Today’s aircraft of the week hearkens back to the early days of air combat, and was the last great biplane produced in the Great War. Airplanes, during World War I, developed in stages. The first airplanes were slow biplanes, wherein the pilots would shoot at each other with pistols and throw bricks at the canvas-covered wings of their enemy aircraft, and try and drop sticks of dynamite or Mills bombs on them from above. Then we mounted machine guns on them – rear-mounted guns for observers.
And then came a new type of airplane – the fighting scout. Scout airplanes had a forward mounted machine gun, shooting through the propeller. This was a very sketchy business, as if the bullets hit the prop, it could send the scout spiraling to the ground. The next big invention was a synchronization device that ensured the bullets sped through the prop without hitting the wood of it.
Finally, there were leaps forward in airplane design. The canvas-and-wood airplanes were challenged by the Fokker Eindecker – the first all metal monoplane, with cantilever wings. The Fokker Triplane and Sopwith Camel engaged in vicious battles – specifically when Billy Bishop’s flight met up with a combat group of Jasta II, led by Von Richthofen. But the pinnacle of design came after Von Richthofen’s death. It was so good that it was the only airplane the Allies specified in the Treaty of Versailles as war reparations. It was the:
Before we discuss exactly how good this airplane was, it’s important we look at how it was developed. Tony Fokker was an airplane pioneer. The major airplanes Germany deployed in World War I were of his design, though probably more Albatrosses flew than Fokkers. The most lethal German ace of the war, Manfred von Richthofen, flew a Fokker airplane for many of his kills, and championed the D.VII.
The D.VII was designed to get the most possible performance out of the outdated engines Germany had to work with. Fokker’s chief designer, Reinhold Platz, took the platform that had worked well on the Eindecker and decided to make it a biplane, specifically, the cantilever wings. A cantilever wing is designed for monoplanes, using a thick spar to mould the wing around. The end result is that instead of having two thin, unstable wings strung together with wire, the D.VII had a pair of strong wings that worked without the wire. This meant that if the D.VII lost control or went into a spin, the wings held their form.
It also meant the airplane was fast and manouverable. It was a stable gun platform. It was incredibly lethal, and if von Richthofen had got his hands on it…but he didn’t, as he died in combat just a few days before it came out.
The D.VII did make it to some very, very lethal men. Folks like Hermann Goering and Ernst Udet. Goering was the man who succeeded von Richthofen as the head of the Flying Circus, and was a very talented pilot, who would eventually lead Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Without the D.VII to push him to national prominence, perhaps he would not have had that role. And the Luftwaffe might have had a good leader.
1700 D.VIIs were produced in the time Germany had left until the Armistice, and it very quickly became a feared sight for all Allied pilots. Will Barker’s famous one vs. fifty fight was against D.VIIs – he knocked out six of them in a Sopwith Snipe and won the Victoria Cross for his gallantry in action. That was a rarity; the D.VII outclassed everything the Allies had in the sky.
When Germany surrendered, everyone wanted to get their hands on the D.VII. And who can blame them – it was the finest airplane of the war, and would lead directly to many airplanes following in all the major Allied nations. Cantilever wings would be used in the monoplane designs slowly evolving in the 30s. Boeing would put the design to use in the P-26 Peashooter fighter for the USAAC, as an example. The D.VII itself went on to be used in Hollywood – pretty much every scene with an airplane from 1925-1945 had a D.VII in it.
In the end, it was a safe airplane that proved you could have hot performance and controllable characteristics, a combination that few, if any, pilots imagined could exist. The Germans loved it, the people who took possession of the D.VII after the war loved it, and it was a seminal moment of perfection in the aircraft industry. Not a pioneer in innovation, but a pioneer in excellence.