My first flight in a World War 1 fighter.
When I was about 4 or 5 years old, I used to dream at night of being a WW1 pilot taking off and flying around in a Sopwith camel. I spoke of WW 1 planes so much that on one Christmas my mother gave me a record of Royal Dutchman singing of Snoopy and the Red Baron. In early grade school, I doodled pictures of biplanes and triplanes dogfighting all over my homework. This is how I found out that my art teacher's dad flew a SPAD in WW1. I used to visit him many times throughout the day to hear him talk about his father's flying stories.
After finishing high school, I was offered a chance to fly helicopters in the Army. The school took a year to complete and I was lucky enough to fly Cobra Helicopters. I had a 30 year flying career, flying many different aircraft; single and multi-engine aircraft as well as helicopters. Over all those years I have never lost the love of flying and I never forgot those vivid childhood dreams of flying around in a WW1 fighter.
15 years ago, I started building a full scale Fokker DVII. I was determined to build the plane as accurately as I could. In 2019 I completed the aircraft. It had a WW2 motor but everything else on the plane was true to the original aircraft with many authentic gauges. The completed plane was moved from my basement to a flying museum with a grass runway.
On a warm and windless day towards the end of March 2021, when I walked out to my plane and climbed in. All I had on was a pair of goggles, a tee shirt and jeans. I strapped into the seat and went through the start and run up of the engine. When the engine was warm and ready to go I gave the signal to remove the chalks from the wheels. It is scary to attempt to fly an unfamiliar aircraft without and instructor to help you it you make a mistake. The only way to get past this fear is to muster up the courage and go for it. After 52 years I was finally able to live that childhood dream.
Taxiing a WW1 fighter is different than modern tail wheeled aircraft. In a modern tail wheeled aircraft, the pilot pulls the control column into their lap to hold the tail wheel firmly on the ground and use light pressure on the breaks to swing the tail around. A WW1 plane doesn't have a tail wheel or breaks. Early biplanes had a wooden skid sporting a metal shoe with a vertical blade welded to it which digs into the ground. To taxi forward, I had to hold the stick full forward and add just enough power to create wind from the propeller to lift the tail, releasing the skid from the ground. To turn the plane, I had to push the stick forward while applying full deflection to the rudder and giving short bursts of power with the throttle. The goal is to get enough wind from the propeller to lift and swing the tail before the plane developed too much forward momentum. If the plane moved forward too quickly, the outside wingtip will dip down and drag on the ground. It took me a while to develop a feel for this maneuver. The average turn radius doing this technique was about 140 to 150 feet which required a lot of planning ahead or I would end up taxiing into a tight spot with no room to turn.
It is difficult to see where you are going while taxiing to the runway. When the tailskid is on the ground the engine is lifted high above the horizon making it impossible to see straight ahead. I could only see about 45 degrees to the left or right of the cockpit. WW2 pilots had this same problem and they used their brakes to zig-zag the aircraft along the taxiway, looking ahead in the turn. WW1 aircraft are not nimble enough to pull this maneuver off. I would have to lean my head well outside the cockpit to see around the nose of the plane. Putting your head outside of the cockpit is often rewarded with a face full of strong winds mixed with flying grass. Sometimes I had someone on the ground to walk alongside the plane to guide me. This was no fun for the ground crew because sometimes I needed to apply enough power to lighten the tail and steer the plane which forces the ground crewman to run to keep up. A ground crew member is especially helpful when tight turns are necessary. They could grab onto my wingtip and with a burst of power they could break the tailskid free from the ground allowing the plane to pivot in place. If the timing was off however, they could end up being dragged along by the wing.
Once the plane is lined up with the runway, I take a moment to make sure all the engine settings are where they need to be. In a WW1 plane, all have to check is make sure the fuel valve and the magneto switch are in the correct position. I try to bolster my courage by telling myself, "You can do this!" With no radio to warn me of landing planes, I must carefully look around the pattern to make sure the sky is clear before taking off. I smoothly advanced the throttle to maximum RPM and push the control column forward to the instrument board. The noise builds to a deafening howl and the wind beating against you in rhythmic pattern increases as the propeller builds up speed. As soon as the tailskid releases the ground, I rapidly move my feet left and right to keep the nose pointing down the runway. As the speed increases, I ease the stick back a little to keep the plane level until it gives you hints that it is ready to fly. The wheels bump against the ground a couple of times to let me know she is ready to fly, so I ease the stick back cautiously until I can feel myself being pressed into my seat. The wind from the propeller creates aerodynamic pressure against the elevator, pushing the control column back into my hand. There is a need to continuously push the stick forward to keep the plane in the desired attitude. The wings are very light and require constant lateral inputs to keep the wings level.
