The Fokker D.VII was a German World War I fighter aircraft designed by Reinhold Platz of the Fokker-Flugzeugwerke. Germany produced around 1,700 D.VII aircraft in the summer and autumn of 1918. In service, the D.VII quickly proved itself to be a formidable aircraft. The Armistice ending the war specifically required Germany to surrender all D.VIIs to the Allies at the conclusion of hostilities; nevertheless, the aircraft saw continued widespread service with many other countries in the years after World War I.
Development and production
Fokker's chief designer Reinhold Platz had been working on a series of experimental planes, the V-series, since 1916. These planes were characterized by the use of cantilever wings, first developed during Fokker's government-mandated collaboration with Hugo Junkers. Junkers had originated the idea in 1915 with the first all-metal aircraft, the Junkers J 1, nicknamed Blechesel ("Sheet Metal Donkey" or "Tin Donkey"). The resulting thick-sectioned cantilever wing gave greater lift and more docile stalling behavior than conventional thin wings.
Late in 1917, Fokker built the experimental V.11 biplane, fitted with the standard Mercedes D.IIIa engine. In January 1918, Idflieg held a fighter competition at Adlershof. For the first time, frontline pilots would directly participate in the evaluation and selection of new fighters. Fokker submitted the V.11 along with several other prototypes. Manfred von Richthofen flew the V.11 and found it tricky, unpleasant, and directionally unstable in a dive. In response to these complaints, Fokker's chief designer and engineer, Reinhold Platz, lengthened the rear fuselage by one structural bay, and added a triangular fixed vertical fin in front of the rudder. Upon flying the modified V.11, Richthofen praised it as the best aircraft of the competition. It offered excellent performance from the outdated Mercedes engine, yet it was safe and easy to fly. Richthofen's recommendation virtually decided the competition, but he was not alone in recommending it. Fokker immediately received a provisional order for 400 production aircraft, which were designated D.VII by Idflieg.
Fokker's factory was not up to the task of supplying the entire air force, so their rivals at Albatros and AEG were directed to build the D.VII under license, though AEG did not ultimately produce any aircraft. Because Fokker did not use production plans for their designs, they simply sent a completed D.VII airframe for Albatros to copy. Albatros paid Fokker a five percent royalty for every D.VII built under license. Albatros Flugzeugwerke and its subsidiary, Ostdeutsche Albatros Werke (OAW), built the D.VII at factories in Johannisthal (designated Fokker D.VII (Alb)) and Schneidemühl (Fokker D.VII (OAW)), respectively. Some parts were not interchangeable between aircraft produced at different factories, even between Albatros and OAW.
Albatros soon surpassed Fokker in the quantity and quality of aircraft produced. Despite the massive production program, under 2,000 D.VII aircraft were delivered from all three plants, with the most commonly quoted figure being 1,700.
The Austro-Hungarian company MÁG (Magyar Általános Gépgyár - Ungarische Allgemeine Maschinenfabrik AG - Hungarian General Machine Company) commenced license production of the D.VII powered by Austro-Daimler engines late in 1918, production continuing after the end of the war, with as many as 50 aircraft completed.
The D.VII entered squadron service with Jasta 10 in early May 1918. The type quickly proved to have many important advantages over the Albatros and Pfalz scouts. Unlike the Albatros scouts, the D.VII could dive without any fear of structural failure. The D.VII was also noted for its ability to climb at high angles of attack, its remarkably docile stall, and its reluctance to spin. These handling characteristics contrasted with contemporary scouts such as the Camel and SPAD, which stalled sharply and spun vigorously.
However, the D.VII also had problems. Several aircraft suffered rib failures and fabric shedding on the upper wing. Heat from the engine often ignited phosphorus ammunition until cooling vents were installed in the ammunition cans, and fuel tanks sometimes broke at the seams. Planes built by the Fokker plant at Schwerin were noted for their lower standard of workmanship and materials. Nevertheless, the D.VII proved to be a remarkably successful design, leading to the familiar aphorism that it could turn a mediocre pilot into a good one, and a good pilot into an ace.
Production D.VII aircraft initially used the 134 kW (180 hp) Mercedes D.IIIa, followed by the high-compression 149 kW (200 hp) Mercedes D.IIIaü. Modern sources, however, commonly refer to these engines under the generic designation of "160 hp Mercedes D.III." A small number of D.VIIs received the "overcompressed" 138 kW (185 hp) BMW IIIa, a development of the old Mercedes engine that combined increased displacement, higher compression, and an alititude-adjusting carburetor to markedly increase speed and climb at high altitude. Because the BMW IIIa was overcompressed, using full throttle at altitudes below 2,000 m (6,700 ft) risked detonation and damage to the engine. In an emergency, however, using full throttle at low altitudes could produce up to 179 kW (240 hp).
Aircraft with the new BMW engine were usually, but not always, designated D.VII(F). The first entered service with Jasta 11 in late June 1918. While pilots clamored for the D.VII(F), production of the BMW engine was very limited and the D.VII continued to be produced with the 134 kW (180 hp) Mercedes D.IIIaü until the end of the war.
Manfred von Richthofen died only days before the type began to reach the Jagdstaffeln and never flew it in combat. Other pilots, including Erich Löwenhardt and Hermann Göring, quickly racked up victories and generally lauded the design. Aircraft availability was limited at first, but by July there were 407 on charge. Larger numbers became available by August, when D.VIIs achieved 565 victories. The D.VII eventually equipped 46 Jagdstaffeln. When the war ended in November, 775 D.VII aircraft were in service.
The Allies confiscated large numbers of D.VII aircraft after the Armistice. The United States evaluated 142 captured examples. France, Great Britain, and Canada also received large numbers of war prizes.
Other countries used the D.VII operationally. The Polish deployed approximately 50 aircraft during the Polish-Soviet War, using them mainly for ground attack missions. The Hungarian Soviet Republic used a number of D.VIIs, both built by MAG and ex-German aircraft in the Hungarian-Romanian War of 1919.
The Dutch, Swiss, and Belgian air forces also operated the D.VII. The aircraft proved so popular that Fokker completed and sold a large number of D.VII airframes that he had smuggled into the Netherlands after the Armistice. As late as 1929, the Alfred Comte company manufactured eight new D.VII airframes under licence for the Swiss Fliegertruppe.
Survivors and reproductions
The widespread acquisition of the D.VII by Allied countries after the Armistice ensured the survival and preservation of several aircraft. One war prize was captured in 1918 when it accidentally landed at a small American airstrip near Verdun, France. Donated to the Smithsonian Institution by the War Department in 1920, it is now displayed at the National Air And Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Two other American war prizes were retained by private owners until sold abroad in 1971 and 1981. They are today displayed at the Canada Aviation Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario, and the Militaire Luchtvaart Museum in Soesterberg, The Netherlands, respectively. The latter aircraft is painted in fictitious Royal Netherlands Air Force markings.
Both Canada and France also acquired numerous D.VII aircraft. A former war prize, one of 22 acquired by Canada, is displayed at the Brome County Historical Society, in the Knowlton suburb of Lac-Brome, Quebec. This unrestored Albatros-built example is the only surviving D.VII that retains its original fabric covering. Of the aircraft sent to France, examples are today displayed at the Royal Air Force Museum in Hendon, England, and the Musée de l'Air et de l'Espace in Paris, France.
Many D.VII reproductions have also been built. Some reproductions are powered by the Ranger inline six-cylinder engine. A few aircraft, both static and airworthy, feature vintage Mercedes D.IIIa engines.
Published - July 2009
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