The ability to fly the airplanes, not merely look at them, is crucial to Arango’s effort to gain insight into their evolution. Contemporary reports of their flying qualities are not always intelligible to a modern aviator. He recounts, “One of the British aces, Albert Ball, flew Nieuports and he flew the S.E.5, and he complained that the S.E.5 is slow. I’ve flown both. There’s good data on the speeds. The S.E.5 is a much faster airplane—so what did he mean?” He may have meant that the S.E.5 was less quick on its feet, less responsive, than the Nieuport, but only a pilot familiar with the flying characteristics of both types would know. Similarly, pilots claimed that the Fokker Triplane climbed “like a monkey,” although its rate of climb was actually average. Like other thick-wing Fokkers, however, it could fly in a more nose-high attitude without stalling than the thin-wing Sopwiths and Nieuports, and the appearance of climbing steeply may have convinced other pilots that it was climbing rapidly.
Each type has a distinct personality in flight. “Some of them, 10 minutes and you get out of the airplanes, your legs are shaking, and you’ve aged,” Arango says. “The Nieuport 11, for example, is so tail-heavy, you have to be pushing the stick all the time. Eventually we put in bungee cords to help. The rudders have no feel, so you end up pushing with both legs and releasing with one. The airplane’s wandering all over the place. If I want the simple, safe airplane, the S.E.5 and probably the Fokker D.VII are the best. They’re comfortable, the engines are quite reliable, they’re stable, especially the S.E.5. One of my favorites is the Sopwith Camel. It’s marginally stable, but if you get to know it, it’s so much fun. It climbs at double the rate of any other airplane, it turns in nothing, it maneuvers—you just think and it goes there—and once you get used to its peculiarities of flying sideways and not doing what you expect all the time, it’s a very nice airplane to fly.”
First flights are always a challenge; the only possible preparation is experience in many airplane types. After taxiing and raising the tail, says Chuck Wentworth, who has made first flights on many of the aircraft he has built, “you just take a big deep breath and go.” The airplanes designed late in the war fly much like airplanes of today; the 1914 Eindecker, on the other hand, is more peculiar, having only movable controls, no fixed surfaces on the tail, and no ailerons (to bank, the pilot uses cables to twist the wings). Even the blip switch is primitive: The ignition is either on or off, full power or nothing. “I put myself into the 1914 mindset to fly it,” Wentworth says. “I don’t expect it to fly like a Decathlon or a Pitts Special.”
Arango, who has written several scholarly articles about the subjective characteristics of World War I aircraft, has begun testing some with modern digital data-gathering equipment, gyros, accelerometers, and force gauges that are now sufficiently compact to fit even in the claustrophobia-inducing cockpit of a Camel. The final results of his scholarship are still to be published, but it already appears that some commonly accepted wisdom—for instance, the idea that the gyroscopic forces of spinning engines powerfully affected maneuverability—may be exaggerated.
Apart from what the collection may in the end teach us, to walk through the Aeroplane Collection hangars is to experience a special mixture of awe and wonderment: awe merely to be in the company of these characters from past dramas, each airplane with its own personality and expression; and wonderment at how little time separated the tentative Blériot and Spinne from the mature and deadly SPAD and D.VII. How in the world, you wonder, did Fokker find his way, in four chaotic years of war, from the rickety Eindecker to the plywood-skin wing of his D.VIII, which would not have looked out of place if you had mounted it on a Curtiss P-40 some 20 years later?
It makes you think too of the young men who fought daily in these airplanes, when each hour was the one in which they might fall, or bleed, or burn to death. The Arango collection reanimates under a California sun a past when, at the clatter of an approaching Sopwith, mechanics put down their tools and strode out to meet the pilot who survived—by skill or luck—another day of war.
Los Angeles-based pilot and aviation writer Peter Garrison designs and builds his own airplanes.