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AERIAL AGGRESSION in World War I originated with pilots and their handheld pistols, fired almost randomly, or rifles wielded by observers in aircraft designed with this intent, observation. Fighter planes, dedicated to destroying the enemy, soon evolved. Today and tomorrow, in Parts 1 and 2, let’s examine several designs qualifying as these early fighter aircraft, specifically the British De Havilland D.H. 2, the Royal Aircraft F.E. 2 and F.E. 8, and the Vickers F.B. 5 and F.B. 9.
They were brave lads indeed who executed aerial warfare in these aeroplanes, each a biplane of pusher layout.
By contrast, most WWI aircraft were tractor designs, not pushers. Like the Sopwith Camel’s, tractor propellers spun at the front of the aircraft. This was deemed more efficient than a pusher: A tractor’s propeller generated its thrust and its engine received cooling airflow unimpeded by turbulence caused by the aircraft’s structure.
Most WWI aircraft were biplanes as well, though the advanced Fokker Eindecker, i.e., monoplane, was among a few exceptions.
Machine guns mounted on aircraft transformed them into pure fighter planes. Fixing the armament to fire forward helped the pilot’s aiming prospects considerably. However, it also increased the likelihood of shooting off a tractor plane’s propeller.
Though it was a tractor configuration, the Eindecker eliminated this through synchronization of its forward-facing guns. By contrast, the pusher configuration sidestepped this by locating its propeller aft of the armament.
Not without some interesting tradeoffs, though.
As Fighter Aircraft of the 1914–1918 War describes, “The De Havilland D.H. 2 was a pusher aeroplane because it was intended to carry a forward-firing machine gun, and in early 1915 no British interrupter gear was available.” Its single Lewis machine gun was initially of the movable variety, but “it was soon evident that a fixed gun gave better result.”
The D.H. 2 proved effective at first: “Although not specifically designed for the purpose, the D.H. 2 played a big part in clearing the skies of the dangerous Fokker Monoplane, with the result that the R.F.C. had complete air superiority when the Battle of the Somme began on July 1, 1916.”
The D.H. 2’s pusher layout was not without hazards, however: “The rotary engine was liable to be dangerous; two experienced pilots were killed when the cylinders blew out and severed the tail-booms of their machines.”
What’s more, in contrast to a tractor engine sending (perhaps too much) heat aft, “It was also a very cold little aeroplane. McCudden, who flew the type during the winter of 1916–1917, wrote of one patrol, ‘I did not care whether I was shot down or not. I was so utterly frozen.’ ”
This was a hazard of all pusher fighter planes. Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll examine other pushers, with other tradeoffs, from Britain’s Royal Aircraft Factory and Vickers Ltd.
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018