Blogs > Cliopatria > When the Airplane First Became a War Plane

Apr 13, 2004 6:18 pm

When the Airplane First Became a War Plane

Daniel Ford, in the WSJ (April 13, 2004):

The "smart bombs" that ripped into Baghdad last year, eviscerating Saddam Hussein's regime and mostly sparing the population, were accepted as routine by those who watched their trajectories on TV. Yet it took air-power advocates the better part of a century to achieve such astonishing accuracy.

Not that governments were slow to see the possibilities of air-delivered munitions. "At the start of 1909," writes Stephen Budiansky in "Air Power," "the number of airplanes in the world's armies was zero; by 1910 it was fifty; by 1911 airplanes had been used in combat." The innovator was an Italian pilot named Gavotti, who dropped four hand grenades on Turkish troops in Libya. Foreshadowing the propaganda wars to come, Italian newspapers boasted that the enemy scattered in terror while the Turks claimed that the grenades hit a hospital.

In truth, early warplanes were more dangerous to their occupants than to the enemy. Of the first 48 pilots trained by the U.S. Army, 12 had been killed by 1913--and that was without going into combat. Nevertheless, the Army expected great things of aviation when it went to war in 1917. It delivered little: a few thousand pilots, some engines and 1,400 copies of a British bomber so shaky that it could not be operated at full throttle. U.S. mass production just couldn't cope with the challenge of assembling aircraft from thousands of pieces designed to metric measure and meant to be finished by hand. As a result, Billy Mitchell and other American airmen flew mostly French aircraft during World War I. Not until the 1930s did an American company build a truly superior airplane: the Douglas DC-3 transport, which is still in service in back-country airlines and small-country air forces.

Mass production was vindicated in World War II, when the U.S. built 300,000 warplanes, almost as many as the rest of the world combined. One of the greatest was the quintessentially American B-17 Flying Fortress, designed to battle its way to such "strategic" targets as oil refineries and ball-bearing plants and to destroy them from high altitude. "Putting a bomb into a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet" was the goal and promise of the U.S. Army Air Corps when it entered the war.

Alas, weather and enemy countermeasures made precision a chimera. By 1945, American bombers were operating much like those from Britain, Germany and Japan, indiscriminately killing enemy civilians and destroying enemy cities. More than once, indeed, American bombers went so wide of the mark that they actually hit the wrong country. The vaunted "Fortress" also failed to ward off enemy fighters: In one sample, 63% of its crewmen were lost before completing the 25 missions that would have allowed them to go home for reassignment....

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