Ed Jackson is a U.S. Air Force veteran with an interest in historical aviation living in Okinawa, Japan where he teaches as well as pursues graduate studies. Ed is also a graphic artist specializing in antique autos and aviation related art. See his work at artbyedo.com.
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The Meteor is an active radar guided beyond visual range (BVR) air to air missile produced by MBDA. It has entered service with the Swedish Air Force as of April 2016 on the JAS 39 Gripen. The notable feature of the Meteor is it’s ramjet technology, which enables the missile’s rocket motor to be throttle controlled, which combined with the missile’s advanced guidance make it extremely responsive to it’s target’s evasive maneuvers.
The Meteor was developed in response to several European nations’ need to begin considering the next generation of air to air missiles, with the ability to not only engage conventional manned airborne threats, but also unmanned vehicles and cruise missiles. The missile will be utilized by the air forces of the UK, Germany, Italy, France, Spain and Sweden. The Meteor will eventually by equipped by the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Dassault Rafale, the Saab Gripen, and eventually Britain’s F35 Joint Strike Fighters with the introduction of its Block 4 software.
The Meteor is being manufactured at MBDA’s facility in Lostock, Scotland.
The propulsion system, a ramjet, utilizes solid fuel with a variable ducted flow. The “no escape zone” is reportedly larger than any other air to air missile in production due to the missile’s ability to engage “maximum thrust” when in final pursuit of the target. The weapon’s electronics and propulsion control unit (ECPU) adjusts the cruise speed depending on launch conditions and the target’s altitude by controlling the ramjet’s intake ducts. The unit monitors the remaining fuel, maintaining ‘cruise’ mode whilst avoiding “full throttle” until the final stage of closing in. The ‘no escape zone’ is a cone shaped area calculated by the guidance software wherein the target will be unable to evade using it’s own maneuverability. As soon as the target is within the ’no escape zone’ the missile will usually accelerate to full throttle.
Externally, the Meteor has two square intake sections affixed to the aft of the length of the missile. The Meteor only has four rear fins for maneuverability but they enable it to perform bank to turn maneuvers.
In addition to it’s active radar guidance seeker, which is shared with the MICA and ASTER series of missiles, the Meteor possesses two-way data link capabilities that allow it to continue communication with the targeting systems on the airframe it was fired from which itself may be receiving linked targeting information from other sources. This allows the weapon to more reliably pursue targets through cluttered countermeasure environment and report back it’s functional status. The guidance section also has its own IMS or inertial measurement system, enabling the missile to ‘dead reckon’ it’s location in the battle space relative to where it was launched from in it’s terminal phase.
The high explosive blast fragmentation warhead utilizes both impact and RF proximity fuzes which detonate to inflict ‘maximum lethality.’ It is capable of rail or ejection launching.
The maximum range of the missile is classified, but a report noted during a head on engagement test mentioned a distance “well in excess of 100 kilometers.”
The Meteor features an active radar guided seeker head which is capable of engaging in all weather.
United States (1956) Air to Air Missile – Over 200,000 Built
The Sidewinder is a supersonic, heat seeking, air to air missile for use by fighter aircraft. The missile was originally developed for the U.S. Navy for fleet defense, but was subsequently adapted for wider usage by the U.S. Air Force. The AIM-9 achieved the first successful combat use of a guided air to air missile. It has become the most used missile by Western air forces, with it’s low cost and reliable track record. Its code word is “FOX-2,” which refers to the launch of an infrared guided missile. The Sidewinder is estimated to have 270 aircraft kills. An example of the current unit cost of one Sidewinder is $603,817 for one AIM-9X Block II (2015).
The AIM-9 Sidewinder is the world’s most successful short-range air-to-air missile, and will remain the U.S. military’s main “dogfight” AAM until at least 2055.
