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    206: The Great War in the Air

Legend, Memory, and the Great War in the Air (Gallery 206)

The exhibits in this gallery cover the aircraft and aerial tactics deployed in Europe during World War I. Like other galleries, the displays here are arranged chronologically. If you’re facing the gallery, enter on the left side (closest to Gallery 207, Exploring the Planets).

Several European countries had used balloons to observe the position and movement of enemy troops, both prior to and in World War I. As the airplane was introduced into combat during the Great War, its role was also mainly as a forward observer. This was because early planes were slow and relatively underpowered – they couldn’t carry much in the way of bombs, and their wood-and-fabric construction didn’t protect the pilot from ground gunfire.

Most of World War I was fought in trenches, and the gallery includes a reproduction trench bunker whose walls describe the successes (Tannenberg, Verdun) of airplane reconnaissance, and its failures (the Somme).

While the airplane had little impact on the outcome of the war, the gallery does a good job of describing how the combatants’ press and governments benefitted from celebrating their aviators and airplanes. Pilots such as Manfred von Richthofen (the “Red Baron”) became household names, and their fame used to sell a variety of commercial products, including frozen pizza.

Also in this gallery is a replica German aircraft factory room from around 1918, showing the difficulties faced by Germany a few years into the war. German engineers had produced the best aircraft engine of the war – the BMW IIIa, shown here – but a lack of raw materials meant that they were forced to make plywood from wood scraps in building their planes.

The last scene in the gallery is a reproduction of a British air defense unit operations office from 1918. These units were responsible for defending Britain from German bombers. They received information on the number, type, and direction of incoming German airplanes, and coordinated the British fighter response.

The strength of this gallery is in the full-size aircraft on display, which we’ve listed below. One notable aircraft is displayed as a scale model is the Zeppelin-Staaken R.IV Bomber. Its wingspan of more than 138 feet – bigger than a Boeing 747-200 – enabled it to carry a 2,200-pound bomb, but is too large to be displayed here.

Aircraft on display include:

Albatros D.Va: The Albatros line of aircraft was Germany’s best fighter design in the middle of World War I. Among its advanced features were a streamlined engine cowling and propeller spinner, a strong Mercedes engine, and two machine guns. The combination of armament, speed, and agility briefly gave Germany the upper hand in aerial dogfighting during this period of the war. In fact, although he’s usually associated with a red Fokker triplane, Manfred von Richthoffen scored most of his combat victories in an Albatros similar to this one.

Voisin VIII LA.P: The airplane displayed here is the world’s oldest, surviving, dedicated bomber, constructed in 1916. Built by the French company Voisin, it was slower than fighter aircraft of the time, and, having the propeller behind the pilot, was difficult to defend from rear attacks. For that reason, it was relegated primarily to nighttime bombing missions, where it could drop almost 400 pounds of munitions. Although 1,100 of these aircraft were built, this is the last surviving example.

Royal Aircraft Factory F.E. 8: The presence of the F.E. 8 in this gallery is to show how quickly aircraft design progressed during the war. In the case of the F.E. 8, it was obsolete by the time it made it to the front.

The F.E. 8 was designed in 1915, but didn’t make it into the war until late 1916 – an eternity in those days. Its pusher propeller was an interesting concept in 1915, but had proven to be a gaping hole in the plane’s rear defenses.

In early 1917, a squadron of nine F.E.8’s ran into a group of 5 Germans flying Albatros aircraft, led by von Richthofen. The F.E.8’s were completely outmatched, despite having almost double the planes. Four F.E.8’s were shot down and four were significantly damaged. That marked the end of the F.E.8’s major duty in the war.

SPAD XIII Smith IV: The story of some great aircraft, such as the P-51 Mustang, is that their superior airframes had to wait for the right engine. In the case of the SPAD XIII, however, the engine already existed and the plane was built around it.

In the SPAD’s case, the engine was the Hispano-Suiza model you see at the left of this display. It was an 8-cylinder engine made of aluminum, and developed between 180 to 220 horsepower. Its light weight and good power made it perfect for an agile fighter aircraft, and SPAD had already developed one.

The SPAD XIII, designed in early 1917, was based on the design of the earlier SPAD VII, another small biplane that was a good match for the German fighters in 1916. As the year went on, however, German design advances meant the VII had to be updated, and the SPAD XIII was born. Heavier and bigger than earlier versions, and equipped with two machine guns, the XIII was faster and better armed than most. At least five fighter pilot aces flew in SPAD XIII, among them American Eddie Rickenbacker. The plane on display here was flown by American pilot Ray Brooks.

Fokker D.VII: By 1917, Allied airplanes were regularly defeating Germany’s fighters. In response, the Germans held a competition to produce improved designs for both fighters and bombers. The Fokker D.VIII model shown here was the fighter chosen, and went into production in 1918.

The D.VII was substantially better than earlier German fighters. When coupled with the BMW IIIa engine (also on display), it could remain vertical for a few seconds, allowing it to attack Allied planes from below. Among the pilots who scored victories in the D.VIII was Herman Goering, head of the German Luftwaffe in World War II. When the war ended, the armistice agreement included specific language that transferred all of the D.VII aircraft to the Allies.

Pfalz D.XII: Like the Fokker D.VII, the D.XII was a German fighter that went into production late in the war, in mid-1918. The Pfalz’s wing was designed after the SPAD line of fighters, but the Pfalz lacked the maneuverability of the Fokker D.VII, and German pilots preferred the Fokker.

Sopwith 2F.1 Snipe: Like the PFalz D.XIII, the British-made Snipe suffered in comparison to another contemporary fighter. In the Snipe’s case, it was the Sopwith Camel. The Camel joined the war in 1917, and while it was successful, the British Air Board began asking for designs for the next generation of fighter aircraft. The Snipe was proposed by Sopwith and ultimately chosen by England. The Smithsonian notes, however, that the way the Snipe won was by being declared “the least undesirable overall.”

Touring Tips

Lots of aircraft engines are on display throughout the museum, many of them, frankly, less interesting than the planes near them. The ones in this room, however, are integral into the stories of their planes. Be sure to read about them.

Other Lands at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum