Military Aircraft page 1
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The history of military aviation dates back to the early twentieth century. In 1903 the Wright brothers launched their first "Flyer" across the sand beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. By 1908 Orville and Wilbur Wright would be demonstrating that the flying machine he and his brother had invented could be useful to the United States Army. At about this same time military leaders from Italy, England, Germany and France were also marveling at the prospects of aviation for military purposes. Eventually Italy would become 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 perform the world's first combat reconnaissance flight. On November 1, 1911 the world's first bombing mission took place when an Italian pilot dropped four bombs (actually hand grenades) on Turkish troops. Within a few months an Italian captain had taken a camera aloft to originate aerial photographic reconnaissance. Finally, when Turkish troops shot down an Italian plane with rifle fire air warfare had apparently come full circle.

While the early military flights were quite basic, the emergence of the Great War (World War I) would soon propel military aviation to new heights. The planes being flown at the outset of the Great War were rudimentary. They did, however, employ most of the basic elements an airplane would ever need: engine for power, wings for lift, propeller for thrust, tail for stability, fuselage to contain pilot and payload and simple mechanisms to manually operate the movable parts - rudder, ailerons, and elevators - needed for controlled flight. Most of these early machines had a main structure of thin pieces of hardwood braced with steel wires. The machines were not all that sturdy and in the first months of war Germany lost about 100 planes - most due to malfunctions and simple accidents.

These early machines had average speeds of about 60 miles per hour, flew at altitudes ranging from 3300 to 12,000 feet and had flight times lasting from about two to four hours. Their use in war ranged from photographing enemy positions to bombing the enemy and it's infrastructure. As opposing super powers battled for command of the air new and improved military aircraft emerged. Some in fact would argue that largely as a result of the Great War, aviation matured almost overnight.

In the aftermath of the Great War the world's leading countries looked to devise military air doctrines for the future. One of the most significant developments to come from the post war era was the development and evolution of the aircraft carrier. Although inherently dangerous, the many uses of aircraft carriers allowed military aviation greater travels to and from sea. Another innovation was the development of the long range bomber and the Martin B-10. With twin engines and retractable gear the all metal B-10 could fly up to 28,000 feet and hit speeds of over 200 miles per hour. A final worthy development of this era was the beginning of a helicopter project by the United States Army Air Service in 1921. This development was in part instigated by the fact that previous military airplanes were bound by the need for long runways and the necessity to keep moving to stay up and to maintain control. In the early stages of helicopter experimentation flights of ten minutes and two miles set records.

From the post Great War period through the 1930's military air services began to develop modern planes. Increased aerodynamic construction, retractable gear, heavier fire power, faster speeds and better maneuverability continued to define new generations of aircraft. Some of the new planes were driven by air cooled radial engines, while others contained the new generation of sleek, powerful, in-line, liquid cooled engines. Aircraft exterior soon bristled with armament and antennas, evidence of increasing firepower and the new ability to coordinate and guide missions by radio.

By the time a second world war seemed likely, however, the United States found itself lagging behind other industrialized countries in terms of military aviation prowess. In 1939 the United States Air Corps numbered 26,000 personnel and had approximately 1900 aircraft. The British Royal Air Force numbered 100,000 with approximately 1900 aircraft. The German Luftwaffe totaled a staggering 500,000 with 4100 modern aircraft. In quality the United State's P-36 was inferior to the British Hurricanes and Spitfires and the German Messerschmitt Bf-109. Likewise German attack bombers were far superior to contemporary American counterparts. America's confidence in long range aerial bombardment, however, did boast the B-17, a heavy bomber aircraft superior to comparable types from other countries.

