Early aviation

A host of problems involved the early aircraft. There was very little standardization, and handling the machines in flight was tricky enough without the added complication of significant differences in controls. For example, the early Curtiss machines had a foot throttle that operated much like modern automobiles.

In contrast, the Wright machines reversed the process. Needless to say, pilots used to flying one machine were in for a surprise when they took a different model into the air, even after being trained on such differences. Pilots had to learn the tricky methods of controlling both the flow of fuel and the mixture of fuel and air by manipulating several controls, typically located at opposite sides of the pilot’s position. To make matters worse, Wright machines continued to pump fuel at a steady rate even when the pilot reduced the throttle on landing. The excess fuel was pumped out through a tube and then collected in an open pan near the pilot’s feet. It was not uncommon for Wright-built planes to land with a fire blazing in the pan, and ground personnel were positioned to extinguish the flames once the machine had come to a stop.

There was also the problem of reliability. In one incident, Lt. Thomas Selfridge was a passenger on a flight with Orville Wright when a crack in the right propeller caused the plane to crash, seriously injuring Wright and killing Selfridge, making him the Army’s first aviation fatality. Even as aircraft advanced in capability and construction, they sometimes became victims of forces totally unknown to their designers and operators. Occasionally an aircraft, for no known reason, would simply come apart in level flight, typically with fatal results. Engine failure was common as well, and many pilots became adept at “dead stick” landings in aircraft whose engines had seized on them. Early Army training recognized this problem and established training requirements for pilots to be able to land such stricken machines, especially important as none of them wore parachutes.

An additional challenge was in the design and construction of aircraft. These machines were new, and while engineers had an essential understanding about aerodynamics, they had never ventured before into building flying machines. Indeed, many of the early manufacturers of aircraft, both in the United States and abroad, were companies involved in radically different projects other than aviation. Prior to building airplanes, the Wright brothers made bicycles. Glenn Curtiss, who went on to be the key founder of the American aviation industry, built bicycles and motorcycles, and had even set a world land speed record of over 136 mph on a motorcycle of his own design. The Grand Rapids Airplane Company had previously built furniture. Other companies that turned to aviation had produced a vast array of products prior to entering the world of aeronautics, manufacturing such items as railroad rolling stock, automobiles and industrial machinery. Engineers used to earth-bound products were at times baffled by their encounters with aerodynamics. The early days of powered flight were such a novelty that it was not uncommon for an engineer to design and build a prototype, take it to a recently laid out airfield, and then ask an enterprising individual to climb in and fly this latest creation. In doing so, more experienced pilots immediately took the new plane for a “hop,” taking it down the grass field until they could just get it off the ground to determine its airworthiness. Once it was known the machine could actually get airborne, the pilot would repeat the takeoff, this time pulling the aircraft completely into the air. Yet despite such precautions, numerous pilots died at the controls of untested aircraft that either came apart in the air or became uncontrollable for inexplicable reasons.

This is not to imply that engineers were totally daft or without any understanding regarding aerodynamics. After all, they were engineers and most were quite capable at what they did. Nevertheless, when designing the new machines for flight, many based their design concepts partly on a form of intuition and whether or not the aircraft was “eye-able.” If an aircraft looked good and had neat lines it was assumed that it would be a good machine in the air. The British-made BE-2c two-seater was just such an aircraft, and yet proved to be terrible in combat. Already obsolete when it appeared in strength in 1915, it was still being flown as late as 1917, and many pilots and observers lost their lives at its controls. In addition, some engineers simply did not understand the needs of combat aviators and did not even bother to ask. The design of the British DH-4 was accomplished without discussing its merits with pilots, and yet was chosen by the budding U.S. Army Air Service to be its primary combat two-seater. The DH-4 was an overall good aircraft, but the designers placed the observer too far away from the pilot so as to balance the load and give the observer a better field of fire for his guns. Since two-seaters were typically slower and less maneuverable than the single-seat pursuit fighters, the observer was provided with one or two machine guns to ward off attacking airplanes. Communication between the pilot and observer was critical for success in aerial combats and without having any type of intercom system it was important for the two crew members to be close to each other, for the noise of flight and combat could easily drown out the shouts of the observer. In this respect, the DH-4 proved a failure and suffered accordingly in battle. In a single action involving four American DH-4s, all were shot down with six crew members killed and two taken prisoner. One of those captured was a certain Lt. Charles Codman, who would later serve as Gen. George S. Patton Jr.’s World War II aide. Combat experience and the input from seasoned pilots would be necessary to sharpen the perspective of the engineers so as to provide more combat capable aircraft.

