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.