23 Jan 2017

The Other Triplane

It's funny, if you asked most people, can they name any plane from WWI, they'd come up with the Fokker Triplane, and quite likely the Sopwith Camel, and that's down to Snoopy and the Peanuts comic strip. Well, that's okay. Just because I find the aviation of the Great War fascinating doesn't mean everyone else should. But maybe it's a little bit of a shame that it's left an abiding impression, that triplanes figured more prominently than they actually did.

In fact, they were unusual, and only had two brief spells of fame. Their second, epitomised by the Fokker machine, was more a matter of notoriety, in that the highest scoring ace of the war, Manfred von Richthofen, was killed in one, and that he happened to favour all-red painted aircraft. But he had flown many different types, most successfully a series of Albatros fighters, and in only two more weeks if he'd lived, he would have acquired Germany's best fighter of the war, the Fokker D.VII, and would have left the Dr.I, the Triplane, behind. The thing is, that the Dr.I was extremely manoeuverable, but also slow, and the technological race of the war had already settled on the superiority of fast powerful machines over the more agile machines which dominated the skies of the first part of the war. Once the D.VII appeared, only one of Germany's top fliers still occasionally gave an outing to his Triplane, Josef Jacobs (who happened to fly a cool looking all black machine). It's not too surprising; Jacobs was an excellent pilot, while Richthofen was more of a ruthless hunter.

The Fokker Dreidekker was the only German triplane to be produced in any number, and not that many compared to standard biplane fighters, despite there having been a veritable craze of designing and building such machines in 1917. So what had brought that about? What was the triplane's first burst of fame?

This was what started it. It's the Sopwith Triplane, which came out of a desire to increase wing area without lengthening the wings, and so produce a much more manoeuverable aircraft. The result was wildly successful. It appeared at a time when Germany's Albatroses had wrested back control of the air from the British, only to find this thing running rings around them. It wasn't available in great numbers, partly because it was only operated by the Royal Naval Air Service (and a French naval unit). But it flew like a dream, and also happened to be flown with rare buccaneering spirit by some of the very best Allied pilots, in particular a group of Canadians who formed a famous 'Black Flight' and included Raymond Collishaw, one of the highest scoring aces of the War.

And yet... Only a few months later, the Sopwith Triplane had been entirely replaced, by the Sopwith Camel, as it happens. The Camel didn't 'fly like a dream', it was very difficult to learn to fly in fact, but it was just as agile as the Triplane (both of them), it was faster, and most importantly, it carried two guns. An attempt had been made to upgun the Triplane, but it lost much of its agility as a result. Its death knell came about because it was unusually hard to repair in the field, and too many machines were having to be sent back to England for renovation or reconstruction. It's an odd twist, that the Fokker Dr.I never actually flew in combat against the Sopwith Triplane, which had so impressed the Germans and inspired it.

This model is a tiny one - in 1:72 scale it's only 8cm long and just over 11cm in wingspan. I was given it at Christmas and although I might have put it at the back of the pile, I've built it already, because of a strong pull of nostalgia I suppose. It's an old kit, dating from the Sixties I think, by Revell, which still makes models kits today. I can remember as a schoolboy wanting this kit, I preferred the look of it to the German machine; but I could never find it. We didn't have the internet you see. If it wasn't in any model shop you frequented, well, that was it. I have a much larger scale kit in my stash, 1:32 scale, which I'll build sometime. But, simple as it is, it's rather nice to have come across this particular golden oldie.

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