The Etrich Taube was the first warplane used to drop a live bomb on real people. On 1 November 1911, an Italian pilot, Giulio Gavotti, dropped three 1.5kg grenades on the oasis of Ain Zara during the war between Italy and the Ottoman empire, fought in Libya. That is only eight years after the Wright brothers and their exploits at Kitty Hawk. Those smart Wright boys designed a plane for the US Army in 1909 but it was never used in war. Gavotti's letters to his father survived, to be read in a rather cod Italian accent on the BBC World Service (note: in the BBC's picture, Gavotti is not flying a Taube).
|A Taube takes off from a Libyan airfield - card postmarked 31/12/1911|
Its organic design could so easily have consigned the Taube to that group of nutty aircraft seen destroying themselves in early films - flapping wings that shook the plane apart, multiple wing surfaces like some kind of flying layer cake that collapsed under their own weight, men with wings strapped to themselves and jumping off high buildings with inevitable results, Icarus (except for the films) - but the Taube worked.
At the heart of the design was the fruit of zanonia macrocarpa (syn.[or ?close relative?] alsomitra macrocarpa), the javanese cucumber. This climbing jungle vine is a member of the pumpkin family (not a palm, as Flight magazine would have it). It produces football-sized gourd-like fruit, suspended high above the forest floor. Its many seeds bear a pair of jelly-like wings, and drop from the bottom of the fruit one at a time.
|Alsomitra macrocarpa seed - photograph taken in Kebun Raya, Bogor, Indonesia, by Scott Zona from Miami, Fl|
fruit (some 30cm in diameter) (lower left), flowers (lower right),
winged seed (centre), twining stem with foliage (top) - Not to same
after "Meyers großes Konversationslexikon", 6.Auflage; Bd.23; Jahressupplement 1910-1911, S.976
A bit of flowery prose from an essay that I wrote in 2001 on wind-dispersed seeds & fruits: "Every now and then, field botanists are treated to transcendental moments when the light is golden, the air is fresh, interesting plants are at hand, and the hardships of field work just melt away. During those times, scientific insights arrive with astonishing clarity and grace.
One such moment for me came on a sunny afternoon in the Kebun Raya Botanic Garden, in Bogor, Indonesia, some years ago. On that memorable day, I was transfixed as I watched dozens of winged seeds of Alsomitra macrocarpa (Cucurbitaceae, the squash family) glide to the ground in broad, lazy spirals. The seeds spilled out from a fruit hanging on the liana climbing on one of the enormous old trees in the garden.
All the principles of aerodynamics as they relate to seed dispersal were manifest in that one lovely moment. "The gliding seeds of Alsomitra exhibit two kinds of motion: The forward gliding motion, which takes the seed on a helical, downward path, and phugoid oscillations, in which the gliding seed gains lift, stalls, drops briefly until it accelerates enough to generate lift, starting the process over again.
Phugoid oscillations are well known to aviation engineers and model aeroplane fliers, because they can destabilize mechanized flight, but in the seeds of Alsomitra, phugoid oscillations add a graceful rhythm to the descent, and more importantly, slow the descent of the seeds giving them more time aloft. Time aloft is the sine qua non of successful dispersal by wind."A remarkable film of Alsomitra macrocarpa seeds taking to the air was produced for BBC Earth in 2009.
The Taube's curved wing surfaces mimicked this seed precisely, so that if the Taube lost power, it would continue to move forward, and eventually glide to the ground. The design made it somewhat of a pig to steer, but flying in a straight line was a doddle. The fly-glide technique enabled Gino Linnekogel and Suvelick Johannisthal to achieve a two-man endurance record for flying a Taube of 4 hours and 35 minutes over Germany in 1911. This made flights from Germany as far as London possible, if precarious.
|Aerial warfare, or hand to hand fighting|
"German Taube in battle with hostile pilots Deutsche Taube im Kampf mit feindlichen Fliegern"
Ascent and descent were controlled, not with flaps and ailerons, but by flexing the surface of the wing by means of cords.
I suppose NASA thinks this (courtesy of BBC News) is new?
The pilot single handed could prime grenades and chuck them out of the cockpit, though with his hands full this left him unable to defend himself.Two-seater and even four-seater models were built.
|"Fruitless bombardment of a German Taube" Erfolglose Beschiessung einer deutschen Taube|
|"A Strange Santa Claus - Voilà le Taube!" - the passage of a hostile aircraft over a town in northern France|
The editor writes:
the appearance of a hostile aeroplane is the signal for a general fusillade, the returning bullets causing, as a rule, more damage than the bombs dropped by the Taube, so that it is wise to bolt for cover as soon as the firing commences. On the occasion witnessed by our artist, a gallant citizen joined in the fusillade with his revolver, and not until he was presented with numerous bills for broken windows and lamps could he be convinced that his efforts had not been the means of disabling the enemy.Technology quickly superseded the originality of the Taube design - the pilot was unable to fire through the propeller, and this facility was developed only for newer, faster planes.
By 1916 they were restricted to actions over civilian areas - propaganda leafleting, for example, and "irritation" bombing attacks like this one.
|A peaceful view of Gerardmer, the target of the Taube, 1916|
... and there is even a real one, in the Vienna Technical Museum.
In 1911, Gavotti's surgical strike was described in Italian newspapers as craftsmanship. He could select and pinpoint his targets like a master. The same claim is made for today's precision bombing by pilotless drones.
But anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighters forced the bombers higher, so that fliers became unable to visualise what they were doing to people on the ground. That way lay the carpet bombing of Coventry, the firestorm over Dresden, the atom bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Gavotti cannot have guessed what horrors would follow his action.