A lean quiet man pushed his way through the crowd into the open of the parade-ground at Fort Myer, and perched himself uncomfortably in the midst of bundle of sticks. A weight crashed down from the top of a derrick, and the bundle, with droning, whining propeller, was thrown into the air, and stayed there. Breath was drawn in with sharp. audible gasping, and eyes grew round in upturned faces. The impossible had happened. Orville Wright is proving to the army that he could fly.
When the air-plane had landed clumsily on its two sled-like runners, and the reporters surged around, we have record of the following queries and replies:—
'How fast can you fly?'
'Forty miles an hour.'
'How fast do you think airplanes can be made to fly?'
'Much faster. But, of course, the driver would be blown out of the machine at anything over a hundred miles an hour.'
'How high can you go?'
'High as I want to. But even in war you would never have to go over one thousand feet. No known gun could hit you at that altitude.'
'What uses can you make of your machine?'
'Sport mainly, and scouting in war.'
Of the thousands who saw that afternoon and of the millions who read of the flight next morning, probably not one had the least dim perception that a mighty power was born, a power that is already affecting the lives of every one of us, that is forcing upon us changes as vast as those forecasted when the ape-man first discovered that, by swaying erect on his bent legs, he could see his enemies and his victims farther, and have two arms free for fighting. In the immense development of a aviation forced by the war we are apt to forget the tremendous strides made in the first faltering years. As usual, figures and statistics are deceptive, performances seemed to confirm opinion of those who saw in the plane nothing but a toy and a killer. Three years after the Fort Meyer flight, it was still a remarkable performance to remain in the air for forty-five minutes, or to climb to an altitude of six or seven thousand feet. After 6 years of flying, it was still a dare-devil feat to loop an air-plane three times in one flight; and the first man to fly upside down made his name as well known as that of a champion heavy-weight, and known among much the same classes of people. Pilot after pilot was featured on the sporting pages of the newspapers as he succeeded in remaining aloft five minutes longer than the hero of the month before, reached an altitude fifty feet higher, or somersaulted his vibrating little kite once oftener. And with deadly regularity pilot after pilot was killed—his effort to find out how far he could stretch the capacity of his machine being successful.
During those years, however, clumsy skids gave place to wheels and pontoons, or actual boat-hulls; and, while planes remained rickety toys, the root-idea of every practicable type we have today was discovered and demonstrated, waiting only for some imperative necessity to force its development. Rotary and V-type motors began to appear.
Before the war began, aviation had reached the point where its future could be confidently predicted by the initiated as a matter of improvement of existing types, of betterment of existing design, rather than as a new departure. Then came the World War, with its pressing demands on air-craft designers and pilots, and its almost limitless money for experiment.
Aviation has attained in fifteen years a degree of progress which can hardly be matched by any other epoch-making invention in centuries. One hundred and eighteen years since the Clermont, one hundred and fifty since Franklin's kite, and aviation is already as advanced, relatively, as steam and electricity. John Hawkins and Francis Drake revolutionized naval warfare by fighting broadside instead of head-on, and once for all made the gun the master of surface ships; and the all-big-gun battleship, throwing a heavy broadside, is the legitimate child of Drake's weatherly little Pelican. Three hundred and sixty years were required to produce the modern battleship after Drake had shown the way; and there is yet no more difference visible than already distinguishes the army's new Verville-Packard from the original Wright airplane hanging in the National Museum at Washington. Orville Wright's forty-mile speed has become three miles a minute, and the end is not yet. His one-thousand-feet altitude has become seven miles, and there halts momentarily while we safeguard the gasoline and oil system against the bitter cold of the black upper air. His twenty-two minute, eighteen-mile endurance has become a screaming leap from continent to continent, and air-planes now cross half a world with little comment.
Similarly, the projected uses of aircraft as 'scouts' and for 'sport' have widened as greatly. Well-appointed municipal flying-fields are multiplying rapidly, but the air-plane has far outgrown the present possibilities of a sporting craft. Possible speed has become so great that a private field capable of handling the newest planes is about as inaccessible to man as a private eighteen-hole golf-links; and the only sporting air-craft that are within reach of moderate wealth are small flying boats along lake shores and landlocked bays.
A great future is claimed for airborne commerce, and the claim is, possibly, justified. At present, however, planes and dirigibles are enormously expensive, both in first cost and in upkeep in relation to durability; and the small amount of freight they can carry will for some time keep cargo and passenger rates above the bearing power of the market. The problem of commercial aviation is, nevertheless, plainly stated, and once stated, problems eventually solved. The need if for a weight-carrier of considerable durability, simple of operation and of low fuel-consumption. This is naturally an engineering problem, and the appearance of a lightweight, heavy-duty motor of 'fool-proof' design may be confidently expected sooner or later. Wings and body are already made of light, durable rustproof metal; and the commercial air-plane a generation hence will probably resemble a plump-bodied 'blanket-fish' or 'giant ray,' of slow landing speed and excessive stability—a machine as essentially a worker as a tramp steamer, too clumsy for sport, too helpless for aggressive war. The power-plant problem once solved, air-tramps will probably become as standardized as fabricated ships or Ford cars. Air-fleets will then increase so rapidly that a new difficulty will be encountered—how to spare enough valuable building-space in and around great cities to create ports of call for them. The answer will probably be found in huge high platforms covering warehouses and elevators and docks.
Precisely in the direction where utility and necessity have been found urgent, even imperative, is where we find the most complicated questions to be solved; questions as yet unformulated. Scouting in war remains and will remain a function of air-craft, but it has already been overshadowed by the crying need of them in the battle-line. Were scouting all we need, a single, standardized type would be quickly procurable—a plane of long endurance, reasonable mobility, and complete steadiness. But a machine that answers these requirements we find to be utterly useless in air-battle. It climbs slowly, it maneuvers badly, and it presents an almost unmissable target. We must have such air-planes to direct artillery are afloat and ashore, to drop bombs, to hunt submarines, to scout, to make photograph maps of distant enemy naval bases. To use them to advantage, we must, however, have reasonable certainty that they will be able to fly unmolested.
It is the old sea-problem in a new element—to exploit the air in wartime we must command it. In other words, we must fight for it. Sailors, for five thousand years, have to teach the flyer this lesson, —too often forgotten—that to use our power we must first destroy the enemy's power. An attempt merely to guard against the enemy's blow may, by extreme good fortune, succeed once or twice. Never three times. Delenda est Carthago, and to destroy we must attack, court a battle and fight it to a finish. If the enemy is stronger than we, the attack is more difficult, but more than imperative; and to a battle of weapons is added a battle of wits. We must outwit him, outmaneuver him, outshoot him; but to have even the faintest hope of victory, we must attack him, put him on the defensive—make him do the guessing and take the weight of the first blow.
Even to the layman, the necessary characteristics of the fighting air-plane are thus made apparent—speed, snake-like mobility, hitting-power. Speed and mobility mean small size and immense engine-power. If that were all, this question too would be simple. But to hit hard means weight. Carefully guarded planes now exist in every country, which can stand a great many hits from any ordinary machine-gun, and are fairly impervious in any vital spot to a glancing blow. A direct hit at present-day maximum speed is a matter of luck. Air-planes will soon carry cannon-like machine-guns—in fact, they already are carrying 37-millimetre guns and straining to attain a practicable 3-inch gun, baulked only by this matter of weight of gun and ammunition. Speed and ability to 'stunt' cannot be lessened, for the 'upper-hand' in an airfight is as important as was the weather gauge to sailing-ships.
This brings the war-plane designer up sharp against his second stumbling-block. The inherent nature of the service means that little available weight-carrying capacity is left after the pilot and his motor are aboard. That little must be given mostly to weapons. And fuel weighs something, and fuel means endurance. A line-of-battle plane that can stay aloft three hours at battle speed is a marvelous plane indeed. In battles between armies, much can be done in three hours, especially where practically the entire three hours can be spent in fighting. Afloat, it is different. Battleships to-day are to sink, and there is no victory until they are irrevocably sunk. The battle between fleets may last intermittently for days, if there is sea-room; and may conceivably commence several thousands of miles away from the bases of either belligerent. To get our battle-planes into the battle-line, we must carry them there; and so one more type is added to the complicated surface fleets of the world, a type as helpless as a collier, but one which must have great size and battle-cruiser speed—the first non-fighting auxiliary to demand admission to the fighting-line. A small ship will not do, for her landing-deck must be not-missable at sixty to eighty miles an hour. A slow ship is worse than useless, for the air-plane carrier must be swift enough to lessen materially the relative velocity of the home-coming plane by running away from her, and also to keep safely out of gunshot behind the crashing, swaying, hurrying battle-fleet that she serves and by which she is guarded.
