“The Albatros D-III popularly known as De-drei is a sleek single-seat biplane fighter armed with two machine guns shooting through the propeller arc.
It goes up like a balloon, while its speed at full throttle is up to one hundred seventy kilometers per hour.
‘Be careful when taking off: it has a very sensitive rudder!’
Then there is just the engine check to complete, “remove chocks” and I am off taxing for takeoff, I raise my hand to indicate I am ready, I get the go-ahead flag signal and push the throttle lever to full rpm. The aircraft sets off like a racehorse immediately gaining speed, just begging to get airborne. Wheels clear the ground – I am airborne! I had not even had time to ‘be careful when taking off,’ the plane just took me away to the skies, carrying as it goes – and it can go!
I try to use ailerons, then the elevator, eventually the rudder; the stick and rudder bar move lightly, they offer virtuallty no resistance, while the plane rolls to the sides, climbs and dives, turns smoothly and lightly, without any delay; it is running fine, agile and maneuverable like a swallow. I like the De-drei immensely.”
The way Janusz Meissner described the Albatros D.III in his book Jak dziś pamiętam1 shows the pilot’s fascination with the plane. It also proves the merits of the design that originated in 1910 from a German aviation factory Albatros Werke G.m.b.H. Its main office was in Johannisthal, Berlin, while its O.A.W branch was in Schneidemühl (present-day Piła). From 1916 onwards, Albatros fighters presented a large percentage of fighter planes in combat units, with many aces having flown them. Therefore it is worth to look closely at the history of that aircraft type.
The Albatros fighters played an important role in the aerial warfare of the Great War. They were the workhorse of the German air service from the autumn of 1916 to the summer of 1918. During that time the Albatros had become the most popular fighter type not only in German service, but also in Turkish, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian units-, quite contrary to common beliefs that the Fokkers, especially the Dr.I and D.VII models, were the quintessential World War I fighters. The Fokker may owe its claim to fame to Hollywood productions that immortalized its image as “the” German fighter, or perhaps it was the result of a vigorous marketing campaign launched by Anthony Fokker himself.
Whatever the case may be, it is an undisputed fact that over 350 German fighter pilots earned the ‘ace’ title – scored five or more kills – flying the Albatros and 29 of them went on to receive the highest German decoration – the Pour Le Meritte (Blue Max).
For those reasons the history of a design that was born at the German Albatros Werke G.m.b.H. deserves a closer look.
The graceful fighter
Any war is the time when military hardware is developed and ideas how to use it in the field evolve. The Great War was the time when military aviation boomed rapidly. Very early on it became clear that there was no such thing as a universal aircraft that could meet the ever growing needs of reconnaissance, bombing raids, liaison, directing artillery fire and, finally, engaging enemy planes in the air.
Makeshift adaptations of available machines for fighter duties were insufficient. By the end of 1915, a concept had developed that fighters should be able to fire machine guns in the direction of flight. The British and French tried to solve the issue by introducing pusher designs, i.e. the aircraft with the engines installed behind the crew cockpits, so that the rotating propeller would not interfere with shooting.
Another option was to conceive a device for front-engine planes that would prevent the rounds from ripping through the propeller. A Frenchman named Roland Garros applied a deflector – propeller cover pads deflecting the fired rounds. Having examined the wreckage of Roland Garros’ Morane, Anthony Fokker, a Dutchman working in Germany, built a synchronizer – a mechanical instrument preventing firing a round if a propeller blade was in front of a gun muzzle. He fitted the synchronizer in a single-seat monoplane that was based on the French Morane H – and so the formidable Fokker E.I was born. When it reached the frontline it gave the Germans air superiority. The first Fokker victory was won by Max Immelman on August 1, 1915, followed by Oswald Böelcke on August 19. Both pilots served in Feldflieger Abteilung 62. Twenty six Fokkers scattered over various units inflicted heavy losses on the Allies and forced them to commence group flying as a defensive measure. The Allies responded with the Nieuport2 11C1 that hit the frontlines in January 1916. This fast and maneuverable sesquiplane became more effective than the “Fokker Scourge” as it was continuously undergoing improvements. Eventually the Allies won air superiority.
The Fokker and Nieuport laid the foundations for all future fighter designs. A fighter aircraft was to be a small, maneuverable and fast single-seater with a high climb-rate, armed with at least one machine gun firing through the propeller arc. Since biplanes and sesquiplanes offered more maneuverability at that time, such design layouts were preferred when building fighters. There were of course exceptions to the rule, but as the saying goes they just proved the rule.
Losing air superiority forced Germany to design new fighters. On August 31, 1916, General Ernst von Hoeppner commanding German air forces commented: “Performance offered by a monoplane powered by a 118-kW engine after fitting the second machine gun is the peak of its potential. D-class biplanes entering service offer better maneuverability, climb-rate and speed in level flight. They must supersede the E class.”
Inspired by Oswald Böelcke, a process of forming dedicated Jagdstaffeln units began (with the first being set up in August 1916) to replace the ad hoc created Kampfeinsitzer Komando (KEK). The primary requirement was to secure proper equipment. The poorly designed Fokker D.I was withdrawn from frontline service rather quickly as the sloppy workmanship used in its manufacturing became apparent. All the aircraft were reassigned to training duties. Although D.Is and D.IIs from Roland works and D.IIs and D.IIIs from Halberstadt turned out to be quite good, they did not improve the situation much.
The Albatros plant produced 5 prototypes D.344-348/16. One of them – the 256 – was used for static tests, while the 2759 was test flown by Ernst von Lössi. On June 17, he achieved the following climb rates: 1000 m in 4 min., 2000 m in 8 min. 3000 m in 14 min. When put into serial production the Albatros would climb to 4000 m in 30 minutes.
In June 1916 Albatros Werke G.m.b.H. received an order for twelve prototypes (serials D.381-D.392/16) of single-seat fighter biplanes. Under the terms of the contract the aircraft were to be powered by the 118-kW (160-hp) in-line, liquid cooled Mercedes D.III engine.
Although it is difficult to retrace the work done by a team headed by engineers Robert Thellen3, Rudolf Schubert and Gnaedig, we know that the Albatros D.I (L.15)4 had been built in a short time (according to R.L. Rimel, in 13 days). After tests at Ideflieg it was approved by the Zentral Abname Kommision (Central Acceptance Commision) as hardware fit for military units.
The old mantra “if it looks good, it’ll fly good” certainly applies to the Albatros design. The designers worked hard on aerodynamic qualities of the wooden, semi-monocoque, oval cross-section fuselage that in its front part smoothly transformed into a large cowling covering the propeller hub. The middle and aft sections of the fuselage were flat while its upper and bottom parts were gently rounded. The engine was almost completely embedded in the fuselage, only cylinder heads, the cooling liquid tank and exhaust pipes with a manifold protruded beyond its lines. The fuselage, together with plywood-skinned vertical stabilizer and stabilizing fin constituted a single airframe element. The engine was accessible through removable metal panels. In front of the cockpit, at either side of the fuselage, were Windhoff radiators.
The plane was fitted with two-spar, rectangular wings with rounded wooden wingtips. The Albatros prototype was designed with canvas-covered wings of uneven depth: the upper had 1.75 m while the lower 1.60 m. Moreover, the latter had a slightly shorter wingspan than the former. In order to increase visibility a semi-circular cut-out was made in the upper wing mid-section. The lower wing was attached to the fuselage while the upper was based on an inverted V-shaped, steel tube pyramid. The wing cell was composed of two parallel struts with teardrop cross-section, braced with steel wire strings.
The two-strut undercarriage had a fixed axle embedded in a cowling and was fitted with a rubber string shock absorber. The wooden tail skid had a rubber string absorber attached to the triangular stabilizing fin. Control surfaces were made of welded steel tubes, covered with canvas skin. The rudder had an aerodynamic corner balance. The Albatros was armed with two synchronized 7.92 mm 08/15 caliber LMG Spandau machine guns incorporating a synchronizing device developed by werkmeister Hedtke, later improved by werkmeister Semmler. It proved efficient, particularly when two machine guns were synchronized. In October 1916 the Idflieg required that the Fokker synchronizer be tested on the Albatros but it was prone to malfunction and cut the rate of fire in half. Consequently, Albatros Werke decided against it.
In May 1916 Oblt Rudolf Berthold examined the Albatros D.I serial D.423/16. According to the first edition of his biography, he is believed to have said: “I am keen on taking the Albatros into combat, we should have a larger force of these excellent aircraft.” He said that to von Thüne from Ideflieg, who allegedly replied: “I decide which plane goes into battle, not Oblt Berthold.”
Between June 9 and July 7 static trials were successfully conducted. The wing depth was redesigned to be equal, which would also make production easier; aerodynamic corner balance was added to the elevator.
