Italy’s most famous fighter pilot was Francesco Baracca, the son of a prominent landowner in Lugo di Romagna and his wife, the Countess Paolina. Baracca was a second lieutenant in the Piemonte Reale Calvary Regiment where he was an acclaimed equestrian. In 1912 he requested an assignment in a new branch of the army—aviation. He learned to fly in Bétheny near Reims and received pilot license number 1037.
When Italy entered the war, Baracca went to France to fly the new Nieuport fighter. He gained a reputation as a gallant pilot who showed a kind attitude toward enemy pilots, talking to them, shaking their hands, and offering small gifts if they were captured or placing small wreaths on their graves if they were shot down.
Baracca’s aircraft could always be recognized by the rearing black horse that he painted on the fuselage. He joined the 91st Squadriglia, nicknamed La Squadriglia degli Assi (The Squadron of Aces) in 1917. On June 19, 1918, while in command of the squadron, he was shot down and his body was found several days later, a bullet hole in his head and a pistol in his hand. It was suspected that he killed himself rather than die in the crash or be taken prisoner.
On June 17, 1923, Enzo Ferrari won his first race in Ravenna and the Countess Paolina suggested that Ferrari use her son’s prancing horse emblem on his car for good luck. The symbol of Ferrari racing has since been the prancing black horse on a yellow background, which Ferrari added because it was symbolic of his birthplace, Modena. —JSW
There are several museums across the country that offer visitors the opportunity to see authentic World War I aircraft or reproductions. Outside of Denver is the largest collection of World War I memorabilia and aircraft in the world. Vintage Aero Flying Museum, home of the LaFayette Foundation, is located at Platte Valley Airpark, 40 miles northeast of Denver in Fort Lupton, Colorado. Founded by James J. Parks as a not-for-profit educational foundation, the museum maintains the legacy and history of those who fought and flew in the Great War. The setting in rural Colorado is much like a rural French World War I airfield. In addition to a collection of aircraft, the museum features original uniforms and other memorabilia of the era. Now run by Parks’ son, Andy, the museum is expanding its aircraft collection and recently acquired three SE5a aircraft, a Fokker Dr.l, and a Sopwith Camel. The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, visit the Web site or call 303-502-5347.
In the scenic Hudson River Valley of New York is the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, a living history museum of antique aircraft. It is one of the largest collections of early aeroplanes in the world, many of which fly in the museum’s weekend airshows. Saturday airshows feature the aircraft of World War I including flight of the 1909 Blériot, the oldest flying aircraft in the United States. The Aerodrome, founded in 1959 by Cole Palen, starts its fiftieth season this year on June 13. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; airshows take place weekends in season at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. For more information, visit the Web site or call 845-752-3200.
The Museum of Flight in Seattle at historic Boeing Field includes 18 World War I aircraft and a number of interactive exhibits. Visitors hear personal stories of flyers from around the world who flew these aircraft in World War I. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on the first Thursday of each month, the museum is open 10 a.m. until 9 p.m. For more information, visit the Web site or call 202-764-5720.
If you have information on other museums or sites that feature World War I aircraft, e-mail information to [email protected]. —JSW
The assassination on June 28, 1914, of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, triggered a series of events that led inexorably to the outbreak of war in Europe a month later. The Great War began less than 11 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight. The “aeroplane” was an infant, and only a relative handful had been produced.
During the war years, 1914 to 1918, aircraft development and production exploded. More than 150,000 warplanes were manufactured (mostly by France, Germany, and England). Unfortunately, only a handful of these handmade aircraft survived the ravages of war and time. Flyable examples are extremely rare.
Javier Arango, an investment consultant and avid pilot in Los Angeles, had majored at Harvard in the history of science. His academic curiosity led him to realize that our knowledge of aircraft from the Great War is limited. The best way to appreciate them, he concluded, was to obtain and fly a discriminating selection of these unique aircraft.
