Wrights’ Perspective on the Role of Airplanes in War

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in The Military Airplane

We are now at war and the airplane has already played a significant role in the war on terrorism. This article will look at what the inventors of the airplane, the Wright Brothers, had to say about the role of airplanes in war.

The Wrights Involvement in Warplanes

In 1909, the Wright Brothers sold the first airplane to the U.S. Army. The contract included training pilots. In the beginning, the primary role of the airplane in wartime was for observation. Before 1915, when Orville (Wilbur died in 1912) left the Wright Company, the company had sold a total of fourteen airplanes to the Army.

The notion that the airplane would put an end to war was widely held at the time. Dayton’s Mayor Edward Burkhart characterized this attitude during his presentation of medals to the Wright brothers during Dayton’s celebration of their accomplishments in June 1909.

“With the perfect development of the airplane, wars will be only an incident of past ages.”

A float in the parade that followed the presentations sponsored by the West Side Business Men’s Association, reiterated this theme with a banner that was emblazoned with the message: “The Wright Brothers Invention Should Prevent Further Wars And Insure Peace”

Not everyone shared this belief. One was Lt. Frank Lahm. Lt. Lahm was influential in arranging Orville’s 1908 trials at Fort Myer, Va. The month after the Dayton’s Celebration, Lt. Lahm was the passenger with Orville when he set a world record of one hour and 12-minutes for two-person flight at Ft. Myer. In October he was one of two officers trained to be a pilot by Orville.

Lt Lahm promoted flight to his superiors in the Army as “unquestionably having considerable military value.” He retired in 1941 as a Brigadier General one week before Pearl Harbor’s vivid demonstration of flight’s military capabilities.

In 1911, Lieutenant Henry H. “Hap” Arnold learned to fly at the Wright Flying School in Dayton. He rose to the rank of five-star general and commanded the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II and later served as the first Chief of Staff of the newly created U.S. Air Force.

Roy Brown was another pilot that trained at the Wright Flying school. He was officially credited for shooting down Captain Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron, who had 80 confirmed kills in WW I. Brown, a Canadian, wanted to join the Royal Naval Air Service after graduating from high school. One of their requirements was you needed a pilot’s certificate.

He found that the only pilot school in Canada was already full, so his father paid for his training at the Wright Brothers’ school in Dayton, Ohio. The cost was $250 for 240 minutes in the air, plus living expenses that could total $600 in 1915. He received his license, number 361 on November 15, 1915.

In early 1917, a group of Dayton’s businessmen formed the Dayton Wright Airplane Company with the intention of creating a sport of aeronautics. Orville was appointed a director and consulting engineer.

On April 6, America declared war on Germany. The objective of the fledgling company now changed from the manufacture of a few sport planes to the mass production of airplanes for combat. The company received a large contract from the government to build the British de Haviland DH-4 airplane.

Orville was commissioned a major in the Aviation Section of the Signal Officers Reserve Corps. He was assigned to work with the engineers at Dayton Wright.

Orville’s Thoughts

Orville’s thoughts about the transformation were revealed in a letter dated June 21, 1917 to C. H. Hitchcock in response to an aircraft program laid out by the Aircraft Production Board:

“When my brother and I built and flew the first man-carrying flying machine, we thought we were introducing into the world an invention which would make further wars practically impossible. That we were not alone in this thought is evidenced by the fact that the French Peace Society presented us with medals on account of our invention. We thought governments would realize the impossibility of winning by surprise attacks, and that no country would enter into war with another of equal size when it knew that it would have to win by simply wearing out the enemy.”

Orville went on to give his recommendations of what to do now that America was at war.

“Nevertheless, the world finds itself in the greatest war in history. Neither side has been able to win on account of the part the aeroplane has played. Both sides know exactly what the other is doing. The two sides are apparently nearly equal in aerial equipment, and it seems to me that unless present conditions can be changed, the war will continue for years.

However, if the Allies’ armies are equipped with such a number of aeroplanes as to keep the enemy planes entirely back of the line, so that they are able to direct gun-fire or to observe the movement of the Allied troops-in other words, if the enemy’s eyes can be put out – it will be possible to end the war. This is taking into account what might be done by bombing German sources of munition supplies, such as Essen (Krupp Works), which is only about one hundred and fifty miles behind the fighting lines. But to end the war quickly and cheaply, the supremacy in the air must be complete as to entirely blind the enemy.”

Orville’s intention was to promote the concept that the Allies could break the deadlock on the ground by using the airplane to gain control of the air. He believed that the stalemate between the two large armies was the result of the effectiveness of the airplane for observation.

In a letter of August 1, 1917 to Frank Harris, a magazine editor he amplified his ideas:

“An attempt to destroy the Krupp works at Essen could be undertaken successfully only in the case the Allies have a preponderance of fighting aeroplanes, so that the machine carrying bombs could be safely conveyed. I have never been a strong advocate of bombing from aeroplanes. I certainly would not like to see the Allies adopt the German’s barbarous policy of dropping bombs among the civilians where no military advantage is to be gained.”

Note: The Krupp factory developed a giant, 43-ton howitzer, which could deliver a 2,200 pound shell more than 9 miles. The weapon was called “Big Berths” after Gustav Krupp’s wife.)

Orville continued, ” In order to make bombing from aeroplanes effective, a vast number of planes would be required, and these well protected, so that the bombs could be dropped from a comparatively low height. Bombs dropped from a height of two miles or more rarely hit even near the mark for which they are intended.”

Orville’s comments received much attention in the New York Times and were the most authoritative appraisal of the strategic use of air power at the time.

World War I ended on November 11, 1919. In a letter to a well wisher, Orville commented:

“The aeroplane has made war so terrible that I do not believe any country will again care to start a war.”

Before the war ended, there were fighters, observation planes, and multi-engine bombers which could carry thousands of pounds of bombs. The Allies launched some 200,000 planes, the Germans 1/3 as many. The Allies also suffered 3 times the air casualties.

At the beginning of World War II, Orville still hoped that the airplane would be an instrument of peace. In a letter to Henry Ford of April 22, 1942, Orville wrote:

“I quite agree with you that the aeroplane will be our main reliance in restoring peace to the World.”

In a letter of September 7, 1943 to Edward D. Smith, an executive with NCR Corporation, he wrote:

“It was air power that made such a terrible war possible, but it also is air power that we will have to depend upon to stop it.”

President Truman honored Orville with the Award of Merit for distinguished service to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics during the World War II.

On the occasion of his seventy-fourth birthday, Orville’s life-long optimism about the role of the airplane as an instrument of peace began to fade. In an answer to a friend, Lester Gardner, of August 28, 1946, Orville wrote:

“I once thought the aeroplane would end wars. I now wonder whether the aeroplane and the atomic bomb can do it. It seems that ambitious rulers will sacrifice the lives and property of all their people to gain a little personal fame.”

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