The aerial combat during the Great War1 gave life to numerous legends about flying machines and the men who flew them. It was a result of passion for flying. For to fly into the sky had been the man’s dream for ages.
Also to the domain of dreams belonged the time when the knight was the live example of all virtues and nobility, courage and devotion in defense of the weaker and the abused. Most of us will remember the Excalibur – King Arthur’s legendary sword – or Don Quixote, the knight-errant of La Mancha’s brave horse, Rosinante.
The knights of the Great War were pilots of aircraft called fighters. Their weaponry and charger in one was the aircraft, or aeroplane as it used to be called. The lance and the sword had been replaced by one or more machine guns. They only lacked armor. Combat was one-on-one. Pilots would do aerobatics in order to obtain a good firing position and to prevent the adversary from achieving the same. The airplane had to be fast and agile. Fights would usually take place in the presence of many spectators – soldiers who were hiding in trenches. The exchange of fire on the ground would stop, everyone watching the breathtaking aerial strife, which was very reminiscent of a fight between two dogs – therefore such an engagement is termed a ‘dogfight’ in the English language. One of the participants was usually shot down, the victor remaining airborne. One who had achieved five victories was called an ‘ace’. Fonck, Mannock, Richthofen, Brumowski, Kazakov, Baracca, Rickenbacker, Makijonek and Peter are names of aces, while Fokkers, Nieuports, Spads, Oefags and Albatroses were names of aircraft, or rather their designers or factories where they were designed and built. We will say about Nieuports – French aircraft which became famous and have found a prominent position in the history of the world’s and Polish aviation.
The birth and development of the Nieuports
The designation of Nieuport is linked with the origins of aviation. Édouard de Niéport (August 24, 1879-September 16, 1911) – a pilot and designer – was one of the aviation pioneers. In 1909 he established the Société d’Aérolocomotion aircraft factory in Suresnes, manufacturing airplanes of his design. He was one of the few designers who preferred the monoplane layout with the smallest possible number of drag-increasing items. The first construction, the Nieuport I, did not distinguish itself in performance, but it was a kind of laboratory which enabled the designer to develop his new brainchild, the Niueport II of 1910, into a machine singled out for its novel technical solutions: the fabric-covered fuselage with the pilot’s seat so arranged that only his head would protrude above the fuselage, or the landing gear with the wheels attached to a skid through a steel suspension spring. This solution ensured safe landings even in cases of having lost both wheels, which was not rare in those times. The aircraft’s tail unit was not typical, either. The horizontal stabilizer was permanently fixed to the fuselage, whereas the elevator was fitted separately at the end of the fuselage. It came with a doubled rudder. Control of such surfaces was complicated. When presented at the aviation meet in Rheims, it was propelled by the air-cooled two-cylinder Darracq rated at 14.7 kW (20 h.p.), achieving 72 km/h.
In 1910, upon moving the factory to Issy-les-Moulineaux, the company name was changed to Société Anonyme des Etablissements Nieuport. A next version of the aircraft was developed there, powered by a two-cylinder 20.6 kW (28-h.p.) engine. It was designated the Nieuport 2N. This new machine was a many-time world record breaker. On April 11, 1911 at Chalons, the pilot and designer in one achieved a speed of 119.76 km/h. On June 16 another speed record is set at 130.06 km/h, and still another, at 133.14 km/h, on June 21. These were unimaginable speeds in those times.
Having been fitted with a 37 kW (50-h.p.) engine, the Nieuport 2G, piloted by Belgium’s Jan Olieslagers (a Great War ace with the Belgian air forces), covers a distance of 625 km. Another record was French pilot A. Gobé’s, a distance of 740.3 km being covered. Such distances were over fifty times greater than those covered by the best pilots in the best machines five years earlier. The Nieuport 2G’s next success was America’s Charles Weyman’s victory in the Gordon Bennett speed cup race held at Eastchurch, Great Britain, in 1911, with Weyman achieving 125.5 km/h. The third place was won by France’s Chevalier in a Nieuport 2G.
Édouard de Niéport dies in a flying accident on September 16, 1911. The company is taken over by Charles de Niéport, who continues to develop his brother’s concepts. The record ceiling of 6,120 m achieved on December 28, 1913 by France’s Georges Legagneux was another success of the Nieuport 2 with a 59 kW (80-h.p.) Gnôme Monosoupape A engine. Production orders flooded Société Anonyme des Etablissements Nieuport, making it known not only in France but also across the borders.
