Portrait of the Enemy
Photographs taken from the world’s first warplanes changed the course of battle.
- By Robin White
- Air & Space magazine, September 2008
(Page 4 of 5)
Lieutenant Fritz von Zangen, the Aviatik’s observer, commanded the recon flight from the front cockpit. He had an artillery map on his lap. His pilot, Sergeant Wilhelm Schlichting, sat huddled behind him. It seems likely that neither one saw the Voisin swooping down into their “six.”
The ungainly two-man Voisin resembled a baby stroller with wings. It was returning from a bombing mission when its pilot, Sergeant Joseph Frantz, spotted the Aviatik. He dove on it, overshot, then banked back in.
First the French soldiers, then the Germans climbed out of their trenches to stare up at a most unusual sight: the world’s first dogfight.
When the war began, opposing airmen could only shake their fists at each other. They soon armed themselves with pistols, rifles, shotguns, even grappling hooks and hand grenades. But Frantz’s front seat observer, Mechanic Corporal Quenault, had something new: a Hotchkiss machine gun, and as the Aviatik grew large in his sights, he fired.
The German pilot tried to dive away but Frantz stayed with him. The French soldiers on the ground cheered. Then the balky Hotchkiss jammed. The two airplanes were just 600 feet above the ground. The frustrated French gunner pulled out a rifle, aimed, and fired. The bullet struck Sergeant Schlichting. The Aviatik flipped and crashed in a ruin of timbers and canvas.
A new chapter in warfare had begun. For pilots in fast, single-seat Fokkers armed with fixed guns, fragile kites with sputtering motors were meat on the table. The vulnerable reconnaissance airplane had to adapt or die. A Farman F.20 of 1914 cruised at 68 mph and could climb, on a good day, to about 8,000 feet; by 1918, the Italian Ansaldo SVA 5 reconnaissance airplane could climb to 20,000 feet and outrun the swiftest single-seat fighters. It was the SR-71 Blackbird of its day.
Cameras improved as well. The long lens of the British Type L enabled an observer to fly higher, out of the reach of “Archie” (anti-aircraft fire). Still, it was one thing to take a good aerial photograph and survive to bring it home, and quite another to train someone who had never seen the world from the air to make sense of it.
A photograph is a near-exact projection of the terrain upon a two-dimensional plane, and in the words of Notes, people without “air-sense” literally could not tell a haystack from a hole in the ground. France led the pack in photographic analysis. Capitaine Jean de Bissy published his Note Concernant l’Interpretation Methodique de Photographies Aeriennes a year before the war commenced. De Bissy’s pamphlet became the model for all subsequent aerial photographic training. It morphed into a number of longer, more detailed publications that, unlike the high-quality camera lenses they hoarded, the French willingly shared with their British allies.