The Fokker D-VII fighter plane appeared in the skies of the Western Front in May 1918, and immediately became dominant when flown by experienced pilots. Unfortunately for the German war effort, Fokker couldn’t make the planes fast enough and there were never enough veteran pilots.
Historically considered to be the work of the charismatic Dutch-born engineer Antony Fokker, modern scholars attribute the design of the D-VII to his assistant Rheinhold Platz. Fokker certainly wasn’t shy about taking credit for everything that came out of his company; his claim to be the inventor of the synchronized machine gun was disputed in a German court after the war (Fokker lost).
About 3,300 D-VII’s were built, some even after the war in Switzerland and Hungary, and the type was still in service in the 1930’s, having served with fourteen different air services.
Two proto-types were test flown by the Red Baron himself in early 1918, although he died a few weeks before the first D-VII reached his Jastas.
The earliest models had the 160 hp Mercedes D.IIIa, which was soon replaced by the higher-compression 175 hp Mercedes D.IIIaü and finally by the ‘over-compressed’ 185 hp BMW IIIa, the first engine produced by BMW. The D-VII’s that were made in Hungary had a 197 hp Austro-Daimler engine that was designed by the young Ferdinand Porsche, but didn’t match the BMW IIIa in performance.
D-VII’s with the BMW engines had a so-so top speed of 124 mph and ceiling of 20,000 feet but the rate of climb was a blistering 1,874 feet per minute, which far outclassed the French SPAD XIII (384 ft./min.) and the British SE-5a (754 ft./min.) as well as the Sopwith Camel (1,085 ft./min) and the Fokker DR1 triplane (1,130 ft./min.), which meant that the D-VII pilot could climb out of almost any situation that he didn’t like.
The D-VII had a fuselage frame made from welded steel tubing, a design pioneered by the Fokker company, which was lighter and much stronger than wood, so the D-VII pilot could dive without fear of structural failure. The D-VII was noted for its high maneuverability, its ability to climb at high angles of attack, its remarkably docile stall and its reluctance to spin. It could literally “hang on its prop” without stalling for brief periods of time, shooting enemy aircraft from underneath. These handling characteristics contrasted favorably with Allied fighters such as the Sopwith Camel, which had a bad tendency to spin and the SPAD XIII, which could stall abruptly.
Perhaps no source can better express the tremendous regard that the Allies had for the Fokker D-VII than this article of the “Conditions of an Armistice with Germany”, signed by Germany on November 8th, 1918:
- Surrender in good condition by the German Armies of the following war material:
5,000 guns (2,500 heavy, 2,500 field).
25,000 machine guns.
3,000 trench mortars.
1,700 fighting and bombing aeroplanes-in the first place, all D7’s and all night-bombing aeroplanes.
Most of the surrendered D-VII’s were promptly destroyed by the Allies.
Leading German Aces who spent time in a D-VII included Ernst Udet (72 victories), Erich Löwenhardt (54), Josef Jacobs (48), Fritz Rumey (45), Rudolf Berthold (44 – the last 16 after losing an arm), Bruno Loerzer (44), Paul Bäumer (43), Franz Büchner (40) and the Red Baron’s little brother Lothar von Richthofen (40) . All of these men were awarded Imperial Germany’s most prestigious decoration, the Pour le Mérite Cross, and seven of them survived the war.
Successful fighter pilots tended to be popular figures and none of these Aces was more flamboyant than Udet, a womanizer who was nevertheless so dedicated to his childhood sweetheart Eleonore Zink that he painted her diminutive name ‘LO’ in large letters on the sides of his aircraft (they married in 1920 and divorced in 1923). His plane also bore an in-your-face challenge to his opponents on the tail.
Udet spent the post-war years doing various interesting things: he was a stunt pilot, a movie scene pilot, an air show performer, an air racer, an airmail pilot, an African bush pilot and an aircraft manufacturer. Aside from a few dust-ups with Communists in 1919 he stayed out of politics, and spent a lot of time outside of Germany. In 1933, in defiance of the Versailles Treaty, Germany re-created their air force, naming it the Luftwaffe (literal translation “Air Weapon”). Udet soon joined and worked his way up to be the Director-General of Equipment, in charge of aircraft design and procurement. Having left the Imperial German Air Service upon its dissolution as an Oberleutnant, at his death he was a Luftwaffe Generaloberst.
Today there are seven original D-VII’s on static display in Europe, Canada and the U.S. There are also several reproductions, many in flying condition (including one at the Vintage Aero Flying Museum at Ft. Lupton, CO) and there are even a couple of reproductions with an authentic Mercedes D.IIIaü engine.