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Shooting Down a Legend

By O’Brien Browne
11/20/2017 • MHQ Magazine

Despite its enduring fame, the Red Baron’s slow, crash-prone Fokker triplane was no great fighting machine.

High over La Neuville airfield in occupied France, October 30, 1917, a lone Fokker triplane soared through the late afternoon sky. Its pilot, Lieutenant Heinrich Gontermann, a 39-victory ace and commander of a fighter squadron, or Jagdstaffel, was test-flying Germany’s latest fighter, designated the Dr.I and known as the dreidecker, or triplane. Normally a cautious pilot, Gontermann was so delighted with the nimble craft that he looped it. As the plane came out of its second loop, a fellow pilot on the ground noticed with horror “that both outer ends of the top wing were flapping.” Gontermann banked to the right and “all the ribs, fabric and, at a height of some 300 meters, the right-hand aileron flew off amid loud rattling.” The stricken airplane plowed into the ground. Gontermann later died from his injuries.

The Fokker triplane is arguably one of the most famous—if not the most famous—aircraft in military history, especially the blood-red version flown by Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, “the Red Baron,” World War I’s top ace. The dreidecker’s image appears everywhere, from films to model kits to video games, restaurant logos, and book covers. The Peanuts comic strip depictions of Snoopy’s battles against the Red Baron embedded the plane in pop culture for years. First Flight, a recent BBC documentary on the early airplane, features a red triplane. Books speak glowingly of the “feisty” Dr.I, whose designer, Anthony Fokker, “had outdone himself.” Even serious histories cannot resist the plane’s allure: The editors of Osprey’s “Richthofen’s Circus”: Jagdgeschwader Nr I, about Germany’s most renowned fighter unit, know that splashing a colorful Dr.I on its cover will boost sales. “Ask anyone with just a passing interest in the Great War which German aeroplane they think of first,” wrote aviation historians Norman Franks and Greg VanWyngarden, “and more than likely they will say the Fokker triplane, and probably in the same breath mention the Red Baron.” Such apotheoses give the impression that the Dr.I was the ultimate World War I fighter.

Despite this superstar status, the dreidecker doesn’t deserve such accolades. While some German pilots loved the craft, a disturbing number were killed or badly wounded in it. Slow, plagued by production flaws, and built in small numbers, the Dr.I was outclassed in performance by less sexy Allied fighter aircraft such as the French SPAD XIII and the British S.E.5a. The myths and inaccuracies surrounding this famous fighter demand a reappraisal of its wartime performance and its subsequent legend.

Richthofen and Fokker did much to create the dreidecker’s mystique. Far from being the brainchild of Fokker, the Dr.I was produced in response to the British Sopwith Triplane. While German pilots were flying mostly Albatros D.III and D.V biplane fighters, the Sopwith, in Richthofen’s words, “is the best aircraft the enemy possesses. It climbs better, is more maneuverable and…is faster.”

“Our aircraft are laughingly inferior to the English,” complained Richthofen, a Rittmeister, or cavalry captain. He told his superiors that the “damn” Albatros was “lousy”—too slow and vexed by structural deficiencies. This condemnation was harsh, as the vast number of German aces owed their success to Albatros machines—above all Richthofen, who scored the majority of his 80 victories flying these craft.

A good friend of Richthofen’s and a savvy businessman, Fokker seized the opportunity to produce a triplane to beat the domestic competition and the enemy. Fokker’s design featured three stubby wings and an undercarriage airfoil to provide additional lift. Its cantilever wings, which eliminated the need for bracing cables, reduced drag, even while its three wings slowed the craft. Powered by an Oberursel rotary engine, the dreidecker had a short fuselage, broad tail, and balanced rudder, making it extremely maneuverable. In June 1917, 48-victory ace Lieutenant Werner Voss, leader of Jasta 10, a section of Richthofen’s fighter wing, tested the prototype and was impressed by its handling. Richthofen was delighted, telling his men that they would be equipped with dreideckers that “climb like apes and are as maneuverable as the devil.” The plane was much anticipated.

Interestingly, practically every other German airplane manufacturer—including Pfalz, AEG, DFW, and Albatros itself— produced triplane prototypes, although only the Fokker saw extended service, thanks to Richthofen’s lobbying.

Fokker, ever the publicist for his company, presented the first two machines—designated F.I, numbered 102/17 and 103/17, and armed with twin Maxim machine guns—to Germany’s most famous fliers: Richthofen and Voss. This was one key to the airplane’s incandescent image: Assigned to the elite of the air force—Jasta leaders and aces—and produced in limited numbers, the plane became an exotic must-fly. Cleverly, Fokker on August 31, 1917, invited generals, politicians, and the press to Richthofen’s airfield at Marckebeeke to introduce his creation. Fokker was photographed in the cockpit. Later, he shot film of Richthofen and Voss aloft in the plane. Appropriately, Richthofen scored the first dreidecker victory the next day, downing a British two-seat R.E.8 whose hapless crew probably believed the three-winged craft was a Sopwith.

