The Breguet 14 wasn’t World War I’s fastest, most maneuverable or best-looking biplane, but it soldiered on long after more iconic aircraft had disappeared.

To the untrained eye, World War I biplanes—essentially collections of wood, canvas and wires—appear hopelessly fragile. But looks can be deceiving, especially in the case of the Breguet 14. Though Louis Breguet’s innovative and versatile design may not have been a beauty, it was among the finest, and certainly one of the most rugged, combat aircraft of the war.

“I would agree with that from personal experience,” testified Djibraïl Nazare-Aga, a Persian volunteer who served as a bomber pilot in French Escadrilles Br.66 and Br.108 from 1917 to 1918. “After my return from one mission, my mechanic showed me that three of the four longerons of my fuselage had been shot apart by an attacking Fokker D.VII—I had come back with only one holding the plane together. Early in October [1918], my left undercarriage leg was blown away, but I managed to make a pancake landing south of Châlons-sur-Marne. Such attrition says a lot about the intensity of the fighting, but it also shows how strong the Breguet was.”

Born in Paris on January 2, 1880, Louis Charles Breguet was the scion of a family famous since 1775 for manufacturing watches. Louis, however, was more interested in aeronautics than timepieces. He began developing his own aircraft as early as 1905, experimented with a helicopter design in 1907 and founded his own manufacturing company in 1909. Breguet became a proponent of using metal in the construction of aircraft, and his early creations proved to be both sturdy and useful. He sold several to the French army, and in September 1914 flew a notable reconnaissance mission in one of his own airplanes, locating the German First Army, which was then advancing toward Paris, and setting the stage for the momentous Battle of the Marne.

When the French army sought aircraft suitable for bombing missions, Breguet agreed to design and build one. The authorities requested a pusher, so that’s what Breguet delivered, even though he believed a tractor design would have been far superior. In spite of his own dissatisfaction with his pusher, many were manufactured by Breguet, as well as by other companies under license. In addition to bomber and reconnaissance versions, escort fighters and night fighters were also developed from his design.

In the summer of 1916, Breguet designed a new single-engine, two-seat tractor airplane that he considered an improvement over the pusher. Again the French military tried to interfere, requesting that he install a 200-hp Hispano-Suiza V-8. But Breguet stood firm this time, holding out for the 220-hp Renault V-12, which he believed offered greater potential for development. He was subsequently proved correct, as the production version of the Renault engine that was eventually installed produced 310 hp, and by war’s end improved versions were generating more than 400 hp.

Designated the Breguet 14, the new design was a two-bay biplane with a slight back-stagger. Its large rectangular nose radiator contributed to the airplane’s angular appearance. Unprepossessing though it looked, it performed well and turned out to be both sturdy and capable of performing a variety of missions.

Beneath its conventional fabric skin the Breguet 14 was constructed primarily of oxy-welded steel tubes and duralumin—an innovative design feature for the “stick-and-wire” era. In fact, it was among the first production airplanes to make extensive use of duralumin in its structure. The result was a strong airframe that proved to be far more durable than wooden structures, which tended to deteriorate after extended exposure to the elements.

The Breguet 14 was a relatively large two-seater, with a span of 47 feet and a length of 29 feet. Its steel tube and duralumin airframe, however, made it comparatively light at approximately 2,300 pounds, depending upon the version and the equipment carried. Performance also varied for the same reason, with maximum speed generally ranging between 110 and 120 mph.

The pilot sat just behind the upper wing, where he had a good view in most directions. The observer/bombardier/gunner was seated close behind him, facilitating communications. Armament consisted of a single forward-firing synchronized Vickers machine gun and one or two Lewis guns on a flexible Etévé or Scarff ring mounting in the observer’s pit. Some aircraft mounted an additional flexible Lewis gun for the observer to fire beneath the fuselage, to defend against attacks from below.

On November 21, 1916, Breguet himself piloted the prototype on its first flight. After an inordinate length of time spent overcoming the French air service’s skepticism over his use of duralumin, the Breguet 14A2, optimized for reconnaissance and observation, was approved for production on March 6, 1917.

One month later Breguet introduced a bomber prototype, the 14B2, which differed from the A2 in several respects. Besides wing-mounted racks accommodating up to 660 pounds of bombs, the B2 had a large square window on each side of the rear cockpit to provide light for the bombardier to operate the bombsight. Fullspan flaps on the lower wings were controlled by bungee cords, which lowered them automatically when the airspeed dropped below 70 mph and raised them as the airplane exceeded that speed, a very advanced feature for 1917.

Once the French air service finally accepted the new Breguet, it seemingly couldn’t get enough of them. In addition to the parent company, at least four other firms were soon subcontracted to build the aircraft under license. According to French sources, wartime Breguet 14 production totaled 3,916 A2 reconnaissance versions and 1,586 B2 bombers.

While the preferred engine remained the Renault, visually distinguishable by its single vertical exhaust stack jutting above the cowling, supplies of that power plant could not keep up with demand. As a result other engines were installed, notably a 285-hp 6-cylinder inline Fiat. A few planes were also fitted with the 400-hp American Liberty V-12.

By the end of the war, at least 71 French squadrons were flying the Breguet 14 on the Western Front, while others were deployed to Italy, Salonika and the Middle East. Besides being fast and sufficiently well-armed to defend itself, the Breguet could absorb a great deal of punishment.

