It is the most famous, even infamous, combat aircraft of the First World War and yet while it is almost instantly recognizable, few people likely know its name. It is often known simply as “The Red Baron’s plane” and while Snoopy might approve, it was called the Fokker Dr. I Triplane or more commonly the Fokker Triplane.
Despite its notoriety, the aircraft was only used in the final eighteen months of the war and didn’t even have its first flight until July 5, 1917—yet it proved to have an impressive career. It became most famous as Baron Manfred von Richthofen scored his last nineteen victories in a Dr. I Triplane, and it was in such an aircraft that he met his fate on April 21, 1918.
The Dr. I Triplane was developed in response to the performance of the Royal Flying Corp’s Sopwith Triplane, which was noted for its maneuverability and impressive rate of climb. Anthony Fokker called up German aviation pioneer Reinhold Platz to create an aircraft that could take on the British fighter, and while Platz had a known distain for complicated designs, he soon delivered the Driedecker (Dr). While not a speedy aircraft, it was highly maneuverable and had a rate of climb that exceeded those of its adversaries. The first Dr. Is appeared over the Western Front in August 1917 and German pilots found the plane’s agility to offer a significant advantage in dogfights.
Powered by either an Oberursel Ur II of 110 hp or LeRhone of 110 hp engine, the Dr. I Triplane had a maximum speed of 103 mph and a range of 185 miles. Its ceiling of 19,685 was impressive, but the success of the aircraft was short lived.
While it is an iconic aircraft—of which the aforementioned Snoopy no doubt played a significant part in making it famous—the fact was that the Dr. I was outclassed by early 1918, and it was replaced by the newer and faster Fokker D. VII. The Dr. I also suffered from numerous issues, and in addition to its slower speed, the pilot’s view was limited during takeoff and landing, and the cockpit was cramped.
A bigger issue was with quality control during the construction phase, and while many of the aircraft were refitted, Fokker opted to gradually withdraw the fighter from front-line service as the newer and superior biplane entered production.
A total of 320 Dr. Is were produced, but sadly not a single original aircraft survives. In one cruel twist of fate, von Richthoften’s airplane was eventually lost despite being saved after the war. It was the last original Dr. I and had become part of Germany’s aeronautical collection and it had been expertly restored. However, during World War II, the aircraft was sent to Pomerania to keep it safe from Allied air raids—and it may have been sawed up for use as firewood in the winter of 1945.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.