In the 1950s the United States Navy went about developing a short range air to air missile that could be used during combat. The missile was originally developed by the United States Navy at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California. William B. McLean were experimenting with proximity fuzes sensitive to infrared heat. Being involved in R&D, it was not officially sanctioned for their office to develop weapons. As such their ‘intelligent’ fuze was kept under wraps and developed by volunteers using spare parts for several years, with the ultimate goal of building a heat seeking air to air missile. The final design featured a gyroscopic mirror spinning at around 4,000 RPMs behind a glass cover on the front of the missile. It utilized a lead-sulfide detector as it’s ‘eye’ which kept the assembly focused on the infrared source of the target. Issues with roll and target tracking were overcome with the invention of ‘rollerons’ which were wheels mounted to the tail fins of the missile to stabilize it in flight. The guidance section utilized circuits comprised of 14 tubes and 24 moving parts, a remarkable achievement in the 1950s.
After it became clear that its new technologies offered superior performance over the USAF’s own AIM-4 Falcon, the Air Force began using the Sidewinder on most of its combat aircraft.
The first kill from a Sidewinder missile was on September 24th 1958, when F86 Sabers belonging to The Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) ambushed a flight of MiGs belonging to the People’s Republic of China (PLAAF) during the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis .
During this conflict, one AIM-9B struck one of the PLAAFs MiG-17s without detonating, enabling the pilot to safely bring the aircraft back to base. The Soviets used this to reverse engineer their own copy of the Sidewinder, dubbed the Vympel K-13 or AA-2 Atoll (NATO).
AIM-9s were used extensively in Vietnam by the USAF and the US Navy. The two services combined scored 82 air to air victories out of 452 Sidewinders fired, resulting in a kill probability of 18%. Sidewinders of this period often flew up into the exhaust of their targets before detonating just aft of the wing.
Today though various upgrades and variants the AIM-9 is being used by most Western countries, with many more equipped with the Soviet copied K-13.
The missile’s primary components consist of an infrared guidance section with active optical target detection, a high explosive warhead, and rocket motor. The principles of the infrared guidance allow it to ‘home in’ on a target aircraft’s exhaust heat signature. The missile’s seeker must be cooled to extremely low temperatures to achieve effective operation. This operation makes the missile a ‘fire and forget,’ and relatively immune to electronic countermeasures.
Early versions of the missile had to be fired at the rear of the target to maintain an effective lock. The seventies saw the introduction of the AIM-9L which was capable of “all aspect” usage, meaning it could be fired at a target from all directions. This even meant that a target could be engaged head-on, a factor that has since significantly impacted aerial combat doctrines.
The Sidewinder is also capable of being equipped to rotary wing aircraft, such as the AH-1 SuperCobra. AIM-9Xs have also been successfully tested against ground targets and have proven useful against light ground targets.
AIM-9B – The first joint service production version of the Sidewinder, utilizing an uncooled detector with thermionic (i.e. vacuum tube circuits) and possessing a top speed of around 1.7 mach, making its combat debut in 1958.
AIM-9D – The first Navy version implemented numerous changes and upgrades. The seeker head was now cooled and the warhead size was more than doubled to 25 lbs. The 9D and all other subsequent models could achieve speeds of 2.5 mach or above. The 9D also achieved dozens of kills during Vietnam.
AIM-9E The first USAF version, utilizing a peltier electronic cooling device for its seeker head, meaning that the seeker could remain in continuous operation during flight. It also integrated a few solid state components into the guidance section. The canards were changed to a square tip double delta arrangement to improve angle of attack performance. Around 5,000 9Bs were rebuilt as 9Es. The 9E achieved six kills during the Vietnam period.
AIM-9G – The 9G was an upgrade of the 9D for the Navy, utilizing a Sidewinder Extended Acquisition Mode (SEAM) allowing the missile to be slaved to the onboard radar or helmet sight.
AIM-9H – This version was a further evolution of the 9G produced in the early 70s and seeing limited use during Vietnam. It retained the G’s optical system, but the electronics were upgraded to solid state. A thermal battery replaced the previous turbo alternator. It also had an increased tracking rate and stronger actuators. The 9Hs fired in Vietnam reportedly had the best kill rate of any missile of the period.
