Anthony Fokker's first aircraft was a monoplane he called "Die Spinne" ("The Spider").
The Fokker D.VII was unquestionably the best all-round German fighter of WWI.
Few aircraft of the World War I period have received the attention given the Fokker Dr.I triplane. Often linked with the career of the highest scoring ace of that war, Germany's Rittmeister Manfred von Richthofen, the nimble Dr. I earned a reputation as one of the best "dogfighters" of the war.
Although slower and unable to match the combat altitude of the Sopwith Camel, the Fokker DR.1 triplane had an excellent rate of climb and could match the Camel for maneuverability. For two months the pilots of Jagdgeschwater Nr. 1, the Richthofen "Flying Circus," demonstrated its capabilities.
Fokker and His Aircraft
Anthony Herman Gerard Fokker (1890-1939) designed Germany’s most successful combat airplanes in World War I. Fokker was born in the Netherlands, but upon completing his general education, moved to Germany to pursue a technical education. After obtaining his pilot’s license and building several monoplanes in an empty zeppelin hangar, Fokker decided he was ready to start his own business at the age of 22. Using his father’s money, Fokker founded Fokker Aeroplanbau at Johannisthal, an area near Berlin that had become a center for the new aeronautics industry. He moved the company to Schwerin a year later.
At the request of German army officials, Fokker demonstrated a truck-transportable reconnaissance plane he had designed. They were impressed and ordered two, launching the company’s success. Although Fokker traveled to other European countries (including his native Netherlands) demonstrating the plane, no one showed an interest. They all bought their planes from French companies such as Blériot. So Fokker increased his marketing efforts toward the German military, which rewarded him by giving him a three-year contract to train German army pilots at his new flying school.
As World War I began in August 1914, Fokker had to decide if he would stay in Germany or return home to the Netherlands. He had tried selling airplanes to all the European countries, but only Germany had bought any. Since the Netherlands had declared itself neutral, Fokker decided to stay in Germany. The Germans quickly deluged his factory with orders for observation planes.
In the first months of the war, as observation planes proved their abilities and value to the military, it became the objective of each side to shoot down each other’s planes. These early efforts were not very effective until a French pilot named Roland Garros had a forward firing machine gun mounted to his plane and added special plates on his propeller to deflect bullets. The Germans were unable to figure out his secret, and for several weeks in April 1915, the French enjoyed air superiority. Soon, however, Garros’s plane was forced down into German territory. The plane was sent to Fokker with orders to replicate the deflector blade system in the next airplane he built. Finding the system too rudimentary, Fokker advanced the concept and created a system that synchronized the machine gun’s firing with its propeller rotation. He mounted the system onto a monoplane whose design was based on the Morane-Saulnier Parasol, an early French monoplane.
Barely a week after Garros’s airplane was captured, the Fokker E.III Eindecker debuted at a demonstration at the Fokker factory. Despite being impressed by their viewing, German officers wanted the plane to perform successfully before they ordered it. Fokker took his prototype to the front and after several days of patrols, he came upon a French Cauldron. As he pointed the Eindecker at the French airplane, aimed and prepared to fire, Fokker suddenly realized he did not want to kill anyone and returned to the airfield without having fired a shot. Orders were placed for the plane, but the first airplane did not arrive from the factory until mid-summer of 1915.
The German ace pilot Max Immelman had his, and the Eindecker’s, first victory on August 1. From August 1915 until April 1916, the Allied air forces were helpless against the Eindecker. In fact, British pilots were nicknamed "Fokker Fodder." Germans gained four victories for every one Eindecker loss. And the Germans were careful to maintain their advantage, not allowing the plane to pass over lines where it might be shot down and captured. The plane was credited with the German victory at Verdun, as well as a temporary halt in British strategic bombing. Not until April 1916 did a plane fall into Allied hands. Within weeks, two planes were debuted that regained air superiority for the Allies: the French Nieuport 11 and the British Sopwith Strutter.
Realizing Fokker’s potential, the German government naturalized him in 1916 and forbade him to leave the country. For the rest of the war, he continued designing some of the most dangerous combat airplanes of the war, including the Dr.1 Dreidecker (made famous by Manfred von Richtofen, the "Red Baron") and the D.VII, the first airplane specifically designed for aerial combat. When the war ended, the D.VII was the only weapon the Treaty of Versailles specifically ordered to be destroyed.
Fokker foresaw the Allies’ demand that the Fokker factories be destroyed and fled to the Netherlands at the end of the war, where he reestablished his company with hundreds of smuggled planes and engines. There, he focused his attention on the need for a commercial airliner. He developed the F.2, which could carry four passengers in an enclosed cabin while cruising at 100 miles per hour (161 kilometers per hour). This aircraft became the forerunner for airliners used all over the world since then.
At the request of the American Army Air Service, Fokker developed the F.4 in 1920, which held 11 passengers. The F.4 set records for endurance, distance, and speed, peaking in 1922 with the first non-stop coast-to-coast flight, when Army Air Service pilots Oakley Kelly and John McReady flew from New York to San Diego, California, in 26 hours, 51 minutes.
Fokker established a company in the United States in 1924, the Atlantic Aircraft Company, which later became the General Aviation Corporation. There, he developed the Fokker F.7 Trimotor. Licenses to build the Trimotor were given to factories in seven countries as well as in Fokker’s U.S. plants. Juan Trippe’s Pan American Airways bought the Trimotor and other airlines followed. The Fokker Trimotor, along with the Ford Trimotor 4-AT, became the commercial airliner of the early years of aviation.
The Fokker Trimotor was also the airplane used for many pioneering flights. Admiral Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett flew a Fokker Trimotor named the Josephine Ford over the North Pole. Admiral Byrd also flew a Fokker Trimotor from New York to Paris six weeks after Charles Lindbergh’s famous transatlantic flight. Australian Charles Kingsford Smith flew a Trimotor from San Francisco to Australia. Amelia Earhart rode the Trimotor Friendship in 1928 to become the first woman passenger to fly across the Atlantic. The Fokker Trimotor also participated in the first air refueling, the first circumnavigation of the globe by airplane, and the first California-to-Hawaii flight.
In 1931, since he had enough work in the Netherlands, Fokker withdrew from activities in the United States. Americans also lost trust in his planes when an F.10 crashed in 1931 and killed the famous football coach Knute Rockne along with the rest of its passengers. In Europe he expanded the trimotor design to a larger airliner that could hold as many as 32 people. But his company continued to focus mainly on military aircraft. The T.9 bomber became the company’s first all-metal aircraft in 1939.
Fokker died prematurely in 1939 when he was 49 from an infection following nose surgery in a New York hospital. But the company and industry he built continued without him. Fokker is remembered for inventing the most dangerous early warplanes as well as the most reliable passenger airplanes. His combination of airmanship, craftsmanship, creativity, business acumen, and timing made him one of the most successful aircraft designers of all time.
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