Lambert & Butler Aviation Card #4 – Etrich Monoplane.

History Behind The Card: Etrich Monoplane.

Card #4 of 25, Lambert & Butler Cigarettes, Aviation series 1915

  • Igo (Ignaz) Etrich, December 25, 1879, in Trutnov, Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) – February 4, 1967, Salzburg, Austria;
  • Alfred Friedrich, March 18, 1891, Schöneberg, Berlin, Germany – October 13, 1968, Bad Kissingen, Bavaria, Germany.

Despite the very lovely artwork on this Lambert & Butler Aviation series card, I’m not going to write too much more about – mostly because I have already in full detail HERE on a Wills’s Aviation series card No. 63.

However, because of what is written on the reverse of this Lambert & Butler card, I will add a wee bit more to the story… or to A story. Here’s the reverse of the card:

Just in case, I’ll write out the contents of the card’s description for you: The Etrich was the first of the German machines known as the Taube, all of which are more or less built on this plan, with the back swept wings, from which they derive their name of Taube or Dove. The particular machine here shown had just been flown over from Germany to France by Herr Friedrich, with Herr Etrich as passenger.

What I like about the descriptions of the aircraft on these Lambert & Butler cards, is that the author often tries to tell a story… to make the reader feel as though they are in the thick of the action. In this case, we learn that the Etrich monoplane (the Dove) has JUST been flown over “here” in France.

What I don’t like, however, is the lack of a first name for those involved. However, it’s only a minor inconvenience, as Herr (Mr.) Friedrich, is actually Alfred Friedrich, and as I’ll show soon enough, a decent enough pilot. Herr (Mr.) Etrich, of course, is the aeroplane’s designer and manufacturer, one Igo (Ignaz) Etrich.

As noted above, Etrich was born in Bohemia… which is a part of the Czech Republic… but the actual town in Bohemia – Trutnov – well… here’s what Wikipedia says: Trutnov is located on a 12th-century Slavic settlement named after the Úpa River; the first written mention of this settlement is from 1260. In order to develop the countryside, King Wenceslaus I of Bohemia granted German settlers the right to establish a town at the pre-existing settlement. The first mention of the German name Trautenau, from which the modern name Trutnov is derived, is from a document of King Wenceslaus II in 1301. Since the end of the 14th century, Trutnov was a dowry town for the Bohemian queen (Killer! – Andrew’s attempt at humor). Its stout defenses repelled all enemies except for a capture by Jan Žižka during the Hussite Wars in 1421 and sieges by the Swedes during the Thirty Years’ War in 1642 and 1647. It also was the site of the Battle of Trautenau in 1866 during the Austro-Prussian War.

Additionally: Germans were the ethnic majority in the town until their expulsion in 1945.

Y’see… I was originally upset that they (Lambert & Butler) called Mr. Etrich “Herr” – a German term, when he wasn’t actually German… but I suppose that even back then, regardless of where one’s born, where the family came from decades, nay, centuries ago, holds more sway. Kindda like how some people want to blame American Asians for Covid-19, forgetting that they are Americans, and not Chinese… and even then, they chose to leave the Asiatic area. So… Bohemian, Czech he may have been born, but German he was.

Let’s forget racialized politics for a second, and let’s look at Alfred Friedrich – sort of… eventually.

Alfred Friedrich in his German military uniform, circa 1917.

Like most things involved with the Lambert & Butler card series, I can’t dig out a whole lot of information on the people involved – for instance, with Friedrich, I have no idea what his life was like prior to 1912, when he was 21, going on 22!

We do know that he received his pilot’s license on January 11, 1912 – No. 149 from the German Flyers’ Union after being taught by Gustav Witte. Witte had only received his pilot’s license (No. 97) the year before on August 22, 1911. After Witte earned his certificate, he opened up his own aviation school in Teltow, Germany in cooperation with Flugmaschine Wright GmbH. Before going in to aviation, Witte had been a postman, and afterwards, was known to the populace of Berlin as “the flying postman”.

After earning his pilot’s license, he entered in the Johannisthal aviation competition held September 24 to October 1, 1911, and earned third place – despite flying an older Wright aircraft that he himself had reworked.

Witte also performed a night flight on March 5, 1912, flying by moon light. Night flying wasn’t really something the early aviators cared to do, so this flight was a bit of a daring effort.

Lastly, Witte held a flight demonstration on March 15, 1912 for some school children. Aww. However, it was a fairly windy day – and the smart money back then was to not bet your aeroplane could handle aggressive winds – but Witte didn’t want to let the kiddies down. Sadly for all, Witte’s aeroplane went into an uncontrollable dive from 50 meters (164 feet) up, killing him.

Despite the relative inexperience and bad fortune of his aviation teacher Friedrich had better success. For example, in December of 1912, he flew a Rumpler Pigeon – a two-seater monoplane for five hours continuously, setting a then-record flight for time aloft in a heavier-than-air craft.

Rumpler-Luftfahrzeugbau GmbH, Rumpler-Werke aka Rumpler, was a German aircraft and automobile manufacturer founded in Berlin by Austrian engineer Edmund Rumpler in 1909 as Rumpler Luftfahrzeugbau. The company originally manufactured copies of the Etrich Taube monoplane under the Rumpler Taube trademark, but turned to building reconnaissance biplanes of its own design through the course of the First World War, in addition to a smaller number of fighters and bombers.

So… there’s our initial tie-in between Etrich and Friedrich.

Now… you’ll notice that the Etrich aeroplane noted above is something called a “Pigeon”, while contemporary naming of the aircraft manufactured by Etrich is “Dove”. Po-tay-toe — poh-tah-toe. Same aircraft – heck, same bird re: scientific nomenclature.

Here, for your edification is a WW1 version of the underside of a Etrich Taube/Dove monoplane. By the time of the war, the plane was far too slow in maneuverability, and became known more as a trainer craft for would-be pilots. Obviously the paint job really drives home the whole “bird” look.

Back to Friedrich… in September of 1912, he completed the very first corkscrew (controlled spin) maneuver – yeah, in an aeroplane similar to the one above. Apparently, the spin was done on purpose. So, a first for our boy Friedrich.

Later that month, Friedrich, along with navigator Hermann Elias, performed a five country flight in the Etrich Taube. Pretty sure no corkscrews were performed at that time.

As for what Friedrich was doing for money at this time – no idea. I suspect he was still manufacturing and selling the Taube aeroplanes – perhaps showing the aircraft’s versatility by piloting his own metal bird.

We do know that he became the chief pilot for the main Rumpler-Flugzeugwerke company in Berlin as of April 1, 1914.

A few months later in June, Friedrich performed the first flight over the Balkan Mountains with a passenger – which was a big deal, because it also demonstrated the superiority of German aviation engineering. Ja, das is gut (Thank-you Hogan’s Heroes).

War broke out on July 28, 1914 – it had been brewing for some while, of course – but Germany still did not have an air force, as such. So he joined up as a contract employee, flying in Feldfliegerabteilung 14 performing reconnaissance flying over Eastern Prussia in September.

But thanks to his work, he was awarded a pair of Iron Crosses, and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, albeit in the military reserve, as he maintained his contract employee status.

On August 1, 1915, with The Great War (aka WW1) in full tilt, Friedrich became the head of the Döberitz Aviation School in Döberitz, Germany, where both Oswald Boelcke (see HERE) and the Red Baron – Manfred von Richthofen (see HERE) would attend before flying for Germany. Obviously, Friedrich taught aviation well, as because Boelcke ended up with 40 victories and von Richthofen had 80!

On January 1, 1916 (and because he was still only a contracted employee by Germany’s military), he was given leave to train pilots for the Bulgaria military, which he did for the ensuing six months. Following that, from the summer of 1916 through to the end of the war (November 11, 1918), he worked as a pilot for the Berlin Albatros company.

At the war’s conclusion, Friedrich started his own engineering company – and because he was mostly interested om light aircraft construction, the company gained a level of success when it began developing sport and training aircraft.

Germany’s Hanns Klemm and the Englishman Geoffrey de Havilland (yes, THE de Havilland) were two of his customers, as Friedrich contributed significantly to the de Havilland D.H. 60 Moth aircraft.

The success of his sport and training craft made Friedrich quite popular in Germany, and he became the head of the German branch of the de Havilland Aircraft Company in Berlin-Tempelhof in 1926.

After the Alte Adler association was founded in September 1927, he managed it with Walter Mackenthun until the beginning of World War II.

In 1929, he married Lore Gronau (1908-2002) – later Lore Friedreich-Groneau, an artist who would be come very well known for her sculptures. While I do not possess any sculptures (I used to be able to afford paintings and pottery), I do appreciate the skill required to produce a fine art piece. Below are two examples of the very talented Lore Friedrich-Gronau’s work: 

The Minstrel Fountain, a bronze sculpture created in 1965 by Lore Friedrich-Groneau – located at Bad-Kissingen town hall square in Germany.

Here, Lore Friedrich-Gronau works on one of her clay sculptures in 1940, a wonderful flowing dancer statuette.

Just after Hitler came to power, in 1934 Friedrich opened up an aircraft repair facility for light aircraft in Strausberg, Germany – primarily for airplane manufacturers Heinkel and the Klemm Leichtflugzeugbau GmbH (aka the Klemm Light Aircraft Company).

In nearby Berlin (about 30 kilometers – 18.65 miles – west of Strausberg), there were a great many aviation schools and personal flyers – so there was always a need for repairs, meaning business was good. It allowed Friedrich to purchase a neighboring closed electrical and waterworks facility that he used to increase his repair shop footprint. He then purchased a 500 meter (1,640 foot) long field north of the town where he constructed a final assembly hall for the aircraft.

Damaged airplanes would be transported to the site via the Strausberg Railway to a constructed rail siding, where Friedrich and his 250-plus crew would disassemble the aircraft and repair it under the supervision of Germany’s Reich Aviation Ministry.

Because of his service to Germany’s aviation industry (even though it was just for sport and leisure aircraft, the Reich Aviation Ministry attempted to get Friedrich a position within Germany’s Air Force – but to no avail.

Still, during WWII, the company would work on damaged Messerschmidt Me 163 Komet aircraft – the only rocket-powered fighter aircraft ever to have been operational and the first piloted aircraft of any type to exceed a speed of 1,000 kilometers (631.4 miles) per hour in level flight.

However… this is me amending things. Take a look below in the “Comments” section for a LOC from Bernard, who quite rightly takes me to task for some “crappy” info I have here on the Komet. Thanks, Bernard!

Apparently the Komet’s landings were usually rough, causing the aircraft to need repairs constantly.

When the war ended, and Germany was in tatters, the assembly hall was torn down in 1946-47.

An example of a Messerschmidt ME 163B Komet. Photo:

Messerschmidt ME 163 B Specifications:

  • Crew: 1;
  • Wingspan: 9.3 meters (30 feet 6 inches);
  • Length: 5.7 meters (18 feet 8 inches);
  • Height: 2.5 meters (8 feet 2 inches);
  • Empty weight: 1,905 kilograms (4,200 pounds);
  • Loaded weight (maximum): 4,309 kilograms (9,500 pounds);
  • Powerplant: 1 x Helmuth Walter Kiel Kommandogesellschaft HWK 109-509 A, bi-propellant liquid rocket engine;
  • Engine power: 3,307 pounds thrust;
  • Maximum speed: 900 kilometers per hour (560 miles per hour);
  • Ceiling: 15.1 kilometers (49,543 feet);
  • Armament: 2 x 30mm (1.181 inch) Rheinmetall Borsig MK 108 cannon with 60 rpg OR 2 x 20mm (0.787 inch) MG 151/20 cannon with 100 rpg

After the war, I don’t have any information on Friedrich. His wife was successful, and perhaps he managed to profit during the war…

Which brings us to the end of this story, er, this Lambert & Butler Aviation series card. The next card in this series will be about a British dirigible.

Posted in Aeroplane Factories, Firsts, Flying Schools, Heavier-Than-Air, Motors and Engines, People, Pilots, Rockets, Tobacco Card, WWI | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Lambert & Butler Aviation Card #3 – Nieuport Hydro-Monoplane.

History Behind The Card: Nieuport Hydro-Monoplane.

Card #3 of 25, Lambert & Butler Cigarettes, Aviation series 1915

  • Édouard de Nié Port, aka Édouard Nieuport, August 24, 1875, in Blida, Algeria – September 16, 1911, Charny-sur-Meuse, France;
  •  Charles de Nié Port, aka Charles Nieuport, August 4, 1878, Lagny (Ile-de-France), France – January 24, 1913, Etampes, France;
  • Pierre Georges Albert Levasseur, July 16, 1890 in Paris, France – August 2, 1941, Paris, France;
  • Paul Aristide Gustave Delage, March 8, 1883 in Limoges, France – April 20, 1946, Paris, France;
  • Charles Terres Weymann, August 2, 1889, Port-au-Prince, Haiti – August x, 1976, France (yes, no one knows WHEN someone died in 1976 – perhaps it was because no one found the body for a while. It happened to a friend of mine… dead for at least two weeks… )

This is the third article on the 25-card Aviation series issued in 1913 by Lambert & Butler Cigarettes, a branch of the Imperial Tobacco Company (of Great Britain & Ireland) Ltd.

Unlike the second card of this series, we are chock full of information on the people involved in this card, but as usual, the description of the actual aeroplane is sparse enough to make me question just WHICH Nieuport Hydro-Monoplane the card is referring to. As such, a bit of research (a non-sarcastic yay!) is required.


Above is the reverse of the card. In case you are unable to read the type, here it is:

Nieuport Hydro-Monoplane.

This machine follows closely on the land machines built by the Brothers Nieuport, whose tragic deaths within so short intervals was a great loss to the science of aviation. The main floats are made of cypress, the top of them covered with canvas. The engine is a 100-h.p. Gnome, and this picture was taken just after the machine had been flown from the Continent by M. Levasseur.

The trick to determining just which Nieuport Hydro-Monoplane (it could be one of two types within the general time frame of the cigarette card’s production), is just when exactly M. Levasseur (Mister Pierre Levasseur) brought the aircraft over from France (the continent) to England (where the tobacco card was produced – that’s my best guess).

As a guess, I may be wrong. If anyone out there is an expert on Nieuport hydro plane craft, and sees I am in error, let me know, and I’ll amend citing you here.

So, until someone tells me otherwise, I believe that the aeroplane mentioned in this tobacco card is the Nieuport VI G hydro monoplane, built in 1912 – not the Nieuport IV G hydro monoplane for the simple reason that the IV (four) G hydro monoplane has wheels still attached to the undercarriage, while the image on the card does not have any wheels showing – ergo, a VI (six) G hydro monoplane. This information is from the book: Les premiers NIEUPORT à flotteurs by Gérard Hartmann (More on his great research below). Also, why would the tobacco card show an older model hydro aircraft (the IV – four), when a newer model (the VI – six) would have been available at the time of the tobacco card’s production? It wouldn’t.

Specifications of the Nieuport VI G hydro monoplane (per Jane’s All The World’s Aircraft 1913):

  • Length: 8.75 metres (28.7 feet) – Per Jane’s; 
  • Wingspan: 12.35 metres (40.5 feet);
  • Area (supporting surface): 24 metres squared (258.3 square feet);
  • Weight, Empty: 505 kilograms (1,113.33 pounds), including motor;
  • Weight, Take-off: 795 kilograms (1752.67 pounds);
  • Motor(s): Gnome motors of various sizes from 80 up to 160 horsepower;
  • Speed: 120 kilometres per hour (74.6 miles per hour) with a 100 horsepower Gnome motor.

Okay… let’s see what we can find out about the gentlemen involved in the construction of this beast!

Let’s begin with the lesser-known brother, one Charles Nieuport. While other websites state different information, the Cycling Archives ( states that his place of death was in Méréville (Lorraine), France – which is immediately south and a bit west of where other websites say it was Etampes, France. The birth date and death date information appears otherwise correct.

So… what else do we know about the erstwhile brother, Charles? Bugger all. No… really. I’ll get to the circumstances of his death later in this article, but as to his life, we can suppose he worked alongside his older brother Édouard. We could infer that he was also a smart man, but was he an inventor like Édouard? Historical evidence does not bear that out.

Sorry, Charles, but I’m going to move on to Mister Pierre Georges Albert Levasseur. Look… he’s a pilot, and a fine one, but he’s not really pertinent to the story behind the card. If you want a bit of information, click HERE.

So let’s move on to Édouard Nieuport, born in Blida, Algeria, in what was then a French colony. The French had begun colonization of Algeria in 1830 – or what the people of Algeria would know as when the French invaded their country on July 5, 1830. The invasion was to aid the French colonists already in the country, which must have come as a surprise to other colonists from Italy, Malta and Spain. I know… where the hell were the real Algerians? They were there, but under the boot of various European “friendlies”.

Édouard Nieuport, September 22, 1910, from the Collection Jules Beau via Wikipedia. Photographie sportive : T. 35. Années 1908, 1909 et 1910 / Jules Beau. DOES anyone have a photo of his brother Charles?

Anyhow, the point is that THIS is why Nieuport is considered to be a Frenchman. His father was an officer in the French army stationed in Algeria. As for his mother? I have no idea if she was a transplanted French person or whether she was someone his father met in Algeria. Regardless, no idea as to her background. I state this just so you know that I did try, but since the information is not critical to THIS story, I didn’t really do a deep dive. My challenge to you? … 

Wikipedia doesn’t have much information on Édouard, but thanks to the research by Gérard Hartmann via his Les premiers NIEUPORT à flotteurs (, he can say that he was a good student and ready to attend a higher learning school, when he opted instead to concentrate on his passion for bicycles while taking courses on electricity when he could.

As a bicycle racer, Nieuport won the 1897 Zimmermannen Prize and was considered to be a pretty good racer in grand prix events in 1898. 

In 1902, Nieuport founded his Nieuport-Duplex business in Hauts-de-Seine (outskirts of Paris, France) to manufacture magnetos, spark plugs and accumulators for automobiles, garnering André Citroën as a client. He did this until 1908.

If you are wondering what a magneto is: it provides current for an ignition system of a spark-ignition engine (like what is used in gas engines), producing pulses of high voltage for the spark plugs. (FYI, this can also be used in aeroplane engines.) The accumulator is used to protects the system components, such as providing compressor protection and preventing compressor failure due to liquid slugging.

Because these automobile (and motorcycle) parts were be scavenged those in the early era of heavier-than-air aviation, it should come as no surprise that aeroplane designer (and pilot) Léon Levavasseur used the Nieuport-Duplex ignition system on his Antoinette aeroplane motors.

This is why, when on March 15, 1907, Charles Voisin was able to fly a Delagrange-Archdeacon biplane (built by Voisin) utilizing an Antoinette motor that featured a Nieuport-Duplex ignition system as the first gas-powered aeroplane flight in France for a then amazing 80 meters (262.5 feet) at Bagatelle, France where stewards of the Aero-Club de France were in attendance. Holy crap, that was a lot of name-dropping.

On March 30, 1907 Léon Delagrange used the same motor and ignition system to perform a 200 metre (656 feet) flight. Louis Blériot used the Antoinette motor and ignition system on his Blériot monoplane to fly 100 metres (328 feet) plus on July 25. Henry Farman flew 285 metres (935 feet) and the 770 metres (2526.3 feet) on October 15 and 26, respectively in a Voisin 1907 model (per Jane’s 1913 edition, it is listed as the Voisin II) biplane using the motor and ignition system. I stand corrected… now that paragraph contains a lot of name-dropping.

Suffice to say, Nieuport’s dynamic design and engineering of parts was key to the success of many an early aviator, and to the success of the Antoinette motor.  

On January 13, 1908, the same day Henry Farman won the Archdeacon Prize for his one-kilometer flight at Issy-les-Moulineaux, Edouard and his brother Charles Nieuport (with money coming from a supporter), turned the Nieuport-Duplex electrical equipment company into one specific to aviation, renaming it Société Générale d’Aéro-Locomotion (SGAL).

At this time, the Nieuport brothers did not begin to manufacture of their own design, rather would construct aeroplanes based upon the design of others – for those that lacked the space or equipment to do so themselves. IE: third-party manufacturing.

In 1909, Édouard purchased his own aircraft, a Voisin 1907 model (likely) so that he could learn to fly. From this aircraft, and from the others his company built for other aircraft designers, we can guess that Édouard came up with designs to construct his own aircraft.

However, not merely content with creating an aeroplane for standard usage, he wanted to create one a sportsman like himself would enjoy – something fast and sleek.

And no… this isn’t the aeroplane on the cigarette card… we’ll get to that after a wee bit, okay? Okay.

Nieuport I

The Spider, aka the Nieuport I in 1909. I’m going to guess that the pilot is Édouard Nieuport, and the well-dressed mustachioed fellow on the left is brother Charles. From the Air Museum.

First up, the Nieuport I, nicknamed “The Spider”, built at the end of 1909. This aircraft was a very light monoplane, weighing a mere 195 kilograms (430 pounds) including the motor. (Based on additional data immediately below, we can state that the motor weighed 60 kilograms or 132.3 pounds).

Using an Automobiles Darracq France motor capable of about 18-20 horsepower, the machine was said to have been able to fly up to 70 kilometers per hour (43.5 miles per hour). However, when the Seine River flooded in January of 1910, The Spider was destroyed.

Other specifications, include:

  • Length: 6 metres (19.7 feet);
  • Wing Width: 7 metres (23 feet);
  • Surface Area: 12 m2 (129.2 square feet);
  • Weight (Less Motor): 135 kilograms (297.6 pounds).

Nieuport II

Nieuport II with a 28 horsepower Darracq motor with a twin tail fuselage, at Mourmelon-le-Grand, France in early 1910. The sheds in the background clearly denote “Bleriot School” (of flying). From the MAE.

Undaunted, the SGAL rebuilt their aircraft into the more sturdy Nieuport II, upon which Édouard received his pilot’s certificate No. 105 from the Aéro-Club de France on June 10, 1910. The Nieuport II was a small, single-seater monoplane. The fuselage was constructed of four ash spars connected by fir struts stiffened with piano wire. The entire fuselage was covered in canvas. As well, the pilot was better protected from the slipstream, and the aircraft had a horizontal tail to provide a downward aerodynamic force. The tail also helped balance the weight of the engine ahead of the center of gravity. Contemporaries relied on an upward aerodynamic force. Keeping with sleekness, the Nieuport II also had sleek downward sloping wings.

Specifications of the Nieuport II

  • Length: 7.15 metres (23.5 feet);
  • Wing Span: 8.65 metres (28.4 feet);
  • Surface Area: 15 m2 (161.5 square feet);
  • Weight WITH Motor: 240 kilograms (529.1 pounds);
  • Take-off Weight: 350 kilograms (771.6 pounds);
  • Top Speed: 115 kilometers per hour (71.5 miles per hour).

Nieuport II Variants (N & G types)

Thanks to the popularity of the type II monoplane’s popularity, SGAL continued to work on the aeroplane, adding a better stabilizer for the rear was installed, thereby creating the type II N model, which was first exhibited at the December 1910 Air Show in France.

Early tests on the Nieuport II N showed the 18 horsepower Darracq motor pushing the aircraft to a top speed of 84.4 kilometers per hour (52.4 miles per hour)… a lot slower than the standard II. The Nieuport brothers modified the Darracq twin cylinder motor to 130 mm bore and 135 mm stroke, creating 28 (hot) to 32 (cold) horsepower at 1,300 rpms, turning a 2.02 meter Regy propeller.