AIM-9J – The Juliet was developed from the 9E for use by the USAF in the early 70s, and saw changes to the forward canards, offering incremental improvements in maneuverability, speed, and range. 6,700 built and widely exported.
AIM-9L – The first ‘all-aspect’ Sidewinder. With the introduction of the Lima in 1976, the missile was once again a joint-service model, developed from the 9H and capable of hitting a target from any direction, including head on. Characterized by a now standard natural metal finish on the guidance control section, it first saw combat with 2 US Navy F-14 Tomcats shot down 2 Libyan Su-22 Fitters in the Gulf of Sidra in 1981. In the Falklands conflict it saw large scale use by the United Kingdom, achieving an 80% kill ratio as compared to the Vietnam era versions with around a 15% kill ratio.
AIM-9M – An evolution of the Lima with upgrades only to the guidance section, improving capabilities against infrared countermeasures and ‘background rejection.’ The Mike was first deployed in 1982. Subvariants of the Mike include versions for the Navy and Air Force and were the mainstay of the USAF and USN short range AA capability from the 80s to the introduction of the 9X.
AIM-9R – The 9R was a prototype project that began in the late 80s that aimed to introduce digital imaging and programmable software into the guidance section allowing for aiming of the vulnerable area of a target. The R was being developed by the Naval Weapons Center and had flown live fire trials until the early 90s when its funding was cut in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
AIM-9X – In the mid eighties the Soviet Union developed and deployed successful infrared countermeasures (IRCM) that reduced the effectiveness of existing Sidewinders. After various stalled efforts in the late 80s, the U.S. began working with Raytheon and Hughes on the 9X during the 90s. Upon introduction in 2003 the 9X ushered in Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) compatibility, allowing a pilot to lock on to a target simply by looking at it. This capability drastically increases combat effectiveness, along with “Lock-on After Launch” capability which allows for use in internal launch bays such as the F-35 and F-22.
The Fokker Dr.I was a triplane built by Fokker-Flugzeugwerke during the First World War. The design, based off of Britain’s Sopwith Triplane, is well known thanks to the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, for being the plane in which he scored his final kills.
A Borrowed Idea
In the early part of 1917 the Sopwith Triplane of the Allies began appearing on the battlefield, quickly trouncing German Albatros D.III fighters with its superior maneuverability and climbing ability. The Idfleig, the German bureau overseeing aircraft design immediately ordered development of a triplane, known as dreidecker (3 winged) in German.
Nearly all of the German aircraft manufacturers followed suit. Fokker set about to develop its own triplane by modifying an unfinished prototype biplane. This initial prototype, like Sopwith’s design, utilized a rotary engine and steel tube fuselage. However the initial prototype, the V.4 did not have external interwing bracing. The next prototype, the V.5 introduced bracing between the wings to minimize flexing on the upper wing. The prototypes were met with much excitement for their exceptional maneuverability and climb rate over anything else the Germans had previously produced. The Red Baron himself, Manfred von Richthofen was believed the Dr.I held much promise for the fortunes of German air power and demanded his superiors to commence production immediately, as well as promising his men that they would soon be able to “move like devils and climb like monkeys.”
The appearance of the Dr.1 is characterized by its three-wing design – therefore dubbed a ‘triplane.’ The design also featured small sustentation surface of an aerofoil shape mounted between the wheels of the landing gear. The tail was also completely mobile with unbalanced ailerons possessing more surface area than the ailerons of the upper wing. The wings had deep section hollow box-spars that provided lightweight strength to the wings. The lack of interplane struts on the initial prototype resulted in excessive wing vibration during flight, so interplane struts were added. The ribs were of plywood, as well as the leading-edges covers at the spar, with the leading-edges made of wire. The middle wings had some cut-outs to improve downward visibility of the pilot. The fuselage was constructed using welded steel-tubing bracing with diagonal wires to create the rigid box-shaped structure, being a fabric-covered with triangular plywood fillets, except the undercarriage and center-section, which were made of steel streamlined tubing.
