Military flight

The use of aircraft for the purposes of warfare and national defense.


At the beginning of the twentieth century, despite vastly increased firepower and mobility, armies were still tied to the ground, and strategists thought in terms of smashing enemy defenses through sending literally millions of soldiers against them. The development of military aircraft in the twentieth century changed the nature of warfare, which could now be waged more rapidly and more destructively than ever before. Beginning in World War I and continuing at an ever-increasing pace, military aircraft have performed many functions, including reconnaissance and spotting; the bombing of military and civilian targets; aerial combat and protection for bombers; providing support for ground troops; causing disruption of enemy logistical movement; and, perhaps most important, threatening to deliver weapons of mass destruction in the nuclear age. The twentieth century has been marked by the extremely rapid evolution of more efficient and effective aircraft designs and types, ranging from the slow and awkward biplanes of World War I to the highly sophisticated spy satellites of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Pioneering Efforts: 1861-1918

The age of military aircraft began with the use of balloons to gather information on enemy positions. Although military strategists experimented with balloons during the wars of the French Revolution (1792-1802), the first systematic attempt to use balloons in warfare was made during the American Civil War (1861-1865). A new era in warfare dawned on July 31, 1861, in Virginia, when Union general Benjamin Butler sent John LaMountain above the nearby Confederate lines in a balloon. LaMountain, who before the war had achieved fame by sailing more than 1,000 miles in a balloon, reported that the rebel defenses were less strong as Union commanders believed. Although both armies during the Civil War periodically, but often ineffectively, used balloons for reconnaissance and to direct artillery fire, air power did not seriously challenge the use of cavalry for effective scouting and reconnaissance. Balloons, most of which were filled with hydrogen gas, were expensive and cumbersome to maintain and move and were highly vulnerable to enemy fire—few stayed aloft very long. The possibility of aerial photography was discussed during the war but never attempted.

New possibilities were developed for military aircraft in 1903, when Orville and Wilbur Wright performed the first successful series of heaver-than-air, machine-powered flights. By the beginning of World War I in 1914, two-wing, wooden aircraft were able to carry a pilot and observer over enemy lines and back on valuable reconnaissance missions. By 1915, British, French, and German airplanes were equipped with cameras for fixing enemy positions in photographs and with radios for relaying data back from the air. By the following year, armies on both sides considered air reconnaissance vital to the planning of any offensive.

However, as soon as the combatants realized the effectiveness of air power, they set out to stop it by developing single-pilot planes armed with machine guns that were synchronized to fire through the aircrafts’ propellers. The first flying aces and dogfights emerged during World War I. Perhaps most famous flying ace was the German fighter pilot Manfred von Richthofen, who was credited with destroying eighty enemy aircraft before he himself was shot from the skies and killed in April, 1918.

World War I also marked the beginning of strategic bombing from the skies. In 1915, bombs rained down on London from a German zeppelin—air power now meant that not even civilians back home, far from the fighting, were truly safe. By 1918, German and British airplanes were regularly bombing enemy cities and civilians. The United States entered the war in 1917, and in 1918, during the first major American offensive against the Germans, ground troops were supported by more than one thousand aircraft. Although air power had not proved decisive in the outcome of World War I, it had proved highly effective as a reconnaissance tool, and its uses had multiplied rapidly. Furthermore, by 1918, engine and structural design was improving. Air power would become even more crucial to the outcome of future wars.

Air Power and Total War: 1918-1945

Between World War I and the outbreak of World War II in 1939, military aircraft were improved through a number of technical developments. First, new and more powerful engines were devised, greatly improving both speed and carrying capacity. Second, aircraft design shifted from that of biplanes, with wings that were supported by external structures, to monoplanes with internally supported single wings. The amount of dead or empty weight dropped dramatically, as the space given to pilots, fuel, and cargo expanded. Third, retractable landing gear appeared. Fourth, aircraft became much more destructive, with additional bombing ordnance and defensive armament. Speed, maneuverability, and firepower all increased as a result. Fifth, aircraft carriers were developed, which greatly widened the range of aircraft in a number of military roles. Sixth, and most significant, the major powers in the world developed aircraft industries that could produce aircraft tailored to specific uses while constantly updating and improving models. Finally, military strategists developed complex theories of air warfare, most of which continued to see air power as playing a supporting role for ground operations.

