Philip Sawford and Katharine Alston
Thursday 7 December 2017
  • First World War
  • KS3-4

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?

An observation balloon with the horses and equipment required to launch it, The Royal Engineers’ School of Ballooning at Farnborough
© IWM (RAE-O 961)

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

Reconnaissance by Balloon

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.

Photograph of a Vickers FB5 "Gunbus" biplane
© IWM (Q 73328)

Reconnaissance by Aeroplane

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?

Metal flechette with a point at one end and an "X" cross-section along the shaft
© IWM (AIR 232)

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


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.

Six Spitfire Mark Is flying in starboard echelon formation
© IWM (CH 19)

Fighter Aircraft

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.

Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers at Bomber Command base in the Marianas
© IWM (NYP 69366)

Bomber Aircraft

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). 

Messerschmitt Me 262 V3 taking off
© IWM (MH 24073)

Jet Fighter

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.

A German V2 rocket at the moment of launch
© IWM (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?

William Thomas Rawlinson's painting of a Chain Home radar station
© IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 5835)

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


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?

Bell 47G helicopter in the Korean War
© IWM (KOR 80)

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


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.

McDonnel Douglas Phantom in flight
© Crown copyright. IWM (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.

Hawker Siddeley Harrier hovering
© Crown copyright. IWM (CT 62)

Innovation in take off and landing

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.

Tornado GR1A in flight during the First Gulf War
© Crown copyright. IWM (GLF 565)

Role of the aircraft

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.

Two F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter aircraft in their hardened shelter
© IWM (GLF 1074)

Stealth Technology

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.

Thermal Imaging Airborne Laser Designation pod on a Royal Air Force Tornado GR.1
© Crown copyright. IWM (GLF 1317)

Laser Designation

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. 

Two British soldiers prepare to launch an RPV drone from a Bedford truck
© Crown copyright. IWM (CT 1228)

Unmanned aircraft (drones)

Aerial 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.