A myth about the type of war the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was involved in developed quickly in the First World War. Serving as a distraction from the gory and unpleasant scenes of the trenches below them the men of the RFC and their wonderful flying machines were seen as having the most glamorous and exciting job in the war sipping French wine and eating fine food in between brief joyrides over the lines. In reality while their accommodation may have been better than a trench the RFC fought just as deadly and brutal a war as the men in the infantry. In fact it would be no exaggeration to say that the average life expectancy of an ordinary soldier in the trenches was longer than that of a pilot or observer in the RFC because as well as the enemy he had to contend with what was still a new and quite dangerous military occupation partially as a result of very primitive machines and partially because of appallingly insufficient training procedures.
Nevertheless in the traditional British make-do attitude the men of the RFC persisted in their reconnaissance and artillery spotter roles both of which they became quite proficient in. So proficient in fact that soon the Germans knew that bringing down the spotter planes of the RFC like B.E.2c and Avro 504 would have to become a priority. Initially pilots of both sides who encountered an enemy plane would take a few pot-shots at it with a pistol or a rifle carried by the observer. The results were very poor and the encounters often ended with the two pilots exchanging waves or salutes before breaking off reiterating the belief that there was still a code of honour amongst airmen.
This code of the air would have a short lifespan however as on both sides more and more effort was put in to bringing down enemy planes. Putting guns in single engine aircraft on trainable mounts was difficult, cumbersome and produced little-to-no results thanks to the difficulty of being able to train the gun on the enemy plane. The key was to instead use the aircraft itself to aim a fixed gun but this too had its problems. Mounting guns on the wing of early fighters was out of the question because the wings were so flimsy that they couldn’t support the weight while putting guns on the forward fuselage would risk damaging the propeller. The only saving grace for the RFC was that the Germans too had to contend with the same problems.
Then in mid-1915 RFC pilots reported the occasional sighting of what appeared to be French Morane-Saulnier H monoplanes in areas they shouldn’t have been in. At around the same time RFC losses began to skyrocket and it was not long before the RFC realised that rather than being French aircraft they were in fact German single seater fighting scouts – aircraft designed to shoot down other aircraft and the forerunner of today’s air superiority fighters. The Germans had built a machine based loosely on the French aircraft called the Fokker Eindecker but more importantly they had developed synchronisation gear for its single machine gun allowing the pilot to fire his weapon through the propeller arc in between the turning of the blades. Now all the pilot had to do was point his aircraft at the target and squeeze the trigger. It was the beginning of the Fokker Scourge; a nine month period where the RFC was effectively at the mercy of the Eindecker.
The RFC had its own dedicated fighting scouts. The Vickers F.B.5 “Gunbus” (right) was the first aircraft to be designed from the ground up as a fighter aircraft and as such when No.6 Squadron equipped with the type in November 1914 it was able to claim the distinction of being the world’s first fighter squadron. The F.B.5 was a pusher aircraft (the propeller was at the rear of the aircraft) and had a crew of two with the observer seated at the front with a single .303 machine gun. However against the Eindecker it was hopelessly outclassed being too slow to pursue or escape the German monoplane and too cumbersome to outfight it even with a trainable machine gun in the nose.
In Britain the need for a new fighting scout to combat the Eindecker became a top priority for Britain’s aircraft manufacturers. One of them, Airco, had already built the DH.1 an aircraft designed by Geoffrey De Havilland that was remarkably similar to the F.B.5 and thus just as obsolete. With British engineers as yet still unable to produce their own synchronisation gear the pusher configuration remained the only way to mount a fixed machine gun on the front of an aircraft and use it in the same way as the Eindecker. De Havilland went to work on an improved version of the DH.1 which dispensed with the observer leaving the pilot to be solely responsible for his aircraft in combat. This freed up a lot of weight and with a more powerful engine the new aircraft offered greatly improved performance over the other fighting scout pushers. With its fixed machine gun unhindered by a propeller the DH.2 (above left) was able to take the fight to the Eindecker on almost equal terms and it helped bring an end to the Fokker Scourge.
