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Aviation and Aircraft in World War I

Aviation and Aircraft in World War I

“The Great War” began in Europe during the summer of 1914 as fighting broke out between several different countries. The United States did not enter the war until April 1917, at which point the U.S. military joined with other Allied forces to fight against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and a few other countries. Fighting raged throughout Europe, but these battles were significantly different from any fought until this time. With recent aviation advances, countries now utilized planes in the battles they fought. Aviation and aircraft played a major role in fighting for the first time in history.

Overview of World War I

World War I is often dubbed “the Great War” because of the destruction it caused and the high death toll as well as the fact that it was the largest-scale war that had ever taken place up to that time. Several European countries had been at odds over issues of boundaries and territories. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was a significant event that led to the outbreak of war between Russia and Germany, as both Russia and Germany were supporting smaller nations that were integrally involved in this event. The United States resisted involvement for several years. However, after being provoked by a series of naval attacks, President Woodrow Wilson requested a formal declaration of war against Germany.

Aviation Advances During the Great War

Advances in aviation led the military to begin equipping airplanes with weapons during World War I. The military also used planes for information-gathering. Pilots would fly over enemy lines to take pictures and make maps of enemy formations. By the end of the war, technology had progressed to the point of enabling aircraft to bomb targets. But the military struggled with limitations in aircraft design, mechanics, and fuel during World War I.

  • Air Power: The National Park Service website offers information about aviation advances during World War I.
  • First Air War: World War I was the first war in which aviation and aircraft played a part in the battles.
  • The Evolution of Military Aviation: Airplanes during World War I replaced unrefined balloons, which had been the military’s only option for aerial perspectives.
  • Aircraft of World War I: View photos and read information about specific types of aircraft used by the military during World War I.
  • A Description of Flight Training in World War I: Explore the instruction and training pilots received to prepare them to be fighter pilots during World War I.
  • World War I Aircraft: View images of aircraft flown during World War I at this museum website.
  • The Aircraft of World War I: Bomber airplanes were instrumental for dropping bombs on specific targets during World War I.
  • The U.S. Combat Aircraft Industry (PDF): Late entry into World War I gave the United States a technological disadvantage compared to other countries in aviation development.

Pilots and Their Contribution

At the beginning of the war, countries on both sides of the conflict had about 200 planes total. Initially, these aircraft were not designed for fighting because the planes were slow. A French pilot was the first one to use his plane for attacking, when he fired a machine gun from the air in 1915. Soon after, the Germans figured out how to add machine guns to airplane propellers. This advancement set the stage for pilots entering the fighting with fighter planes and bombers. The famous Red Baron actually flew during World War I as a fighter pilot for Germany. Other legendary aces flew for France, Britain, Canada, and the United States.


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