Icons of Aviation History: Nieuport 28C

Light and highly maneuverable, the Nieuport 28C was rejected by the French air service, but found a place with the first American fighter squadrons to be deployed in World War One.


Nieuport 28C in the Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola FL

The French aeroplane manufacturer Société Anonyme des Establissements Nieuport was founded in 1909 by two brothers who were both killed in accidents before the war. But when the Great War broke out, designer Gustave Delage provided the French air service with its first notable scout biplane, the Nieuport 11. Nicknamed “Le Bebe” (“The Baby”) because of its small size, it was highly maneuverable and became a very effective fighter, helping to end the Fokker Scourge.

In late 1917, Nieuport attempted to follow up on the success of Le Bebe with a newer model, the Nieuport 28C. Like the Model 11, it was lightly built and very maneuverable, though it had a bigger engine and was faster. The ailerons were moved from the upper wing plane to the lower. The new fighter was also more heavily armed: the Bebe had carried a single machine gun mounted on the upper wing which fired over the arc of the propeller, but the new Model 28 had two synchronized guns, one on the engine cowling and another on the left side of the fuselage.

Unfortunately for Nieuport, the SPAD XIII had also just been introduced, and it was a better airplane. The French adopted the SPAD as their new frontline fighter and began deploying it to the trenches in the beginning of 1918.

In the meantime, though, the Great War had received a new combatant. After years of neutrality, the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917. Both the Entente and the Central Powers knew that eventually America’s industrial capacity and fresh manpower would be decisive. But at this early point, the US was completely unprepared for war. It had no trained men, only obsolete weapons, and, although volunteer pilots of the famed Lafayette Escadrille had been flying in combat with the French for several years now, the American Expeditionary Force had no battle-ready aeroplanes of its own.

Since the new American forces would be trained largely by the French, it was assumed that they would be equipped with French aircraft. But there was a supply crunch for the Hispano-Suiza engines that powered the SPADs, and French frontline squadrons were barely getting enough for themselves. The Americans would have to use something else. And in stepped the Nieuport 28C. Although it was inferior to the SPAD, it was still a serviceable fighter, and it was immediately available for rapid production. The US placed an order for 297 of them.

There would be four American squadrons which were to be equipped with the French fighters as soon as possible, the 27th, 94th, 95th and 147th. None of them had been trained yet. In February 1918, when Nieuports began arriving at the American aerodromes, they didn’t have any armament: the US was not yet able to produce its own machine guns, and the French and British couldn’t keep up.

Finally, by April 1918, the first of the American squadrons—the 94th “Hat in the Ring”—was ready. On its second patrol, on April 14, Lt Alan Winslow and Lt Douglas Campbell each shot down a German plane to score the first official American air victories of the war. (The Lafayette Squadron of course had already shot down dozens and had several aces, but they were officially flying for the French.) The 27th and 147th Aero Squadrons began combat flights in June.

But although the Nieuport 28 was easy to fly and maneuverable, it had serious issues. The landing gear was weak and had to be reinforced. The rotary engine was prone to fires. Most serious, the upper wing had a fragile structure, and several pilots while diving ripped the leading edge free and pulled off most of their wing cloth.

By July 1918, there were finally enough SPAD XIIIs available to begin equipping the American squadrons, and the Nieuports were pulled from frontline service and used as trainers.

After the war, 88 Nieuport 28Cs were taken back to the United States, where they served for a time as trainers and scouts, and were then sold off as surplus. The Navy obtained 12 of the planes and used them, along with some Sopwiths, to test various ideas for launching aircraft from ships. In a series of experiments, the Nieuports were sent aloft from wooden platforms that had been built on top of gun turrets aboard several Navy ships, including the new battleship USS Arizona. Meanwhile some small countries like Guatemala and Switzerland flew newer Nieuports, manufactured in France after the war, until the late 1920s.

In 1930 four of the remaining Nieuport 28Cs were used to film the Hollywood movie “Dawn Patrol” starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr, and then its remake in 1938. From 1958 to 1972, the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in New York was flying a restored Nieuport in its air shows. This plane, a mixture of parts from at least four different postwar airframes, was put on exhibit at the USS Intrepid in New York and then obtained by the Smithsonian, where it is now displayed at the Udvar-Hazy Center. The Naval Aviation Museum in Florida has one of the Navy’s modified test versions on display. Two more original Nieuports are in museums in Europe.

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