In 1903, the Wright brothers famously demonstrated the first powered, controlled, and heavier-than-air flight. Their design was revolutionary and many of their ideas – such as the use of ailerons over wing-warping to control roll, their recognition that roll manipulation was more important than yaw manipulation in executing a turn, and their integrated method of three-axis control – are still employed today in modern fixed-wing aircraft. To some degree, their innovative philosophy on how an airplane could be piloted was more important than their actual demonstration of heavier-than-air flight.
World War I
Just a decade later, the First World War marked the first widespread use of powered, heavier-than-air aircraft (hereafter known as planes). Their initial use was to serve as reconnaissance craft and artillery spotters, a role shared with the hot air balloons that have been in use since the 19th century. Soon after this, pilots began carrying hand guns and carbines on them to fire at enemy scouting planes, to little effect. Rudimentary attempts to mount machine guns on these early aircraft were also largely ineffective.
True air-to-air combat began with the introduction of the German Fokker E. I., the first aircraft to enter service with a synchronized machine gun that could be fired through the arc of a propeller without striking the blades. Pilots could fire the machine gun along the same trajectory as the longitudinal axis of the plane, effectively allowing them to “aim by steering”. The synchronization gear was a major technological advance that engineers from both sides were working on a solution for, and its arrival heralded the age of the fighter aircraft and dogfighting. The Germans enjoyed a brief period of complete air superiority, known as “the Fokker Scourge,” during which the lack of Allied air surveillance had an impact on engagements as significant as the Battle of Verdun. However, British and French engineers were soon able to produce aircraft capable of matching the Fokker E.I., utilizing alternative machine gun firing configurations such as a rear-facing propeller and a firing trajectory directed just over the arc of the propeller.
The remainder of World War I saw the development of more advanced dogfighting tactics such as the use of tactical formations, the Immelman turn, and the importance of sun/altitude, as well as the continued technological arms race between the Allied and Central powers. The concept of the fighter ace emerged, and pilots such as Manfred von Richthofen, known popularly as the “Red Baron,” captured the imagination of the public. The bomber aircraft was also a development in World War I, where the German fixed-wing Gotha bombers and zeppelin airships caused significant damage in London and Paris. By the end of World War I, the concept of an air force grew to be an autonomous unit that could provide reconnaissance, air superiority, and tactical support of ground troops via strafing & bombing.
World War II
The Second World War saw the true modernization of aerial combat, driven in a large part by the development of the all-metal monoplane which pushed the physical boundaries of what was possible with a fixed-wing aircraft. Air power played a significantly larger role in tactical military operations, with engagements such as the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Battle of Midway, the Battle of Britain, and the air war over Western Europe being almost exclusively decided through aerial combat. On a strategic level, the development of multi-engined, multi-gunned juggernauts such as the B-17 Flying Fortress and the Avro Lancaster allowed for heavy carpet bombing and eventually, nuclear bombing, on military, civilian, and industrial targets.
In the Pacific Theatre, it became readily apparent that the battleship was obsolete in modern naval warfare (see A Brief History of the Aircraft Carrier). The Battle of the Coral Sea, fought between the U.S.S. Yorktown, the U.S.S. Lexington, and the Japanese fleet carriers Shōkaku and Zuikaku, marked the first naval action in history where two opposing forces engaged in combat without ever being in visual range of each other. A single torpedo bomber or dive bomber was capable of sinking or critically damaging a ship as large as a fleet carrier, and naval engagements were reduced to a game of chess where the primary objective was to sink the enemy aircraft carriers – cruisers, destroyers, and battleships were merely a supporting cast. This was no more apparent than in the Battle of Midway, where carrier-based aircraft squadrons sank four Japanese fleet carriers – Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu – in a decisive blow that virtually guaranteed American victory in the Pacific as early as 1942.