Aircraft construction on both sides of the Atlantic was more of a craft than a process of mass production. The moving assembly line had just been developed by Henry Ford and his team in 1913, but it would take considerable time before other manufacturers would copy the process.

In the United States, the management principles of Frederick Winslow Taylor, stressing scientific efficiency at the expense of social interaction among a workforce, were known but largely ignored by many companies that already saw manufacturing as becoming too depersonalized. Therefore, airplanes were assembled from the ground up in static workshops of various sizes. In countries like France, a land populated with a large number of woodworking craftsmen, this was not as serious. But other nations encountered production problems from the start. Aircraft were composed of essentially two major components: the airframe and the engine. In the United States, industry managed to churn out a large number of the newly designed indigenous Liberty engines; assembling airframes was another matter. Not only was it necessary to develop the handcraft skills to build these, they also required key raw materials, especially spruce. The most ready source for spruce trees was in the Pacific Northwest, and the federal government in essence took control of the logging industry so as to rapidly ramp up harvesting and milling. Nevertheless, it was no easy process as there was already a worldwide shortage of spruce and other suitable wood for aircraft construction. As a consequence, airframe production in the United States lagged considerably.

As the United States entered World War I, the initial aviation plan was to “fill the sky with aircraft.” Ambitious and breathtaking in scope, the preliminary goal was to field more than 40,000 machines in just over a year. However, once production started reality set in, and the public, awed by the initial predictions were downcast and resentful when they began to hear the truth. Accusations were hurled, especially regarding war profiteering by some American companies. The extent of this profiteering, suspected in 1918, would not be fully known until 15 years later when Sen. Gerald Nye of North Dakota held 93 hearings that revealed how ugly such profiteering was. Despite such accusations, it only made sense for profiteers to produce more aircraft if possible. After all, more aircraft produced would lead to greater profits. And yet American industry just could not catch up to produce the aircraft needed, largely due to their complexity and labor-intensive construction. Handcrafting was one bottleneck, but overall cost was another.

A typical two-seater near the end of World War I, having more than 50,000 parts, required 4,000 hours of labor to assemble. The cost to build such machines was quite staggering, especially to procure the types of engines needed. The British Rolls Royce Eagle and American Liberty, both premier power plants by 1918, cost $7,000-8,000 1918-dollars apiece at a time when Ford was selling his Model T automobile for $400. More common engines, such as the Clerget rotary used in the Sopwith Camel, or the Hispano-Suiza used in the SE-5a, fetched about $4,500. Airframes, without the instruments or armament, typically cost about the same as the engine. As a consequence, in 1918 the standard Sopwith Camel airframe and engine went for around $250,000 current U.S. dollars. Two Vickers machine guns and instrumentation could easily add another $100,000 to the price package, making the typical World War I fighting aircraft a very costly machine indeed. To put this in some perspective, an aviation buff today can purchase a typical single-seat World War I aircraft kit, minus the armament, for around $7,500 to $15,000, while a fully assembled machine might cost a little over $40,000. Thus a World War I era aircraft, such as the Sopwith Camel, cost almost eight times what they can be built for today.

On the eve of what was to become known then as “The Great War,” the Army and Navy could field less than 20 aircraft. In contrast, the six great powers in the war (France, Great Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Russia) could deploy a total of more than 750 serviceable machines. Lacking funding and commitment by Army and civilian leaders, those few pilots who persevered at this time were true pioneers, as they not only grappled with the laws of physics but struggled with the even then bewildering nature of government bureaucracy and financing. When the nation declared war on Imperial Germany and her allies in April 1917, it would take a Herculean effort to apply American know-how and manpower to the war in the air, a war that other nations had already been fighting for almost three years.

Editor’s note: Part 3 of this four-part series will recall how Soldiers and support personnel would strive to put wings to the nation’s war effort and bring to fruition the dream of Army aviation.

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