How has war in the air changed over time?

Download a PowerPoint of this resource for your class.



Use these sources to find out how aviation technology developed throughout the Twentieth Century.

1. As aviation began, how was it used by the military and why?

  • Reconnaissance by Balloon

    The Royal Engineers’ School of Ballooning at Farnborough
    RAE-O 961

    The use of balloons for observation in war dates back to the French Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s. This technology gave commanders a new perspective of the battlefield. Balloons were used during the First World War, mainly for artillery spotting. Balloons were tied down and could not travel in the air. Horses were used to pull them into place before launching them into the air.

  • Reconnaissance by Aeroplane

    Vickers FB5 Gunbus
    Q 73328

    Aeroplanes were used for observing the enemy from the air during the First World War. The first British use of them for reconnaissance was during the retreat from Mons in August 1914. The FB5 was known as a ‘pusher’ aircraft because the engine and propeller was at the rear of the aircraft. Without a propeller in the way, the observer sitting in front had a relatively clear view of the situation below. Aeroplanes were much more versatile than tethered balloons.

2. How did aircraft develop for warfare during the First and Second World Wars?

  • Projectiles

    AIR 232

    During the First World War aeroplanes were developed to carry out specific functions: fighter aeroplanes patrolled the skies, reconnaissance aeroplanes observed the enemy on the ground and bomber aeroplanes attacked ground troops. Aerial darts were used by both sides to attack infantry and cavalry formations on the ground. These metal darts (pictured) were 12cm long and were usually dropped in bundles from aeroplanes, as this method ensured a wide dispersal.  

  • Fighter Aircraft

    The Supermarine Spitfire 1938
    CH 19

    Designed for the Second World War, the Spitfire was a small highly manoeuvrable aeroplane, fast and very agile. A single-seater fighter aircraft with machine guns in its wings for shooting down enemy aircraft in the skies. The Spitfire’s design continued to be developed during the Second World War to make it even faster and more powerful. It became the most famous plane of the Second World War, particularly after its success in the Battle of Britain

  • Bomber Aircraft

    American Boeing B-29 Superfortress
    NYP 69366

    The B-29 Superfortress was the largest Allied bomber of Second World War. It had pressurised crew compartments which meant that crews no longer had to endure sub-zero temperatures on long-range bombing missions. Superfortresses dropped the atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima (6 August 1945) and Nagasaki ( 9 August 1945). 

  • Jet Fighter

    Messerschmitt Me 262
    MH 24073

    The German Me 262 was the world’s first operational jet fighter. It was far faster than propeller driven aircraft and was capable of a maximum speed of 559 miles per hour. It went into service with the Luftwaffe (German air force), in April 1944, the same month the first British fighter aircraft, the Gloster Meteor, became operational.  This new technology meant that aircraft could fly faster and higher than ever before.

  • Rockets

    The V2 Rocket
    BU 11149

    The German V2 rocket was the world’s first long range ballistic (flying) missile. It was armed with a one ton warhead which caused considerable loss of life and damage when detonated. Between 8 September 1944 and 27 March 1945 1,115 V2s landed in the UK. The V2 heralded both a new age of rocket and missile technology and the arms race between the superpowers, with both the Soviet Union and the USA using German scientists who had worked on the V2.

3. What technology was developed to detect aircraft in the skies?

  • Radar

    Chain Home by William Thomas Rawlinson
    Art.IWM ART LD 5835

    Radar technology was developed during the decade prior to the Second War. Chain Home was a series of ground based radar stations which could detect approaching aircraft. This information enabled British fighter aircraft, like the Supermarine Spitfire, to intercept the German raiders. During 1940 and 1941 radar technology was developed for use in aircraft. This allowed Royal Air Force night fighter pilots to determine their enemies’ position even when they could not see them.

4. Following the Second World War, how has military aviation advanced?

  • Helicopters

    Army Bell 47G
    KOR 80

    Although helicopters  were invented before the Second World War, it was only during the Korean War (1950-1953) that they were used on a large scale in combat. This photograph shows a United States Army Bell 47G about to evacuate wounded soldiers from the battlefield. The Bell 47G could carry two casualties, one strapped to each side of the “chopper”. This enabled serious cases to receive treatment much quicker than in previous conflicts and as a result the casualty survival rate increased.

  • Missiles

    McDonnel Douglas Phantom
    CT 75

    AAMs (Air to Air Missiles) were developed after the Second World War by various different countries. AAMs were fired from one aircraft with the aim of hitting another aircraft. This new  technology meant that aeroplanes no longer needed to engage in ‘dogfights’ but could now attack enemy aircraft out of visual range. In the Cold War during the 1950s both sides carried AAMs.

  • Innovation in take off and landing

    Hawker Siddeley Harrier
    CT 62

    Developed in the 1960s, the Harrier was the first operational fixed wing aircraft to be capable of VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing), and was nicknamed the “jump jet.”  This 1973 photograph of a Harrier on an exercise in Germany shows how the plane could be deployed for action without needing an airfield. Later  versions of the Harrier  were developed for use on aircraft carriers (ships) and were used during the Falklands War in 1982. 

  • Role of the aircraft

    Tornado GR1A
    GLF 565

    This photograph shows a Tornado GR1A reconnaissance aircraft of 31 Squadron Royal Air Force in flight during the First Gulf War (1990-1991). Reduced defence budgets combined with a more sophisticated technology has meant that the military role of aircraft has now gone full cycle and the Tornado has a multipurpose role as a fighter, a bomber and a reconnaissance plane. 

  • Stealth Technology

    Nighthawk Stealth Fighter
    GLF 1074

    The Nighthawk, which combined the role of fighter with ground attack, was the world’s first operational aircraft specifically designed to exploit stealth technology. Stealth (low observable) technology is used to try and make aircraft less visible, so they can operate without being detected. Although not completely undetectable by radar, the Nighthawk was a difficult target to locate and only one Nighthawk was ever lost to hostile action.

  • Laser Designation

    Thermal Imaging Airborne Laser Designation (TIALD)
    GLF 1317

    This photograph shows Laser Designators fitted to a Royal Air Force Tornado aircraft during the First Gulf War. TIALDs use lasers to pin point targets with greater accuracy than when utilizing conventional unguided bombs. With this technology, the number of aircraft and bombs needed to destroy targets sharply decreased. During the First Gulf War two RAF Tornados, equipped with TIALD, launched more than 200 laser-guided bombs on to targets in occupied Kuwait and in Iraq. 

  • Unmanned aircraft (drones)

    Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV)
    CT 1228

    Arial warfare can now be carried out by unmanned aircraft, drones. This photograph, taken on a military exercise in Germany in the 1980s, shows two British soldiers preparing to launch an RPV drone from a Bedford three ton truck. Some drones can send instantaneous live information back to troops in the field. Such technology means that the military today have more information regarding an enemy than at any time in the past.