On March 9, 1911, Édouard piloted the Nieuport II N monoplane used the same motor with a Nieuport-designed propeller, this time reaching a top speed of 109.9 kilometers per hour (68.29 miles per hour). On May 21, 1911, and back to the Regy propeller, the aircraft achieved a world speed record of 119.68 kilometers per hour (74.37 miles per hour).

This speedy aircraft was offered up for sale to the public for a princely sum of 18,000 francs – which is a bugger to compute into today’s dollars, so let’s just say it is around US$232,000. A lot of money, meaning I ain’t getting one now or 110 years ago. Especially since I wasn’t born yet. Sorry. Anyhow, this version of the aircraft comes with the 30-horsepower Nieuport motor – hence the N designation for the model, with some 60 aircraft sold.

The next variant, is the Nieuport II G, which uses the seven-cylinder rotary Gnome motor… with several variants of the motor – though the aircraft are still denoted as II G. The II G was a two-seater with front cowling and a redesigned tail. It, too, is a light and fast aircraft.

Using a seven-cylinder 50 horsepower Gnome, the II G was being sold for 25,000 francs (~US$320,000 in 2021 money), and was flying at a speed of 125 kilometers per hour (77.7 miles per hour); the seven-cylinder 70 or 80 horsepower Gnome model was offered at 28,000 francs (~US$361,000 in 2021 money), and reaching a speed of 135 kilometers per hour (83.9 miles per hour); and the 14-cylinder Gnome motor pushing 100 horsepower was being sold for 36,000 francs (~US$464,000 in 2021 money), reaching speeds in excess of 145 kilometers per hour (90.1 miles per hour). At least that was how they were sold – speeds were estimated to be achieved by any daredevil sportsman pilot.

How fast were these Nieuport II G variants? Well, on June 12, 1911, pilot Alfred Leblanc flew a Blériot XI aircraft using a 100 horsepower Gnome motor reaching a speed of 125 kilometers per hour (77.7 miles per hour) – reclaiming the speed record.

Four days later, Édouard Nieuport flew his Nieuport II G using a 50 horsepower Gnome motor in excess of 133 kilometers per hour (82.6 miles per hour). The Nieuport aircraft used smaller motors and lighter fuselage et al to create a much more speedy and lithe aircraft – the sportsman’s dream.

Nieuport III prototype

Now, I should mention that it wasn’t all peaches and cream for the Nieuport boys. Back on December 30, 1910 (the previous year), the SGAL’s financial backer, a Jacques Nompar de Caumont la Force, was killed while testing out the Nieuport III prototype. De Caumont was an experienced pilot, having earned his Aéro-Club de France aviator’s certificate no. 156. The aircraft’s tailplane broke during the flight. And yes, while it was terrible to have lost a friend, the SGAL then became distressed financially after losing their backer.

Needless to say, plans to construct the III were abandoned – hence nothing to see here – but its design did lead into the type IV – sort of.. at least forward to its name. Sorry… no photo of this aeroplane could I find.

Nieuport IV

The Nieuport IV was developed soon after the III, and was flown early in 1911. It was identical in looks as the type II aircraft – except the IV was larger… much larger, and could now seat up to three people, including the pilot.


Nieuport IV.G in RFC Service.

These type IV aircraft became the de facto aircraft – a fighter plane – used by almost all of the Allied nations during WWI (aka The Great War: 1914-1918) .

As of 1911, the Nieuport IV had carved out a reputation as a fast machine, thanks to its Gnome motors of various horsepower outputs – one capable of helping its pilot win many a race. For example, Édouard Nieuport set a few world speed records in 1911; Charles Terres Weymann (1889 – 1976) used the 100 horsepower Newport IV G (Gnome) won the Gordon Bennett Speed ​​Cup, ahead of Alfred Leblanc (in a Bleriot XXIII with a 100 hp Gnome) and the third-place Edouard Nieuport who was flying a Nieuport II with the smaller 70 hp Gnome motor.

A Russian pilot named Pyotr Nicolaevich Nesterov used a military-version Nieuport IV with a 70hp Gnome motor to perform the first loop-the-loop on August 27, 1913.

Of course, Édouard Nieuport did die on September 16, 1911 when his plane crashed demonstrating the type IV‘s fighter prowess to the French military. The aircraft hit a crosswind, causing him to be buffeted into crash land… and yet it wasn’t the fall that killed him, it was a piece of the aircraft smashing into him causing internal bleeding. Okay, I suppose it was the fall.

Regardless, the Nieuport IV still became THE military aircraft.

Part of the reason why the aircraft was chosen, was that according to the rules for the military exhibition, all aircraft: must be French-made, including the motor; be capable of performing a non-stop circuit of 300 kilometers; carry 300 kilograms of cargo over the distance; have three seats (really); be able to fly at at least 60 kilometers per hour without wind assistance; be able to take off and land from the same plowed field; be transportable by road and rail, and easily reassembled for storage in fewer than 30 minutes.

Because of the death of Nieuport, the military held the competition in November of 1911 in Reims. Many of the other aircraft manufacturers also passed all of the tests, including the Nieuport IV G 100 horsepower flown by Weymann.

But what sold the Army on choosing the Nieuport type IV, was actually the spectacular performance of the Nieuport II N (Nieuport motor) aeroplane! Yes, Nieuport won on its reputation based on a different and older aircraft that used a different motor! No wonder this military competition was disputed by everyone else!

The Army quickly ordered a whole squadron (12) Nieuport IV‘s, delivered in early 1913. Of course, with SGAL having lost its financial backer and its designer and president, the company really took a kick in the you-know-whats.

Specifications of the Nieuport IV G

  • Length 8.14 meters (26.7 feet);
  • Wing Span: 10.93 meters (35.9 feet);
  • Surface Area: 18.6 m2 (200.2 square feet);
  • Weight WITH Motor: 340 kilograms (529.1 pounds);
  • Take-off Weight: 520 kilograms (1,146.4 pounds);
  • Top Speed: 140 kilometers per hour (87 miles per hour).

By mid-1912 the French, British, and Italian armies and the R.N.A.S. had each purchased up to a dozen of the two-seaters, including some modified as float planes – hey! That’s what this cigarette card is concerned with… but not the type IV (4) … we want the type VI (6).

With the Nieuport type IV becoming such a successful aircraft, the company began creating variants of it. In the diagram immediately below from Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, 1913, you can see the 1912-1913 data given for the various type IV aircraft. I am not going to go into further detail regarding all of the variants – except for where the diagram introduces us to the hydro-plane variant. A quick note, however: the “M” variant refers to the “Military” version of the Nieuport IV – hence the three-seater capability I mentioned earlier.

Jane's All The World's Aircraft 1913 - Nieuport aircraft

Nieuport type IV G Hydro, 1912 version

The first Nieuport IV G hydro (above) was tested in April 1912 on the Seine at Meulan. This aircraft also seems to have four blades on the propeller, relative to the soon-to-debut Nieuport VI G hydro that has only two. (Photo Air Museum).

The last aircraft mentioned in the list above on the far right, is an aircraft simply denoted by Jane’s as the Hydro 3-seater. Because of its seating arrangement, I will assume it is for the military – a hydro military version of the Nieuport IV.

Despite Jane’s notation of 1913 for the Hydro, its history goes back two years to 1911, obviously with the introduction and success of the Nieuport IV.

With hydro aircraft becoming a big deal in 1911, Société Anonyme des Établissements Nieuport’s designer, which at this time I assume to be Charles Nieuport, designed and had built a Nieuport version for the upcoming hydro plane races of 1912.

Using the Nieuport IV G as the base model, Charles added a pair of aerodynamic, light stepped floats, and then made a few alterations to the aircraft’s airframe to reduce the torque caused by the fuselage. He also utilized a larger vertical fin on the tail.

The floats were constructed of plywood, and were affixed to the fuselage via the same frame the wheels were on. He kept the wheels on between the floats – which were higher affixed than the floats, which meant that the floats could be easily added or subtracted to make the aircraft a water-air or a standard land-air aeroplane with a simple adjustment.

This aircraft was dubbed the Nieuport type IV G Hydro, 1912 version.

Featuring FOUR blades on the single propeller on the nose, the IV G Hydro was graceful on the water. The two front floats weigh 85 kilograms (187.4 pounds) each. The floats each have a small foils at the front to protect the propeller from water spray.

The singular rear float weighs 10 kilograms (22.1 pounds) – and with the two front floats helps the entire aircraft maintain buoyancy up to 2,500 kilograms (5,511.6 pounds). While these floats were heavier than what other manufacturers were doing, it did provide the hydro monoplane with superb stability – even with high swells to provide safer take-off and landings on the water.

This drawing from Jane’s 1913 shows the Nieuport IV G Hydro – but does NOT correctly show the wheels that should be attached in between the aircraft’s front floats. Still, the drawing does provide one with a decent representation of the shape of the aircraft’s two floats at the front, and the shape of the singular rear float. Also, we can see what the vertical tail looks like – much different from the standard land-air Nieuport IV G version (see corresponding photo above).

While the Nieuport IV G Hydro was first tested in March of 1912 on the Siene at Meulan, France – this meant it was too late to have been included in the first event of the hydro racing season.

Nieuport type VI G Hydro, 1912 version

Pilot Charles Weymann is about to move into the water at the start in Saint-Malo, France hydro aircraft competition on August 26, 1912. Note how the Nieuport VI G Hydro has a TWO-bladed propeller, differentiating it from the type IV G Hydro’s four-bladed unit. Photo via Air Museum.

However, the company had also been working on the Nieuport VI G Hydro, and debuted it later in the racing season in August of 1912 at the Saint-Malo competition, even though it had been intended for the 1913 season.

The Type VI used a 2.4 meter twin blade – unlike the type IV which used a 2.02 meter quadruple (four) bladed propeller. And… this time with the VI, the aircraft is completely devoid of wheels, making this a singular hydro aeroplane.

As well, the type VI utilizes just two seats, while the cabin masts are doubled with the train legs stiffened with an oblique cross member. There’s also a mechanical motor starter – a small crank within the cabin where the pilot operates it to interact with a spring mechanism to the motor… because… obviously when the plane is on the water – who the heck is going to crank the propeller to start the motor? That’s right. So a pilot controlled starter is required.

Like all races of the day, there were multiple events, and the Nieuport VI G Hydro while finishing fifth overall, won the Saint-Malo to Jersey speed race, flying the 145 kilometer (40.3 miles) route in 1 hour and 26 minutes – and piloted by Charles Weymann.

Charles Terres Weymann – a pilot working for the Nieuport company – seen here with a Nieuport IV G, 100 hp after winninngg the third Gordon Benneet Trophy competition held in 1911.

In attendance at the race, was the race sponsor – the French Navy, who decided it should order seven VI G Hydro for itself. Gustav Delage, who was a lieutenant in the French Navy, was the main person at the company to deliver these aircraft to the Saint-Raphael location in January of 1913.

Other countries also ordered the VI G Hydro, such as Great Britain, Sweden, Russia and Italy – though these particular aircraft were subcontracted out for manufacture to another business.

Specifications of the Nieuport VI G Hydro

  • Crew: 1, pilot;
  • Capacity: 1-2 passengers;
  • Length: 8.7 meters (28′-7″);
  • Wingspan: 12.25 meters (40′-2″;
  • Wing Surface Area: 40 m2 (430 sq ft);
  • Empty Weight: 700 kilograms (1,540 pounds);
  • Gross Weight: 795 kilograms (1,750 pounds);
  • Motor: 1, Gnome rotary engine, 80 horsepower;
  • Top Speed: 105 kilometers per hour (65 miles per hour).

As noted earlier, Charles Nieuport dies on January 24, 1913, along with a mechanic named Mr. Guyot, when the Nieuport IV G aircraft they were flying stalled and plummeted to the earth.

It was at this time that Henry Deutsch de la Meurthe took over the company, himself already the owner of the famous Astra aviation company. Under new leadership, the new company decided to make aeroplanes that were less sporty yet more commercial for the upcoming 1913 season.

At the first race held in Monaco – Weymann in No. 6, and Gabriel Espanet (professional pilot and doctor) in No. 5 – the two Nieuport VI G Hydro aircraft performed well. The first test in the contest is a boutancy test, with six compeitors forfeiting beforehand, and another nine failing.

The Nieuport floats (those designed for the first of its Hydro’s) would be used without modification thru til 1917.

However, during the cruising portion of the event, the competitors encounter dreadful weather, causing Espanet to lose a float, while Weymann’s craft is swamped by a wave after landing in the water.

For the rest of the year, Nieuport aircraft race in similar events, without any outstanding results.

Nieuport X

Early French Nieuport X.B reconnaissance aircraft. Notice the difference in size between the upper and lower wings. Photo from Université de Caen Basse-Normandie

This will be the last Nieuport aircraft I’m going to talk about within this article – the Nieuport X (10) built in November of 1913. This aeroplane was designed for the British and Italians who wanted an aircraft that could stay up in the air for longer than three hours at a time… for longer possible missions.

The type X was built with a Clerget 7Y 80 horsepower rotary engine – and I’m afraid I can’t find much more information about this particular beast – and was debuted as a prototype at the Salon de l’Aéronautique trade show in December of 1913.

However, by October of 1914 (noting that WW1 had begun a couple of months earlier on July 28, 1914), the Nieuport X was then powered by Clerget 9-cylinder rotary motor (the type 9A) putting out 110 horsepower. But by February of 1915, it was used the type 9B – pumping out 130 horsepower.

However, what was completely different about this Nieuport aircraft from its predecessors, was that it was a biplane – not a monoplane. The introduction of the biplane (or sesquiplane), was the key design feature by Gustav Delage. In fact, every aircraft designed by the Nieuport company from here on through WW1 was a biplane of some sort (with the odd experimental triplane thrown in for good measure). It was built in the standard air-land form, as well as the hydro/seaplane format.

Now… I called the type X a biplane… it’s not… at least not in the truest definition. It is a sesquiplane… which means 1-1/2 wings, whereby the lower wing is usually significantly smaller than the other wing.

The X‘s interior is different from the VI model, with the pilot seated behind the observer (known as the type X.AV), or the version with the observer behind the pilot (type X.AR), the pilot has a separated cockpit – separated by a screen. For its long-distance flights, the type X could carry 150 kilograms (330.7 pounds) – aka 200 liters (52.8 gallons) – of total fuel in three tanks.

Italy used it first in 1914 as part of its maritime surveillance operations in the Mediterranean for upwards of five hour missions, using either a Gnome, a Clerget or a Le Rhône engine, pushing out 80 – 100 horsepower.

Here’s a list of the type X variants:

  • Nieuport X.B – Early designation distinguishing it from the earlier unrelated Nieuport X monoplane;
  • Nieuport X.AV – Company designation with the observer/gunner seated in the front and the pilot in the rear;
  • Nieuport X.AR – Company designation with the pilot seated in the front and the observer/gunner in the rear;
  • Nieuport 10 A.2 – Two seat reconnaissance (Artillerie) aircraft, same as Nieuport X.AR;
  • Nieuport 10 C.1 – Single-seat fighter variant. Inspired development of Nieuport 11 C.1;
  • Nieuport 10 E.2aka Nieuport 10 A.2s used for training;
  • Nieuport 83 E.2 – Purpose-built trainer with detail modifications;
  • Nieuport 10 triplane – Testing of a triplane with unusual wing stagger;
  • Nieuport-Macchi 10.000 – Italian-built Nieuport X with many detail modifications;
  • Nieuport 18 or 18 meter – Nieuport unofficial description of basic type based on nominal wing area of 18 square meters;
  • Nakajima Army Type 甲 2 (Ko 2) Traineraka Nieuport 83 E.2 built under license in Japan;
  • Trainer Type 2 – Siamese (now Thailand) designation for imported Nieuport 83 E.2.

The Nieuport aircraft remained a popular aeroplane during WWI with both wheel and float (interchangeable) varieties.

All right… that’s all on the Nieuports and this vague cigarette card for now. Hopefully card No. 4, next in the Lambert & Butler 1915 Aviation series, is easier to research.

Just so you know, information on the Nieuport brothers and the Nieuport company (companies) is vague, at best. As well, differing databases provide conflicting dates and information on what should be a cut-and-dried topic. It was… distasteful. I have done my best to pull a credible timeline together with credible facts and data here. I had to make a few leaps of faith to connect the dots. If you see anything incorrect, and can back it up, please do not hesitate to let me know.

Posted in Aeroplane Factories, Fighters, Heavier-Than-Air, Motors and Engines, People, Pilots, Races, Seaplanes, Tobacco Card, WWI | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lambert & Butler Aviation Card #2 – Westlake Monoplane.

Card #2 of 25, Lambert & Butler Cigarettes, Aviation series 1915

  • Anthony Joseph Westlake, XXX, XX, 18XX, someplace in England, Great Britain – XXXX XX, 19XX someplace.

This is the second article on the 25-card Aviation series issued in 1913 by Lambert & Butler Cigarettes, a branch of the Imperial Tobacco Company (of Great Britain & Ireland) Ltd.

One of the oddities, at least for me, is discovering that of this 25 card set, 13 of the cards feature a monoplane (three others for dirigibles, and only nine for biplanes). While I knew that monoplanes were in the early stages of aviation a viable concern, the bi- and yes, tri-plane designs (and god help us, the multiplane) were the most popular – especially throughout the days of the Great War (aka WWI) beginning in 1914.

So… since this card set is from 1913, did something happen in the ensuing year to sway the mechanical engineering minds away from the monoplane? This is just a query, and not one I intend to answer.

Believe it or not, THIS card is one of those WTF moments. There’s very little information currently available on the gentleman listed on the reverse of the card – simply calling him Mr. A. Westlake.

I have discovered that his full name is Anthony Joseph Westlake, and that he is British… but that’s about it. Apparently some publishing house has asked another website to remove what wee information they had up on Westlake. From that I can only infer that they will soon be publishing a book on him.


In case you can’t read what’s written on the reverse of the card, let me spell it out for you:

“Westlake Monoplane: This is a British built aeroplane designed and built by Mr. A. Westlake at Clacton-on-Sea. Mr. Westlake is an expert motor engineer, and built this machine entirely without other assistance than that of unskilled labour. His first patent was taken out in 1904, so that he is really one of the earliest workers in aviation in this country. The machine has flown remarkably well considering its small home-made engine.”

Well, let’s see what we can determine from this dram of information. Westlake is British; he builds motors; and if we were to believe it, this monoplane has an engine… but really, unless it runs on steam, it’s a motor. Also, he seems to be a one-manned operation, and the motor he’s built probably has a very low horsepower output compared to contemporary motors of the day.

According to the front of the card, this pretty aeroplane has skids and a pair of wheels, and may have a stiff rod at the rear to prevent the tail from smashing into the ground upon landing. From the drawing, it also looks like a wooden framed fuselage and mono wing, placed closer to the front… about midway from the midpoint of the aircraft.

Hmm… there’s an actual Westlake Systems Limited website with a spot of information on this very plane, including photos from the September 13, 1913 edition of Flight magazine. Unfortunately, for about a year now, the Flight magazine archives has been removed from the internet, as the parent company says it is “under construction”. Let me tell you, that Flight magazine is an excellent source of data of aeroplanes of the day!

The mysterious Anthony Joseph Westlake himself and his Westlake monoplane, circa 1913.
Photo from Flight magazine.

I’ve just had a look through my copy of Jane’s All The World’s Aircraft 1913… nada. Nothing at all.

I then took a look through the entire database of The Times newspaper – nothing again.

There is no mention of anyone named Westlake or even flying a Westlake monoplane or even using a Westlake motor in their aircraft in the British Aerial Derby races between 1912 – 1923.

So… as to just why the Westlake monoplane was deemed important enough to be included in the Lambert & Butler 25-card set on aviation, I have no clue. I have even less of a clue as to why a publisher asked to remove materials.

Still, from what I can determine, Westlake piloted a Laking No. 1 biplane on July 4, 1911.

It made its first flight on 4 July 1911 in the hands of Mr. Anthony Westlake, who himself had made a monoplane, in 1913 (q.v.)

Also, the Westlake monoplane was constructed at the East Anglian Aviation Co., at Clacton-on-Sea in Essex.

Big deal, right.

Well, at least the site offers up a bit of information: that the Westlake monoplane did make a number of successful straight flights in 1913.

Which is odd, because at the Westlake Systems Limited website (, they do provide a bit of interesting data that confirms the engine size of the monoplane, and also that it SHOULD have been able to do more than just make a straight flight.

The Westlake Monoplane used hinged ailerons for flight control, and it was powered by a custom-built by Westlake four-cylinder horizontally-opposed air-cooled 18-horsepower internal combustion motor with automatic inlet valves.

The 1913 Westlake monoplane had a wing length of 34-feet (10.36 metres), and from nose to tail its length was 23-feet six-inches (7.16 metres). Like the drawing suggests, the aircraft was constructed of wood and covered by fabric (of some kind), and does utilize a dual-skid and sprung wheel undercarriage. Yay.

But what the heck… an 18-horsepower motor to power a heavy wooden aircraft? I’m sure the aircraft did get up in the air for a few bounces, but I am unconvinced it was pulling any romantic flights over a lake as the front of the Lambert & Butler card suggests.

It would appear that Lambert & Butler got a wee bit ahead of themselves with regards to promoting the Westlake monoplane. I guess they were searching hard for a great British manufacturer that had never appeared on a tobacco card previously.

Oh well… let’s hope that Card No. 3 in the set provides more interesting and less litigious. Too bad… The Westlake monoplane sure was a pretty little thing.

Posted in Failures, Heavier-Than-Air, Motors and Engines, People, Tobacco Card | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Lambert & Butler Aviation Card #1 – Mr. Gustav Hamel On Blériot Monoplane.

Lambert 1F

History Behind The Card: Mr. Gustav Hamel On Blériot Monoplane.

Card #1 of 25, Lambert & Butler Cigarettes, Aviation series 1915

  • Gustav Wilhelm Hamel, June 25, 1889, Hamburg, Germany – May 23 (?), 1914 in the English Channel;
  • Eleanor Josephine Trehawke Davies, 1880 in St Pancras, London, England, Great Britain – 1915 London, England, Great Britain.
  • Bentfield Charles Hucks, October 25, 1884, Stansted, Essex, England, Great Britain – November 7, 1918, Bourne End, Woodburn, Buckinghamshire, England, Great Britain.

This is the first article on the 25-card Aviation series issued in 1913 by Lambert & Butler Cigarettes, a branch of the Imperial Tobacco Company (of Great Britain & Ireland) Ltd.

Since I started collecting WWI and earlier aviation cards some 10 years ago, I have long had my eye on this set… but it always seemed to be incredibly expensive – and dammit, I’m a writer… a good one, but a poor one, if you know what I mean. One month ago, I spotted the Lambert & Butler Aviation set for such a low price that I feared it was a reprint… but it’s not. I just got lucky. Note that all reprint sets of various tobacco cards are usually printed on the reverse in a non-standard colour, such as red – and are noted as such by all reputable sellers. The standard reverse colour for the 1915 Lambert & Butler Aviation series IS green. For whatever reason, every set of these cards I have seen for sale – the cards seem to always be in quite good nick. So make sure you get a set in the best condition possible when purchasing.

