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By 1908 Orville and Wilbur Wright were demonstrating their "flying machine" to the United States Army. Around this same time military leaders in Italy, England, Germany and France were also considering aviation for military purposes. Eventually, Italy became the first nation to take the airplane to war.
In 1910 the Italian Army purchased a few aircraft as an experiment. They used these aircraft on October 23, 1911 to fly over their enemy's army (the Turks) to see what they were doing. On November 1st an Italian pilot dropped 4 hand grenades on Turkish troops. This was the first time "bombs" had been dropped from an airplane on an enemy. Later another Italian soldier went up in an airplane and took the first pictures of an enemy army. Finally, Turkish troops shot down an Italian plane with rifle fire. Air warfare had now come full circle.
During the beginning of the "Great War" (World War I) the airplanes were not all that sturdy (strong or well-built). In the first months of war Germany lost about 100 planes - mostly due to malfunctions and simple accidents.
These early airplanes had average speeds of about 60 miles per hour, flew at altitudes ranging from 3300 to 12,000 feet and could stay in the air from two to four hours. Planes were used to photograph enemy positions, bomb the enemy and sometimes shoot at other planes in the air. Airplanes improved quickly because of the war.
After the Great War several countries wanted to improve their air forces for the future. Several advances were made. One of the most important was the development of the aircraft carrier. This allowed military aircraft to be brought across the sea. Another innovation (improvement) was the development of the long range bomber, the Martin B-10. With twin engines and retractable gear (wheels that moved up into the aircraft) the all metal B-10 could fly up to 28,000 feet and hit speeds of over 200 miles per hour. Another development, in the beginning, was a helicopter project by the United States Army Air Service in 1921. This project was important because airplanes needed a long runway to take off and helicopters would not. In the early stages of helicopter experimentation flights of ten minutes and two miles set records!
Through the 1930's military air services began to develop modern planes: increased aerodynamic construction (able to fly with less drag), retractable landing gear, heavier fire power, faster speeds and better maneuverability (easier turns). New engines and better radio contact were also developed.
By 1939, when Europe was beginning the Second World War (WWII), the United States realized it was lagging behind other nations in developing its military airforce. The United States only had 26,000 airmen and 1900 aircraft compared to Germany's half-million airmen and 4,100 aircraft. In addition, the U.S. aircraft were inferior to German and English aircraft, with the possible exception of the B-17 Bomber.
With the encouragement of President Roosevelt, and millions of dollars from Congress, the United States soon made a firm commitment to improve American air power. During the war the U.S. produced:
At the end of World War II aircraft designers agreed that the future of aircraft was in jets, not piston engines. By 1951 aircraft design teams were already designing the first jet fighter to exceed the speed of sound in level flight. By 1953 "Kelly" Johnson had outlined the Lockheed 83, an aircraft with a new J79 engine able to reach Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound). 1954 saw the monster XF-103 fighter fly at Mach 3.7 or 2,447 miles per hour. The Chance Vought F-8 Crusader was the first carrier plane to fly faster than 1,000 miles per hour. It also became the first plane to fly across the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean at supersonic speed.
In the 1960's the McDonnell F-4 Phantom was an even more advanced fighter. The Phantom claimed over one dozen world records for speed and rate of climb. The Convair B-58 Hustler became the world's first supersonic bomber, blazing over targets at Mach 2. The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress followed the B-58 and was an eight engine bomber with a 6,000 mile range that could be easily doubled with air-to-air refueling.
Suprisingly, in the first part of the Vietnam war the American forces used older propeller driven airplanes from WWII and Korea. These were slower than jet aircraft but seemed to be less vulnerable (able to be hit) to ground fire. Helicopters became a powerful military vehicle during the Vietnam war. The helicopter could suprise the enemy by very quickly shifting infantry (ground soldiers) and artillary (big guns) to where the enemy was gathered. Helicopters could maintain remote outposts, provide rapid evacuation (withdrawing troops) or bring wounded personnel to medical centers. Helicopters evolved into "gunships" armed with a lethal variety of automatic weapons and rockets. Today many new military aircraft are in the air:
Today, it takes several years for an airplane to be designed, tested and
manufactured. Sometimes the need for a particular plane will change or
disappear. Or the potential enemy has changed their direction or has
moved ahead at a faster rate. Also, the cost of making one airplane can
be hundreds of millions of dollars. New designs and changes to existing
aircraft will continue as long as there is a threat of war or military
leaders feel national security requires it.
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