This daunting undertaking began with the construction of a Fokker Dr.I Triplane in 1980 and was the beginning of his Aeroplane Collection. Arango has been using this and subsequent types to study aviation progress made during “the war to end all wars.”
Arango says that he focuses on the differences between the three most successful lines of aircraft produced by the aviation war powers. He explains, for example, that, “Anthony Fokker was a radical innovator and created a new design every few weeks during the war.” (The Mercedes-powered Fokker D.VII is regarded as Fokker’s best fighter.)
“The British designer, T.O.M. ‘Tommy’ Sopwith,” he says, “demonstrated a minimalist philosophy toward aircraft design by maximizing the performance of seemingly ordinary airplanes.
“The French firm of Nieuport,” he adds, “innovated gradually and carefully. You can hardly tell the difference between one model and the next.” The Nieuport 17 was the most famous and popular of the series.
“Our present goal,” Arango says, “is for the collection to obtain enough of the Fokker, Nieuport, and Sopwith models to complete a valid study of their evolution. The collection might obtain more of other makes of warplanes as well.”
Most of the aircraft in the Aeroplane Collection were built or restored by Chuck Wentworth and his artisans at Antique Aero in Paso Robles, California. They are painstakingly crafted from original drawings, photographs, and other references.
Airplanes of the Great War were originally built to last only a few weeks because they were not expected to survive accidents and combat much longer than that. The collection’s airplanes, however, are built to last longer. This is why some modern materials are used. These include non-flammable paint and stronger metals. Otherwise, original construction methods and techniques are employed.Fly Boys "Courtesy of Tony Bill and Electric Entertainment." Aircraft in the movie are from the Aeroplane Collection
Despite our sometimes-romantic view of aviation, we need to consider that these machines were designed to kill (although their purpose early in the war was to observe enemy ground activity). Arango regards the aircraft as a collection of “lethal, technological artifacts.”
“Our greatest challenge,” he adds, “is finding and restoring engines. Many parts are impossible to find and must be made from scratch. Also, each engine was completely handmade and common parts between them are not interchangeable.”
The most popular powerplant was the rotary engine. It was simple, strong, and light. The engine rotates about a fixed crankshaft attached firmly to the airplane. Conversely, conventional engines are stationary and have rotating crankshafts.
Engine rotation cools the cylinders, which eliminates the need for the complex and heavy liquid cooling systems of that era. A further advantage was that combat pilots did not have to wait for coolant or oil temperatures to warm before takeoff.Fly Boys "Courtesy of Tony Bill and Electric Entertainment." Aircraft in the movie are from the Aeroplane Collection
Rotary engines burn conventional fuel but use castor oil for lubrication. A conventional oil system cannot be used in a spinning engine, so lubrication involves a “total-loss oil system.” Oil flows into the engine, mixes with fuel and air, burns in the cylinders, and exits through the exhaust valves. In other words, oil passes through the engine and is lost forever. An 80-horsepower Le Rhône rotary, for example, loses six quarts of castor oil per hour. Nor can a spinning engine have an exhaust system to duct exhaust away from the cockpit. Consequently, pilots inhale fumes of burnt castor oil.
The pilot not only had to fly the airplane and engage in deadly combat, but when flying behind a Le Rhône rotary, he had to simultaneously and manually operate the crude carburetor. Using independent fuel and air levers, the pilot creates his own fuel-air mixture to obtain the desired power.
When applying takeoff power, he moves both levers forward and then fine-tunes the fuel lever until sensing a smooth-running engine delivering maximum power. Lesser power settings require the adroit adjustment of both levers. If the pilot inadvertently floods the engine, it can take 30 seconds to restore power, an eternity in combat and a catastrophe at low altitude after takeoff. Power loss because of excess leaning is immediately recoverable. Power also is controlled with a blip switch on the control stick that turns the ignition on and off. When operating a 100-horsepower Gnome rotary, a pilot has only a blip switch to control power. The engine is either on or off. The more powerful 160-horsepower Gnome, however, also has an ignition selector switch. It is used to selectively interrupt ignition to a given number of cylinders per rotation cycle.
