Icons of Aviation History: Airco DH-2

Although the British were technologically far behind the Germans in the early months of aerial warfare, they were soon able to field an effective response to the “Fokker Scourge”, and win air superiority through a completely different approach to fighter design.

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Replica DH-2 on display at the Topeka KS Combat Air Museum

When the Fokker Eindekkers with synchronized machine gun appeared in the summer of 1915, the Entente had to field a response, and do it quickly. And since neither British nor French aircraft designers yet knew how to make an interrupter gear, they had to seek a different solution.

The answer came from English designer Geoffrey de Havilland, the chief designer for the Airco company. De Havilland had already produced a two-seat scout plane called the DH-1, which used a “pusher” configuration with the engine mounted at the back of the fuselage and the propeller facing backwards. This left the front of the plane open and avoided the entire problem of “how to shoot through the propeller”. By modifying this design—reducing the size to hold just one person and adding a machine gun to the front—De Havilland offered a fighter that would be capable of taking on the German Fokkers.

The DH-2 was designed from the start with input from British fighter pilots, particularly Major Lanoe Hawker of the Royal Flying Corps, who had already scored seven air victories over France. The open-cockpit nacelle on the new De Havilland gave maximum all-around visibility for the pilot. The French-made 9-cylinder Gnome Monosoupape engine could reach a speed of just under 100mph, giving it better performance than the Eindekker. Armament consisted of a single .303-caliber Lewis light machine gun, fed from 47-round drum magazines.

When the first DH-2s reached the front in June 1915, however, they ran into trouble. These early versions had three flexible mounting points for the Lewis gun, which could be manually moved from one attachment point to the other by the pilot. It was awkward to use and proved ineffective. In addition, pilots reported difficulty in keeping the aircraft steady while firing the machine gun. Trainees, moreover, had trouble controlling it on landing and takeoff, and after a number of accidents it gained the moniker “Spinning Incinerator”.

So De Havilland modified the design to make it more stable, and replaced the two-blade propeller with a narrower four-blade version. Hawker, meanwhile, concluded that it was easier and more effective to have the machine gun fixed in place, and to aim it by pointing the entire airplane at the target. After designing a metal clip that locked the machine gun into position, Hawker added a round fixed gunsight that allowed accurate aiming.

The new DH-2s were supplied to frontline squadrons in April 1916, and soon proved their worth. The first shootdown of a German Eindekker happened on April 25, and a string of victories followed: during the fierce fighting at the Battle of the Somme, DH-2s destroyed almost 50 German machines. Major Hawker himself was given command of RFC 24 Squadron, the first unit in British service to be dedicated solely to single-seat purpose-built fighters, and in time six other British squadrons were equipped with DH-2s. In all, around 450 of them were produced. Along with the new French Nieuport 11, the De Havilland won back air superiority for the Entente and ended the “Fokker Scourge”.

But even before the end of 1916, the DH-2 was outclassed by newer German fighters like the Albatros D2. On November 23, 1916, Major Hawker found himself in a dogfight with German ace Manfred von Richthofen and, although both pilots were highly skilled and maneuvered around each other for almost an hour, in the end Richthofen’s Albatros was superior to Hawker’s DH-2. Hawker was shot down and killed. By this time, the DH-2 was already being withdrawn from frontline service in France, and was first transferred to lesser theaters like Palestine, then relegated to the “trainer” role.  No DH-2 aircraft survived the war.

In 2015, aviation enthusiasts Dick and Sharon Starks built an 80%-scale replica DH-2 using photographs and some original plans, and donated it to the Combat Air Museum in Topeka KS. A month later, a university professor drew up a set of CAD plans for the engine and produced a plastic model at 80% scale, using a 3d printer. In 2016, this model engine was fitted to the replica DH-2 airframe. It is still on display at the Museum.

 

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