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The Role of Airplanes during World War I (1914-1918) Research Paper

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Updated: Jun 12th, 2019


World War I (WWI)[1] refers to an international conflict that was mainly based in the continental Europe spanning from mid 1914 to late 1918. The conflict engaged all the great nations of the world apparently grouped into two rival coalitions: the allies, which mainly included France and Britain, and the Central Powers mainly involving Germany and Italy.

Human casualty rate was particularly high due to technological inventions such as the lethal use of warplanes. Primary causes of the conflict entailed imperial, territorial, as well as economic quests of the leading European powers mainly involving the German, British, and the Russian Empires.

The killing of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 proved to be the primary spark of the battle[2]. The US was reportedly unsuccessful in inventing an airplane model of it’s own during the war though it also presented its underdeveloped airplane industry to battle with the basic momentum alongside some other ground works for stability purposes.

Role played by Airplanes during WWI

WWI was the first war to deploy airplanes on a large scale[3]. Tethered surveillance balloons had conventionally been applied in numerous conflicts. They were consequently utilized to locate enemy weapons. Germany particularly used Zeppelins for surveillance as well tactical bombing of the North Sea region of England. Airplanes, primarily reserved for reconnaissance, had just been introduced to facilitate combat activities incidentally by the onset of the war[4].

Pilots, as well as technicians, designed various superior models ranging from bombers, ground-attack airplanes, and fighters based on their experience[5]. Notably, fighter pilots were cherished as contemporary knights who were embraced as public heroes[6]. The battle further witnessed the assignment of top officers to overlook the belligerent states’ air war strategies. Whereas the influence of airplane in the course of conflict was still inadequate, various new ideas were merged in prospective wars.

The Aviation Industry

The Italians originally deployed airplanes in the late 1911 during the Italo-Turkish War particularly in Libya for the purpose of surveillance and later for dropping missiles, as well as aerial photography[7]. They were afterwards applied for ground attacks besides eliminating opponent planes and anti-aircraft artillery. The trends were eventually adjusted to design fighter airplanes[8]. Mainly the British, alongside the Germans, developed tactical military aircraft.

Over the last period of the war, airplanes with HMS Furious attacking Sop were also introduced by the ‘Allies’ in an operation to wipe out the Zeppelin base at Tondern[9]. Surveillance balloons floating deep within the trenches were often utilized as immobile reconnaissance bases to monitor rival activities besides directing missiles. Highly valued[10] as observation points, balloons represented major targets for the enemy’s air raids. Hence, antiaircraft guns tightly guarded the balloons besides being monitored by allied aircrafts.

Eventually, the surveillance purpose of balloons alongside blimps led to the emergence of air-to-air conflict among all models of aircraft along with the trench standoff by considering the fact it was impractical to shift vast groups of troops unobserved[11]. Supported by airships, the Germans carried out persistent air attacks in the British territories between 1915 and 1916 with the aim of demoralizing British confidence besides diverting the enemy’s airplanes from the combat front lines.

The US Participation in WWI

Aviation was one of the major challenges during war mobilization. Even though the US flew the first airplane in history, the sector had stalled mainly because of disagreements concerning patent rights[12]. In 1916, when the European nations were dogged in aerial armament contests, the Mexican activist, Pancho Villa[13], engaged the US troops along with its only aerial unit using the first Aero Squadron over its hilly southwestern region.

The squadron reportedly outfitted with the finest of the federal military. Six Curtiss JN-2 proved irrelevant as America’s groundbreaking warplane[14]. When the impact of the aerial unit was assessed after the operation, it was noted that, with adequate scheming, an aerial arm might be of indispensable assistance to the ground wings.

The federal administration hence unveiled a commission to research on how to advance the military aviation. Nonetheless, the commission faced many challenges since the government selected various distinctive bodies such as the Signal Corp and Aircraft Production Board[15] with equal powers in decision-making. None of them was ready to approve other’s ideas.

The federal was also badly in need of a stable industrial infrastructure to jumpstart the sector as opposed to the dozen airplane industries with a maximum of 10,000 accomplished personnel. To ensure growth towards the right direction, the US Congress assigned resources for the sector to endorse growth besides spearheading accords that permitted patents to be acquired by the rival companies thus terminating the patent standoff involving the Wright Company and the airplane society (Johnson 76).

Progressively, the Signal Corps created an aerial unit that later became the US Air Service (USAS)[16]. The country was also urgently in need of brilliant aircraft designers such as Anthony Fokker and Luis Blériot[17] to assist in devising a modern warplane.

The US Air Service (USAS)

The USAS[18] prepared the foundation for US Air Force during, as well as after the First World War. Even though the Europe conflicts forced the US Congress to improve funding for the Signal Corps in1916, it later introduced a bill that required the aviation unit to integrate all facets of military aviation[19]. The early 1917 affirmation of combat against Germany also forced the US to find amicable solutions to the prevailing engineering and manufacturing challenges.

