The first aerial crossing of the English Channel was conducted by Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries in a gas-filled balloon.
Born to a peasant family in Normandy, Blanchard fled to Paris as a teenager. Here he developed an interest in science and, following the Montgolfier brothers’ successful flight of a hot air balloon in 1783, turned his attention to the new craze. On 2 March the following year Blanchard made his first successful flight at the Champs de Mars in Paris using a hydrogen-filled balloon.
Desperate to achieve fame and fortune, Blanchard moved to London in August 1784 where the population had not yet become caught up in ‘balloonomania’. Blanchard quickly convinced a group of financiers to support him and, alongside the wealthy Dr John Jeffries, Blanchard planned the first aerial crossing of the Channel.
Having provided the necessary funds, Jeffries insisted that he should accompany Blanchard on the flight from Dover to Calais. Unwilling to share the certain fame Blanchard concealed lead weights in his clothes in an attempt to persuade Jeffries that the balloon would be too heavy to carry both of them, but the American discovered the deception and was able to take his place on board.
Soon after departing England, the pair were forced to throw out their ballast and cargo. This included a propeller and a set of oars with which they had hoped to ‘row’ through the air. Barely skimming the tops of the waves, they later urinated over the side in an attempt to reduce the weight before opting to discard their clothes. When they touched down in a forest near Calais, they were wearing nothing but their underwear and the cork life jackets that they had brought in case they crashed into the sea.
On the 17th December 1903, American brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully made the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight. Their aircraft, known as the Wright Flyer but later referred to as Flyer I, made its historic flights about four miles south of the town of Kitty Hawk in North Carolina. Four flights were made on the day, with the first by Orville lasting for just 12 seconds over a total distance of only 36.5m.
The brothers originally went into business selling, repairing and designing bicycles. However, by the end of 1899 they had developed a keen interest in flight, and began to devise control systems that could be employed on manned gliders. Their justification was that it was pointless to create a powered aircraft before a reliable control system had been designed. Their research led them to develop three axis control: wing-warping to control the roll of the aircraft, a moveable rudder to control yaw, and elevators to control the pitch.
Successful testing of these controls on a glider in 1902 led the brothers to build an engine to power their flying machine, along with a pair of specially-designed propellers that were refined under testing in their own wind tunnel.
After a number technical delays, the brothers tossed and coin to decide who would be the first to fly on the 14th December. Wilbur won, but stalled the engine on take-off and crashed the plane after just a three-second flight. After repairs, Orville became the first to pilot the aircraft on its first true flight three days later. Each brother successfully flew twice that day.
On the 1st November 1911, the first aerial bombing took place when Italian Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti dropped four grenades on Turkish troops in Libya. Although unmanned balloons had been used by Austrian troops to carry bombs in their war against in Venice in 1849, Gavotti was the first to drop explosives from a manned aeroplane. The four 4-pound grenades that he dropped caused no injuries, but his action was still widely condemned by the international community. Despite this, within three years aerial bombing had become an established part of modern warfare.
The weakness of the Ottoman Empire demonstrated by Italy’s victory in the Italo-Turkish War is seen by some historians as a contributor to the rise of Balkan nationalism that preceded the First World War. Indeed the First Balkan War was launched while Turkey was still fighting the Italians in Libya. The Italo-Turkish War was also significant for its impact on the use of aircraft for military purposes. As well carrying out as the world’s first aerial bombing, the Italians were also responsible for conducting the first ever aerial reconnaissance mission a week earlier.
Gavotti himself was flying a reconnaissance mission when he decided to drop the four grenades from his Taube monoplane. Although nobody was injured during the attack, the Ottoman Empire complained that aerial bombing contravened the Hague Convention of 1899. However, Italy argued that the agreement specifically stated that bombs could not be dropped from balloons and said nothing about bombs dropped from aircraft. However, it’s probably worth pointing out that the aeroplane hadn’t even been invented when the agreement in question was signed.
The Italian government of Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti launched its invasion of Libya in order to formalise its influence in the provinces of Tripolitana and Cyrenaica amidst the declining power of the Ottoman Empire. Having sent an ultimatum to the Ottoman government that was not accepted in full, war was declared on 29 September 1911.
Carlo Piazza formally qualified as a pilot in April 1911, and soon took control of the Royal Italian Army air detachment having proved himself as a talented racing pilot. When the Italo-Turkish War broke out later that year, the Italian military transported its entire fleet of nine aircraft to Tripoli following the prediction of aviation theorist Giulio Douhet that aircraft would cause significant problems for the enemy.
