Carrying the War into the Air
The opposing squadrons watch and watch each other. Woe betide the man in a squadron who lags behind for a second, who manipulates his control a little too carelessly, who is not quite en rapport with his teammate in the machine beside him! Two enemies swoop down upon him. He is cut off from his fellows. He must fight for his life. Up and down, in and out he maneuvers, shooting when he can. But his enemies outnumber him. He has not a chance. There is a squirting of bullets. His machine drops— a sickening sight—three miles to earth
of the war—monoplanes with tractor propellers, biplanes with both tractor and pusher propellers, machines with and without streamline bodies, fast racers, and slow, cross-country flyers. One would suppose that the military brains of Europe would have foreseen that some effort would be made to beat off a prying airscout. That it was foreseen, the rather crude antiaircraft artillery evolved before the war proves; but no one could foresee how combats at a height of ten and twenty thousand feet would be fought, or how a machine should be designed for effective fighting.Maneuvers in time of peace may teach much, but blank cartridges can never teach as much as cold lead.
First of all, it was discovered that for bombing raids, for reconnaissance and for fighting, different types of machines must be employed. Your bomb-carrier cannot be much faster than ninety miles an hour —slow as speeds go nowadays. Such craft must be protected by fast fighting machines during a long over-land flight to some hostile railway junction which is to be wiped off the map. Your scout and artil-
lery-fire control machine must stay aloft for hours; it must carry much fuel; therefore, while it may be faster than a bombcarrier, it cannot be designed for high speed. Slow machines must be protected from attack on overland journeys by fast fighters. And so the fighting machine was evolved —a marvelously swift machine, making as much as 130 miles an hour and as quick as a dragon-fly in darting and twisting about.
Reconnaissance, artillery-control machines, fighters—all are armed with machine guns. But only the fighters, single and double seated, are built specifically for combat. The others fight only when they must—in some situation of dire necessity.
How a Difficult Problem Was Solved
There was no fighting in the air during the Tripolitan and Balkan campaigns; but in this war there was air fighting almost from the beginning. At first rifles and pistols were used. They proved worthless. A machine-gun alone could be used effectively, something that would squirt death like water from a hose. But the use of a
machine-gun implied the building of an airplane able to mount and fire it. Now it was soon found that the pusher type of airplane, which carries its propeller in the rear, is not so fast as the tractor, which carries its propeller in the front. It was also found that for fighting, at least, quick-maneuvering ability is highly essential, which implies a small, high-powered machine carrying only one man. Here was a very difficult technical problem to be solved: The fighting machine had to
be a tractor for speed; the propeller in front necessarily interfered with the proper manipulation of the machine-gun; the officer in the pilot’s seat had not only to keep his machine on an even keel but also to fight his gun. Had the military strategists of Europe been told before the war that these were the conditions that would have to be fulfilled, they would have dismissed them as absurdities at once. But by the middle of 1916, the requisites were so clearly recognized that they were met, and that with astonishing ingenuity.
The Fast Fighting Machine Appears
By the end of 1915 it had been discovered that of all the flying mach i n e s used by the Allies, the fast racing monoplane of MoraneSaulnier in France and the speedy biplane racers made by the two firms of Sopwith and Bristol in England were best adapted for air fighting, simply because they had speed and dragon-fly maneuvering ability. They were given more speed by equipping them with engines of one hundred and
fifty horsepower and even more, and they were strengthened so that they might withstand the enormous stresses set up in flight by engines so powerful.
Curiously enough, the problem of firing through the propeller had been solved before the war by some imaginative inventor with more vision than is given to academically trained generals, and curiously enough it was solved in both France and Germany simultaneously. The solution was this: The gun was rigidly mounted in front of the pilot, and it was mechanically connected with the engine. A propeller revolves at about 1,200 revolutions a minute; a machine-gun fires at the rate of 600 shots a minute. Let the engine fire the gun at just that fraction of a second when no propeller blade intervenes—that is the solution.
Because the gun is rigidly mounted, the air fighter must turn the entire machine toward his German enemy to fire it. The enemy does the same; for the German Fokker, an adaptation of the French Morane-Saulnier, is similarly designed and equipped with a fixed machine-gun.
