The Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington, has one gallery of displays dealing with the fighter planes of World War I. While this was not the first war in which airplanes were used, it was the war the established the utility of airplanes in warfare. It was during this war that the idea of aerial dogfights—two of more planes fighting one another—developed. The displays show the airplanes in the context of the war and attempt to explain the role of military aircraft and the men who flew them in this conflict.
When the United States entered World War I, America promised to “blacken the skies over Germany” with airplanes. However, relatively few American planes actually saw combat: most of the American airmen flew French and British airplanes. According to one museum display:
“Even after the war, America’s ‘battleship admirals and earth-entrenched generals’ still had difficulty accepting that the addition of airpower would bring a new dimension to warfare. They believed these fragile and temperamental ‘aeroplanes’ would never have an impact on their battle-hardened tanks, ships, troops and sailors.”Shown below are some of the aircraft displayed in the World War I gallery.
Caproni Ca 20
The Caproni Ca 20 was the world’s first fighter plant. It was a single seat monoplane with a foreward facing machine gun mounted above the propeller arc.
Italy was a forerunner with regard to military aeronautics. Prior to World War I, Italy had been involved in a conflict with Turkey over areas in North Africa. In 1911, Captain Piazza used a Blériot monoplane to scout the locations of the Turkish troops. According to the museum’s description:
“This event marked the first time an airplane had been used in warfare. Days later, an Italian lieutenant dropped the first bombs from a plane when he tossed four hand grenades over the side of his craft at enemy positions.”Prior to the beginning of World War I, Gianni Caproni created the Ca 20. When the war started, Italy stayed neutral, but eventually joined the war on the side of the Allies.
Royal Aircraft S.E.5:
Often called “Old Reliable” these airplanes were easy to fly, fast, and strong. On the other hand, it could be difficult to land. The aircraft on display in the museum is a reproduction.
One pilot, on seeing the Sopwith Triplane for the first time, described it as “an intoxicated flight of stairs.” However, the plane could turn around in a short period of time, an advantage in an aerial dogfight.
Some pilots called this “the perfect plane.”
The D.1, often known as the “Berg Scout,” was the first Austrian-designed fighter plane ever built. It had excellent flying characteristics. The Museum of Flight’s Aviatik D.1 is an extremely rare original built in Vienna.
At the beginning of the war, the Albatros D.Va was considered fast, hearty, and well-armed compared to other aircraft. By the end of the war, it was considered obsolete. The aircraft shown above is a replica.
Nieuport Type 24bis:
Edouard de Niéport established the line of French fighter planes which included the Nieuport 24. It addition to being used in France, this aircraft was also used by Russia, Belgium, Italy, and Britain. The United States purchased a number of them to be used as training aircraft.
Nieuport Type 28:
While the French Air Service rejected the Nieuport 28 as unsuitable as a front-line fighter, the United States Army took delivery of 297 of them. The American ace Eddie Rickenbacker scored many of his victories in a Nieuport 28.
Curtiss JN-4D Jenny:
This is one of America’s most famous airplanes and was used prior to World War I: the army flew it into Mexico in search of Pancho Villa in 1916. The JN-4 was a popular trainer and a total of 10,000 were built. At the end of the war, hundreds of the Jennys were declared surplus and sold. By the 1920s, the Jenny was a popular barnstorming plane.
Sopwith 7.F.1 Snipe:
The Snipe was built as a replacement for the Sopwith Camel. The Snipe arrived relatively late in the war—1918—and after the war continued to be used by the Royal Air Force.
The Pfalz D.XII was a good, sturdy airplane which could dive at high speeds. Many German squadrons were supplied with the Pfalz D.XII when they had run short of the Fokker D.VII. However, the Pfalz was slow and less maneuverable than the Fokker and mechanics complained that the plane’s complex bracing system required more maintenance.
Fokker D. VIII:
The Fokker D.VIII was designed in April 1918 and by the time it was placed into service the war was almost over. The new fighter offered great visibility and excellent performance. The plane shown above is a replica.