Dayton, Aviation, and the First World War
via the National Park Service, Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park web site
Significant developments in aviation occurred across Europe and North America during the First World War. Having entered combat nearly three years before the U.S. Congress’s declaration of war in April 1917, researchers and engineers in France and Germany, especially, created important developments that transformed a fledgling industry into an important component of military operations.
Developments in aviation in the United States lagged far behind those in Europe. A battle over patent infringement between Orville Wright (and his brother Wilbur, before his death in 1912) and Glenn Curtiss, especially, held back technological development in the United States, as did a limited market for airplanes. Often costing between $5,000 and $10,000 apiece (between roughly $87,000 and $173,000 in 2015 dollars) and requiring extensive space for takeoffs and landings, only the rich and governments could afford to purchase a piece of an invention just over a decade old. Government – and specifically military – support was vital to the development of aviation throughout the world, and the course of the First World War in Europe demonstrated this.
Though they began 1914 with small air forces poorly integrated with existing branches of the military, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom were among the countries where air corps grew rapidly after Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo. As the war developed, European militaries called for increasingly specialized airplanes that could scout enemy positions, pursue enemy fighters, and bomb enemy positions, types of airplanes that did not exist before the war.
When the war began in Europe, the United States military had very few airplanes – only six airplanes, and fourteen trained pilots, were available for use. Conversely, France’s military had 260 airplanes and 171 pilots, Germany 46 airplanes and 52 pilots, and the U.K. 29 airplanes and 88 pilots. Congressional appropriations for aviation were also much lower than government appropriations in other countries. While the French parliament provided the equivalent of $7,400,000 in 1913, and the German Reichstag $5,000,000, the U.S. Congress provided a mere $125,000, less even than the $400,000 that Mexico devoted to aviation.
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