The Fokker Dr.I Tri-plane was Germany’s most famous fighter aircraft in World War One. The Fokker Dr.I was Germany’s response to the British Sopwith Tri-plane, which had been used with great success during the Battle of Arras in April 1917. When one crashed behind German lines, it was stripped down and studied at great length by German aerial designers. The standing of the Sopwith Tri-plane was cemented when the commander of the Imperial German Air Service (IGAS), General von Höppner, publicly praised it. This led to all the German aircraft manufacturers attempting to produce their own version for the IGAS. It was Anthony Fokker who was successful. He had flown a Sopwith Tri-plane and had studied the crashed version at first hand.
In June 1917, Fokker’s chief designer, Reinhold Platz, remodelled a plan he had for a prototype he called D.VI – this was an aircraft he was designing for the Austro-Hungarian air force. The D.VI first flew on July 1st 1917. The famed German ace, Werner Voss, made this first flight.
Only the top wing of the D.VI had ailerons – unlike the Sopwith Tri-plane, which had ailerons on all three wings. The lower and middle wings were attached to the fuselage while the top wing was much above the fuselage and was attached by steel-tube struts. The D.VI was powered by a 110 hp engine. It was armed with two synchronised 0.31 inch LMG 08/15 guns.
Platz worked on a design for the IGAS. These versions had ailerons that were squared off at the wing tips and had a more powerful engine. Platz experimented with 160 hp, 145 hp and 170 hp engines but eventually settled on a 110 hp engine. Voss spent 20 hours testing these versions in August 1917, including in combat. Fokker also flew them. All three men put their ideas together on how to improve the aircraft and what can be called the first true Fokker Dr.I tri-plane flew on August 30th 1917. Voss shot down an Allied aircraft on this first flight. On September 1st, Manfred von Richthofen flew a Dr.I for the first time and claimed his 60th success. Voss claimed 20 confirmed kills in just 24 days in his Dr.I. Voss was killed on September 23rd when six SE 5’s attacked his Dr.I. Other German aces who flew the Dr.I with great success were Erich Löwenhardt, who ended the war with 53 kills, and Ernst Udet who had 62 kills by the time World War One ended.
The Dr.I was a very strong aircraft and also manoeuvrable. The majority were fitted with 110 hp engines. The relative lack of power in these engines was not a problem when combined with the three-wings of the aircraft. The Dr.I had an excellent rate of climb – far greater than an aircraft fitted with a more powerful engine. Its rate of climb and ability to turn swiftly made it a lethal opponent in a dog fight. However, the Fokker Dr.I did have two major failings. It was not fast when compared to some Allied fighters in 1917-1918. However, its manoeuvrability and agility tended to out-weigh this problem. It also had a relatively short time in the air – 80 minutes before it needed refuelling. However, its advantages were clear to see and above all, when Germany was suffering from the Allied blockade, it was relatively cheap to manufacture.
From October 1917 on, the Dr.I played an important role on the Western Front. 318 Fokker Dr.I’s were built. Its fame oriented around certain aces – Voss and Richthofen being the two most famous. Its fame also obscured its first few weeks in active service. Voss, Platz and Fokker had combined all their ideas to create one formidable fighter – though the Dr.I was also used for scouting. What they could not factor in was poor workmanship within the manufacturing process. In the first two weeks of its time on active service with the IGAS, a number of Dr.I’s crashed. The fault was traced to poor workmanship on the wings and all the tri-planes were grounded until the fault was corrected. Nearly the whole of November 1917 was spent correcting the wings of the Dr.1’s and ensuring that the wing struts were adequate for their purpose.
Therefore, despite its reputation and place in aviation history, the Fokker Dr.I had a relatively short time in active service. Its reputation tends to be orientated around Richthofen’s ‘Flying Circus’, which achieved legendary status both during and after World War One. Richthofen had two Fokker DR.I’s that he flew and he preferred them to faster alternatives used by the IGAS. He was the highest scoring ace of World War One with 80 confirmed kills. However, 60 of these were achieved with other aircraft such as the Albatros D.III but the name ‘Richthofen’ and the Fokker Dr.I are invariably linked. Richthofen was flying a Dr.I when he was killed on April 21st 1918.
In May 1918, the number of Fokker Dr.I’s in active service reached a peak – 171 aircraft. However, in terms of their ability they had been succeeded by the superior Fokker D.VII and by June 1918, the remaining frontline Dr.I’s were withdrawn back to Germany to defend the country from invasion.
The Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany to have an air force. The French took back to France a number of Dr.I’s to use as part of the reparations process.