The government further formed a consultative ‘Aircraft Production Board’ that was made up of members of the Army, Navy, as well as the sector to assess the Europeans’ fortunes in aircraft sector in a bid to upgrade the aircraft devices[20]. After the US formerly joined the conflict, the allies volunteered their aircraft models to guide the sector. However, the English-model De Havilland DH-4 became the only US-assembled aircraft to partake in the war[21].

The country also exhibited a shortage of pilots and technicians since, in the absence of modern warplanes and familiarity, they were unable to edify themselves in war skills. Nonetheless, contracts were negotiated with the allies late in 1917. Various contingents of pilots were trained at flying centers in France alongside Italy. The earliest US squadrons were ready for duty by April 1918.

They were posted in France around Toul where they could ease to duty when called upon to participate. By June 1918, intelligence alleged that the Germans were planning an attack on Chateau-Thierry. Hence, the US ground units were ordered to resist the advance. The USAS, “headed by the military Commander Colonel Billy Mitchell, also combined a couple of squadrons to form the First Pursuit Group (FPG)”[22] to assist the ground troops.

However, the Germans, with numerous superior and experienced squadrons, expectedly overwhelmed the amateur Americans by hiring old Nieuports. Although the Americans were up to the challenge and were never demoralized, they later proved victorious in assisting to thwart the German invasion though with considerable losses under the command of Mitchell, as well as the help from Allied powers[23].

Halting Pershing’s approach at Saint-Mihiel, Mitchell deployed around three-quarters of the units directly to provide support for ground contingents while the rest concentrated in bombing enemy points on the back line in an attempt to destabilize Germany’s determination on the battlefront[24].

The USAS recorded a successful performance, as Mitchell’s squadrons held air dominance besides witnessing at least 60 victories where they assisted the ground force to recapture the region in the process following the 1914 German incursion. By the conclusion of the war in 1918, the USAS generally had relied on around 45 airplanes to cover about 137 kilometers whereas 71 pilots were endorsed for bombing an average of five German airplanes during the war.

Financial, economic, and production issues of the US airplane industry

The US was notably unsuccessful in designing airplanes of its own throughout the First World War era[25]. Nonetheless, the experience guaranteed momentum for the developing sector besides offering numerous aircraft companies a lifeline. In terms of finance, as revealed by, the US entered WWI under the vow that it would rock German skies using the best aerial squadron in existence thus consequently backing the assurance with about $600 million (1).

However, as opponents alleged, after the conclusion of the war, the US only exhibited 196 home-assembled airplanes in the European battle Front thus rendering the incentive subject to various federal enquiries concerning misuse of huge resources. Besides the 196 DH-4’s machines, the country had about 270 aircrafts designed for its training units, 323 under supply bases, and 2000 pending consignment to the western front[26].

Generally, about 3540 fighter airplanes had been manufactured alongside around 6000 training models while a minimum of 1400 warplanes were acquired from Europe. The amount seemed impressive: it was arguably a shortfall. This was upon considering the financial backup that was awarded to the sector besides a maximum of 2000 airplanes that were in record by July 1918.

In terms of the economy, following the declaration of war, America never even attempted to deploy its enormous resource potential in the European war (Tucker 26). Instead, it opted to preserve its work force that reportedly exceeded those of all the other nations that took part in the combat.

This allowed the US to concentrate on its emerging industrial supremacy, which progressively surpassed the impasse, as well as squalor of the draining battle, which eventually boosted the allies to defeat Germany. Besides being a modern and efficient weapon, the airplane had been originally invented in the US’ citizens.

Supported with progress in other economic sectors during the Great War era, it emerged as the country’s greatest input to the WWI operation. Most American WWI era production was tailored on the development of training airplanes of the Britain model[27], De Havilland DH-4 fighters, and airplane equipments. Prior to the mass manufacturing, the US channeled its resources on the invention of a specific European aircraft.

Early in 1917, the defense department dispatched the Bolling Commission to Europe to appraise the sector to choose a specific airplane model to be adopted by the country. They opted for British DH-4 apparently invented by Geoffrey de Havilland. The DH-4[28] was partly favored because Britain approved liberal application of its certificate for the automobile, but not because it was superior to French airplanes, which obligated royalty compensation.

Although the Aircraft Production Board (APB) did accept criticism of the decision to limit producers to one model, the mandate was eventually revoked though it was too late and never influenced the war[29]. During the era, federal law recommended that the administration must not solely depend on private producers to supply their aircraft equipments.

This accordingly resulted to the formation of the Philadelphia based Naval Aircraft Factory (NAF) by 1971 to invent and manufacture wartime airplanes besides putting private companies in costs alongside profit check. Although the private sector attempted to thwart its development, the NAF efficiently invented and manufactured a variety of naval airplanes such as the Curtiss H-16s, flying boats, and corresponding spare parts.

