Question about WW1 Aircraft, Has any Doper Pilot Flown One?

On the military channel yesterday they had a program on WW1 aviation. The show compared the flight characteristics of the Dr 1 triplane Vs the Sopwith Camel with an F-15 pilot giving some commentary. One thing the program stressed was that the planes were almost as dangerous to fly especially taking off and landing as they were in combat. I know there are several pilots on the board, have any of you ever flown a WW1 aircraft, are they really that difficult to control? I know originals are almost non existent, I am thinking of a replica. What do you think of the men you did fly them in combat in the great war are the skills needed just as great as an F-15 pilot would have to possess? It seems amazing only 12 years after Kitty Hawk men were flying airplanes in combat.

I’ve flown old aeroplanes but nothing that old. I’m pretty sure an F15 pilot needs much greater skills though. The old WWI aircraft had handling problems whereas modern fighters may have computers and fly-by-wire to make the pure handling more straight forward, bu modern aircraft require a complete range of skills to manage the aircraft and its systems. Old aeroplanes didn’t have “systems”.

I think there’s at least one ex modern era fighter pilot on here (LSLguy maybe?) They should be able to shed more light on the subject.

The oldest airplane I’ve flown is a 1942 Stearman, former military trainer. It represents significant technological advance over WWI type airplanes, but it was still a handful to handle on the ground when compared to, say, 1950 or 1960 era airplanes. It’s a completely different animal than designs from post 1970. I can well believe a WWI era airplane was cantankerous and yes, even dangerous, to handle on the ground or in the air.

Replicas seldom are the same in this regard. I’ve seen many replicas of that era of airplane and many of them incorporate modern knowledge to make them easier to handle, more balanced, more docile in stall, and better powered. These changes can be quite subtle and not apparent to the general public but make flying some of these replicas much easier and safer. Modern replicas also tend to incorporate modern materials, which can make the structure both lighter and stronger than the original design. There are some “pure” replicas out there with all the difficulties of the original but they’re pretty rare.

Keep in mind, too, that it was nothing unusual to send a new pilot into combat with only 10 or so hours of instruction - these days, a lot of people aren’t considered qualified to solo with those few hours, much less fight in a war. The primitive/low training also had an impact on fatality rates.

Hmmm. Where to begin …

Like Broomstick, I’ve flown Stearmans a bunch, as well as other 1940s & 1950s airplanes. Once in the air, they’re OK, but often they have unpleasant little habits. More annoying than dangerous. But you could definitely tell you were dealing with stone age tech. And landing any tailwheel airplane is about 3x harder than doing the same in a modern design.

My Dad, also a professional pilot, had the “privilege” of test flying some newly-built Nieuport 17 replicas. These had modern engines & a tailwheel instead of a skid. And a radial engine instead of a rotary. And reliable basic instruments like an airspeed indicator.

He was real glad when that job was over. Those airplanes were a handful. Crap stability, awful control harmony, etc. Extremely under powered & with a low max speed meant the usable airpseed envelope was very small.

Landing was a challenge due to landing gear that seemed made to order for amplifying bounces rather than absorbing them.

Trying to operate them in combat off a rutted farm field with guys who barely knew how to fly, and had to guess at their airspeed by the wind in their face, I’m not surprised lots of men & airplanes were lost to accidents.

Dad always said to never forget that any airplane only knows how to do one thing, and that’s kill you. And they’re all trying all the time. He did say the Nieuports tried a hell of lot harder than anything he’d ever flown. And that included most of the 1930s stuff up through early jet airliners (also a handful in their own way).

Turning to modern fighters …

The skill required to operate one effectively is massively greater than that required to fly a Nieuport. They’re just very different skills. I always likened flying fighters to ice hockey. Flying skills are to fighter pilots as skating skills are to hockey players. A good hockey player has to be able to accelerate, turn, swerve, skid to a stop, etc, all without thinking, because the game takes all his concentration. But even so, the better skater will usully be the better hockey player.

Jets are similar. I have to be able to operate my switchology, know my airspeed, altitude & vector, know my weapons envelopes, all without thinking. That leaves enough spare brain bytes for tracking the paths of all the players in the fight, good & bad, and deciding what to do to kill the other guy(s) before he/they decide what to do to kill me.