The tail-plane had a triangular shape, being framed in steel tubing the same way as the balanced rudder and elevators. The wheels featured an elastic shock cord, while a steel-tipped tailskid was installed at the rear.
The first prototype Dr.1 flew in July of 1917. Production of the Dr.I commenced on August 11th of 1917. In preproduction the triplane carried the designation F.I. Two were made and issued to Richthofen and Leutenant Werner Voss. These two aces promptly used these planes on the battlefield, scoring kills within the first few days of flying in early September. Voss took to the skies on August 28th and by September 11th had scored 8 kills.
The result of this evaluation period led Voss and Richthofen to recommend the Dr.I for production as soon as possible, declaring it superior to the Sopwith Triplane. Orders were placed for 300 Dr.I’s.
On September 14th the commander of Jasta 11, OberLeutnant Kurt Wolff was shot down whilst flying Richthofen’s F.I by a new Sopwith Camel of Britain’s Naval 10 squadron. Voss, whilst flying on September 23rd, scored his 48th victory just before being shot down in an epic dogfight wherein he managed to damage all 7 of his opponent’s SE-5a’s in the skirmish.
The Fokker Dr.I in Use
The Dr.I, upon its arrival to the battlefield in October was well regarded for its climbing ability and light controls. The ailerons were not very effective, however the tailplane elevator and rudder controls were very yielding. Rapid turns to the right were very quick thanks to the directional instability afforded by the rotation of the rotary engine, a characteristic that was taken advantage of by pilots.
Although not a particularly fast plane, it balanced this shortcoming with great maneuverability thanks to its light weight, while also having good upward visibility. It also had a decent climb rate, characteristics that all seemingly made the Dr.I a formidable adversary to its Allied opponent, the Sopwith Camel. This made of the Dr.1 a good aircraft for dogfights, yet structural and construction problems in the wings would hamper the aircraft’s promising initial assessment.
The Dr.I was armed with twin 7.92 Spandau machine guns, which could fire simultaneously or independently in synchronization with the propeller.
The Dr.I, for all its improvements over previous German aircraft, had numerous shortcomings. Among them was its tendency to ground looping upon landing. This occurs when the aircraft tilts on landing such that one wing makes contact with the ground. For this reason skids were attached to the wingtips of the lower wing on the production version. Also while the Dr.I had excellent climbing ability, its dive and level flight speed were less than desirable, leaving it vulnerable to faster Allied planes in many situations.
Following the proper introduction of the production model Dr.I in October, by the end of the month two consecutive top wing failure accidents promptly caused all triplanes to be grounded. The wing structure of the Dr.I was thoroughly investigated and numerous problems were discovered, the first of which was weak attachment of wingtips, ailerons, and ribs. Further, the doping of the fabric and wood varnishing was found to be of poor and inconsistent quality, leading to water absorption and premature rot in crucial wing spars.
Fokker’s corrective action was to improve quality control on the production line, as well as modifying and repairing existing models. The problem was believed to have been solved, and the Dr.I continued to see use well into 1918, but later the wing failures returned.
Much later in 1929, research at NACA revealed that a triplane configuration like the Dr.I’s exerted as much as 2.5 times more lift coefficient on the upper wing. The extreme difference in this force no doubt contributed to many of the wing failures seen in the Dr.I over its operational lifespan. Examples such as this show the importance of research and competence in advanced aerodynamics during the design phase of an aircraft.
As had been seen in September 1917, the Dr.I was inferior to the capabilities of the British Sopwith Camel by the time production had commenced. Despite this, German production went on for the initial 300 ordered.
Fokker D.VII would eventually replace the Dr.1 on the battlefield, with surviving dreideckers relegated to training and home defence units, re-powered with a Goebel Goe II 100 hp engine. By the time of the armistice was signed, the Dr.1 was tested by Allied pilots at fighter flying schools in Nivelles (Belgium) and Valenciennes (France), being deemed as an aircraft with impressive performance.
