Focus on Fokker at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome
A pair of World War I aircraft, sharing a common manufacturer, but differing in their number of wings, took center stage at Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome’s July 2012 “Meet the Fokkers” event, baking beneath the breathless blue whose still air would not have flickered a candle’s flame, but whose temperature was as high as it.
The sign posted at the covered bridge entrance, as always, advised, “No where else in the world can you see aircraft of this type at such close range.” The post-air show event would accomplish more than that, as visitors would be welcomed to hear narratives from aerodrome pilots and inspect cockpits to enable them to get in touch with the Dutch-or at least with the psyche of the man who had been behind the designs.
“We’re showcasing the contributions of Anthony Fokker today,” said Neill Herman, Old Rhinebeck Air Show President, “and we have two representative D.V11s-which were excellent fighters-and a Dr.1 made famous by Baron von Richthofen and his flying aces. Still thriving today, Fokker is one of the threads to the fabric of aviation’s past.”
Establishing an aviation company in Wiesbaden, Germany, Anthony Fokker himself sold the third version of his aircraft, the Spin III, to the German Military in 1913. As a seed, it sprouted into a series of highly successful World War I fighters.
During the 1970s and 1980s, now focusing on the commercial aviation sector, the company that bore his name produced a pair of regional airliners, which included the turboprop F.27 Friendship and the pure-jet F.28 Fellowship, and they were followed by their modernized counterparts, the F.50 and the F.70/100, respectively.
Although fierce competition from other, much larger aircraft manufacturers and economic circumstances ultimately precluded airframe production after 1996, the company continues today as Fokker Technologies, focusing on components and services.
It is most known, however, for its World War I aircraft, four of which count in the Old Rhinebeck collection and represent three different configurations-mono-, bi-, and triplanes-as expressed by their very designations.
The Eindecker E.III, for instance (German for “monoplane”), established Fokker Flugzeug-Werke as a significant provider of innovative, high-performance designs, which enabled their pilots to emerge victorious and alive, and their opponents to suffer the opposite fates.
Based upon the Fokker M5, and significantly influenced by the Morane-Saulnier Type H, the E series took low-wing, monoplane form when a Morane-Saulnier Type L, piloted by Roland Garros, was captured in 1915 and enabled Fokker engineers to inspect, and then replicate, its forward-facing, 7.92-mm Spandau machine gun.
Employing a synchronization gear mechanism, it allowed a pilot, through an interrupter, to fire bullets through the propeller arc without actually hitting the blades.
Production of the E.1, numbering 68, led to its E.II successor and an even smaller batch, of 50 aircraft, because the performance erosion created by its smaller wing could not be adequately counteracted by its 100-hp Oberursel engine.
But the definitive E.III version–with a 1,400-pound gross weight, 83-mph maximum speed at 6,500 feet, and 11,500-foot service ceiling–saw significant action on the Western Front from mid-1915 to late summer 1916 with the Austro-Hungarian Air Service and the German Army.
“The Eindecker was the first with synchronized gear,” said Mark Mondello, an Old Rhinebeck ground attendant. “It also had wing-warping-the only Fokker with this banking method. The others had ailerons.”
Old Rhinebeck’s currently unassembled example is stored in the hangar on the hill.
Yet quality, and not quantity, led to the type’s consistent victories. Although only about 425 were constructed, including the 160-hp E.IV, their maneuverability and overall superiority created an almost undefeatable armed fortress in European skies, and, in aircraft such as these, “German aces such as Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke became national heroes as the number of victories over their opponents grew,” according to Fokker Technologies.
“The Fokker ‘Eindecker’ became one of the most feared machines of the early part of the First World War,” asserts Old Rhinebeck through its website. “This aircraft was the first true fighter… of the war and set the stage for a battle of technological superiority between nations that directly influenced the rapid development of aircraft design for the duration of the war.”
Like many of the crops grown by his aviation concern, its seed was first planted in Anthony Fokker’s mind. Once again influenced by a competitor-in this case, the Sopwith triplane-he instructed engineer Reinhold Platz in 1917 to incorporate such a performance-producing triplet of wings.
Devoid of external supports or bracing wires, the cantilever design only employed thin, inter-plane struts and those on which the top wing was mounted.
“As you can see,” said Mark, pointing to the bright red Dr.1 on the field, “there isn’t any external bracing, but the mid-wing completely obscures the pilot’s vision. “There are also two Spandau machine guns mounted over the engine cowling.”
Entering service with Manfred von Richthofen’s JGI, it scored its first victory with Lieutenant Werner Voss and he notched up 20 more in an almost equal number of days, as its prototypes and 318 production aircraft joined forces to demonstrate victorious and notorious, but short-lived performance at the Front. Short-lived himself, Voss lost his life in one on September 23, 1917 when he was shot down by an SE5A.