Throughout aviation history there have been cases of two distinct aircraft types that have wrestled with one another for control of the skies but this was the one of the very first. Along with the two-seat Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2b pusher and the French Nieuport II the DH.2 helped restore parity in the air until the arrival of the famed Fokker Albatross tipped it back in the German’s favor.
So just how well matched was the DH.2 against the Fokker Eindecker? For this comparison we will be comparing the Airco DH.2 against the Fokker Eindecker III which was the main production version of the German aircraft.
The DH.2 was an equal span biplane with a pusher configuration and a single tail unit joined to the main fuselage by an unskinned frame. The pusher design meant that the pilot had an excellent forward field of view compared to tractor aircraft as well as adding a degree of safety if the engine caught fire since the pilot wasn’t getting blasted with flames or doused in leaking oil and petrol. However, like all pusher aircraft the DH.2 was easier to stall since the propeller was mounted behind the wings meaning there was no propwash over them that would increase lift as in tractor aircraft. The propeller was also less effective behind the fuselage (see below). Additionally having the engine mounted in the aircraft’s centre of gravity helped with agility in all three planes of flight but additionally made the aircraft more of a handful to inexperienced pilots. Given the especially poor training in the RFC this meant that accidents were high and later in its career the DH.2 would serve as a trainer to ensure pilots became more accustomed to this type of flying. The pilot sat in the main fuselage in a bath-tub style compartment that also housed the engine and fuel tank.
To modern eyes, at first glance the monoplane design of the Eindecker III coupled with its reputation as a destroyer of lumbering British biplanes seems quite sophisticated for the time. In fact the opposite was true with it being quite primitive. The aircraft can trace its origins to a touring aircraft built before the war and retained much of the aerodynamic technology including a lack of ailerons in the wings as in the DH.2. Instead the aircraft was controlled by using pulleys to flex the wings similar to how one controls a kite. This resulted in a rather poor roll rate as compared to many other aircraft of the era including the DH.2 and F.B.5. The aircraft was skinned in fabric around a wooden frame and featured an all moving rudder and taileron arrangement which gave good pitch and yaw performance but made level flight something of a dicey affair for new pilots due to their sensitivity in the controls. The mid mounted wings were situated in-line with the pilot which dramatically reduced his all-round vision especially to the port and starboard low areas.
The DH.2 was powered by a license-built version of the French Gnôme Monosoupape 9 B-1 nine cylinder rotary engine that developed 100hp. This was translated in to forward motion via a four bladed wooden propeller. The effectiveness of this propeller was reduced somewhat by the pusher arrangement as airflow was often disturbed by the passing over of the forward fuselage before reaching the blades. Like many early engines it was controlled by restricting its ability to function which in the DH.2 was done with the fitting of a blip switch on the control column which cut out the engine’s ignition causing it to lose power and thus slow down. The engine was air cooled and lubrication was on the total-loss principle meaning that it would burn or discharge all its lubricant by the end of the flight.
The Eindecker III was powered by a single Oberursel U.I nine cylinder air-cooled rotary piston engine which also produced 100hp but had a lighter airframe to contend with than the DH.2’s Monosaupape engine. This drove a two-bladed propeller mounted in the tractor position in the nose of the aircraft and early fears that synchronising the gun to the engine would inhibit performance proved unfounded. The pilot of the Eindecker had to pump additional fuel in to the engine around eight times an hour to keep fuel running in to a small tank that gravity-fed the engine. It was not uncommon for the engine to cut out as a German pilot neared the enemy and his mind became distracted from this task.