V.4 – The initial prototype
V.5 – First production prototype
V.6 – Enlarged prototype powered with a Mercedes D.II engine
V.7 – Prototype with Siemens-Halske Sh.III engine
7.12 m / 23 ft 4 in
6.23 m / 20 ft 5 in
5.7 m / 18 ft 8 in
5.77 m / 18 ft 11 in
2.95 m / 9 ft 8 in
18.66 m² / 200.85 ft²
1 9-cylinder rotary Oberursel UR II engine (110 HP), or a LeRhône Type 9Ja (110 HP)
Maximum Take-Off Weight
586 Kg / 1,291 lb
406 kg / 895 lb
586 kg / 1,291 lb
5.7 m/s (1,122 ft/min) or 1000 meters in 2’45’’
185 km/h / 115 mph at sea level; 165 km/h / 102,5 mph at 4000 m
The Spandau LMG 08 was the air cooled aircraft version of the German Army’s MG 08 machine gun. The infantry version of the MG 08, like the Vickers Machine Gun, was water cooled and based on the design of Hiram Maxim’s famed Maxim Gun.
After the success of the MG 08 in infantry use, Spandau set about lightening the weapon and adding large slots to the water jacket for aircraft use. The first letter in lMG 08 is actually a lowercase L which stands for luftgekühlt meaning air cooled. From the beginning the lMG was designed to fire in a fixed position from an aircraft.
Early designs had so many cooling slots that the weapon was considered “over-lightened” and the rigidity of the cooling jacket was considered “fragile.” Various slot patterns were experimented with until the final design of the LMG 08/15, a refined version of the weapon with many improvements as well as a lighter weight. The final weight for the refined lMG 08/15 came out to 26 lbs compared with 57 lbs for the original iteration of the MG 08. The various versions of the lMG were all designed to be interchangeable so aircraft could be easily upgraded to newer versions. Like the Vickers, the closed bolt design lent itself to easy synchronization with the propellers, with most German fighters appearing with twin LMGs by late 1916 with the introduction of the Albatros D.I and D.II.
The ammunition belt of the lMG 08 utilized the design of the Parabellum MG14 for its light weight, rather than that of the infantry version of the MG 08. After a cartridge was fired the belt was fed into a side chute on the side of the breech block. The chute would guide the empty belt into a storage compartment to prevent the empty belts from interfering with any aircraft mechanisms. Empty cartridge cases however were expended out of a round hole on the receiver just under the barrel on all version of the MG 08. In most aircraft the empty cases were guided out of the aircraft.
Use of the Spandau lMG 08
The lMG 08 was used on almost all German fighter aircraft of the WWI period. After its introduction in 1915, synchronization technology was rapidly being developed. On the Fokker E.I the introduction of the synchronizer system with a single mounted lMG 08 led to a period of German air superiority over the Western Front known as the Fokker Scourge. Later aircraft almost universally used a twin synchronized setup, including Germany’s most famous ace, Baron von Richthofen ‘The Red Baron.’
There were various styles of cocking handles in use, seemingly dependent upon pilot preference. Safety interlocks were also introduced to ensure the safety of the ground crew who at times could be in the line of fire. Another modification seen in aircraft use was a countdown style rounds counter.
Great Britain (1912) Machine Gun
The Vickers Gun or Vickers Machine Gun as it is often called was one of the first armaments fitted to an airplane for combat in the early 1910s. The weapon, originally water cooled and based on the successful Maxim gun, was designed and manufactured by Vickers Limited of Britain and fitted to many early British and French fighter planes.
The origins of the Vickers gun can be traced back to Hiram S. Maxim’s original ‘Maxim Gun’ that came to prominence in the 1880s as a deadly armament of the British Empire. This machine gun was extremely efficient due to its novel recoil based feed operation, which utilized the recoil of the weapon to eject the spent cartridge and insert another one. The weapon was also water-cooled for maximum efficiency and due to this could be fired for long durations.