Thanks to my purchase, I am beginning my in-depth look at this 25-card set. It’s a beautiful set, art-wise, on a par with (or exceeds, depending on one’s point of view) the Wills’ sets of 1910, 1911 and 1912/13. However, I’m not sure about the writing (the level of in depth data provided), or even why Lambert & Butler chose the aeroplanes they did, but what the heck – let’s find out why.

Card No. 1 depicts an aeroplane piloted by Mr. Gustav Hamel. Who Was Gustav Hamel?

Well, let’s take a look at the reverse of his card… a card that was made while he was still alive. I know plenty of other aviation pioneers have had a card made for them while alive, but I can only imagine the sense of pride each must have had (in addition to what made them famous in the first place). So why don’t we (and by that I mean most people alive on the planet today) know who he is?

Just in case some of you are reading this on your phone (why?!?), I’ll spell it out for you:

Although during the latter part of his flying career, Mr. Hamel favoured the Morane-Saulnier machine, it was on his Blériot that he obtained his English Brevet at Hendon, on February 14, 1911, and on which he made a reputation as a cross-channel flyer, often with Miss Trehawke-Davies as a passenger. Our picture shows Mr. Hamel starting for a flight at Brooklands.

Well… plenty of information to whet the old whistle, I suppose. We know two types of aeroplanes he flew, where he liked to fly, and whom he preferred to fly with. What we don’t know a heck of a lot about is his favorite passenger, as Wikipedia only gives years, rather than specifics regarding birth and death. We also know that aside from this card, her (the favored passenger) name is NOT hyphenated per Wikipedia et al. Gods… it’s going to be one of those annoying research articles.

I did find a Bismark Tribune (US) newspaper article from May 28, 1914 that described Hamel as “the most proficient aviator of England, with the possible exception of Mr. Claude Graham-White, but certainly the latter never equaled the aerial feats recently accomplished by Mr. Hamel. He had been flying only from the early part of 1911 and since then had established many records and had as passengers many distinguished women and men.

Now that’s a teaser!

A postcard of the day, showing the handsome visage of a young Gustav Hamel sitting pretty in the cockpit of one of his aeroplanes.

Gustav Hamel was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1889, and after his family moved to Great Britain 10 years later in 1899, he went on to become known as a British aviation pioneer.

Born to Dr. Gustav Hugo Hamel and Caroline Magdalena Elise, he was the oldest of four children, and the only boy.

His father, Dr. Hamel, was the Royal Physician to King Edward VII (who ruled for a short time – 1901-1910 – after the long reign of his mom, Queen Victoria). Queen Victoria (and her husband/cousin Prince Albert) were German speakers first. While Queen Elizabeth II currently resides under the royal house: House of Windsor, Edward VII’s was officially known as the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. I mention this in case you were wondering how a German-speaking doctor came to be involved in the British royal family.

Needless to say, Gustav Hamel’s family while not filthy rich, was well off in England, which may be why he was able to have gone to the prestigious Westminster School and Cambridge University.

He and his family became naturalized citizens of Great Britain in 1910.

You’ll see later on just why I am making a point of stating that while Hamel et al were Germans, they became British citizens. It involves lawyers…

For a glimpse of what Hamel was like, I’ll reference – The Men Who Gave Us Wings:  Britain and the Aeroplane 1796-1914 by author Peter Reesse (page 128), who describes him as having a “quiet speaking voice, spare – almost frail – figure, clean-cut looks, crisp curly hair and teddy bear mascot“.

The latter I assume is because he flew with a teddy bear. Awww. But, yeah – you can see from the postcard image above, that Hamel was a good looking young man, who according to Reesse, did not use his familial trappings to prove his worth.

In Reesse’s book, Aeronautics magazine editor John Ledeboer describes Hamel as a hero and as one of the finest pilots on the planet: “His touch was ever that of a master: for sureness, for sheer brilliancy it has never been equalled let alone excelled. He was a born pilot; no need for him to climb the laborious steps of achievement.

Apparently, even in those heady days of 1911, if you didn’t build your own aeroplane, it was expected that if one wanted to fly, you needed to undergo a apprenticeship and then be a mechanic.

After Cambridge, Hamel went to the Bleriot School of Flying at Pau, France, and learned to pilot a Morane monoplane (see HERE for more on that aeroploane), gaining his flying certificate on February 6, 1911 (I have also seen February 3 as the given date) (Aéro-Club de France‘s certificate no. 358) and then his British license a few days later on February 14, 1911 from the Royal Aero Club (certificate no. 64).

Hamel loved to fly, and took to it like a duck takes to water. Part of his enthusiasm for the new aviation industry was to fly, fly often, and to push the boundaries of what “conditions” an aeroplane could fly.

Conditions, in this case means “bad weather”… with Hamel believing that the only thing holding aeroplanes from flying in bad weather was the pilot themself. Basically, he was calling pretty much every other pilot of the day a chicken. But that’s neither here nor there, as his so-called recklessness had nothing to do with any event that I can find in the historical documents.

While at the flying school, no less than aviator extraordinaire Louis Blériot noted after watching Hamel perform his first flight, that he had never seen a pilot with such natural ability. I’ll had to paraphrase that from the original French.

His natural flying ability held Hamel in good stead, as he took the first prize in a race held one month later in March of 1911, flying his Morane monoplane from England’s Hendon to Brooklands and back, according to The Times (of London newspaper) dated March 20, 1911 – page 10. 

The following month, on April 14, 1911 he flew from Brooklands to Hendon in a record 17 minutes, per the April 22, 1911 edition of Flight magazine.

In May he was one of the pilots who took part in a demonstration of flying to various members of the British government, where he demonstrated the usefulness of aircraft for carrying dispatches by flying a message to Aldershot, England and returning with a reply. While impressive, in my opinion the 103 kilometer (64 mile) feat could have been done faster via telegraph or telephone. Hamel, did have some engine trouble in starting the darn thing for the return, which is why the trip took some two hours to complete.

Hamel did enter the battle for the Gordon Bennett Trophy as part of the British contingent, but crashed soon after taking off on July 1, 1911 – though did not suffer injury – except perhaps to his ego.

He also had mechanical difficulties on July 22, 1911 competing in the Daily Mail newspaper Circuit of Britain air race, crashing his Blériot XI aeroplane (see HERE for more on that aircraft) after reaching Thornhill, north of Dumfries. He did sustain minor injuries in the crash.

An August 26, 1911 Flight magazine published a few lines about Hamel’s unsuccessful attempt to fly newspapers from Hendon to Southend, England the previous Saturday… a newspaper-sponsored publicity stunt that was stymied when foul weather forced the aeroplane down at Hammersmith in West London. Weather conditions… at least he wasn’t afraid to try… though I wonder how much it cost to fix that downed aircraft?

Recent failures aside, on September 9, 1911, Hamel flew his Blériot XI the 28.96 kilometers (18 miles) between Hendon and Windsor in 18 minutes to become the first pilot to deliver the first official airmail in Great Britain.

Within the aeroplane, Hamel carried a single bag of mail containing in the region of 3-400 letters, ~ 800 post cards, and some newspapers, all weighing 10.4 kilograms (23 pounds). 

The mail swag also included a postcard that Hamel himself had written en route… I’m not sure if Hamel was the first to ever compose a “letter” while flying, but certainly he was the first to do so while flying an actual air mail delivery.

432-20131211115649_original (2) - Copy
An actual ink autograph of Gustav Hamel upon his own “celebrity” postcard, depicting him as the “First Aerial Postman”. Not the best autograph, but considering he probably had nothing underneath the postcard to provide sturdiness – cool. Image found at:

On October 12, 1911, Hamel flew his Bleriot XI monoplane aeroplane across the English Channel from Boulogne, France to Wembley, England – the first of what would eventually be 21 successful cross-Channel flights.

And now, we venture to the year 1912… an auspicious year for crossing the Atlantic in a ship (Titanic), but it leads us to one of Hamel’s famous passengers.

On April 2, 1912, Hamel again crossed the English Channel, but this time with Miss Eleanor Josephine Trehawke Davies, thus becoming the first pilot to passenger a woman across those waters.

A postcard (taken from showing Miss Davies (right) and Hamel the day of their epic flight across the English Channel.

It seems a minor thing, nowadays in the 21st century, but back in 1912, Davies would have been considered to be both a daredevil and a less-refined woman for daring to become part of the male-dominated field of avionics. And Hamel… I’m sure there was some backlash for allowing a woman to be front and center in history. But it’s the 21st century to the hell with the sexism. They flew from Hendon to Paris, making stops at Ambleteuse and Hardelot (France).

There was “more power” to Hamel, however, when he worked alongside the famous aviatrix Harriet Quimby when on April 2, 1912 he test-flew her new Blériot monoplane before SHE piloted the 50-horsepower Blériot XI aircraft across the English Channel on April 16, 1912. Quimby had planned to use a new 70-horsepower Blériot XI purchased from Louis Blériot himself, but upon arrival in France, he told her it wasn’t ready yet. She convinced Blériot to lend her a 50-horsepower plane in its stead, and, because the weather wasn’t the best, she secretly had the aircraft shipped to Dover, England to perform the trip, rather than the originally planned France take-off.

Harriet Quimby in 1911.

Unfortunately for Quimby, her success has mostly avoided my the media, as a certain sinking ship (the Titanic) made the news rounds… sinking on April 15, with the news really getting the headline on the 16th, et al.

It beats me as to why I haven’t done a proper write up on Quimby – perhaps it’s because I don’t have a tobacco card depicting her and her fabled feats of aeronautical strength. Seriously, the only tobacco-related image I could find is from a cigar box containing some inner artwork: see here: I’ll have to rectify MY error sometime in the near future.

Flying a Blériot XI-2 powered with a 70-horsepower Gnome motor, Hamel participated in the initial Aerial Derby race on June 8, 1912, with Miss Davies once again as his passenger. The race consisted of a single circuit of a 130 kilometer (81 mile) course starting at Hendon Aerodrome, with judging areas at Kempton Park, Esher, Purley and Purlfleet. At these control points, the aviators (15 were scheduled to start, but because of inclement weather, only seven actually lifted off at the start of the race) were to fly low to the ground so that the judges could see the aircraft’s number.

A gentleman by the name of Tom Sopwith (you may of heard of him and his Camel circa WWI and Snoopy – read about him HERE) finished first in a time of 1h 23m 8.4s, but he was soon disqualified for having missed the control point at Purley.

Hamel and Davies were thus declared the winner, finishing with a time of 1h 38m 46s. Yay! But, Sopwith appealed, and was awarded the £250 prize and a gold cup. He correctly appealed on the grounds that visibility was extremely poor, and therefore the judges had missed seeing him. It was highly likely!

Both Sopwith and Hamel were flying identical aircraft – a Blériot XI-2 featuring a 70-horsepower Gnome engine… the key difference being the additional cargo weight of the enigmatic passenger Davies for Hamel slowing him down.

Still not done with either the Aerial Derby or flying across the English Channel, on April 11, 1913, Hamel, carrying passenger Frank Dupree (a newspaperman with the Evening Standard) made the first cross-channel return flight with a passenger.

Click on the link below (within this paragraph) to see some film of Gustav Hamel and Frank Dupree later in April of 1913 as Hamel’s Bleriot XI-2 monoplane is prepped for an Evening Standard-sponsored flight from Dover to Cologne, Germany – the first flight ever from England to Germany (and soon to be many many more in a war or two). The idea behind this flight was for Hamel, Dupree and the Evening Standard to draw attention to England’s woeful lack of military aircraft. 

In August of 1913 (I can’t find an exact date), Hamel and a pilot named Bentfield Charles Hucks agreed to an aerial race of 75-miles (~120.7 kilometres) in distance. Hamel won the race by 20 seconds.

But who was this pilot with the unforgettable name of Bentfield?


Bentfield Hucks

The basics: After being hit with a three-year ban from driving an automobile (probably too fast), his good friend Claude Grahame-White (see HERE for more on him) taught him to fly an aeroplane. After test-flying for the Blackburn Company, he flew its monoplane in the 1911 Circuit of Britain derby, where he first came across Hamel.

Hucks became famous for having participated in one of the earliest known air-to-ground wireless experiments in Great Britain (read HERE for my family involvement with a similar such experiment in 1908); and on November 15, 1913, Huck became the first British pilot to perform a loop-the-loop (loop-de-loop). Hamel, by the way, would eventually become the third British pilot to perform the same maneuver.

Hucks, who had gained his Royal Aero Club certificate No. 91 in May of 1911, joined the British Royal Flying Corp (RFC) when WWI broke out, and was sent to the Western Front as part of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force). However, by the early part of 1915, he was sent back to Great Britain due to pleurisy, where he test-piloted for various aeroplane manufacturers. In 1917, he invented the “Hucks Starter” – a mobile device for starting aircraft engines (meaning you didn’t need some poor bugger to stand in front of the propeller gripping it to give it a downward yank). Unfortunately, Hucks died on November 7, 1918 (just before the end of WWI) of pneumonia.


An example of a NACA Hucks starter, here set up to start a Vought VE-7.

Following the race against Hucks, Hamel entered the 1913 Aerial Derby on September 20, 1913 – this time, Sopwith did not enter. Flying a Morane-Saulnier G monoplane with a 80 horsepower Gnome engine, Hamel won the race in 1h 15m 49s at an average speed of 122 kilometres per hour (76 miles an hour) – perhaps aided by the fact that he did not carry Miss Davies along as a passenger this time.

Below, is an example of the Morane-Saulner G monoplane. Actually, I can’t find definitive evidence that this is the type of aeroplane Hamel flew in the 1913 Aerial Derby, but it stands to reason it is, as it was a very successful racing plane in its day up to and surrounding the date of this particular race.

Hamel won the race despite having a fuel leak where he had to stick a finger in the hole to plug it!

On January 2, 1914, Miss Davies was once again the passenger with Hamel as he took her on a loop-the-loop, becoming the first woman in the world to experience the maneuver.

One month later on February 2, 1914, Hamel gave an exhibition of his loop-the-loop ability in front of the British Royal family at Windsor, whereby he successfully completed 14 loops before landing on the East Lawn of Windsor Castle.

In early May of that year, Hamel announced that he would perform a trans-Atlantic flight using a specially-built Martin-Handasyde Limited monoplane to win a £10,000 prize from the Daily Mail newspaper.


A representation of the proposed Hamel flight across the Atlantic Ocean and Martin-Handasyde monoplane per the July 11, 1914 edition of the Scientific American magazine.

But, that flight was never to materialize for Hamel.

On May 23, 1914 while flying solo over the English Channel, Hamel was piloting the new Morane-Saulnier monoplane powered by a 80 horsepower Gnome Monosoupape engine he had just picked up at Villacoublay, France to use that very same day in the 1914 Aerial Derby.

He was never seen alive again.

While a body was eventually found by a fishing boat in the English Channel on July 6, 1914, they were unable to retrieve it. The crew did provide a description of the corpse’s clothing, however, which led people to believe it was Hamel. 

But, that didn’t stop people from suspecting the worst. From suspicions of sabotage due to international tensions (Hamel was of German heritage) as the Great War (aka World War I) was about to erupt with Germany as the “bad guy”, to the supposition that Hamel only pretended to die so that he could go back to Germany to fly for them… well, it was a sad way for the public to remember him.

Take this little beauty of a newspaper piece from the lawyers of Hamel from the November 17, 1915 edition of The Times, page 9:



Sir.-The persistent rumours that the late Mr. Gustav Hamel is alive and flying for the Germans is giving great pain to his family and to his many friends. Unfortunately the first part of the rumour is untrue; the second is an insult to the memory of one who has done so much for the advancement of aviation in England. Mr. Hamel left Hardelot on May 23, 1914, to fly to England and was never seen alive again. His body was found in the sea by the skipper of the French fishing smack St. Hélène, one Joseph Le Pretre, on July 1, 1914, about 10 miles off Point-Alprecht. It was identified by the description of the clothing and certain contents of the pocket described by a French mechanic, Alexis Longuet, who assisted him when he left Hardelot, and by the inflated indiarubber bicycle tube round the body which Mr. Morane, the eminent airplane designer, induced him to wear when he left Paris the same morning. There can be no shadow of doubt as to the identification of the body. On the evidence of Le Pretre and Longuet the Court has granted leave to presume his death and letters of administration to his estate have been taken out. Mr. Hamel came of a Danish family. He was brought up in England and was educated at Westminster School. His father, Dr. Gustave Hamel, M.V.O., who came to England many years ago, is a British subject. He was born in Hamburg, then a free and independent town. Early in life he went to Sweden and later continued his education in Switzerland, where he took his medical degrees. He requalified in England (St. Bartholomew’s Hospital) and holds no German degrees or qualifications whatever. Nothing could be more repugnant to the family of the late Mr. Gustav Hamel than the reports he is now enrolled in the German Flying Corps. May we ask you, as solicitors to the family, to publish this letter and put an end once and for all to the baseless rumours?

Yours faithfully,


1c King-street, St. James’s, S.W., Nov. 16.

Kind of sad, isn’t? A dead man’s lawyers begging the newspapers to set the record straight that their client is dead… not just mostly dead, but dead dead – with no body ever officially recovered. 

The one thing I have not been able to figure out, however, is that if that French fishing boat was able to get close enough to a body floating in the English Channel to make such a detailed description, why were they unable to haul aboard the body?

You can see, however, how those who like a good conspiracy, would say that the finding of a floater and it purported to be Hamel might be considered a lie, and that maybe, just maybe that Hamel did indeed skip town to go and be with his “kind” back in Germany.

But, as his lawyers were kind enough to point out, despite being born in Germany, our Hamel’s family has Danish origins, and that all considered themselves to be as British as an eel and kidney pie. There’s a reason why aside from Fish and Chip joints, no major city in the world offers up British cuisine. And for the record, I was born in London, England.

So… we have the fate of Gustav Hamel… and we learned of the unfortunate circumstances of his racing opponent Bentfield Hucks… but what of Hamel’s seemingly favourite passenger, Miss Eleanor Josephine Trehawke Davies?

I was unable to find out much about the life of this famous passenger, aside from her work with Hamel. And her death? Too soon, it seems. As noted in the list of characters at the top of this article, finding an exact date of death was too much a challenge for me. And how did she die? She was only about 34 or 35, and it does NOT appear that she died tragically as an aeroplane passenger. 

Below is another newspaper article from The Times, dated January 21, 1916, page 35, that fails to denote Davies’ actual death date:


The death is now announced of Miss Trehawke Davies, the first woman to “loop the loop” and to cross the Channel in an aeroplane. She was well known as an air companion of the late Mr. Gustav Hamel and Mr. Astley, Mr. Valentine, and other pilots. Her death occurred suddenly in London towards the end of November, but was not then made public, in accordance with her expressed wish.

Miss Davies had many experiences in the air-but she always came safely out of ordeals which seemed at the time likely to end fatally. “It was gloriously exciting; you never knew what was going to happen next,” was how she summed up one particularly thrilling adventure. When she “looped the loop” for the first time it was as a passenger in Hamel’s Morane-Saulnier monoplane. This was in January, 1914, when Hamel performed the feat seven times in the same flight. At one moment during this flight the machine seemed to stop dead, but the pilot managed to regain control.

Miss Davies was proud of the distinction of being the first woman to cross the Channel. It was in April, 1912, that she achieved this record, by accompanying Hamel in a successful flight from Hendon to Paris. She was partner in Astley’s failure in September, 1912, to reach Berlin from Issy-les-Moulincaux in one day. In the same month, she fell with Mr. Astley 160ft. The machine was smashed, but pilot and passenger were unhurt. In 1913, she was the passenger in the flight which broke the height record for a pilot with one passenger.

She was Mr. Hamel’s passenger when he won the Air Derby for the Daily Mail Gold Cup and prize of £250 on June 9, 1912. There were seven competitors in this 80 mile race.

Before her death Miss Davies presented her monoplane to the Royal Navy for use by the Naval Air Service. She was the daughter of the late Mr. F. Trehawke Davies, formerly a member of the Marleybone Borough Council.


Messrs. Knight, Frank, and Rutley have been instructed by the administrator of Miss Trehawke Davies’s estate to sell at their rooms in Hanover-square her jewels, furs, furniture, pictures, &c, on February 3 and 4. Among the jewelry is a gold and diamond aeroplane brooch presented by Blériot, commemorating the London to Paris trip in 1912.

Interesting… by the way… you’ll notice that while The Times provided the first and surname for Hamel, it only provided surnames for the two other pilots listed: Astley and Valentine. A September 9, 1912, The Times article calls Astley “Mr. Astley” in a two-inch piece of copy noting that he and his passenger Miss Trehawke Davies fell 160 feet from the air in a mishap – and both were injured, but survived (this was also noted in the Davies death notice above, however). However, I did discover in a September 6, 1912 The Times article that a Mr. H.J.D. Astley (English) took place in the Irish Aviation Race. As for Mr. Valentine the pilot, he, too, took part in that Irish event, and is listed as J. Valentine of England… a later article in 1916 does mention a person named Captain Valentine who was accused in a bribery scandal involving the purchase of French Nieuport aircraft – which he denied. There was also mention of her being part of an altitude record – with an unnamed pilot… I could not confirm the pilot’s identity. I only point this stuff to say that The Times, back in 1916 when the Davies death notice was put out, could have done a spot of research themselves to give the reader a wee bit more information as to who Miss Davies associated with.

Oh… and what the heck? Miss Davies gave away her monoplane to the Navy? She owned an aeroplane? Did she fly it? Dis she just have one for decoration? For an aviator, any aviator to swing by and offer to fly her into the skies?

And … does anyone know what happened to Miss Davies aviation brooch? Does it still exist? Gold AND diamonds.

Also… the article incorrectly states that she and Hamel won the £250 Aerial Derby first place prize. They did after Sopwith was disqualified, but lost it when Sopwith successfully argued that he had met all of the race’s requirements.

All very good, but with regards to Miss Davies, he have to assume that since she was giving away a monoplane “before her death”, she must have known she was dying. As well, her last will and testament indicated that the announcement of her death not be made public until some time after her death. Again, she knew she was dying, ergo some sort of illness. One hundred plus years later, it isn’t important how she died, suffice to say she did die at a young age and not via an aeroplane crash. 

And this concludes our look at the life of Gustav Hamel (and Hucks and Davies).

Posted in Air Shows, Airfields, Firsts, Flying Schools, Heavier-Than-Air, Motors and Engines, Pilots, Races, Races & Contests, Tobacco Card, WWI | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Yuri Gagarin: The First Man In Space

History Behind The Card: Yuri Gagarin

Card #48 of 48, Lyons Maid, Famous People series 1966

  • Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, March 9, 1934 in Klushino, Russia, U.S.S.R – March 27, 1968 in Novosyolovo, Russia, U.S.S.R.;
  • Gherman Stepanovich Titov, September 11, 1935, Verkh-Zhilino, Russia, U.S.S.R. – September 20, 2000, Moscow, Russia, U.S.S.R.;
  • Valentin Vasiliyevich Bondarenko, February 16, 1937, Kharkiv, Ukraine – March 23, 1961, Moscow, Russia, U.S.S.R.;
  • Vladamir Mikhaylovich Komarov, March 16, 1927 in Moscow, Russia, U.S.S.R. – April 24, 1967 in Orenburg, Russia, U.S.S.R.

