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From College Park to Ukraine:
A Military Legacy

The military aircraft and aerial weapons which had their beginnings at College Park are key elements of the current Russo-Ukrainian War.

Since the beginning of aviation history in 1903, military use has overwhelmingly influenced aviation development.

But what if it didn't?

February 24, 2023 marked the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Europe’s most devastating war since World War II.

Aerial warfare began on the first day of the invasion, and has played a central role on both sides.


College Park Aviation Airport was the birthplace of U.S. military aviation. The Wrights secured the U.S. government’s first aviation contract for an airplane and training, and in 1909 Wilbur Wright trained two army officers to fly at College Park Airport. The Airport then became the site for the Army Signal Corps Aviation School, the world’s first military aviation school--one of the many firsts which earned College Park Airport the nickname the “Field of Firsts."

The Russo-Ukrainian War showcases the contemporary state of military aviation technology and warfare, which has drastically changed in the 110+ years since the birth of military aviation at College Park Airport. 

Through the lens of this war, this digital exhibit will briefly examine the military impact on aviation development and explore what aviation advancements might look like without military influence or a focus on warfare.

Since early on...

aviation development has been tied to military use.

But, there were disagreements as to the role of airplanes in military use. As the Signal Corps, under the U.S. Army, shifted focus from balloons and dirigibles to airplanes, two perspectives dominated the dialogue.

One perspective was that the airplane should be used solely for reconnaissance and observation. Airplanes flying over front lines would report troop movements, weapons buildups, and other battlefield notes back to headquarters. Some believed combat and bombing weren't feasible or effective with the types of airplanes in existence. Others debated the ethics of bombing civilians outside front lines.

And since Signal Corp's role was information-gathering and communication, its airplanes should engage primarily in reconnaissance.

The Wright Aeroplane at College Park Airport, 1909. Photo: College Park Aviation Museum

Leading up to World War I, a second school of thought argued that airplanes could be developed into more effective weapons of war. For example, some of the officer-pilots stationed at College Park had ideas about this, and with the approval of their supervisors, undertook tests in arming airplanes for combat.

Two U.S. Army officers who learned to fly at College Park Airport, Capt. Paul Beck and Lieut. Henry "Hap" Arnold, 1911-1912. Photo: College Park Aviation Museum

An early bombsight 1910s_Wiki PD_edited.jpg

An early bombsight, 1910s. Photo: George Johnson, Aviation Section, US Army Signal Corps vis Wikimedia

West Point graduate Lieutenant Riley E. Scott brought his bombsight and bomb-dropping device... the College Park Army Signal Corps Aviation School for unofficial testing in October 1911.

The idea of dropping bombs from the air had been around since before the Civil War, and the 1910s were a time of bomb testing in the United States and Europe.

Lieut. Riley Scott's “Aero Bomb” strapped to the bottom of a Wright Model B for a test of his bombsight invention, 1911. Photo: Courtesy of Library of Congress

Scott performed his tests by lying prone on the lower wing of a Wright Model B airplane and accurately dropped two 18-pound bombs from a height of 400 feet. Although the tests were successful, the Army declined to buy the bombsight.


Lieut. Riley Scott. Photo: College Park Aviation Museum

Scott’s work and the development of an accurate bombsight was caught up in debates around bombing civilians and the idea of “collateral damage." 

Like Scott, pilots across the country were innovating and offering recommendations to develop bombing capabilities for aircraft, but military leadership was not always receptive. As a result, the U.S. Army entered World War I without its own bombsight, and instead used a British one on their airplanes.

At College Park Airfield, Riley E. Scott prepares two 18-pound bombs to be carried into the air by pilot Captain Thomas Milling in a Wright B at the US Army Signal Corps Aviation School, October 11, 1911. The flight is to test Scott's invention of the world's first practical bombsight. Photo: College Park Aviation Museum

Over the next century, as the nature of war changed so too did bomb and bomb-dropping. Aircraft bombing became a staple in warfare by World War II, but in the 21st century, missile warfare has largely taken over.

Bombs are dropped on their target, while missiles are propelled through the air, sometimes with an internal guidance system.

Did you know?

Previous fears around bombing’s indiscriminate destruction have been realized.

Missiles and bombs dropped by drones have caused much destruction across Ukrainian cities and territory. Waves of missile and drone attacks on Ukraine by the Russian military have destroyed train stations, malls, apartment buildings, and houses. Russian forces specifically target power plants to deprive and demoralize Ukrainian civilians. Strikes on cities have killed and injured tens of thousands of civilians.