The pilot’s handbook for the DH.2 put its top speed at sea level in the region of 81mph however many pilots claimed it could go faster with speeds of around 90mph being achievable in the right atmospheric conditions. Some adventurous pilots dived their aircraft to gain even more speed with reports of 120mph or more but this was discouraged by commanding officers except in the most dire of conditions such as escaping a superior enemy for fear of structurally overstressing the aircraft. As altitude increased the speed invariably dropped off with speeds nearing 60mph at its service ceiling of nearly 14,000ft. In order to attain this height the unfortunate pilot would find himself climbing for nearly three quarters of an hour! Endurance was in the 2 ½ hour region while range was around 250 miles.
When it first appeared in mid-1915 the Eindecker III’s top speed of 87mph was enough for it to run circles around the RFC’s existing types including the Vickers F.B.5 “Gunbus” which was almost 20mph slower at sea level. Another great advantage the Eindecker had over RFC types including the DH.2 was its ability to climb relatively quickly for although it had a similarly powerful engine the aircraft was nearly a 100lbs lighter. This also improved agility but as has been previously mentioned this made it less stable and more unforgiving to new pilots. The Eindecker III took just 5 minutes to reach 3,281ft while the DH.2 took closer to 7 minutes. However as the altimeter reached 10,000ft DH.2 began to catch up as the Eindecker’s engine began to lose steam the nearer to its 11,000ft service ceiling it got. In a continuous climb both aircraft could reach this altitude in around half an hour before in the final few hundred feet of climb the DH.2 would leap ahead. Endurance for the Eindecker III was a full hour less than the DH.2 but since the aircraft operated in defence for much of the time this was less of a concern.
The DH.2 was equipped with the tried and tested .303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis machine gun fitted with a 47-round drum magazine that the pilot had to reach over and replace once its rounds were exhausted. This weapon had the capability to fire up to 600 rounds a minute at a velocity of 2,440ft/sec. The effective firing range of the Lewis gun was 800m although combat rarely approached anywhere near that figure.
The Eindecker III was fitted with a synchronised 7.92 mm (0.312 in) lMG 08 Spandau machine gun positioned just offset to starboard to improve forward visibility when training the weapon on to a target. This had an exceptionally high rate of fire being in the range of 900rds/min but synchronising the weapon to the propeller did lower this figure slightly. This high rate of fire was not achieved without problems however with the early weapons being prone to stoppages. The synchronisation gear developed by Anthony Fokker was also prone to breaking down and several pilots found themselves shooting up their own propeller when firing their guns. If the propeller wasn’t destroyed then the unfortunate airman had to fly an increasingly unstable aircraft away from battle. A major advantage on the battlefield over the Lewis gun was that it had almost double the range but again combat rarely if ever occurred at those kinds of ranges.
The DH.2 had high altitude performance on its side which meant that the higher the arena the greater his aircraft would perform compared to the Fokker. The Eindecker enjoyed a higher degree of agility however particularly in the longitudinal plane where the rudder of the DH.2 had to work harder to keep up thanks to the heavier airframe it was turning. With most engagements taking place at lower levels the Eindecker could also outclimb the DH.2 in this arena and inflict greater damage with its heavier armament. While it could dish out plenty of punishment the Eindecker certainly couldn’t take it in return proving a much more flimsy machine. In truth the DH.2 was not exactly bulletproof either and it only took a few bullets in either aircraft’s engine to render it inoperable.
Overall the DH.2 has a slight edge over the Eindecker III except when below 4,000ft but as in most cases the outcome of an air-to-air combat would be determined primarily on the pilot playing his aircraft to its own strengths. More than anything it would be determined by who spotted who first as that pilot would have the immediate advantage of being able to tailor that all important first attack that would initiate combat. Using superior speed at altitude the DH.2 pilot has a higher chance of making that killer first attack by diving down on to the enemy but if he was to fail in bringing down the Eindecker in this initial first attack then the German aircraft would give a good account of itself in the hands of an experienced pilot.
Between 1915-16 the DH.2 didn’t help win the battle for the skies but it did restore parity thus helping to significantly reduce the danger to the RFC’s reconnaissance operations. Such was the speed of development in wartime that by mid-1916 both these aircraft were already outclassed by even newer types after just a year in action.