But the owners of the company were doomed – Charles de Niéport dies the death of a pilot on January 24, 1913. His successor was Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe with Léon Bazaine as his assistant.
They develop airframes designated the Nieuport 42 and the Nieuport 6 floatplane, both series-produced for individual clients and the military. The Nieuport 4M (Militaire), piloted by Weyman, was a competitor in a military aircraft bid (Concours Militaire), beating all the opponents. The French army ordered no less than ten Nieuports, the British ordered five for the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and twelve for the Royal Navy Air Service (RNAS), five of the latter fitted with floats. Russia also ordered the aircraft, additionally obtaining production license. Nieuport 4s also equipped units of the Italian and Swedish air forces. At the beginning of the 1914 warfare, Nieuport 4s constituted a significant part of the Entente air forces’ equipment. They were most widespread in Russia.
The Nieuport 6, offered to the French Navy, underwent tests at Meulan – they were supervised by Navy officer Lieutenant de Vaisseau Gustave Delage. He became so fascinated by aviation that he requested to be dispatched to the Nieuport factory, which happened on January 1, 1914. His energy and designer’s talent soon placed him at the chief designer’s post. The first objective he set for the company was to build an aircraft for the coming Gordon Bennett cup race to be held in the same year. Delage preferred the biplane construction, but not the traditional one. He used one large-area plane plus a much smaller one (by about a half of the former). This solution was termed the ‘sesquiplane’ in French (‘one and a half plane’). It featured a v-shaped interplane strut – the designer claimed that this solution ensured a much better performance, speed being in the first place. Additionally, a pivot joint at the apex of the vee-strut was to allow change of the angle of incidence and thus the adjustment of the aircraft’s balancing.
Today, there are still various views on the origin of the sesquiplane construction. Some authors ascribe it to a Swiss named Schneider, a Société employee, who later left for Germany. In any case, this solution continued across the Nieuport designs till mid-thirties.
The outbreak of war in August 1914 interrupted the development of the racing plane. Delage enters Navy service but is retired at the beginning of 1915 and returns to his work as chief designer with the Société. The French air forces urgently need new and good aircraft, for the equipment that the Aviation Militaire had had at its disposal had quickly been found obsolete and not up to the requirements of the war. The aircraft was to be armed so as to fight the enemy in the air and on the ground. It was also to serve as a reconnaissance tool, so important in this kind of warfare, as it allowed watching the rear enemy positions much farther than those available to observation balloons. On top of that, photographs were to be taken from the aircraft to provide a lasting and certain evidence for analysis at the headquarters.
The first half of 1915 saw the birth of the Nieuport 10, also called the ‘18 m2’. This airframe became the basis of Delage’s aircraft. The fuselage was a wire-braced wooden box girder. It had a rectangular cross-section with a rounded top and contained a two-seat pilot-and-observer cockpit. The front part was covered with plywood or aluminum sheets, the rest being covered with fabric.
The wings were wooden, the upper one two-spar, the lower single-spar, both with about a 3030’ sweep-back. The spars were two moldings glued to a plywood strip. Two upper wing ribs near the inboard ends of the ailerons were reinforced. The ailerons were fitted to the upper plane only, and mounted on a dia. 30 mm aluminum tube running almost along the entire wing span to up to a cutout in the center section. The tubes ended with an oval lever connected to the control stick through push-pull rods. The lower wing was divided and mounted to the fuselage, whereas the upper was single-piece and fitted to the fuselage by means of steel tubing. Both wings were connected by streamline-section ash vee-struts. Each strut was bound with cloth for added strength. The struts were attached to the spars by pivot joints. The wing cell was braced with steel wire.
A flat-profile steel-tubing tailplane was fitted to the fuselage. The rudder was of the same construction. The tail unit had a characteristic shape. The control surfaces were activated by cords. The wings, ailerons and control surfaces were fabric-covered.
The rubber cord shock absorption landing gear featured wheels mounted on an axle held by steel vee-legs as well as a tail skid in the form of a leaf spring mounted on a wooden streamlined projection.