The wind screen is a tiny 10" wide and 11' tall piece of plexiglass about 2 feet ahead of your face. If the aircraft is in trim, windscreen does a great job of blocking the wind. As soon as the plane's tail moves too far to the left or right, the wind whips around the windscreen and slaps me right in the face. When I feel the wind is on the right side of my face, I gently step on the right rudder pedal until the wind stops. The original WW1 German anemometer mounted on the left wing strut has spinning cups with a dial underneath to indicate my speed in kilometers per hour. Looking left, I use the bottom of the top wing against the horizon to find the correct climbing angle and the airspeed on the anemometer will confirm in the angle is right.
I continue to climb on runway heading until the original WW1 German altimeter points to 300 meters. I was proactive enough put a conversion chart on the instrument board to convert meters to feet. I cautiously push the control column to the left to start a turn but as soon as the right wing starts to lift, I find that reversing direction on the stick does little to stop the left roll. This unexpected reaction to my control inputs gives me a moment of fear and doubt. I try stepping on the right rudder and the plane immediately returns to level flight. It takes a few attempts to coordinate moving the rudder pedals with the control column until I can make a smooth, controllable turn and my confidence in my ability to control the plane returns.
Once I am level and flying downwind (paralleling the runway in the opposite direction), I pull the throttle back to 50% power and slow down to 120 KPH. The view is wonderful. In most modern aircraft you are cooped up inside a tight cabin with limited visibility. The windows quickly get dirty from bugs and oil or the bends in the glass distort the view. In an open cockpit fighter I can clearly see for miles all around me. It's breathtaking. Without the confines of the closed cockpit I can also smell the aroma of corn fields, cattle and flowers from the farms below. The wind at this altitude isn't too cold, and the sun is warming my shoulders and head which feels very peaceful. I see large birds circling the field at my level and I imagine that they must feel this serine feeling all the time.
When I see that the end of the runway is just below my left shoulder, I pull the throttle back to idle and push the nose down just a little to get the airspeed to keep the speed on the anemometer at 110KPH. I turn the plane towards the runway and try to judge if I can reach the end of the runway on this current approach angle. There is a river that wraps around the end of the runway with trees and a powerline that I have to get over before reaching the touchdown point. I notice that at my current angle, I am going to be a little short of my intended landing spot so I add a little power to extend the glide. I realize that it will take a few tries to figure out how high and how far away I need to be to glide to a precise spot to land. Once the correct approach angle is sorted out, I have to slow the airplane down to 100 kph just below the trees. I try stepping on the rudder pedal to make the plane fly a little sideways. This adds drag to the plane and it slows down to the perfect speed. Using the pedals again, I straighten the plane out about 10 feet above the ground. When I estimate that I am close enough to the ground, I pull back on the stick to level the plane and the airspeed bleeds off until the plane settle to the ground. As soon as the wheels touch the ground, I gently move the stick forward enough to keep the tail in the air until there is no longer enough wind to lift it. If I let the tail down too soon, the plane will be moving down the runway very quickly without the wind over the rudder to keep the nose pointing the right way. Finally, the tail drops to the ground and the tailskid digs into the grass dragging the plane to a stop. I pause there on the runway for a moment and take in the quick flight. So much has happened in those 6 minutes that I feel I missed some of it.
I turn the plane off the runway in a wide arc to the right and taxi back to the hanger. As I taxi the 300 yards to the hanger, the excitement of the flight is still there but the fear I had before the flight is subsiding and being replaced with the confidence that I would be able to handle this vintage aircraft. I am eager to try again. I would like to invite you to join me on my flight by following this link; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEPoGxYxuk4