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The Red Baron Foretells the Future of Aviation

dangers of wwi aviation red baron

1917 Warbird vs. 2017 Kit Aircraft

As a large fraction of Denver moved to Wyoming for the total eclipse this week (totality was only about 150 miles north of the Vintage Aero Flying Museum), many sport aircraft pilots avoided the traffic by flying instead. We talked to the pilot of a kit two-man airplane that looked like a giant blue-and-green dragonfly which flew north from an airport near the VAFM. It was interesting to think about what has changed, and in some cases changed back, about airplanes in the last 100 years. 

Like Manfred von Richthofen's airplane, this one was brightly colored. But its particular shade of fluorescent green was probably not available to the Red Baron, and besides he was painting his airplane to be fearsome, not beautiful. It is hard to picture WWI aircraft now as they were seen then, as terrible war machines, so this little aircraft seemed comparable. Though smaller, it held two people (and enough luggage to experience the eclipse) instead of a baron and his guns. Its distance and reliability characteristics were probably far better than what the Red Baron had; Denver to Wyoming is a longer flight than the half hour or so a WWI patrol flight might last. However, it was probably more stable and thus less able to turn fast in a dogfight, and it was definitely lacking in firepower.

Part of the 2017 aircraft was covered in fabric, although it looked like something extremely synthetic, so that it was very smooth, sleek, and futuristic-looking even for 2017, much less 1917.

Advances in Aviation from WWI

Around this time 100 years ago, the Red Baron wrote:

It is indeed quite evident that in the course of the war our airplanes have changed somewhat. The greatest difference is the extremes in size between the giant airplanes and the fighter planes. 
The fighter plane is small, fast and maneuverable, but carries only bullets and machine guns. 
The giant airplane - one simply must view the captured English giant airplane Handley-Page 1919[Handley Page 0/400 bomber] that landed without damage on our side - is a colossus, destined to carry as much weight as possible on its great wings. It will haul a tremendous amount of bombs and fuel, and distances of three thousand to five thousand kilograms [sic] are nothing at all for it. ... One no longer has the feeling of flying in so great a machine; rather, one "travels." Flying is no longer done through feeling, but through technical instruments instead.

Other aviators also commented regretfully over the years as aviation moved away from "seat of the pants" flying, but engineers kept making systems that did something better than a pilot could. 

Richthofen Predicts: The Future of Aviation

The aircraft that most interested Manfred von Richthofen were the small, agile ones. 

I prefer an airplane such as "Le petit rouge"; with such a plane one can fly over on one's back, or fly upside-down, or do whatever other tricks one can perform. One flies just like a bird, but it is not "winged flight" like the albatross; rather, the whole thing is just a flying engine. I believe we will come so far that for two and a half marks we will be able to buy a flying suit into which one will simply crawl. In one end will be a little engine and little propeller, the arms will go in the wings, the legs in the tail, then one will hop a bit to start and go into the air like a bird.
You are certainly laughing, dear reader, and so am I, but it may come to pass that our children will not laugh. People also laughed fifty years ago when they were told someone would fly over Berlin. I remember the excitement in the year 1910 when Count Zeppelin first came to Berlin, and now the Berliners scarcely look up when something sails through the air.

Reality 100 Years Later

Now, 100 years later, autogyros and ultralights are common enough not to attract much attention, though their cost and inconvenience have kept them from being a normal mode of travel. Similarly, a jet suit exists, but we don't have jet suit dealerships, especially not for $2.50 per suit. Aviation has made great strides in the direction of big (but you have to define what you mean: longest? widest wingspan?) and fast (but you have to define what you mean by an airplane, and whether you mean actual speed or declassified speed).

The Red Baron finished his essay with "Who knows what we will use in a year's time to pierce the blue ether?" Yet the most impressive feat in the 100 years since was not in a year's time, but in half a century. 51 years after the Red Baron died, both blue ether and black space were pierced, and a spacecraft - far less streamlined than any WWI craft - landed on the moon.

And though Manfred von Richthofen had no children, a young boy of that next generation at the time he wrote, born about 150 miles away from the Red Baron's birthplace, was not laughing at ideas for piercing the blue ether - Wernher von Braun.

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