This speech is about a particular type of aircraft made famous for its use by the Red Baron of Germany in World War One. Many people know that the Red Baron was a real person from history. Others may only know him as an adversary of Snoopy from the comic strip Peanuts, or as a ghost-like magic man dreamed up by lonely housewives hungry for a particular brand of frozen pizza. Well, his real name was Manfred von Richthofen. He was the greatest ace of World War One, and towards the end of his career he flew a bright red aircraft with three wings.
The Fokker Triplane was one of the most controversial aircraft of World War One. Best known as the aircraft of aces such as the Red Baron, it was not as well-liked as many suppose. I have been studying Fokker triplanes since I was a young boy; they have always fascinated me for some reason I cannot explain. I am going to tell you about the development of the Fokker Triplane, its operational history, and its strengths and weaknesses.
A. Its designer, Anthony Fokker, was a Dutchman who built airplanes for the Germans after being turned down by the Allies.
1. In addition to being a designer, Fokker was a gifted pilot and a shrewd businessman.
2. Fokker built the first fighter airplane to have a machine gun synchronized to fire through the propeller.
B. His German rival Albatros came up with a single seat fighter powered by the excellent Mercedes D-III six-cylinder inline engine and armed with twin Spandau machine guns.
1. Fokker's planes fell into disfavor. Weakly built and underpowered, they could not compete with the Albatros .
2. The British Sopwith Triplane could outclimb and outmaneuver the German Albatros. Suddenly the German high command wanted triplane fighters.
C. Fokker had already been working on a series of experimental aircraft with wooden cantilever wings, now seen as one of the most important inventions in aeronautical science during the war.
1. Cantilever means without external bracing. In other words, these wings were not held together with a bunch of outside wires like other World War One aircraft.
2. The Fokker triplane was the first airplane to enter service with wooden cantilever wings.
II. Operational history
A. Not a promising beginning…
1. In , Kurt Wolff and Werner Voss get killed in the first two triplanes to reach the front, both fighting against overwhelming odds in separate battles a week apart.
2. At the end of , the triplanes of Heinrich Gontermann and Günther Pastor both suffer catastrophic wing failures. This grounds the aircraft until the wings are rebuilt.
B. By the time the aircraft are rebuilt, they are no longer a surprise to the Allies
1. Encounters with Richthofen, Wolff, and Voss in gave the Allies ample warning of the triplane's existence. Then triplanes were grounded for while the wings were rebuilt, and 's weather was bad for flying.
2. Eberhard Stapenhorst was forced down and captured in . This gave the Allies an operational Fokker triplane which they examined thoroughly.
C. Paint schemes. The black and white photographs of the period do not do them justice.
1. From the factory the Fokkers arrived pale blue underneath and with streaks of olive green on upper surfaces and sides. The streaks came from the manner of painting by hand with 3-inch wide brushes.
2. Once delivered, each unit usually had its own distinctive marking, and each pilot usually customized it further to his own taste.
a.) In the days before fighter planes carried radios, pilots needed a way to identify each other in the air. It also helped people on the ground keep track of who was who.
b.) In The Day the Red Baron Died, Dale Titler quotes D. G. Lewis, the Red Baron's 80th and last victory, about the colors of Richthofen's Circus in his memorable encounter with them:
The planes were painted all colors of the rainbow, each to personally identify the pilot. One was painted like a draughtboard with black and white squares. Another was all sky blue. One looked like a dragon's head and large eyes were painted on the engine cowling. Others had lines in various colors running along the fuselages or across them; machines painted black and red, dark blue, gray. There was a yellow-nosed one too. Richthofen, of course, led the formation in his Fokker triplane painted a brilliant pillar-box red. Its black crosses were edged with white.
D. Withdrawn from service
1. Richthofen killed in .
2. Tripes withdrawn from service in summer
a.) engine troubles
b.) intended from first as “stopgap fighter” until the Fokker D.VII's arrived
c.) some top aces managed to hold on to one or two for personal use when conditions favored them.
3. After the war, only two or three originals were left. None survived the next war, when the museums were bombed along with everything else in Germany.
III. Strengths and Weaknesses
1. Outstanding rate of climb
a.) three wings provide a lot of lift
b.) airfoil on axle generated more lift than the weight of undercarriage
a.) unstable in all three axes
b.) rotary engine provided tremendous torque for right-hand turns
a.) those same three wings that gave outstanding lift also gave a lot of drag
b.) Most Allied aircraft were faster than the Dr-I
Added December 20, 2008: Peter Garrison in What the Red Baron Never Knew quotes Leon Bennett's Three Wings for the Red Baron to say that Fokker Triplane propellers were pitched to deliver maximum power at climbing rather than cruising speed and suggests this is the reason why Fokker Triplanes had a relatively low top speed and a high rate of climb.
2. Weakly built
b.) history of wing failure, Heinrich Gontermann, etc.
Anthony Fokker may have been chintzy with the glue and varnish
Added December 20, 2008: While poor workmanship was a factor, the basic design was flawed in that the upper wing carried a higher lift coefficient than the lower wings. See the Wikipedia article Fokker Dr.I
c.) What must be remembered is that it was wartime, and aircraft were slapped together to get them to the front as quickly as possible. Also, once there, aircraft were not expected to have a long service life. They were not built to last.
d.) However, on page 200 of his excellent book The Day the Red Baron Died, Dale Titler quotes an Allied squadron pilot who closely examined the wreckage of the Red Baron's machine after Richthofen was shot down in April of 1918: “We had not known previously how well made the Fokker triplane was, with three-ply box spars, ply leading edges and a steel tube fuselage.”
3. Engine troubles main operational difficulty
a.) rotary engine not that powerful
i.) Richthofen at first did not want any more fighters with rotary engines.
ii.) Fokker V6 was an experimental attempt to mount the Mercedes inline engine in a triplane. It was heavier and slower and lost the maneuverability given by the Oberursel rotary engine.
b). shortage of quality lubricant
i.) Castor oil required, not native to Germany
ii.) German synthetic substitute left much to be desired
4. Difficult to fly
a). The same instability that made it such a great dogfighter also meant it had to be controlled at all times.
b). Especially difficult to land, wingtip skids were necessary
One might suppose that with all the trouble the triplanes had from the very beginning, and especially considering how difficult they were to fly, that nobody wanted them. Some feared them, but for the most part they were prized for their outstanding climb and maneuverability, qualities that keep you alive in aerial combat. They were much preferred to the lackluster Albatros and Pfalz fighters which they supplanted but never entirely replaced, and Fokker Triplanes were the best German fighters in the spring of 1918 during Germany's last great offensive of the war. To sum up the triplane in the words of the Red Baron, they “climb like monkeys and are maneuverable as the devil.”
In the past thirty years I have drawn upon dozens of sources as I have researched this topic. However, for the purposes of this speech, I specifically quote:
The Fokker Triplane;
Arms and Armour Press; London; .
The Day the Red Baron Died;
Walker and Company, New York .