Having arrived in Libya by steamship, the Italian aircraft were brought on shore after the 20,000 ground troops began disembarking their ships on 10 October. The Italians soon found that the Ottoman defence was stronger than they had expected and, during a standoff near Benghazi, Piazza made history’s first reconnaissance flight when he observed the Turkish lines from a Blériot XI aircraft. This type of machine, powered by a 25-horsepower, three-cylinder engine, had famously made the first flight across the English Channel in a heavier-than-air aircraft in 1909.
Barely a week later the Italo-Turkish War would also see the first ever aerial bombing, when Italian Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti dropped four grenades from his Taube monoplane. Later in the conflict, the Turkish military was the first to shoot down an aircraft with rifle fire.
On the 6th August 1945, the USA dropped an atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” on the Japanese city of Hiroshima from the B-29 aircraft Enola Gay. 70,000 people were killed instantly, of whom 20,000 were military personnel. Approximately another 70,000 died over the following months due to radiation sickness, burns, and other injuries directly related to the explosion.
The Potsdam Declaration issued on the 28th July by the Allies called for the unconditional surrender of Japan. If the government did not surrender they threated “the complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and…utter devastation of the Japanese homeland”. Having completed the successful Trinity atomic test on the 16th July, the USA felt that the atomic bomb could quickly end the war in the Pacific.
Hiroshima was chosen as a target due to its industrial and military significance since it was the command centre for the defence of southern Japan and contained approximately 40,000 military personnel. The Enola Gay and six accompanying aircraft had a 6-hour flight from the air base at North Field, Tinian before reaching the city where they released the bomb at 8.15am. It exploded 600m above the city as planned, with the equivalent to 16 kilotons of TNT. Virtually all buildings within a mile of the blast were flattened.
Following the bombing, President Truman warned that if Japan did not surrender, “they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” Japan did not surrender. A second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later.
RAF Flight Officer T. D. Dean became the first Allied jet pilot to achieve a combat victory when he ‘tipped’ a Nazi German V-1 ‘doodlebug’ flying bomb with his Gloster Meteor jet fighter.
The V-1 was specifically designed for terror bombing civilians, and had first been used on 13 June 1944. The RAF began to investigate ways to intercept and destroy the Nazis’ new weapon, and soon found that they could be tipped over by positioning an aircraft’s wing to within 6 inches of the V-1’s wing. This manoeuvre used the changing airflow of the interceptor’s wing to force the V-1 upwards, confusing the flying bomb’s gyroscope and resulting in it diving into the ground before reaching its target. The first aerodynamic flip manoeuvre was performed by Major R. E. Turner on 18 June, using a North American P-51 Mustang.
The following month, No. 616 Squadron of the RAF received the first ever Gloster Meteor jet planes. This new aircraft, equipped with Sir Frank Whittle’s revolutionary turbojet engines, could reach speeds in excess of 400 miles per hour and placed it well within reach of the average speed of a V-1. The hope was that the new Meteors would be able to shoot the flying bombs down using their 20mm cannons, but the guns had a habit of jamming.
On 4 August Flight Officer T. D. Dean experienced a problem with his Meteor’s cannons as he approached a V-1. He consequently resorted to the tipping manoeuvre and successfully sent the bomb off course. It is believed to have crashed on farmland near Headcorn in Kent, where shrapnel said to be from the explosion can be detected deep inside the trunk of a nearby oak tree. The destruction of this V-1 marked the first ever ‘kill’ for an RAF jet plane.
On the 5th June 1967, Israel launched a series of pre-emptive strikes against the Egyptian air force that marked the start of the Six Day War. The causes of the conflict are highly contested, with historians apportioning responsibility for the war in different ways. However, it’s fair to say that tensions in the Middle East had been steadily increasing since the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. When, in May 1967, Egypt expelled United Nations peacekeepers from the Sinai Peninsula, increased the Egyptian military presence, and blocked Israeli access to the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea, Israel began to prepare for war.
The Israeli airstrike at the beginning of the conflict destroyed around 90% of the Egyptian air force. Having also destroyed the Syrian air force, Israel’s air superiority allowed it to achieve staggering victories on the ground that included taking control of the Gaza Strip and the entire Sinai Peninsula up to the eastern bank of the Suez Canal within just three days.
