Right from the start the Red Army was aware of the importance of aviation, and attempted to get as many planes in the air as it could. With their love of bureaucracy and central control they quickly devised a system of detachments, designated as fighters, bombers, reconnaissance etc. Later fans of military aviation have taken this at face value and the result is a ridiculous over-assessment of the importance of Red aviation. The Soviets faced several extreme problems getting planes into the air.
Firstly, almost all the experienced pilots were either on the White side already or suspect politically, so giving them a plane was tantamount to letting them defect.
Fuel was a major issue. All the petrol producing areas (Galicia, Baku, Guriev) fell to the Whites early on. This also affected the Soviet armoured cars and is one reason why they were less effective than their numbers would suggest.
With no parts from foreign sources, keeping planes operational for any length of time was difficult. Planes literally broke apart in the air due to maintenance issues.
Finally, moving an airfield to the front was not a trivial task. By the time that the requisite trains and vehicles had been found, the lines may have moved significantly anyway. Aviation tended to be successful in the fronts that did not move much.
The Astrakhan front was unusual in being effectively stationary for a year, but that did not mean many sorties were flown. A report of Sergei Kirov reads:
12 July 1919, No. 464
British vehicles continue to systematically bombard Astrakhan. They arrive with four or five machines. In addition, there are enemy airplanes in Guriev, Laganski and other places.
We have only the 47th squadron, which has only one serviceable craft, a Nieuport 23. The other three machines require long-term renovation, due to continuous combat flights. That is carried out here.
There are four pilots in the detachment. Needed in the most urgent order to send reliable reconnaissance vehicles for long-distance reconnaissance types Albatross, Alfauge [?] or Rumpler, as well as fighter vehicles of the Vickers, Sopwith types or Nieuport 24 bis.
Also, if we don't get the expected gasoline, then the situation with fuel is critical. There is only a bad alcohol mixture, combat flights on which are impossible. I ask for a Kazan mixture of brand "a".
That isn't to say that no Red pilots flew, because fairly soon after that report a couple of Red planes took to the air from Astrakhan, forcing one of the British ones down. But with the technical difficulties involved, a few flights a month might be all a pilot could manage.
Most enemy airforces were not much better off, for the same reasons. However, the AFSR and Poles, who had an Allied supply of machines, technicians, good fuel and more experienced pilots, were able to fly much more regularly and effectively.
With reliable planes being in short supply, their primary use was reconnaissance. They were highly prized for this in a war where the location of the enemy was everything.
They were also used to transport messages and commanders to difficult locations quickly. There was always a risk the plane would have a fault and crash or end up in enemy territory, so it was a risky business.
Aerial combat was rare. Running into an enemy plane was quite unlikely in the vast spaces, and an outnumbered party would usually avoid combat anyway. The prolonged White attacks on Astrakhan were unusual in that the Reds knew where the enemy would be.
Effective bombing was even rarer. The only targets that made sense to bomb were large, slow moving ones – which tended to mean trains and boats. They could also be strafed if the bombs missed. Sometimes the payload was leaflets or other propaganda materials, which could be easily distributed on a reconnaissance mission.
The one time aviation was genuinely effective against ground targets was strafing cavalry. A plane making even a single pass could seriously disrupt a cavalry formation, even though actual casualties would be low. The Poles made the Konarmiya's progress much slower this way by repeated attacks. Note though that the extreme difficulty of distinguishing friend from foe from the air meant that this did not occur during combat, but only during the march period before. Even then many planes attacked their own side if the unit was somewhere unexpected.
Historically, a Red unit on the ground could not expect any support at all from the air.
For campaign games, the reconnaissance roles would be very important.
An amazing mix of late Great War planes were used. Some of them can be seen at Chandelle.