After learning about the recent death of astronaut John Glenn’s widow, and recalling that John was the first American man to fly in space, I thought it prudent to write up about the first man in space, a Russian/Soviet cosmonaut named Yuri Gagarin. I could just copy and past the report my son did on him in Grade 5 a few years ago, but… 

Like the travels of Gagarin, I’m going to use this platform to take you on a wild ride all over the space place… rushing, rushing, Russian.

Yuri Gagarin was a Soviet cosmonaut who became the first man in space on April 12, 1961 when his Vostok 1 spacecraft orbited the Earth.

The card, upon which this article is based, is card 48 of 48 of the Famous People series put out in 1966 by J.Lyons & Co. Ltd., who issued cards on multiple topics in their tea and ice cream products.

I admit that I do not have the card pictured above… and I saw one for sale on Amazon for US $1.99 (plus $9.99 shipping – which shows you that people are greedy and try to suck you in with a low cost for the card, but nail you with exaggerated shipping costs – seriously… an envelope and stamps, with the card enclosed in some thing corrugated).

The reverse of the 1966 Gagarin card, it describes his life… because it’s only two years later in 1968 that he dies.

In The Beginning

Anyhow… Gagarin was born in Klushino – a village near the town of Gzhatsk (wow… just one vowel) which would one day be renamed after him (Gagarin).

His mother was a milkmaid and father was a carpenter on a kolkhoz – a collective farm on Soviet state-owned land run by peasants/general people from households who belonged to the collective. They were paid as salaried employees on the basis of quality and quantity of labor they contributed.

Yuri attended a local school for six years in Klushino.

It was while Gagarin was still very young, that Nazi Germany attempted its near six-month invasion and occupation of Russia (in the U.S.S.R.). The family (and others) were forced from their home, and had to live in a very small mud hut nearby. Gagarin’s older brother, Valentin, and sister Zoya, were moved to “labor” camps in Poland. 

With the war over, in 1947 (we won!!!) the family moved to Gzhatsk (which is why, I suppose, the town was later renamed Gagarin after Yuri’s Earth orbit). A waste not – want not sort of guy, and a true carpenter, Gagarin’s father took apart the Klushino house (repatriated from the Nazis) and moved it to Gzhatsk and rebuilt it.

Apparently Gagarin was a typical boy growing up, fond of pranks and having fun, but he was also interested in his school work. According to a former teacher (Yelena Kozlova) who taught him botany, his favorite subjects were physics and math.

She also commented that he had a wonderful smile, and that the girls seemed to like him.

[Editor Note: My point in showing all this stuff, is that despite the whole Cold War thing that our respective governments fed us, the people… people… they were essentially the same regardless of their country’s political alliance. I think we all saw THAT, during the Apollo-Soyuz mission in the 1970s. That was when I realized the people are people, and politics is just that – politics. Beats me why I went out and got a degree in political science. Probably because I couldn’t get into the business program, and didn’t want to go into astronomy (my best subject) because I didn’t want to work nights. That, is a joke… except it’s not.]

He furthered his education at vocational and technical/trade schools, graduating in 1951 to become a foundryman/molder at a steel factory in Lyubertsy.

While working, he continued to attend an industrial/technical college at Saratov, and decided to also take a course on flying, which took many years, finally completing it and gaining passage into the Soviet Air Force Academy school at Orenburg in 1955, graduating with honors in 1957.

It was at the Orenburg pilot school, that he met Valentina Goryacheva, who graduated from the Orenburg medical school. The couple married after graduation in 1957.

Yuri Gagarin and wife

Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Goryacheva in Orenburg, prior to their wedding in 1957. A good-looking couple!

Soon after the couple married, Gagarin began a tour of duty as a fighter pilot.

Joining the full-on military Soviet Air Forces as a Lieutenant, he became a fighter pilot, posted at Luostari Air Base near the border with Norway. 

Space… The Final Frontier

In 1960, 20 men, including Gagarin were selected from various services into the U.S.S.R. space programme.

Below is an alphabetical list of the 20. The men listed in BLUE, would all eventually fly in space. All names are clickable to a Wikipedia biography page. And yes… the chart was also taken from Wikipedia – not my own compilation.

Air Force rank*CosmonautAge*
Senior LieutenantIvan Anikeyev27
MajorPavel Belyayev34
Senior LieutenantValentin Bondarenko23
Senior LieutenantValery Bykovsky25
Senior LieutenantValentin Filatyev30
Senior LieutenantYuri Gagarin25
Senior LieutenantViktor Gorbatko25
CaptainAnatoli Kartashov27
Senior LieutenantYevgeny Khrunov26
Captain EngineerVladimir Komarov32
LieutenantAlexei Leonov25
Senior LieutenantGrigori Nelyubov25
Senior LieutenantAndrian Nikolayev30
CaptainPavel Popovich29
Senior LieutenantMars Rafikov26
Senior LieutenantGeorgi Shonin24
Senior LieutenantGherman Titov24
Senior LieutenantValentin Varlamov25
Senior LieutenantBoris Volynov25
Senior LieutenantDmitri Zaikin27
* At time of selection

Wait… there was a guy named Mars… and he never got to go into space?! Mars Rafikov  was dismissed from the space program in 1962… supposedly for womanizing and “gallivanting” in restaurants.

Eventually, the 20 became just two – Gagarin and Gherman Titov – for the honor of being the first man in space. But, for whatever reason, Gagarin was the one chosen by the administration to become the first man in space. Titov was actually the second man to orbit the Earth aboard Vostok 2 – fourth, if we include the sub-orbital flights of American’s Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom.

Titov is also famous for being the very first person to suffer from space sickness, and also as the first person to sleep in space.


There’s no denying that Gherman Titov was also a good-looking dude, here in this photo taken in 1961. Photo Credit: Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs

Some say it was Gagarin’s easy-going personality, or maybe his good looks to help play the role of national hero (Titov was also pretty good-looking, though), or maybe he was simply just the best candidate.

But really, it was up to Nikolai Kamanin, the head of cosmonaut training.

Still undecided on April 5, 1961 (the orbital flight was on April 12, 1961!!!), Kamanin noted in his diary that he would have chosen Titov, but needed to have a stronger person for the one-day flight. 

On April 9 (again… the flight was on the 12th!!!), 1961, Gagarin and Titov learned of Kamanin’s decision. Obviously Gagarin was happy and Titov was not. 

And because a good party (communist) needs a crowd, the Vostok cosmonaut reveal was done in front of television cameras on April 10, 1961. Now, the cameras did not mean it was broadcast out to all of the peoples of the U.S.S.R. – rather it was done only to have an official record. The whole project was still hush-hush.

In fact, cosmonaut candidate Alexi Leonov said he didn’t even know who was chosen until the Vostok 1 had taken off! Leonov, by the way, is credited as being the first person (human) to do a spacewalk on March 18, 1965, beating Michael Jackson by almost 30 years. 

Now, for those too young to have lived through it, there was a space race going between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) – to see who could: launch the first object into space (Sputnik-1 by the U.S.S.R.); launch the first human into space (our man Gagarin by the U.S.S.R.); and who could land a man on our moon, Luna (still only ever the U.S.).

Of course, both sides owe quite a bit of their technology to 1) Nazi Germany and their not-quite-ready-for-prime-time rocket program; 2) Canada and Great Britain, and the demise of the Avro Canada CF105 Arrow interceptor jet (I wasn’t even born yet – but don’t get me started on this sad tale of Canadian malfeasance).

The rocket technology was supplied by Nazi Germany, with the idea that the Canadian brain drain from the Arrow’s demise supplied many top scientists – both British and Canadian – to the young NASA program. NASA also had a bunch of ex-Nazi rocket scientists in their employ.  The Soviets… they only had the Nazi tech, ideas and probably a lot of former Nazi scientists. Hey… forgive and forget, right? Forgive, anyway.

This space race was born out of the so-called Cold War between the two nations… geopolitical tensions without an actual shot being fired at each other. But after the Soviets launched Sputnik-1, an artificial satellite in 1957, the space race was born.

While the U.S. via NASA undertook its Project Mercury missions, the Soviets participated in their Vostok program – and, as mentioned, a hush-hush rocket program.

Via the Vostok program, the Soviets launched several unmanned missions between May 1960 and March of 1961 – basically to see how the Vostok rocketry handled, and to see how their Vostok space capsule handled the rigors of launch and space flight. 

Now… not all of the Vostok rocket flights could be deemed a success prior to our boy Gagarin taking off.

By April 1960, the OKB-1 (PAO S. P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation Energia) had completed a draft plan for the first Vostok spacecraft they called Vostok 1K.

The Vostok 1K was just for testing, however. They also created Vostok 2K, a spy satellite (later known as Zenit 2), and the Vostok 3K, which would be used for all six manned Vostok missions.

Let’s start at the beginning:

1) The first Vostok spacecraft was a variant not designed to be recovered from orbit – it was called Vostok 1KP, though to keep the Vostok code name secret, it was allowed that the media should refer to it as the spacecraft Korabl-Sputnik, (literally “satellite-ship”). The “P” part of the name was the variant, and stands for “prosteishiy” (translates to: simplest).

Vostok 1KP (aka Korbal-Sputnik) flew into Earth’s orbit on May 15, 1960. But, on the spacecraft’s 64th orbit, a system malfunction had the thrusters ignite, sending it to a higher orbit. After years of continued orbiting (and decaying orbit), it re-entered the atmosphere several years later and burned up. So… successful, but not successful.

2) On July 28, 1960, two dogs – Chayka and Lisichka – were placed aboard spacecraft Vostok 1K-1 – but the rocket exploded shortly after launch (about 20 seconds) killing the dogs. Because of the failure, no mission name was given.

3) August 19, 1960 was another mission, Korabal-Sputnik-2,  with two more dogs – named Belka and Strelka, and a host of other critters, including mice and insects, and I swear, strips of human skin. By the way, female dogs were the animal sex of choice, mostly because the doggies wore their own version of space suits, and the evacuation tube (for pee et al, was easier to use on female dogs than male ones. If you are wondering what type of dogs were used by the Soviets, the answer is mutts… smallish street dogs that were taken in and trained.


Korabal-Sputnik-2. Image from:

In this mission, Belka and Strelka became the first living beings to be recovered after being in orbit!

No word on whether the mice, insects or human skin survived, but let’s assume so!


Belka (left) and Strelka – possibly the cutest mammals to ever go into space – and survive!

Laika, if you will recall, was the very first dog to go into space – and orbit – all the way back in November 3, 1957 in Sputnik 2. Officially – until 2002 – the story was that she died six days later while in space (there was no plan to bring her or the capsule back), when her oxygen ran out. However, the Soviets said she was euthanized prior to the oxygen running out.

But that was all B.S. Laika apparently died within five or six hours of her launch from overheating – the cause of which may have been a failure of the central R-7 sustainer used to separate from the payload. OR… she died a four days later via the same reason… it depends on the source. 

Sputnik 2 continued to orbit the Earth until April 14, 1958, when, with all systems dead, and having completed 2,570 (or 2,370 according to other sources) orbits… and burned up when it re-entered the atmosphere. 


Laika, seen here pre-lift-off in Sputnik 2. Aviation pioneer. She probably didn’t know it was a one-way mission.

By the way… you’ll notice that I didn’t claim that Laika was the first animal in space. That distinction goes to some unnamed fruit flies that the U.S, launched in a suborbital space mission 10 years earlier in February 20, 1947. You’ll be happy to learn that the fruit flies survived.

They were shot up in a U.S.-captured Nazi Germany V-2 rocket, reached 108 kilometers (68 miles) in altitude, and landed safely after the parachute deployed. 

4) On December 1, 1960, the Soviets sent up 1K-3, Korabal-Sputnik 3, again with two dogs: Pchyolka and Mushka. The Vostok capsule was placed atop a Vostok-L carrier rocket and made it successfully into orbit. However… re-entry issues.

The flight was only for one day – I believe it was cut short – and the spacecraft began to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. But, the engine failed to shut-off at the end of the burn causing all of the fuel to be used. This meant the Soviets were unable to control the spacecraft’s angle of descent. What it really meant, was that the craft could come down in non-Soviet territory, allowing those foreign devils (specifically the Americans) a chance to exam the capsule.

Not willing to allow for that possibility, an explosive charge was remote detonated during re-entry, killing the two dogs instantly. This, by the way, was the last time dogs died during a Soviet space mission.

Explosives in the capsule to prevent foreign powers from having a looky-look? Kindda makes you wonder if they had something similar in other space missions… Yuri Gagarin, I’m looking at you…  

5) The U.S.S.R. launched its 1K-4 rocket on December 22, 1960 (this is five months before Gagarin’s flight) – again carrying two dogs: Kometa and Shutka. Guess what… no name for this mission… so we can assume it was a failure.

During the launch… specifically the third-stage of the launch (while it was shooting upwards), a malfunction occurred, causing the emergency escape system to be activated. Landing 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles) from the launch site, it took several days in -40C (strangely, it’s also -40F) weather for the rescue team to get to the spacecraft… but both dogs were alive. 

6) Taking things slowly (for the era), it wasn’t until March 9, 1961 that Korabal-Sputnik 4 (3KA-1) lifted off. It’s got a mission name, so you know it either went well, or mostly well-enough. At least no more dogs were killed.

This flight only had one dog – named Chernushka… oh and Ivan Ivanovich.

Wait… what? The Soviets sent a man up in space before Yuri Gagarin… and this was a successful flight?

Relax… the Soviets were just having some scientific fun. Ivan Ivanovitch was a dummy… as in a mannequin. But he got a real SK-1 spacesuit.

Ivan was a life-sized mannequin, and was strapped into the main ejector seat.

Even though the Vostok programme had its fair share of failures, the Soviets decided to try and go ahead with an automated version of the Vostok 3KA, that the referenced as Vostok 3KA-1.

The plan was for the Soviets to have success with this flight and the one after it before they went ahead with an actual manned spaceflight (aka that Gagarin fellow).

Just like what they had planned for the first human flight, this one was only going to be for a single Earth orbit.

Along with Chernushka the dog, other critters such as Guinea pigs, mice, and more went along for the ride… except that aside from the dog, these critters were placed INSIDE Ivan the mannequin.

Well, the Vostok capsule entered orbit, did its one rotation, and then the module re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere… successfully.

Ivan the mannequin… he was ejected, as part of the plan.. while the capsule and dog were carried downward assisted by gravity and a parachute. We know that the dog survived (because I previously said no other Soviet dogs were killed) the 106-minute trip (up and down)… but no word on the mice, Guinea pigs, insects or Ivan. For the Soviet space program – this was a success.

SI 97-16252-3h

Ivan Ivanovitch in space suit. Photo credit: Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

7) And now the last Vostok flight before the big one… no… let’s not do that yet.

Let’s look at the plight of cosmonaut-in-training Valentin Bondarenko.


Valentin Bondarenko. Photo: Source (WP:NFCC#4)

Born February 16, 1937 in Kharkiv, Ukraine he was, on March 23, 1961 engaged in a 15-day endurance test involving a low pressure altitude chamber at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow.

On day 10, the chamber’s atmosphere was at least 50 per cent oxygen, when Bondarenko was finished work for the day. Still within the chamber (the purpose was to test the human body for long periods in a low pressure environment.) After removing the biosensors, Bondarenko used a cotton ball soaked with alcohol to clean himself.

When he finished, he discarded the alcohol-soaked cotton ball… right on top of an electric hot plate that just so happened to be on because he was brewing a cup of tea.

Let’s see… alcohol + heat = OMG!

When the alcohol-soaked cotton ball (it may not even have been wet… but the alcohol fumes were still upon it) ignited, Bondarenko tried to tap out the flames using his coveralls (and not his alcohol-swabbed hands)… but, his coveralls were made of cotton.

Let’s see… fire + cotton – OMG!!

Bondarenko’s coveralls caught fire.

Let’s see… clothing on fire + 50 per cent oxygen-rich atmosphere = OMG!!!

Because he was locked in a pressure chamber, despite their being a doctor present, they were unable to open the door for some 30 minutes.

The details are pretty gruesome, as you can imagine for just about anyone involved in burns. He suffered third-degree burns over most of his body (that’s the bad degree).

Yuri Gagarin… lucky bugger… he spent several hours at the hospital where Bondarenko was… but Valentin died of shock about 16 hours after the accident.

Valentin Bondarenko’s carelessness with the cotton swab made him the first astronaut or cosmonaut to die in training.

The Soviets… in typical fashion for the era… hid his death. The West… they never even heard of the poor fellow until 1986.

Now… this death of Soviet Valentin Bondarenko had nothing to do with an actual space mission failure, but it, and the possibility of a rocket exploding after lift-off were all things that Yuri Gagarin had on his mind (or at least in the back of his mind), as the Soviet space programme continued to push ahead.

Heck… at this time, none of the cosmonauts knew who was going to be manning the first human crewed flight into space.

7) Okay, this time for sure. On March 25, 1961, Korabal-Sputnik 5 (3KA-2) was launched… again carrying a mannequin named Ivan Ivanovitch, and Zvezdochka the dog.


Korabal-Sputnik 5. Photo from:

It went up, completed a single orbit of the planet Earth, and successfully landed. Ivan the mannequin, was ejected from the capsule during the landing, and also landed safely with a separate parachute.

Hey… at least they were trying to provide for an escape plan.

By the way… the re-entry module of Vostok 3KA-2  (that was also the name of the capsule), was auctioned on April 12, 2011 – the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight. The Sotheby’s auction saw US$2,882,500 for the capsule, purchased by Russian investment banker Evegeny Yurchenko. That’s so cool. I’d love to be able to lie inside ANY spacecraft. Preferably from our planet.

8) This is it. April 12, 1961.

But, first… there’s something called the FAI: the Fédération aéronautique internationale aka the World Aeronautical Federation. It is Earth’s governing body for all air sports, and stewards definitions regarding human spaceflight. That last phrase is important for this story.

Founded on October 14, 1905 and headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland, the FAI is the organization that maintains world records for aeronautical activities including: ballooning; aeromodeling, unmanned aerial vehicles (such as drones); and flights into space.

Back in 1961, when the Soviets filled out the official FAI paperwork to register the flight of Vostok 1 (Yuri Gagarin’s spacecraft), they stated that the launch site was: Baykonur at latitude 47°22′00″N longitude 65°29′00″E.

The actual launch site was at latitude 45°55′12.72″N longitude 63°20′32.32″E near Tyuratam – which is only about 250 kilometers (~155 miles) south west of the stated site.

Why? Obviously to keep the launch site, and telemetry a secret from possible spying eyes. To rectify this little white lie, in 1995, Russian and Kazakhstan renamed Tyuratam to Baikonur – just a slight change in spelling.

White that bit of subterfuge out of the way, and with cosmonauts Gherman Titov and Grigori Nelyubov named as official back-ups to Yuri Gagarin, the launch process got under way.

Vostok 1 Data


Model of the Vostok spacecraft with its upper stage, on display in Frankfurt Airport’s “Russia in Space” exhibition. Photo taken and edited by de:Benutzer:HPH on “Russia in Space” exhibition (Airport of Frankfurt, Germany, 2002)

The spacecraft consisted of a nearly spherical cabin covered with ablative material.

There were three small portholes and external radio antennas.

Other doo-dads, included: radios, a life support system, instrumentation, and an ejection seat all in the manned cabin.

This cabin was attached to a service module that carried chemical batteries, orientation rockets, the main retro system, and added support equipment for the total system. This service module would be separated from the manned cabin on reentry.


The Vostok 1 capsule on display at the RKK Energiya museum. The main capsule, seen in the center of this picture, is now on display at the Space Pavilion at the VDNKh. Photo by: SiefkinDR – Own work

I have always loved the Soviet’s spacecraft design. To me, as a kid, and now many decades later as an adult, it still looks like an insect.I first saw what it looked like by constructing an Apollo-Soyuz model as a kid. I did a horrible job painting it and it is long gone to a landfill.

The Pre-launch

Gagarin was obviously nervous before the launch, with one of the doctors examining him noting that he was more quiet than usual, and either nodded or said “da” (yes) to her questions. She said he sometimes began to hum.

After dressing him in his space suit et al, the team of doctors gave him a hug, telling him all would be fine. Gagarin merely nodded in response.

I can’t even imagine what he must have felt like. Sure the dummy, Ivan Ivanovitch, survived, but who knows about this time. I mean, most of us would jump at the chance to go up in space now… I even said as much minutes after I watch the space shuttle Challenger explode… there’s a trust that such accidents are flukes… but in Gagarin’s case… successes and failures in the Soviet space programme were exactly 50 per cent  – 12 of 24 were a success.

For Gagarin to go up into space with those odds… cojones of stainless steel.

The U.S.S.R. did not have – at that time – tracking ships to receive signals from the spacecraft, using a ground stations around the U.S.S.R. instead.

The Vostok 1 (Vostok 3KA) did not have a back-up retrorocket engine – because they were trying to keep the weight down to assure (?!) or better-enable the rocket to lift off successfully. 

Contained within the capsule, were 10day’s worth of provisions (it was only supposed to be a single Earth orbit, 105-minute total flight), The extra provisions were there in case something happened to the retrorockets and he was forced to stay up longer – until a solution could be found.

The standard plain white space helmet had a hand-painted CCCP (USSR) upon it, done ably by engineer Gherman Lebedev before it arrived at the launch site Baykonur near Tyuratam. His reasoning was that just in case Gagarin didn’t land where he was supposed… and landed in “enemy” territory… the country identification might help avoid him being shot as a spy.

It sounds right… but it also sounds like the perfect excuse to kill a commie.

Because no one on the ground really knew how the human body (Gagarin’s) would react to being weightless, ground control locked his pilot manual controls. But… just in case he would need it, and contact could not be made, an envelope was placed in the capsule with the code to unlock the controls. Just in case (again), a few members of ground control each secretly told Gagarin the code. It was 1-2-5. 

The day before the launch – April 11, 1961, the Vostok-K rocket with the attached Vostok 3KA space capsule were horizontally moved several kilometers within the Baikonur Cosmodrome to the launch pad. After a quick check of the booster engine to ensure all was well, it was added to the assembly.

At 10AM (Moscow time), both Gagarin and Titov reviewed the flight plan and told the launch would occur on April 12, 1961 at 9:07AM.

If that sounds like a strange time… why not 9AM? Well, when the capsule would fly over Africa, and was when the retrorockets would need to fire for reentry, the solar illumination after a 9:07AM lift-off would be best for the orientation system’s sensors.

Later that evening, after bodily readings were taken on both Gagarin and Titov, they were told to not talk about the mission (to alleviate the nerves) – so they just sat around playing pool, listening to music and talking about their respective childhoods.

At 9:50PM, both were offered a sedative to ensure a good night’s sleep, but both declined – which was okay, as they both apparently slept well. How the heck they did that without someone spiking their water, I have no idea.

Up at 5:30AM on April 12, 1961, they (Gagarin and Titov) had breakfast and were dressed into their spacesuits and then transported to the launch pad.

After entering the spacecraft and strapped in, he proceeded through various tests and checks, and after 40 minutes inside, the hatch was closed. Sort of.

Inside, a sensor flashed indicating to Gagarin that the hatch wasn’t sealed properly. OMG!!!! Technicians spent an hour removing the screws on the hatch, and then resealing it. To this day, however, there is some doubt as to whether the hatch was sealed improperly or not. It could have simply been a faulty sensor. But since no one replaced the sensor in the capsule… and it didn’t indicate a faulty seal again… well… maybe the hatch was improperly sealed.

