The Nieuport 17 C.1 was a French sesquiplane fighter designed and manufactured by the Nieuport company during World War I. An improved development of the Nieuport 11/16, it was a little larger than its predecessors, and better adapted to the more powerful engine of the N.16. It also incorporated innovations such as the newly-developed Alkan-Hamy synchronization gear, permitting the use of a fuselage-mounted synchronised Vickers gunfiring directly through the propeller arc.
At the time of its introduction in March 1916, the type’s outstanding manoeuvrability and excellent rate of climb gave it a significant advantage over other fighters on both sides. It was widely used by many operators; entering service with virtually every Allied power, not to mention the German air service. In addition to substantial production by several French manufacturers, the N.17 and its close relatives were built in Italy by Nieuport-Macchiand in Russia at Dux. Unlicenced copies, notably the Siemens-Schuckert D.I and the Euler D.I, were produced in Germany.
Various derivatives, improvements, and adaptions were developed. The Nieuport 21 and 23 represented relatively minor alterations, while aerodynamic refinement led to the Clerget-powered 17bis, and a return to more powerful versions of the Le Rhône rotary engines with detail improvements resulted in the Nieuport 24, 24bis and 27.
Gustave Delage’s appointment as Nieuport’s chief designer in January 1914 was followed by a series of sesquiplane designs. Nieuport had been famous for their wire-braced monoplanes, however a series of crashes in both France and Britain led to an official distaste for monoplanes. In fact, due to the shorter wires used and less acute angles possible, a biplane structure can be made stronger than that of a monoplane. The sesquiplane configuration was adopted by Delage as a compromise between the low drag of a monoplane and the superior strength of a biplane configuration.
The first of Delage’s sesquiplanes was the two seat Nieuport 10 in 1914, which was followed the next year by the Nieuport 11. This was quickly supplemented by the Nieuport 16, basically, an N.11 with a larger engine. The N.16, especially when armed with a synchronised Vickers gun, suffered from nose-heaviness and had a higher wing loading.
The result was a slightly larger development, trimmed properly for the heavier powerplant and with longer wings and improved aerodynamic form. It was at first fitted with the 110 hp (82 kW) Le Rhône 9J engine, though later examples used uprated 120 horsepower (89 kilowatts) engines.
The Nieuport 17 featured a narrow, single-spar lower wing that was considerably smaller than the upper wing. This arrangement provided several benefits. As well as an improvement in downward visibility for the pilot, there were aerodynamic gains resulting from the reduction in area of the lower wing, which on a biplane produces far less lift than the upper wing but still produces as much drag or more. Reducing its size reduced the induced drag and weight while providing a more efficient wing with a thicker section and a higher aspect ratio. The heavier components of the fighter, such as the rotary engine, the armament and the fuel and oil tanks were concentrated well forward which was a contributing factor to the 17’s high level of manoeuvrability and climb rate.
The fuselage of the 17 was a trapezoid-section girder, featuring diagonal wire bracing, steel tubes and plate joints, which were built up around a series of wooden longerons. Towards the rear of the fuselage, the base narrowed as it took on a trapezoidal shape, while the upper surface behind the pilot’s position was faired with light formers and longitudinal stringers; a faired headrest was also provided for the comfort of the pilot. The engine was supported by a thick-gauge steel sheet as wide as the fuselage, to which the engine was mounted. The cowling was made of aluminium, and had strengthened ribs and a pair of inset holes to provide ventilation and egress for the engine’s exhaust on the underside. It was smoothly faired with the forward fuselage via molded side fairings. Fabric covered the majority of the fuselage aft of the cockpit.
The wings of the 17 used a relatively common structure, containing widely spaced spars that gave a good angle for load carrying towards the leading edge and resulted in a high degree of stagger. The ribs, composed of ash flanges and limewood webs, featured cut-outs along their length to lighten them; the ailerons, which were fitted on the top wing only, increased their chord towards the wingtips for improved stall response. Elevator and rudder controls were provided via conventional cables and pulleys, while the ailerons were actuated by a series of push-pull rods attached to the control column in the cockpit. The angle of incidence could be adjusted by ground crew via a single pivot joint arrangement, this was originally intended to allow the lower wing to be rotated for low speed flight but was never used on the military aircraft.
