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The Evolution of Air Power

Jeffrey Syken

In 1905 – nearly three years after the Wright Brothers flew four successful controlled, powered flights near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17th 1903, Wilbur Wright was asked: What was the purpose of flying machines? He responded with just one word: War.

As far as the United States Army was concerned, the airplane was unnecessary since they already had observation balloons and what else would flying machines be good for except observation? But the Wrights were persistent and some enlightened army officers saw the potential for powered flight. Thus, by 1908 the Wright Brothers had their first army contract. Their Wright Flyer fulfilled the terms of the contract by flying for over one hour at a sustained speed of forty-two mph. In the years before America’s entry into WWI (April 1917), airplane technology steadily advanced and the outbreak of the war in Europe (August 1914) accelerated aviation technology many fold.

At first, the airplane had the limited role of observation for both the allied and central powers – just as the military purists had foreseen. On observation flights, the opposing pilots would, at first, wave to each other. As the war progressed, waves turned to pistol shots and with the addition of machine guns, the aerial dogfight was born. Though primitive, the potential of war in the third dimension – the air, was fully realized during WWI. The years between the world wars saw the steady advancement of aviation technology culminating at the end of WWII with jet aircraft. The cold war hastened even greater advancements resulting in the breaking of the sound barrier and space flight. Wilbur Wright may have been prophetic in his vision.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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