The Société Pour L’Aviation et ses Dérivés (SPAD) was created in 1913, a consortium led by aviation pioneer Louis Blériot. SPAD made aircraft using an automotive engine, the Hispano Suiza liquid cooled V-8, initially under small contracts from both the Russian and the French air services. Eventually, the SPAD VII was a big success, with about 3,500 built, while the SPAD XIII, introduced in April 1917, was the crown jewel of the firm with 8,472 produced, about 900 of which were sold to the U.S. Army. The SPAD XIII’s engine developed up to 220 hp, the aircraft’s top speed was 135 mph, its range was 171 miles, it could fly up to 21,000 ft. and its rate of climb was 384 ft. per minute.
The SPAD XIII was similar to the other high-performing aircraft developed at the same stage of the war, the British Royal Aircraft Factory SE-5a and the German Fokker D VII, in that each used a powerful liquid cooled in-line engine with a geared propeller. These aircraft were heavier but faster, more durable and easier to fly than the previous generation of planes such as the Nieuport types, the Sopwiths and the Fokker Triplanes. They firmly established that the best fighter planes tended to have the biggest engines.
Although the French Aces Lt. René Fonck (75 planes shot down) and Capt. Georges Guynemer (53 planes) both finished their service in SPAD XIII’s, perhaps the most famous SPAD was flown by U.S. Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker (26 planes). Rickenbacker was a well-known race car driver before the war (drove the Indy 500 four times) but was turned down for flight training because he lacked a college background and at 27 was too old (the cut-off age was 25). Instead he was assigned as an aircraft mechanic.
After he got to France, he wangled a re-assignment as a GHQ staff driver (he even drove Pershing a few times) and badgered Col. Billy Mitchell until he was allowed into flight school at Issoudun, which course he completed in 17 days, and was then assigned to the 94th Aero Squadron, first flying a Nieuport 28. He shot down six German aircraft before transitioning to the SPAD XIII in July 1918. In September 1918 he took over as the CO of the squadron, and by November 11th he had flown over 300 hours in patrols and survived 134 encounters with the enemy.
The 94th posted a modestly respectable record of 52 planes (and 12 balloons) destroyed in 8 months with 8 Aces. By comparison, the famous No. 56 Squadron RFC (later RAF) destroyed 402 German planes in 29 months with 22 Aces and the Red Baron’s Jasta 11 accounted for 350 planes in 22 months and had 31 Aces. The 94th exists today, flying F-22 Raptors out of Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia.
In his 1919 book about his war service, Fighting the Flying Circus , which title was a bit of poetic license, as the 94th and The Flying Circus (JG1) served in different sectors, Rickenbacker recounted how he once proposed to GHQ that he be allowed to form a squadron of race car drivers, only to have the idea turned down flat. One reason given was that racers ‘knew too much about engines’ and ‘wouldn’t fly a plane if they thought that the engine wasn’t performing well’.
Rickenbacker received six Distinguished Service Crosses and four Silver Star for his exploits. One of his DSC’s was later upgraded to the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1931. He had a long and eventful career after WW1, not relevant here, and lived until age 82.
Some SPAD XIII’s soldiered on until the 1930’s, in the service of Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Czechoslovakia, Finland, France, Greece, Poland, Siam, Spain, Turkey and Uruguay. There are about six original SPAD XIII’s remaining today, including the one pictured above, which is on static display at the Royal Military Museum in Brussels, Belgium. One restored original is airworthy and located at La Ferté-Alais in France. There are many replicas extant, a lot of these are slightly scaled-down, and most of them are airworthy. One flying replica, an atypical full-sized version, is at The Vintage Aero Flying Museum near Ft. Lupton, CO.
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