Rotary engines turn large propellers slowly presumably because excessive rpm could cause cylinders to fly off. The 80-horsepower Le Rhône, for example, is limited to about 1,200 rpm, while the 160-horsepower Gnome is limited to about 1,400. Gnome engines in particular are extremely noisy primarily because the exhaust valves open prematurely and release the burning charge before it has been consumed. Because aircraft with these engines were so slow and noisy, they were unsuitable for surprise ground attacks. Many do not have windshields, and a pilot is exposed to a wind that swirls and seems to come from all directions. On cold days, he hunches down in the cockpit for protection from the elements.
Entering and recovering from turns often requires leading with rudder, and the ailerons produce adverse yaw.
During my flight in a Sopwith 1-1/2 Strutter, which has a 160-horsepower Gnome rotary, I tried to maneuver the airplane in a way that would make noticeable the precession caused by the spinning mass of a rotary engine, but it was not detectable. Tales about having to overcome large forces created by gyroscopic precession seem to be exaggerated, although torque and P-factor are noticeable.
Aircraft built in 1914 had a narrow, 20- to 30-mph speed range separating stall and cruising speeds. These increased during the war to 60 mph, similar to the stall-cruise difference of a Cessna 150.
Many have a relatively aft center of gravity. This helps to prevent nose-over during landing and increases maneuverability. An aft center of gravity also allows use of small tail surfaces that reduce weight and drag, but this can result in a loss of pitch and yaw stability. The good news is that there is no need to trim for airspeed changes (especially since most of these aircraft do not have trim tabs). The bad news is that the pilot cannot feel rudder movement, especially in most Fokkers and early Nieuports that have only small, balanced rudders and no vertical stabilizers.
Sopwith intentionally made the Camel unstable to maximize performance. Although this made it more difficult to fly, it could outmaneuver its adversaries. One of the collection’s two Camels is the world’s only Sopwith-built Camel in airworthy condition.
Control harmony was non-existent. Two hands often had to be used to induce even a slow roll rate; the rudder had little or no feel; and many were so tail-heavy that the pilot had to apply constant forward pressure on the control stick. Hands-off flying was out of the question. Flying was a tiring and constant struggle to make the airplane go where the pilot wanted it to go.
The Fokker Triplane was the most recognizable airplane of the war and was made famous by Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron. The first operational triplane during World War I, however, was built by Sopwith, not Fokker. Turn entry and recovery in a Fokker triplane begins by leading with and holding rudder, and then applying opposite aileron to prevent overbanking (a skidding turn). The wings of most of these aircraft have sharp leading edges that reportedly lead without warning to abrupt and interesting stalls and wing dropping.
Arango says that the Fokker E.III Eindecker is the most difficult to fly. It has an all-flying tail (no stabilizers); warped wings for roll control (like the Wright Flyer), and no way to vary power other than a blip switch. Easiest to fly, he says, is the Sopwith Tabloid.
My flight in a Sopwith 1-1/2 Strutter consisted of tracing rectangles around Arango’s 2,200-foot, pristine grass strip in the heart of central California’s wine country. These aircraft are so valuable, and their engines so inherently unreliable, that it is risky to fly beyond gliding distance of the airport. Arango occasionally flies them to nearby Paso Robles Airport, where Antique Aero is located.
None of these aircraft have tailwheels or brakes. The tailskid digging into sod slows the airplane after landing and helps to keep it moving straight ahead. Taxiing turns are made by moving the stick forward to take some weight off the skid, applying full rudder in the direction of desired turn, and then adding a blast of power to make the turn.
Many rotary engines have only a single magneto, and there is no need to check it before takeoff. Either the engine is running smoothly or it is not.
A pulsateur (pulsator) is a small glass vessel on the instrument panel that can be used to observe a pulsation of oil about once every 10 seconds to verify oil pump operation. This can be difficult to see, and it is easier to confirm that the engine is getting enough oil by observing the trail of white smoke, smelling the aroma of burnt castor oil, and watching the airframe being incessantly coated with fresh, black oil. At the end of a flight, the fuselage and inboard wing panels are bathed in oil.
