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Planes and Wars

The airplane, like many other milestone inventions throughout history, was not immediately recognized for its potential. During the very early 1900s, prior to World War I (1914-1918), the airplane was relegated mostly to the county-fair circuit, where daredevil pilots drew large crowds but few investors. One exception was the United States War Department, which as early as 1898 had expressed an interest in heavier-than-air craft. In 1908 the Wrights demonstrated their airplane to the U.S. Army's Signal Corps at Fort Myer, Virginia. In September of that year, while circling the field at Fort Myer, Orville crashed while carrying an army observer, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge. Selfridge died from his injuries and became the first fatality from the crash of a powered airplane.

The army, which had long been using balloons to observe the battlefield, recognized the possibilities presented by the airplane. During World War I, the development of the airplane accelerated dramatically. European designers such as the Dutch-American engineer Anthony Herman Fokker and the French engineer Louis Blériot exploited basic concepts created by the Wrights, and developed ever-faster, more-capable, and deadlier combat airplanes. Biplane designs of Fokker, such as the D-VII and D-VIII flown by German pilots, were considered superior to their Allied competition. In 1915 Fokker mounted a machine gun with a timing gear so that the gun could fire between the rotating propellers. The resulting Fokker Eindecker monoplane fighter was, for a time, the most successful fighter in the skies.

The biplane, with its double-decker wings, reached the peak of its development during the 1920s and 1930s, but was eventually overtaken by a design known as the monoplane. A monoplane, as the name suggests, has only one main wing, which gives it great advantages in speed, simplicity, and visibility for the pilot. Monoplanes had been flown as early as 1909 by Blériot, whose Blériot XI craft was built in large numbers, and in which he crossed the English Channel on July 25, 1909.
Blériot's channel crossing made clear to the world the airplane's wartime potential, and this potential was further demonstrated in 1910 and 1911, when the American pilot Eugene Ely took off from and landed on warships. In 1911 the U.S. Army used a Wright brothers' biplane to make the first live bomb test from an airplane. That same year, the airplane was used in its first wartime operation when an Italian captain flew over and observed Turkish positions during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-1912. Also in 1911, the American inventor and aviator Glenn Curtiss introduced the first practical seaplane. This was a biplane with a large float beneath the center of the lower wing, and two smaller floats beneath the tips of the lower wing.

The year 1913 became known as the "glorious year of flying." Aerobatics, or acrobatic flying, was introduced, and upside-down flying, loops, and other stunts proved the maneuverability of airplanes. Long-distance flights made in 1913 included a 4000-km (2500-mi) flight from France to Egypt, with many stops, and the first nonstop flight across the Mediterranean Sea, from France to Tunisia. In Britain, a modified Farnborough B.E. 2 proved itself to be the first naturally stable airplane in the world. The B.E. 2c version of this airplane was so successful that nearly 2000 were subsequently built.

During World War I, outstanding early British fighters included the Sopwith Pup (1916) and the Sopwith Camel (1917), which flew as high as 5800 m (19,000 ft) and had a top speed of 190 km/h (120 mph). Notable French fighters included the Spad (1916) and the Nieuport 28 (1918).

By the end of World War I, both sides had fighters that could fly at altitudes of 7600 m (25,000 ft) and speeds up to 250 km/h (155 mph). The concentrated research and development made necessary by wartime pressures had resulted in great progress in airplane construction.

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