One Hundred Years of World Military Aircraft

Overview   In the century following the Wright Brothers’ historic flight at Kitty hawk, North Carolina, thousands of military aircraft have been designed and hundreds of thousands of have been produced. From that massive aeronautic pantheon, two well-known aviation historians have selected the one hundred most significant military aircraft as a centennial tribute. Among the aircraft showcased in this book are several military aviation “firsts,” a few “largest,” and a number of superlative aircraft in terms of production or performance.  For examp See more details below
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In the century following the Wright Brothers’ historic flight at Kitty hawk, North Carolina, thousands of military aircraft have been designed and hundreds of thousands of have been produced. From that massive aeronautic pantheon, two well-known aviation historians have selected the one hundred most significant military aircraft as a centennial tribute.

Among the aircraft showcased in this book are several military aviation “firsts,” a few “largest,” and a number of superlative aircraft in terms of production or performance.  For example, the Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik was produced in greater numbers than any other aircraft in history, while the Lockheed A-12 Oxcart and its derivative SR-71 Blackbird were the world’s fastest military aircraft. But most of the aircraft in this book were selected because of their influence on political and military events.  The unarmed U-2 spyplane was a key factor in developing U.S. defense policy in the late 1950s, while Curtis Pusher demonstrated the feasibility of aircraft taking off and landing aboard a warship in 1910-1911.  Among the long-lived aircraft are the Vought F4U Corsair, which “flunked” its carrier trials in 1942, but went aboard most U.S. and British fleet carriers before World War II ended, and was flown from French as well as U.S. carriers into the 1950s.  Record holders included the English Electric Canberra and the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, both of which first flew more than fifty years ago and remain in first-line service. 

No student of World War II would question the inclusion of the Supermarine Spitfire and Boeing B-29 Superfortress, but others might ask why include the Curtis O-52 Owl and Junkers Ju 52?  In the authors’ opinion, both were significant aircraft and important milestones in military aviation history.  Other aviation buffs will wonder why the authors did not list the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt or the Tupolev Tu-26 Blackjack. The authors explain their choices—and their omissions—in clear, concise commentaries about each aviation era and each aircraft description.

Through words and photos, the book provides an informative and fast-moving tour through a century of military aviation development, from the U.S. Army purchasing the world’s first military aircraft from the Wright Brothers through the bombers and fighters participating in Gulf War II of 2003. 107 photographs. Bibliography. Index. 7 x 10 inches.  AUTHORBIO: Norman Polmar is a defense analyst and author or coauthor of more than thirty books, among them seven editions of the Naval Institute’s Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet.  He has held the Ramsey Chair of aviation history at the National Air and Space Museum.  Dana Bell, a senior archivist at the National Air and Space Museum, has written more than twenty books and numerous articles in the aviation field.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781591146865
  • Publisher: Naval Institute Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/2003
  • Pages: 456
  • Product dimensions: 7.10 (w) x 10.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

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One Hundred Years of World Military Aircraft

By Norman Polmar and Dana Bell

Naval Institute Press

Copyright © 2004 Norman Polmar and Dana Bell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-59114-686-0

Chapter One

From the time that the Wright Brothers made their first sustained flights in December 1903, there was considerable interest in the military potential of aircraft. Almost immediately both military officers and civilians expressed belief in the potential combat role for aircraft. In September 1908 aviation pioneer Orville Wright conducted demonstration flights for US Army and Navy officers with his Model A Flyer at Fort Myer, outside of Washington, D.C. Those flights led the Army Signal Corps to purchase Wright-built aircraft.

A year later, in August 1909, the US naval attaché in Paris, Comdr. F. L. Chapin, was directed to attend an aviation meet in Rheims. He was impressed by the men and machines he observed and submitted a proposal that the US Navy modify one of the new, 16,000-ton battleships of the Connecticut class to launch a Wright airplane; he also recommended that auxiliary ships be constructed with flight decks for aircraft operation.

