A Lasting Mark and Enduring Image
In its 84 year existence, Fokker put its name on many flying machines both military and civilian. However, likely no aircraft produced from the Dutch firm’s 1912 establishment to its 1996 closure is so closely connected by so many people with the Fokker name as the Dr.I Dreidecker.
Designed by Reinhold Platz and taking to the air for the first time in July of 1917, the Dr.I became not only an icon of the Fokker company but also of German air power in the skies of the First World War.
So much has the legend of the Dr.I grown over the years that it, to a degree, tends to overshadow the Sopwith Triplane which inspired it. The “Tripehound”, as the Sopwith aircraft was nicknamed, was used by the Royal Naval Air Service to great effect against German fighters through early 1917 and inspired a brief obsession of sorts among German and Austro-Hungarian aircraft firms to produce a triplane fighter to compete with it. Of the designs submitted, only the Dr.I came to realization.
However, for all the accolades given to the Dr.I, the fact that it was far from perfect in many ways and that many of the men who flew it were already highly regarded pilots of ace status before the aircraft was conceived are often left understated in many accounts of the Dreidecker’s history.
That said, let’s take a look at the virtues, and vices, of this legendary machine.
The Dr.I shared more than just the triplane design with its Sopwith counterpart. Both aircraft had their primary combat advantages in swift climbing and tight turning abilities and were generally well liked by those who flew them.
Both Fokker and Sopwith triplane types were built in relatively small numbers, 320 and 147 respectively, and had short service lives. The first Sopwith Triplane squadron was fully operational by December of 1916, but the aircraft had been largely relegated to training duties by the same time the following year. Similarly, the Fokker machine entered service in late August of 1917 and was withdrawn from front line duties between June and July of 1918.
Superior biplane designs superseded both the British and German triplanes in their respective services; in the case of the Sopwith design, the same company’s famous Camel fighter started to take over in June of 1917. The Dreidecker’s biplane replacement, also a Fokker product, was the D.VII which was in widespread service by early summer of 1918. Worthy of note, in light of the Dr.I’s legendary status, is that the D.VII became the only aircraft ever specifically named in treaty papers; one of the stipulations of the armistice which formally ended WWI was that all remaining D.VII aircraft be surrendered to Allied hands.
Both triplane types had their service lives cut short not only because of superior biplanes coming to the fore, but also structural and maintenance issues. The Sopwith machine was, by its design, impractical to service as it often required a great deal of dis-assembly for even modest upkeep tasks. In the case of the Dr.I, the rotary engine was a large issue as the typical lubricant, castor oil, was in short supply in Germany and a satisfactory substitute could not be developed. Rotary engines themselves were unusual in German aircraft, most had liquid cooled inline engines, thus finding spare engines and components became an issue for the Germans.
Structurally, both triplane types were prone to issues with their uppermost wing collapsing or detaching in dives. Much has been made over the years of the Fokker’s wing problems coming from poor workmanship and use of inferior materials on the part of the manufacturer. While there is some truth to this and Fokker did address the issue to a satisfactory extent; studies of the Dr.I in the late 1920s revealed that the top wing of the Dreidecker was often subjected to much more aerodynamic pressure than the middle set of wings, sometimes more than twice as much. This would certainly have also been a contributing factor in the partial or complete upper wing separations the Dr.I experienced.
The Men Who Made the Machine
As mentioned earlier in this entry, a key aspect to the Dr.I’s reputation was to be found in the men who flew the type. Needless to say; the man most connected with the aircraft was Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, who scored 19 of his many aerial victories while flying the Dr.I.
For the Dr.I legend, more important than Richtofen’s prowess as a fighter pilot was his power as a unit commander. As commanding officer of Jagdgeschwader 1 (JG 1), he was given free reign to hand pick the best pilots Germany had to man JG 1’s four smaller component units. The highly competent men he chose were already established aces; names such as Werner Voss, Ernst Udet, Wilhelm Reinhard, Hans Weiss, Kurt Wolff and Lothar von Richthofen all served in this elite unit.
Many other capable and experienced pilots of other units also had a part in making the Dr.I a much more feared machine than it might have been in more novice hands: Paul Baumer, Hans Werner, Hans Pippart and Rudolf Klimke were also established ace pilots whose names became connected to the Dr.I in combat.
By most accounts, the Dr.I was not a plane for novice pilots and stories of novice pilots getting time at the controls of a Dr.I are rare indeed.
Overall, put in context, it would not be unfair to say that the Dr.I owes more to those who flew it than anyone might owe to it. Like so many legends, the Dreidecker’s story does have its “Larger than life” aspects to it.
The Dr.I Today
No complete examples of true Dreideckers are known to remain, artifacts from them are all that are left today.
However, replicas of the Dr.I in both flying and static form are common at airshows and in museums. Most flying replicas are powered by radial engines which capture the look, but not the motion, of the original rotary ones.
The following link will take you to further reading on the aircraft and those who flew it: