aviation at the start
Great War timeline
Aerial Reconnaissance
observation balloons
aerial combat
machine guns
forward firing machine gun
allied AAA guns of WW1
aircraft camouflage
death of an Air Ace
the Fokker scourge
the Red Baron
von Richthofen journal
Zeppelin airships
nocturnal air defence
Lafayette Escadrille
Belgium during the Great War
the Eastern Front
the Russian Front
the Italian Front
Air Effort over Gallipoli
the bombers
the American air effort
the German 1918 spring offensive
America at War
the end of Germany's air effort
aircraft statistics
Aircraft of WW1
WW1 air aces
aircraft designers
WW1 aircraft engines

Aviation at the Start of the First World War

Lt. Kelly was the first person to die when piloting plane, on May 10, 1911.

On the eve of the World War I, no country was prepared for using aircraft or had even admitted they would make an effective weapon of war. Several had experimented with dropping bombs from aircraft, firing guns, and taking off and landing from aircraft carriers, but no country had designed or built aircraft specifically for war functions. Limited bombing operations had been carried out before 1914, but most thought that aircraft use was limited to reconnaissance or scouting missions. An October 1910 editorial in Scientific American, a respected publication, denigrated the airplane as a war weapon: "Outside of scouting duties, we are inclined to think that the field of usefulness of the aeroplane will be rather limited. Because of its small carrying capacity, and the necessity for its operating at great altitude, if it is to escape hostile fire, the amount of damage it will do by dropping explosives upon cities, forts, hostile camps, or bodies of troops in the field to say nothing of battleships at sea, will be so limited as to have no material effects on the issues of a campaign...."

In 1912 the Wright Model B was used to demonstrate the first use of a machine gun from a plane.

But some effort was made to use aircraft for military purposes. Some of the earliest efforts took place in Italy. In April 1909, the newly formed Italian aviation club, Club Aviatori, brought Wilbur Wright to Italy to demonstrate his Military Flyer at the Centocelle military base near Rome. Before leaving Rome, Wilbur trained the naval officer who would become Italy’s first pilot, Lieutenant Mario Calderara. In 1910, Italy set up its first military flying school at Centocelle.

The Curtiss Golden Flyer was used for bombing tests, June 30, 1910.

During the next few years, Italy’s military use of aviation increased. At the start of the Turko-Italian War in 1911, Italy mobilized its Italian Aviation Battalion and aircraft under the command of Captain Carlo Piazza, a well-known racing pilot, and sent them by steamship to Tripoli in Libya, then part of the Ottoman Empire. It sent two Blériot XIs, three Nieuport monoplanes, two Farman biplanes, and two Etrich Taube monoplanes. On October 23, 1911, Piazza made history’s first reconnaissance flight near Benghazi in a Blériot XI. On November 1, Second Lieutenant Giolio Gavotti carried out the first aerial bombardment mission, dropping four bombs on two Turkish-held oases. In March 1912, Captain Piazza made the first photo-reconnaissance flight in history.

The Bleriot XI was used to make the first reconnaissance flight near Benghazi in the Ottoman Empire on October 23, 1911.

At the same time, other European countries had begun developing military aviation. The French army bought its first planes in 1910 and trained 60 pilots. It began to install armament in its reconnaissance craft in 1911. In Russia, Igor Sikorsky built the first "air giant," a four-engine plane that was the forerunner of the multiengine strategic bombers of World War I. The French military began experimenting with aerial bombing in 1912, as did the British in 1913. Adolphe Pégoud in France also experimented with a hook-and-cable system for landing a plane on a ship at sea—following Eugene Ely in the United States who had successfully taken off and landed on the deck of a ship.

When the U.S. Congress made its first appropriation for military aviation ($125,000),
one plane that was ordered was the Curtiss Type IV Model D. Lt. Kelly died when the plane crashed while landing..

The United States had also experimented on a limited basis with military operations in aircraft. Glenn Curtiss experimented with the plane as a means of bombardment in June 1910 with his Golden Flyer. On August 20, 1910, at Sheepshead Bay racetrack near New York City, Lieutenant James Fickel fired the first shot from an airplane--a rifle at a target from an altitude of 100 feet (30 meters) with Glenn Curtiss piloting. On November 14, 1910, Eugene Ely made the first takeoff from a warship, the cruiser Birmingham, anchored near Hampton Roads, Virginia, in the Curtiss Hudson Flyer. On January 18, 1911, he made the first carrier landing onto a 125-foot (38-meter) platform on the warship Pennsylvania, anchored in San Francisco Bay. In 1912, an Army officer, Captain C.D. Chandler, fired a 750-round-per-minute, air-cooled recoilless machine gun successfully from a Wright B flyer over College Park, Maryland, near Washington, D.C. But, in spite of these achievements, no country had developed an air attack or bomber by this time.

