First Fighters


Page 2

On May 1, 1917, the Army issued its first specification, No. 1003, for an airplane “adapted to combat and pursuit of hostile aircraft”. A pilot and two guns would be carried along with two and 1/2 hours of fuel for an approved engine of between 100 and 150 horsepower. Only modest instrumentation was considered needed for 1917 fighter pilots: a compass, clock, altimeter, tachometer, and rolling map case. THOMAS-MORSE S-4C

French influence was so strong that wartime performance would be measured in metric equivalents, and endurance would be given at full power. Specified performance should include a climb in 13 minutes to 3,000 meters (9,840 feet), where top speed will be “not less than 165 kilometers per hour” (102 mph).

But neither such a fighter design nor adequate power plants then existed in America, and even if they had, that specification was quickly surpassed by the fighters reaching the front. In fact, no American-designed single-seat fighters would be delivered during the nineteen months of war.

A Nieuport-like Schiefer-Robbins single-seater offered as a private venture by a San Diego furniture firm flew on December 9, 1917. Although purchased by the Army on January 17, 1918, its 100-hp Gnome meant it could only duplicate other trainers and had no potential. Although several low-powered single-seaters were produced, such as the Standard E-l, Thomas-Morse S-4, and Orenco C, all were unarmed trainers.


While none of the earlier light single-seaters passed the prototype stage, the Thomas-Morse S-4 tested in June 1917 was successful. The Air Service had realized that for cadet pilots to jump from the “Jenny” to a high-powered pursuit was too much, and so 100 Thomas-Morse S-4Bs were ordered on October 3, 1917, as pursuit-trainers. Designed by a British immigrant, B.D. Thomas (1890-1966), and using the 100-hp Gnome, they were delivered from November 1917 to May 1918 and followed by 50 S-4Cs with modified controls. The Gnome engine proved unsatisfactory, and the 80-hp Le Rhone was substituted in June 1918 for the remaining 447 S-4Cs completed when production ended in December 1918.

The “Tommy” became well-known to would-be fighter pilots. Although sometimes fitted with a Marlin gun for target practice, it was a trainer, not a fighter, but is included in this book because of its close association with pursuit aviation.

With the same mission, two Standard E-l double-bay biplane prototypes were ordered December 13, 1917, and delivered in January and April 1918 with 100-hp Gnomes. Of 126 production E-ls completed between August and December 1918, 30 had Gnomes and the rest had 80-hp Le Rhones.

Six rather similar single-seaters were also ordered on December 13, 1917, from the Ordinance Engineering Company (Orenco) at Baldwin, New York. The Orenco B was designed to use a 150-hp Gnome, but U.S. production of that engine was canceled and only the first had an imported Gnome in June 1918. Five were delivered from July to November as the Orenco C pursuit-trainers with the 80-hp Le Rhone and added wing stagger. CURTISS-BRISTOL FIGHTER (LIBERTY 12)

American design of real fighters was officially foregone in favor of tested foreign types. The Bolling Commission on July 30, 1917, had selected the Spad single-seater and Bristol two-seater fighters for production in America, but a sample Spad did not arrive until September 18, and Curtiss received an order for 3,000 on October 8, 1917.

A December 14, 1917, cable from General Pershing had recommended leaving single-seat fighter production to Europe, and a suitable American power plant could not be produced in time for the Spad. Fighter design in Europe was moving too rapidly for American industry to catch up. April 1917 was called “Bloody April” for the heavy Allied losses to German fighters, but only three months later, the German fighters were being defeated by new Allied types. THOMAS-MORSE MB-1

Cancellation of the Curtiss Spad program on January 28, 1918, meant the AEF would depend entirely upon its Allies for fighters in 1918. The Hispano-Suiza had been licensed for production by the Wright-Martin company on behalf of the French, but production deliveries beginning in November 1917 were of the 150-hp Model A, suitable only for trainers. By the time the 180-hp model arrived from American factories in August 1918, the geared 220-hp version was being used in Europe, and an improved American 300-hp model was not available in quantity until 1919.

The United States Bristol
As for the Liberty 12, that big engine could not be fitted into any existing single-seater, but heavier two-seat fighters might be designed around the Liberty. These designs found their main inspiration in England’s Bristol Fighter, a double-bay biplane with a 275-hp Rolls-Royce engine, pilot and gunner back to back, and fuselage suspended between the wings. It went to war in April 1917 with a fixed Vickers gun and two flexible Lewis guns, and had excellent maneuverability, which made the Bristol successful against enemy fighters. The combination of the front gun with the rear guns for tail protection helped Canadian ace Major Andrew E. McKeever win thirty victories and established the two-seater biplane as a standard fighter type.

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