While the single spar lower wing has been credited with helping to give the type its impressive climb rate, at very high speeds it was also prone to flutter, an aerodynamic phenomenon that was not fully understood at the time. Many British Nieuports were modified at No 2 Aeroplane Supply Depot in an effort to alleviate this problem; In later French service, some N.17s had their lower wings replaced with spares taken from newer Nieuport 24s.
Production of the new Alkan-Hamy synchronization gear had permitted the wing-mounted Lewis gun of the 11 and 16 to be replaced with a synchronised Vickers gun, which was mounted on the fuselage to fire through the propeller arc without striking the blades. However, the standard Royal Flying Corps (RFC) synchroniser, the Vickers-Challenger gear, was not available in sufficient numbers and in British service the over-wing Lewis gun was retained. The Lewis gun was installed on the newly-developed Foster mounting, a curved metal rail which allowed the pilot to slide the gun back to change ammunition drums and to clear jams; it also had the advantage of allowing pilots to aim the gun upwards to shoot into the underside of enemy fighters flying above, not an easy tactic, but used to good effect by several ace pilots.
The most important distinction of the Nieuport 21 was the adoption of the lower powered 80 hp (60 kW) Le Rhône 9C engine. This apparently retrograde step permitted stocks of the older engines to be usefully employed for fighter trainers, which did not really need the additional power, and improved fuel and oil economy in training units. Reduced wing loading made the type favoured as a high altitude bomber escort. In both French and (especially) Russian service the N.21 was commonly used alongside the Nieuport 17 to perform normal fighter roles.
The Nieuport 23 was largely the same aircraft as the 17, differing mainly in modifications deriving from the use of a different machine gun synchronizer which caused the gun to be offset and the fuel and oil tanks to be rearranged. Rear spar packing pieces were also redesigned. Nieuport 23 fighters were operated by both French and British squadrons alongside N.17s until their replacement by newer Nieuport 24s.
The more powerful 130 horsepower (97 kW) Clerget 9B nine-cylinder rotary engine was used by the Nieuport 17bis, which first appeared late in 1916. The N.17bis had stringers fairing out the fuselage sides compared to the flatter sides on the 17. The major user was the British Royal Naval Air Service, which ordered 30 from Nieuport with 50 more being license-built by the British Nieuport & General Aircraft company. Armament was often augmented, a synchronised Vickers gun being added to the standard over-wing Lewis.
A pair of triplanes based on the Nieuport 17 were constructed for testing purposes, one for the French and the other for the British. The narrow chord wings were staggered in an unusual manner, placing the middle wing furthest forward and the top wing furthest aft. No subsequent orders came as a result of these tests; Nieuport later trialled the same layout on the improved Nieuport 17bis, which was tested by the British as well, however this venture also remained a prototype. During flight testing, both types had demonstrated favourable climbing characteristics, but were also found to be relatively tail-heavy.
Several of the experimental Berliner Helicopters, named after their German-American inventor Emile Berliner, were manufactured around Nieuport 23 fuselages, including the 1922 and 1923 versions.
During March 1916, the new Nieuport 17 reached the French front and began to replace the earlier Nieuport 11 and 16 fighters that had been instrumental in ending the Fokker Scourge of 1915. On 2 May 1916, Escadrille N.57 became the first unit entirely equipped with the new model. During the latter part of 1916 and into 1917, the Nieuport 17 equipped every fighter squadron of the Aéronautique Militaire. Almost all of the top French aces flew the nimble Nieuport during their flying careers, including Georges Guynemer, Charles Nungesser, Maurice Boyau, Armand Pinsard, René Dorme, Gabriel Guerin and Alfred Duellin.
The type was also used by American volunteers of the Escadrille Lafayette, who transitioned to it from their earlier Nieuport 11s and 16s.
The Nieuport 17 was also ordered by the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service, as it was markedly superior to any of the British fighters available at this time. British units that used the type include Nos 1, 29, 32, 40 and 60 squadrons of the Royal Flying Corpsand No 6 of the Royal Naval Air Service — for a time, other units had a few on charge to escort other aircraft.
