The Flying French: The Nieuport Fighting Scouts of WWI

 
Original colour photo of a Nieuport 23 C.1 fighter of World War I
Original colour photo of a Nieuport 23 C.1 fighter of World War I
 
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The Nieuport fighting scout series of planes were among the more successful and influential designs of the First World War.

The Nieuport Company

Nieuport was a French plane manufacturer. Before the outbreak of the war, it was best known for its racing planes. But when it became clear that planes were going to play an important role in the fighting, Nieuport’s engineers, including designer Gustave Delage, turned their hands to military aircraft.

French aircraft designer Gustave Delage circa 1910
French aircraft designer Gustave Delage circa 1910

Arrival of the Nieuport XI

Designed by Delage, the Nieuport XI fighting scout plane was first flown in early 1915 and was in active service by the summer of that year.

Based on a Racer

The Nieuport XI was based on the Bébé racing plane. That name stuck around as a nickname for the new fighting scout.

French Plane, International Service

The Nieuport XI was not just used by the French – many of their allies also fielded these planes. The British used them in the Dardanelles and on the Western Front.

Royal Naval Air Service Nieuport 11
Royal Naval Air Service Nieuport 11

Distinctive Wing

The most visually distinctive feature of the Nieuport XI was its wings. The lower wing was much smaller than the upper wing, unlike the designs of most biplanes then fighting in the war.

An Agile Combat Plane

When it first reached the fighting front, the Nieuport XI was superior to almost every other fighter there. Fast, agile, and with a good rate of climb, in skilled hands it could outmaneuver all opponents.

Because of this, the Nieuport XI played an important part in ending the period of aerial domination by Germany’s Fokker Eindecker, known as the Fokker Scourge.

Nieuport 11 of the Escadrille Américaine (later Escadrille Lafayette)
Nieuport 11 of the Escadrille Américaine (later Escadrille Lafayette)

Weak Wings

The Nieuport XI’s biggest weakness was its wings. Their structure was fragile and therefore could fail when damaged or strained in flight.

Biplane Nieuport just crashed. Between 1914 and 1918
Biplane Nieuport just crashed. Between 1914 and 1918

Weapons

The main weapon on the Nieuport XI was a Lewis or Hotchkiss machine gun mounted above and in front of the pilot so that it shot over the top of the propeller. The plane could also be equipped with a set of Le Prieur rockets to take out enemy observation balloons.

Jacques BALSAN, squadron Commander near a NIEUPORT equipped with Le Prieur rockets against DRACHEN captive balloons
Jacques BALSAN, squadron Commander near a NIEUPORT equipped with Le Prieur rockets against DRACHEN captive balloons

International Construction

To get more planes into the war, Nieuport XI’s were built outside their home country, in the Netherlands, Spain, and Russia. The Germans also copied their enemies’ design.

The Coming of the XVII

Building on the design of the XI, Nieuport launched a new fighting plane in 1916 – the Nieuport XVII. It first entered service with the French on the Western Front in May that year.

Nieuport 17 flown by René Dorme while with escadrille N.3 during the battle of the Somme in late 1916.
Nieuport 17 flown by René Dorme while with escadrille N.3 during the battle of the Somme in late 1916.

               

Nieuport 17 triplane with British serial A6686 undergoing evaluation
Nieuport 17 triplane with British serial A6686 undergoing evaluation

Improving on the XI

The Nieuport XVII was a serious step up from its predecessor. Its structure was stiffer, reducing the weakness that had undermined the XI. The wings were larger. The engine was more powerful. The result was a fast, maneuverable plane with a great rate of climb.

Upgrading Engines

The Nieuport XVII was initially fitted with a 110hp Le Rhône 9J rotary engine, a big step up from the 80hp 9C on the model XI. This was further upgraded in later Nieuport XVIIs to a 130hp Clerget 9B engine.

