World War I in the air

Here’s some fascinating footage of actual World War I aircraft and missions, provided by the Australian War Memorial.  It’s silent, so don’t bother adjusting your speakers.  They’ve also adjusted the speed of the film, so that instead of the usual jerky, flickering playback, it’s more the smooth rendition we’re accustomed to today.

I’m sure none of those pictured are still alive.  It’s sobering to think that a hundred years ago, our grandfathers and great-grandfathers were risking their lives in flimsy wood-and-canvas machines like that.  What’s even more astonishing, my wife’s aircraft (dating to 1941) is built with a similar fabric skin, although much of its frame is aluminum.  Things hadn’t progressed all that far between the world wars.

When my father trained as an Aircraft Apprentice in the Royal Air Force in the late 1930’s, he was taught to work on aircraft very similar to those shown above.  He told me once how astonished he was to be told that the Spitfire had a metal skin, rather than ‘doped‘ fabric.  When he first saw that fighter, he rapped on the side with his knuckles to confirm that it was, in fact, metal – and was promptly reprimanded for making a noise!  (As a matter of fact, even the Spitfire used fabric-covered ailerons and other control surfaces in its early versions.)

It took the concentrated aerial combat of World War II, which forced massive experimentation and innovation, to kick-start aviation into what it became post-war.



  1. There was an amazing WWI air show in Dayton last fall. Lots of reproduction WWI aircraft powered by car engines, flying around, engaging in mock dogfights, etc. Amazing to think so many men got into those rickety things, with even less reliable engines, and braved what they did. I suppose it was less miserable than the trenches, but looking at the death tolls as a percentage it is still quite horrifying. It must have took a lot of guts to fly those planes, and even more to fly them in combat.

  2. I met a WW1 Royal Flying Corps SE5A pilot many years ago at the annual Battle of Britain display on Horseguards Parade in London. They had a preserved SE5A there, and he was bitterly disappointed that the guards wouldn't let him near it. I wish I'd been able to find an officer to let him past the barriers, but I was only a young boy so probably wouldn't have been believed anyway when I said there was a spectator who'd flown SE5As.
    Cheers, John

  3. Most have forgotten that the first use of aircraft in combat, the first use of trucks for transportation and the first use of radio in combat was during the Mexican campaign in 1914. Most of these firsts didn't amount to much due to many problems. Pershing learned a lot from his experiences in Mexico and applied the lessons to the equipment and tactics we used in WW1. As a side note, George Patton was a LT in that campaign and firing revolvers from the back of a Dodge Command Car, charged a villa and captured rebel officers. Fascinating campaign.

  4. I have a copy of my maternal grandfather's discharge as a 2Lt. from the U.S. Army Air Service February 23, 1919 at Camp Dix. I am told that he was a flight instructor in France and that he "flew Spads'.
    I would be grateful for any suggestions as to where to look for more info.

    BTW, I was discharged from the Army 16 February, 1977 at Fort Dix.

  5. The owner of the field I learned to fly at owned a Jenny, which he would fly annually at the antique fly-in. Thing just hung in the air the way Bricks don't. Amazing thing to see.

  6. Maternal Grandfather was in the Air Service at Remoratin (sp?) France. He took a lot of photos which we prize.
    Boat Guy

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