Many British Empire air aces flew Nieuport fighters, including the top Canadian ace Billy Bishop, who received a Victoria Crosswhile flying it, and Albert Ball, V.C. who often hunted alone in his Nieuport. ‘Mick’ Mannock VC flew Nieuports early in his career with No 40 Squadron. His VC award reflected his whole combat career – including his time on Nieuports. The top-scoring Nieuport ace was Captain Phillip Fletcher Fullard of No.1 Squadron RFC, who scored 40 kills between May and October 1917, before breaking his leg in a football match.
Numerous Italian aces, such as Francesco Baracca, Silvio Scaroni and Pier Piccio, all achieved victories while flying Nieuport fighters. In Belgium, the 1st and 5th Belgian escadrilles were equipped with the Nieuport 17 and 23. Belgian aces flying the type included Andre de Meulemeester, Edmond Thieffry and Jan Olieslagers.
The Imperial Russian Air Service operated large numbers of Nieuports of all types, including the Nieuport 17, 21 and 23.Being largely reliant on aircraft procured directly from France, there was pressure within Russia to establish and grow a capacity to support the domestic manufacture of such fighters as well. Accordingly, efforts were made to produce the type under licence in Russia; however the venture struggled due to a lack of experience in the limited availability of experts to assist. Nonetheless, many of these were operated not only during the Eastern Front of the conflict, but continued to be flown for a time following the Russian Revolution that resulted in the creation of the Soviet Union. Russian Nieuport aces include Alexander Kazakov, who flew the type against the Germans and later against the Bolsheviks as well.
By mid-1917, the Nieuport fighters were losing their superiority to German types such as the new Albatros D.III. In response, the 150 hp (110 kW) SPAD S.VII had begun to replace the Nieuport fighters in French front line squadrons. The British continued to operate their Nieuports until early 1918 until enough newer types such as the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5s were available to replace them.
Like the other Nieuport types, during its later life the 17 was operated in large numbers as an advanced trainer. The American Expeditionary Forces purchased 75 Nieuport 17s for training purposes, while the French also operated large numbers as trainers. The French Aviation Maritime operated a single Nieuport 21, which was used for carrier training during 1920 and 1921 aboard the Bapaume, pending the delivery of dedicated carrier aircraft such as the Nieuport-Delage NiD.32RH.
So impressive were the Nieuport fighters in early 1916 that Idflieg (the German Inspectorate of flying troops) requested that their own aircraft manufacturers produce a copy. Examples of retrieved aircraft, as well as detailed drawings and sketches were provided. In response, the Siemens-Schuckert D.I was produced. This copy, which differed primarily in some minor details, was deemed to be satisfactory and went into production, although in the event the SSW D.I was outdated by the time it had become available, and was employed mainly as an advanced trainer. Another clone of the Nieuport 17 was produced in the form of the Euler D.I, although development work did not proceed beyond a few prototypes.
Other manufacturers, notably Albatros and Pfalz, instead of producing literal copies of the Nieuport, explored the possibilities of incorporating a sesquiplane configuration in their own fighter designs. The Albatros D.II was enhanced in this way to produce the Albatros D.III and D.V — commonly called ‘V-strutters’ by the RFC to distinguish them from the earlier Albatros fighters. As well as the advantages of this layout these types also exacerbated the flutter problem, which was never satisfactorily contained, in spite of strengthening. The Pfalz D.III was also a sesquiplane version of a previous biplane fighter, although it featured a more substantial lower wing with two spars that avoided the flutter problems encountered by «single spar» sesquiplanes.
Survivors and replicas
A single original example has survived to the present day, this being Nieuport 23 «5024», which has been preserved and placed on static display in the Belgian Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History in Brussels. However, the Nieuport 17 has also become a popular aircraft for replica builders; dedicated kits for the type have been produced, including both 7/8ths scale and full size, and groups of builders have reproduced entire squadrons of aircraft in this manner. Original drawings, sourced from both the original factory and a German technical report on the fighter, have facilitated the construction of various replicas, such as the example on display in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Ontario, which was built to the original specifications, while many others have used more modern construction, often using metal tubes to replace much of the wooden structure used on authentic aircraft.
operated at least five Nieuport 17s and three Nieuport 21s
Specifications (Nie 17)
Published in April 2019.
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