The Vickers Machine Gun Design
Vickers improved on this design by lightening the overall weight of the weapon as well as simplifying and strengthening the parts of the internal mechanisms. Another significant improvement was the addition of a muzzle booster, which restricts the escaping high pressure gases from the barrel, forcing more energy to the backwards motion of the barrel without increasing recoil force.
The Vickers attained a solid reputation upon its introduction in 1912. Despite its bulk and weight of around 30 lbs (15 kg), not including water and ammunition, it was praised by crews for its dependability. Thanks to its water cooling it could be fired practically continuously, requiring only a barrel change for roughly every hour of operation.
Use in Aircraft
The first use of the Vickers Gun on an aircraft was on Vickers’ own experimental E.F.B.1 biplane prototype, the first British aircraft ever to be designed for military purposes. The gun recieved a few modifications for aircraft use. The water cooling system was deemed unnecessary due to the more than adequate flow of cool, fast-moving air over the barrel in flight. However the water jacket assembly had to be retained due to the barrel action mechanism, but several rows of aircooling slots were added.
An enclosure was added to cover the belt feed to prevent wind from kinking the incoming ammunition belt. The belt links were a disintegrating type which meant each belt link was ejected along with each spent cartridge as the weapon fired.
The closed bolt design of the Vickers Gun lent itself to forward firing use in aircraft due to its ease of integration with a synchronizer system. In a closed bolt type of firing mechanism there is virtually no delay between the trigger being pulled and the firing of the weapon, unlike the open bolt design utilized by the Lewis Gun. The introduction of the synchronizer gear system allowed for forward firing through a propeller’s field of rotation.
Colt was licensed to manufacture Vickers Machine Guns in the U.S. and had a large order for the guns from Russia in 1916. After the Russian revolution kicked off in early 1917, the Russian orders were cancelled. The thousands of guns that had been produced sat in storage until a need arose in Europe for a machine gun that could fire larger caliber incendiary rounds to destroy German hydrogen filled balloons. It was decided to use the 11 mm French gras round. All of the previously Russian sized 7.62s were altered to accept the 11mm round. Additionally they were modified for aircraft use, with the appropriate cooling slats cut into the water jacket assembly. These 11mm Vickers became known as “Balloon Busters.”
The aircraft version of the Vickers Gun was by far the most used weapon on British and French fighter aircraft of World War I and the interwar period with some still in use towards the end of World War II. Most of the fighter planes developed in early WWI utilized a single .303 British (7.7mm) Vickers Gun such as the Sopwith Triplane. Later fighters like the Sopwith Camel were able to double their firepower with twin synchronized guns. Advances in aircraft design that took place through the 1930s saw the fixed armaments on aircraft shift towards the wings, allowing for larger, more powerful, and faster firing Browning 1919 machine guns to be fitted, thus signaling the end of the Vickers machine gun’s use in aircraft. The conventional infantry version of the weapon would continue to see service with British ground forces until 1968.
German Empire (1916) Fighter Plane – 1,866 Built
The Albatros D.III was a bi-plane fighter manufactured by Albatros Flugzeugwerke Company in the Aldershof district of Berlin, Germany. The plane helped secure German air superiority and several top German aces flew the D.III, including Manfred von Richthofen – The Red Baron. It was armed with 2 7.92mm LMG 08/16 machine guns which were an air cooled and synchronized version of Germany’s MG08.
Design of the D.III
Designed by Robert Thelen, the D.III was based off of the D.I and D.II that preceded it, utilizing the same basic fuselage. This fuselage design was semi-monocoque, meaning that the skin of the aircraft, which was plywood, could bear some weight and add structural rigidity.
After seeing the success of the French Nieuport 11 and 17, the Idflieg which was the bureau overseeing German aviation development at the time requested that the new D.III adopt a sesquiplane layout similar to the Nieuports. A sesquiplane configuration consists of a modified biplane design with shorter and and narrower lower wings with the advantage being less drag at speed. As a result, the top wing was lengthened, and the lower wing’s chord was shortened, meaning the wing measured less from leading edge to trailing edge. The bracing, between the top and bottom wings was reconfigured to a “V” shape leading owing to the single spar used in the lower wings. Because of this the British coined their own nickname for the D.III: “The V-strutter.”