A pilot’s white scarf had two purposes, to wipe oil from his goggles and to prevent chafing his skin while “rubbernecking” for the enemy.
When I flared for a three-point landing, drag increased rapidly and dramatically. It was like a cosmic hand pushing against the machine. That is when you need to be touching down. Thankfully, we were. None of these aircraft have flaps.
The engine is set to some intermediate power setting prior to landing and left that way for the approach. This avoids the complexity of varying power during the approach. Instead, power is turned on and off with the blip switch, as needed. Remember, though, to release the switch after landing and before the engine comes to a stop lest you become stranded and powerless on the runway.
Early pilots of the Great War generally were well heeled, aristocratic, or had connections. They purchased their own uniforms (some from Harrods in London), helmets, goggles, flying boots, and so forth, which is why their uniforms lacked uniformity.
In the beginning, training was minimal or nonexistent. It began with some ground school. Flight instructors often knew little more than their students. A pilot’s first solo often was his first flight in an airplane.
Two-place trainers came later in the war. One of the first training devices was a penguin, a version of the famous Blériot but with wings too short to fly. It was used to practice taxiing and to simulate takeoff and landing rolls. When dual instruction in two-place trainers became available, it typically was limited to a few hours. After soloing, pilots were left to learn on their own, although training became more thorough as the war wore on.
Learning to fly was extremely dangerous. Pilots were more likely to be killed during training or in accidents than in battle. Surviving training was considered proof of one’s flying skill.
The longevity of combat pilots was usually measured in weeks or months. Those surviving a year often became gaunt and worn-out. They had the shakes, were terrorized, smoked heavily, and drank themselves to sleep. Most were fatalistic and expected to be killed “in glory and for a great cause.” Depression and illness were common, and young men aged years in a few months of combat.
The pilots, though, were “knights of the air,” courageous fighters, and heralded for occasional acts of great chivalry. A well-known example involved French pilot Georges Guynemer and his German counterpart, Ernst Udet. During a dogfight between them in May 1917, Guynemer noticed that Udet’s gun had jammed. He saluted his adversary and flew off.
There was no instrument flying, and a pilot who entered cloudiness prayed that there was enough altitude beneath to recover from the inevitable spin. Unfortunately, most pilots did not know how to recover from a spin until late in the war. Those who did know how to spin used the maneuver to escape an attacker or feign incapacitation.
Although most pilots died in accidents, combat offered its own hazards (other than being shot down, of course). Many aircraft of the Great War did not have airspeed indicators, and pilots simply flew as fast as they dared. Flying too fast, though, caused fabric to rip off the wings or the airplane to fail structurally and tear itself apart, as happened to many American pilots flying Nieuport 28s. Pulling too many Gs during a dogfight caused the airplane to break and the pilot to die.
Most aircraft did not have heaters, and pilots could become so frigid and frostbitten that they were unwilling to stick their heads out of the cockpit and turn to see if an enemy might be approaching from behind. Aircraft fabric was highly flammable, and fire was a pilot’s greatest fear. The oil-soaked fuselage could become a flying Molotov cocktail. Some pilots shot themselves with a revolver in preference to burning to death or jumping (they did not have parachutes; the Germans had parachutes in the last six months of the war).
The Aeroplane Collection has 21 airplanes. All are flyable except for the Fokker Spinne, and Arango flies them all. This is one of the world’s largest collections of aircraft from the Great War and probably is the largest collection of flyable aircraft. Currently under construction is a Sopwith Snipe. All designs in the collection will be more than 100 years old in less than 10 years.
The author wishes to thank Javier Arango, Tony Bill, and Fred Murrin for their contributions to this article. Visit the author’s Web site.
Additional and detailed information about aircraft in The Aeroplane Collection is available in Philip Makanna and Javier Arango’s book, Ghosts of the Great War: Aviation in World War One .