In 1900, the first Zeppelin airships made their successful flights in Germany, and, in 1903, the Wright Brothers designed the first airplane powered by an internal combustion engine. Not long after, the military advantages of aircraft became evident.
The first use of airplanes in combat occurred in 1911, when the Italian Army used a German monoplane to drop grenades on Turkish fortifications in Libya. In 1912, the Italians also initiated the practice of using Zeppelin airships as bombers. In November, 1912, the Vickers company in Britain equipped its “Experimental Fighting Biplane 1” with a Vickers machine gun, thus creating the first fighter plane.
Despite these advancements, the value of aircraft was greatly underrated at the beginning of the First World War, when great powers such as France only had 140 functional aircraft, most of them serving only reconnaissance roles and not equipped with any weapons powerful enough to engage in air-to-air combat.
During the course of the war, this would change dramatically. By the end of the war, France had produced some 68,000 aircraft, 52,000 of which had been lost in battle, giving an indication as to the immense danger of early air combat and the pitiful life expectancy of early aircraft pilots.
During the war, the British began to field the first efficient bombers, the Handley-Page O/400 planes, which could carry 900 kilograms of explosives and fly at 156 kilometers per hour for as long as eight hours, rendering these planes immensely useful at bombarding strategic German positions and even cities far beyond the front lines.
The early air wars required immense dexterity, marksmanship, and luck on the part of the pilots, and expert pilots were prized by all sides. An “ace,” or someone who had downed five planes or more, was given immense honors and publicity, no matter what side he fought on, and names such as that of Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron,” who had shot down 80 Allied planes during the war, achieved the status of legend.
Despite the extreme dangers of piloting aircraft, the task became seen as an extremely prestigious assignment by soldiers, especially given the “clean” nature of the fighting and the prospects of each night returning to comfortable accommodations near the airfields. Compared to the muck and mass carnage of trench warfare, as well as the expendability of individual ground troops, the daily lives of aircraft pilots were indeed far more pleasant, if only relatively so.