When these fighters first appeared on the side of the Allies they drove everything before them. It was impossible for the slower Germans to cope with them. Then the Fokker appeare d . The machines of the Allies were made still faster; the fighters became more skilful, moredaring; fighting tactics were evolved. As a result, the Allies have not only caught up with each German improvement but have surpassed it.
See key diagram below
It is rarely that German machines—fighters or scouts—appear over the French and British lines; but the machines of the Allies are always over the German lines. That meant much at Arras.
When these fast fighters first made their appearance there were some single-handed combats. A German and British charioteer of the air would wheel about, jockeying for a position in which, for a few fleeting seconds, either might pour in a hundred bullets at his enemy. It was a favorite maneuver of the German flyer to rise very high, to plunge down on an adversary, and to fire as he came. But Boelcke and Immelmann were about the only flyers on the German side who were either skilful or daring enough to engage in frequent singlehanded combats. As a rule, the Germans attacked a single British or French machine in twos and threes. The procedure may be attributed in part to the different temperaments of Germans and British and in part to military policy.
Like Flocks of Birds the Squadrons Maneuver
The result has been that fighting in the air is now undertaken, as a rule, only by squadrons. Six machines, sometimes more, constitute an aerial tactical unit. Their pilot-officers live together, sleep together, eat together. They know one another better than if they were brothers. Every mental and emotional characteristic is bared. So it happens that in the air, when the six machines are flying side by side in twos, the men know instinctively what they are to do. Have you not seen flocks of birds on the wing, circling about with a unanimity of understanding that makes it seem as if they were obeying a command? It is so with the air fighters of a squadron. They move as one, like a flock of birds, with never a word of instruction.
An engagement between opposing squadrons in the air is not like a battle at sea— a fight between fleets. Around and around each other the planes whirr, each team following the leaders with clock-like precision and automaticity.
The opposing squadrons watch and watch each other. Woe betide the man who lags behind for a second, who manipulates his controls a little too carelessly; who is not quite en rapport with the team-mate in the machine beside him! Two machines of the enemy swoop down. He is cut off from his fellows, like a bird from its flock. He
must fight now for his life. Up and down, in and out, he maneuvers with his foes. He shoots when he can—when a hostile machine is directly in front of him. But his enemies outnumber him. He cannot outmaneuver two machines. One, at least, must sooner or later swing around into a favorable position. Then there is a squirting of bullets. The machine drops, a mass of flame, three miles to the earth—a sickening sight even to those who have been steeled to the horrors of the most horrible of wars. A charred, twisted mass of metal and wood is picked up. Within it is a scorched, torn uniform containing an unrecognizable, mutilated mass, all that remains of a brave man who was not quite quick enough, or whose mechanism failed him for a fatal fraction of a second.
How the Airplanes Carry War Into the Atmosphere
Whenever that terrible artillery preparation takes place of which we read in the newspapers (the deadly hail of tons and tons of metal that precedes an attack with the bayonet) the fighting squadrons are high in the air—twenty thousand feet above the ground. Below them, at perhaps ten thousand feet, are the two-seated fighters and reconnaissance machines each patrolling a section of the enemy’s line, taking hundreds of photographs. And below, at six thouand feet, are the machines that control the artillery fire—machines that watch each shot as it falls and that wireless back the signal “too short” or “too long.” Without the reconnaissance officers the scouts and the fire-controllers could not perform their task; they would be attacked and annihilated by fast airplanes mounting machine-guns. To be sure, they are armed themselves so that they can keep up a running fight. But on the daring, fighting squadrons far, far above the battle line, on them depends the fate of an army; on them depends the possibility of gathering the facts that the heavy artillery in the rear must have to fire at a mark ten miles distant.
To the all-seeing eye in the air, nothing is concealed. It is that eye which has made it utterly impossible for either side to execute a flanking movement that would envelop a whole army and compel a surrender, that eye which has made it necessary for armies to burrow in the ground and face each other in a nerve-racking, soultrying struggle.