The power plant for this machine was the Gnôme or Le Rhône rotary rated at 59 kW (80 h.p.), mounted in the front fuselage (tractor layout) and covered by a horseshoe cowling (open at the bottom). Metal fairings were aft of the cowling.
The navigational and piloting aids were few and conformed to the standard of the period. The Nieuport 10 did not feature an instrument panel, with the compass, chronometer, tachometer and altimeter mounted in various places inside the cockpit.
Two versions of this model were built. In the Nieuport 10AV, the observer took the front seat, while the pilot the back seat. In the Nieuport 10AR it was vice-versa. In the beginning, Nieuports flew unarmed, taking only bombs, whereas the pilot or observer took a pistol or hand gun for defense from a possible enemy.
With the course of time, machine guns became standard armament. The attachment of a machine gun was related with the situation of the observer. On the AV version the gun was mounted in the front and there was a cutout in the upper wing through which the gun would fire. In time, the gun began to be installed on the upper wing by means of a special mounting. On the AR version, the gun was mounted in the rear cockpit on the Etévé gun ring, devised by the Nieuport company, which allowed backward and sideward fire. The good flying qualities of the Nieuport 10 allowed its use as a one-seat fighter. The machine gun would be mounted on the upper wing by means of a special mounting so that it was possible to fire it forward or at an upward angle. This kind of mounting, however, proved troublesome when changing ammunition drums of the Lewis machine gun or cartridges of the Hotchkiss gun. The drum – initially containing 36, and later 47 and 96) rounds – could have been emptied at a very fast rate. It had to be changed if fire was to be continued. Either the pilot or the observer had to perform this procedure standing up, which limited him in controlling the aircraft.
Italian Nieuport 10s were armed with the Fiat‑Revelli machine gun, installed on a modified mounting. The Nieuport 10 was not only manufactured in France, but also under license in Great Britain (Breadmore factory in Dalmuir, Scotland), Italy (Nieuport-Macchi factory) and Russia (Duks factory). Nieuport 10s equipped many French, Russian, Belgian and Italian units as well as RNAS squadrons in Britain. They participated in military operations in the Western and Eastern fronts, over the Aegean Sea and the Palestine.
The Nieuport 10 bis was fitted with a 75 kW (100-h.p.) Monosoupape engine. It differed from the standard version in that it had additional seven openings in the engine cowling for a better cooling. The aircraft’s performance was not significantly improved.
In 1917, the Duks factory assembled a Nieuport 10 bis with 81 kW (110-h.p.) and 88 kW (120-h.p.) Le Rhône engines. These aircraft had bigger cowlings which protruded above the main outline of the fuselage.
The use of the Clergent 9B engine rated at 81 kW (110 h.p.) or the Le Rhône at 96 kW (130 h.p.) effected slight constructional changes, thus resulting in the Nieuport 12. This model was not much different from the ’10. Most importantly, it had a more powerful engine, a bigger lifting surface, a cutout in the upper plane for improved upward visibility, a cutout in the wing root section of the lower plane for improved downward visibility. The basic difference between the ’10 and the ’12 was the tubes supporting the upper wing, mounted vertically on the Nieuport 10 and inclined by a few degrees on the Nieuport 12. The armament was identical to that used on the Nieuport 10, except that a Lewis or Vickers fixed machine gun was mounted on the front fuselage with the introduction of the Alkan synchronizing gear. The aircraft manufactured by the Breadmore factory had a vertical stabilizer and a modified rudder outline as well as a closed engine cowling.
Apart from the combat versions, both models had unarmed training versions, too. Basically, three versions were in production: N 81 E2, N 80 E2 and N 83 E1. Most often, however, training aircraft were classified by their lifting surface area. Thus, the Nieuport 23 m2 was a two-seater with one or two control sticks, the Nieuport 18 m2 was a single-seater with one control stick. All training Nieuports had rotary engines of various types and rated under 75 kW (100 h.p.) They were often Nieuports 10 and 12 withdrawn from frontline service.
The necessity to fight enemy aircraft and protect own ones resulted in the birth of fighter planes. The simplest solution was to adapt the existing types by reduction of the crew members to one and installation of effective combat armament. A single-seat version of the Nieuport 10 was developed somewhat independently in France, Italy and Russia. The common drawback of these versions was their relatively big weight, which, considering the low engine power of 59 kW (80 h.p.), did not ensure a better performance than that of reconnaissance aircraft.