First Fighters


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The Gun and the Airplane
In the beginning, aerial warfare was an unspectacular routine of trips across the lines for scouting and artillery spotting, only occasionally enlivened by picayune bombing raids. The first attack by one aircraft upon another has not been definitely recorded, but there were awkward engagements between reconnaissance pilots who fired pistols, rifles, and crudely-mounted machine guns. FOKKER E I

But as the importance of aerial observation grew, so did the desirability of preventing enemy flights over your own forces. The French were the most aggressive, killing a German flier with pistol shots on August 26, 1914, and on October 5, an Aviatik was downed by a machine-gun mounted on a Voisin two-seater pusher.

The tractor plane, with its propeller facing forward, was more efficient, but how could a machine-gun be mounted to avoid hitting the propeller? Roland Garros fired his machine gun forward through his Morane single-seat monoplane’s propeller. Metal deflector blades on the wooden propeller blades threw off those bullets that struck them.

When Garros and his Morane were captured by the Germans in April 1915, Anthony Fokker (1890–1939) was asked to produce a response. Fokker’s answer was the E I, the single-seat monoplane armed with a 7.9-mm gun synchronized to fire through the propeller with a mechanical interrupter gear. These Fokkers were the first true fighter planes, making their first kill on July 1, 1915, and in a few months became the “Fokker Scourge” that destroyed many Allied planes that had dared to cross the German lines. A race to build a better fighter plane began that would last the rest of the century.


The French answer to the Fokker was the Nieuport 11 appearing at the front in January 1916. It was called a sesquiplane, since the narrow lower wing was about half the size of the upper one, with Vee struts between them. An air-cooled rotary engine, usually an 80-hp Le Rhone, gave a top speed of 97 mph. Since the Lewis gun could not be synchronized, it was mounted on the top wing and fired over the propeller. The gun’s 47-round ammunition drum was replaced late in 1916 with the 97-round drum used for the rest of the war.

Nieuports became the principal Allied fighter and were issued to the first American fighter pilots in the war, the volunteers of the Lafayette Escadrille. That famous squadron, flying the Nieuport 11 “chasse,” or pursuit, plane in the massive battle of Verdun, scored their first victory on May 18, 1916.

Nieuport fighters went through a rapid development by increasing in horsepower and size, and by replacing the Lewis gun with a synchronized, belt-fed Vickers. Model 27 with an 130-hp Le Rhone, in 1917, was the last of the sesquiplane series used until the French Army selected the stronger Spad as its standard fighter.

Spad fighters had the Hispano-Suiza water-cooled eight-cylinder inline engine behind a rounded radiator, and equal-span wings strengthened by a second pair of articulated struts between the fuselage and the outer struts. The first model used by the French was the Spad 7, introduced late in 1916 with a 150-hp direct-drive Hispano-Suiza 8A and a single Vickers gun. By 1917, an 180-hp “Hisso” was standard, and the Spad 7 was replacing Nieuports in the French, British, Italian, and even Russian squadrons. VICTOR PURSUIT

Development continued in 1917 with the 220-hp Spad 11 two-seater and the Spad 12, which incorporated the first cannon on a single-seat fighter. Armament consisted of one Vickers .303-caliber machine gun and a 37-mm cannon mounted to fire through a hollow propeller shaft. Twelve rounds of buck-shot type ammunition were carried for the single-shot, hand-loaded cannon. The French ace Captain Rene Fonck downed seven Germans with the experimental weapon, but felt hand-loading an inconvenient distraction. A single example of the Spad 12 went to the Americans in July 1918.

When the Spad 13, with two Vickers guns and a geared 220-hp Hispano-Suiza 8B became available, it was chosen to equip every French single-seat fighter squadron at the front in 1918. SCHIEFER-ROBBINS “PURSUIT”

Native Single-seaters
When the United States declared war on April 6, 1917, the Army had no armed fighter planes in service. The only single-seater available was the Curtiss S-3 the Army tested in October 1916. Called the Curtiss “Scout” the S-3 was a triplane with a 100-hp OX-2 and big prop spinner. Four had been ordered November 20, 1916, and delivered, without spinner or guns, in June-July 1917. An example appearing in December as the S-6 did display a pair of forward-firing Lewis guns, but these were not actually tested.

Such scouts were not by any means up to combat on the Western Front, and neither were two unarmed single-seat prototypes ordered with American-built 100-hp Gnome rotaries. They were the Victor Aircraft Corporation’s “Pursuit,” a neatly streamlined biplane design by Albert S. Heinrich, ordered April 11, 1917, and delivered in December, and the obscure Pigeon Fraser monoplane ordered April 30 and delivered in September 1917. Despite publicity as fighters, they were really only possible trainers.

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