Although not previously mentioned here, one Sergei Pavlovich Korolev was the U.S.S.R.’s Chief Rocket Engineer, and the designer of the Soviet space programme. Regarded as the father of practical aeronautics, he was involved in the development of the R-7 Rocket (the world’s first ICBM – intercontinental ballistic missile), Sputnik 1, as well as launching Laika the dog into space, and this… the Vostok 1 with Yuri Gagarin.

Korolev was sick with anxiety and chest pains (probably anxiety… been there, done that). He was worried because of the 50 per cent success rate of the Soviet space launches… he got a pill to calm down.

As for Gagarin… if he was not his usual self before the flight, he was downright calm, cool and collected strapped into the capsule. Just 30 minutes before launch, his pulse was only 64 beats per minute.

Launch Time


Yuri Gagrin strapped in and aboard Vostok 1. Photo by via the Soviet space program.

At 9:17AM – just 10 minutes after lift-off, the final rocket stage shut down as it reached Earth’s orbit… and 10 seconds after shut-down, the rocket separated from the capsule, leaving just the capsule and Gagarin alone in Earth’s orbit.

t 9:17AM – just 10 minutes after lift-off, the final rocket stage shut down as it reached Earth’s orbit… and 10 seconds after shut-down, the rocket separated from the capsule, leaving just the capsule and Gagarin alone in Earth’s orbit.

Launch of Vostok 1, continued after the delay to the resolve the hatch issue, and was now about two hours behind schedule.

At 9:07AM, with Korolev radioing: “Preliminary stage… intermediate… main… lift-off! We wish you a good flight. Everything is all right.” Gagarin said back, “Let’s roll!”… or the Russian equivalent “Poyekhali!“One hundred and 19 seconds later, the four booster engines used up the fuel and fell away from the spacecraft.At 156 seconds after lift off, the payload shroud covering Vostok 1 was released, uncovering a window at Gagarin’s feet, with an optical orientation device called a Vzor.At 300 seconds, the rocket core stage used up its propellant and fell away from the capsule, as the final rocket stage fired. Wikipedia details all of the above launch by time, and continues… but for some reason in the next section, they have Gagarin speaking in clipped English, as though someone did a direct translation but had him speaking in Russian-English. See below:

  • 06:13 UT Gagarin reported, “…the flight is continuing well. I can see the Earth. The visibility is good…. I almost see everything. There’s a certain amount of space under cumulus cloud cover. I continue the flight, everything is good.”

That’s pretty funny to me. Do your best Russian-English accent and say “I continue the flight. Everything is good.” I’m pretty sure that in Russian, Gagrin use of grammar would have been more spot-on.

The UTC time, is three hours behind Moscow time, so the above sequence takes place at 9:13AM.

At 9:17AM – just 10 minutes after lift-off, the final rocket stage shut down as it reached Earth’s orbit… and 10 seconds after shut-down, the rocket separated from the capsule, leaving just the capsule and Gagarin alone in Earth’s orbit.

Vostok 1 continued its crossing from east to west, over Siberia, then the Kamchatka peninsula, over the North Pacific Ocean, and then altered course diagonally as it passed over the tip of South America.

It was around this time – at 9:25AM – that Gagarin requested data about his orbital parameters, wanting to know how they thought everything was going down on the ground. But the ground station at Khabarovsk (near the China border) didn’t have the information, but noted that the flight was proceeding normally.

In fact, Ground Control did not know until 25 minutes after launch (at 9:32AM), that Vostok 1 and Gagarin had even achieved a stable orbit.

At 6:31AM, Gagarin again requested from Khabarovsk ground control information on how his flight was going. He said he was feeling good and all was well (by his reckoning)… and then the spacecraft passed out of VHF range of the Khabarovsk ground station.

With no one telling him anything of scientific importance, one can only imagine what was going through Gagarin’s mind at the time.

As Vostok 1 continued over the North Pacific, Gagarin crossed into the night just northwest of the Hawaiian Islands at 9:37AM… and definitely out of VHF range with the ground stations… but High Frequency (HF) radio did continue.

At 9:46AM (again – Moscow time), Khabarovsk used HF radio to send the telegraph message of “KK”… a pre-determined code that Gagarin knew was a request for a “report the monitoring of commands.” Gagarin knew it would be requested when the spacecraft automated descent system had received its instructions from ground control.

Crossing the equator and the South Pacific Ocean, Gagarin replied back two minutes later via HF radio: “I am transmitting the regular report message: 9 hours 48 minutes, the flight is proceeding successfully. Spusk-1 is operating normally. The mobile index of the descent mode monitor is moving. Pressure in the cockpit is 1; humidity 65; temperature 20; pressure in the compartment 1.2 … Manual 150; First automatic 155; second automatic 155; retro rocket system tanks 320 atmospheres. I feel fine…”

At 9:51AM, Gagarin reported to ground control that the sun-seeking attitude control system was switched on. This control system was used to orient the Vostok 1 for retrofire. The automatic/solar system was backed up by a manual/visual system; either one could operate the two redundant cold nitrogen gas thruster systems, each with 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of gas.

By 9:57AM, Vostok 1 was between Chile and New Zealand in the South Pacfic Ocean .

By 10AM, the spacecraft had just crossed the Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America – and news of the successful Vostok 1 space mission mission was broadcast on Radio Moscow.

At 10:04AM, Gagarin sent out a status message saying all was well, listing everything again as he had at 9:48AM… but ground control did not receive it.

He did so again at 10:09AM… but ground control did not receive it.

One minute later at 10:10AM, Vostok 1 passed over the South Atlantic and into daylight again.

At 10:13AM, Gagarin sent out his fourth status message… this time ground control received only a partial message from him: “I read you well. The flight is going….”

At 10:18AM and 10:23AM, two more status messages were sent – but not received.

At 10:25AM, Vostok 1‘s automatic systems re-orientated the spacecraft to the proper attitude to commence the retrorocket firing. 

The retrorockets fired for ~42 seconds while it was over West Africa (near Angola), which placed it about 8,000 kilometers (4,300 nautical miles) up range of the landing point.

The orbit’s perigee and apogee (apogee is the farthest point from the Earth. Perigee is the closest point to the Earth) had been selected to cause reentry due to orbital decay within 10 days (the limit of the Vostok 1‘s life support system) in the event of retrorocket malfunction.

Luckily for Gagarin, the retrorocket did not malfunction… because the orbit decay planned and the orbit decay achieved would NOT have allowed Vostok 1 to break free until Day 20.

But that doesn’t mean things went smoothly.

Ten seconds after the retrorockets began to fire, commands were sent to separate the Vostok service module from the reentry module – but the separation didn’t happen, as the joining wires did not release.

So, at 10:35AM, both parts of the spacecraft (there should only have been one) began reentry, with very strong gyrations afflicting the spacecraft as it passed Egypt.

At this time, the strong gyrations of the spacecraft caused the wires to break and the modules to separate. However the gyrations continued, even as he communicated that everything was still okay.

During the descent, Gagarin experienced about 8 g’s (g-force… weight per unit mass)… which is a helluva lot… and yet he remained conscious.

At 10:55AM, while seven kilometers (4.3miles) from touchdown, the spacecraft’s hatch was released, and Gagarin was ejected. 

It was all part of the plan.

The Vostok 1 spacecraft was designed to eject the cosmonaut at this altitude, and allow him to return to earth by parachute. Gagarin’s parachute opened up almost immediately after ejection.

The parachute on the capsule was deployed at 2.5 kilometers (8,200 feet) altitude that hit the ground, bounced, and landed.

At 11:05AM, Gagarin landed… both he and the capsule near enough to each other. Gagarin then found a telephone and called home base looking for a ride home.


Ground trace of Gagarin’s complete orbit; the landing point is west of the takeoff point because of the Earth’s eastward rotation. So, beacuse the Earth was spinning, Gagarin did indeed make a complete Earth orbit. Credit: World Map from CIA World Fact Book. Reubenbarton added the orbital path info.

The entire flight… from the Earth to space and back again… took 108 minutes. Or, to put it simplistic terms, a shorter amount of time it takes me to get home from work in non-pandemic times.

The End Result

Well… what would you expect. Forget about Gagarin being awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union for a second… the U.S.S.R. just proved to the world (but really pointedly to the U.S.A.), that it was superior… and hopefully that being a Communist was the best.

The entire Soviet Union celebrated.

In the U.S., this Soviet success worried people. Sure, the U.S. government sent out its congratulations to their comrades, but people in the west feared that success in space was a harbinger of  bad tidings… that the West would soon fall to those “commie bastards.”

I’m glad I didn’t live through that era.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy sent congratulations to the Soviet Union for their “outstanding technical achievement.”

In the U.S.S.R., April 12 was declared to be Cosmonautics Day, and is still celebrated in Russia. As of 2011, the United Nations declared April 12 as the International Day of Human Space Flight.

But Was He Really The First Man In Space?

Yes… Gagarin was the first man in space.

But does it count?

WTF are you talking about, Andrew… why wouldn’t it count?!

Well… if you’ll note that earlier on in this blog, I mentioned the FAI… that governing body of all thing aviation-related.

Even back in 1961, FAI rules stipulated that a pilot must land with the spacecraft to be considered an official spaceflight for the FAI record books.

Gagarin was ejected from the capsule and parachuted to Earth separately from the capsule. So… according to FAI rules, this was NOT an official space flight for the FAI record books. 

Aware of this rule, the U.S.S.R. officially said that Gagarin did in fact land with the Vostok 1.

That’s a lie… and one it continued in press conferences  – and so unaware of anything untoward, the FAI certified the space flight.

The lies continued until 1971, when the U.S.S.R finally admitted that Gagarin was not inside the capsule when it landed.

Why it took so long for the Soviet Union to reveal the truth is due to the fact that after Gherman Titov went up in space a few months later on August 6, 1961 and orbited the Earth 17 times, he actually admitted aloud that he ejected from the capsule during reentry and parachuted to safety.

This caused the FAI to re-examine its aviation rules which were put in place back in 1906 and subsequently re-used when it became apparent that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were attempting manned spaceflight.

The old and current aeroplane/airplane rule about a pilot having to land with his plane was a good one. It just wasn’t a good enough one when it came to space flight.

While many of us can picture U.S. Apollo flights where the capsule splashed down with a parachute into the water, the Soviets had not quite figured out how to do a manned landing back in 1961.


NASA’s Mercury-Redstone 3 Friendship 7  – this is where a capsule should land – in the water, here shown being lifted up by a helicopter.

The Soviets knew that they had the wherewithal to launch a man into space and to bring him back (probably)… they just hadn’t figured out how to do a proper braking system yet.

I’m sure they could have waited until they had one in place, where the cosmonaut could land with the capsule, but by that time the Americans would have beaten them to the punch.

Because of Titov spilling the beans, the FAI looked at its rule, and reworked it to note that a successful spaceflight includes: launch, orbiting and safe return of the crew, and NOT how they land.

As such, Gagarin and Titov are in the FAI record book.

There’s even a FAI Gagarin Medal given out annually to the greatest aviation or space achievement of the year. 


Because of the national and international superstar status afforded Gagarin, the U.S.S.R. was determined to not lose him in a space mission accident, and essentially grounded him from all such future flights.

As such, he was “promoted” to deputy training director of the Cosmonaut Training Centre (Tsentr Podgotovki Kosmonavtov (TsPK)), which was home to approximately 250 personnel divided into various departments who were responsible for the development of all aspects of the space program including equipment. It also featured specialists in heat exchange and hygiene, survival clothing, surgery and training staff.

Call it what you want, for Gagarin, it was NOT what he wanted to do… but it was the Soviet Union in the 1960s, so he had no choice.

In 1962, he was also presented with the honor of being “elected” a deputy of the Soviet of the Union in 1962 and then to the Soviet of Nationalities, respectively the lower and upper chambers of the Supreme Soviet – the most authoritative legislative body of the country, and the only one with the power to approve constitutional amendments.

But… he did eventually get his wish to be part of the real space program again…

Soyuz 1

Although the Vostok 1 flight to space was Gagarin’s only spaceflight, he did serve as part of the back-up crew to Soyuz 1. But to be honest, there was no way he was going to be the first person to act as back-up. He was just too valuable a commodity to the communist regime.

The Soyuz 1 crew consisted of just one man, cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, and he died on this mission.


An illustration of Soyuz 1 from:

The Soyuz 1 mission on April 23, 1967, was the first Soviet crewed flight following the death of chief designer Sergei Korolev, who died of cancer and a weak heart after surgery on a bleeding polyp in his large intestine on January 14, 1966. It had also been two years since the U.S.S.R. had done a manned space flight.

The Soyuz 1 was the first crewed flight of the first-generation Soyuz 7K-OK spacecraft and Soyuz rocket, designed as part of the Soviet lunar program.

The original mission plan was for Soyuz 1 to go into space orbit, and then await the soon-to-be-launched Soyuz 2 spacecraft one day later on April 24, 1967.

The plane was for the two spacecraft to rendezvous, exchange crews and then return to Earth. Mother Nature got in the way, however, and Soyuz 2 was unable to lift of due to thunderstorms.

Complexity aside, the forerunners to the Soyuz 1 mission had all been abject failures.

The unmanned tests of the 7K-OK spacecraft and the mission involving Kosmoss 133 and Kosmos 140 were a failure – both were expected to link-up with each other in space. This was in November-December of 1966.

But, Kosmos 133 had attitude control issues that resulted in rapid consumption of orientation fuel, which left it spinning at two revolutions per minute up in orbit.

Kosmos 140 fared even worse. A failure of the strap-on rockets to ignite after the booster ignited caused the Soviets to have to abort the launch.

As crews were draining the propellant  – having done so for the core stage and the strap-ons – the launch escape system (LES) fired, with its exhaust causing the Blok I third stage propellant tanks to overheat and explode, killing one person on the ground and damaging the Soyuz and core stage/strap-ons beyond repair.

So… with all that on the go… the U.S.S.R. decided to push forward with a manned flight – Soyuz 1 and cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov and withe Soyuz 2.

Both Gagarin and Komarov knew about the problems with this mission, and the earlier unmanned tests.

Apparently Gagarin pleaded with the big wigs in the space program to let him be the pilot rather than his friend Komarov. It wasn’t ego, rather he feared for the life of his friend, and felt it better to sacrifice himself.

But… Gagarin was the hero of the U.S.S.R. There was no way they were going to ever let Gagarin go up in space again – to protect him.

Prior to launch, Soyuz 1 engineers are said to have reported 203 design faults to party leaders, but it is believed that their concerns were overruled by political pressure to have a “space feat” to mark the of Lenin’s birthday (April 22, 1870).

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was a revolutionary, politician and political theorist. He served as head of government of Soviet Russia from 1917 to 1924 and of the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1924. Under his administration, Russia and then the wider Soviet Union became a one-party communist state governed by the Russian Communist Party. Ideologically a communist, he developed a variant of Marxism known as Leninism. Leninism proposes the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, led by a revolutionary vanguard party, as the political prelude to the establishment of socialism.

[My political science university professors here in Toronto all had a bit of a Marxist bent to them. I thought university was where one could argue ideas and concepts – but no, apparently that sort of thought process gets one very low marx (sp)].

Komarov, on the other hand, was fully aware of the problems with the Soyuz mission, and was never going to relinquish his place in the spacecraft in order to protect Gagarin.

So, Komarov went up in Soyuz 1

Now, as mentioned, the Soyuz 2 mission was cancelled the next day owing to bad weather, which resulted in the Soviets deciding to cut-short Komarov’s Soyuz 1 flight after 18 orbits.

Even with most of the automatic controls not working, Komarov managed to manually re-orient the space capsule for what he hoped would be a safe descent… but then…

Upon re-entry, a drogue parachute was opened, and then the main parachute… except that the main parachute did not unfold when deployed. Who the hell packed this thing?!

Komarov then activated the manually-deployed reserve chute… but it became tangled with the drogue chute.

The drogue chute was supposed to disengage when the reserve chute was deployed. Oh come on!!!!

Komarov and the Soyuz 1 capsule fell to Earth, killing him. 

It has been reported that Komarov, as his capsule fell to Earth, screamed in rage at those who had “killed” him.

Below, is a pretty damn gruesome image of the charred remains of Komarov being viewed in an open coffin for some reason.


I have no words for this.

What a stupid, senseless death. In this case, the Soviets knew the Soyuz mission was NOT a safe one, and still, for the need to placate the upper echelon, they decided to give it a try anyway.

Not the U.S.S.R.’s finest moment.

The End Result

Beside the death of Komarov, the U.S.S.R. absolutely banned Gagarin from any more space flights – including acting as back-up to other cosmonauts.

However, on February 17, 1968, Gagarin completed training at the Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy, a higher military educational institution for training and retraining of engineers for the Soviet Air Force. Formed on November 23, 1920, it is the largest and oldest scientific school of aeronautics on the planet.

But despite the training, on March 27, 1968, the Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG-15 fighter jet he was piloting with instructor Vladamir Seryogin crashed near the town of Kirzhach, close to Moscow.


A MiG-15 fighter jet. Image credit: wallycacsabremig1

Officially, the Soviet report concluded that the aircraft had tried to avoid a collision with a bird or some other object, which resulted in the MiG going into a tailspin and crashing into the ground.

But that explanation didn’t sit right with a lot of people in the U.S.S.R.

“That conclusion is believable to a civilian — [but] not to a professional,” Alexi Arkhipovich Leonov said in a June 14, 2013 television interview. Full story HERE.

Leonov (born May 30, 1934, Listvyanka, U.S.S.R. – died October 11, 2019, Moscow, Russia) was, on March 18, 1965, the first person to conduct a spacewalk (as noted previously in this extremely long article), exiting the Voskhod 2 capsule mission for a total of 12 minutes and 9 seconds.

Regarding Gagarin’s death, Leonov said: “We knew that a Su-15 [fighter jet] was scheduled to be tested that day, but it was supposed to be flying at the altitude of 10,000 meters [33,000 feet] or higher, not 450-500 meters [1,480-1,640 feet]. It was a violation of the flight procedure.”

Leonov spoke of a then-newly classified report that confirmed than an unauthorized JSC Sukhoi Company Sukhoi Su-15 jet flew close to Gagarin’s Mig-15.

“While after-burning, the aircraft reduced its echelon at a distance of 10-15 meters [30-50 feet] in the clouds, passing close to Gagarin, turning his plane and thus sending it into a tailspin — a deep spiral, to be precise — at a speed of 750 kilometers per hour (470 miles per hour),” noted Leonov in the interview. 

On April 12, 2011 – the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s epic space flight, U.S. astronaut Colonel Catherine Coleman aboard the ISS (International Space Station) teamed up via video with lead singer and flutist Ian Anderson of the rock group Jethro Tull back on Earth for a flute duet in Gagarin’s honor. Jethro Tull was playing live at that time in Russia. I mention this only because Jethro Tull was the first group I ever saw live in concert. And because it’s kindda cool. Apparently the video of the event can be found at NASA’s website, but I couldn’t spot it.

Anyhow, below is a video of Yuri Gagarin and Vladamir Seryogin funeral: 

Gagarin is interned at the Kremlin Wall Necropolis, Moscow, incidentally where his friend and fellow cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov is, as well.

As a side note, the Soviets/Russians still have not made a manned landing on the moon, Of course, NASA and the Americans haven’t put a man on the moon since 1972 after six of seven successful missions (the failed mission was Apollo 13). Both countries have made a combined 12 uncrewed landings since then. I believe, that China is the only other country to have made an uncrewed landing on the moon. Others have tried, but have crashed. 



Posted in Airfields, Failures, Firsts, Heavier-Than-Air, Jets, Parachute, Pilots, Rockets, Space, Tea Card | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: To Caress the Air

I don’t know why it has taken me so long to get around to providing my review of the book: To Caress the Air – Augustus Herring and the Dawn of Flight; Books One & Two.

All I can say to the author, C. David Gierke, is “I’m sorry.”

Back in 2019, he sent me books one and two of his biographical novel, a writing endeavor that took him decades to complete.

After reading the 1,500 page tomes (total pages, including the vast reservoir of footnotes), I can truly state that the novel is worthy of his efforts.

For those of you who are unaware, Augustus Herring (Augustus Moore Herring, born in Covington, Georgia, United States of America, August 3, 1867 – died July 17, 1926, New York City, New York) is an American aviation pioneer – hence his inclusion in this blog:

Herring’s life story and his place in aviation has long been one of misunderstanding and controversial, but author Gierke via his long and detailed research attempts to set the record straight.

The story takes place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but rather merely inundating the reader with dull facts, Gierke has turned the life of Augustus Herring into an interesting and very readable story.

A true story, but with a caveat.

As with any good book, the story of Augustus Herring is rife with conversations between Herring and other real people. But how does anyone really know what conversations took place over 100 years ago?

Heck, most people have difficulty in repeating a conversation they had (word-for-word) a week ago or a day ago – or even several hours ago.

I asked author Gierke that question – and he candidly explained that yes, the words in the conversations that occur in his novel are made-up, but they are actually based on real facts – and Gierke provides substantial footnotes (or end notes) at the end of each volume of the story.

So, yes, the actual words are made up, but the facts remain true. This is key.

What I got out of it, besides a fascinating account of the trials and tribulations of Augustus Herring (and there are so many trials – litigious – and so many tribulations – oy vey), is that Gierke is one heck of a story-teller.

We’re talking about 1,500 pages over two books – and yet, despite the length, it was a very difficult story to put down. I read them both over a two-week period in 2019, and began re-reading it again a few days ago… and the fact remains – the story of August Herring… the book(s): To Caress the Air, is entertaining reading.

Now, entertainment is fine (I love to watch the show Supernatural, for example), but I like to learn things along the way. And I sure learned a thing or two about the men and women involved in the early days of pioneer aviation. Some of it good, some of it bad – all of it riveting.

Here… you want something from the book that will make you go, WTF?: “Most people believe that the Wright Brothers invented the airplane. Not so,” said Augustus Herring.

Well, that’s true. The Wright Brothers may (or may not) have been the first to successfully launch, fly and land an aeroplane… but there is ample enough proof to show that others before them were attempting to create their own successful aeroplane.

Herring, was one of them. But, did he actually succeed BEFORE the Wright Brothers?

Author Gierke says Herring successfully flew an aeroplane five years before the Wright Brothers. Say wha – ?

Gierke’s tour de force To Caress the Air takes place in the New York State Supreme Court in 1921, where the Herring-Curtiss Company v. Glenn H. Curtiss takes place. The civil trial’s evidence is explained via flashback scenes and takes those present in the court (or those of us reading) back to the days before the first successful Wright Brothers flight – back… back… back to when folks were trying to resolve how to get something heavier than air into the air.

Gierke’s novel mentions many of the well-known and respected names involved in aviation, and via his novel wonders aloud just why Augustus Herring’s name isn’t part of that pantheon.

Learn about Herring’s place in the aerial pantheon of the demi-gods, and just what the heck happened to cause his fall from grace. Was it his own doing, was it the smear tactics of others? Sure.

While Gierke has littered the book(s) with factual accounts based on court documents, as well as a personal collection of letters and notes from and to Herring, himself, unlike a real court setting (not the ones on day-time TV) where everything is dry, the story is a highly entertaining, and factual read.