Built in Russia, the Sikorsky LeGrand was the forerunner of the multiengine strategic bomber of World War I.

Some countries had also formed small "air forces" that were connected to their other military operations. Great Britain formed the Royal Flying Corps on April 13, 1912. In June 1914, the Naval Wing of this formation was removed to form the basis of the Royal Naval Air Service. The United States also established the Aeronautical Division of the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1907 and created the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps in July 1914.

The U.S. government generally lagged behind its European counterparts in these efforts and was much later in supporting aviation than Europe had been. Back in 1890, the French had ordered an aircraft from the aviator Clement Ader and had appropriated $100,000 for that purpose, even though the aircraft he developed never flew in a controlled flight. But the Wright brothers, who had developed and demonstrated a fully controllable aircraft in 1903 that could take off, land, bank, turn, climb, and descend, did so with their own funds. Not until 1909 did the Signal Corps purchase an aircraft for military purposes. The U.S. Navy purchased its first plane, a derivative of the Curtiss Golden Flyer, in July 1911.

On March 31, 1911, Congress first appropriated funds for military aviation, $125,000. The U.S. Signal Corps immediately ordered five new airplanes. Two of these--a Curtiss Type IV Model D "Military," and a Wright Model B--were accepted at Fort Sam Houston on April 27, 1911. With these new planes, flight training of volunteers began. Lieutenant G.E.M. Kelly was among the first group of twenty-one. On May 10, 1911, during a landing attempt at Fort Sam Houston using a Curtiss Type IV Model D, Kelly crashed into the ground. He was first man to lose his life while piloting an airplane.

Countries that considered themselves more vulnerable to attack tried harder to develop their military aircraft than more isolated countries such as the United States. Thus, the countries of Europe had more pilots, more aircraft, and outspent the United States on military aviation. In 1910, the United States had only 18 licensed pilots and 193 in 1912. But in much less populous France, there were 339 licensed pilots in 1910 and 968 in 1912. Both Germany and Great Britain had many more pilots than the United States. In 1912, the militaries in France, Germany, Russia, Great Britain, and Italy had more aircraft than the United States (France had 25 times as many). In 1913, France spent more than 60 times the aviation budget of the United States, Russia and Germany 40 times, and Great Britain 24 times as much. But even so, no country had any aircraft that were specifically designed for combat. None were equipped to drop bombs or had any type of gun, let alone a machine gun.

Aircraft and Trained Pilots in 1914



Trained Pilots*










Great Britain









United States



Source: Holley, Ideas and Weapons, p. 29.

*There were also many untrained aviators flying by 1914. The total number approximated 2,000. 

Why did the United States trail so far behind the rest of the industrial world? One reason was its feeling of invulnerability. A second was the official military doctrine that was in place in 1914 and which remained until 1923. Military doctrine defines the roles, missions, and equipment of an armed service. If the doctrine doesn’t state that aircraft are to be used for bombing, fighting, and other military purposes, then aircraft with military capabilities will not be constructed. The U.S. military doctrine, as expressed in a 1914 Field Service Regulation, did not mention bombing, strafing, or air-to-air fighting. The only military aircraft missions mentioned were strategic and tactical reconnaissance. One other factor that hindered the private development of aviation in the United States was the often-prohibitive amount of money that had to be paid to the Wright brothers for use of their patented technology.

In general, military leaders, technologists, government officials--even airplane inventors--displayed a lack of imagination. Military aircraft development was retarded because civilian and military leaders, by and large, could not conceive of aircraft as a war machine, not because airplanes could not perform war missions. Not until World War I actually began did the countries of Europe begin to seriously increase production of military aircraft. And not until even later did the United States join the effort.

Avro 504
The first plane to strafe troops on the ground, it was also the first British plane to be shot down by enemy ground fire. Better aircraft soon replaced the Avro 504 in combat, but it remained the standard British trainer for the duration of the war.