Sopwith’s First World War Part 4 – The Triplane

Following the success the company had been having with the Pup, Sopwith were keen to build further and make even more effective aircraft.

The new design that Sopwith came out with began as a private venture by the Kingston based team, it featured the fuselage and tail of the pup, but had one major difference. Or rather one major addition, a third wing.

One of only two remaining original Triplanes on display at Hendon.

One of only two remaining original Triplanes on display at Hendon.

All three wings were in fact new, narrow chord designs which were intended to provide the pilot with a better view. Unlike other triplane designs the Sopwith had an aileron on each wing, helping provide excellent roll rate. The aircraft also had a very basic trimming system, making hands off flying far easier.

the prototype of the Triplane was given the designation N500 and first flew on the 28th May 1916, flown by then Sopwith test pilot Harry Hawker. Hawker clearly enjoyed the aircraft as no sooner had he taken off than he launched into a series of loops before the assembled crowds, clearly Sopwith’s aims for an agile fighter had come to fruition.

A look inside the snug cockpit of the Triplane.

A look inside the snug cockpit of the Triplane.

Following a month of so of flight testing N500 was sent to Dunkirk for evaluation with “A” Naval squadron on the 1st July. While N500 had been powered by a 110hp Le Rhône.

No more than 15 minutes had passed before N500 had been sent up to intercept enemy aircraft, piloted by Roderick Dallas. The Triplane climbed up to 12,000 feet and engaged with a pair of German Bi-planes, before long one of the enemy aircraft was diving towards the ground. Sopwith’s unusual design had claimed its first victory.

N500 remained the only Triplane on the front for the next few months, picking up another aerial victory against an Albatros on the 30th September.

N500 undergoing evaluation.

N500 undergoing evaluation.

The admiralty were impressed by what they had seen with the triplane and started placing orders in July 1916, by January 1917 they had ordered 95 triplanes.

The first squadron to use the Triplane in anger was No.1 Naval Squadron in December 1916, however they did not see any action until February 1917 following a move to Chippily.

In combat the triplane was found to have an exceptional climb rate and could easily out perform its German contemporary, the Albatros D.III, in all aspects but a high speed dive. Its no secret that the appearance of the Sopwith led to a number of German attempts at the triplane design, the most famous of course being the Fokker Dr.1

Another look at Hendon's Triplane.

Another look at Hendon’s Triplane.

Pilots also soon found out just how good a performer this new design was in the field of aerobatics. Much like Harry Hawker’s first flight pilots found the Triplane a joy to loop and flick roll, even if many bystanders described the appearance of the machine as a “drunk flight of stairs” when performing these manoeuvres.

Despite hugely impressive performance and good results in combat the Triplane had an even shorter career than most of the WW1 fighters, it proved just to difficult to maintain in the field. Design flaws such as not being able to access fuel and oil tanks without taking the wings apart combined with spare parts growing scarcer by the day meaning that by the summer of 1917 squadrons started reducing their Triplane fleets.

The Pups lineage is clearly on display in this design.

The Pup’s lineage is clearly on display in this design.

The design also gained a poor reputation following a number of incidents were the aircraft shed its wings during high speed dives, Sopwith concluded this was due to the type of bracing wires sub-contractor Clayton and Shuttleworth used on their 46 Triplanes.

Above all this, the triplane was also lacking in firepower, only carrying a single machine gun. By June 1917 the first Sopwith Camels had arrived and soon made its superior presence known, meaning that by the end of the year, the only surviving Triplanes were used as trainers with No.12 Naval Squadron.

The Triplane was undoubtedly one of the defining designs of the First World War, not seen in as many numbers as perhaps it should have done, but it led to an icon of the conflict, the Fokker DR.1. Ultimately for Sopwith the structural failures apparent in some of the airframes built elsewhere gave the type a bad reputation from which it was never really going to recover.

Survivors:  

Out of the small selection of airframes to come out of the Tripe’s limited production two original airframes survive.

N5912 

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N5912

The first of the two that will be looked at remains slightly closer to home, in the form of N5912, which can be found on display at the Royal Air Force Museum’s new First World War In The Air exhibition:

The museum’s Triplane was produced in 1917, the aircraft was handed over to the royal flying corps and was used as a training aircraft throughout 1918. The aircraft was struck off charge in 1919 and the passed through a number of hands. Ending up with imperial war museum the aircraft was stored in poor condition in the basement of the science museum between 1924 and 1932. The aircraft was eventually found on a dump in 1936 and was restored by the RAF for a display that year.

The aircraft then went into storage for the duration of the war. Post war the triplane ended up at Hendon in 1945. The next public appearance would be a static display spot at the 1950 Farnborough airshow. After passing through a number of hands during the intervening years including the Fleet air arm and science museums the aircraft was put on display at Hendon in 1971.

N5486

The other surviving original airframe has found itself very far from home, on display at the Central Air Force Museum in Monino, Russia. This aircraft was sent to the Russian Government in 1917 for evaluation trials. As part of these trials the Triplane was fitted with skis. As the war progressed the Russian Air Force did use the Sopwith in combat.

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A Russian Triplane seen here fitted with Skis.

This original airframe now sits on display, with non original Cowlings and Undercarriage, painted in a very strange shade of blue, for reasons that seem to baffle a number of aviation historians!

The "Unique" paint job on the second original Triplane.

The “Unique” paint job on the second original Triplane.

Replicas 

Of course, like many aircraft of the period, a wide range of replicas, both flying and static have been assembled over the years.

Two of these replicas will be very familiar to UK airshow goers:

The Shuttleworth Collection’s replica G-BOCK, was built by the Northern Aeroplane Workshops and is powered by an original Clerget Rotary engine.

A look in the cockpit of Shuttleworth's replica triplane under restoration.

A look in the cockpit of Shuttleworth’s replica Triplane under restoration.

This example, more than any other conveys the speed and manauverabilty that this Sopwith design could achieve, being of original construction and powered by an original engine. Such was the level of workmanship on this design that Sir Thomas Sopwith declared this design to be a “late production” rather than a replica.

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‘BOCK amazed visitors to Old Warden for a great many years until the aircraft was sadly damaged in a landing accident during the 2014 airshow season. Thankfully no-one was seriously injured in the accident and the aircraft is well on the way back to flight once again.

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G-BOCK nearing completion at Old Warden in January 2016.

Another regular in UK skies is G-BWRA a radial powered replica built in 1988, this will be recognisable to many as it forms part of the excellent Great War Display Team. This particular replica is painted up to represent the very first triplane, N500, with a high powered rasping radial this machine certainly makes for an impressive airshow performer.

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G-BRWA on the wrong side of its German counterpart.

A number of Static replicas exist in museums in Canada and the United States as well.

The final remaining flying replica is ZK-SOP, owned and operated by the Vintage Aviator Collection based in New Zealand. This example is also powered by a radial engine.

The next part of this series will progress on to the icon of Sopwith’s First World War, the Camel.

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