Versatility was another major attribute. In addition to the observation and bombing aircraft, Breguet developed other more specialized variants. The 14B1, a single-seat long-range bomber version, replaced the observer position with an extra fuel tank. Although a number of this type entered service, they were never used to bomb their intended target, Berlin. The 14H (Hydroavion) floatplane was developed for the French navy. The 14S (Sanitaire), capable of carrying two stretchers, was one of the first specialized flying ambulances to enter operational service. Used on the Western Front in 1918, it later proved its worth in colonial wars in North Africa and Syria. The 14E (École) served as a two-seat trainer. About 200 examples of the Breguet 16, a specialized night-bomber development of the 14 with larger-span three-bay wings and other alterations, were built during 1918, and remained in use until 1923.

Perhaps the most formidable wartime development, the Breguet 17 two-seat fighter mounted two forward-firing machine guns for the pilot and two more for the observer. Powered by an uprated 400-hp Renault, it had a top speed of 135 mph and would have been a match for anything the Germans flew. The 17 made its maiden flight in the summer of 1918, but the war ended before it could be deployed. Approximately 100 were completed before production was canceled.

At least 35 Fiat-powered Breguet 14A2s were supplied to the Belgian air service during the war, equipping two complete squadrons and partially equipping at least four others. After the armistice Belgium received 15 more Renault-powered machines, which remained in squadron service until 1923. A few were reportedly still flying as late as 1928.

The other major wartime user of the Breguet 14 was the United States. Desperate for up-to-date aircraft, the U.S. Army Air Service accepted a total of 376 aircraft, of which 199 were Fiat-powered. Of that total, 229 were A2 reconnaissance planes, 47 were B2 bombers and 100 were E2 trainers. The USAS 9th and 96th Aero squadrons both relied heavily on the Breguet 14. On June 12, 1918, the 96th flew the first-ever U.S. bombing mission. The Americans, however, operated under the dual disadvantages of having no combat experience and being compelled to go to war in secondhand aircraft that the French had used as trainers.

The 96th suffered an embarrassing setback on July 10. After six of its planes departed Amanty aerodrome to bomb Conflans, the unit’s commander, Major Harry Brown, failed to account for the effect of 70 mph southwesterly winds above the cloud level that blew his flight 100 miles off course, to Koblenz. Those same winds impeded their attempt to make for home until they ran out of fuel and landed in Germany, where all six planes and their crews were captured intact.

The Germans soon dropped a message in Allied lines that found its way to Colonel William Mitchell, who was already seething about the mishap. “We thank you for the fine airplanes and equipment which you have sent us,” it read, “but what shall we do with the major?” Mitchell remarked that “he was better off in Germany at that time than he would have been with us.”

Once reconstituted, the 96th became the most active of the four squadrons making up the 1st Day Bombardment Group from September 1918 onward, primarily due to the reliability of its Breguets compared to the American-built Liberty DH-4s used by the 11th, 20th and 166th Aero squadrons. The 9th also broke new ground as the first American squadron to specialize in nighttime reconnaissance. Because so much of the enemy lines lay within view of Allied observation aircraft and balloons, the Germans had taken to transferring troops and supplies by night. It was the 9th’s task to find out what the enemy was up to after dark. Although both squadrons struggled with worn aircraft powered by tired engines, their crews considered the Breguets superior to the Liberty DH-4s that were being issued to most of the newer squadrons.

If Louis Breguet’s reconnaissance flight of September 1914 was one of the war’s most significant, a Breguet 14A2 carried out another mission of major importance in November 1918. On the 13th, it flew the German plenipotentiary from Tergnier, France, to Spa, Belgium, bringing the armistice conditions to the German general staff.

While the armistice spelled the end of production for most WWI aircraft, the Breguet 14 was among the few that remained in demand after hostilities ceased. Approximately 2,500 more were manufactured between November 11, 1918, and 1926. The sturdy biplane proved ideal for military service in the French colonies, since its metal frame stood up to tropical climates far better than did the wooden structures of most other contemporary aircraft. The majority of the Breguets, however, were built for export, serving in no less than 24 foreign air forces during the 1920s, with some soldiering on into the early 1930s.

The adaptable Breguet 14 was also converted for commercial service. In addition to using 14s as airmail transports, the Breguet and Latécoère companies modified them to carry passengers—two in the 14T and three in the 14T-bis. These operated in Europe and on routes across the Sahara Desert.

Although hardly among WWI’s most glamorous airplanes, the Breguet 14’s performance, versatility and structural strength made it one of the best all-around aircraft developed during that conflict, and guaranteed its continued popularity for years afterward. The Breguet’s strutted biplane configuration, open cockpits, fixed landing gear and fabric covering made it appear typical of its era, but its sturdy metal airframe was years ahead of its time.

A number of Breguet 14s still exist, including an original on display at the Musée de l’Air et l’Espace at Le Bourget. There are also several replicas, including one at the Royal Thai Air Force Museum in Bangkok. In 2000 a homebuilt flying replica was completed in France by Eugène Bellet. Registered as F-POST and flown extensively, it is painted in the civilian markings of the French Latécoère Air Line of the 1920s.

 

Frequent contributor Robert Guttman writes from Tappan, N.Y. He recommends for further reading: Breguet 14, by J.M. Bruce and Jean Noel; and U.S. Army Aircraft, 1908-1946, by James C. Fahey.

Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.