When King Hussein of Jordan joined the war and began shelling Israeli strongholds, an Israeli counterattack soon forced the Jordanian army out of East Jerusalem and most of the West Bank. Similarly, Syrian shelling of northern Israel was met with an Israeli attack that took control of the Golan Heights.
By the time a final ceasefire was signed on the 10th June, the Arabs had suffered approximately 18,000 casualties compared to 700 for Israel. Israel’s territorial gains also put around a million Arabs under Israeli control, which signalled the start of a new phase in Arab-Israeli relations.
On the 28th May 1987, an eighteen year-old amateur pilot from Hamburg in West Germany illegally landed a private aircraft near Moscow’s Red Square. Mathias Rust had clocked up only 50 hours of flying time before commencing his journey that took in the Shetland and Faroe Islands, Iceland, Bergen and Helsinki before flying to Moscow.
Rust’s flight was risky. Just five years earlier a South Korean commercial plane had been shot down after it strayed into Soviet airspace. Rust himself was tracked by three separate surface-to-air missile units and a total of four fighter planes were sent to monitor him, but none of them were given permission to attack.
Rust approached Moscow in the early evening, and after passing the “Ring of Steel” anti-aircraft defences continued towards the city centre. Abandoning his idea of landing in the Kremlin, he instead touched down on a bridge next to St Basil’s Cathedral and taxied into Red Square. Within two hours he had been arrested. He was sentenced to four years in a labour camp for violating international flight rules and illegally entering the Soviet Union, but was released after serving 14 months in jail.
In a 2007 interview, Rust claimed that he hoped his flight would build an ‘imaginary bridge’ between east and west. What it actually did was massively damage the reputation of the Soviet military for failing to stop him. This in turn led to the largest dismissal of Soviet military personnel since Stalin’s purges, and allowed Gorbachev to push ahead with his reforms.
Royal Air Force No. 617 Squadron attacked German dams in Operation Chastise, otherwise known as the Dambuster Raids.
617 Squadron was formed specifically to attack three major dams that provided hydro-electric power and water to the Ruhr Valley, an area of enormous industrial significance to Germany. Operation Chastise was developed with the intention of destroying the dams and depriving the German war effort of the Ruhr’s potential output.
The operation was developed in such secrecy that, with just two nights to go until the night of the attack, only Wing Commander Guy Gibson and a small number of key officers knew the intended targets. Despite being just 24 years old, Gibson had already flown over 170 missions and had been specifically chosen to lead 617 Squadron.
The destruction of the dams depended on the correct deployment of a new explosive that had been invented by Barnes Wallis, the Assistant Chief Designer at Vickers aircraft factory. Nicknamed the ‘bouncing bomb’, he created a cylindrical bomb that would be spun backwards at a speed of 500rpm before being dropped onto water from a precise height at a precise speed. The bomb would then bounce over the torpedo nets installed in the dams’ reservoirs before spinning down the dam wall and exploding.
The squadron began their mission from RAF Scampton on the evening of 16 May. Arriving at their targets in the early hours of the 17 May, they breached two of the dams and lightly damaged the third. Eight of the aircraft were shot down during the mission and 53 airmen were killed. The flood waters from the breached dams killed up to 1,600 civilians in the Ruhr Valley, and slowed German industrial production for a number of months while repairs were carried out.
On May 12th 1949, the Soviet Union ended its blockade of West Berlin. Instigated on the 24th June the previous year, the blockade prevented all rail, road, and water transport between Berlin and the West of the Germany.
Germany had been divided into four parts at the end of World War 2 with Britain, France, the USA and the USSR each administering one area. Buried deep in the Soviet zone, the Berlin was also divided into four sectors. It was to the area controlled by the Western powers that the USSR blocked access.
Faced with the possibility of all-out war if they forced their way through the blockade, the Americans opted to make use of the three air corridors that provided unrestricted aerial access to Berlin. The USSR knew it risked war if it shot down any aircraft, and was therefore powerless to stop them. Launched four days after the blockade, the Berlin Airlift went on to see over 200,000 individual flights transport up to 8,500 tons of supplies each day.
The pilots and ground crews soon settled into an efficient rhythm. An unusually short winter also helped to keep the airlift running. By the spring of 1949 it was clear that the Western powers had achieved the impossible by supplying West Berlin by air alone. On the 15th April the USSR expressed a willingness to end the blockade and, after a period of negotiation, it was lifted at one minute past midnight on 12 May 1949. The blockade was over, but the Cold War had just begun.