However, a few analysts devised more ambitious theories of air power. The Italian general Giulio Douhet emphasized the use of aircraft to bomb enemy cities, including not only the military targets in those cities but the people themselves. Such strategic bombing would demoralize the enemy’s population while destroying its production capabilities. This theory was put into effect during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) by the German Luftwaffe, which bombed undefended civilians in cities with little or no military value. During the Spanish conflict, the Germans also placed voice-operated radios in their bombers and fighters, enabling true coordination between ground and air forces for the first time. Meanwhile, the British had installed the first radar system to provide early warning of enemy attack.

By September 1, 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland, all the major nations who would eventually be involved in World War II had for several years been producing fighters, bombers, and other specialized aircraft. At the beginning of the war, Germany was ahead of the field both in numbers of aircraft and in performance.

One example of the German air arsenal was the Messerschmitt Me-109 fighter plane. More Messerschmitts were produced during World War II than any other fighter by any combatant. The Me-109 saw action in all theaters of the war, and although it was out-performed by the American P-51 Mustang and the British Spitfire, it remained a formidable weapon. Another of Germany’s most effective aircraft was the Stuka bomber, a light and small plane designed to prepare the way for the advance of ground troops disrupting and destroying communication and supply routes.

Although German air power dominated the skies of Europe during 1939 and 1940, the Luftwaffe failed in its attempt to reduce England to submission through air power alone in the summer and fall of 1940. British radar stations and the information they provided about the direction and strength of German attacks gave the Royal Air Force (RAF) a great advantage. Equally important, however, was the skill with which British pilots intercepted and destroyed German aircraft during the campaign. Of great importance was the Spitfire fighter plane, which was superior to German fighter planes in both speed and maneuverability.

From 1939 to 1941, air power in the form of bombers and fighters ranged over Europe and the Pacific, wreaking havoc and supporting ground and naval operations, mainly for the Axis Powers of Japan and Germany. However, the use of aircraft launched from carriers was also introduced. The most dramatic example of the use of aircraft carriers was the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. The Japanese bombers were protected by the very effective Japanese Zero fighter planes. The Zero had a maximum speed of 330 miles per hour, two cannons mounted on its wings, and two machine guns that fired through its propeller. Despite inflicting considerable damage on American cruisers and destroyers at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese missed the U.S. aircraft carriers, which were not in Hawaii. Only five months after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Americans’ carrier-based air fleet inflicted a crushing defeat upon the Japanese at the Battle of Midway, which shifted the momentum of the war in the Pacific.

By the beginning of 1943, the balance of power in both the European and Pacific theaters had shifted to the Allies, who had matched and were rapidly surpassing German and Japanese air power. Moreover, Allied air superiority was crucial to the success of Allied ground troops in 1944 and 1945. For example, for weeks before the D-day invasion of June, 1944, Allied bombers and fighters prowled behind German lines in France, hitting supplies and reinforcements moving by rail and road and thereby helping to ensure a successful landing at Normandy. The dropping of one thousand airborne troops behind German lines was another important part of D day’s success.

In 1943 and 1944, a new type of aircraft took center stage in the Allied air campaign—the long-range heavy bomber. Both British and American bombers began raids over German cities in 1943, and despite heavy losses from enemy antiaircraft fire and enemy fighters, these bombing runs did tremendous damage to German war production. By 1944, air fields recaptured in Western Europe were being used as bases from which to reach cities throughout Germany.

The American B-17 Flying Fortress, with a range of 3,750 miles, could carry up to 17,600 pounds of bombs. The B-17 carried a crew of ten. Its ceiling was 35,000 feet, and its cruising speed was 170 miles per hour. The more than 12,000 B-17’s built during the war dropped about 640,000 tons of bombs; about 4,750 B-17’s were lost in combat. The British Lancaster bomber could hold more bombs than could any other Allied aircraft except the B-29 Superfortress. The destruction produced by such heavy bombers, flying with fighter escorts, was tremendous. In February, 1945, the German city of Dresden was flattened, and more than 100,000 people, many of whom were civilians, were killed. By the war’s end, almost 600,000 German civilians had been killed in air raids, while the death toll for British victims of German bombing totaled about 60,000.