Holy crap – I learned something! A lotta somethings! You should too!

I have a couple of complaints, however… one: the cover art for both books is too similar. Book one shows a drawing of a man beginning to fly; and book two shows the man leaping into the air with his aircraft. I get it… but I didn’t get it until I looked at it about five times. It didn’t stand out. Also, the phrases “Book One” and “Book Two” need to be larger, or at least in bold.

Yeah… those are my biggest complaints.

There are a number of photos and diagrams in the book – and maybe I wish there were more… and larger… but how many pages are there now? 1,500?

Well… we are talking about a man’s life story here.

So… how do you buy a copy of the books, published by Write Associates, LLC?

Well, I got mine on Amazon (David Gierke fronted me the money to buy my copies – so he wouldn’t have to pay mail costs from his home to mine – across the U.S. – Canada border).

I just did a title search: To Caress the Air – and presto! A paperback version of both books can cost: US$74.68.

Yes, it may seem like a lot, but its a great book(s) of pioneer aviation history.

Now, according to author Gierke, who contacted me after the initial posting of this article, he is dismayed at the wide pricing of his books: “They are intended to retail for $21.95 (per volume) in softcover, and $32.95 in hardcover. Both versions can be obtained at these prices at Barnes & Noble and other reputable sellers.”

There… Barnes & Noble has the books at a more affordable rate!

So… two thumbs up to Gierke and his wonderful To Caress the Air books on aviation pioneer Augustus Herring. Buy the books.

And to David Gierke… I’m sorry I didn’t do the write-up sooner. I lost my job after getting the books – and to be honest, I didn’t feel like doing ANY personal writing on my blogs. But I’m starting to get my groove back.


Andrew Joseph

Posted in Aeroplane Factories, Books, Firsts, Gliders, Heavier-Than-Air, Motors and Engines, People, Pilots, Research | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Manfred von Richthofen – The Red Baron


Card #53, Cigarettenfabrik Basma, German Men: A Collection of Famous Germans series 1934, German-language only issue.

  • Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, born May 2, 1892, Breslau, Province of Silesia, Kingdom of Prussia, German Empire (present-day Wrocław, Poland) – April 21, 1918, Vaux-sur-Somme, France.

The above sketch of Manfred von Richthofen aka the Red Baron was issued by the Germany cigarette company Cigarettenfabrik Basma, out of Dresden. Issued in 1934, this card – #53 – is from the series German Men: A Collection of Famous Germans.

Despite being a great looking card, the main problem collectors have with German cards is that despite the popularity of the German cigarette cards prior to WWII, there hasn’t been much success in cataloging exactly what was produced and when. For example, I can’t tell you with any certainty just how many cards there were in this particular series.

The cards are about as tall as a standard tobacco/cigarette card, but are about 25mm (1-inch) wider. Under his name, “Freiherr von Richthofen” on the reverse of the card, it says (translated to English): “airman in the war”.


Reverse of the Manfred von Richthofen card.

Regardless, this particular blog entry is about Manfred von Richthofen himself, and his equally famous aircraft, the red Fokker Dr.1 triplane.

However… while the famous red Fokker was responsible for the last 17 of his confirmed kills, the Red Baron used other aircraft for the majority of his combat victories. Yes, he did.

The odds are pretty good that you have at least heard of the Red Baron, and know that he was the greatest fighter pilot of WWI because of the number of confirmed kills – 80 over a 19-month combat career. You need five combat flight kills to be called an “Ace”.

But was he just a superior pilot, or the legendary gentleman of the airways as the legend/myth dictates, or was he a savage predator who earned most of his kills by chasing and putting down already damaged aeroplanes – first shot by other German pilots.

And, is there anything actually wrong with that in war… a kill or be killed scenario? Aerial combat was in its infancy, and there was no rule book on how one should act… though by mid-1916, one German flier – Captain Oswald Boelcke – did compile the first eight (8) rules for aviation warfare, his Dicta Boelcke – read about him HERE. However, note that these were his bits of advice on how to win an aerial dogfight, not how to treat the enemy.

Note that #1 is: Secure the upper hand before attacking.


Manfred von Richthofen in a Fokker Dr.1 triplane. (Credit: Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Let’s start with a song from 1966 by The Royal GuardsmenSnoopy vs the Red Baron, a goofy great song I loved as a kid, and where I first learned about the Red Baron’s prowess in the air (

So… beyond the song, what do we know about the Manfred himself?

He wasn’t actually a Baron. He wasn’t even German – he was Prussian. About the only thing most people know about Prussia is that it has it’s own brand of blue – Prussian Blue. But briefly, many of the Germanic countries joined together to form the German Empire – under Prussian leadership. Austria and Switzerland deigned NOT to join. In 1918, the Kingdom of Prussia became the Free State of Prussia – a state under Germany. It remained as such until 1933, when the Nazi regime essentially took it over.

Note that this cigarette card is from 1934, and calls Manfred von Richthofen a “German”, not a “Prussian”. After the defeat of the Nazis, Germany territories were divided up and separated and added to Poland and the Soviet Union, meaning Prussia no longer existed… which is why I noted the Red Baron’s birthplace as such, up above.

Although not a Baron – that was just a nickname given to him by the WWI Allies – he was born into a fairly prominent Prussian aristocratic family. His father was Major Albrecht Philipp Karl Julius Freiherr von Richthofen and his mother was Kunigunde von Schickfuss und Neudorff, and he had an elder sister, Ilse, and two younger brothers, Karl Bolko (1903–1971) and Lothar – the latter of whom had 40 confirmed aerial combat kills in WWI.

As a rich kid, Manfred rode horses, hunted boar, elk, deer and various birds, performed well in gymnastics – particularly the parallel bars, and was a very good student, though he was home-schooled for a while, as well as a student at a school in Schweidnitz.

When he was 11, he attended military school completing training in 1911. He then joined a light cavalry unit – the Ulanen-Regiment Kaiser Alexander der III. von Russland (1. Westpreußisches) Nr. 1 (“1st Emperor Alexander III of Russia Uhlan Regiment (1st West Prussian)”) and was assigned to the regiment’s 3. Eskadron (“No. 3 Squadron”).

What? The greatest flying ace was a guy on a horse? Surely things changed when WWI began?

Actually, no. At the onset, he was a cavalry reconnaissance officer in Russia, France and Belgium. But when trench warfare became a thing, standard cavalry usage became … old… so out-dated that our boy’s unit was turned into a non-cavalry regiment where the men were used as telephone operators and message runners.

Now, as mentioned earlier, Manfred was competitive… he liked to hunt… and just relaying messages wasn’t good enough for him. He longed for combat. After being transferred to the army’s supply branch, he applied for a transfer to Die Fliegertruppen des deutschen Kaiserreiches (Imperial German Army Air Service) after seeing his country’s aircraft behind the lines.

In his written transfer application, he is said to have added the following commentary: “I have not gone to war in order to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose.”

Back in those days, just as now, the military would have told him to shut-up and report for duty as ordered, but for whatever reason – his family, perhaps – he was allowed to join the Air Service at the end of May 1915, serving as an observer on reconnaissance missions over the Eastern Front with Feldflieger Abteilung 69 (“No. 69 Flying Squadron”) until August, 1915.

As an observer, sitting in the back seat behind the pilot (some British planes had the unarmed pilot sitting ahead of the pilot), he had his own machine gun to protect his pilot’s aeroplane. On one mission, we think he shot down a French aircraft – a Farman – but since it fell behind Allied lines, the kill could not be confirmed. So… number of kills – zero.

After meeting ace fighter pilot Oswald Boelcke, he began training as a pilot in October of 1915. A few months later in February of 1916, Manfred convinced his brother Lothar to give up training troops to join the German Fliegertruppe (Air Force).

In March of 1916, Manfred was posted to the No. 2 Bomber Squadron, and actually crashed the first time he flew, prompting others to feel he was a below-average pilot. But Manfred being Manfred, he quickly familiarized himself with the controls and got better.

On April 26, 1916, it is reported, that he shot down a France-built Nieuport – but he did not gain an official kill. Number of kills – zero.

Manfred met Boelcke again in August of 1916, who was searching for possible pilots for his newly-formed Jasta 2 division, and was selected.

Still looking for his first confirmed kill, after being a pilot for a year (11 months, actually), Manfred achieved his goal on September 17, 1916. Flying his Albatross D.II aeroplane, he shot down a Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2b (Farman Experimental 2) piloted by Second Lieutenant Lionel Morris and observer Captain Tom Rees. The plane was was combination fighter/reconnaissance/night bomber. Ironically for Captain Rees, he had just earned promotion to Captain earlier that day.

Morris and Rees in their F.E.2b, were part of a 14-plane group (eight Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2c‘s and six F.E.2b‘s) from the Royal Flying Corps 3rd Brigade. Rees was killed during the dogfight with Manfred, but the mortally wounded Morris still managed to land the aeroplane. By knocking the aircraft out of the sky or rather out of the fight, this was called Manfred’s first official “victory”.

Manfred’s autobiography says: “I honored the fallen enemy by placing a stone on his beautiful grave.”

He also had a jeweler engrave a silver cup he bought with the date and the type of enemy aircraft. This was something he did until he had acquired 60 cups/victories, only stopping as the war created a silver shortage. He was offered the opportunity to have cups made of a less precious metal, but declined. Arrogance? Sure. I mean really, who the hell has trophies made for killing people? A serial killer?

Then again, according to his notes, he “placed a stone upon the grave”… though I’m unsure if he did that for Rees or Morris.

Under the command of Boelcke, Manfred followed the Dicta Boeclke… eight simple rules for aviation warfare created by Boelcke.

While the rules appear to be self-evident, Boelcke was the first to have compiled it and written it down. You can read about Boelcke HERE.

The Dicta Boelcke was published as a pamphlet and given to all German pilots as a training manual on fighting tactics… the first of its kind.

Dicta Boelcke

  1. Secure the benefits of aerial combat (speed, altitude, numerical superiority, position) before attacking. Always attack from the sun;
  2. If you start the attack, bring it to an end;
  3. Fire the machine gun up close and only if you are sure to target your opponent;
  4. Do not lose sight of the enemy;
  5. In any form of attack, an approach to the opponent from behind is required;
  6. If the enemy attacks you in a dive, do not try to dodge the attack, but turn to the attacker;
  7. If you are above the enemy lines, always keep your own retreat in mind;
  8. For squadrons: In principle attack only in groups of four to six. If the fight breaks up in noisy single battles, make sure that not many comrades pounce on an opponent.

The rules stressed a team effort rather than how to win in single contact… rules that would allow the pilot to achieve single combat.

Boelcke ended up with 40 victories when he died after being shot down on October 28, 1916.

The final tally for Manfred’s brother Lothar was also 40 victories, but he survived WWI, only to die on July 4, 1922 at the age of 27, when the aircraft he was piloting suffered engine failure.

Manfred, it should be noted, was not considered to be an aerobatic pilot, nor an aggressive one like his brother Lothar. Rather, by using the Dicta Boelcke, he became WW1’s most accomplished tactical fighter pilot.

Despite the incredibly high number of victories achieved by Manfred, those victories were all accomplished with help. His usual form of attack was to dive at a single enemy plane from above, attacking with the sun directly behind him, so that any defensive pilot looking up, would only see the fiery orb. As well, while performing this dive attack from the rear, he would have other pilots cover his tail and flanks – an effective means of attack.

Manfred’s first 18 confirmed victories were achieved in an Albatros D.II (D.2). Victories 19-24 were done via a Halberstadt D.II (D.2); No. 25 in an Albatross D.II; 26-31 in the Halberstadt; 32-52 in an Albatros D.III (D.3); 53-59 in an Albatros D.V (D.5); 60-61 in a Fokker F.I (F1); 62-63 in the Albatros D.V; 64-80 in the Fokker DR.I (DR. 1).

As you can see, only 17 victories were achieved in the classic Fokker DR.I... while the Albatros D. II had 19 victories. So… which aeroplane should be considered the definitive Red Baron aircraft?

Also… there’s a reason why Manfred went back to the Albatros D.II after using the Halberstadt D.II… check out the answer under the Albatros D.III section below.

And!!!! why did Manfred revert to the Albatros D.V after flying the Fokker F.I? You can find this answer out in the Albatros D.V section (also why he never flew the D.IV).

Let’s take a look at the five different types of fighter aeroplanes (Albatros D.II; Albatross D.III; Albatross D.V; Fokker F.I; and the Fokker DR.I) used by Manfred von Richtofen, aka the Red Baron:

Albatros D.II


Upon first look above… you’ll notice that the Red Baron’s first fighter aircraft is a biplane. All of his Albatros aircraft were biplanes. Only the Fokker aircraft flown by him were triplanes.

Built by the Albatros-Flugzeugwerke GmbH in Berlin, the company was founded by Enno Walther Huth and Otto Wiener on December 20, 1909. The first planes built under license in 1909, was the France-designed Antoinette monoplane.

They also built several versions of the Etrich Taube monoplane (see HERE), as well the Doppeltaube biplane. The company continued its operation until 1931, when it was merged (because of Germany government “pressure” into Focke-Wulf Flugzeugbau AG.

Designed by Robert Thelen, the Albatros D.II was first flown in 1916, with a final tally of 291 such aircraft built.

As mentioned, Manfred von Richtofen flew this aircraft early in his career. For victory Number 11 on November 23, 1916, he was in a long dogfight with Major Lanoe George Hawker of Great Britain who was flying  a single-seat Airco DH.2 pusher aeroplane (designed by Geoffrey de Havilland). While Hawker’s plane had a tighter turning circle, Manfred’s Albatros D.II was faster, had twin guns, and could maintain its height while executing a turn.

It took approximately 900 rounds of ammunition, but eventually Manfred was able to shoot Hawker in the head causing pilot and plane to crash.

Remember what I said about Manfred and his trophies? Along with having another silver cup made, after shooting down Hawker, he landed his plane nearby and took the Lewis machine gun from the DH.2 as a memento.

I understand that many a fighting person has taken a souvenir from a battlefield… and since I’ve never been in any such war, I will refrain from judging anyone, let alone Manfred von Richtofen. I’m a curious person and a collector of multiple things, so who knows what I would have done.

Albatross D.II Specifications:

  • Crew: 1;
  • Length: 7.35 meters (24 feet 1 inch);
  • Upper wingspan: 8.5 meters (27 feet 11 inch);
  • Lower wingspan: 8 meters (26 feet 3 inches);
  • Height: 2.71 meters (8 feet 11 inches);
  • Wing area: 24 square meters (260 square feet);
  • Gross weight: 898 kilograms (1,980 pounds);
  • Powerplant: 1 × Austro-Daimler 6-cylinder water-cooled in-line piston engine creating 185 horsepower;
  • Propellers: 2-bladed fixed-pitch wooden propeller;
  • Maximum speed: 170 or 175 kilometers per hour (110/105.6 miles per hour);
  • Cruise Speed: 142 kilometers per hour (88.2 miles per hour);
  • Range: 263 kilometers (163.4 miles);
  • Guns: 2 × 8 mm (0.315 in) Schwarzlose belt-fed machine guns;
  • Time to altitude:
  • 1,000 meters (3,281 feet) in 4 minutes 30 seconds;
  • 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) in 7 minutes;
  • 3,000 meters (9,843 feet) in 12 minutes 30 seconds.

Halberstadt D.II


Designed and built by the Halberstädter Flugzeugwerke of Halberstadt, Germany, the Halberstadt D.II was created by Karl Theis, first flying in late 1915, and was introduced in early 1916 and became the first biplane configuration fighter aircraft to serve in combat for the German Empire.

This aeroplane featured staggered wings, and used a wing-mounted radiator, similar to the arrangement that was later used by the Albatros D.III and D.V. The plane also featured a lower wing trailing edge “droop”, and because the pilot sat high to see over the top wings, a dorsal turtleback fairing was incorporated over the rear fuselage to improve aerodynamics.

A total of 65 of this aircraft were built. You’ll notice in the specifications, that the D.II was a good 20/25 kilometers per hour (17/12.6 miles per hour) slower than the Albatros II, and was far less powerful (horsepower). Its climb rate, however, was decidedly quicker, likely aided by the almost 170 kilogram/400 pound difference in gross weight.

Halberstadt D.II Specifications:

  • Crew: 1;
  • Length: 7.3 meters (23 feet 11 inches);
  • Wingspan: 8.8 meters (28 feet 10 inches) for the upper and lower wings, individually;
  • Height: 2.66 meters (8 feet 9 inches);
  • Wing area: 23.6 square meters (254 square feet);
  • Empty weight: 519 kilograms (1,144 pounds);
  • Gross weight: 728.5 kilograms (1,606 pounds);
  • Powerplant: 1 × Mercedes D.II 6-cylinder water-cooled in-line piston engine producing 120 horsepower;
  • Propellers: 2-bladed fixed-pitch propeller;
  • Maximum speed: 150 kilometers per hour (93 miles per hour);
  • Range: 250 kilometers (160 miles);
  • Service ceiling: 4,000 meters (13,000 feet);
  • Guns: 1 × forward-firing 7.92 millimeter (.312 inches) lMG 08 Spandau Arsenal machine gun;
  • Time to altitude:
    • 1,000 meters (3,281 feet) in 3 minutes 30 seconds;
    • 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) in 8 minutes 30 seconds;
    • 3,000 meters (9,843 feet) in 14 minutes 30 seconds;
    • 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) in 22 minutes 30 seconds;
    • 5,000 meters (16,404 feet) in 38 minutes 30 seconds.

Albatros D.III


Taken by an official German photographer, this is photograph Q 50328 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums. German Albatros D.IIIs of Jagdstaffel 11 and Jagdstaffel 4 parked in a line at La Brayelle near Douai, France. Manfred von Richthofen’s red-painted aircraft is second closest in line (with boarding step ladder in place).

Because both the D.I and D.II aircraft were successful, Albatros-Flugzeugwerke GmbH continued to build the D.III with the semi-monocoque (monocoque is a structural skin aka a structural system where loads are supported through an object’s external skin, similar to an egg shell), plywood-skinned fuselage.

The Idflieg (Inspectorate of Flying Troops), asked that the D.III use a sesquiplane wing arrangement broadly similar to France’s Nieuport 11. This sesquiplane set-up has one wing (usually the lower) smaller than the other. Sesquiplane means “one-and-a-half wings.” The set-up is to reduce drag and weight – but still keeping a biplane’s structural advantages.

So, Albatros-Flugzeuwerke extended the upper wing, and redesigned the lower with reduced chord and a single main spar. V-shaped interplane struts (see photo above) replaced the parallel struts between the upper and lower wings used in the D.II.

Approximately 1,866 D.III aircraft were built.

When the D.III entered squadron service in December of 1916, pilots loved its  maneuverability and rate of climb. However…

Two faults with the D.III were found: 1) Because it featured a Teves und Braun airfoil-shaped radiator in the middle of the upper wing as was used on the D.II, it could scald the pilot if punctured.

So… from the 290th built D.III aircraft onward, the radiator was offset to the right on production machines while others were soon moved to the right as an in-the-field modification by the crews.

2) The bigger problem, however, was the failure of the lower wing ribs and leading edge – this was also a problem with the Nieuport 17.

Amongst others, on January 24, 1917, Manfred von Richthofen suffered a crack in the lower wing of his brand new D.III. It occurred after he secured his 18th victory, and his first in the D.III, shooting down the Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2b flown by Lt. John MacLennan and Captain Oscar Greig – who were both taken in as POWs.

A few days later on January 27, 1917, all D.IIIs were grounded until such time as the wing problem could be rectified.

On February 19, after Albatros introduced a reinforced lower wing, the grounding was removed. New production D.IIIs were completed with the strengthened wing while all operational D.IIIs were withdrawn to Armee-Flugparks for modifications, forcing Jastas (and Manfred) to use the Albatros D.II and Halberstadt D.II.

As such, Manfred used the Halberstadt D.II through March 6, 1917 when he got his 24th victory, shooting down a B.E.2e, killing British 2nd Lt. Gerald Maurice Gosset-Bibby, and Canadian Lt. Geoffrey Joseph Ogilvy Brichta.

He switched back to the Albatros D.III in time for his 25th victory on March 9, 1917, shooting down a D.H.2, killing pilot Lt. Arthur John Pearson MC.

Just after this, it was found that the D.III‘s main spar was too far aft, which caused the wings to twist when in a steep or prolonged dive.

While pilots were told NOT to perform such maneuvers, sometimes you need to do them to survive.As such, Manfred, and other pilots, switched aircraft again, with his choice being the Halberstadt D.II.

Even with these issues, the D.III was still considered to be a pretty good aircraft amongst the pilots, as it had improved climb, maneuverability, and downward visibility compared to the D.II.

Here… in case you wish to build your own, here’s the of drawing:


Note that in 1916, a license to manufacture the aircraft was sold to Austro-Hungary. Rather than use the Mercedes D.IIIa powerplant, they utilized Austro-Daimler built motors: the series 53.2, 153, 253, producing 185, 200, or 225 horsepower, respectively.

It’s quite a difference in horsepower, as the German Mercedes version only produced 175 horsepower. Now… as most people are aware, simply putting in a larger motor into a vehicle can improve performance and speed. But, it can also be heavier, use more fuel, may not climb as fast because of the additional weight, and it could also place greater stress on the overall structure. For the Austro-Hungary aircraft, there were a number of wing failures, which required engineers to provide modifications to the lower wing by using thicker ribs and spar flanges.

Anyhow… below, where possible, I have attempted to supply just the GERMAN-made aircraft specifications… some, however, are from the Austro-Hungary versions of the aircraft.

Albatross D.III Specifications:

  • Crew: 1;
  • Length: 7.33 meters (24 feet and one half inch);
  • Width: 9.05 meters (29 feet, 8.3 inches);
  • Upper wingspan: 9 meters (29 feet 6 inches) – from Austro-Hungary version;
  • Lower wingspan: 8.73 meters (28 feet 8 inches) – from Austro-Hungary version;
  • Height: 2.98 meters (9 feet 9.3 inches);
  • Wing area: 20.56 square meters (221.3 square feet) – from Austro-Hungary version;
  • Empty Weight: 710 kilograms (1,565 pounds);
  • Gross weight: 886 kilograms 1,953 pounds);
  • Powerplant: 1 x Mercedes D.IIIa water-cooled 6-cylinder in-line engine developing 175 horsepower;
  • Propellers: 2-bladed fixed-pitch wooden propeller;
  • Maximum speed: 175 kilometers per hour (109 miles per hour);
  • Ceiling: 5,500 meters (18,045 feet);
  • Range: 350 kilometers (217 miles);
  • Guns: 2 × 7.92 mm (0.315 in) Spandau LMG 08/15 fixed, forward-firing synchronized machine guns;
  • Time to altitude:
  • 270 meters/minute (886 feet/minute);
  •  OR… using Austro-Hungary data:
    • 1,000 meters (3,281 feet) in 2 minutes 35 seconds;
    • 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) in 6 minutes 35 seconds;
    • 3,000 meters (9,843 feet) in 11 minutes 20 seconds;
    • 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) in 18 minutes 50 seconds;
    • 5,000 meters (16,404 feet) in 33 minutes.

Albatros D.V

DVa2.jpgBuilt by Albatros Flugzeugwerke GmbH, the Albatros D.V was the last of the Albatros D.I series, with approximately 2,500 built, first entering service in May of 1917. The photo above says that one was used by Manfred von Richtofen.