Modern jets make those subconscious tasks a bunch easier than they were in 1917. OTOH, the rest of the game has gotten a lot more complex. There were times I’ve wished for the simplicity of the “good old days”.

I’m not sure overall how much sense I’ve made. The OP’s questions are pretty far-ranging. In one sense combat is the same as it was when Ogg & Grogg first faced off with a rock & a big stick. Likewise, aviation is the same as it was in 1902. In other ways, so much is different …

I’d argue that any fighter jock nowadays has to have better skills based on several things:

  • Huge advance in technology means you have to be able to work the technology at the same time you’re flying, i.e., multitasking.
  • Speed. Things are happening much faster with jets than WWI era props, so the pilot is going to have to be better trained to have quicker reflexes and experience in recognizing what’s going on around him.
  • Systems knowledge. Huge disparity between a WWI fighter and a modern jet fighter. The systems knowledge you must retain, in addition to the huge laundry list of “bold face” (know-it-off-the-top-of-your-head) emergency procedures, takes at least a year, sometimes a couple, to master.
  • G forces. Modern fighter pilots need to be able to work (control the jet in addition to moving the head around) under huge loads. Not a player back then.

I’ve also heard that British pilots in WWI suffered chronic diarrhea because castor oil was used as a lubricant and produced a constant fine spray that the pilot couldn’t help breathing. Don’t know if that’s true, but it certainly couldn’t make the job any easier. (Not to mention freezing your ass off in an open cockpit.)

Interesting; what kind of G forces could you get if you put a Fokker or Camel in a sharp turn? Could you exceed material strengths and literally tear your ship apart?

(A couple of years ago there was a poorly-received movie about the Lafayette Escadrille, Flyboys. I know one criticism was that the computer-generated biplanes were doing things that were flatly impossible for those planes in real life. Too bad; the subject certainly deserves a great movie to be made.)

It is not hard to break a simple airplane with abrupt massive control inputs. Get a Fokker or Camel up to speed & yank the stick & the wings come off. Every time.

The max G the airplanes could take was low, (WAG 4-5G). The way a wood structure fails, repeated loads up near max could weaken it so the next moderate pull peels off a wing. They had no measured way to know how much they were pulling, nor did the builders have any way to know how much was too much. And production tolerances being what they were, each individual aircraft was different.

But for sure the max Gs you could pull once & survive are what we use now for warm up exercises.

I used to fly ZK-BCO, a de Havilland Tiger Moth that I believe was built in 1935*. Although it looks old, it’s quite advanced compared to a WWI fighter (it has swept wings!) My understanding is that the difficulties associated with flying very old fighters was mainly due to using rotary engines that put strong gyroscopic forces on the aircraft causing very uneven handling, not having a true throttle control and having to “blip” the engine (cutting the ignition) to control your speed and descent when landing, the lack of excess power available from the engine, and as Broomstick mentions, the relative lack of experience of the pilots.

The difference is probably similar on the civilian side of things. Back in the 40s and through the 50s airliners were often piston engined, underpowered, and required to navigate in crap weather using antiquated techniques that would make a modern pilot shake their heads. Now great advances in technology has made the flying side of it a lot easier (a modern pilot doesn’t have to fly the aircraft at all from just after take-off until after landing,) but that’s not to say that flying as a whole has become easier, the problem has just shifted from physically flying the aircraft to managing the flight and the aircraft systems. Those pilots who excelled in the 50s wouldn’t necessarily do so now, and vice versa.

*Now I fly a de Havilland built in 2007, the great name lives on!

There are a couple of things going on here.

First the airplanes sucked. We hardly knew how to make airplanes in 1920, so WWI airplanes were poorly designed. Also the material technology (doped fabric!) sucked. Also wartime standards of construction sucked.

Next, the training of pilots sucked. Although these guys were the high-tech jet jockeys of their era, there were thousands of them. You cannot have thousands of above-average pilots. Most of them were quite average. If you have people like me flying primate machines, you are going to have accidents.

