The first purpose-built fighter plane came from the Germans, and made the name “Fokker” a part of aviation history.
Fokker Eindekker E-4
The first WW1 flier to modify his craft into a special-purpose “fighter plane” was Roland Garros, who mounted a machine gun on the nose of his Morane-Saulnier Model L and attached steel plates to the back of the propeller blades to protect them from his own bullets. When Garros was captured behind German lines shortly afterwards, his plane was turned over to Anthony Fokker. Fokker was a Dutch mechanical engineer with an interest in aviation. At the outbreak of the war, he offered to design airplanes for the Entente, but the British and French generals did not view the flimsy little craft as important, and turned him down. In response, Fokker offered his services to the Germans instead.
When Fokker examined the steel wedges Garros had attached to his propeller blades, he knew that they enabled the plane to fire through the propeller, but Fokker was already working on a better system. His “interrupter gear” used a pronged cam attached to the propeller shaft to push a metal rod attached to the machine gun mechanism, which inactivated the gun whenever a propeller blade was directly in front of the barrel. Although the pilot could fire the machine gun continuously, the cam would interrupt the fire whenever the propeller was in the way.
The interrupter gear system was incorporated into one of Fokker’s new “scout” models, the A-3. Though it still used the outmoded “wing warping” method of control instead of ailerons, this was an advanced design for its time, with a low mono-wing configuration and a body frame made of steel tube instead of wooden spars. The armed version became known as the Eindekker, officially designated the E-1. Although faster than the Morane, the Eindekker was still slow (top speed about 85mph) and not very maneuverable, but its fixed forward-firing machine gun made it superior to anything the Entente could put into the air.
The first confirmed aerial victory with an Eindekker was in July 1915, when Kurt Wintgens, flying one of the prototypes, shot down a French Morane L Parasol. Once production began on the E-1, one Eindekker was assigned to each air observation squadron to serve as a protective escort. Among the first pilots to fly the new fighter planes were Max Immelman and Oswald von Boelcke. On August 1, 1915, a flight of British BE2c bomber/observer planes attacked the German airfield at Douai, and Immelman and Boelcke took off in their Fokkers to intercept. Boelcke’s gun jammed and he was forced to land, but Immelman shot down one of the BE2c’s and damaged another.
For the rest of 1915, Immelman and Boelcke carried on a friendly rivalry, with each matching the other’s score. By October, both had scored five aerial victories and reached “ace” status. On January 12, 1916, both aces scored their eighth victories, and both were awarded the Pour le Merite, the coveted military medal known informally as “The Blue Max”. Immelman was killed in June 1916, after scoring a total of 15 aerial victories—shot down in combat with a number of British Fe2b’s. Boelcke was killed not long afterwards in an air collision while flying a Fokker Albatros—he had 40 air victories.
Although Immelman received most of the attention from the German press (he was known as “The Eagle of Lille”), it was Boelcke who made the most lasting contribution to aerial combat. A skilled tactician, Boelcke was also a masterful organizer and, more importantly, an instructor (one of his students was Manfred von Richthofen). His observations on aerial combat and organization, known as “Boelcke’s Dicta”, are still taught today to modern jet fighter pilots. They were:
“1. Each pilot must know about the construction of his aircraft, and the strengths and weaknesses, so that he can get the best out of his machine and avoid getting into situations in which his opponent can exploit the weaknesses of design.
- He must know as much as possible about the strengths and weaknesses of any enemy aircraft he will likely encounter.
The pilot must be fully at home in his aircraft as a result of training and familiarization flights, so that the machine can be exploited fully without conscious thought, the full spectrum of aerial maneuvering being second nature to the pilot.
The pilot must know all about his armament, so that the right range and deflection can be simply selected, and jams and stoppages cleared quickly and without taking his attention away from more pressing matters.
The pilot must develop the knack of seeing enemy aircraft without himself being seen, developing this knack of spotting opposing aircraft at a considerable range by constant practice in knowing how to search the sky and what to look for.
The pilot must acquire the habit of ‘taking in’ unconsciously the general progress of the whole multi-aircraft dogfight going on around the individual combat in which the pilot will become involved, so that a third party entering the duel can be spotted and allowed for, and no time wasted in assessment of the general situation after the end of an individual combat.
The pilot should become accustomed to flying in a regular position in the formation, so that teamwork will improve and each man will get used to flying with the same companions.
The pilot must memorize a number of rendezvous points in the area, so that if the formation is split up, lost pilots can pick up the formation again by circling over the rendezvous point just under the clouds (aircraft over clouds being very easy to spot) until rejoined by others of the formation.
Formation is to be kept at all times, leaving the leader to spot the opposition while the others cover his and each others’ tail by constant vigilance, unless another pilot spots the opposition first and signals the leader by moving ahead and waggling his wings before turning in the direction of the opposition.
The leader will signal the best method of attack, using all the advantages of sun, cloud, haze, and rain, but always attacks will be from above where possible.
Once combat has been joined in a dogfight, it is every man for himself, but it is essential to keep a cool head and courting disaster to try to evade the attacker by the execution of copybook aerobatics such as loops and half-rolls.
The use of smooth executed, predictable maneuvers in combat is futile. One should always turn into the attacker so that a circling combat will ensue; here it is essential to turn as tight as possible to try to close up on the attacker and dispatch him with an accurate burst of machine-gun fire.
It is insensible to run from a fight with an aircraft of equal performance, unless some tactical consideration gives the pursued a considerable advantage.
To be avoided at all costs are jinking maneuvers, for the pursuer can always cut across the corner so formed and make up the necessary distance on the pursued aircraft.”
Improved models of the Eindekker soon appeared. The E-2 had a larger engine but its smaller wing area made it more difficult to fly. The most widely-produced version was the E-3, introduced in September 1915. The final version, the E-4, carried two machine guns. A little over 450 Eindekkers were built during the war, of which over half were the E-3 model. In all, 11 early Fokker pilots became aces, and the Eindekkers were shooting down so many Entente spotter planes that French and British fliers referred to the period as “The Fokker Scourge”.
Only two Eindekker fighter planes survived the war. One of these was E-1 model serial number E.13/15, flown by Immelman himself. It was housed in a museum in Dresden, where it was destroyed during a World War II bombing raid. An E-3 model flown by a rookie pilot was captured in April 1916 when it mistakenly landed on a British airfield in a fog. It was returned to England for evaluation, and is now on display in the London Science Museum.
A full-scale replica of an Eindekker E-4 is on display at the Combat Air Museum in Topeka KS.