You may be wondering why German pilots didn’t fly an Albatros D.IV (Four) before flying the Albatros D.V (Five)… well, the D.IV was designed to test a geared version of the 160 horsepower Mercedes D.III engine. Three were built, with only one known to have flown.


The experimental Albatros D.IV fighter, one of three built in 1916.

The one D.IV that flew, was tested with several types of propeller, but engineers found them to have excessive vibration problems, and compounded by only a minor increase in performance, the project was scrapped.

As for the Albatros D.V, it looked a lot like the D.III – even using the same 170 horsepower Mercedes D.IIIa engine.

The D.V, however, used a  new, fully elliptical cross-section fuselage that was 32 kilograms (71 pounds) lighter than the partially flat-sided fuselage of the earlier models. The new fuselage required the placement of an additional longeron on each side of the fuselage and the fin.

It also used the enlarged rudder featured on D.IIIs built by the Ostdeutsche Albatros Werke (OAW), and had a larger spinner and ventral fin. The upper wing was 121 millimeters (4.75 inches) closer to the fuselage, while the lower wings were attached to the fuselage without a fairing.

The D.V wings were almost identical to those of the standard D.III, which had adopted a sesquiplane wing arrangement. The only significant difference between wings of the D.III and D.V was a revised routing of the aileron cables that placed them entirely within the upper wing.

When the D.V first came out, it had a large headrest for the pilot… nothing like comfort, right? Wrong… it was so large that it blocked the rear view of the pilot when they turned their head to look for the enemy behind them! Flight crews removed the headrest, and soon enough, it was removed all together from production.

As mentioned, the D.V continued to have the same lower wing failure when the plane was in a steep dive as the D.III – apparently no one had done stress testing on the new plane’s wings until one month AFTER it had been found to have issues.

What’s worse, is that on the D.V, the sesquiplane wing layout was even more vulnerable than the D.III.

The outboard sections of the D.V upper wing also suffered failures – but flight crews could get around that if they added additional wire bracing. Oh, and on the occasional time there was a rough landing, the fuselage sometimes cracked.

All these issues with the D.V, and performance wasn’t enough for the pilots to say it was a better aeroplane than the D.III. The British tested one of these captured D.V‘s and described it as: slow to man oeuvre, heavy on the controls and tiring to fly.

Manfred von Richthofen complained that the D.V was “so obsolete and so ridiculously inferior to the English that one can’t do anything with this aircraft.” Ouch.


This beautiful artwork was done by B. Huber, and shows Manfred von Richtofen’s Albatros D.V aeroplane. Huber has more artwork:

Its reputation on the line, Albatros midstream attempted to rectify the the D.V by modifying the design and calling it the D.Va. The new D.Va had stronger wing spars, heavier wing ribs and a reinforced fuselage – all of which made the aircraft 23 kilograms (51 pounds) heavier than the D.III.

Despite being heavier, performance was recaptured by the aeroplane now incorporating a Mercedes D.IIIaü engine outputting 180 horsepower.

The Mercedes D.IIIaü, was an unofficial designation, (ü for über), for D.IIIa engines that used domed pistons that operated “over-compressed” (at a higher compression ratio).

The D.Va also reverted to the D.III aileron cable linkage, running outwards through the lower wing, then upwards to the ailerons to provide a more positive control response. The wings of the D.III and D.Va were interchangeable.

Manfred did achieve victories 53-59 in the D.V – but did you know, that on July 6, 1917, a few days after shooting down a Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8 flown by Sgt. Hubert Arthur Whatley and 2nd Lt. Frank Guy Buckingham Pascoe (both died), the Red Baron was, himself, shot down?


The Red Baron was shot down on July 6, 1917 – but only suffered serious injuries (as opposed to death).

In the photo above, note that the aircraft is painted red only on the tail, wings, spinner and the nose.

In a dogfight with a British aeroplane, Manfred was hit by a grazing bullet to the skull, suffering a fracture… and was enough for him to be taken out of action for a few weeks.

During the air battle against a formation of Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2d two-seat fighters of No. 20 Squadron RFC, Manfred was hit in the head by a bullet, causing him to partially lose his vision. He regained it quickly enough to bring his aeroplane out of a spin and to land it in friendly territory.

The head injury required multiple operations to remove skull splinters from his cranium.

Manfred returned to active service against his doctor’s orders on July 25, but was forced to remain grounded from September 5 to October 23, 1917.

Despite the quick return from the fractured skull, Manfred later complained about having headaches, and would continue to suffer post-flight nausea.

Manfred had become a hero to the German people, and it was feared that his death would be a demoralizing blow, and so the military attempted to squeeze him into a desk job after his wounding.

Manfred refused, however, believing that “every poor fellow in the trenches must do his duty” and so should he in the air.

By the way… with apologies to Monty Python, a few weeks earlier, Manfred was promoted as a leader of his very own four squadron fighter wing called the Jagdgeschwader I – but because of the its brightly painted aeroplanes, it was nicknamed “the Flying Circus.”

Albatross D.V Specifications:

  • Crew: 1;
  • Length: 7.33 meters (24 feet 1 inch);
  • Wingspan: 9.05 meters (29 feet 8 inches);
  • Height: 2.7 meters (8 feet 10 inches);
  • Wing area: 21.2 square meters (228 square feet);
  • Empty weight: 687 kilograms (1,515 pounds);
  • Gross weight: 937 kilograms (2,066 pounds);
  • Powerplant: 1 × Mercedes D.IIIaü piston engine, creating 200 horsepower;
  • Propellers: 2-bladed wooden propeller;
  • Maximum speed: 186 kilometers per hour (116 miles per hour);
  • Ceiling: 5,700 meters (18,700 feet);
  • Range: 350 kilometers;
  • Guns: 2 × 7.92 mm (0.312 in) LMG 08/15 machine guns;
  • Rate of climb: 4.17 meters per second (821 feet per minute);
  • Time to altitude: 1,000 meters (3,281 feet) in 4 minutes.

Fokker F.I


This, is just a test. There were only three F.I triplanes ever built by Fokker-Flugzeuwerke GmbH – and yes, Manfred von Richtofen was one of the three men to pilot one, along with Werner Voss and Kurt Wolff.

Manfred actually flew Fokker F.I, serial number 102/17, one of two prototypes that actually flew. Wolff was shot down and killed in this same aeroplane on September 15, 1917.

Werner Voss was shot down while flying F.I 103/17 on September 23, 1917.

The F.I 101/17 was tested to destruction in August of 1918, failing at a load factor of 7.75.

Manfred achieved his victory number 60 in the Fokker F.I on September 1, and Number 61 on September 3, 1917… and then decided he preferred the Albatros D.V… for awhile.

The film below may show why he went back to the Albatros D.V (for a while). Now… since this film is purported to have been shot on September 7, 1917, and we know Manfred was still flying the Fokker F.I, as late as four days earlier when he got victory 64, we can assume that the YouTube video is misnamed… that it’s NOT the Red Baron in a Fokker Dr.I, but actually him in his Fokker F.I.

In the movie, you can see what Manfred actually wore when flying, as we get to see him getting dressed!

There is no sound, of course, because “talkies” weren’t a thing until 10 years later with 1927’s The Jazz Singer.

The film shows him taking off, and upon returning, we see him inspecting the F.I‘s cowl where it appears to have suffered gunfire damage. Anyhow… no kills/victories on this flight… but the bullet holes may be why Manfred had to switch to the Albatros D.V. … or maybe he did so because he was awaiting delivery of a new Fokker Dr.I aeroplane? I don’t know why he switched planes…

Anyhow… here’s the film of Manfred von Richtofen in his Fokker F.I on September 3, 1917 (I’m adding the url, in case the movie fails in this blog:

In the video, Manfred can be seen telling a joke to his Flying Circus:

Manfred: “Mein dog has no nose!”
Flying Circus: “How does he smell?”
Manfred: “Awful!”

Uh… sorry… wrong Flying Circus (and the wrong war). But damn, that’s funny.

The F.I was actually designated by Fokker as V.5 by Fokker, and was, of course, a so-called improvement over the Fokker V.4 prototype triplane.

The F.I aircraft was very much similar to the follow-up aircraft the Fokker Dr.I because, it was essentially the same aeroplane.

After the first three Fokker V.5, aka the F.I, were built, all of the other such planes to follow were then officially called the Fokker Dr.I.

The ONLY difference between the F.I and later-production model Fokker Dr.I aircraft was that the Dr.I aircraft had a subtle convex curve on the outlines of the tailplane’s otherwise diagonal leading edge planform – to provide for a more aerodynamic balancing surface at each elevator tip.

So… aside from the aerodynamic re-balancing, all the F.I planes created after these three F.I’s were known as the Fokker Dr.I. Got it? I think I got it.

Fokker Dr.I

Fokker_Dr1_on_the_groundLater that summer, the Flying Circus got their hands on the Fokker Dr.I triplane, the distinctive, three-winged machine that would become Richthofen’s most famous aircraft.

The Dr.I was actually first off the production line on August 28, 1917, but it took a few days before Manfred got his hands on one. Eventually, a total of 320 Fokker Dr.I were manufactured.

A very maneuverable aircraft, it could climb quickly, and though it did not have the speed of the other planes in the sky, it more than made up for it with its agility, and its ability to almost stop on a dime, and turn.


The main problem it had, however, was that the canvas had a habit of tearing away from the upper wing when the plane was in a long dive, which caused the Dr.I to crash. That doesn’t sound good.

The because planes and pilots were lost, the Dr.I was pulled from active service. It was found that poor construction and a lack of waterproofing (varnishing) by Fokker allowed moisture to damage the wing’s structure causing the wing ribs to disintegrate and the ailerons to break away when in flight.

Although production did begin again in December of 1917 – with more strict demands placed on quality control – it wasn’t until January of 1918 that the aircraft began to re-roll out of the factory and onto the war airfields.

But… despite the efforts of quality control at Fokker, the Dr.I aircraft still suffered from wing issues.

One such pilot was Manfred’s brother Lothar, who on March 18, 1918 saw his Dr.I suffer an upper wing failure during combat, causing him to suffer severe injury upon the crash landing.

This led to the demise of the Dr.I at Fokker with production ending in May of 1918 after only 320 manufactured aircraft.

But Manfred liked the Dr.I. And so, Fokker-Flugzeugwerke (Dutch company) president Anthony Fokker gave Manfred a personalized Dr.I that featured improvements and strengthening.


Adding to the caption above, Manfred achieved three of his 17 Dr.I victories in plane 152/17. Shown here in the Zeughaus Museum in Berlin, this aeroplane was destroyed by an Allied bombing raid during WWII. Now… is it just me, or does the cowl cover look like it is painted red?!

Unfortunately, no color images of the actual Red Baron’s Dr.I exist, but here’s a cool technical blueprint that shows the color scheme – note the white tail and cowl cover! Maybe different Dr.I‘s belonging to the Red Baron had differing paint schemes?

The Dr.I is infamous for it being the aircraft in which the Red Baron achieved his last 17 victories. Which is two less than the Albatros D.II (19)… but if the Fokker F.I is essentially the same aeroplane, and he had two victories with that, does that mean Manfred also had 19 victories in the Dr.I?

No. The Dr.I and the F.I are different aircraft. Especially when you consider that Manfred’s Dr.I aeroplanes were “special”.

All 17 of his victories in the Dr.I were achieved during a six-week period between March 12 thru April 20, 1918 during Operation Michael, which was Germany’s last great offensive on the Western Front during what we now call WWI. As mentioned, his final tally was 80 victories… though the victories were only counted, it seems, if the downed aircraft was seen going down in the attacker’s “country”. As such, the Red Baron could actually have over 100 victories, with many such downed aircraft being called “unconfirmed”.

I wish I could provide you with data on what made the Red Baron’s Dr.I so special over other such aeroplanes, but I can’t. I can only provide the standard specs.

Fokker Dr.I Specifications:

  • Crew: 1;
  • Length: 5.77 meters (18 feet 11 inches);
  • Upper wingspan: 7.19 meters (23 feet 7 inches);
  • Height: 2.95 meters (9 feet 8 inches);
  • Wing area: 18.7 square meters (201 square feet);
  • Empty weight: 406 kilograms (895 pounds);
  • Gross weight: 586 kilograms (1,291 pounds);
  • Powerplant: 1 × Motorenfabrik Oberursel A.G Ur.II 9-cylinder air-cooled rotary piston engine creating 110 horsepower;
  • Propellers: 2-bladed fixed-pitch wooden propeller;
  • Maximum speed: 160 kilometers per hour (99 miles per hour) at 2,600 meters;
  • Stall speed: 72 kilometers per hour (45 miles per hour);
  • Range: 300 kilometers (190 miles);
  • Guns: 2 × 7.92 mm (0.312 in) Maschinengewehr 08 Spandau machine guns;
  • Service ceiling: 6,100 meters (20,000 feet);
  • Rate of climb: 5.7 meters per second (1,120 feet per minute).

Kaputt: Death Of A Killing Machine


The wreckage of Manfred Von Richthofen’s Fokker Dr.I triplane after being shot down  – near Vaux-sur-Somme, France, on April 21, 1918. Photographed at the aerodrome of No. 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps at Bertangles. Photo taken from:

April 21, 1918 was the date of Wolfram “Ulf” Karl Ludwig Moritz Hermann Freiherr von Richthofen’s (October 10, 1895 – July 12, 1945) first flight along side his cousin Manfred.

Wolfram would eventually grab eight victories before the war ended in November of 1918. He ended his military career as a Field Marshall in the Luftwaffe (Air Force) of Nazi Germany in WWII.

April 21, 1918 – just after 11AM – was also the day Manfred von Richtofen was shot down and killed.

Flying over Morlancourt Ridge in France near the Somme River, Manfred von Richtofen was flying his Fokker Dr.I aeroplane at low-altitude chasing a Sopwith Camel aircraft.

The Sopwith was piloted by Canadian Lt. Wilfrid Reid “Wop” May of the No. 209 Squadron, RAF. I checked… “Wop”, in this case was just what his little sister used to call him when they were very young, as “Wilfrid” was too difficult for her. For whatever reason, he kept the nickname, even while flying for Great Britain many years later during The Great War.

Now, having just seen Lt. May fire upon cousin Wolfram, Manfred flew in to rescue him, firing on May – which caused May to pull away.

Manfred decided to pursue May as he crossed the Somme River.

May’s flight commander, Captain Arthur Roy Brown (also of Canada) saw the chase and dove his Sopwith Camel at very high speed to fire at Manfred von Richtofen, who turned to avoid the attack, but then continued chasing May as Brown had to pull up and climb steeply to avoid crashing into the ground.

Now… did Manfred get hit at this time from one of the bullets fired by Captain Brown or did ground fire from a nearby Aussie barrage hit him?

What we do know, is that while Manfred was chasing May, a single .303 bullet hit him, damaging his heart and lungs to cause death…. eventually.

Apparently, Manfred still had enough in him to regain control of his aircraft to make a rough landing, behind enemy lines in a field north of Vaux-sur-Somme village in France.

The sector just happened to have been defended by the Australian Imperial Force, and the landing was witnessed by many, including Gunners Ernest Twycross and George Ridway, and Sgt. Ted Smout of the Australian Medical Corps.

Each of these three Aussies said that they were the first to reach the Red Baron’s Fokker Dr.I aeroplane, and each said that Manfred’s last words were: “Kaputt” or something similar. He may have said more, but perhaps the witnesses were unfamiliar with the German language. We also have to contend with the “fact”, that each of the three men said he was the first to reach the aircraft and Manfred.

Were they there within seconds of each other, or did they arrive within 10s of seconds of each other? In other words, perhaps only one of them heard the last words of the Red Baron, or two of them did, or they all did. Or maybe no one did. Conjecture. It doesn’t matter, except that the German word  “kaputt” translates to “broken” in English. “Sterben” is the German for “dying”.

After the crash, the actual bullet was found in Manfred von Richtofen’s clothing – recovered but lost – all accounts state that the .303 was a standard ball round, fired by all British rifle-caliber arms, including the Sopwith Camel.

Manfred’s Fokker Dr.I 425/17 was fairly intact when he landed it, but after his death, the aeroplane was taken apart by Aussie souvenir hunters who knew of the Red Baron and his aerial victories.

Because No. 3 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps was the nearest Allied air unit, it assumed official responsibility for the body of Manfred von Richtofen, with Major Blake in charge. His duty here, was to ensure that Manfred’s body was treated with respect, and to organize a full military funeral to be conducted by the personnel of No. 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps. And so he did.

Here’s a video of the funeral (

Manfred von Richtofen – the Red Baron – was buried in the cemetery at the village of Bertangles, near Amiens, on April 22, 1918. Six of No. 3 Squadron’s officers served as pallbearers, and a guard of honor from the squadron’s other ranks fired a salute.

Allied squadrons stationed nearby presented memorial wreaths, one of which was inscribed with the words, “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe”.

What a crazy effin’ war.

Who Shot MvR?

Originally, Captain Brown of Canada became famous after being credited with shooting down the Red Baron.

Wikipedia says that it is: now generally agreed that the bullet which hit Richthofen was fired from the ground.

Proof of that claim comes with medical examiner evidence that shows that the bullet that hit Manfred penetrating from the right armpit and resurfacing next to the left nipple, near his shirt.

Captain Brown’s aerial attack was from behind and above and from Richthofen’s left.

That sounds conclusive.

Even more conclusively, Richthofen could not have continued his pursuit of May for as long as he did (up to two minutes) had this severe wound come from Brown’s guns. That… that is conjecture.

Captain Brown did not talk about the event, only claiming, “There is no point in me commenting, as the evidence is already out there.” Whatever the heck that means.

Wikipedia says that many sources suggest that Australian Sergeant Cedric Popkin was the person most likely to have killed Richthofen, including a 1998 article by Geoffrey Miller, a physician and historian of military medicine, and a 2002 edition of the British Channel 4Secret History” television series.

Sgt. Popkin was an anti-aircraft machine gunner with the Australian 24th Machine Gun Company, and he was using a Vickersgun. He said he fired at Richthofen’s aircraft on two occasions: first as the Baron headed straight at his position, and then again at long range from the plane’s right. Because of Richtofen’s wounds (yes, plural), Popkin may indeed have been in position to fire and kill Manfred as he passed over him a second time.

However, confusion was later caused by a letter that Popkin wrote in 1935 to an Australian official historian that said it was his belief that he had fired the fatal shot as Richthofen flew straight at his position.

If that’s the case, the statement in the letter is wrong, because the bullet which struck Manfred, came from the side.

To be fair, Popkin may have just been speaking “generally” – that when he said the Red Baron flew straight at him, he may really have meant he flew near him. Or maybe his memory was cloudy after 17 years… though he was then only 45 years-old when he wrote the letter.

Wikipedia notes that a 2002 Discovery Channel documentary suggests that Gunner W. J. “Snowy” Evans, a Lewis machine gunner with the 53rd Battery, 14th Field Artillery Brigade with the Royal Australian Artillery was the one who killed Manfred. However, Miller and the Secret History documentary dismiss this theory because of the angle from which Evans claimed to have fired at Manfred.

Other sources, according to Wikipedia, say that Gunner Robert Buie (also of the 53rd Battery) may have fired the fatal shot, but there is little to support this claim. However, in 2007, a municipality in Sydney, Australia, recognized Buie as the man who shot down the Red Baron, and placed a plaque near his former home. Buie died in 1964, and has never been officially recognised in any other way.

Is it more romantic to think that a pilot shot him down? That someone was actually better than him for once? Heck, he was shot down a few times and survived… so maybe it really did take anti-aircraft fire to take him out.

Maybe the Red Baron was shot and hurt by the enemy pilot, and then maybe ground fire took him out. Or maybe it was the other way.

The point, however, is that no one knows for certain who shot down the Red Baron. Canadians, like myself, like to think it was Captain Brown. Australians like to think it was Sergeant Popkin… or Evans… or Buie.

Not knowing exactly who did it, just adds to the story and mystique of the Red Baron, doesn’t it?

Bragging rights aside 102 years later, who gives a flying you-know-what? Everyone involved, who could say with any accuracy is long since passed this mortal coil.


There were also unconfirmed victories that would put his actual total as high as 100 or more.

For comparison, the highest-scoring Allied ace, the Frenchman René Fonck, achieved 75 confirmed victories and a further 52 unconfirmed behind enemy lines. So maybe Fonck was the greatest aerial ace ever!

The highest-scoring British Empire fighter pilots were Canadian Billy Bishop (we named the island airport in Toronto after him), who was officially credited with 72 victories (and whop knows how many unconfirmed victories); Edward Mannock of Great Britain with 61 confirmed victories; Raymond Collishaw of Canada with 60, and Great Britain’s James McCudden with 57 confirmed victories.

Germany’s Ernst Udet was credited with 62 victories, and has the country’s second-highest victory total.

But… 80 victories? Aside from WWI buffs, does anyone today really know how many victories the Red Baron had? Could they even tell you that the pilot’s name was Manfred von Richtofen?

But mention the Red Baron moniker, and people “know” all about the red triplane.

Thanks for reading… I recently purchased a series of aviation tobacco cards, and I’m sure I will begin to delve into the history of each card and provide (hopefully) fascinating write-ups on the aeroplanes… as soon as it arrives via air mail.

Posted in Aeroplane Factories, Fighters, Heavier-Than-Air, Motors and Engines, Pilots, Tobacco Card, WWI | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ruth Law & Pioneer Aviator

Ruth Law.jpg

  • Ruth Bancroft Law aka Ruth Law Oliver aka Ruth Law: born March 21, 1887 at Lynn, Massachusetts, United States of America – died December 1, 1970 in San Francisco, California, United States of America.

Who gave the proverbial middle finger to Orville Wright and inspired Amelia Earhart? Ruth Law, that’s who.

Ruth Law was a female aviation pioneer, seen here above in a 1915 photograph seated in a Curtiss Pusher Model D biplane with Wright Brothers controls. In an era when women were still seen as being inferior to men, she proved that women were equals in the air, earning as much as US$9,000 a week performing exhibition flights – a fortune then as now (it’s about US$113,000/week) – as well as providing record-setting flights while acting as her own business manager (though some sources suggest she was managed by her husband, Charles Augustus Oliver, whom she married in 1907). [Can anyone confirm which is which re: manager?]

Her brother, Rodman (1885-1919), was her inspiration – a parachutist and pioneer movie stuntman who on February 2 of 1912 parachuted from the top of the Statue of Liberty’s flaming torch. As for his movie work, Rodman took part in several silent movies, including the 1914 flick Daredevil Rodman Law, which was based on his daredevil deeds.

As a youth, Ruth always felt the need to keep up with and challenge the physical boundaries set by her brother.

In 1912, she sought out Orville Wright to receive pilot training, but he refused. She said that Wright did not think that women were mechanically inclined. No need to vilify Orville here – that was what the majority of men on the planet believed in that era, right or wrong. It’s wrong, of course, but that’s beside the point.

The Orville – 1905.

According to Ruth, Orville Wright’s dismissal of her as a woman only made her want to become a pilot even more. “The surest way to make me do a thing is to tell me I can’t do it,” she said (McGraw, Eliza. “This Ace Aviatrix Learned to Fly Even Though Orville Wright Refused to Teach Her”. Smithsonian.)

