World War I Centennial: Mounting Machine Guns on Airplanes

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 20th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

June 7, 1912: Mounting Machine Guns on Airplanes

Of all the new weapons systems coming on line in the years leading up to the Great War, the newest – and most open-ended – was the airplane. The airplane’s potential military applications seemed endless, but it still faced legions of skeptics and any number of technical issues before it could become a useful part of the modern arsenal.

One of the most basic technical obstacles, a lack of weaponry, was overcome on June 7, 1912, when Capt. Charles De Forest Chandler demonstrated a machine gun mounted on an airplane in a brief flight at the Army Aviation School in College Park, Maryland. As his pilot, Lieutenant Thomas De Witt Milling, made several passes over the field at 50 miles per hour, Chandler fired a gun mounted on a swiveling turret at a cloth target on the ground, scoring hits with 45 out of 50 rounds.

The so-called “Lewis Gun,” named for its inventor, Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac N. Lewis of the U.S. Army Coast Artillery Corps, could discharge over a dozen 50-round magazines in a minute, and solved several problems that had prevented the incorporation of earlier machine gun models into airplanes. It was light enough to be carried aloft by the low-powered aircraft of the day; it didn’t produce as much flame, which posed an obvious threat to aircraft made mostly of wood and fabric; and it didn’t generate as much recoil, which could literally knock the plane’s engine out of gear or shake the fragile airframe apart.

The implications weren’t lost on military observers or the reporters who were invited to witness the demonstration. The Brooklyn Eagle pointed to the “great possibilities of fleets of aeroplanes loaded with these rapid-fire guns soaring over a column of the enemy’s troops. The potential results of swooping aircraft, armed to the teeth with death-dealing bullets, are staggering…”

The success of this experiment made many military types uneasy. For one thing, anti-aircraft defense were primitive to say the least, meaning ships and ground forces were vulnerable until someone figured out how to effectively target fast-moving planes far above the battlefield. The Brooklyn Eagle summed up these anxieties: “Is it possible that the air is to harbor the greatest destructive forces in modern warfare? There seems nothing to prevent it.”

The advent of armed airplanes also presaged air-to-air combat – the “dogfights” of the impending Great War – which meant that the brief era of unarmed, single airplanes being used as scouts was over. Henceforth all warplanes would have to be armed or escorted by other armed aircraft, regardless of their mission.

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June 7, 2012 - 5:24pm
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