Apart from the development exhibited by the established aircraft industries, a range of emerging manufacturers sprung up throughout the war era including the Dayton-Wright Company, the Lewis and Vought, and the Aero Corporation. 31 airplane companies were recorded at the end of the conflict in 1919. Nonetheless, at its best, wartime service was estimated at 175,000 while manufacturers produced at the level of above 12,000 airplanes annually by the conclusion of the war.

Massive contracts for assembling the DH-4 were awarded to various companies including Dayton-Wright, Glenn L. Curtiss, and Fisher Body among others. Although critics argued that these manufacturers lacked the basic know-how while more reliable groups had been overlooked besides alleging the manufacturers of inflating costs in an attempt to gain unfair profits.

Generally, the total amount of the US-assembled DH-4s was limited with most American troops in Europe relying on the French-made airplanes to oversee their expeditions. By the time the federal administration hoped to intervene, pungent patent lawsuits had been proceeding for almost a decade.

The government mobilized the rival producers to create the Manufacturers Aircraft Association (MAA). The union members exhibited cross-licensing accords, which permitted producers to utilize the ideas that their counterparts had invented though at a fee, which depended on the value of the involved technology. Federal law during the era recommended that the administration must not solely depend on private producers to supply their aircraft equipments.


Finally, WWI remarkably signaled the fall of European supremacy that had spanned for over five centuries. As discussed, the airplane industry played a crucial role in fueling the war following the support it offered to the victim countries.

As the European nations concentrated on the domestic disastrous combat, others continents successfully fulfilled and reduced their vitality by making up for their imports and knowledge. The US particularly for the first time rallied its vast industrial capability to intervene beyond the American region. America’s involvement in the First World War was notably limited. By the period the nation joined the battle, aviation technology had already advanced far much ahead.

Still, the US with an exceptional magnitude of moral energy along with determination managed to assist in ensuring success for the allies over last months of the battle following the support of the airplane industry as discussed. Moreover, it also acquired the highly needed aviation technology from the brief combat stint coupled with a federal passion for flying, which eventually provided the groundwork for the US Golden Age of Flight (GAF).

Works Cited

Chambers, John. The Oxford Companion to American Military History. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

History SparkNotes. World War I (1914–1919), 2012. Web.

Johnson, Herbert. Wingless Eagle: U.S. Army Aviation through World War I. North Carolina, NA: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Print.

Tucker, Spencer. World War I: A – D., Volume 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005. Print.

Zimmerman, Robert. “How We Won the War (With Tools Commonly Found in the Shop). The Model Aircraft Project.” Journal of American Culture 8.4(1995): 51-58. Print.


  1. Also called Great War
  2. This aroused the anger of the many alliances that had already been established
  3. It was only 13 years after the first airplane had been developed
  4. Robert Zimmerman, “How We Won the War (With Tools Commonly Found in the Shop). The Model Aircraft Project.” Journal of American Culture 8.4(1995): 51-58. Print.
  5. They were new to this technology with many not knowing the exact use of airplanes, leave alone using them in the war
  6. Herbert Johnson, Wingless Eagle: U.S. Army Aviation through World War I. North Carolina, NA: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Print.
  7. Zimmerman 53
  8. They were believed to work well with two wings for easy lifting
  9. They were primarily used to carry bombs
  10. Johnson 64
  11. Spencer Tucker, World War I: A – D., Volume 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005. Print.
  12. John Chambers, The Oxford Companion to American Military History. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.
  13. He was initially a gangster who contributed a lot towards the Mexican revolution during 1911 and 1923 when he died
  14. Zimmerman 54
  15. The service was a very active US airplane service during the WWI. Its well known for assembling the first aviation body squadrons in the US between 1914-18
  16. “This was the forerunner of the US during after the WWI” (John Chambers 14)
  17. They were experts in the field of aviation to the level of publishing the book ‘Early Birds of Aviation’ to give a picture of the airplanes used during WWI
  18. Made in September 1917
  19. The then aviation body was inadequate and could not help much in the war
  20. Chambers 67
  21. However, this was not again efficient , as it could not meet the US’ expectation during the war
  22. Tucker 9
  23. Tucker 19
  24. Johnson 74
  25. It lacked competent people in the aircraft designing sector and hence the need to train more
  26. This step confirmed the US’ efforts to take control of the war using its well-up aviation industry
  27. This was after the US performed poorly in Mexico, a situation that pushed it to come up with finer strategies in a bid to gain a competitive edge over the European aircraft designers
  28. These were the most popular as they were numerous though only 1213 were taken abroad while 1087 being assembled
  29. History SparkNotes, World War I (1914–1919), 2012. Web.
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