People gather in a subway station being used as a bomb shelter during a Russian rocket attack in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Feb. 10, 2023. Photo and caption: AP/Efrem Lukatsky


In a haunting “cemetery,” the wreckage of over one thousand Russian missiles launched at Ukraine are gathered in Kharkiv province. They have been collected since the first attack and are organized by type, intended to be used in future prosecution against Russian authorities and soldiers. Photo: AP/Kyodo


By late 2022, nearly half of the country’s energy infrastructure was destroyed leaving almost half of Ukrainian civilians without electricity or heat.

Rescuers dismantle the rubble of a destroyed apartment building that was damaged as a result of a missile attack by the Russian army on January 14, 2023. As of January 15, 30 people had died, 73 were injured, and 43 were missing. Photo: Sergei Chuzavkov /SOPPA Images/Sipa USA/AP

Just as the aeronautical use of missiles and bombs can trace their history to College Park Airport... too can helicopters.


Emile Berliner, a German-immigrant inventor based in Washington, DC, and his son Henry arrived at College Park Airport in 1919 to continue prior experiments into vertical flight. This led to their creation of the first successful helicopter.

On February 24, 1924, the Berliners tested their helicopter in front of Navy officials and reporters in what is considered the first controlled helicopter flight. 

The work of the Berliners was an important step in vertical flight, which would eventually lead to the modern helicopter.

Emile Berliner with early experiment in vertical flight, College Park, 1920. Photo: College Park Aviation Museum

Father and son Emile and Henry Berliner tested various design ideas of the first practical helicopter at College Park between 1919-1924. Photo: College Park Aviation Museum

Already successful inventors known for the gramophone, their 1924 Model D Berliner helicopter demonstrated that vertical lift aircraft could be controlled in numerous directions. 

Later model of a Berliner helicopter on a runway, ca 1924. Photo: College Park Aviation Museum

Since Igor Sikorsky's first modern helicopter in the 1939, continual advancements in vertical flight have developed helicopters into major military vehicles and weapons. Helicopters have played a role in American warfare from Korea to Iraq, first as resupply and medical evacuation, and then as combat support.

Ready to pick up casualities, a helicopter hovers over a wounded GI on a tiny landing zone on Hill 875, Dak To, Vietnam during the Vietnam War, November 23, 1967.

Photo: AP Photo/Al Chang


U.S. helicopters line up on Route 13, near the headquarters of the 1st Infantry Division 3rd Brigade, in November 1965, before ferrying troops on a search-and-destroy mission in the Michelin rubber plantation, long a Viet Cong stronghold about 50 miles northwest of Saigon. Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS via AP Photo

Vertical flight development in the military has mirrored the progression of airplanes in warfare—first used for reconnaissance, then eventually for combat.


The current phase of this evolution in vertical flight is drone warfare.


Drones are playing a significant role in the Russo-Ukrainian War.

Both sides have used drones for reconnaissance and combat, marking the first time the devices have been deployed in a war on European soil.

In previous conflicts, drones were used in American strikes in the Middle East, the Syrian Civil War, and by Azerbaijan in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. Equipped with cameras, bombs, missiles, and machine guns, drones are effective in both locating and striking enemy targets.

"Drones" can refer to any unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). When talking about the Russo-Ukrainian War, "drones" refer to both fixed wing UAV's shaped like an airplane, and unmanned quadcopters—drones with four rotors that use vertical takeoff and landing. In this exhibit, "drones" will refer to both kinds of drones.

The Ukrainian military uses Turkish Bayraktar drones, which requires a runway and is controlled by a ground control station aircrew. for combat. Smaller repurposed commercial drones are mainly used for surveillance. Here, a drone operator launches a quadcopter to observe kamikaze drones in flight. Photos (Left): AP Photo/Francisco Seco. Photo and caption (Right): Mykhaylo Palinchak / SOPA Images/Sipa USA, Sipa via AP Images


What is unprecedented about drone use in this war is the wide use of drones and the proliferation of smaller, commercially available, low-cost quadcopters. Both sides have been increasingly using drones of all sizes and types, as military drones have become more affordable than ever. This has led to never-before-seen drone-on-drone conflict—drones attacking or capturing other drones in the air.

Commercial drones can be modified to carry cameras and, less commonly, explosives, and are widely available and cheap enough to be purchased in large numbers. 

Countries with less-funded militaries, who previously might not have developed high-end military drones, now have access to this new type of airpower—drone warfare and surveillance—through these commercial quadcopters and cheaper fixed wing military drones.

Drones, like missiles, have made it easier to target cities and civilians and have led to indiscriminate civilian deaths and injuries. In night-time raids, Russian forces have launched over 600 drones at Ukrainian cities. They target power stations, leaving Ukrainians vulnerable to the freezing winter. Drones are also used as a weapon of terror: “kamikaze” drones hover above a target until instructed to attack, then nosedive and explode on impact.

