Shooting Down the Legend of the Red Baron’s Triplane

A Fokker Triplane taxis toward its hangar after landing at a field in Belgium (National Archives).
A Fokker Triplane taxis toward its hangar after landing at a field in Belgium (National Archives).

The myths and inaccuracies surrounding the famous Fokker triplane demand a reappraisal of its wartime performance and its subsequent legend.

This post, which is from the Winter 2011 issue of MHQ, is only a snippet. Please purchase the Winter 2011 issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History to read the entire article.

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 Red Baron prepares for a flight over British lines in his Fokker Dr. I Triplane (National Archives).
The Red Baron prepares for a flight over British lines in his Fokker Dr. I Triplane (National Archives).

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.

This post is only a snippet. Please purchase the Winter 2011 issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History to read the entire article.

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