What the Red Baron Never Knew

Computer analysis of World War I aircraft shows precisely why some were deadly and others, death traps.

Pilots of the Sopwith Camel complained that the engine, guns, fuel tank, and pilot were clustered too close. They didn't know the airplane's very shape generated drag that hampered its performance. (NASM)
Air & Space Magazine

The “flying machine,” born only a decade before World War I, matured swiftly during its teenage years. By the end of the Great War, aviation had already adopted nearly every major feature that would characterize military and civil airplanes for the next three decades. Cecil Lewis, a British fighter pilot whose memoir Sagittarius Rising is a classic of the era, wrote, “Every new machine was an experiment, obsolete in the eyes of the designer before it was completed, so feverishly and rapidly did knowledge progress.” No other period in the history of aviation has seen such rapid evolution.

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Most of the improvements emerged from trial and error. But what if designers during the first World War had had the tools for simulation and analysis that are available today? Many of the errors would have been avoided had the firms of Fokker, Sopwith, Nieuport, and the rest had a few desktop computers.

The first error, made with the first airplane, was soon corrected. When Wilbur Wright took the Flyer on a sales tour of Europe in 1908, the virtuosity and self-assurance of his daily demonstrations stirred up a fever of renewed aviation activity among the Europeans. But the very next year, Frenchman Louis Blériot flew across the English Channel in an airplane whose configuration looked nothing at all like the Wrights’. The world abandoned the Wrights’ design, an unstable canard biplane with pusher propellers and a central engine, promptly and without regret. Blériot’s design—single wing, direct-drive engine in front, tail in back—foretold all the best design conventions of the next half-century.

The airplane that crossed the channel was Blériot’s 11th creation, and none of the previous 10 had looked much like it or, for that matter, like one another. While the Wrights had painstakingly refined one idea through study and experiment, Blériot seems to have randomly caromed from one design to the next, inspired by a series of unconnected ideas, until he chanced upon one that worked. Now if he had had a PC… An elementary analysis calculating pressure distributions could perhaps have saved him the trouble of the first 10 discarded designs.

The first great fighter of World War I was essentially an improved copy of the Blériot XI—a sportsman’s airplane equipped with a gun. Called the Eindecker—the name means “monoplane”—it was designed by Anthony Fokker, a young Dutch engineer, pilot, and entrepreneur living in Germany. The Eindecker had an “interrupter” system, enabling its fixed, forward-pointing machine gun to fire through the propeller without chopping the blades off. (One of the mysteries of the history of technology is the inability of the British and French, who could build both engines and machine guns, to quickly contrive a satisfactory way to synchronize them.)

Mainly because of its superior armament, the Eindecker ruled the skies above the trenches during the first year of the air war. Newspapers on the Allied side spoke of the “Fokker Scourge.” That such a rudimentary and wayward machine could be the dominant fighter of its era only shows how primitive aviation still was at the start of the war.

By 1916, the Allies were producing fighters superior to the Eindecker, and the Fokker Scourge came to an end. The new formula, exemplified by the Allies’ various Sopwith and Nieuport models, was a wire-braced biplane with thin, essentially rectangular wings. The superior rigidity of the bridge-like wing structure enabled higher speeds and more agility, great advancements for dogfighting.

Then British builder Thomas Sopwith produced a triplane. To enhance pilot visibility, he narrowed the wing’s chord—the distance from leading to trailing edge—and, intending to replace wing area lost, added a third skinny wing. The Sopwith Triplane was a pleasant-flying, stable, and even warm and cozy airplane—not a small concern when pilots prowled at 18,000 feet. A brief but intense international flurry of triplane designing followed. However, the only model to reach the front was the Fokker Dr.I. The “Dr” stood for Dreidecker, or triplane.

Even though Baron Manfred von Richthofen scored a number of victories in this triplane, three wings was a bad idea (see “Fokker’s Inefficient Triplane,” p. 29). No doubt it seemed to many that more wing area would mean more lift, and therefore a better rate of climb, but the rate is determined by weight, power, and wingspan.

An aerodynamicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jerome Hunsaker, saw the fallacy of the triplane arrangement and in 1916 published a critique of it. According to Leon Bennett, whose book Three Wings for the Red Baron explores the triplane phenomenon at length, a German translation of Hunsaker’s work “did much to dampen triplane hopes.” Nevertheless, hundreds of Fokker Triplanes were built, and a reputation of high performance—especially rapid climb—grew up around them. Von Richthofen, their staunchest advocate, claimed that his triplane could “climb like a monkey and maneuver like a devil.”

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