A residential building in Kyiv, Ukraine that was destroyed by a drone strike that killed at least 4 people on October 18, 2022. Photo: Oleksii Chumachenko / SOPA Image/Sipa USA, Sipa via AP Images


As of February 2023, the Ukrainian Defense Forces have been able to shoot down many drones, claiming to have destroyed at least 80% of those launched.

In a Russian drone attack on Kyiv, the roof of a building is damaged by the falling fragments of a kamikaze drone in the Shevchenkivskyi district of Kyiv, capital of Ukraine. On December 14, 2022, Russian invaders launched 13 Shahed kamikaze drones at Ukraine, all of which were shot down by the Ukrainian Air Defense Forces, according to preliminary reports. Photo and caption: ASSOCIATED PRESS via AP Photo


The Ukrainian military uses drones with small bombs to attack Russian forces. Both military and commercial drones are extensively used for surveillance, reconnaissance, and fire support.

A Ukrainian volunteer unit practices flying drones for Ukrainian military intelligence during training for drone pilots. Photo: Sipa USA via AP

Previously, it was assumed that drones would not play a major role in war because of their vulnerability to anti-aircraft fire. But the New York Times recently reported that, “Increasingly military experts view Ukraine as a testing ground for state-of-the-art weapons and information systems that may foreshadow warfare for generations to come.” 

The indiscriminate casualties that missiles and drones cause have prompted discussions around the devastating effects of remote warfare.

The Russo-Ukrainian War demonstrates the growing use of remote warfare and its destructive potential.

There are multiple benefits to using drones. They can conduct smaller-scale, more accurate attacks than piloted planes, can be used as a de-escalation technique, and protect the lives of their operators.

In an example of remote warfare, a Ukrainian servicemember smokes a cigarette as he observes and reports enemy movement during a drone reconnaissance mission in the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut on December 29th, 2022. Photo: Sipa USA via AP

However, the consequences of drone use can be significant and devastating. The further away the decision-makers to launch a drone strike are from the actual killing, the less they weigh factors like collateral damage. Studies have shown that drones kill more civilians than pilots do. They can also cause lasting psychological trauma in their operators, and can deeply traumatize civilian populations.


As drone technology advances, it is becoming more likely that drones will continue to be used in warfare. Together with missiles, these aerial weapons will extend the range of military attack well beyond the frontlines and bring the terror and destruction of war to the doorsteps of civilians.


President Joe Biden meets with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky at the White House, December 2022. Photo: Sipa USA via AP

During war, airplanes are also used for...

...diplomatic measures and volunteer efforts. In the Russo-Ukrainian War, by carrying politicians and international recruits, they blur frontlines and expand local wars into global issues. 

To garner and express support of Ukraine, planes transported politicians like Nancy Pelosi, former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and even President Biden to the country, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the US and UK.

President Zelensky visited the White House and delivered a speech to Congress in December 2022. A few weeks later, he was in the UK, where he met King Charles III and visited Ukrainian troops being trained by British armed forces with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. He used his visits to encourage those countries to continue to supply the Ukrainian military with weapons and equipment. 


President Volodymyr Zelensky presented Congress with flag signed by Ukrainian troops after delivering a speech at a Joint Session of Congress on December 21, 2022 in Washington DC. In the speech, he thanked “Every American” for their support of Ukraine. Earlier that day, he had presented a Ukrainian military medal to President Biden in the Oval Office and pressed for further support for Ukraine. Photo: Sipa USA via AP


UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meet Ukrainian troops being trained on British tanks at a military facility in Dorset, UK on February 8, 2023. During the same visit, the British government announced plans to expand the training to include jet pilots and marines as well as the acceleration of the supply of military equipment. Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS via AP Photo

Soon after the invasion, military volunteers from various countries joined the foreign fighters unit of the Ukrainian military. 

Far fewer actually joined from those who initially expressed an interest, and from the 20,000 who volunteered, the majority were rejected. Because the airspace over Ukraine is closed, those who were accepted likely flew to a neighboring country and entered by car, train, or on foot.

Careful to weed out extremists and the inexperienced, the Ukrainian military has accepted volunteer soldiers with combat experience from the U.S., U.K., and Georgia, among others in the newly-created International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine. This new unit supplements a Georgian foreign legion formed in 2014.