Water Cooled Mercedes Power
The D.III utilized a water-cooled Mercedes inline 6 cylinder 4 stroke engine appropriately designated as the D.IIIa. The water cooling and overhead camshaft yielded more horsepower than the radial engines that were more common, with the D.IIIa pumping out 170 hp. In the interest of weight savings the crankcase was aluminum, whilst the separate cylinders were steel and bolted onto the crankcase. Unlike previous designs each cylinder had a separate water jacket.
Several problems were discovered during the D.III’s introduction. The first of which was the placement of the aerofoil shaped radiator above the cockpit. Although it was well placed to avoid battle damage, it tended to scald the pilot if there was a leak or puncture in the radiator for any reason. The design was changed to relocate the radiator right of the cockpit.
Another issue had to do with several lower wing failures. Even The Red Baron himself, Manfred von Richthofen experienced this with a crack appearing on his new D.III and was forced to make an emergency landing. Initially this puzzled engineers and was attributed to poor workmanship during manufacturing, but in reality the lower wing was experiencing excessive flexing under aerodynamic load. The eventual cause was determined to be the wing’s spar which was located too far aft. As a result of the changeover to the sesquiplane layout, only a single spar was used in the lower wing. Modifications were made to the design and existing aircraft to strengthen the wing. In spite of the modification pilots were advised to avoid steep or prolonged dive maneuvers.
The D.III was well regarded among pilots from its introduction despite having heavier controls. It offered improved stability, maneuverability, and climbing ability over the preceding D.II. Downward visibility was also much improved thanks to the narrower lower wing.
The Albatros D.III was the most dominant fighter in the air during April 1917. The British forces attacking at Arras, France pushed for strong air support in the battle, but were their pilots were not nearly as well trained as the German pilots. To make matter worse, the British planes in use such as the Sopwith Pup, Nieuport 17, and Airco DH.2 were vastly inferior to the D series aircraft in use by the Germans. The British would go on to lose 275 aircraft. By contrast the Germans only lost 66 aircraft during the conflict.
Great Britain (1917) Fighter Plane – 5,490 Built
The legendary Sopwith Camel was the successor to the earlier Pup. The Camel utilized a biplane design and twin synchronized Vickers machine guns. It first flew in late 1916 as the British continued to develop faster and more powerful fighters to keep pace with German advances in aeroplane design. The Camel was deemed far more difficult to fly than the preceding Pup and Triplane, but despite this would go on to shoot down more German aircraft than any other Allied plane.
After combat losses, it became apparent that the Pup and Triplane were no longer competitive against the German Albatross D.III. Sopwith Chief Designer Harry Smith recognized the need for a new fighter to be developed. While being designed, the Camel was referred to as the F.1 or the “Big Pup.”
As was standard at the time, the airframe was a wood boxlike structure, with aluminum cowlings around the nose and engine area. Metal wire rigging was used throughout the construction to enhance fuselage and flight surface rigidity. A conventional fabric covered body and plywood cockpit area ensured weight savings were maximized. The nickname of “Camel” came from a “hump” shaped metal fairing that covered the machine guns in order to prevent freezing at altitude. The F.1 was also sometimes referred to as the “Sop,” short for Sopwith. The lower wings featured a dihedral of 3 degrees, meaning the wings are angled upwards and are not perpendicular to the fuselage. However to simplify construction the top wing was flat, giving the plane a unique “tapered gap” between the upper and lower wings. Also the top wing features a cutout section above the cockpit for pilot visibility.
After its introduction in June 1917, the Camel became notorious for being difficult to fly. Rookie pilots crashed many times upon takeoff. Part of the reason was the fact that the center of gravity of the plane was very close to the nose owing to the plane’s sizeable powerplant relative to the size of the airframe. However the fact that 90% of the weight of the aircraft was in the front third of the aircraft gave it great maneuverability, with the weight of the engine, pilot, and armaments centered within the wing root section of the fuselage.
The Camel lacked the variable incidence tailplane and trimming that had enabled the Triplane to fly “hands off” at altitude. This meant that a pilot would have to constantly apply pressure to the control stick to maintain level flight at low altitude or speed. Great physical strength and endurance was required to fly the Camel at length.
The Camel had a rotary engine, not to be confused with a radial engine or a rotary wankel. With a rotary engine, the entire engine and crankcase spins relative to the fuselage, with the propeller directly connected to the crankcase. Thus engine speeds in RPM exactly the match the RPM of the propeller. The torque of the relatively powerful rotary engine combined with the weight distribution of the aircraft led to a constant “pull” to the right, a phenomenon common to rotary engines. Although not necessarily a desired feature, pilots used this to their advantage for turning in dogfights. However, in the event of a stall the Camel would go into a dangerous spin.
The difficulty of flying the aircraft is obvious from the fact that about half of all Camels lost during the Great War were due to non-combat related incidents. Early on there were many pilot casualties on their first solo fights after training, so a two-seat, dual control version was developed to mitigate the dangers of training on the aircraft.
A staggering 5,490 Camels were produced. Most were deployed to the Western Front. After the war they did not see much use in service. Remarkably only 7 are known to exist as of 2016, however there are many flying replicas of the aircraft.
The Camel is credited with downing 1,294 German aircraft, more than any other Allied plane. Among the plane’s kills is the famed German ace Rittmeister Manfred von Richthofen also known as the “Red Baron.”
The Camel was powered by a variety of rotary engines and by design was able to be fitted with engines from other manufacturers such as Bentley. The primary engine used was the 130 HP Clerget 9B, a French design produced in France and Great Britain which also saw service in the Pup and Triplane.
The most powerful engine available was the Bentley BR1 which produced 150 HP thanks to its aluminum cylinders and pistons as well as a dual spark ignition. It was also significantly cheaper than the Clerget.
Great Britain (1916) Fighter Plane – 147 Built
The Sopwith Triplane was a creation of Britain’s Sopwith Aviation Company around 1916. Its three stacked wings gave it good maneuverability and stability in flight relative to other planes of the day. The aircraft had the nicknames Tripehound, Trihound, Triplehound, or Tripeand it was popular among pilots. The Triplane first saw service with Royal Navy Air Squadron No.1 in late 1916. Many orders were placed by the RNAS as well as the Royal Flying Corps. Some aircraft were also acquired by the French Navy. One each was sent to Greece and Russia for evaluation. Only two original examples of the Tripe exist today.
The most noticeable aspect of the Triplane is its three wing design, which was one of the first of its kind. In the interest of pilot field of view Chief Engineer Herbert Smith decided to use a narrow chord design, meaning the wings were short as measured from leading edge to trailing edge. Because of the lift lost when narrowing the chord, the third wing was added to the design. All three wings have functional ailerons and the tailplane is a variable incidence type which means it can be trimmed enough for the pilot to fly hands-off. In early 1917 a smaller tailplane was introduced improving maneuverability. The Triplane was fitted with a single Vickers gun.
WIth the Tripehound’s entry into active service late in 1916, it quickly proved popular among pilots with its relatively superior maneuverability and speed. The first adversaries the Tripehound went up against were German Albatros D-IIIs which it greatly outclassed in climbing and turning ability, as well as being 15 mph faster. Every engagement with the enemy demonstrated the Triplanes’ superior power.
The Triplane was powered first by a Clerget 9B, 9 cylinder rotary engine developing 110 HP (82 kW). This powerplant was built in both France and Great Britain by numerous manufacturers. Later, 130 HP 9B engines were fitted, further enhancing the Triplane’s dominance, although the engine was tuned perhaps too aggressively as it was prone to overheating.