That same year the brilliant French inventor Clément Ader described in his book l'Aviation Militaire how an aircraft-carrying ship should be constructed, and the procedures for aircraft to take off and to land back aboard.

Glenn Curtiss aroused the US Navy's interest in aviation. In 1908 the 30-year-old Curtiss designed, built, and flew his own airplane. He won nation-wide publicity in May 1910 when he flew the 142 1/2 miles from Albany to New York City in 2 hours, 50 minutes to capture the New York World's $10,000 prize. Somewhat prematurely, the World claimed "The battles of the future will be fought in the air! The aeroplane will decide the destiny of nations."

The newspaper promptly set up a "bombing range" on Lake Keuka near Hammondsport, New York, arranging floats to simulate the 500-by-90-foot outline of a battleship. Curtiss flew over in his airplane and dropped 8-inch lengths of 1 1/2-inch-diameter lead pipe. Rear Adm. William W. Kimball, one of the observers, declared: "There are defects for war purposes: lack of ability to operate in average weather at sea; signalling its approach by noise of motor and propellers; impossibility of controlling its height and speed to predict approximate bombing ranges; difficulty of hitting from a height great enough to give a chance of getting within effective range."

The press interpreted the results differently: The World told of "an aeroplane costing a few thousand but able to destroy the battleship costing many millions." The New York Times acknowledged a new "menace to the armored fleets of war." The aircraft-versus-battleship controversy was fired before the Navy had its first flying machine; at the time the Army had only one Wright flying machine.

Another highly publicized bombing demonstration against "ships" came in September 1910, when the Harvard Aeronautical Society and Boston Globe sponsored an aviation meet at Atlantic, Massachusetts. Prizes were offered for distance flown, speed, altitude, duration, and the best record of dropping "bombs" against a "battleship model"-an outline of a battleship in the marshlands southeast of Boston, at Squantum. Contestants flew their rickety aeroplanes low over the battleship outline, dropping a total of 170 bombs.

British aviator Claude Grahame-White, flying a Farman biplane, won the $5,000 prize and the Harvard cup for "bomb throwing." Curtiss scored fourth in the bombing contest. The popular magazine Aeronautics wrote that the bombing event was "not only ... one of the most interesting of the meet, but one which the Society deems most important from the standpoint of scientific investigation." Several US Army and Navy officers attended the meet, and President William Howard Taft made a brief appearance.

A more significant series of events occurred in November 1910 and January 1911, when the Navy sponsored Eugene Ely, a Curtiss pilot, in making history's first takeoff and landing aboard a warship with a Curtiss pusher aircraft.

The seeds were sown and in half a dozen countries military aviation had begun to sprout. The four aircraft described in this chapter are considered as the first genuine military aircraft.

Blériot Type XI

In July 1909, France's Louis Blériot distinguished himself by becoming the first man to fly an airplane across the English Channel. His aircraft, the eleventh built at Blériot's factory, would become sire to a line of monoplanes built, licensed, and imitated around the world. An immediate favorite with sportsmen pilots, the Type XI also became the initial aircraft of many emerging air forces.

Later in 1909 the Blériot Type XI entered French military service and soon was being used to develop offensive capabilities with hand-held rifles, grenades, and small bombs, and mounted 37-mm cannon as well as machine guns. In 1910 the Type XI (along with several other Blériot designs) figured prominently in French military maneuvers.

In 1911 French aviator Roland Garros used a Type XI to demonstrate a mock bombing of enemy positions to the Mexican Army. Later that year the Mexican Army would perform history's first offensive aerial combat operation, lobbing homemade bombs from a Moisant copy of the Blériot XI during the Mexican Revolution. In October, Italian Blériot XIs carried out wartime reconnaissance missions of Turkish positions in Libya. The French sent four aircraft to Morocco for reconnaissance missions in early 1912, and the Turks used theirs against the Greeks in October. During the summer of 1913, the Romanians and Bulgarians used Blériot XIs against each other in the Second Balkan War, with the armed Romanian aircraft displaying a decided advantage over the unarmed Bulgarians.

With the beginning of World War I in August 1914, the French used their Type XIs for reconnaissance and light bombing missions, but newer, more powerful aircraft quickly eclipsed the aging Blériot. By early 1915 remaining Type XIs in French squadrons were withdrawn from combat and used as trainers.

The Blériot XI was a simple design, easily disassembled for ground transportation, and popular with its crews. The wood frame fuselage of rectangular cross section was diagonally braced for strength. The fuselage aft of the cockpit was generally left uncovered, with the forward portion sheathed in fabric, plywood, or aluminum sheet. (Some Italian-built Blériots placed transparent panels at either side of the cockpit in an effort to improve downward visibility.)

Crewmembers sat in an open cockpit, with the observer placed forward of the pilot in two-seat versions. In that position the observer's forward and downward view was severely limited by the shoulder-mounted monoplane wing, although a few Type XIs were produced with parasol wings to improve visibility. The wing itself was made of ash and poplar with fabric covering; Wright-style wing warping provided roll control. A single-piece rudder, with no vertical stabilizer, was attached behind the fuselage, and a horizontal stabilizer with a one-piece trailing elevator was mounted below the fuselage frame. (Civil Type XIs, including some pressed into military service, often had elevators at the tips of the horizontal stabilizer.) The Type XI was one of the first aircraft to use Blériot's now-familiar control system, using foot pedals to move the rudder and a single cloche-type control stick to warp the wings and move the elevators.

Several different rotary tractor engines were used in Type XIs, with 25- to 35-horsepower engines powering most trainers and 50- to 80-horsepower engines in operational variants.

Curtiss Pusher

Although the Curtiss Pushers figured prominently in the development of the US Army's aviation program, the Pushers were far more influential in the establishment of US naval aviation. Curtiss Pushers were the first aircraft to take off from a ship, the first to land on a ship, the first to effectively take off and land on water, and the first to taxi to and be hoisted aboard a warship. Moreover, pontoon-equipped Pushers evolved into the world's first flying boats.

Glenn H. Curtiss was the driving force behind this innovation. Although the US Army had purchased its first airplane in 1909, the Navy had shown less interest in winged aircraft. Curtiss offered, without charge, to train a naval officer at one of his flight schools and arranged a series of experiments and demonstrations linking airplanes to warships.

On Sunday, November 13, 1910, sailors on board the cruiser Birmingham constructed a wooden platform 83 feet long and 24 feet wide over the ship's bow. The next morning a Curtiss Pusher was hoisted aboard. The aircraft was fitted with floats in the event it came down on the water. On November 14 the Birmingham steamed out into Hampton Roads, Virginia, followed by four torpedo boats. The Birmingham was to cruise in the Chesapeake Bay and head into the wind at about ten knots for the take off. The torpedo boats were stationed along the route the plane was to follow up the Elizabeth River to the Norfolk Navy Yard. Rainsqualls filled the sky. Waiting for the weather to clear, the Birmingham hove to and dropped anchor. Shortly after noon the weather cleared and the Birmingham and her consorts got under way. However, heavy rains forced the ships to again drop anchor before Ely could take off.

At about three o'clock the weather seemed to be clearing and the order was given to weigh anchor and go on with the flight. Eugene Ely, an exhibition pilot who worked for Curtiss, started up the plane's 50-horsepower engine. The plane's slipstream interfered with activities on the bridge and the ship was delayed in getting under way. The anchor came up slowly. Ely was impatient; he gave his mechanic the signal to release the plane and he raced the engine at full power. There were only 57 feet of deck in front of the plane as it started rolling down the inclined ramp at 3:16 P.M.

When the plane reached the end of the ramp it disappeared over the edge and glided down toward the water, 37 feet below the bow. Ely pulled back on the control stick. It was too late. The plane's wheels, floats, and propeller tips touched the water. Both blades of the propeller were damaged, but the wooden prop never stopped turning. Neither the speed nor control of the aircraft was affected. Slowly the airplane began to climb skyward. The sailors on the ship cheered and the Birmingham's whistle announced the feat to nearby ships and small craft.

Once airborne Ely became lost because of the poor visibility, with his sight obscured by water that had splashed on his goggles. He landed as soon as he could, coming down at Willoughby Spit near Norfolk, 2 1/2 miles from the Birmingham. The first flight of an airplane from a ship was history.

On January 18, 1911, he flew a second Pusher to the armored cruiser Pennsylvania, anchored in San Francisco Bay, California, and landed on a platform built onto the ship's stern just after 11 A.M. The aircraft was stopped by arresting gear (developed by another Curtiss pilot) as hooks beneath the aircraft snagged lines stretched across the deck and weighted with sandbags. Less than an hour later, Ely turned around, took off, and returned safely to shore. (Ely was killed in October 1911 when his aircraft crashed during a demonstration flight in Georgia.)

During this period Glenn Curtiss was developing a float system that would allow his aircraft to take off and land on water, which evolved into the world's first seaplane. At the time Curtiss referred to the type as a "hydroaeroplane" or "hydro." (Reportedly, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, disliked the term "hydroaeroplane" and called water-going aircraft simply "seaplanes.") On January 26, 1911, at San Diego, California, Curtiss took off and came down at sea using a complicated tandem float arrangement. This configuration was revised into a single, sled-shaped float by February. Later that month he reconfigured one of his Hydros as a tractor, taxied to the anchored Pennsylvania-then moored at San Diego-and was hoisted aboard by crane. In addition, that month another Hydro was fitted with wheels. Described as a "Triad," this was the world's first amphibian.

Navy officials were convinced, and on June 30, 1911, purchased a Triad, which was designated A-1 (changed to AH-1 in 1914). This was the first airplane procured by a navy. It was employed to train pilots, to develop naval aviation concepts, and to experiment with a variety of techniques-including airborne radio installations, night flights, and compressed-air catapult launches.

The A-1 flew 60 times before being withdrawn from service in October 1914. The US Navy purchased a total of 14 Curtiss Pushers. Curtiss Pushers had wood frame and fabric construction, with the pilot and passenger seated between the wings, just forward of the engine. Early Pushers mounted two elevators-one forward, and one aft-although the aircraft built for the US Navy were "headless" pushers, which had only the after elevator. Most Pushers carried ailerons, usually mounted on the outboard struts between the wings. As with most designs of the period, production aircraft often varied widely in fitting and details, with numerous modifications performed after delivery.

Curtiss Model H America

Although designed for peaceful uses, the Curtiss Model H sired the world's first great naval flying boats. When, in 1913, the Daily Mail of London offered a £10,000 prize for the first flight between North America and Great Britain, American Rodman Wanamaker commissioned Glenn L. Curtiss to build two aircraft capable of taking the prize. Only the year before Curtiss had designed the world's first practical flying boat. A greatly enlarged version of that aircraft became the Model H, and Wanamaker named the first of these America.

The design team reflected the international nature of the competition, with the wings designed by Britons B. Douglas Thomas and John C. Porte. When flight tests began in June 1914, they revealed that the America's bow tended to submerge when taxiing, and engineers designed the first sponsons to increase buoyancy in the forward fuselage. The sponsons became a standard feature in most of the world's larger flying boats over the next 30 years.

The trans-Atlantic flight, scheduled to begin on August 5, 1914, was cancelled by the outbreak of war in Europe. Porte returned home and persuaded the Admiralty to buy the two Model H aircraft for long-range patrol duties-a remarkable concept at a time when most of the world's air forces were equipped with small artillery spotters developed from prewar sport planes.


Excerpted from One Hundred Years of World Military Aircraft by Norman Polmar and Dana Bell Copyright ©2004 by Norman Polmar and Dana Bell. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Before Conflict 1
2 World War I 18
3 Between the Wars 60
4 World War II: The Axis 93
5 World War II: The Allies 147
6 The Cold War 257
7 New Technology Aircraft 384
Bibliography 429
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