n the summer of 1919 journalist Jan Przybyła published a small booklet titled Z Orlich Bojów Lotników Lwowskich (Eagle Battles of the Lvov Airmen), which covered the first six months of fighting for the city of Lvov – or rather, the airmen’s part in it.
The author of this booklet had an opportunity to meet some of the pilots involved: Cpt. Stefan Bastyr and Lt. Stefan Stec, and their machines – Fokker E.V fighters – an event which made a lasting impression on him. Both were heroes praised in popular folk songs:
This must be Bastyr flying
The machine obeys him like a well-tamed beast
And if it’s Stec at the controls of the Fokker
It’s an air show to admire!
The Fokker was at that time (early May 1919) the number one topic among Lvov residents, who discussed it and opined at will. The aforementioned journalist, when faced with the famed lethal Fokker, noted the following impressions: “The Fokkers, the fighter and pursuit aircraft that only recently arrived from the city of Poznań, catch one’s attention even at a distance. They have quickly made their presence felt in the skies over Lvov, chasing away enemy aircraft. The Fokkers are so fast they can easily catch up with enemy biplanes and engage them with their twin machine guns from close quarters. The Fokker is a single seat aircraft; it is the pilot alone who flies the machine and attacks the enemy. Hence, the main armament is mounted on top of the fuselage, near the engine; the machine guns are constructed such that their bullets pass through the whirling propeller disc without damaging the blades.
The Fokker has its sting pointed forwards so the pilot has to manoeuvre to keep his enemy ahead of him. If an enemy machine places itself above, the Fokker can “stand on its tail” and attack from below; should an enemy be lower, the Fokker will dive nose-first and pound him from above… We look at the Fokkers with due respect; indeed their shapes make one think of sea seals (seal in Polish is “foka”, which sounds a bit like “Fokker” – translator’s note). These beasts seem to look down upon you, as if they wanted to say: and who allowed you in here? Go away and don’t spoil the air! Keep your distance and do not touch me – only the chosen can!”
The history of this aircraft is well worth exploring – it was, of course, a Fokker E.V, which Lt. Stefan Stec flew when he was credited with his first aerial victory over a Ukrainian Nieuport fighter aircraft.
The Flying Razor
he first purpose-built fighter aircraft to take part in the Great War was the Fokker E.I2-E.IV, a single-seat monoplane constructed by Anthony Fokker. The Allies pressed similar designs into service: the French Morane Saulnier Parasol and Morane Saulnier N. After no more than a couple of months, all the combatant nations switched to biplane, or even triplane fighter aircraft. However, the last year of the war saw the reappearance of monoplane fighters over the battlefields.
The German Inspection der Fiegertruppe decided to hold a contest between the country’s aircraft manufacturers for the award of a production contract for a new fighter design. The prototypes submitted to the Jagdflugzeugwettbewerb4 were thoroughly tested by factory pilots as well as by pilots selected from frontline units. Their opinions were crucial in choosing the best available designs to be purchased by the Army. For the first contest in January, a restriction was imposed – later much criticized – to the effect that all the submitted designs had to be powered exclusively by the inline Mercedes D III engine. During the following contests, however, the restriction was dropped and the producers were no longer limited by any preliminary conditions.
The second contest was organized at Adlershof, between 27th May and 21st June 1918. Among the contestants were all the important companies: Albatros, Kondor, L.V.G., Pfalz, Roland Siemens-Shuckert and others. Anthony Fokker was also present with his designs, as winner of the January contest. The Fokker company submitted several prototypes, mostly monoplanes. To the great surprise of everyone concerned, the winner was the Fokker V 26, the brainchild of Reinhold Platz, a brilliant autodidact. The many aircraft designs known as ‘Fokkers’ in fact owe their reputable place in the history of aviation to this man; the Fokker D.VII, for instance, is widely considered one of the best German fighters of the Great War.
Today, we are accustomed to thinking that many ingenious mechanical devices of the past were born from a flash of genius. The truth, however, is somewhat different. A magician can amaze his audience by pulling a white rabbit out of a top hat – but, of course, we all realize that it was not a magic power that put the rabbit inside the hat. A bright idea alone is not sufficient to get a trick to work – much trial and error is needed; there is no magic in it. Aircraft manufacture follows the same rule. Reinhold Platz was, without doubt, a talented designer but he based his ideas on the vast knowledge previously gained by his ‘boss’, Anthony Fokker. Monoplane structures were employed at the very beginning of aviation history. It was a monoplane that Louis Bleriot flew when he crossed the English Channel; Pegoud amazed onlookers with his aerobatic stunts performed in a monoplane Morane H; Nesterov pulled the first ever loop in a monoplane Nieuport IV; the first aircraft built by Fokker was a monoplane – the ‘Spin’ (in English, ‘Spider’, so named because of the support wires criss-crossing the aircraft) which was given the military designation Fokker M1.