With the encouragement of President Roosevelt the United States soon made a firm commitment to the development of American air power. Backed by millions of dollars approved by congress the U.S. was soon producing the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. An outstanding fighter-bomber the P-47 had an armament of eight .50 caliber machine guns and bombs and rockets carried under it's wings. In February 1944 the P-51 Mustang became available to the U.S. in large numbers. The sleek and powerful P-51 developed a reputation as one of the best fighters of World War II with a flight range of 850 miles. The Boeing B-29 Superfortress, generally acknowledged as the most formidable bomber of World War II operated exclusively in the Pacific against Japan and is infamous for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Other notable designs of World War II were the Lockheed P-38, the Grumman F6F Hellcat, Curtiss SB2C Helldiver dive-bomber and the rugged Vought F4U Corsair which at over 400 miles per hour proved to be one of the fastest fighters of it's time.

By the end of World War II substantial progress in many technical areas would alter the future of military aircraft design. Aircraft designers agreed that the piston engine was obsolete and that future fighters would have to be jet propelled. This realization opened up new realms of flight performance previously not even dreamed of. By 1951 the teams that had designed the F-86 and MiG-15 were designing the first fighter able to exceed the speed of sound, Mach 1, in level flight. By 1953 "Kelly" Johnson had outlined the Lockheed 83, an aircraft with a new J79 engine theoretically capable of reaching Mach 2 in speed. By 1954 Republic Aviation was well into the design of the monster XF-103 fighter to fly at Mach 3.7 or 2,446 miles per hour. Another notable design of the post World War II era was the Chance Vought F-8 Crusader. The Crusader was the first carrier plane to fly faster than 1,000 miles per hour and became the first plane to fly from the Atlantic to the Pacific at supersonic speed. The McDonnell F-4 Phantom was an even more advanced fighter. Noted as one of the most versatile and successful military jets of the early 1960's, 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 strategic bomber with a 6,000 mile range that could easily be doubled with air-to-air refueling.

These new realms of military flight performance took a surprising turn with the development of the Vietnam War. While supersonic speeds were attainable the first American forces in Vietnam looked to air support from older propeller driven planes. The Douglas B-26 Invader of World War II vintage and the single engine Skyraider of Korean War fame were both frequently used. While slower than jet powered aircraft, these fighters seemed less vulnerable to ground fire than their counterpart jets. The Vietnam war also saw the emergence of the helicopter as a powerful military vehicle. The versatility of the helicopter provided a strong element of surprise. Infantry and artillery could be shifted in the midst of an engagement. Supply routes could be maintained in remote outposts and rapid evacuation of wounded personnel were aided by the use of "choppers". Helicopters in Vietnam also evolved into "gunships" armed with a lethal variety of automatic weapons and rockets.

As can be expected, today's modern military aircraft are prime examples of increasingly complex and sophisticated systems. Today's modern aircraft are planes such as the McDonnell Douglass F-15 Eagle. A maximum speed of Mach 2.5 makes the F-15 one of the fastest operational fighters in the world. The Lockheed F-117A stealth fighter has an arrowhead shape and wouldn't stay airborne without fly-by-wire and stability augmentation systems. Designed for low-level precision strikes the F117A has a minimal radar signature due to it's multi-faceted surfaces. The plane's surface is broken up into a myriad of small, flat segments which confuse enemy radar by scattering it at too many angles to form a clear pattern. Then there is the SR71A which can fly at an altitude of 85,000 feet at speeds of 35 miles per minute and survey a 60 mile wide swath using it's sophisticated reconnaissance sensors. Dassault-Breguers has designed an aircraft they call the Rafael. A light Mach 2 plane the Rafael is equipped with a full array of avionics, guided missiles and cannon. The Rafael also has an innovative voice-command system. Using this system the pilot speaks to the plane to control the radio, get systems updates and arm weapons.

Today we live in an era in which it can take several years for an aircraft design to evolve, and even more years on top of that to complete the necessary test and evaluation programs. By the time an aircraft is ready for operational service it is possible that the original requirement has either changed completely or disappeared altogether. It is also possible for a design to be out of date by the time it enters service since the offensive/defensive capabilities of a rival or potential enemy have evolved at a faster rate. The cost of today's aircraft have also come under close scrutiny for at times pushing into the hundreds of millions of dollars for a single plane. Despite huge costs, however, technological innovations and increasing performance levels will continue as the threat of war and national security keeps the world's military leaders looking toward the future.

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