Top guns of World War I

Combat aviation was born in the skies over Europe, as daring pilots learned how to dogfight on the fly during World War I.

William “Billy” Mitchell, the first American airman to fly over enemy lines, is shown in the cockpit of his plane.
Photograph by Bridgeman/ACI

October 5, 1914, seemed like an ordinary day for pilot Sgt. Joseph Frantz and observer Cpl. Louis Quénault. The two Frenchmen were flying near Reims, northern France, on board a Voisin 3 biplane. The very fact that they were airborne at all was a miracle, since little more than a decade had passed since the Wright brothers made their first manned flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

In the first months of World War I airplanes had a narrow role in the military. Small and nimble, they were beginning to take over reconnaissance from the slow, unwieldy balloons that were still used as “eyes in the sky” to record enemy movements. Although the early aviators took rifles aloft and occasionally fired at enemy planes, few envisioned them taking on a true combat role at this stage in the war.

But change was in the air. Frantz’s French plane was one of the first to have a Hotchkiss machine gun mounted to a tripod on the cockpit. After detecting a German Aviatik flying close by, they approached the enemy plane and fired their machine gun. The recoil had an unsettling effect on the Voisin, but the French kept shooting. The Germans returned fire before their pilot was wounded. The German plane crashed to the ground—the first recorded air-to-air kill in history. The dogfight was born.

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