Fabulous and Foolhardy Flyers III
Manfred von Richthofen, the leading ace of the First World
Part 3 and conclusion: The Warbirds of W.W.I.
In 1903 the Wright brothers made the first controlled
flights in a heavier-than-air craft. The longest hop was less
than 300 yards in length, but within a decade planes were flying
635 miles without a stop at speeds of up to 127 miles per hour
and more than 2,000 people had learned to pilot planes.
The aviation world was about to take a darker
turn, though, as this new technology was soon to become a serious
weapon of war.
The first use of aircraft in an actual war occurred
in 1911 when planes from the Italian Army, who were in a colonial
war with Turkey, scouted over enemy lines in Libya. A week later
Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti made the world's first live bombing
run when he dropped four grenades out of his Taube monoplane
onto Turkish troops below. On the ground the attack caused little
damage, but much excitement.
Despite Gavotti's bombing run the airplane entered
World War II primarily as a reconnaissance tool and for that
it was extremely valuable. For the first time generals could
see the strength and location of forces behind the enemy lines
and plan accordingly.
During those early reconnaissance missions air
crews from opposing sides would often wave as they passed each
other in the air. Soon, though, pilots began bringing guns along
to take the occasional pot shot at the enemy. Later some two-man
planes were designed so that the second crewman would be able
manipulate a machine gun for attacks on other aircraft.
Armament for single seat aircraft was more difficult.
The logical place to put a machine gun on such a plane was to
have it fixed, facing forward just in front of the pilot. This
way the pilot could aim the gun by pointing the aircraft. Most
aircraft designs, though, had a single propeller at the front
of the plane. Bullets from a machine gun placed at the best
location would shoot off the propeller. In April of 1915 a Frenchman
named Roland Garros put armor plating on his propeller to defect
any rounds from his forward facing machine gun. The arrangement
was so effective that Garros shot down five planes in a space
of sixteen days. Still, the armor plating solution seemed unsatisfactory
in the long run. Placing the gun beyond the arc of the propeller
was one solution, but this made it difficult for the pilot to
change ammunition drums and clear gun jams. One example of this
was an incident that happened to L.A. Strange, a British pilot
Garros with his Morane Bullet. With deflector plates
attached to the propeller to allow a forward facing
machine gun he downed five planes in 16 days.
Strange was flying a Martinsyde scout which had
its gun mounted on the top of its top wing. While engaged in
an attack on a German plane the drum on his machine gun (which
contained the ammunition) ran out. He reached up to pull off
the drum and replace it with a new one, but it was jammed. Placing
the control stick between his legs he used both hands to pull
at the stuck drum. As he lifted himself up to get a better grip,
the stick fell out from between his legs and his safely harness
slipped off. The plane flipped upside down into a spin and Strange
found himself hanging underneath the airplane with 8,500 feet
of air below him. His only attachment to the aircraft was the
drum which until a moment before he had been trying to pull
Strange managed to climb from strut to strut and
get his foot back into the cockpit to kick the stick and bring
the plane back to an upright position. He fell back into the
cockpit, but the shock broke the seat and he found himself sitting
on the floor, unable to see out. Also the broken seat was jamming
the cables so he could not move the control stick. Strange had
to push himself up and throw the remnants of the seat outside
before he could regain control of the aircraft, which was by
then flying dangerously close to the ground. Then he was able
to fly back to base.
Many of his colleagues back at base doubted his
wild story, but after the war it was at least partly confirmed
by a report from a German gunner who claimed he'd shot down
a British Martinsyle after the plane had gone into a spin and
the pilot had fallen out. German troops spent half a day looking
for the wreckage of that plane, but did not find it.
Strange's story is certainly unusual, but the
difficulties with the position of the machine gun were typical.
The problem was solved when Anthony Fokker, a brilliant, young
aircraft designer working for the Germans, employed a little
known invention of Swiss engineer Franz Schneider: the interrupter
gear. This device allowed the gun to fire when the propeller
was horizontal, but stopped it when the blade was vertical.
This made the airplane a very effective killing machine.
W.W.I Sopwith biplane heads for a takeoff.
Soon the war had a new type of hero: the flying
ace. An ace was a pilot that managed to shoot down five enemy
aircraft. Perhaps the earliest was the German Max Immelmann
who invented many of the early combat maneuvers (such as the
Immelmann loop). Immelmann's career was cut short after 15 "kills"
when the interrupter gear failed and his machine gun shot off
the propeller of his plane at 6,000 feet. He died in the the
Each nationality had their leading aces by the
end of the war: the British Major Edward Mannock with 73 kills,
the French Capt. Rene Fonck with 75 kills, the Italian Lt-Col.
Francesco Baracca with 36 kills, the American Capt. Eddie V.
Rickenbacker with 26 kills. The leading ace of the war was the
German Baron Manfred von Richthofen with 80 kills.
Baron Manfred von Richthofen, also known by the
nickname "the bloody red Baron," like so many of the
great fighter aces did not survive the war. His legend, however,
lived on in popular culture through the rest of the century.
Richthofen was born in 1892 to a family of landed gentry from
East Prussia. At age eleven it was decided (without his consent)
that he be a professional soldier and he was enrolled as a cadet.
He led an undistinguished career until he was transferred to
the Air Service as an observer in 1915. He quickly became a
pilot, though he crashed on his solo flight, and scored his
first combat victory early in 1916.
Richthofen was a coldly calculating warrior, carefully
selecting his targets and avoiding traveling over enemy lines
where he would be captured if his machine were downed. Some
of his enemies faulted him for this, thinking it was "unsporting,"
but the Richthofen's care in battle probably explains why he
survived long enough to roll up such an impressive score.
Being a fighter pilot in W.W. I was extremely
dangerous. Often novices did not even see the planes that shot
them down. Pilots who survived to be veterans often became victims
of battle exhaustion. The constant danger unnerved them.
The circumstances of Richthofen's death are even
today controversial. The Royal Air Force claimed their pilot
Canadian Roy Brown had killed him, though Brown only claimed
that he had shot at a plane that looked like Richthofen's and
had not seen it crash. It seems more likely Richthofen, his
judgment clouded by battle fatigue, was killed when he pursued
novice pilot Lieutenant May at low level over Allied lines.
The Baron's plane was protected from ground fire as long as
he remained close to May's tail, but when he broke off his attack,
perhaps due to jammed guns and turned back to German lines,
he became the target of concentrated anti-aircraft fire. These
shots probably killed him before his plane even hit the ground..
replica of a Fokker Triplane painted in the colors favored
by Manfred von Richthofen, the "Red Baron."
The three winged configuration shortened the width of
the plane making for tighter turns in combat.
The war had pushed aviation technology forward at
a blinding pace. By the close of the hostilities in 1919 factories
were experimenting with fighter planes, such as the Curtiss 18T,
that sported 400hp engines which could pushed the aircraft to
top speeds of over 160 miles per hour while carrying their heavy,
and deadly, burden of weapons. Nobody denied the vital contribution
aircraft had made to the outcome of the war especially in reconnaissance
or the bravery of their pilots. The world recognized that the
airplane had grown up and the early days of aviation were over.
Back to Part 2.
Copyright 2001Lee Krystek.
All Rights Reserved.