The aerodynamics of a monoplane produce less drag and therefore, in general, when coupled to a similar engine it will deliver a better performance than a bi- or triplane. At the same time, being structurally less complex, a monoplane is simpler to produce. Another important consideration was the relatively short time needed to complete a monoplane: shorter than in the case of a biplane. Platz appreciated the advantages of monoplane construction and, indeed, it proved to be the way of the future.
Of note is the fact that Platz was not the only aircraft designer to explore the potential of the monoplane. The same idea reappeared in France and Great Britain in the form of several fighter aircraft: the British Bristol M1C (Bullet) and the Sopwith Monoplane (Scooter), as well as the French Morane Saulnier MS 27/29C1.
In December 1917 Reinhold Platz designed and completed his first monoplane. It was designated the Fokker V 17 (V for Versuchsmuster5). The new aircraft incorporated proven elements of the earlier Fokker Dr. I, such as the fuselage, control surfaces and undercarriage. Its main novelty was the wooden, fabric-covered, single-spar wing. Platz’s choice of mid-wing monoplane construction was led by a desire to minimize drag. The cantilever wing did not need any additional stiffeners or struts as it was fitted under the upper longerons. The fuselage was slotted to allow the one-piece wing to slide into place. The machine was powered by an Oberursel U II rotary engine, rated at 81 kW (110 hp). The completed aircraft was demonstrated in flight during the first, January contest. It turned out to be the fastest contestant.
Another Fokker monoplane test-flown before the first contest was the Fokker V.20, also a mid-wing design. It used the fuselage, control surfaces and undercarriage of the Fokker V 186 (one of the Fokker D.VIII prototypes) in its construction. It was powered by a Mercedes D III liquid-cooled, inline engine rated at 118 kW (160 hp) and equipped with a car-type frontal radiator. It took only five and a half days to assemble the aircraft7 . In the opinion of the test pilots, however, it was handicapped by poor downward vision.
The Fokker V.23 was the third mid-wing monoplane fighter design prepared specially for the second contest. It was powered by a Mercedes D III inline engine. The aircraft was fitted with a new wooden, plywood-covered, twin-spar cantilever wing. The wings were of trapezoidal shape with rounded wingtips. The fuselage aft of the cockpit was ridged to form a streamlined fairing. With a total weight of 848 kg, the aircraft was able to climb to 1000 metres in three minutes, and to 5000 metres in 29.8 minutes. Its climb rate was far superior to that of the Fokker D. VII fitted with the same powerplant. Pilots who flew the Fokker V.23 claimed that its major drawback was the poor downward view (blocked by the wing). On the other hand, they praised it for its high climb rate and manoeuvrability, though they also made reference to a lack of longitudinal stability.
The Fokker V.25 was the fourth fighter aircraft prototype tested, constructed as a low-wing monoplane (as specified by Anthony Fokker himself, after his flights in a Junkers D.I). Such a wing position ensured better downward visibility. Many elements from previous Fokker prototypes were recycled: the wing of the Fokker V.23 was mated to the fuselage, undercarriage and horizontal control surfaces of the Fokker V.17; new elements incorporated were the triangular tailfin and a new rudder. The new design featured a high, streamlined fairing aft of the cockpit, previously seen on the Fokker V.23. The aircraft was powered by an Oberursel U II rotary engine. It participated in the second contest for the ‘D-type’ aircraft8 contract. With a total weight of 564 kg it reached an altitude of 1000 metres in 1.7 minutes, 5000 m in 28.7 min. It had a good diving speed and was as manoeuvrable as a Fokker D.VII, although the pilots who test-flew it complained about poor downward visibility – the common problem of all the mid-wing monoplanes built thus far. Visibility upwards was unsurpassed.