By 1945, air power had helped to create what military historians call total war—an expansion of the battlefield to encompass all enemy cities and their civilian occupants, along with a total dedication of a nation’s economy to the production of war matériel. A new stage in warfare and military flight was also dawning, with the use of atomic power and the development of jet and missile technology. By 1943, Germany was working toward the creation of a massive bomb that could be delivered not by an airplane, but by a rocket. The V-1 and V-2 flying bombs, as they were called, were the world’s first intercontinental ballistic weapons. Although these weapons killed more than two thousand London citizens during 1944 and 1945, they could not change the war’s outcome. About 35,000 V-1 rockets were produced, of which about 5,000 actually hit the British. These bombs, with enough power to destroy a city block, indicated the future direction of air power, as did the jet-powered fighter planes that were being produced by Germany by the end of the war.

Of even greater importance for the future of military flight was the use of air power to deliver the first atomic weapons in warfare. The American bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, heralded the Cold War, in which enemies could destroy not only each other but the earth itself. In this new era, when the doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD) would paradoxically help to maintain peace, aircraft would be an essential part of nuclear arsenals and military strategy.

Military Flight During the Cold War: 1945-1990

After the Soviet Union attained atomic power in 1949, the ensuing arms race included aircraft of many types. The first important innovation in military flight after World War II was the replacement of propeller-driven aircraft with jet aircraft, which were first produced in World War II as fighter planes. The Germans produced the first operational model, the Messerschmitt Me-262E. The Me-262E was clearly superior to its rivals, but it had arrived too late in the war to make much of an impact. In 1943, a British twin-engine jet plane named the Gloster Meteor flew in combat formation. The first U.S. jet aircraft was the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, which first flew in 1944 but never saw combat in World War II. The first Soviet jet fighter plane appeared in 1946.

In addition to jet fighter planes, jet-powered bombers also became a part of the Cold War arms race. One such aircraft was the U.S. B-52 Stratofortress, which appeared in 1955 and became an important part of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. A nuclear bomb was first dropped successfully from an airplane in 1956. By 1960, each B-52 could drop up to four nuclear bombs and more than forty 750-pound bombs. By 1955, the Soviet Union had produced its own long-range bombers, including the Tu-95 Bear, capable of reaching U.S. cities from Northern Siberia. By 1960, U.S. bombers substantially outnumbered those of the Soviets, although there was a perception of a so-called bomber gap, in which the Soviets had the advantage.

Air reconnaissance was also revolutionized during the Cold War by jet power and new designs. Planes with extremely high ceilings and long ranges gathered information on the enemy—one example was the U.S. U-2, which flew its first mission in 1956 and was able to fly above 70,000 feet. In 1960, a Soviet fighter plane shot down a U-2 piloted by Gary Powers over Soviet airspace, and a tense series of allegations between the United States and the Soviet Union followed. It was also a U-2 that photographed clear evidence of offensive Soviet missiles being built in Cuba in 1962. Later, satellites would replace such aircraft as the principal means of gathering intelligence.

Another innovation in military flight after World War II was the development of ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads thousands of miles. By 1960, the debate over the bomber gap between the two superpowers had turned into a discussion over the missile gap. During the 1950’s, America produced two classes of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs): the Titan and the Atlas. Both were designed to deliver a 1-megaton warhead over a distance of 5,000 miles. By 1960, such ICBMs could be launched from U.S. submarines.

Although the Soviet Union initially lagged behind the United States in missile production during the 1950’s, it launched its first successful ICBM in Siberia in 1957. Soon afterward, the Soviets sent by rocket into Earth orbit two satellites, Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2, the latter of which carried a live dog. During this period, the Soviets also began to fit their submarines with nuclear warheads with short initial ranges. By the early 1960’s, a second generation of U.S. ICBMs, the Minuteman I and Titan II, were in production. The numbers of Soviet ICBMs soared during the 1960’s, with series such as the SS-11, the SS-9, and the SS-13. By 1970, the Soviet Union’s 1,299 ICBMs surpassed the U.S. total of 1,054. However, the United States retained superiority in numbers of bombers and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SBLMs). The range of the U.S. Polaris missile, carried by nuclear submarines, increased from 1,375 to 2,850 miles during this period.

