Icons of Aviation History: Albatros D5a


The Albatros D series was one of the most widely-produced German aircraft of the First World War, serving for the entire second half of the conflict. Nearly all of Germany’s top air aces, including the Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen, scored the majority of their victories in Albatros D fighters.

Albatros D5a, on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

In early 1916, the Germans were beginning to lose air superiority on the Western Front. The French had introduced the Nieuport 11 and the British were flying DeHavilland DH-2 “pushers”. Both of these outclassed the Fokker E3 Eindekker monoplanes that equipped the German squadrons.

In response, in August the Albatros Werke aircraft company introduced a revolutionary new design. Called the D1, the new Albatros had a plywood body, replacing the frame-and-canvas fuselage on the Eindekker. The D1’s biplane wings provided more lift, enabling it to carry two Spandau machine guns mounted in front of the cockpit. The new fighter was one of the first to use an inline engine instead of a rotary, producing 160 horsepower, and the propeller hub was streamlined into the fuselage to make it more aerodynamic. It was superior to the Entente fighters in speed, climb rate, and firepower.

Even as D1’s were being sent to frontline squadrons, an improved version was already in the works. Designated the D2, it had an upper wing that was slightly moved to give better visibility to the pilot, and also moved the radiator unit from the front of the fuselage and mounted it flush in the upper wing plane. By the end of 1916, around 50 D1’s and 200 D2’s were in service, and they quickly established their superiority over the Entente Nieuports and DH-2’s.

Just a few months later, the Albatros D3 appeared. This new model had a narrower lower wing, which improved the pilot’s visibility. It also used the same type of V-struts on the wings that the Nieuport 11 did. The radiator was moved from under the center of the wing, where it had a tendency to spray boiling water onto the pilot when it was hit by gunfire, off to one side. The new Albatros became Germany’s standard fighter, and served until mid-1918.

But the D3 had a dangerous flaw. One of the first squadrons to be equipped with the new fighter was Jasta 11, commanded by Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron”, who had already scored dozens of air victories in Albatros aircraft. On one of his flights, Richthofen was forced to make an emergency landing when his wings cracked. Over the next few weeks, others reported the same problem, and a number of pilots were killed when their wings broke away. The spars that held the D3’s lower wings were too weak, and under the stresses of a high-speed dive they could sometimes bend, allowing the V-struts to twist and break, tearing the wings from the body. Some attempts were made to strengthen the spars with braces, but they never worked, and pilots were instructed to avoid high-speed dives in the Albatros.

An effort was also made to address the problem in the next design model, the D4, which went back to a wider lower wing. The D4 also had a rounded plywood fuselage rather than the straight-sides used in the earlier models, which saved about 75 pounds of weight. (Furniture-makers were hired at the factory to assemble the fuselages.) The D4 was intended to use an experimental new engine that could run in different gears, but this never worked, and the D4 design was dropped. Instead, the new rounded fuselage was fitted with the narrower lower wing used in the D3, with more bracing, and was designated the Albatros D5. The lighter airframe, combined with a more powerful 180-horsepower engine, produced better speed and climb than the D3.

The D5 entered service in June 1917. It was quickly discovered, however, that not only were the lower wing braces still too weak, but the upper wing spar was also subject to cracking under stress. A number of pilots were killed when their wings broke during violent maneuvers. In response, a number of metal braces were added to strengthen both wings. The new version was known as the Albatros D5a. This solved the problem (mostly), but the added weight now dropped the top speed of the D5a to 105mph, about the same as the earlier D3. Von Richthofen, who test-flew one of the first production D5a models, said it was obsolete and inferior. Nevertheless, the Germans had no better fighter plane available, and the Albatros D5a served from October 1917 until the end of the war. Richthofen’s Jasta 11 flew D5a’s until they were replaced in 1918 with Fokker Dr1 triplanes–but 60 of the Red Baron’s 80 victories were made in Albatros D fighters.

In all, some 4800 Albatros D models were built during the war, about 1600 of them D5a’s. They kept air superiority for the Germans until late in 1917, when the Entente introduced the SPAD 13, SE5a, and Sopwith Camel.

Only two Albatros fighters survived after the war, both of them model D5a’s. One is in the War Memorial Museum in Australia, and the other is in the Smithsonian in Washington DC. The Smithsonian Albatros was one of the last to be manufactured during the war, in April 1918. From the markings, it had been assigned to the Jasta 46 squadron. It has been repaired several times, using parts from several earlier aircraft, and at some point was hit by a bullet that punctured its secondary fuel tank and lodged in one of its magnetos. Since the damage was never repaired, this must have happened near the end of the war.

As best as can be determined, the Albatros was held by the French Government after the armistice and was then given in 1919 to US Congressman Julius Kahn, who donated it to the De Young Museum in California. In 1947 the plane was sold to a private collector, and the Smithsonian obtained it in 1949. The D5a remained in storage until 1977, when a two-year restoration project was begun. The aircraft is now on display in the World War One Gallery at the Air and Space Museum.


2 thoughts on “Icons of Aviation History: Albatros D5a”

  1. Nice post.

    Ever play Milton-Bradley’s “Dogfight” game when you were a kid (or, hell, as an adult)? Acquired this sometime in the mid-1960’s; istr more TV ads for it after “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” hit top-40. It was my first war/strategy game…but we totally made up our own rules, and never played it in a manner that allowed us to actually learn anything about strategy. Too busy having fun with the little plastic biplanes.


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