Military Aviation: Key Innovations

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The Bomber

Although the idea of dropping bombs from above had existed for as long as military aircraft, the vision was thwarted by reality: bombs were heavy, and early aircraft were severely limited in the weight they could carry. But in 1914, Igor Sikorsky, a 20-year-old Russian designer, drew up plans for the first heavy bomber, with four engines and a 10-man crew. In 1917 the Germans followed suit with the Gotha, a massive plane inspired in part by Sikorsky's design. Gotha raids killed hundreds of Londoners, inflicted significant economic damage, and were an ominous harbinger of things to come.

The "Thick Wing" and the Monoplane

Ironically, the nation that lost the Great War pioneered the future of aviation even as they were being defeated. At the University of Gottingen, scientist Ludwig Prandl's and his team developed the science of aerodynamics and created the "thick wing," which gave planes the ability to climb at much steeper angles without losing lift and stalling. The thick wing also eliminated the need for a biplane, because it allowed engineers to mount the plane's structural reinforcements inside it. At the Schneider Trophy races of the 1920s and 1930s, the world's top designers unveiled monoplanes that were increasingly faster, more powerful, and more streamlined -- among them the precursor of the legendary Supermarine Spitfire.


At the beginning of World War II, after Germany had conquered France, the only thing standing between Hitler and complete domination of Western Europe was Britain's Royal Air Force. But the RAF had an invaluable tool: a new technology called radar, which used radio waves to detect the position of incoming aircraft. Atmospheric scientist Robert Watson Watt developed the British system, and although seven other countries developed radar simultaneously during the 1930s, the British had the most urgent need for it and were the first to put it to use in an early warning network called Chain Home. The network gave the British priceless advance warning of German air raids, and allowed them to concentrate their outnumbered fighters at critical locations. On December 7, 1941, an American radar station detected the Japanese planes approaching Pearl Harbor, but the U.S. military had little faith in the system and mistakenly assumed the signal came from a formation of American B-17s.

The Strategic Bomber

Advances in aircraft technology between the wars meant that aircraft could carry much greater loads than before, and made the long-held vision of the strategic bomber an achievable reality. The first daylight strategic bomber was the American Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, a massive four-engine, 10-man plane bristling with machine guns. Equipped with the top-secret Norden bombsight and traveling in massive, carefully coordinated aerial armadas, they devastated industrial production in Germany -- and suffered thousands of losses from fierce fighter opposition. While the Americans bombed by day and aimed for accuracy, the British attacked at night with massive "carpet bombing" raids that targeting whole cities. The Gee and, later, Oboe radio navigational systems led their Lancaster heavy bombers and Mosquito "pathfinders" to their targets.

The Superfortress

The Boeing B-29 Superfortress, which bombarded Japanese cities with blankets of incendiaries and dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was a giant leap forward in bomber design. The monster aircraft featured pressurized crew compartments, remote-controlled gun turrets, and a range, maximum altitude, and carrying capacity far in advance of any bomber that came before it. Even the rivets were polished flat to make the plane more streamlined. All this technology, of course, paled in comparison to its devastating new payload.

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Parts One and Two air: Wed, Nov. 8th, 9-11pm
Parts Three and Four air: Wed, Nov. 15, 9-11pm

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