|Fokker's Eindecker E.III in Flight
Up to early 1915, aerial fights between aircraft usually involved rifles or pistols; occasionally, a machine gun was fired by the observer. The challenge of fixing a forward-facing machine gun able to fire without damaging the propeller on tractor-configured aircraft (i.e. engine and propeller in front) proved difficult.
All the major combatants attempted to solve this problem. Captain Lanoe Hawker of the Royal Flying Corps fixed a Lewis machine gun to the struts of his Bristol Scout so that it fired obliquely away from the propeller. With this strange arrangement he managed to destroy or capture several aircraft, including two in one day, earning himself the first Victoria Cross for aerial combat and the distinction of being the first British ace (a pilot responsible for destroying more than five aircraft). The British got round the problem for a time by developing fighters with the pusher configuration. Meanwhile, Frenchman Roland Garros developed a deflector system in which the bullets glanced off metal plates and away from the propeller. Garros and his machine were captured and examined by the Germans in April. Dutch designer Anthony Fokker as a result produced a much better (and safer) solution, developing interrupter gear which synchronized the fire of the machine gun with the engine, allowing the bullets to pass between the blades safely.
|Depiction of an Early Dogfight at New Zealand's Omaka
Aviation Heritage Centre
A Fokker E.III Monoplane Attacking a British Airco DH.2 biplane over the Western Front
From mid-1915, Fokker’s innovation gave the German Imperial Air Service a decisive edge in aerial combat. The Fokker Eindecker series of aircraft were unremarkable in terms of performance but were nevertheless the first true fighter aircraft. German pilots could use the aeroplane itself as a weapon, aiming the whole aircraft at the target. Operating individually or in small groups in the hands of skilled pilots such as Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke, Eindeckers were very effective against poorly armed French and British aircraft such as the BE.2 and Voisins. Allied air losses rose sharply between late 1915 and mid-1916, a period known as the "Fokker Scourge." The Royal Flying Corps lost 120 aircraft in the second half of 1915 alone. There was little the Allies could do to match these first German aces, and sometimes a single reconnaissance aircraft had to be protected by many others to ensure a successful mission.
The Fokker Scourge was the first in a series of technological developments through which one side gained a temporary edge over the other in the air.
Sources: NZ History; Wikipedia