In part 1 of this post, I looked at the evolution of air warfare and fighting aircraft between 1914 and 1916, by which point the Germans very much had the upper hand. However as 1917 went on, things started to turn:
With Germany having asserted its dominance through the latter part of 1916 and the allies facing a difficult first half of 1917 with many losses, they started to take back control of the air, thanks to the introduction of a number of new fighter designs to the front line:
The first aircraft to start the pendulum swinging was the Sopwith pup, introduced in October 1916 and it began service with the Royal Naval Air Service.
It proved to be a successful aircraft, scoring 20 victories by the end of the year. The famous German ace, the “Red Baron” Manfred Von Richthofen said of the pup:
“We saw at once the enemy aircraft was superior to ours.”
As well as providing the British with a much-needed upper hand, the Pup was also the first British aircraft to ever land on a moving ship. It is clear to see in hindsight what an important milestone that was.
There is one Pup kept in airworthy condition in the UK at the Shuttleworth Collection. Though originally built as a Sopwith Dove, the aircraft was converted to original Pup standard in 1936.
The aircraft now wears the colours of a Royal Naval Air Service machine that would have served on HMS Manxman for rocket evaluation trials, these rockets were proposed as an anti air ship solution.
Sopwith was a huge company during the war, as well as the Pup they provided the British forces with one of the first triplane designs, which gave the pilots increased maneuverability and speed.
The triplane was introduced in December 1916. It was an impressive machine; fast and very maneuverable thanks to its short wingspan.
However, despite the clear advantages of the “Tripe”, it had a very short operational career owing to; light armament, a lack of spare parts and the fact that the machine was very difficult to repair in the field. They started being withdrawn in June 1917, with the final aircraft being withdrawn in December.
Another key reason for the Triplane’s demise was the introduction of the Sopwith Camel in June 1917. The Camel is of course one of the most famous aircraft of the war, along with the Fokker DR1, and rightly so.
The Camel offered better performance and heavier armament than the Pup or the Triplane, helped by a 130hp rotary engine. Though this extra power did result in torque related handling issues, with the aircraft rolling to the left and climbing whenever power was applied.
There are replicas of both the Triplane and Camel under restoration at the Shuttleworth Collection. Hopefully in the next few years we will be able to see both these Sopwith legends in the skies over Old Warden.
Another impressive aircraft to come from the Sopwith Company was the Snipe, powered by a 230hp Bentley rotary engine it really was the pinnacle of Great War fighter design.
The aircraft even had limited throttle control, a big improvement upon the blipping system referred to in part one.
The Vintage Aviator Ltd in New Zealand have produced 2 replicas of this type, with one example moving to Kermit Weeks Fantasy of Flight collection in Florida. The second example was a static only reproduction which went to the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon.
Having watched numerous videos of the type it is clear that it must have been the ultimate fighting machine at the time. It would be interesting to see an example appear in the UK one day.
A Real Survivor:
Coming from the Royal Aircraft Factory in March 1917, was the SE5a, a single seat bi-plane featuring a Wolsey Viper V8 engine, rather than the rotary power plants favoured by other manufacturers.
The SE5 was one of the fastest fighters of the war, with a top speed of 138mph. Whilst it didn’t quite have the dogfighting prowess of the Camel, it was far safer and easier to fly for novice pilots.
A particularly important survivor is Shuttleworth’s Se5a F904:
It was recently discovered that the aircraft actually saw service during the war flown by Major Charles Pickthorn MC. Shooting down a German aircraft on the 10th November 1918, one day before the war ended, this would have certainly been one of the final recorded victories of the conflict.
The aircraft is still maintained in airworthy condition and can be seen performing regularly at Shuttleworth airshows throughout the summer.
The Bristol Aircraft Company provided a fitting replacement for the FE2b pusher design in April 1917, with the F2b. Powered by a 275hp Rolls Royce Falcon engine the unique fighter provided the British forces with a potent aircraft, capable of 123 MPH.
The F2b was one of the most unique designs to come out of the war, with the fuselage “floating” between the two wings. By the end of the war the Royal Air Force had 1,583 F2bs.
There are 2 original examples of the Bristol left in flying condition today, one with The Vintage Aviator Collection in New Zealand, the other with, of course the Shuttleworth collection, always putting on an impressive show with its unique engine note and imposing size.
The final British fighter I’ll mention is the Bristol M1c, often referred to as the flying bullet. Old Warden is home to a highly detailed replica of the type. This aircraft has one clear difference when compared to the other fighters at the collection, in that it is a monoplane.
Powered by a 110hp rotary engine, with a top speed of 130 miles an hour, it was one of the fastest aircraft at the time of its introduction in 1917.
Despite being an impressive design, the aircraft was under utilized, mostly due to a ban on monoplanes imposed by the Royal Flying Corps in 1912.
Though 125 aircraft were ordered they were largely restricted to flying in the UK and very few were sent to the front. There was only one ace on the type: Frederick Dudley Travers. Claiming 5 victories in the aircraft during September 1918.
Though the aircraft didn’t see much service it remains an impressive aircraft to see perform, where its speed becomes very clear, especially when flown alongside its F2b Stablemate.
The Other Side:
Of course one of the icons of the First World War dogfights was the German Fokker DR1 triplane, introduced in July 1917. It became famous as the mount of a number of aces including the legendary “Red Baron.”
Much like the Sopwith triplane, the Fokker example also had a number of issues.
A cramped cockpit combined with poor visibility when taking off and landing were a start, but it later became apparent that the aircraft was structurally weak, with a number of wing failures.
The last remaining original DR1 was destroyed during the second world war, however a large number of replica DR1s are currently flying around the world. There are currently four of these examples flying in the UK, including two with the Great War Display Team.
The Fokker’s inconsistences, along with similar problems with the newer Albatros aircraft meant that Germany slowly lost their strong footing they had held during the start of 1917.
Progress From War:
Like any technology, aviation was accelerated by the requirements and urgency of war. By the time the First World War ended aviation had taken a huge leap, moving on from observation posts to full-blown war machines.
One development that made a clear statement about the need for air support was when the Royal Flying Corp became the Royal Air Force on the 1st April 1918.
This was of course the first period of accelerated development of aeronautical design, the other key periods of course being the Second World War and the Jet Age.
It is amazing to think that in a period of 15 years, the cutting edge of aircraft technology went from the Wright Flyer through to aircraft like the Snipe and SE5a, which don’t look all that alien to aircraft of later years.
The tactics and techniques developed during the First World War certainly set a precedent for the rest of aviation history and air warfare.
This post has of course largely spoken about the aircraft and technology of the air war. But it is most important that we remember the brave people who fought in World War One; 16.5 million people were lost in the conflict.
We must always remember those we lost in the First World War and every war before and after.
We Will Remember Them.
This concludes the historical look at First World War aviation. Part 3 will look in at the number of people and organisations that are keeping World War 1 aviation history alive.