Flying the Red Baron’s Stallion

Flying the Red Baron’s Stallion

Davisson, Budd

When you’re strapping yourself into a Fokker Triplane. the difference between it and most other airplanes is palpable The instrument panel doesn’t exist. and the few rudimentary gauges are snuggled between the butts of two dummy Spandaus that seem to be almost in your face. When you look outside. the middle wing sits exactly where you’d look if you were landing a normal tail-dragger, and just having three tremendously stubby wings out there makes for a really strange feeling.

On this flight, I knew the more modern (1930s) 145hp Warner engine up front eliminated the wild gyroscopic effects that the original 110hp Oberusel rotary engine caused and provided an actual throttle, not an intermittent kill button. Still, there was no doubt that I was about to fly an unusual airplane.

By the time I got to the runway, it became obvious why the middle wing had a cutout at the root: you need it to see where you’re going. Even making lots of S-turns. I was constantly ducking down to look under the wing to see what was in front of me.

Takeoff was a revelation. I’d barely started the throttle forward when the tail was ready to pop up off the runway. Instantly, the visibility increased a hundred– fold, and the airplane floated off in a nearly level attitude at an unbelievably low speed. The first airspeed I saw was 60mph, and it was already climbing like a bandit.

To a modern pilot, this airplane can be thoroughly disconcerting: it takes some getting used to. It has zero yaw stability, and the rudder has virtually no feel. In level flight, if you take your feet off the rudder bar, the nose will gradually slide one way or the other. so you’re constantly futzing with the rudder to keep the ball centered. Even in turns, I could feel my butt sliding back and forth and the wind hitting one side of my face and then the other. The changing direction of the slipstream was actually the best indication of what the airplane was doing. It’s a different way to fly. and the upcoming landing constantly haunts you.

The good news about landing a Fokker Triplane is that everything hair pens in slow motion. It approaches at about 70mph, and the nose is well down because of all that drag, so visibility is good-until you flare. In a three-point attitude, the entire world disappears and everything gets very quiet as the airplane slows to its 40mph stall.

On touchdown. I found myself looking under the middle wing. desperate for anything that gave me ground references. I don’t know why I even bothered looking because. as the airplane slowed down. it was obvious that I was more a passenger than anything else. If there had been a hint of crosswind. I doubt if I could have kept it straight.

During the Great War. airfields were big rectangular patches of grass and you always landed into the wind. There’s a reason. however, that Triplanes have axe-handle skids under the wingtips. And there’s a reason Triplane pilots don’t fuel embarrassed when they ground loop one. It will happen to everyone, sooner or later.

I survived my first landing without embarrassment, and I didn’t go back for a second. I’m not stupid. -Budd Davisson

[Editor’s note: a certified flight instructor for more than 35 years, Budd has logged more than 6,000 hours in nearly 300 types of aircraft, including many WW It fighters. He is also the editor-in-chief of our sister publication, Flight Journal.)

Copyright Air Age Publishing May 2003

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