No aeroplane could ever be singled out as the best of anything; it depends upon what criteria are employed by which to judge, and with almost every aeroplane having its faithful advocates, no definitive answer can ever be possible. However, although it is a very subjective question, some types stand out above the rest as serious contenders for the title, and so, without offence to those whose favourites are not included, this short list of possibles, in no particular order, is offered from which you can make your final selection;
- The Sopwith Camel, which is widely believed to have the most effective, downing more enemy aircraft than any other type
- The Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a, which was easy to fly, highly manoeuvrable, and provided a steady gun platform
- The SPAD XIII, which saw service with the Air Services of France, Britain and the USA, and of which more were built than any other design
- The Fokker DVII, the only single design to be named in the Treaty of Versailles that formally ended the war as having to be handed over to the victors
Now, look at each in more detail and make your own decision as to which was the best;-.
Its name was derived from the ‘hump’ which enclosed the breeches of its twin Vickers machine guns, and although officially designated the Sopwith F.1, it never anything but the Camel to the RFC.
First entering service in May 1917, the Camel was highly manoeuvrable but tricky to fly as almost all of its mass, the engine, fuel, armament, and pilot, was concentrated in the forward section of the fuselage, making trimming it for level flight difficult. In addition, the gyroscopic effect of its spinning rotary engine made it sluggish in a left turn but able to turn very rapidly to the right, faster than any other aeroplane of its time, albeit with a nose-down tendency during the turn. These handling characteristics could catch inexperienced pilots unawares, and casualties among novice pilots were high, leading to the allegation that the type was as dangerous to its pilots as it was to the enemy and yet, in the hands of a skilful pilot, it was considered to be one of the most superb fighters ever built.
The Sopwith Camel looked just as pugnacious on the ground as it was in the air.
Among the fastest aircraft of the war, with a top speed of almost 130 miles per hour, the S.E.5a proved stable, docile, and yet sufficiently manoeuverable to be very effective in combat, thus allowing relatively inexperienced pilots to achieve combat victories whilst remaining a favoured mount of many of the top scoring aces, some of whom achieved many combat victories with it. Its stability in flight made it a good gun platform and allowed enemy aircraft to be engaged at longer ranges than other types, giving its pilots an obvious advantage.
Many of Britain’s greatest aces, including James McCudden and Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock flew the S.E.5a, whilst Major Sholto Douglas, who rose to high rank in WW2, claimed it was the most beautiful aeroplane he ever saw.
Its safe handling characteristics made it pleasant and fairly easy to fly. Post-war, a number made their way onto the civil register with private owners and the sky-writing company founded by Major savage, remaining active until the late 1920s.
Lean, mean fighting machines; A line up of S.E.5as of 32 Squadron, their identities crudely erased by the official censor.
Like the S.E.5a, the SPAD XIII was designed around the innovative Hispano Suiza V8 engine and proved to be a steady gun platform and was sturdy, dependable, and difficult to shoot down. It was manufactured in greater numbers than any other type, of any nation, with well over 8,000 being delivered before the war ended.
The type equipped almost every fighter squadron of the French Air Service at some point and was used in large numbers by both the RFC and the USA and in smaller numbers by the Italian Air Service, with many pilots achieving high scores whilst flying it. Both of America’s top scoring pilots, Eddie Rickenbacker and Frank Luke, flew SPADs, as did many French aces, including Georges Guynemer, Charles Nungessor, and Rene Fonck.
It continued in service with the French Air Service until well into the 1920s.
A latecomer to the War, the DVII entered service in May of 1918 but quickly established itself as a formidable opponent to the various allied fighters it met over the skies of France.
It employed a thicker wing section than had previously been normal, which not only eliminated the need for most of the bracing wires that were a standard feature of other biplanes but gave a much gentler stall and a reduced tendency to spin but which even allowed the machine to ‘hang on its propeller’ long enough to fire upwards at an enemy overhead, giving the machine a huge advantage in combat.
The type eventually supplied more than 40 Jastas of the German Air Service, and almost 800 were in service at the front when the war ended.
Post-war, some 150 examples were shipped to the USA, with Great Britain, France and Canada also receiving captured examples to test. The type also saw service with several other European nations.
The Fokker DVII proved itself a match for any allied fighter.