There is a third problem upon which this matter of command of the air depends, which as yet has made little progress toward solution. It is not so much an air-plane problem as a war problem, and armies and navies have solved it at terrible cost. The present designs, even the best of them, make an air-battle a matter of individual duels and a melée, no matter how great the air-fleets participating. Tactical formation is usually possible only before battle. Once joined, battle is man to man, plane to plane, and control of a fleet by a single commander is confined to individual indoctrination and training beforehand, must often be suspended during contact, and can be resumed only after the fight is over. In other words, air-fighting tactics are the land tactics of the Trojan War, the fleet tactics of the Phoenicians. Victory depends upon supermen and supermen cannot be made to order. Eventually designers must find us a machine that can be one unit of an integral fighting fleet instead of one of a number of skillful duelists.
The underlying necessities of this problem have been made plain by the history of war on land and sea. The manner of applying them to the air has not been found. The root of the matter is that in its infancy every know weapon, from a bare-handed man to a machine-gun, fights dead ahead. Eve and blow are directed against the nearest enemy directly in front. The first soldiers, the first ships, and the present air-planes have one thing in common—they fight 'bows on,' have no time to watch for signals from their commanders, and no space on either side to obey a command of movement without hindering their comrades. Edward III formed his bowmen into thin lines, presented the broadside of these formations to the enemy, and inaugurated controlled volley-fire. Man for man, the chivalry of France fully equaled that of England, and greatly outnumbered it but no Roland, no Bayard, could advise against the disciplined storm of arrows speeding on their deadly errand at the word of the single commanding brain of the English army. England, too, disciplined Spain at sea by the same principle. The Great Armada was admirably handled, with consummate seamanship and in strict accord with the naval science of centuries; but its tactics were bows-on, ship to crush ship with a ramming to reduce her by hand-to-hand fighting on her shattered decks. The English relied on broadside gunfire and handiness. Every phase of that drawn-out battle shows a gallant attack bows-on by the Spaniards in line abreast, met by a single line of close hauled English ships entirely under the control of a single mind, raking ship after ship with the full weight of their superior broadside guns.
On land and at sea, fighting is in one plane, however; so broadside fire, with its advantages of maneuvering and concentration of fire and controllability, is soluble. A flying-machine fighting broadside to the enemy has not been found, for the enemy will probably never be exactly on our level. We must find a ship which can fight broadside up and down, as well as on either beam.
Command of the air once gained, the steady improvement of existing types will serve to explouit it to the discomfiture of the enemy. Torpedo-carrying airplanes will harass his surface ships; spotting-planes will enable us to crush him with gunfire before he can so much as see us; bombers can destroy his train and cripple his capital ships with explosive gas.
Command of the air—this is the vital problem of military aviationl and in its wake arises problems and necessities in the path of every activity ashore or afloat. To armies and to cities it brings the necessity of bomb-shelters that will not fill up with poison-gas, and of accuarate anti-air-craft batteries. To battleships, still panting from the long struggle to make themselves reasonably immune to torpedoes under water, it brings the new necessity to grow a tough turtle-back impervious to torpedoes from the air, and to rake the open funnels horizontally, or astern, in order that their gaping apertures may offer now chance for a luckily-dropped bomb to wreck their vitals, and also to screen the glow of their boilers, now plainly visible from the air on the darkest night. It makes imperative a still undiscovered gas-mask, in which soldiers, sailors, yes, and civillians, may live and work, for long periods. It is forcing upon the submarine a new method of underwater propulsion, yet to be found; for an exploding bomb far outboard will cripple the present electric engine and force the submarine to the surface, where she becomes easy prey to bomb and shell.
Eight years of devoted, perilous, quiet work; seven years of feverish development—that is the history of aviation; and it is to-day probably the most far-reaching existing influence on future history. Gone forever are the sickly, thirsting expeditionary columns, which in the past have punished raiding savages in the jungles and deserts of the world at hideous cost. A few men, a few air-planes, a few days, and the chastisement is complete. Gone is the immunity of colliers and repair-ships lagging in the wake of the sea-borne fleets; arid gone is the safety of the island cities.
In fifteen years aviation has superposed itself upon civilization. Its future is limitless, not predictable. It is daily demonstrating its ability to extend the scope of our economic fabric to lengths undreamed of, and in ways which were but yesterday fantastic dreams. And it has already proved its power to destroy utterly the world as we have built it; has forced us to take sober and urgent thought as to how this mighty and as yet irresponsible force may be subordinated to the common good. The industrial changes following the introduction of steam and electrical machinery are trifling and infinitesimal in comparison with those already following in the wake of mankind's new-found ability to fly.
The future of all the world is in the air—a future either glorious or terrible. Your generation and mine will decide which it shall be.