CHAPTER VIII. SCOUTING FROM THE SKIES
From the moment when human flight was lifted from the rut of experiment to the field of practical application, many theories, interesting and illuminating, concerning the utility of the Fourth Arm as a military unit were advanced. The general consensus of expert opinion was that the flying machine would be useful to glean information concerning the movements of an enemy, rather than as a weapon of offence.
The war is substantiating this argument very completely. Although bomb-dropping is practised somewhat extensively, the results achieved are rather moral than material in their effects. Here and there startling successes have been recorded especially upon the British side, but these triumphs are outnumbered by the failures in this direction, and merely serve to emphasise the views of the theorists.
The argument was also advanced that, in this particular work, the aeroplane would prove more valuable than the dirigible, but actual campaigning has proved conclusively that the dirigible and the heavier-than-air machines have their respective fields of utility in the capacity of scouts. In fact in the very earliest days of the war, the British airships, though small and slow in movement, proved more serviceable for this duty than their dynamic consorts. This result was probably due to the fact that military strategy and tactics were somewhat nonplussed by the appearance of this new factor. At the time it was an entirely unknown quantity. It is true that aircraft had been employed in the Balkan and the Italo-Ottoman campaigns, but upon such a limited scale as to afford no comprehensive idea of their military value and possibilities.
The belligerents, therefore, were caught somewhat at a disadvantage, and an appreciable period of time elapsed before the significance of the aerial force could be appreciated, while means of counter acting or nullifying its influences had to be evolved simultaneously, and according to the exigencies of the moment. At all events, the protagonists were somewhat loth to utilise the dirigible upon an elaborate scale or in an aggressive manner. It was employed more after the fashion of a captive balloon, being sent aloft from a point well behind the front lines of the force to which it was attached, and well out of the range of hostile guns. Its manoeuvres were somewhat circumscribed, and were carried out at a safe distance from the enemy, dependence being placed upon the advantages of an elevated position for the gathering of information.
But as the campaign progressed, the airships became more daring. Their ability to soar to a great height offered them complete protection against gun-fire, and accordingly sallies over the hostile lines were carried out. But even here a certain hesitancy became manifest. This was perfectly excusable, for the simple reason that the dirigible, above all, is a fair-weather craft, and disasters, which had overtaken these vessels time after time, rendered prudence imperative. Moreover, but little was known of the range and destructiveness of anti-aircraft guns.
In the duty of reconnoitring the dirigible possesses one great advantage over its heavier-than-air rival. It can remain virtually stationary in the air, the propellers revolving at just sufficient speed to off-set the wind and tendencies to drift. In other words, it has the power of hovering over a position, thereby enabling the observers to complete their task carefully and with deliberation.
On the other hand, the means of enabling an aeroplane to hover still remain to be discovered. It must travel at a certain speed through the air to maintain its dynamic equilibrium, and this speed is often too high to enable the airman to complete his reconnaissance with sufficient accuracy to be of value to the forces below. All that the aeroplane can do is to circle above a certain position until the observer is satisfied with the data he has collected.
But hovering on the part of the dirigible is not without conspicuous drawbacks. The work of observation cannot be conducted with any degree of accuracy at an excessive altitude. Experience has proved that the range of the latest types of anti- aircraft weapons is in excess of anticipations. The result is that the airship is useless when hovering beyond the zone of fire. The atmospheric haze, even in the clearest weather, obstructs the observer's vision. The caprices of this obstacle are extraordinary, as anyone who has indulged in ballooning knows fully well. On a clear summer's day I have been able to see the ground beneath with perfect distinctness from a height of 4,500 feet, yet when the craft had ascended a further two or three hundred feet, the panorama was blurred. A film of haze lies between the balloon and the ground beneath. And the character of this haze is continually changing, so that the aerial observer's task is rendered additionally difficult. Its effects are particularly notice able when one attempts to photograph the view unfolded below. Plate after plate may be exposed and nothing will be revealed. Yet at a slightly lower altitude the plates may be exposed and perfectly sharp and well-defined images will be obtained.
Seeing that the photographic eye is keener and more searching than the human organ of sight, it is obvious that this haze constitutes a very formidable obstacle. German military observers, who have accompanied the Zeppelins and Parsevals on numerous aerial journeys under varying conditions of weather, have repeatedly drawn attention to this factor and its caprices, and have not hesitated to venture the opinion that it would interfere seriously with military aerial reconnaissances, and also that it would tend to render such work extremely hazardous at times.