WWI's Albatros D.III
Leathal Wooden Wonder
Let’s try to put the Albatros-Flugzeugwerke series of WWI fighters
in perspective. First, the Wrights flew in 1903 but didn’t really
reveal many secrets to the world until 1905. Then it was closer to 1908-1910
that Glenn Curtis jumped into the game with ailerons, elevators and
all that other “real” airplane stuff
Now flash ahead barely five years: the Albatros D.III was introduced
into combat in 1916, carrying a pair of Spandau machine guns and was
capable of over 105 mph—less than five years separated “airplane,
the entertaining, but useless kite” from “airplane, the
highly efficient killing machine.” The technological progress
during that period is absolutely amazing.
During that period, throughout the European aviation world, a frenzy
of design and construction was in progress that developed the majority
of the concepts that would control airplane design for decades to come.
Tony Fokker is credited the steel tube truss fuselage. Junkers fielded
some clunky corrugated aluminum designs that set the stage for stress-skin
aluminum structures. Albatros, along with Pfalz and a few others, steered
away from the “sticks and wire” wooden fuselage trusses
of the Sopwiths and Nieuports and developed their own version of stressed
skin, semi-monocoque construction.
Although the wings of an Albatros are traditional biplane fare—wood
ribs stacked on wood spars, with the entire mess braced with miles of
wire—the fuselage is really intriguing because it owes more to
boat building than aeronautical engineering.
The Albatros fuselage was a thin skin of what we would call plywood
today, although the word hadn’t been invented yet. As opposed
to Pfalz and Roland, which used a male mold, Albatross formed their
skins in female molds, probably by laying relatively narrow strips of
steamed veneer into the mold with each successive layer running at an
angle to the one before. Three layers were used and, when the glue dried,
they had a rigid, compound curved skin, not unlike a boat.
The four skins (top, bottom, right and left), which carried most of
the fuselage loads,were attached to the frames with screws, nails and
glue. The edges of each skin overlapped in a smooth, wide scarf joint.
What resulted was an extremely rigid, light structure that was as streamlined
as an airplane could be during that period. However, it must have been
a real tough airplane to repair, when damaged.
With the D.III, Albatros broke from its earlier designs by replacing
the full sized bottom wing with one much narrower, thereby creating
what was almost a sesqui-plane. This allowed them to use a single “V”
strut at the tip, rather than the drag-producing “N” struts
of earlier designs.
actually one of the earliest and greatest ace-makers. For instance,
nearly two-thirds of Ricthofen’s eighty kills (twenty-one in April,
1917 alone) were in an Albatross D.III and it was an Albatros he painted
red that gave him the Red Baron identity, not a Fokker Triplane. In
fact, the colorful paint jobs of the Albatros’s in his Jagdweschwader
is where the term “flying circus” is supposed have started.
While the craftsmanship of the Albatros was that of fine furniture,
even the finest furniture won’t survive outdoors. The net result
is that only two Albatros’s still remain—one in Australia
and the other in the Smithsonian. They will, however, live forever in
the mind of the modeler.
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