When Richthofen went on leave, his F.I was flown by Lieutenant Kurt Wolff, Germany’s fourth-ranking ace and commander of Jasta 11. Just returned from the hospital after being shot through the hand in a dogfight, Wolff was frustrated. “So far, I’ve had bad luck,” he wrote on September 12. “I have already fought it out with about 20 Englishmen and haven’t gotten one down.” Three days later he was shot down and killed. On September 23, Voss, second only to Richthofen in victories, was killed while flying 103/17 in a dramatic 10-minute air battle against at least seven British S.E.5a fighters.

The death of two top fighter pilots within a month of receiving Germany’s latest fighter plane sent shock waves through the air force. Although Gontermann described his new plane as “fabulous,” he had concerns. “Hopefully, this crate will prove itself better at the front,” he penned, “than that…in which dear Wolff was shot down, and Voss who was also shot down in a triplane.” Two days later, Germany’s third-highest scoring ace was dead after that ill-fated test of the dreidecker.

Shortly afterward, Lieutenant Lothar von Richthofen, Manfred’s younger brother, crash-landed a triplane due to engine trouble; Manfred suffered the same fate while flying 114/17, which had to be written off. The next day, Lieutenant Günther Pastor of Jasta 11 died when the upper wing of 121/17 failed. Alarmed, authorities grounded the triplane, and a special commission investigated its flaws. Tests revealed poor quality control and shoddy construction practices at the Fokker factory. The Dr.I’s ailerons could break during banks and other maneuvers because of faulty attachments. Furthermore, moisture in the top wing affected glue joints, causing the fabric to rip off in the air stream. Production was halted until these deadly faults were corrected.

There were other concerns as well: With restricted access to the castor oil needed for the plane’s rotary engine, the Germans used a synthetic substitute, which led to overheating and breakdowns, particularly in the summer months. “Triplane attrition,” writes Dr.I expert Alex Imrie, “was abnormally high, due mostly to the unreliability of its engine.” In addition, the plane’s high center of gravity meant it was unstable on the ground and rocked laterally during takeoff and landing; wooden skids were added to the lower wingtips to prevent damage.

It wasn’t until November 28, 1917, that the Dr.I was declared fit for active service. “At most,” note the authors of Above the Lines, a book on German pilots in World War I, “15 victories would have been scored in these dreideckers by the end of the year [1917], ten of which were by Voss”—an unimpressive tally.

The next year, 1918, was equally deadly for triplane pilots. Captain Adolf Ritter von Tutschek, commander of Jagdgeschwader (fighter wing) Nr II and an ace with 27 kills, was brought down in 404/17 in mid-March. That same month, Manfred’s brother Lothar, a 40-victory ace, crashed so badly in 454/17 that he was hospitalized for several months.

Finally, on April 21, Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron himself, was killed in his crimson 425/17, brought down while chasing a Sopwith Camel. Such high-profile deaths, capped by that of the most famous and successful air ace of the war, weighed oppressively on the minds of German pilots.

Ironically, at the time of his death, Richthofen had been pressing German authorities to deliver a new biplane, the Fokker D.VII, to the front, the prototype of which he had flown in January. Fitted with a powerful Mercedes or BMW in-line engine, it greatly outperformed the Dr.I. German fighter pilots, Richthofen wrote a friend, would have destroyed “five to ten times as many enemy aircraft as we did if only we had been faster.” He realized the limitations of the dreidecker: With a top speed listed at 103 mph, it was slow and had a ceiling of only 20,000 feet. Its history of structural troubles dampened confidence in it. In contrast, contemporary Allied aircraft such as the SPAD XIII and the S.E.5a could exceed speeds of 125 mph and boasted ceilings of up to 22,000 feet.

The plane’s strengths were its weakness, too. Effective at low altitudes, it had to be flown hands-on all the time: Its spinning rotary motor meant that it constantly pulled to the right. Its three wings ensured fantastic lift. Light and nimble, it had one of the tightest turning arcs of any World War I fighter—this made it tricky to fly and caused accidents, but also gave it an advantage in combat. Enemy pilots were well aware of this: “Don’t ever attempt to dogfight a triplane on anything like equal terms as regards height,” British ace Edward Mannock warned his pilots. “Otherwise he will get on your tail and stay there until he shoots you down.”

In the end, the Gemans produced just 320 Dr.I planes. Only about 14 of the 80 German fighter squadrons were ever supplied with the Dr.I in any significant numbers. Most Allied fliers never encountered the plane: They were more likely to tangle with the Albatros D.I to D.Va series of fighters, whose production numbers reached more than 4,000 by war’s end; approximately 3,200 Fokker D.VIIs were made as well.

The dreidecker never lived up to expectations; a stopgap, it had minimal impact on the war. Moreover, the loss of experienced airmen while flying it was considerable, and one wonders if the triplane’s lack of speed was a factor in their deaths. Yet the cult of the triplane endures, thanks in part to the mystery of who shot down Richthofen. Its distinctive three wings and that outlandish coat of scarlet continue to fire interest as well. The toy and entertainment industries—and quasi-scientific fetishists more concerned with the appearance of their plastic models than the grim verity of a war machine—perpetuate the illusion. Like the polystyrene used to manufacture model kits, history is melted down and seeps into the molds of our imagination, where real deeds ooze into tales, tales into myth, myth into legend, and legend into marketing. The result, as in the case of the Red Baron and his prized plane, is a version of the past far removed from historical reality.

 

Originally published in the Winter 2011 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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