this long range naturally waste much of their ammunition. But even accepting two hundred yards as a minimum range we have no demands made upon the muzzle velocity of the projectile that cannot be supplied within the weight of the automatic canon above designated—150 pounds.

This problem of muzzle velocity is bound up with the speed of the aeroplane as well as with the proper range for firing. An interesting table of speeds has been compiled by a British writer (O'Gorman) which we append here for comparison.


Miles per hour
Man walking . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
Man racing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20
Horse racing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30
Bicycle racing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32
Steamship . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42
Motorboat . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 62
Railroad train . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 90
Automobile . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 120
Aeroplane . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 150

Feet per second
Pistol bullet . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 600
Machine gun bullet . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,000
Sound . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,100
37 mm gun . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,600
Largest gun . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3,000

Miles per second
Light . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 186,000
Electricity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 186,000

The 37 mm. gun, credited in the above table with a muzzle velocity of 1600 feet per second, refers, of course, to the field gun where a range of a mile is requisite. For the aeroplane gun no such length range is desirable. If we cut down the muzzle velocity one half, to 800 feet per second, we will get a flat trajectory of approximately 500 yards, which as we have seen is more than will be required even for emergencies in a fighting aeroplane.

Now an extreme aeroplane speed of 150 miles an hour means that the machine is moving 220 feet thru the air each second! If fired upon when fifty yards away by a projectile having a velocity of 800 feet per second, it requires only three-sixteenths of a second for the projectile to reach its target. During that three-sixteenths of a second the target has moved onward forty-one feet. Now if we increase our muzzle velocity to 1000 feet per second, we necessarily incur an increased recoil force besides adding some thirty pounds' weight to the gun's equipment-—two serious disadvantages. And the sole benefit received is a saving of three-eightieths of a second time in the projectile's flight —far from a commensurate advantage when both results are analyzed.

And most important of all is the yet unwritten Manual of Aeroplane Tactics. Thru proficiency in this rare science, sixty-six of the star German airmen have been enabled to bring down 1131 aeroplanes of the Allies up to January 1, 1917, as against 1181 victories won by 125 aces of our allied air forces! Truly a melancholy indication of the efficiency of carefully studied tactics in this new fourth arm in warfare.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury