The use of aircraft early on in the war was limited to reconnaissance (spotting enemy positions and strategic targets). In fact pilots from both sides would usually pass each other without attacking or would shoot each other (usually ineffectively) with a pistol.
However soon the biplane (a plane with 2 sets of wings) and the tri-plane would became deadly weapons of war. As soon as the technology developed for a machine gun to be mounted on an aircraft, ‘modern day knights’ known as flying aces dominated the skies.
Apart from using aircraft for observation purposes, the plane could be used for strategic bombing runs. Targets could include enemy factories to cripple production, power stations and civilian populations to invoke fear. Bombers were also used to tactically bomb enemy positions before a ground attack. Fighters were used to take down enemy aircraft of all types. These aerial battles were named as ‘dogfights’ and air superiority during a main offensive became more and more important. Pilot survival was measured in weeks rather than years, making combat heroic and deadly.
Flying aces such as Manfred von Richthofen aka the ‘Red Baron’ became popular as propaganda and celebrated as modern knights for taking down several enemy aircraft. Richthofen downed 80 aircraft before he, himself was killed! Other aces include Rene Fonck and Edward Mannock who was half blind in one eye.
The biggest technological evolution of the fighter plane was synchronising the forward machine gun so that it would shoot through the propeller without hitting it. The idea had been developed in France and Germany before the war, following the designs by August Euler (1910). The first effective use was on German monoplanes in 1915. However both sides were soon using the technology, upon capturing the enemy’s designs.