Lineup of Nieuport 17 trainers at Issoudun Aerodrome, France
Lineup of Nieuport 17 trainers at Issoudun Aerodrome, France

 

Lineup of Italian Nieuport 17s, built by Nieuport-Macchi
Lineup of Italian Nieuport 17s, built by Nieuport-Macchi

Arming Up

The weapons were also upgraded for the Nieuport XVII. By now, interrupter gears had been developed that allowed guns to safely fire through the space where the propeller spun. This made it easier for the pilot to target enemy planes, as he could simply point his plane straight at them and pull the trigger.

Two machine guns were therefore fitted to the Nieuport XVII – a synchronized machine gun in front of the pilot and one with a flexible mount in the old position on top of the upper wing. A Foster gun mount let the pilot slide the upper gun down for reloading, but replacing the ammunition was still difficult in anything short of ideal conditions.

Langley Field, VA. Fench Nieuport 17, with Lt., E. LeMaitre and Capt. J.C. Bartolf
Langley Field, VA. Fench Nieuport 17, with Lt., E. LeMaitre and Capt. J.C. Bartolf

A Plane for Aces

Many aces flew to glory in the Nieuport XVII, including René Fonck, Charles Nungesser, and Billy Bishop.

René Fonck wearing the Légion d’honneur
René Fonck wearing the Légion d’honneur

The Nieuport 28

The last significant Nieuport fighter scout of World War One was the Nieuport 28, which first took flight on June 14, 1917.

 

 

Different Wings

The Nieuport 28 lost the distinctive wing formation of its predecessors. The small lower wing was replaced with a more conventional design, with the lower wing almost as large as the upper one.

The Americans’ First Fighter

In 1917, the United States entered the war. The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was sent to Europe to join the fighting on the Western Front. Many significant pieces of military equipment were supplied to them by their allies, including their fighter planes.

The first aerial combat by AEF pilots was carried out using Nieuport 28s. On April 14, 1918, while flying the AEF’s second combat patrol in Nieuports, Lieutenant Alan Winslow and Lieutenant Douglas Campbell each shot down an enemy plane.

Lieutenant Allan F. Winslow and Lieutenant Douglas Campbell, 94th Aero Squadron, Air Service, United States Army
Lieutenant Allan F. Winslow and Lieutenant Douglas Campbell, 94th Aero Squadron, Air Service, United States Army

Nieuport Aces

Campbell would go on to become the first American-trained ace of the war. Many American aces flew Nieuport 28s, including Eddie Rickenbacker, who with his 26 victories was the top American ace of World War One.

Lieutenant Douglas Campbell, 94th Aero Squadron
Lieutenant Douglas Campbell, 94th Aero Squadron

 

Douglas Campbell (center) poses with fellow 94th Aero Squadron aviators Eddie Rickenbacker (l.) and Kenneth Marr (r.). The aircraft in the background is a Nieuport 28.
Douglas Campbell (center) poses with fellow 94th Aero Squadron aviators Eddie Rickenbacker (l.) and Kenneth Marr (r.). The aircraft in the background is a Nieuport 28.

Maneuverable but Fragile

Like its predecessors, the Nieuport was a highly maneuverable plane by the standards of the time when it was launched. Unfortunately, it was also quite fragile. In a dive, the fabric of its upper wing sometimes peeled off.

Surpassed by the SPAD

Aerial warfare was a new discipline and the planes were evolving at an incredible rate as pilots and engineers learned hard practical lessons. A new model of plane could become outdated in months, and this was the fate of the Nieuports.

A SPAD S.XIII at Air Service Production Center No. 2, Romorantin Aerodrome, France, 1918
A SPAD S.XIII at Air Service Production Center No. 2, Romorantin Aerodrome, France, 1918

Read another story from us: It Wiped Out Large Numbers of Its Own Pilots – The Unstable Sopwith Camel

By the time the Nieuport 28 entered active service, it had already been overtaken as France’s top fighter plane by another design, the SPAD S.XIII. The SPAD was tougher than the Nieuport and overall was a better performing plane. The Nieuport’s days as a leader in the air were over, though Nieuport 28s continued in service to the war’s end and beyond.

 
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