The Fokker V.26 was another design prepared by Reinhold Platz to compete in the second contest. With this aircraft he strove to eliminate the one major drawback of his earlier prototypes, namely the poor downward visibility. It was for this reason that he introduced on his latest design the cantilever parasol wing, finally solving the problem. Anthony Fokker reminisced in his memoirs that this idea was tested in February 1918, when one of the Fokker D.VIIs was experimentally flown without the lower wing. The purpose of the tests was to determine how the aircraft would handle if left with only the upper wing. The results proved satisfactory. Devoid of the lower wing, the aircraft performed well; therefore, the next logical step was to construct a monoplane aircraft equipped with a cantilever parasol wing. Curiously, not a word was spared for Reinhold Platz in Fokker’s memoirs.
As had occurred previously, many used components found their way into the new design: the undercarriage, slightly modified fuselage and horizontal control surfaces of a Fokker Dr I; the vertical control surfaces of the Fokker V.25; and finally, the inverted ‘pyramid’ of tubing, which fastened the wing to the fuselage, from a Fokker D.VII. The new wing was based on the Fokker V.23’s wing, but it incorporated a rectangular mid-section carved out above the pilot’s head to improve the upward view from the cockpit. A single strut mounted on the rear spar and the fuselage framework gave further support to the wing. The aircraft was powered by an Oberursel U II engine rated at 81 kW, and armed with twin Spandau LMG 08/15 machine guns of 500 rounds per gun. With a take-off weight of 605 kg the aircraft’s top speed in level flight was 104 kph, and it reached an altitude of 1000 metres in 2 minutes. The aircraft’s relatively low-powered rotary engine (as compared to the Mercedes D III or BMW engines) and simple design resulted in a machine nearly 400 kg lighter than the Fokker D.VII. The Fokker V.26 was less manoeuvrable than the Fokker Dr.I, but more manoeuvrable than the Fokker D.VII and easier to handle; it also had a better diving speed. The Fokker D.VII could only beat it in ceiling and level flight speed. Furthermore, the Fokker V.26 had a notably short take-off run.
Platz recalled that the manufacturing time needed to complete the Fokker V.26 and its subsequent series production variants was the shortest of all the designs produced by the Fokker company. Pilots who flew it gave it high marks and it was not long before the Fokker D.VIII was sent to combat units. Among the Fokker V.26 enthusiasts was Hptm. Wilhelm Reinhard9 (20 aerial victories), the CO of JG 1, who flew it during the contest.
Of note is a report by Lt. Leigh Wade, who had an opportunity to fly a Fokker D.VIII at McCook Field10. He stated: “The aircraft is easy to fly and has sensitive controls. It has a tendency to fall away to starboard, but quickly responds to pilot adjustments. It has a good rate of climb and is highly manoeuvrable. It seems a bit tail-heavy, but this feature doesn’t affect its flying characteristics. Visibility from the cockpit is satisfactory. The Fokker has a low landing speed; on the ground it turns to starboard. The engine control instruments are located in an unusual position, which at first resulted in me making mistakes. The throttle lever is located on the port sidewall; the mixture control lever is situated to the left of the control column”.
Peter M. Grosz, the author of a Fokker D.VIII monograph11, draws the following conclusion in his book: “Most of the complimentary opinions concerning the aircraft’s ‘excellent performance’ came from inexperienced pilots, who had not yet tested the Fokker Parasol against contemporary fighter aircraft used by Germany and the Allies”.
There is some truth in this statement, but it should be recorded that seasoned veterans also flew the Fokker V.26 (E.V/D.VIII). The aircraft was praised by, among others, Lt. Rudolph Stark, the CO of Jasta 35 (6 victories), Lt. Herman Göring (22 victories) and Lt. Bruno Löerzer, the CO of JG 3 (41 victories). Ernst Udet (62 victories) flew the new Fokker D.VIII in a mock dogfight against Robert von Grim (25 victories) flying a Fokker D.VII – and beat him.
The other aircraft submitted by the Fokker company during the second contest was the Fokker V.27 fitted with a cantilever parasol wing. It differed from the Fokker V.26 by its 144 kW (195hp) Benz IIIb, liquid-cooled, V-shaped engine. The fuselage front section was reshaped and the aircraft’s take-off weight increased to 839 kg. Despite having a more powerful engine, the V 27’s rate of climb was worse than that of the Fokker V.26. It took three minutes to reach 1000 metres in the Fokker V 27, and as many as 45 minutes to climb up to 6000 metres. Such performance was unsatisfactory.