On July 11 Ideflieg recommended Albatos D.I to go into serial production and placed an order for 50 examples (serials D.421-470/16). The evaluation report also included some of the demonstrated performance specs: “it climbs to 5000 m in 38 minutes and achieves 170 km/h in level flight.” The first Albatros D.Is were manufactured with the 111 kW (150 hp) Benz Bz III, but with the arrival of the Mercedes engine subsequent machines were fitted with the new powerplant. It made the Albatros heavier but increased the fighter’s speed in level flight and in climbs.
The Albatros D.I had excellent aerodynamic qualities for a fighter. Vzfw Carl Holler of Jasta 6 described the new type: “It has an excellent climb-rate, reaching 5000 m is child’s play. It has an excellent dive speed which is important when attacking an enemy below. We no longer have to wait for kills, my two colleagues scored two in a short time.” Unfortunately the author of that statement was shot down by a Nieuport, because he “had not seen” it. Very limited field of view from the cockpit, c. 30° up and to the sides, turned out to be a serious shortcoming of the Albatros D.I.
The second drawback became apparent in service as the poor visibility of the target hindered accurate aiming, especially at high speeds.
Thirdly, the Windhoff radiator contributed not only to increased drag (thus reducing the plane’s performance) but if punctured or in case of a leak (which occurred quite often) the engine absorbed the cooling liquid and ceased, while the hot liquid scalded pilot’s face. On November 10, 1916 the use of Windhoff radiators was banned in frontline units.
A design team swiftly addressed all the raised issues. The new, Albatros D.II (L.17) version was produced with the upper wing lowered by 30 cm and the support strut pyramid that had obscured forward visibility was replaced with a new N-shaped, outer support. The first Albatros D.IIs were produced with lateral radiators, but in subsequent examples they were replaced with a new Teves und Braun radiator fitted in the central upper wing. Minor redesign of the fuselage did not delay delivery of further 100 D.IIs (serials D.472- D.521/16 and D.890 – 939/16) ordered in August 1916. Both Albatros variants, the D.I and D.II, were manufactured in parallel. The next order for 100 planes (serials D.1700 – D.1799/16) was placed in September 1916, but since the Albatros works were not able to fulfill the contract on their own, for the first and only time, license-production was assigned in August 1916 to Luft Verkehrs Gesellschaft mbH (LVG) located in nearby Johanisthal. The seventy five examples (serials D.1024/16 – D.1098/16) built at L.V.G. were designated as LVG D.I, only to be re-designated in February 1917 as Albatros (LVG) D.II. They were easily recognizable by their paint scheme, i.e. the characteristic arrangement of color areas on top wing surfaces and the empennage. A total of fifty Albatros D.Is and 275 D.IIs was built at all factories.
A team of designers headed by engineer Thalen focused from the outset on improving the Albatros design. The D.II was selected as the platform they would work on to meet the challenge posed by new aircraft being pressed into service by the French and British, most notably the Nieuport 17C1. One way to go was to further upgrade the fighter’s aerodynamic characteristics by making it even sleeker and by redesigning onboard hardware to further minimize drag. The second task was to reduce the weight of Albatros by implementing the latest technologies of wood treatment and, finally, by utilizing enemy’s technical solutions, i.e. sesquiplane airframe layout which in fact meant copying the Nieuport design. Not much could be done to re-engine the airframe: the only available powerplants were the Mercedes D.III and Mercedes D.IIIa (a D.III derivative with higher compression ratio and increased capacity) delivering 120-129 kW (170-175 hp) and there were no signs that new, improved and more powerful engines were to arrive soon.
Three designers, Thelen, Schubert and Gnadig built a new version incorporating only minor modifications. Having slightly redesigned the fuselage they applied a new wing arrangement. The upper wing had a 1.50 m chord and a trapezoid shape. The lower wing was of similar shape but its chord was reduced to 1.1. m. Consequently, the team produced a sesquiplane arrangement that replicated the same mistake that had been made by Nieuport designers – the lower wing had only one spar, which reduced its rigidity. Both wings were connected via V-shaped struts. The plane was more maneuverable than its D.I and D.II predecessors and was only a bit inferior to the Nieuport. Powered by the Mercedes D.IIIa engine it had a good speed in level flight and a decent climb-rate. The Albatros D.III 388/16 underwent tests in September 1916 in parallel with the Albatros D.I and D.II. They were successful enough to make Ideflieg immediately order 400 examples (the highest number ever ordered at one time).
Along with the order, a suggestion was filed to use strips as fuselage skin due to shortage of plywood. Five planes were ordered for testing. The outcome was negative as strip-skinned fuselage offered less strength and its weight did not reduce much in comparison to plywood-covered counterparts. Consequently, the idea was abandoned, though Roland works took it up and applied in its designs.