When Anthony Fokker’s team introduced the futuristic Fokker D.VII biplane fighter to Germany in 1918, its welded steel tube fuselage and wings with less external bracing and rigging were a game-changer.
Clocking speeds as high as 124 miles an hour, the D.VII was bested in that regard by the contemporary British S.E.5 and French SPAD XIII biplanes, but that does not seem to have hampered its lethality.
The Allies seized quantities of D.VIIs at war’s end, with 142 shipped to the United States. The Armistice agreement named the sturdy Fokker biplane specifically, calling for “surrender in good condition by the German armies of…1,700 aeroplanes (fighters, bombers — firstly all D.7s and night-bombing machines).”
Some D.VIIs were initially used as victory parade trophies in the U.S. A 1919 tour of Allied and German airplanes around the United States included D.VIIs that rode the rails to each city where they were assembled for display and flying.
The Fokkers supported government efforts to promote the 1919 Victory Loan to help pay the cost of the recent war. Commanding officer of the Army Air Service aerial display when it visited Seattle on April 23, 1919, was a young Capt. Carl Spatz, destined for leadership in strategic bombardment in World War II (with a changed spelling of his last name to Spaatz coming in the 1930s).
Using Seattle’s Jefferson Park golf course as a landing field in the era before Boeing Field was established, the German and Allied aircraft staged mock combats and released 150 pounds of leaflets promoting the Victory Loan. A contemporary news story listed the pilots of the two Fokkers over Seattle as Lieutenants H.W. Follmer and G.W. Puryear. Then it was on to their next stop by rail, across the Cascade Mountains in Yakima, Washington.
This touring group of aircraft was one of three such units mounted by the Air Service to support the 1919 Victory Loan campaign. In total, five Fokker D.VIIs participated.
For 30 days starting on April 10, the three flying circuses made 88 scheduled performances in 45 states, plus a few side shows along the route.
While in Montana, Captain Spatz flew a Fokker from Helena to Great Falls for one such side show, carefully scanning for potential emergency landing sites along the way. Alas, the captain’s arrival site at Great Falls included telegraph lines he successfully dodged only to have his Fokker find a ditch while taxiing, damaging the tailskid and rudder.
Another 1919 Air Service event was a mass transcontinental flight with one group going from New York to San Francisco, while another gaggle headed east from San Francisco, using a motley fleet of 74 aircraft from various Air Service units, including three of the ex-German Fokkers.
The Air Service evaluated lessons learned from this early mass transcontinental venture, and while generally complimenting the German Mercedes motor in the D.VII, the service noted benefits to be derived if aircraft motors could be developed that did not rely on water for cooling, so that “a motor can encounter with success the hard knocks of a contest of this nature.”
In the summer of 1922, Army Reserve fliers trained in a number of aircraft, including Fokker D.VIIs after demonstrating proficiency in JN-4H Jennies.
Some of the Fokker D.VIIs sent to the U.S. received American Army Air Service serial numbers and flew with U.S. national insignia into the 1920s.
Joe Baugher’s rigorous compiling of Air Force serials includes 64303, 64343, 64345-64346, 68543, 94034, 94039-94040, and 94102-94104, as some of the American numbers applied to D.VIIs in this country.
One of the war prize Fokker D.VIIs (evidently Fokker serial number 6328) was evaluated by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) at Langley Field in Virginia, in 1923. The Fokker’s thick airfoil sections were of interest to the NACA engineers who eventually quantified and developed a series of airfoils for the benefit of industry.
When Howard Hughes filmed his ambitious World War I air epic, “Hell’s Angels,” over California beginning in 1927, he had access to a number of World War I fighters, including a Fokker D.VII that sometimes carried a dorsally mounted movie camera behind the pilot.
Years later, modified with a Hispano Suiza motor instead of the original Mercedes engine, this same Fokker served the motion picture aircraft fleet of Tallmantz Aviation. Its current home is in the Netherlands.
Accounts vary, indicating from one to several American D.VIIs were modified to use the rare Liberty-6, an engine similar in size and performance to the original German powerplant for the D.VII. The Fokker D.VII fuselage on display in the Warhawk Air Museum in Nampa, Idaho, mounts a Liberty-6 built by Hall-Scott in California.
Another legacy of Fokker fighters in America is the adoption of welded steel tubing fuselage construction in the 1920s. The Air Service liked what it saw in the D.VII’s construction, and American companies, including Boeing, contracted with the government to rebuild Air Service deHavilland DH-4 biplanes with new welded-steel tube fuselages.
The Fokker D.VII was an inspired design that saw service on both sides of the Atlantic following less than a year in combat in World War I.