“The Dr.1 was an excellent gun platform because of its maneuverability,” said Neill. “It could out-turn anything in the sky. In a dogfight, it was a definite plus. You could get behind the enemy, but otherwise it was dangerous-very unstable.”
Powered by a 110-hp, UR.II Oberursel engine and sporting 23-foot, 7 5/8-inch spans of its three wings, the Dr.1 had a maximum, 102-mph speed and 20,000-foot operational ceiling.
“(But it was) a tricky airplane to fly,” said Al Loncto, longtime Old Rhinebeck Air Show announcer. “It tries to kill you from the moment you start it to the moment you apply the brakes (after landing). Its ground direction-ability is lousy.”
“There aren’t any brakes,” continued Mark. “You control the direction on the ground with the rudder. But in the air you could make such tight turns that you could get behind any enemy aircraft.”
“I think it was out of proportion for what it did,” said Neill, “Richthofen made most of his kills in the Albatros, but they were glamorized by the Dr.1, what with its red paint job and triplane configuration.”
Nevertheless, Richthofen, synonymous with the type, scored numerous victories and its superior maneuverability and climb rate combined to turn it into a worthy opponent of such types as the SE5A and the SPAD. In the end, however, he proved the validity of the adage, “he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword,” as he himself did in the triplane when he was shot down on April 21, 1918, a month before it reached its apex with 171 aircraft at the Front.
Of the two reproduction Fokker triplanes in the Old Rhinebeck collection, the second, located in the World War I hangar on the hill, is powered by a 110-hp Le Rhone engine and had engaged in mock dogfights with a Sopwith Pup during weekend air shows for some two decades from 1987, while the currently performing one, in true barnstorming style, alighted on numerous eastern coast grass fields when Cole Palen had ferried it to the aerodrome from Florida.
“(Regrettably), there aren’t any original Dr.1s flying today,” said Neill.
Both the speed at which the next Fokker fighter flew and took shape increased, with a corresponding decrease in the number of wings, resulting in the “Zweidecker” or biplane D.VII.
Brainchild, like the Dr.1, of Anthony Fokker, it was once again transformed from the specifications he submitted to Reinhold Platz into fabric- and wood-generating lift and was then subjected to its initial flight tests, as the V.II prototype, in early-1918, immediately demonstrating its superior performance characteristics.
Large-scale production, of 400 airplanes, commenced after von Richthofen-requested modifications, including a lengthened fuselage and a fixed fin, resolved its inherent instabilities and produced a biplane with 29-foot, 21/3-inch wings; a six-cylinder, 160-hp Mercedes inline engine; and the snow-standard, dual Spandau machine guns. It could attain maximum, 117-mph speeds.
The Hermann Goering-commanded JGI took delivery of the first Fokker biplane in April of 1918.
“This was basically the ultimate fighter of World War I,” said Mark, “and was used by various air forces into the thirties. The wing, as you can see, is thick and offers very high lift. It’s a cantilever type, without external bracing wires.”
Powered by a 185-hp BMW IIIa engine and designated D.VIIF, it achieved its performance peak, climbing to 5,000 meters in 14 minutes as opposed to the earlier D.VII’s 38.
According to Fokker Technologies, “The Fokker D.VII was strong, fast, and superb at high altitudes and was extremely popular with the German pilots… (It) became the backbone of the Dutch Air Force during the 1920s.”
Old Rhinebeck’s website agrees. “The D.VII had the unique ability to hang on its prop while the nose was pitched upward”-capabilities reflected by the sheer numbers produced: 840 by Fokker and 785 by Albatros alone.
“Ours,” said Mark, “has an original, water-cooled, 200-hp Mercedes engine. The airplane was so respected that the Armistice Agreement directed that all Fokker D.VIIs with BMW and Mercedes engines be turned over to the Allies. It was also the last aircraft that Cole Palen, along with Ken Cassens, built that he got to see fly.”
Despite the agreement, Anthony Fokker succeeded in smuggling 120 aircraft and 400 engines out of Germany and into Holland, where he continued post-war design and production, developing his fledgling, now Dutch company into one of the global aviation concerns that it eventually became.
That company enabled today’s Old Rhinebeck visitors, after witnessing a final, “History of Flight” air show pass of a white smoke trailing Dr.1 and its bounce on the grass field’s spongy surface, to eclipse the boundaries of the fence and personally meet the Fokkers which had performed in it, inspecting their cockpits, discussing their designs, and getting in touch with the Dutch almost a century after their originals had first flown.