Add to that that our understanding of the weather, of maintenance, of darn near everything was poor back then, and you have a recipe for disaster.

FInally add into that the whole “people shooting at you” thing and you can begin to see how dangerous flying was back in the day.

Thanks for all the intelligent responses you guys are the best! I have always been fascinated by those early aircraft, made from wood, fabric and glue held together by wires. Definitely a different set of skills needed for an F-15 but probably more physically changeling.

Some of you have flown Stearmans and Tiger Moths, that’s fantastic! So could Broomstick or LSLGuy fly a Sopwith Camel? Your training and experience would be superior to the early WW1 pilots. Would you want to?

Legally? Yes.

Would I just climb in and go? Certainly not.

Ideally I’d want to consult with/train with someone with actual experience in type, as well as research the flight characteristics of the Sopwith Camel. By “flight characteristics” I mean not only those shared by all of that model, but also any particular quirks of that particular airplane. Back when I had money to burn I made a bit of a hobby out of flying a wide range of airframes. As a general rule, the older they are the more quirky they are or the more attention required by the pilot to maintain control.

I’d think the average modern pilot is capable of flying such antiquated aircraft safely, but few would be motivated to do so. Aside from minimal to non-existant instrumentation and a much smaller and less forgiving flight envelope, flying open cockpit can be quite uncomfortable in anything but fair summer weather and a lot of people don’t like being that exposed. There’s no question (in my mind) that modern aircraft are both safer and easier to manage than those of WWI

In terms of wrestling with the controls, yes- but not when you consider the ridiculous G-loading that modern fighter pilots have to withstand.

I have flown* in *a biplane crop-duster, used as a search plane once. Noisy, windy. I think it was a WWI model that continued production after the War. DH4 clone?

It had some advantages over modern aircraft- if the power cut (and it did) you could glide into a safe landing on a spot that looked hankerchief sized. (We didn’t have to land, thank gawd, he got the engine restarted). Many modern planes could do neither. Since it was built as a trainer (or a bomber), it was quite stable, as biplanes go.

Please forgive another question, early aircraft were mostly biplanes, why? Also if biplanes have an advantage why don’t we see any today?

They have an advantage in manuverability at low speeds. In exchange, they had lower speeds. Early airplnes often needed the extra lift and at speeds under 100MPH were not that concerned with drag.

Part of it is to do with wing strength. If a Sopwith Camel had been designed as a monoplane the wings would need to be significantly longer to produce the same lift as the biplane configuration but there’d be fewer ways you could brace the wing with wires. Biplanes have wires extending from the fuselage to each wing and between the wings themselves to provide extra strength. Later production techniques allowed strong wings to be built without wire bracing and so monoplanes started appearing, so the main advantage of a biplane has been rendered obsolete. Biplanes have several disadvantages such as high drag meaning low maximum speeds and poor visibility with two sets of wings obscuring the pilots view.

On your question about whether we could fly one, the Australian rules have class endorsements which means you get checked out on a class of aeroplane rather than a specific model, so legally I can fly any single engine aircraft lighter than 5700 kg with a tailwheel (there are some exceptions*.) The reality is that the owner of any aircraft will want to go for a check ride with you particularly if you’ve never flown that model before, in many cases this is also an insurance requirement. The other trick is finding someone with a Camel who’ll let you fly it, people tend to be quite protective of old expensive aircraft. Once you start flying old aeroplanes you’ll get invited to fly more old aeroplanes, but breaking into that aviation scene is not easy.

*High powered WWII aircraft often need a separate endorsement and aircraft larger than 5700 kg need an endorsement for each type.

Biplanes made sense when we did not have the materials to make strong stiff wings. Biplane wings form a nice strong box. The upper wing stiffens the lower and visa versa. That is why the few modern biplanes still have a strut, for strength.

But of course early biplanes had a lot of struts, wires, turnbuckles and whatnot. All of these things add drag all to hell.

Then, even as you increase power (and speed) you begin to have problems with biplane interference. (One wing will warp upward more than another and that is a Bad Thing.) So if you have modern materials to make your plane, biplanes offer few advantages.