Fokker Dr.1 Triplane:
Flying The Red Baron's Beast
When you’re strapping into a Fokker Triplane
the difference between it and most other airplanes is palpable. The
instrument panel doesn’t exist and the few rudimentary gauges
are snuggled between the butts of two dummy Spandaus that seem to be
almost in your face. When you look outside, that middle wing sits exactly
where you’d look when landing a normal taildragger and just having
three tremendously stubby wings out there makes for a really strange
On this flight, the more modern (1930’s) 145 hp Warner engine
up front would eliminate the wild gyroscopic effects of the original
110 hp Oberusel rotary engine and provided an actual throttle not an
intermittent kill button. Still there was no doubt that I was about
to fly an unusual airplane.
By the time I got to the runway it became obvious why the middle wing
had the cutout at the root: you need it to see where you’re going.
Even with lots of “S” turns, I was constantly ducking down
under the wing to see what was in front of me.
Takeoff was a revelation. I’d barely started the throttle forward
when the tail was ready to pop up off the runway. Instantly, the visibility
increased a hundred fold and the airplane floated off in a nearly level
attitude at some unbelievably low speed. The first airspeed I saw was
60 mph and it was already climbing like a bandit.
To a modern pilot the airplane can be thoroughly disconcerting and it
takes some getting used to. It has zero yaw stability and the rudder
has virtually no feel. In level flight, if you take your feet off the
rudder bar, the nose will gradually slide one way or the other so you’re
constantly futzing with the rudder to keep the ball centered. Even in
turns I could feel my butt sliding back and forth and the wind alternately
hitting different sides of my face. The changing direction of the slipstream
was actually the best indication of what the airplane was doing. It’s
a different way to fly and the upcoming landing constantly haunts you.
The good news about landing a Fokker Triplane is that everything happens
in slow motion. It approaches at about 70 mph and the nose is well down
because of all that drag, so visibility is good—until you flare.
In a three-point attitude, the entire world disappears and everything
gets very quiet as the airplane slows to its 40 mph stall.
On touchdown, I found myself looking under the middle wing, desperate
for anything that gave me ground references. I don’t know why
I even bothered looking because, as the airplane slowed down, it was
obvious I was more a passenger than anything else. If there had been
a hint of crosswind, I doubt if I could have kept it straight.
During “The Great War,” airfields were big rectangular patches
of grass and you always landed into the wind. There’s a reason,
however, that Triplanes have axe handle skids under the wing tips. And
there’s a reason Triplane pilots don’t feel embarrassed
when they ground loop one. It’ll happen to everyone sooner or
I’d survived my first landing without embarrassment and I didn’t
go back for a second. I’m not stupid.
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