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Interpreting the Evidence

World War I Airplane

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Era:

    Turn of the Century and WWI (1890 - 1930)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:

    Global History and Geography
    World War I

  • Primary Source Types:


  • Regions:


  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load World War I Airplane, c. 1917 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
World War I airplane circles overhead.
Historical Context
Both sides in World War I used new technology to attack more soldiers from greater distances than ever before.  At the start of World War I in August of 1914, the airplane was only a little more than ten years old. The first airplanes used in the war were slow and fragile.  They served as reconnaissance aircraft and were used by the French, British, and Italian armed forces in the early period of World War I. The first airplanes were not looked upon as weapons of destruction, but as “scouts”.

At first, airplanes were used mainly for scouting enemy troop movements. In this era, top speeds for airplanes were about 100 MPH.  The airplanes were made of wood (braced with steel wires) and canvas; when they caught on fire, the fire spread quickly.

At the start of the war, planes on either side were unarmed.  Soon pilots began carrying rifles and pistols and would shoot at enemy airplanes while flying.  Later in the war, airplanes were used in dogfights (individual air combats).

 It soon became apparent that aircraft needed offensive firepower, and the best way to use it in combat was firing into the forward arc of travel. The obvious problem was simple to see: firing a machine gun through the arc of the propeller could result in a shattered prop causing the pilot and aircraft to sustain a fatal crash.  Several methods were tried to deal with this problem, but none of them were completely successful until interrupter gear was invented.  This allowed the pilots to fire through the arc of a spinning propeller without the bullets striking the blades.

As trench warfare led to a stalemate on the ground, with both sides unable to advance even a few hundred yards without a major battle and thousands of casualties, aircraft became greatly valued for their role gathering intelligence on enemy positions and bombing the enemy's supplies behind the trench lines.  Floating gas-filled “airships” called zeppelins were also used for bombing.
Essential Question
How does technology change the way wars are fought?
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and explain the ways in which airplanes changed warfare.
Historical Challenges
Research and summarize the development of the interrupter gear.
Interdisciplinary Connections
Art: Draw a picture of the first airplanes used by the United States in World War I.
English Language Arts: Write a diary entry from the perspective of a World War I pilot describing his experiences flying a plane in the war.