I know for a fact that aeroplanes were used at the last stages of the first world war to capture images of the enemy trench system and supply lines. They were also used to alert the artillery how far off they were to an enemy trench. However, I have also read some sources stating that aeroplanes in World War 1 were both unstable and sometimes didn’t have enough fuel to stay on the air for long. It was apparently a very dangerous job as they could suddenly drop at any second. But, in terms of figures, how often would the engines stall/ fail causing the pilot to crash in mid-air? And approximately how long could a pilot stay on the air?

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    Do you mean after the engine stops or before? Apr 24 '13 at 23:59
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    On a more serious note, it depends on the type of plane, the altitude at which it is flying, its speed, its loaded weight, and more. Apr 25 '13 at 0:06

Here are some rough specs for common planes (as I said in the comment, the endurance depends on various factors).

Sopwith Camel (BR)

  • combat endurance (at 1000 m) - 2:30 (hr.:min.)

  • cruise endurance (...) - 5:00


  • combat endurance (...) - 1:30-2:00

  • cruise endurance (...) - 3:00

Albatross D.III (GER)

  • combat endurance (...) - 1:30-2:00

  • cruise endurance (...) - 3:10

Fokker Dr.I (GER)

  • combat endurance (...) - 1:30-1:40

  • cruise endurance (...) - 2:30

Siemens-Shuckert D.III (GER)

  • endurance (...) - 2:00

Bristol F2.B (BR)

  • endurance (...) - 3:00

Short Answer

So we see that our average endurance for a combat mission was 1:30-2:00. Cruise times ranged between 3 and 5 hours on average.

Mid-air engine failures were around 5-10% per plane (not per flight). I've calculated this from two numbers: number of aircraft built and non-combat related deaths. For example, 5734 Sopwith Camels were built during WWI and 385 Sopwith Camel pilots died from non-combat related causes while flying. This is about 7%. Most other aircraft had the same ratio. Although these deaths are not necessarily from engine failures, that was a leading cause.


  • Sikorsky S-22 Ilya Muromets: up to 10 hours
    – spyder
    Apr 25 '13 at 6:08
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    You're missing the long range bombers the British employed that could easily reach into Germany from the UK at 100mph or so. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handley_Page_V/1500 1300 miles at 99mph (and that might not be the record of the day).
    – jwenting
    Apr 25 '13 at 6:13
  • @jwenting Those were hardly common. Only 63 were ever produced. And, its cruise endurance was only six hours. That's not much over the 3-5 average cruise endurance I listed. Apr 25 '13 at 13:46
  • @spyder It's normal endurance was only 5 hours. It got 10 hours when there was extra fuel (which limited the number of bombs it could carry). Again, it was a relatively rare airplane, only 84 were manufactured. Apr 25 '13 at 13:56
  • @jwenting However, only 35 were produced before the armistice. They were introduced in September and the armistice was signed in November. Only three squadrons ever received them and at that, only for a short period. They were anything but typical being the RAF's first four-engined aircraft. Apr 25 '13 at 14:41

All depends on the aircraft, development went very quickly during WW1. In the early days it was indeed a very precarious business, aircraft were very new and nobody really knew what they were doing.
As a result new designs were pushed into service that were indeed unstable, very unreliable, and put in the hands of people who had little or no training or experience. Accident rates were high, accounting for far more losses than did enemy action.
But over the years things improved massively until at the end of the war we could see aircraft as reliable and stable as those of WW2, long range bombers that could reach Germany from the UK with a reasonable weapons load, patrol aircraft to scour the north sea for German U-boats, and shortly after WW1 ended there were the first scheduled air mail deliveries between Europe and the USA using converted bombers (with extra fuel tanks and reduced weight from removing weapons).
Aircraft like the HP V/1500 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handley_Page_V/1500 with 17 hour endurance, not at all comfortable to spend that long on the hard wood and leather seats in an open cockpit, wind howling and engines screaming all around you...
And that was probably the real limit of what could be achieved, human endurance, until the advent of enclosed cabins made possible by increased engine power per kilo of mass during the 1930s.
p.s. The Vickers Vimy was used to set world records crossing the Atlantic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vickers_Vimy

  • 1
    Although things did improve much during the war, not nearly to the point of those used in WW2. I'd add that the HP V/1500 was never used in WW1 (see my comment on my answer and the wiki article you linked). Quoting aircraft not used once in WW1 (also the Vickers Vimy and cross-Atlantic airmail) is not helping your argument. BTW, I'm not sure how the Wiki article gets 17 hours for the endurance. That could possibly be a post-WW1 variant used in the Third Anglo-Afghan War. Apr 25 '13 at 15:21
  • @Luke you're wrong, in that you assert the endurance wasn't there. Just claiming that you're not sure figures are correct means nothing. The V/1500 was used, but not operationally. Its first mission was stopped from launching a few minutes before the crews would board when news of the armistice reached their base. The 17 hour figure is probably based on a light load, as are all endurance figures, the range figure tends to be calculated with a typical load instead.
    – jwenting
    Apr 26 '13 at 5:48
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    That's beside my point. We're talking about endurance during a typical WW1 flight. Calculating a heavy bomber's endurance (that was never flown in the war) from its endurance carrying mail with an added fuel tank is not accurate for our purposes. Secondly, I really must argue that aircraft by the end of WW1 were still not on the same page as those of WW2. Look at the HP V/1500. That's a behemoth of a biplane with little semblance to a heavy bomber of WW2 (such as the B-17, for example). Finally I have no idea what the Vickers Vimy has to do with this discussion of WW1 aircraft. Apr 26 '13 at 13:12

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