Cold warfare also promoted the development of the helicopter. Although helicopters appeared in World War II, they came into their own in the 1950’s and 1960’s, during the Korean War and Vietnam War. Used for a variety of needs, the helicopter was suited to the rugged terrain of many battle zones during this period. An example was the American UH-1 Huey, which served many functions: troop transport, evacuation of wounded, and attack on enemy ground troops. The Huey was part of the air cavalry created by the U.S. Army in Vietnam. The First Airmobile Cavalry Division, created by the United States in 1965, was capable of moving ten thousand troops into battle within a few hours. The Soviet Union began regular production of military helicopters in 1948, with many models of various sizes to follow.

Still another and more advanced form of Cold War military flight was the use of surveillance satellites. In 1957, after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first satellite, into space, the United States began work on the Corona satellite, designed to snap photographs of selected territory at regular intervals from space. Although often unsuccessful, by 1972, the Corona series of satellites had provided more information about the Soviet Union than all previous surveillance flights by U-2 planes. By 1962, the Soviets had launched its first Cosmos satellite, larger than the Corona and with more cameras. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, satellite surveillance was improved as it was employed by more nations. Satellites helped to detect telemetry signals and to wage electronic warfare by jamming transmission signals. The administration of U.S. president Ronald Reagan called for the development of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a satellite missile defense system that could block incoming ICBMs.

Beyond the Cold War: 1990-Present

In 1990, at the beginning of Operation Desert Shield, the first major conflict since the decline of the Soviet Union, it appeared that U.S. military air power might be able to achieve victory substantially on its own. With cruise missiles launched from ships and submarines combined with a massive bombing campaign, tremendous damage was done to the Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein. Once again, new technology, such as the U.S. Air Force’s stealth bomber, which could not be detected by Iraqi defenses, surfaced. Military aircraft could now be used effectively at night because of infrared viewing devices. In fact, the transportation of about 35,000 U.S. military personnel by air, most by commercial aircraft, was a massive undertaking necessary before the war could begin. Bombers hit Iraqi targets with smart bombs, which provided new and astounding levels of accuracy—the F-117A stealth fighter was one such aircraft. However, despite a massive air campaign by the United States and its allies, ground troops still proved necessary to dislodge the Iraqi army from Kuwait. For all of its advances since the Wright brothers’ achievement in 1903, military flight still required careful integratation with other forms of military power to achieve its desired results.


  • Doughty, Robert, et al. Warfare in the Western World. Vol. 2. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1996. An excellent history of modern war, including a clear description of the rise and development of military flight.
  • Hastings, Max. Bomber Command. London: Pan, 1999. An informative and interesting study of the effectiveness of the Allied strategic bombing campaign in World War II, including its effects on German civilians.
  • Morrow, J. H., Jr. The Great War in the Air: Military Aviation from 1909 to 1921. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993. An excellent introduction to the rapid development of military flight during World War I.

Aerospace industry, U.S.

Air Force, U.S.

Air Force bases

Aircraft carriers


Antiaircraft fire

Apache helicopter

Battle of Britain

Black Sheep Squadron


Glenn H. Curtiss


Jimmy Doolittle

Dresden, Germany, bombing


Enola Gay

Fighter pilots

Fighting Falcon

Flying Fortress

Flying Tigers

Franco-Prussian War

Guernica, Spain, bombing

Gulf War

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Kamikaze missions

Korean War

Charles A. Lindbergh


Marine pilots, U.S.


Billy Mitchell

Navy pilots, U.S.

Osprey helicopter

Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, bombing


Hanna Reitsch

Manfred von Richthofen

Eddie Rickenbacker


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Stealth bomber

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Tactical Air Command


Transport aircraft

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Vietnam War

Women’s Airforce Service Pilots

World War I

World War II

The increasing use of airplanes in military capacities also required the development of aircraft carriers to provide mobile bases for refueling and maintenance.

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