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Guns of the Sky
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Dogfighting first emerged in World War I. Ever since "heavier than air" flight became a reality in 1903, people had been trying to figure out how to use this new technology for warfare. Aircraft were initially used as mobile observation vehicles, and early pilots gave little thought to aerial combat. Balloons had been used for this purpose since the American Civil War in 1861. The new airplanes proved their worth by spotting the hidden German advance on Paris in the second month of the war.
Enemy pilots at first simply exchanged waves, or shook their fists at each other. Due to weight restrictions, only small weapons could be carried on board. Intrepid pilots decided to interfere with enemy reconnaissance by improvised means, including throwing bricks, grenades and sometimes rope, which they hoped would entangle the enemy plane's propeller. The first dogfight is believed to have taken place on 28 August 1914, when Norman Spratt, flying an unarmed Sopwith Tabloid, forced down a German Albatros C.I two-seater.
Pilots then began firing hand-held guns at enemy planes, such as pistols and carbines. In August 1914, Staff-Captain Pyotr Nesterov, from Russia, became the first pilot to ram his plane into an enemy spotter aircraft. In October 1914, an airplane was shot down by a hand gun from another plane for the first time over Rheims, France. Once machine guns were mounted to the plane, either on a flexible mounting or higher on the wings of early biplanes, the era of air combat began.
The biggest problem was mounting a machine gun onto an aircraft so that it could be fired forward, through the propeller, and aimed by pointing the nose of the aircraft directly at the enemy. Roland Garros solved this problem by mounting steel deflector wedges to the propeller of a Morane Saulnier monoplane. He achieved three kills, but was shot down behind enemy lines, and captured before he could destroy his plane by burning it. The wreckage was brought to Anthony Fokker, a Dutch designer who built aircraft for the Germans. Fokker decided that the wedges were much too risky, and improved the design by connecting the trigger of an MG 08 Maxim machine gun to the timing of the engine. The Germans acquired an early air superiority due to the invention of the synchronization gear in 1915, transforming air combat with the Fokker E.I, the first synchronized, forward firing fighter plane. On the evening of July 1, 1915, the very first aerial engagement by a fighter plane armed with a synchronized, forward-firing machine gun occurred just to the east of Luneville, France. The German Fokker E.I was flown by Lieutenant Kurt Wintgens, earning the victory over a French two-seat observation monoplane. Later that same month, on July 25, 1915, British Royal Flying Corps (RFC) Major Lanoe Hawker, flying a very early production Bristol Scout C., attacked three separate aircraft during a single sortie, shooting down two with a non-synchronizable Lewis gun which was mounted next to his cockpit at an outwards angle to avoid hitting the propeller. He forced the third one down, and was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Battles in the air increased as the technological advantage swung from the British to the Germans, then back again. The Feldflieger Abteilung observation units of the German air service, in 1914-15, consisted of six two-seat observation aircraft each, with each unit assigned to a particular German Army headquarters location. They had but a single Fokker Eindecker aircraft assigned to each "FFA" unit for general defensive duties, so pilots such as Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke began as lone hunters with each "FFA" unit, shooting unarmed spotter planes and enemy aircraft out of the sky. During the first part of the war, there was no established tactical doctrine for air-to-air combat. Oswald Boelcke was the first to analyze the tactics of aerial warfare, resulting in a set of rules known as the Dicta Boelcke. Many of Boelcke's concepts, conceived in 1916, are still applicable today, including use of sun and altitude, surprise attack, and turning to meet a threat.
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