In February 2022, a few days before the Russian invasion, an instructor shows a young woman how to use a grenade during a training with members of the Georgian Legion. This paramilitary unit was formed in 2014 mainly by ethnic Georgian volunteers to fight against Russian aggression in Ukraine, and has continued throughout the 2022-2023 conflict. Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS via AP Photo


Two foreign fighters from the Georgian Legion—24 year old Justin Dee from New York, a former US soldier, center, and 25-year old Emanuel Bazanji from Albania, a former professional soldier—are pictured training in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Jan. 4, 2022. The paramilitary unit, formed mainly by ethnic Georgian volunteers to fight against Russian aggression in Ukraine in 2014, now includes people of various nationalities. Photo and caption: ASSOCIATED PRESS via AP Photo

Early on in the 2022 invasion, Ukrainian President Zelensky made a global appeal for “friends of Ukraine, democracy, and freedom” to join the fight.

A foreign legion spokesperson says that U.S. volunteers tend to have backgrounds from a wide variety of conflict zones — everything from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya—as well as fighters with private contractor experience in Africa. But for the recruits from nearer countries in Central and Eastern Europe, their motivations are more personal: that "they're going to the front lines to defend the region, not just Ukraine."

Image:, Accessed March 2023

With our past...

By 1911, many people, both civilian and military...

...recognized the potential that planes had for waging aggressive war once armed with guns and bombs.

Early officer trainers at the College Park Army Signal Corps Aviation School, receiving little direction from their superiors, assumed that their mantle was to “develop the airplane into a military weapon the best we could.”


Orville Wright, who lived long enough to see an airplane deliver an atomic bomb, once predicted that airplanes would make war obsolete because of their ability to spot enemy troops. 

The fact that Orville assumed governments would have a military interest in planes—and was proven correct when the U.S. military agreed to the purchase of and training on the Wright Military Flier—speaks to a mindset about aviation for warfare that still persists today.

The U.S. government was not interested in planes for the military until they saw the French government's interest. But their acquisition of Wright and Curtiss planes saw immediate use in the Mexican Revolution and World War I.

Orville Wright talking with Hap Arnold and Thomas DeWitt Milling, two early aviators who were trained by Orville before become flight instructors at College Park Signal Corps Army Aviation School. Photo: College Park Aviation Museum

"Army Aero School, College Park, Maryland on Baltimore & Ohio Railroad between Washington and Baltimore." Photo: College Park Aviation Museum

Officers training to fly in the US Army Signal Corps Aviation School, 1911. Photo: College Park Aviation Museum

Still, there were some who disagreed with using planes for more than supply transport and reconnaissance.

One Brigadier General protested against testing machine guns and bombs on airplanes, worried about its effects on civilians. He was confident that “when used in General destructive work against noncombatants, dislike of this method of attack must always exist.”

But even he suspected that “effective and terrible” attacks from the sky were inevitable. Instead, the General hoped that indiscriminate aerial attacks would become “forbidden to all civilized people; and forbidden at least by paper agreements.”

A Wright Model B parked next to one of the hangars at College Park Airport, ca 1911. Photo: College Park Aviation Museum

A residential building destroyed by a Russian drone strike on a residential building in central Kyiv, from which at least four people have been killed on the morning of October 17, 2022. (AP)


...are there new futures?


A Russian soldier launches a self-destructing suicide drone from an unknown location as the Russia's military invasion in Ukraine continues, fall 2022. Photo: Sputnik via AP

Jump forward to today...

and drones and missiles are now ubiquitous in warfare, without any indication of going away.


However, it is important to consider the implications of innovating aviation around such strong military goals.

There are significant upsides and downsides of aviation’s strong ties to the military.

Government funding of military aviation to ensure its country’s protection and survival is an undeniable support of aviation development.


In Bavaria, a medication drone unloads a medication package, testing a new approach of an e-prescription and delivery service, October 22, 2022. Photo: Daniel Vogl/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

What possibilities for aviation use and innovation would exist for emergency health or fighting climate change or pandemics?

(On the other hand, would big aviation advances like space flight have happened without the military funding?) 

But where would space exploration, high-speed travel, supply chains, or humanitarian relief be if aviation advanced with those as its focus?  


In a presentation of an experimental program test, a reconnaissance drone takes off in search of a wild boar infected with African swine fever. Drones, equipped with a thermal imaging camera and extreme zoom lenses, would attempt to detect game and carcasses from the air and support search teams on the ground in an emergency. Photo: Jens B'ttner/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images


Drones are one of the the fastest growing sectors in aviation technology today—a huge industry that thrives apart from military purposes.

A drone is used for a test flight transporting human tissue between two hospitals in Belgium, August 23, 2022. Photo: Dirk Waem/Belga/Sipa USA, Sipa via AP Images

Watching the progress of the Russo-Ukrainian War, it is easy to see how aviation technology brings immense capability and destruction.
But it is equally important to consider the limitations of military-centered aviation innovation.

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