In the European Theatre, Hitler’s blitzkrieg introduced the terrifying Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber, equipped with wailing sirens. The Stuka was a highly effective ground attack aircraft, boasting a fixed, spatted undercarriage that could accommodate a large bomb load, and automatic dive brakes that would pull the airplane out of a dive if the pilot blacked out from excessive g-force. The ability to dive at a near vertical angle minimized the horizontal velocity of its payload, allowing it to bomb targets as small as a tank with great precision. The importance of air superiority and the advent of radar proved critical in the Battle of Britain, an aerial campaign in the skies of the English channel that pitted the British Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane against German bomber formations and their Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter escorts. By denying the Luftwaffe air superiority over British airspace, the Royal Air Force eliminated the dreaded possibility of Hitler’s Operation Sea Lion – a land invasion of the United Kingdom.
Despite the Luftwaffe’s eventual defeat to the Allied air forces over the skies of Europe, German pilots would prove to be the most distinguished aerial aces of all time – Erich Hartmann, with 352 aerial victories, was the greatest fighter ace of all time, while Hans-Ulrich Rudel held the record for the most combat missions flown, at 2,530 flights. As a Stuka dive bomber pilot, Rudel claimed a total of 2,000 targets destroyed: 800 vehicles, 519 tanks, 150 artillery pieces, 70 landing craft, nine aircraft, four armored trains, several bridges, a destroyer, two cruisers, and the Soviet battleship Marat. For comparison, the top non-German ace of all time is Finnish pilot Ilmari Juutilainen, with 94 aerial victories over Soviet aircraft in World War II, and the greatest supersonic jet fighter ace is Israeli Giora Epstein, with 17 aerial victories over Egyptian aircraft during the Six Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
The establishment of the airborne corps was another development in the war, beginning with the German paratrooper invasion of Crete in 1941. Allied success with the use of airborne troops were mixed – ranging from the successful destruction of artillery batteries and strategic points on the opening hours of D-Day, to the failed capture of critical bridges over the Rhine in Operation Market Garden.
The Cold War and Beyond
Jet engine technology was being furiously worked on by both sides during World War II, and the first jet fighter aircraft to enter service was the German Messerschmitt Me 262 in 1944. Although the Me 262 completely outperformed any propeller-based aircraft at the time, it entered the war at a time when the Luftwaffe was already in shambles and Allied air superiority over Western Europe was incontestable. Nevertheless, the Me 262 made it clear that propeller aircraft were soon to be obsolete.
Early in the Korean War, the American P-80 Shooting Star, the F9F Panther, and other United Nations jet fighters flew unopposed against the North Korean air force, which had mainly antiquated Soviet propeller aircraft. However, by 1950, the Soviet Union had developed their own MiG-15 jet fighters and agreed to supply and train the North Korean pilots in flying them. The swept-wing MiG-15s had superior flight characteristics to their straight-wing American counterparts, and were capable of shooting down B-29 Superfortress bombers in the middle of a fighter escort formation with impunity. In response, the United States Air Force immediately ordered the production of the swept-wing F-86 Sabre, which would prove to be more than a match for the MiG-15. The region surrounding the Yalu river between North Korea and China would become known as the infamous “MiG Alley,” where the MiG-15 and the F-86 Sabre clashed in fierce, supersonic dogfights.
The Korean War also saw limited use of the helicopter, which was superior to the jeep for medical evacuation in the rugged Korean country side. The helicopter entered widespread use in the Vietnam War, with the ubiquitous UH-1 “Huey” becoming one of the most recognizable symbols of the conflict. In addition to fire support, reconnaissance, and Medevac roles, the concept of an air cavalry emerged – where helicopters could quickly transport ground forces in and out of conflict zones. Fixed-wing aircraft such as the F-4 Phantom saw a shift from forward-firing cannons to heat-seeking air-to-air missiles, marking the end of an era of dogfighting.
In the post-Cold War period, some of the principal advances in military aviation have been in stealth technology and electronic warfare, reflected in technological behemoths such as the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber and the F-22 Raptor. With globalization and the decline of conventional warfare between developed countries, modern air forces now serve primarily as a means of force projection and military intervention without the commitment of ground troops. This increasing detachment is reflected in the development of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for surveillance and ground attack roles. Despite the staggering capabilities of modern air combat systems, it has been apparent as early as the napalm bombings of the Vietnam War that the utility of air power is limited in asymmetric warfare, and in some sense, the importance of combat aircraft has actually decreased since the Second World War.