From the start of the Great War through September 1915, the air war, such as it was, had been dominated by the Allies. This was mainly due to two fortunate circumstances. First, they had more planes initially and second, more importantly, they had more rich young men who became pilots in the pre-War years as somewhat of a hobby. The British especially flew hundreds of sorties over the Western Front, generally to spot for the artillery and gather intelligence on troop movements for the generals. For the most part, these flights of the plodding scout aircraft came and went unimpeded across the lines. The few German planes, such as the Taube type, were outclassed by early British fighters such as the Vickers FB.5 and the French Morane-Saulnier L types. All that came to a screeching halt when Anthony Fokker’s brainchild, the Fokker E.I Eindecker appeared in September 1915 and initiated the period of the air war known as the Fokker Scourge.
The new Fokkers outclassed the French and British planes in every way. First, and strangely enough for a period dominated by biplanes, the E.I had a single wing mounted midway up the plane’s fuselage. This “high wing” design (as opposed to the wing running beneath the cockpit like most monoplanes) enabled the Fokker to turn much tighter in a fight than its opponents could. Also, the bracing of the wing allowed the planes to climb and dive more violently than their French and British counterparts without fear of the wings snapping off. Since a single wing weighed less than two, they also held a decided speed advantage over other planes of the day.
However, the secret of the Fokker’s dominance for the six to eight month period of the Fokker Scourge or Fokker Scare as some called it, lay in the armament. British planes relied on a separate gunner to fight air combats while the French mounted plates on their propellers in hopes of not shooting off their tickets home. The Germans, however, with their typical engineering zeal, managed to perfect the synchronization gear. This mechanism, also called an interrupter gear, allowed machine guns to be mounted along the axis of the plane and fire directly through the propeller arc. The gear attached to the engine’s crankshaft and whenever the propeller swept in front of the gun, a cam on the gear would prevent the gun from firing, ensuring the safety of the propeller.
The effect of the interrupter gear immediately propelled the German aircraft to the fore. Now, instead of trying to maneuver to allow a separate gunner to get a shot in or trying to line up a shot with a gun mounted atop the high second wing of a biplane, the pilot’s job simplified greatly. All he had to do was point his nose at the target. Wherever the plane flew, the bullets would fly also. The Germans strengthened this advantage by mounting belt fed machine guns instead of drum fed guns like the British Lewis gun. The belts allowed the Germans greater firepower in terms of sustained bursts which a British plane could not match for having to change drums on his gun. The interrupter gears were such an important part of the German successes, the German High Command actually forbade pilots from crossing the German lies into French and British airspace for fear that a shot down aircraft would result in their improved weapons system falling into the hands of the Allies. Thus, the Scourge was less severe than it otherwise might have been had pilots had free reign the entire time their aircraft were technologically far superior.
The strength and speed of the Fokker Eindeckers gave rise to some of the first standardized air combat tactics. One of the most famous was the Immelmann Turn, named for Germany’s early ace Max Immelmann. He would climb high and get his back to the Sun then dive on an unsuspecting target firing a long burst as he came. Most pilots would then continue the dive and begin a long climb back to an advantageous position. Immelmann discovered if he kept the throttle open and the plane at full power, he could “zoom.” This meant he would pull up hard on the stick at the bottom of his dive as he passed his target. His momentum would carry him on a short climb and he could then pitch the plane over and it would seemingly “flip” on it’s tail and be pointed right back at his opponent, giving him two attack chances instead of one for each pass.
Unfortunately for Germany, their dominance of the sky would only last until the spring of 1916 when more capable British and French aircraft began appearing on the front lines. These newer biplanes proved able to master the vaunted Eindecker and German pilots again became the hunted rather than the hunters . . . at least until the appearance of The Albatross turned the tide in the air once again!
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