The use of aircraft in warfare is something that is easy to take for granted today. It might be hard to imagine a time when there were no warplanes—but military aviation is only a little over a century old. After all, the first manned aircraft only left the ground in the early 20th century. Here is a brief history of military aviation.
Mankind’s first nervous flights were aboard hot air balloons—invented in France around 1783. By the end of the decade, the French military was using these balloons for reconnaissance. This gave them a considerable advantage over their enemies. In fact, the French owed much of their success on the battlefield to the hot air balloon.
With time, other militaries around the world adopted hot air balloons to observe their enemies. The British made heavy use of them during their colonization of Africa. And hot air balloons were even commonly used during the American Civil War.
But hot air balloons are . . . well, balloons. And while they enabled high-flying information gathering like never before, their capacity was severely limited. However, two bicycle-building brothers turned manned flight pioneers would soon change the face of warfare forever.
The World is Introduced to the Warplane
The Wright brothers are synonymous with flying, and they played an incredibly important role in the invention of the first warplane. After the brothers’ famous inaugural manned flight in 1903, they almost immediately began working on an aircraft that could be used by the military.
After a couple of years, in 1905, the brothers had a design ready. They presented it to the U.S. government, which would be responsible for constructing the warplanes. However, during a test flight to finalize the contract with the U.S. Army Signal Corps, the pioneering warplane crashed—injuring Orville Wright and killing passenger Lt. Thomas Selfridge, it would be the first powered airplane casualty.
The fatal accident did not discourage the Wright brothers, who continued improving their design. And in 1909, they delivered an aircraft that could carry two passengers at a speed of 42 miles per hour. It was powered by a four-cylinder, 32 horsepower engine and exceeded all governmental requirements.
At the outset of World War I, these newly developed flying machines filled the skies above battlegrounds, but they were almost solely used for surveillance. However, throughout the war, axis and allies alike found ways to utilize these new tools for more than observation—including rudimentary bombing and air-to-air combat. By the end of the war, they had proven to be an integral part of modern warfare. Indeed, the First World War was the warplane’s proving ground.
During World War II, bombers, fighters and cargo planes matured from their First World War infancy. Advanced fighter jets—including the famed P-51 Mustang—were pivotal to success in the skies above the Pacific. Progressive bombers facilitated the large carpet-bombing strategies that laid waste to huge swaths of cities around the world. And the Second World War even bolstered the advent of the jet engine technology that would ultimately go on to change the world.
Today, it is hard to imagine any war that does not involve the use of warplanes. Thanks to advancements in technology, modern warplanes perform a wide variety of functions at seemingly unbelievable speeds and altitudes. Need an example? Simply take a look at the U.S. Air Force B-2 Spirit—unarguably the best bomber in the world.
The B-2 strikes with mind-blowing precision and can carry up to sixteen 2,400-pound bombs. It can travel up to 6,000 nautical miles on one fueling and moves at a speed of 630 miles per hour. And it can do it all without detection by enemy radar thanks to its advanced stealth technology.
But the B-2 is only one example of U.S. military prowess in the skies. The SR-71 “Blackbird” revolutionized reconnaissance aircraft during the Cold War. And, to date, it’s still the fastest and highest-flying production, air-breathing manned aircraft. The Lockheed-Martin F-22 Raptor, unarguably the most advanced fighter jet in the world today, can perform aerobatics never seen before. And the list of formidable military aircraft goes on.
For your chance to see a piece of American aviation and military history up close and personal, visit the Hill Aerospace Museum. Our collection includes aircraft, military vehicles and uniforms, artwork and more. And did we mention the best part? Admission to the Hill Aerospace Museum is always FREE! Although, donations go a long way in helping us to maintain our beautiful collection.