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Military Aviation: Key Innovations

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 |

Wright Brothers Biplane

While the Wrights may not have invented flight -- other powered aircraft had taken short hops before the Kitty Hawk flight of 1903 -- they certainly invented flying. Their master accomplishment was to develop the techniques for controlling an airplane: using a primitive wind tunnel of their own design, they calculated the forces that their Wright Flyer would have to overcome in order to stay airborne, and the means (a properly pitched propeller and wings that could be twisted to steer the plane) to do it.

Like the inventors of other groundbreaking military technologies, the Wrights were naively convinced that their invention would make war obsolete. Given the fact that airplanes could prevent surprise attacks, they believed no sane government would be willing to send its troops into battle.

The Rotary Engine

One of the biggest problems that early airplane designers had to overcome was the sheer weight of the available engines; heavy steel radiators and the water within severely hampered performance. In 1908, French engineers hit upon a solution: the rotary engine, which used spinning cylinders that were cooled by the passing air and didn't require liquid coolant. The first rotary airplane engine produced a then quite respectable 50 horsepower and was so comparatively small and light that it was named the Gnome.

Airborne Cameras

Once the German and Allied armies settled into great lines of trenches, and cavalry became useless in World War I, the airplane began to prove itself as an essential source of reconnaissance. At Neuve Chapelle in March 1915, the British based their battle plan on aerial surveillance and photographs. Early cameras were heavy and unwieldy; they took their images on glass plates, which were brought back to a mobile lab and developed. Taking airborne photos was one of the most dangerous jobs of the war; the airplane had to fly straight and level, presenting an easy target for ground fire.

Synchronized Machine Guns

As airplanes became armies' "eyes in the sky," the obvious question arose: How to blind the enemy? Early combat pilots tried shotguns, bombs, and fixed machine guns with little success. The easiest way to aim at another target was to point the entire airplane at it -- but how do you fire a machine gun from the front without shooting off your own propeller? The answer: synchronize the firing of the gun to the movement of the blades. In Anthony Fokker's original design, a series of pistons prevented the machine gun from firing when the blades were in front of it. When the system was mounted on the Fokker Eindecker, it was transformed into the first true fighter plane.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 |

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When to Watch

Parts One and Two air: Wed, Nov. 8th, 9-11pm
Parts Three and Four air: Wed, Nov. 15, 9-11pm
Check your local listings.

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