History of Military Aviation

Armed conflict has always been a catalyst for technological development, and the effect of war on aircraft development has been profound. The first military uses of aviation involved lighter-than-air balloons; in the Battle of Fleurus in 1794, the French successfully used the observation balloon l’Entreprenant to watch Austrian troop movements.

The use of lighter-than-air aircraft in warfare became more prevalent in the 19th century, including regular use in the American Civil War. Lighter-than-air military aviation persisted into World War II, but became less used as heavier-than-air aircraft were improved.

Heavier-than-air aircraft were recognized as having military applications early on. A Wright Model A was purchased in 1909 by the U.S. Army Signal Corps, and in 1911 the Italians used a variety of aircraft types in reconnaissance, photo-reconnaissance, and bombing roles as part of the Italo-Turkish War.

The earliest military role filled by aircraft was reconnaissance, however, World War I saw military aviation rapidly embrace many specialized types, such as scouts, artillery observers, fighters, bombers, etc. World War II saw even more rapid advancement in aircraft technology, with large performance increases and the introduction of aircraft into an increasing number of roles.

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Aircraft also played a much larger role, with many notable engagements being decided through the use of military aviation, such as the Battle of Britain or the Attack on Pearl Harbor.

Carrier aviation came to play a major role during World War II, with most major fleets realizing that the aircraft carrier was a much more potent weapon than the battleship, and devoting massive resources to the creation of new carriers and the destruction of enemy carriers.

The introduction of the jet engine, radar, strategic bombing, and early missiles and computers are World War II advancements which are felt to the present day.

Post World War II, the development of military aviation was spurred less by massive military conflict and more by the tense stand-off between super-powers during the Cold War. The helicopter began to appear at the end of World War II and eventually matured into an indispensable part of military aviation.

The need to continue to out-perform potential opponents meant that rapid development of new technologies and aircraft designs continued in the U.S.S.R. and the United States among others, and designs were tested in several conflicts, such as the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The 1980s through to the present day were characterized by incredible advances in electronics, stealth technology, and both offensive and defensive systems.

Today, a country’s military aviation forces are often the first line of defense against an attack, or the first forces to attack an enemy, and military aviation forces (or lack thereof) have proved decisive in several recent conflicts such as the Gulf War.

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The Convention on International Civil Aviation (the “Chicago Convention”) was originally established in 1944; it states that signatories should collectively work to harmonize and standardize the use of airspace for safety, efficiency and regularity of air transport. Each signatory country, of which there are at least 188, has a civil aviation authority (such as the FAA in the United States) to oversee the following areas of civil aviation:

  • Personnel licensing — regulating the basic training and issuance of licenses and certificates.
  • Flight operations — carrying out safety oversight of commercial operators.
  • Airworthiness — issuing certificates of registration and certificates of airworthiness to civil aircraft, and overseeing the safety of aircraft maintenance organizations.
  • Aerodromes — designing and constructing aerodrome facilities.
  • Air traffic services — managing the traffic inside of a country’s airspace.

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