Airplane | World War II (1938)

1491457-6405352 - Seibel Kelsey - May 3, 2016 923 PM - Seibel image

United States War Airplane, from New York World’s Fair, retrieved from

Airplanes in World War II and How They Shaped Lives Today

By Kelsey Seibel

“I must place on record my regret that the human race ever learned to fly,” announced Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1953, lamenting the trauma of World War II. Airplanes made a quick transformation from the Wright brother’s first flight in 1903. The Aeronautical Revolution from 1918-1938 allowed citizens to realize airplanes’ potential outside of the military and thus, propelled airplanes into the era of commercial transportation they are recognized as today. The end of the revolution marks the beginning of airplanes’ largest development, World War II. With no international laws regulating aerial assaults, or airplane construction, the Luftwaffe, Nazi Germany’s air force, began attacking unsuspecting cities leaving them completely destroyed. Similarly, Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor inspiring the creation of the atomic bomb. Airplanes serve as a testament to the consequence of human innovation. Emissions from airplanes are planned to continue to rise until 2050 when the airlines and engineers feel they can get them under control. Therefore, due to aeronautic innovations necessitated by World War II, airplanes became an integral component of commercial life, leading to uncontrolled emissions, civil uncertainty, and an impeccable marker for the Anthropocene.

The atomic bombs dropped by the Boeing B-29 Superfortress dramatically ended the Pacific Theatre of World War II and transformed the size of warplanes. The two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States cost $2 billion dollars to construct but the B-29 Superfortress cost $3 billion alone. At the time, it was the largest plane used in World War II. Since this was the time of the Great Acceleration, the science and technology required to develop the bombs and planes was unimaginable due to their rapid evolution. The destruction of many cities in World War II called for the re-evaluation of recent advances in military technology. Two of the most influential global “triumphs”, the airplane and the atomic bomb, killed almost 200,000 people in a month’s time which many felt was unacceptable. Some even felt that these so called “triumphs” symbolized the destruction of humankind since their abilities were beyond what anyone could predict leading into their large impacts on the Anthropocene.

As a result of the atomic bombs, an initial boom in nuclear weapon testing occurred to assess the real “damage” of what bombs will do outside the localized impacts. By 1963, treaties banning nuclear testing developed along with the proliferation of anti-nuclear attitudes. The long lasting impression of World War II technology is typically seen as the atomic bomb, but what has lasted beyond that is the airplane. The airplane may not have actually detonated, but it was essential to delivering the bomb and advancements have not stopped. Larger planes require larger, less efficient engines pulling into one of their direct effects on the Anthropocene. Plane engines became a huge demand and target in World War II and subsequently after as well. In the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS), an impartial panel analyzed the effects of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Nagasaki, a main target was the Mitsubishi engine factory which was left at 20-25% capacity after the attack. This eliminated any possibility of Japan retaliating due to limited ability for them to produce more airplanes. The efficiency of airplanes during and after the war also comes to question since the expansion happened so quickly. Human innovation has always been on the edge of the question, has it gone too far? The unknown damage airplanes caused during and after World War II on the entire Earth due to emissions is concerning. Airplanes produce the most emissions of all forms of transportation today displaying their large contribution to climate change and the Anthropocene.

Plants similar to Mitsubishi in the United States sparked a large development of commercial aircraft as well as climate change. With large scale planes left from World War II, they created more possibilities for commercial flight distances but the military grade engines did not account for their environmental impacts. Many of these used jet craft engines which require much larger amounts of gasoline than previous models of airplanes. A study published in the International Journal of Climatology based on flight logs of Allied air campaigns at the end of World War II, noticed that the air turned cooler after being exposed to contrails, a cloud like emission released from airplanes. Contrails are difficult to track because during the daytime they can reflect heat, but they preserve in the atmosphere for hours and at night they trap heat giving a warming effect.  These changes in atmospheric temperature cause environments to collapse and with extended use, may alter the air temperatures forever. However, there are other harmful elements from airplanes other than those released in the contrails. In 1970, the United States conducted a hearing evaluating the emissions from commercial airplanes around airports and their effects on the atmosphere. Presented to the Committee on Commerce and Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution from the Committee on Public Works, the Secretary of the Department of Transportation Honorary John A. Volpe explained that jet craft engines’ emissions “on a national average…are a significant factor at airports and at areas near airports, and they are particularly questionable to the public.” Public disproval was concerning because it meant airplanes transitioned to something more hazardous than new and innovative. Due to this, the Department of Transportation created new burner cans to reduce the amount of smoke released from plane exhausts. An important statement the Department of Transportation made was that controlling particulate matter discharged and oxides released from nitrogen was not a priority or deemed feasible based on the information that they had. It was not until thirty-three years later when the EPA worked with NASA to conduct tests on particulate matter released by jet airplanes. They published their findings in 2009 and said that the International Civil Aviation Organization was interested in beginning to regulate the amount of particulate matter released. They concluded with results as wide as an emission index range of 10 to 550 mg/kg of fuel burned depending on different filters and techniques used to evaluate the emissions and help improve the amounts released. The variability in their results made them concerned for how much damage was occurring proving that particulate matter should have been a priority. The range also displays the inconsistency in airplanes across the world. Of the over 1,100 orders Boeing has for its 787 Dreamliner, a more efficient model of airplane, only 280 had been delivered as of June, 2015. Humankind pushed itself into the Anthropocene with the airplane, and has now brought itself down due to its inability to mitigate the airplane’s harmful environmental effects.

Regret for humankind’s attainment of flight may not be unreasonable. Today, advancements such as using one engine while taxiing and creating more efficient engines has helped lessen environmental ramifications, but engineers have reached a point where further improvement to the current model of airplanes is unlikely. World War II increased the production of airplanes, as well as their emissions, without accounting for the effects of humankind’s ultimate reliance on air crafts. Airplane transportation is now the leading emitter of harmful particles that dramatically alter the climate. Without solutions in sight, airplanes are a perfect example of how humans create and abuse technology initiating the Anthropocene.


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