Military applications of aviation actually began during the 1700’s when the French used a hot air balloon to spy on enemy troops. Over the years “lighter than air” vehicles were refined and improved. In America balloons were used regularly during the Civil War for reconnaissance purposes. It wasn’t until the early 1900’s though, before airplanes were actually used for military purposes.
The Wright Brothers made their historic flight in 1903 and in 1909 the U.S. Army Signal Corps purchased the first airplane for military use for approximately $25,000 to $30,000. They called it Signal Corps No. 1 but it was commonly referred to as the Wright Military Flyer. In 1910 Lt. Benjamin D. Foulois taught himself how to fly in Signal Corps No. 1 while stationed at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. The army used it to train pilots until 1911 when they purchased another aircraft and donated the plane to the Smithsonian. It was the world’s first military airplane.
During World War I aircraft were used in ever expanding roles. Initially used solely for reconnaissance, they quickly began working as scouts, artillery observers, fighters, and bombers.
During World War I we did not produce any of our own military aircraft for use on the front. The war did, however give many aircraft manufacturers their start. The Americans decided to focus on one aircraft and proceeded to mass produce the British De Havilland DH-4 fighters. The largest contracts for manufacturing the DH-4 went to Dayton-Wright in Dayton, Ohio; Glenn L. Curtiss in Buffalo, New York; Fisher Body in Detroit, Michigan, and Standard Aero in New York.
By the end of the war there were 31 aircraft manufacturers. Most of these would not survive after the war’s end.
World War II
I have a mathematical certainty that the future will confirm my assertion that aerial warfare will be the most important element in future wars, and that in consequence not only will the importance of the Independent Air Force rapidly increase, but the importance of the army and navy will decrease in proportion.General Giulio Douhet, ‘Command of the Air,’ 1921.
After World War I pilots returned home but many looked for ways to stay in the cockpit and develop the skills they had honed in Europe. This has been called the Golden Age of Aviation, when the likes of Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Wiley Post and many others brought aviation to the forefront of America’s conscience. By the time WW II began aviation had come a long way.
Soon after the first world war ended, Germany quickly set about building a formidable air-force. The Treaty of Versailles did not allow Germany to have an air force so German pilots trained in secret at civilian aviation schools. In this way they were able to maintain a facade that the trainees were going to fly for the civilian airlines.
In February 1935, Adolf Hitler ordered Hermann Göring to establish the Luftwaffe. Neither England, France nor The League of Nations did anything to stop them. They would later regret this.
By the time Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 Germany’s air force had become one of the most modern, powerful, and experienced air forces in the world and a dangerous threat to Europe.
America did not formally join the war until Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. When we did join we brought many aircraft to the table which would eventually destroy the Luftwaffe. Aircraft like the P-51 Mustang and the F4 Corsair would dominate the skies over Europe and the Pacific.
It wasn’t until the end of WW II that helicopters would start to make their appearance but in later wars they would certainly prove their value. During the Korean war they were used heavily but it was in Vietnam where they truly came to the forefront.
During the Gulf War America’s air superiority was evident and it saved many American lives. UAV’s are another segment of military aviation that is developing rapidly. With so many versatile applications, one thing is for certain. The continued use of aviation by the military is assured. Aircraft like the F-22 Raptor make it likely that the US military will keep it’s edge in the skies for years to come.