It wasn’t long after the invention of the airplane in 1903 that military planners began exploring how to put the new-fangled flying machines to work in warfare. Within seven years of the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, an American military officer by the name of Jacob Earl Fickel went down in history as the first person to shoot a gun from an airplane. That same year, the French aircraft manufacturer Voisin was fitting an experimental aircraft with machine guns.
By 1911, Italians were dropping bombs from their small fleet of rickety aircraft onto their Turkish enemies. More bombs would be dropped in the First Balkan War when the Bulgarians bombarded the Turks again from the air.
By the outbreak of the First World War in the summer of 1914, most of the world’s major military powers had air services that they would begin by using mostly for areal reconnaissance. Yet, these early pilots would soon get their first taste of combat.
Within days of the start of the war, French, British and German pilots quickly found themselves sharing the same airspace in their slow-flying observation planes. Initially, opposing fliers exchanged only waves, smiles and other friendly greetings.  Such pleasantries didn’t last long. By the autumn of 1914, reconnaissance pilots were opting instead to harass enemy planes and force them from the skies by any means possible. Some pilots hurled bricks at opposing aircraft; others tried grenades. Many threw segments of rope onto their foes in hopes it might tangle in the propellor forcing the enemy machine from the sky. Pilots also began carrying hand guns and carbines and soon were mounting light machine guns on their aircraft. Ironically, the pilot who claimed the first confirmed air to air kill in history used his own plane as a weapon.
On Aug. 25, 1914, a Russian flier by the name of Captain Pyotr Nesterov rammed his Moraine Saulnier Type G aircraft into an Austrian Albatross B. Both planes were lost. Most likely Nesterov was trying to damage the enemy aircraft with his own landing gear, but the two planes collided, became entangled and fell from the sky. Both Nesterov and the Austrian flier died. Britain’s first air combat victory came that same day, when two Avro 504 pilots forced a German Etrich Taube monoplane down into a field near Mons. The German pilot leapt from his machine and fled on foot into a nearby forest evading capture. On Oct. 5, a French pilot named Louis Quenault would be the first to actually shoot down an enemy plane in mid air with a blast of gunfire.
While the term “dogfight” wouldn’t be coined until the end of the First World War, these early hostile encounters were the first aerial duels in history. Dogfights would soon be raging daily throughout the skies of Europe. Many of the principles of air to air combat still in use today were improvised on the fly (literally) by pilots who were making it up as they went along. It was all very much hit and miss, so to speak.
In mid 1915, a French pilot named Adolphe Pégoud became the first flier to score five confirmed air-to-air victories. The French press christened him a flying “ace”. The term caught on and soon other countries were announcing their own aces. Lance Hawker became the Royal Flying Corps’ first ace in August of 1915. Oswald Boelcke was the first to score five kills for Germany. By 1916, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Australia, Canada, and Italy all had their own aces. And while the United States was still neutral, an American pilot serving with the British, Frederick Libby, became his country’s first flying ace.
Experiencing Technical Difficulties
These first forays into air combat weren’t only a challenge to the pilots due to the fragile nature of the planes themselves. Because of the front-mounted airplane propellers, fliers had no way to fire machine guns accurately from the pilot’s seat without blasting away their own prop blades. Aircrew tried mounting guns on the upper wing deck, which made it difficult to line up targets. And standing up in a pitching and rolling aircraft while aiming down the barrel of a top-wing mounted machine gun presented all sorts of risks. To alleviate this, British engineers reverted to earlier aircraft designs featuring rear-mounted propellers. While this solved the problem of the forward-firing machine gun, these “pusher” planes like the British Airco DH.2 were less agile, slower and even more fragile than other aircraft.
A French flier Roland Garros came up with a novel method of mounting a gun that could fire through the propeller. He had each prop blade on his plane fitted with a metal wedge that would deflect bullets away. While, many of the gun’s bullets would be swatted aside by theses deflectors, enough rounds would supposedly still make it through to hit the enemy. In April of 1915, Garros brought down his first German aircraft using the technology.
By July of that year, the Germans pioneered new “interrupter gear”, technology that linked a plane’s guns to the engines so that the weapons were synchronized to only shoot between the spinning blades. In July, a German flier scored his first kill using the equipment. The breakthrough along with an surge of new higher-performance purpose-built air-to-air fighter aircraft like the Fokker E.1 monoplane enabled the Germans to control the skies over the Western Front in the latter half of the year. It was a period known as the Fokker Scourge.
True Air Warfare Emerges
In late 1915, the British and French had recovered German interrupter gear from captured aircraft and reverse engineered the technology. By 1916, this and new fighter aircraft like the Nieuport 11 allowed the Allies to steal control of the skies from the Luftstreitkrafte. It would see-saw back and forth for the remainder of the conflict.
By that point, the air war was expanding and both sides were devising and experimenting with increasingly sophisticated air combat tactics, formations and maneuvers. No longer was military aviation the sole domain of a handful of daredevils and mavericks — air training schools were producing hundreds of new pilots each month. What’s more, thousands of planes were rolling off production lines. The air over Europe was becoming more and more crowded — and more and more deadly.
By 1918, sturdier, more reliable planes were reaching speeds of nearly 200 kms/h, could reach altitudes of up to 20,000 feet and featured agility unheard of only a few years before.
The Fokker D VII, introduced in May of 1918, is cited as being one of the most maneuverable fighters of the war; Britain’s Sopwith Camel was considered the fastest.
Britain, which started with barely 80 planes on the Western Front, finished the war with 22,000 aircraft. More than 6,000 British fliers died in the war, either in combat or through accidents. The Royal Flying Corps lost up to 1,000 aircraft during the Spring 1918 offensive alone. Germany lost 8,000 aircrew and 3,000 planes in the war. France lost 5,500 fliers in the war.
While costly, the campaign for the skies over Europe ushered in an entire new paradigm of warfare — air-to-air combat.