The first military “fighter plane” was a crude and improvised affair, cobbled together quickly to meet the challenge of the First World War trenches.
When the First World War broke out in August 1914, everyone assumed it would be over quickly. By September, German troops were within thirty miles of Paris, and it seemed as if the defeat of France was imminent. On September 6, however, French observation airplanes detected a gap between two German armies, and, in the “Miracle of the Marne”, French and British troops poured in and drove the Germans back over forty miles. Paris was saved. Within weeks, both sides dug themselves in, constructing a string of defensive trenches that stretched, unbroken, from the Swiss border all the way across Europe to the English Channel.
The Entente generals needed all the help they could get to find a way through the German trenches. The first weapon they turned to was artillery. The new field guns, however, had such long ranges that the gunners often could not see where their shells were landing, making it impossible for them to adjust their aim for greater accuracy.
It was the French expertise in aeronautics that helped solve the problem, and the earliest stage of aerial warfare centered around reconnaissance and artillery spotting. Unarmed two-seater airplanes began to regularly fly over enemy trenches—the observer in the rear seat would photograph them and provide critical information for planning ground assaults, as well as giving advance warning of enemy troop movements and imminent attacks. Observation planes were also used as aerial artillery spotters, watching the shells fall and, using a wireless Morse code transmitter, advising gunners on corrections to their aim, allowing intense and accurate bombardments of enemy positions with pinpoint accuracy.
At first, aerial observation was a tranquil affair. Opposing pilots would often wave to each other as they passed by, each on the way to photograph the other’s trenches. It quickly became apparent, however, that it was a huge military advantage to prevent the other side from observing one’s fortifications. Rear-seat observers soon began carrying pistols and rifles to take potshots at each other, and it wasn’t long before light machine guns (like the British Lewis gun) were mounted at the rear of the plane for the observer to use against enemy reconnaissance flights. By 1915, both sides began designing single-seat “scout” planes, which were specifically intended to seek out and shoot down enemy observation planes, and to defend their own spotters from enemy scouts.
Before an effective aerial fighter plane could be produced, however, a puzzle had to be solved. The simplest way for a solitary pilot to aim his gun was to mount it in line with the fuselage of his airplane, thus allowing him to aim the gun accurately simply by pointing the airplane’s nose at the target. And since machine guns were prone to jamming and also held a limited amount of ammunition, they had to be physically within the pilot’s reach so they could be reloaded and, if necessary, unjammed. The best location for this was on the cowling directly in front of the cockpit.
This, however, presented an awkward problem – it put the machine gun directly in line with the whirring propeller, and any pilot who aimed and fired his machine gun at an enemy would be virtually certain to shoot off his own propeller.
The first pilot to come up with an effective solution was the Frenchman Roland Garros. Garros attached a light Hotchkiss machine gun to the front of his Morane-Saulnier Model L “Parasol” monoplane, and, to prevent it from shooting off his own propeller, he bolted two steel wedges to the back of the blades, deflecting any bullets that might hit them as he was firing. On April 1, 1915, Garros successfully shot down a German observation plane over British trenches. Later that day, another French pilot with a modified Morane, Jean Lavarre, also shot down a spotter plane.
Over the next week, Garros refined his tactics. Since his Morane airplane was slower than the German biplanes he was chasing, he learned to loiter above the altitude normally taken by the spotters, then, when they passed below him, dive on them from behind to attack before they could speed away. On April 11, Garros intercepted two German spotter planes and shot them both down. They were his fourth and fifth aerial victories, making Garros the first fighter ace in history (though this is disputed, and some researchers have Navarre reaching “ace” status first).
Less than a week later, though, Garros developed engine trouble while flying over German trenches and was forced to land. Garros was held as a POW until he escaped in early 1918 and made his way back to France. After a refresher training to learn to handle the newer French fighters, Garros returned to combat. He was shot down and killed in October 1918, just a month before the war ended.
The French military, meanwhile, carried on with Garros’s idea by equipping a number of Morane-Saulnier Model N scout planes with forward-firing machine guns. Although it had been designed before the war as a civilian air machine, the Type N was surprisingly modern-looking: a low-wing monoplane, it had a cone-shaped aerodynamic fairing built into the propeller hub, giving it the nickname “The Bullet”. The British armed it with the Lewis light machine gun, while the Russians built their own versions. A later variant known as the Model I had a more powerful engine and a larger Vickers machine gun. The Saulnier company had already been working on a synchronizer gear which would time the bullets from a machine gun so they would not hit the prop blade, but the ammunition of the time was unreliable and the system never worked.
With the Germans now successfully flying their synchronized Fokker Eindekkers, the Entente needed a fast solution, and the modified Morane-Saulnier provided it. The Bullet remained the Allies’ primary fighter plane until early 1916, when newer designs began to replace it.
There are no surviving wartime Morane-Saulnier aircraft. The Western North Carolina Air Museum, in Hendersonville, has a full-scale replica of an N1 “Bullet” on display.