Instead, Ruth learned to fly via Harry Nelson Atwood who was the chief instructor of the General Aviation Corporation of Saugus, Mass., and assistant instructor Archibald A. Freeman who either did not agree with Orville Wright, or felt the weight of her money said otherwise.

Harry Nelson Atwood circa 1913… my doesn’t he look sharp!

Below is a newspaper article from The Boston Herald, August 17, 1912 which details the daring-do of Ruth Law even as she was learning how to be a pilot! I got the article from READEX, a division of NewsBank.


At the time of her accent, the altitude record for a female pilot was 8,100 feet by Mademoiselle Helene Detriue of France. Or at least I believe she was the record holder… she certainly was as of November 8, 1912… the point is, Law came close while still learning to fly – flying higher than her male instructor ever had before.

Attaining her pilot’s license in November of 1912, and showing that she harbored few ill feelings, purchased her first aircraft from Orville Wright and soon became the first woman to fly an aeroplane at night.

Ruth and her brother Rodman atop their Wright Model B aeroplane.

While I originally said here that I could not NOT find any solid data on what Ruth Law did in the years 1913-1914, I was wrong. Thanks to READEX I was shown many articles depicting what Ruth did during that time period.

The March 24, 1913 edition of The Miami Herald wrote that while she was in town performing exhibition flights, she offered the famous oil man John D. Rockefeller a flight in her plane. He politely declined, laughing: “I’ll wait till my wings grow.” Image below is from THAT article.


The July 26, 1913 edition of The Pawtuckett Times of Pawtuckett, Rhode Island noted that Law would fly at Newport Beach on Sunday, July 27.

The Springfield Daily Republican reported on September 10, 1913 that Ruth Law was in Springfield, Massachusetts (thanks READEX). Note that the altitude aviation record is far different from what was written in the first article above – a not so surprising occurrence in the world of aviation history, I’m finding. While the altitude record noted in the article below may be in doubt, I’m sure the rest of the information is likely correct. I do like that it notes that Law had visited a woman’s suffrage meeting earlier:

Law 4.jpg

The Philadelphia Inquirer published the advertisement below on October 4, 1913 for The Great Mt. Holly Fair taking place October 7-10. Ruth got second billing after the horse races, but was well up on the funny donkey act. Actually, I point this out to let you know just what exhibition aviators (of all persuasion) had to do to make money in the early days.

Law 5.jpg

The December 7, 1913 edition of The Trenton Evening Times (of Trenton, New Jersey), denoted a “funny” incident involving Ruth Law and the law the day before:


We also know that Ruth Law was back again in Daytona, Florida on February 6, 1914 giving rides to the public, per an article in The Grand Rapids Press of Grand Rapids, Michigan:


What’s odd about the news above are two things… that the passenger was identified as Mrs Robert Goelet – which was the unfortunate style of the day – and that it was reported in the Michigan press rather than the Florida press… I’m unsure if Mr. Goelet was a person of enough importance to denote the flight of his wife with Ruth Law… but what the article does show is the public’s appetite for aviation in 1914. Heck… I’d go up for a ride if I had been around in that era!

By the way… here’s a photo of Law and Mrs Robert Goelet from


We also know that in 1915 she performed at an aviation exhibition in Daytona Beach, Florida.

In front of the large crowd, she announced she would perform a Loop-The-Loop for the first time, and went out and did it. Twice. Which apparently angered her husband. Whatever.

In early 1916, Ruth participated in an altitude competition, twice narrowly coming in second (to male fliers). I’m unsure if coming in second was the reason or if coming in second to men was her force majeure (compulsion), but not winning only managed to drive her more.

She realized (unlike Orville Wright et al), that aviation records need not be the domain of men. She sought to set a record that would stand out against all comers.

On November 19, 1916, Ruth achieved her goal as she broke the existing cross-America flight air speed record of 452 miles (728 kilometers) previously set by pilot Victor Carlstrom when she flew her Curtiss Pusher Model D biplane nonstop from Chicago to Hornell in New York State, a distance of 590 miles (950 km), averaging 100 miles an hour – according to a Boston Journal, November 20, 1916 article.

The article says: “Miss Law left Chicago at 8:25 A.M., Eastern time. A strong wind blew toward the east. Aided by this, she kept up an average speed of 100 miles an hour, at an altitude of about 6000 feet. During the last 200 miles, before the stop at Hornell, a sharp crosswind blew, with the result that her gasoline tank was soon emptied. She glided two miles into Hornell at 2:07.

After replenishing her gasoline supply, she flew the remaining 117 miles to Binghamton without mishap. Darkness overtook her, and she was forced to descend. She will continue on to New York tomorrow morning.

It was however, one day later on November 20, 1916, that Ruth was flying over a foggy Manhattan, NY, when a fuel-line issue caused her to glide down to attempt a landing.

As she approached Governors Island for a landing, she noticed a brass band playing below, but managed to miss them in her safe landing.

Ruth Law arriving at Governor’s Island, New York after her flight from Chicago, November 20, 1916.

She was met by US Army Captain Henry “Hap” Arnold who changed her spark plugs – a gentlemanly thing to do (and not an euphemism), as Ruth was an accomplished mechanic (and probably short of a set of plugs). Arnold would, in the future, become Commanding General of the US Air Forces. He was trained to fly by the Wright Brothers in Dayton, OH.

In honor of her long-distance record-setting achievement, a dinner was held in her honor on December 2, 1916, with President Woodrow Wilson attending.

When Ruth Law enlisted in the US Army on June 30, 1917 (the US had only entered into WWI on April 6, 1917), she became the very first woman to wear a military uniform.

Despite the honor and her dinner with the President, Ruth was denied permission to fly in combat.

She had enlisted to be a pilot, but was instead assigned to the US Army Accessions Command, where she assisted with recruiting and instruction. They did the same to Steve Rogers aka Captain America (in the first movie), so at least she in good company if not historically inaccurate. Sorry, I’m being snippy. I hate injustice.

Law trained with the 38th Infantry Division at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, and did get to serve in Europe where she maintained the rank of Sergeant. Heck, even Steve Rogers was granted the rank of Captain.

Despite not being able to achieve combat mission status, Ruth did participate in exhibition flying, raising money with her daring-do for both the Red Cross and Liberty Loan drives.

Immediately after WWI (aka The Great War or the tragically misnamed “war to end all wars”), she formed Ruth Law’s Flying Circus, an exhibition troupe of three planes that visited State and county fairs racing cars and attempting (and setting) altitude and distance records (of minor renown nowadays).

Ruth Law’s Flying Circus – photo via:

Still, it must have been some shock when, in 1922, Ruth cracked open a newspaper and read of her retirement from flying at the age of 35.

Apparently her husband, Orville Wright Charles was fed up with all of her daredevil antics, and made the announcement of her retiring. Despite what she had accomplished, it appears that Ruth complied, and did not divorce her husband, as might be the norm of 2020.

Did you know that in that early 20th century era, Ruth Law, had she NOT been a famous pioneer aviator, would probably have just been known as Mrs. Charles Oliver. It was that way through the 1950s and into the ’60s for most women.

Despite acquiescing to her husband’s demands, Ruth was obviously quite proud of her aviation accomplishments, as she had maintained her own detailed scrapbook. Now situated in the archives of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, it is available to visitors on pre-visit request.

Within, you can find hundreds of articles and mementos, back when Ruth was known as Angel Ruth and Queen of the Aces.

Unfortunately, while in the early days of aviation where female pilots were seen as a curiosity and as equal to men in daring-do and skill, sexual inequality once again reared its ugly head, with women not allowed to be pilots. In fact, it wasn’t until 1973 when a woman was allowed to be a commercial pilot for a major airline (American Airlines).

While husband died in 1947, Ruth Law lived until December 1, 1970, when she died at the age of 83 at Notre Dame Hospital in San Francisco. She was buried at Pine Grove Cemetery in Lynn, Mass. If you click on the link, you can see her gravestone et al.

Ruth’s Aeroplane: The Curtiss Pusher Model D (Type IV)

The 1911 Curtiss Model D (aka the Curtiss Pusher) was, as its name suggests a pusher-type biplane, with the engine and propeller situated behind the pilot.Considered to be one of the first “mass-produced” aeroplanes in the world, all were manufactured by Glenn Hammond Curtiss.

This type of aircraft was the first aeroplane to take-off from the deck of a ship (flown by Eugene B. Ely) – the USS Birmingham on November 14, 1910. It was also the first to land on a ship, the USS Pennsylvania on January 18, 1911.

To avoid copyright infringement on the Wright Brothers (ha-ha) wing-warping technology, this and all Curtiss aircraft used ailerons to control rolling during flight.

General Characteristics

  • Crew: 1;
  • Length: 29 feet 3 inches (8.92 meters);
  • Wingspan: 38 feet 3 inches (11.66 meters);
  • Height: 7 feet 10 inches (2.39 meters);
  • Empty weight: 700 pounds (318 kilograms);
  • Gross weight: 1,300 pounds (590 kilograms);
  • Powerplant: 1 × Curtiss E-4 4-cylinder water-cooled in-line piston engine provided 40 horsepower;

  • Propellers: 2-bladed fixed-pitch pusher propeller;
  • Maximum speed: 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour);
  • Endurance: 3 hours 30 minutes.
Posted in Firsts, Heavier-Than-Air, Motors and Engines, Pilots | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Wills’s Aviation Card #85 – “Coventry Ordnance” Military Bipane.

Wills Aviation 85F.jpgHistory Behind The Card: “Coventry Ordnance” Military Biplane.

Card #85 of 85, W.D.& H.O Wills, Aviation series 1912, Vice Regal Mixture – Black-back issue

  • W.O. (William Oke) Manning, October 20, 1879 in Staines, Middelesex, England, Great Britain – March 2, 1958, in Farnham, Surrey, England, Great Britain;
  • Howard Theophilus Wright, circa 1867 in Dudley, England, Great Britain – died circa 1945;
  • Sir Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith on January 18, 1888 in Kensington, London, England, Great Britain – January 27, 1989 in Hampshire, England, Great Britain.

Although this is the last of the Wills’s aviation cards I will be writing about (because I will have done them all), I will continue this blog with write-ups on other aircraft – much as I have been doing these past years. I do have some other aviation cards, and certainly I could do write-ups on famous pilots – see, plenty to do.

So… Card #85… the “Coventry Ordnance” Military Biplane.

Although more famous for the weapons it built leading up to and through WWI, the Coventry Ordnance Works Limited also built the Coventry Ordnance Military Biplane – unfortunately, a rather unsuccessful aeroplane.

Better known as the Coventry Ordnance Works Biplane (aka the COW Biplane), only two of the tractor aeroplane (engine and propeller at the front) were built – slightly different from one another, but COWs, none the less. It had an upper and lower wing of very different spans. In fact, that huge difference in wingspans was duly noted on the Wills’s write-up on the aircraft on the reverse of the card.

Wills Aviation 85R.jpg

The fact that Wilbur Wright’s calculations regarding biplane wing span differences was not followed on the COW Biplane, might be a reason why the plane failed to achieve success.

The Coventry Ordnance Works Limited was formed in July 1905 by a consortium of British shipbuilding firms John Brown & Company of Clydebank and Sheffield (50 per cent), Cammell Laird & Co. of Sheffield and Birkenhead (25 per cent) and Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company of Govan, Glasgow (25 per cent) with the encouragement of the British government, which wanted a third major arms consortium to compete with the duopoly of Vickers Sons & Maxim and Sir W G Armstrong Whitworth & Co. to drive down prices.

Hinging its success on the 1912 British Military Aeroplane Competition whereby companies built aircraft to demonstrate to the military why they should purchase large swathes of their aeroplanes, at this time, it was to create aircraft for the newly formed Royal Flying Corps.

As mentioned, the Coventry Ordnance Works had until this time only been manufacturers of heavy naval guns, and itself was made up of shipbuilding firms.

Coventry Ordnance Works designed and built:

  • the QF 4.5 inch howitzer which entered service in 1910;
  • the 5.5 inch Naval gun in 1913;
  • the 15-inch siege howitzer in 1914 for the British Army;
  • C.O.W. 37mm gun in 1917 was the first modern autocannon – a fully-automatic, rapid-fire projectile weapon that fires armor-piercing or explosive shells – not bullets.

You’ll notice from the dates above that the main construct built prior to the move into aviation was the QF 4.5 inch howitzer, called a very successful artillery weapon in its day.

So… how hard could it be to design and manufacture an aeroplane that the British “airforce”could use? And hey, what the heck… let’s build and enter two aeroplanes into the competition.

To be fair, the shipbuilding consortium had recently purchased the Howard T. Wright aeroplane business.

The main thing you need to know, is that despite all his best intentions, Howard T. Wright was not a successful aeroplane manufacturer, even though he did design and build a few aeroplanes that DID successfully fly.

Apparently Mr. Wright and fellow employee William Oke Manning were part of the purchase of Wright’s Scottish Aeroplane Syndicate company, and were asked by COW to build them an aircraft that could win the competition and get them the military contract. You can read about Mr. Wright and Oke Manning HERE.

Manny was the chief designer of both aeroplanes  – Trial No. 10 and Trial No. 11… similar in all regards, except for a few things. While COW had only differentiated the aircraft by its engine model (Gnome and Chenlu), the War Department who ran the British Military Competition called them Trial No. 10 and Trial No. 11, respectively. Afterwards, each was simply referred to as Biplane 10 and Biplane 11.

(Aeroplane) Trial No. 10:

  • two crew seated side-by-side;
  • Gnome Omega Omega rotary 100 horsepower motor;
  • two blades on the propeller;
  • wider wingspan than No. 11;
  • longer fuselage than No. 11;
  • No wheel covers.


Coventry Ordnance Works Biplane – two-seater (beside each other) version, known as Trial No. 10 aka Biplane No. 10, had two blades on its propeller.

(Aeroplane) Trial No. 11:

  • two crew seated in tandem (one behind the other);
  • Chenlu inline 110 horsepower six-cylinder motor.
  • four blades on the propeller – made by joining two two-bladed propellers, one atop the other;
  • smaller wingspan than No. 10;
  • shorter fuselage than No. 10;
  • Wheelcovers and a skid under the fuselage.

COW Biplane  No. 11.jpg

COW Biplane Trial No. 11 aka Biplane No. 11 with its four-bladed propeller system.

The first aircraft to be worked on was, unsurprisingly, No. 10 with the Gnome motor, starting early in 1912 and completed by the end of April that year.

Test-piloted by Thomas Sopwith (yes, that Sopwith… the guy who would build such famous WWI aircraft as the Sopwith Camel, the preferred aeroplane of none other than Snoopy as he hunted the cursed Red Baron in the comic strip Peanuts. Of course, animated beagles aside, the Camel was considered to be one of the top aircraft of the Great War, aka WWI), and immediately after its first test flight No. 10 was entered into a competition and race at Brooklands. It flew with Sopwith as the pilot, and three other passengers, one sitting beside the pilot, and the other two balanced outside the cockpit on the lower wing.You can read more about the amazing Sopwith HERE.

While I can only hope the wing passengers were strapped in, I doubt it… probably holding on to a strut and the side of the cockpit for the thrill ride of their life.

COW began to work on No. 11 and its Chenu motor immediately, finishing it in July of 1912.

The 1912 British Military Competition was held at Larkhill Aerodrome in Wiltshire, England near Stonehenge, beginning on August 2, 1912, though all aircraft had to be on site by July 15.

At this time, Great Britain only had 19 aeroplanes in its arsenal, while global leader France had some 200.

The competition began with 32 aeroplanes slated to be in the trials, but not every manufacturer was able to deliver their aircraft by the July 15 date, and so were excluded from actual participation.

No. 10 was delivered on time, but No. 11, which was being shipped by road, and met with some delays and so was unable to actually meet the deadline. For whatever reason, however, No. 11 was allowed to participate in the trials, but failed to actually fly owing to engine issues, as the magneto drive failed numerous times, along with the reduction gear housing failing – a similar fate befell another manufacturer’s entry – Martin and Handasyde which also utilized a Chenu motor.

As an aside, the Martin & Handasyde business was formed by partners H.P. Martin and George Handasyde in 1908, and although its No.1 monoplane of 1908 did manage to get off the ground, it was wrecked in a windstorm while in a shed. While it did go on to build a number of of successful monoplanes, its 1914 S.2 biplane was the company’s big success, helping it eventually become Britain’s third-largest manufacturer of aeroplanes during WWI.


The Martinsyde (an amalgamation of Martin and Handasyde) S.1 scout aeroplane used an 80 horsepower Gnome motor to power its success, rather than continue its failure with the Chenu.

To be fair to Chenu and its motors, it was adept at building large horsepower motors, used in many a dirigible in this era.

As for No. 10, it developed propeller issues and because it could not be fixed in time, was withdrawn from the competition.

Back at Brooklands, Manning took apart No. 10 and rebuilt it, using new wings and landing gear, eventually getting it up into the air successfully on January 13, 1913.

Since no one knows of the fate of No. 11, one could assume that some of its components were retrofitted or cut-down and reused in the modified No. 10 – but that again, is just MY guess.

Coventry Ordnance Military Biplane (No. 10) specifications

  • Crew: Two (2): one pilot and one passenger;
  • Length: 33 feet 3 inches (10.13 meters);
  • Wingspan: 40 feet (12.2 meters);
  • Height: (?) A guess using the photo puts it under 12 feet (3.66 meters);
  • Wing area: 336.7 square feet (31.3 meters squared);
  • Empty weight: 1,200 pounds (544 kilograms);
  • Loaded weight: 1,950 pounds (885 kilograms);
  • Fuel capacity: 40 gallons (151.42 liters) plus 10 gallon (37.85 liters) gravity feed auxiliary;
  • Powerplant: 1 × Gnome Omega-Omega two-row 14-cylinder air-cooled rotary engine using Omega cylinders, with a 2:1 chain reduction, pushing out 100 horsepower;
  • Propellers: two-bladed propeller;
    • Propeller diameter: 11 feet 6 inches (3.51 meters);
  • Maximum speed: 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers per hour).
Posted in Failures, Heavier-Than-Air, Motors and Engines, Tobacco Card | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Wills’s Aviation Card #84 – “Avro” Aerial Taxicab.

Wills Aviation 84F.jpgHistory Behind The Card: “Avro” Aerial Taxicab.

Card #84 of 85, W.D.& H.O Wills, Aviation series 1912 – Black-back issue

  • Sir Edwin Alliott Verdon Roe OBE, Hon. FRAeS, FIAS, April 26, 1877 in Patricroft, Eccles, England, Great Britain – January 4, in Portsmouth, Great Britain.

There is, admittedly, some guesswork by my self on his one simply because I do not own a copy of this card yet.

As such, I have no idea if the reverse of the card notes exactly just what type of aircraft this is… but it looks like the Avro Type F, an experimental aircraft of which just one was built by the A.V. Roe Company.

Built in 1912, it made its first flight on May 1, 1912, which means that Wills’s took a chance on this aircraft being a feasible working aircraft when it went to print for its run of overseas (Australia and New Zealand) 85-card series of aviation cards.

Here’s what the Avro Type F looked like – bearing a striking similarity to the Wills’s card.


A pretty cool-looking aircraft, the single-seat aircraft was the first aircraft in the world to successfully fly with a completely enclosed cabin for the pilot as an integral part of the design.

Although… there was the Vedovelli Multiplane – but it crashed soon after takeoff in January of 1911… and while there were later versions of the Multiplane, it appears as though none were successful in flight. As such, the Avro Type F is credited with being the first enclosed cabin aircraft to successfully take off and land.

As a single-seat aircraft, it seems difficult to imagine it being a “taxicab” as envisioned by the Wills’s tobacco card. Perhaps that was the plan eventually… which is why the aircraft featured an enclosed cabin – you can’t have the passengers subjected to elements of the weather.

However… perhaps the word taxicab is being considered to literally by modern-day me. Perhaps it simply meant the taxiing around of goods and materials.

Room for a pilot and cargo. Could the Avro Type F have been meant to fly as the first cargo plane?

I really wish I had the card so I could see what the Wills’s editors had in mind for a write-up on this aircraft.

It’s actually a pretty sweet-looking aircraft, and for all intents and purposes looks quite similar to modern day personal aircraft – just not as streamlined, of course.

This monoplane had a wire-braced mid-wing, and used a tail skid undercarriage. It’s fuselage was tear-shaped but flat-sided. It’s windows were made of cellophane – so lightweight, but not necessarily strong.

Because aeroplanes of this era suffered from the engines and motors spewing oil – usually up into the pilot, the engineers anticipated that it would be difficult for the pilot of the Avro Type F to lean around and wipe it off… what with the enclosed cabin and all… so the cabin windows were all coated so the oil would easily slide away mostly… but provided the side windows for the pilot (at head level) the ability to be opened up so the pilot could stick his head out to see – if necessary.

It kind of defeats the purpose of enclosed cabin if the pilot has to open a window to stick his head out, but we are still in the pioneer age of aviation – so baby steps.

There were no doors, per se on the aircraft. To enter and exit, one used an aluminum sheet trapdoor in the fuselage top.

Limited by the strength of the engines then being built, the aeroplane was still small and cramped, and if Wills’s every truly saw this as an aerial taxi, anyone riding in it was going to have a scrunched up ride, as the Avro Type F was only 60-centimetres (two-feet) across at its widest.

My chest is that wide (just the front… obviously)… and that would mean I could only ride in it if I help my arms over my head. I know I’m no shrinking violet, and that this model was just that… a model… but shouldn’t Avro have at least tried to make the aircraft wide enough to provide some passenger comfort if you are going to conceptually call it an aerial taxi. Though perhaps that was the eventual goal, and Wills’s merely jumped the gun with its description of the aircraft.

During 1912, the Avro Type F made a few test flights, but on September 13, 1912 – it landed so hard it was not worth repairing, and the project was shelved.

Avro Type F general characteristics

  • Crew: one pilot;
  • Length: 23 feet (7.01 meters);
  • Wingspan: 28 ft 0 in (8.53 meters);
  • Height: Seven feet six inches (2.29 meters);
  • Wing area: 158 square feet (14.7 square meters);
  • Empty weight: 550 pounds (250 kilograms);
  • Gross weight: 800 pounds (360 kilograms);
  • Powerplant: 1 × Viale 35 hp five-cylinder radial, pushing out 35 horsepower;
  • Maximum speed: 65 miles per hour (105 kilometers per hour);
  • Rate of climb: 300 feet/min (1.5 meters/second).


Manufactured by Frencman Spirito Mario Viale, the Viale 35 hp engine (see image above), was a five-cylinder, air-cooled, radial engine, though Viale also built three- and seven cylinder variations of the same motor.

With just 35 horsepower for lifting plane and pilot, it would have been hard-pressed to carry passengers – even if it could owing to its cramped quarters.

As evidenced by the above photo, the Vial 35 hp motor still exists, on display at the Science Museum in London, UK. The Avro Type F‘s rudder was also preserved by the UK’s Royal Aero Club.

We will just have to chalk up this card’s drawing as a flight of fancy… something Avro wished to could build and implement. I propose that the Type F was merely a test aircraft to determine the practicality of utilizing an enclosed cabin.

While the plane was not deemed worthy enough to continue constructing, obviously the enclosed cabin would eventually become a standard feature on modern day airplanes.

And cargo planes the norm.

I will update this article when I purchase my own card #84.


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