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The Aerial Arms Race

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1913, France: Morane-Saulnier L

Morane-Saulnier L
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The brothers Leon and Robert Morane designed this monoplane with fellow engineer Raymond Saulnier in 1913. The fragile L was meant for reconnaissance, but by the war's start Saulnier had attached steel plates to the plane's propeller, allowing the pilot to fire rounds from a fixed 8-millimeter Hotchkiss machine gun without bombarding the propeller. (The plates deflected bullets away from the propeller blades.) French ace Roland Garros tested the Morane-Saulnier L in April of 1915 and scored three victories in as many weeks. By month's end, the Germans had managed to capture the airplane (note the German insignia painted on the tail) and they began work on a copy.

1915, Germany: Fokker Eindecker

Fokker Eindecker
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This plane was a nearly exact copy of the Morane-Saulnier L, except that it featured aircraft designer Anthony Fokker's signature tail design and a synchronized machine gun firing mechanism, the first of its kind. Fokker fitted his Eindeckers with a forward-facing 8-millimeter gun, which could fire its bullets between the moving propeller blades without causing bullets to ricochet off them. Though the Eindeckers were underpowered and slow, their firing mechanism marked a major step forward in aerial combat and gave the Germans total air superiority during the 1915 "Fokker Scourge."

1915, Britain: De Havilland D.H.2

De Havilland D.H.2
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As an answer to the Fokker Eindecker, Geoffrey de Havilland designed the D.H.2 biplane, his second aircraft for the British Aircraft Manufacturing Company. The plane was a so-called "pusher"—its rear-mounted engine and propeller pushed the aircraft forward from the rear rather than pulling it from the front. This design enabled the D.H.2 to carry a fixed, forward-facing machine gun that did not interfere with the propeller. With its excellent climbing speed and high level of maneuverability, the D.H.2 helped end the "Fokker Scourge" by early 1916.

1916, France: Nieuport 17

Nieuport 17
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Gustave Delage's Nieuport 17 biplane made its debut in March 1916 and was a favorite of many Allied aces, including Englishman Philip Fullard, who scored 40 victories piloting his Nieuport 17. The plane was highly maneuverable and easily outperformed the Fokker Eindecker; within a few weeks of its debut, German high command ordered its engineers to copy the plane. Delage fitted the Nieuport 17 with a synchronized Vickers machine gun, the first Allied plane to feature this technology. The Nieuport was not without flaws, however, the most worrisome being a tendency to lose its lower wings in steep dives.

1916, France: SPAD VII

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This French Air Service fighter, armed with a synchronized Vickers .303 machine gun, made its first combat flight in July 1916 and immediately showed great promise. Like the Nieuport 17 that it replaced, the plane was agile in the air, yet it was more rugged and could make steep, swift dives without disintegrating. Pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille, a group of American pilots who joined the Allied air effort in France, flew SPAD VII single-seaters almost exclusively from the time they officially joined the war effort in 1916.

1916, Britain: Sopwith Triplane

Sopwith Triplane
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The Sopwith Triplane's stack of three wings combined ample wing area with a narrow width (or "chord"), giving it significantly more climbing power and maneuverability than its biplane counterparts. The Sopwith's pilots also enjoyed excellent visibility from its cockpit, the lack of which was a problem in many popular biplanes, including the SPAD VII. The triple-decker construction of this Sopwith profoundly influenced aircraft designs in other countries, particularly Germany. Within months of the Triplane's first flights nearly every German airplane manufacturer was hard at work designing a triplane of its own.

1917, Germany: Albatros D. III

Albatros D. III
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German manufacturer Albatros Works unveiled the Albatros D. III biplane in January 1917. The plane featured V-struts between its wings, which allowed for a shorter lower wing. Pilots of the Albatros could see their targets and the terrain below much more readily with this design, which gave them an edge in dogfights. Manfred von Richthofen, later dubbed the "Red Baron," was among the first to fly the Albatros, and he experienced firsthand its weakness: the V-struts could cause the lower wings to twist and crack apart in flight.

1917, Germany: Fokker Dr. I

Fokker Dr. I
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This triplane was the signature plane of Baron von Richthofen, whose red-painted model inspired his moniker, the "Red Baron." Modeled after the Sopwith Triplane, the German plane boasted all of the earlier plane's advantages. It was small, lightweight, and nimble, yet it could easily outclimb its opponents. A Dr. I pilot had excellent visibility from the cockpit, where he used special firing buttons to operate two synchronized 8-milimeter Spandau machine guns. These characteristics, along with the fact that Fokker had designed the plane without relying on the standard wing-bracing wires that were easily shot apart during combat, made it a superb dogfighter.

1917, Britain: Sopwith Camel

Sopwith Camel
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This famous biplane accounted for more aerial victories than any other Allied aircraft during the war, destroying over 1,200 enemy fighters. The plane acquired the name "Camel" from its twin Vickers .303 machine guns, which were housed in a camel-like "hump" at the front of the plane. Proud pilots liked to add that the aircraft also behaved like a camel: it seemed docile but was quick to bite when agitated. The plane's success was largely due to its extreme maneuverability, but these characteristics also killed many an inexperienced pilot in vicious spins.

1918, Germany: Fokker D. VII

Fokker D. VII
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Having honed their aviation engineering skills by the final year of the war, the Germans released their best aircraft, Fokker's D. VII, less than a year before armistice. The Red Baron had championed the plane's design during its development phase, and in January 1918 he tested the plane in trials, though he was killed just days before it officially entered combat, in April of that year. Equipped with a state-of-the art BMW engine and a thick airfoil, the biplane behaved nimbly at all speeds—even at an almost standstill—and was credited with making expert pilots out of mediocre ones simply by virtue of its ease in the air.

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