The War in the Air - From Triplane to Camel, the War's Best Fighters

Manfred von Richthofen, "The Red Baron" Towards the end of "Bloody April" in 1917 (click here for details) the RNAS began to equip their squadrons with a new and astonishing aircraft - the Sopwith Triplane.  This was a development of the Sopwith Pup, but the triplane configuration gave the plane unprecedented manoeuvrability and rate of climb.

The undisputed masters of the Sopwith Triplane were the pilots of the all Canadian "Black Flight," commanded by Raymond Collishaw.  In June and July of 1917 the Black Flight shot down no less than 86 aircraft for the loss of three, of which two were lost to anti-aircraft fire.  This was all the more impressive as they were flying against JG I. (Collishaw was Canada's second highest scoring ace, and survived the war with 68 confirmed victories to his credit.  He served as a commander of a Fleet Air Arm Fighter Group in the Second World War.)

The nimble triplane must have held incredible appeal for a virtuoso pilot such as Richthofen, and with his forces suddenly facing a superior aircraft it is not surprising that he pressed the Idflieg to provide a similar aircraft.

The response of the German and Austrian manufacturers was astonishing.  They produced more than a dozen different triplanes, usually adaptations of existing designs.  But of all these planes the most successful was the Fokker Dr I, designed by Fokker's chief engineer Reinhold Platz.  Richthofen was delighted, saying the planes "are manoeuvrable as the devil and climb like monkeys".

Ironically by this stage the Allies had abandoned production of the Sopwith Triplane, after a production run of a mere 150 planes.  The British had two new, more potent aircraft - the SE5a and the Sopwith Camel.

At about the same time the French were also re-equipping with the Spad XIII, an excellent development of the Spad VII.  Like the Spad the SE5a was powered by an inline engine.  H.P. Folland, the designer of the SE5a, chose this type of engine as it avoided the problems of torque inherent in the rotary engine, making the plane easier to fly.

Powered by a 130 horse-power rotary engine, the Sopwith Camel was slower and much more difficult to fly - almost as many Camel pilots were killed by crashes as by German fighters.  A further development of the Sopwith Pup, the designers had concentrated all the weight in the front half of the fuselage, on or around the centre of gravity.

This gave the Camel tremendous manoeuvrability.  Coupled with the engine's torque the Camel had a lightening fast turn to the right.  In fact it could turn a three quarter turn to the right in the same time as it could make a quarter turn to the left.  In the hands of an experienced pilot the Camel was probably the most potent fighter in the allied arsenal.

All three of these aircraft were armed by twin machine guns.  The Spad and the Camel had twin synchronized guns, while the SE5a had one synchronized gun and one gun firing over the upper wing in similar style to the Nieuport Bebe.

The first prototype of the Dr I triplane was delivered to Werner Voss, commander of Jasta 10, a part of the Flying Circus.  Richthofen had two quick victories in his triplane, but on September 15th he lent it to Kurt Wolff, the commander of Jasta 11, who was shot down by a Sopwith Camel of the Black Flight.

Voss, for his part, enjoyed tremendous success in his plane, but by late September he was also brought down in an epic single-handed dogfight against seven SE5a's.

The Germans were delighted in the plane, until in October 1917 they began to disintegrate in mid-air under the stress of air-combat.  The planes were grounded, only to return to the air, modified and strengthened, in early 1918.

By this stage, however, the Camels, SE5a's and Spads had appeared in large numbers, and unless in the hands of an expert flyer the Dr I was no real match.  Only 320 of these planes were produced.  Their fame far outstrips their true importance, probably due to the fact that the Dr. I remained Richthofen's personal favourite.  It was in this plane that he was brought down in April 1918.  Whether he was shot down by ground fire or by another aircraft remains unclear, but he fell behind Allied lines and was buried by the British with full military honours.

Anton Fokker was to produce one more aircraft during the war, and this was to be, in the eyes of many, the best fighter plane built during the conflict.  This was the Fokker D VII, the winner of a German fighter competition held in January of 1918.

Powered by a 160 horsepower inline engine it was slower than the SE5a and Spad XIII but faster than the Camel.  Another plane designed by Reinhold Platz, it had the perfect combination of strength, speed, high ceiling and manoeuvrability, and might have upset the balance back in the German's favour, had it been produced in numbers comparable to the production of the Allies.

But by this stage in the war German industry was suffering severe shortages, and less than a thousand of these planes reached the front, in comparison to the more than 8,000 Spads, 5,000 SE5as and 5,000 Camels.

So impressive was this plane that the Armistice settlement specifically mentioned that all examples of the D VII, and all its manufacturing facilities, be handed over to the Allies.  Fokker had other ideas.  He quickly disassembled his factory and hid it on farms in the vicinity until he could bribe enough people to smuggle his entire factory by train back to his native Holland.  Fokker was still producing and selling this aircraft well into the 1920s.

The table below shows the important fighter types, their top speeds and the number of machine guns carried.  The table is ordered by top speed.

Airplane Country Speed km/h Speed mph Armament
FB5 Gunbus Britain 113 70 1
Eindecker III Germany 140 87 1
Moraine-Saulnier Type N France 144 89 1
FE2b Britain 147 91 1
DH2 Britain 150 93 1
Nieuport Bebe France 156 97 1
Albatros III Germany 175 109 2
Sopwith Pup Britain 179 111 1
Sopwith Camel Britain 185 115 2
Fokker DR I Germany 185 115 2
Sopwith Triplane Britain 187 116 1
Fokker D VII Germany 188 117 2
Spad VII France 212 132 1
SE5a Britain 222 138 2
Spad XIII France 222 138 2

Article contributed by Ari Unikoski

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War in the Air

Fighter Aircraft