An aircraft design employing three wings, usually stacked one atop another.
By the end of 1915, aerial combat had defined itself enough to give aircraft designers a working knowledge of combat aircraft requirements. Combat aircraft needed the best possible combination of fast rate of climb, tight maneuverability, strength, and as much speed as available engines could provide.
In 1916, in an attempt to counter highly effective German aircraft designs, the British Sopwith Company decided to try a radical new design: the three-winged airplane. Though a departure from conventional designs, the three-winged triplane proved to be light, fast, and a good climber. Pilots found the Sopwith Triplane to have phenomenal maneuverability, and its narrow-chord wings gave pilots a good field of view, while the combined area of the three wings gave enough lift to out-climb and out-turn any aircraft in production by either side. The Sopwith Triplane was also 15 miles per hour faster than its nearest competitor, and was the first Allied fighter plane to have two forward-mounted, synchronized machine guns. Raymond Collishaw, a Canadian pilot flying with the Royal Naval Air Service, used a Sopwith Triplane to down sixty enemy aircraft, ranking him third on Britain’s ace list. Only 150 Sopwith Triplanes were built, and by the end of 1917 they were replaced by the biwinged Sopwith Camel.
The Fokker Dreidecker (three-winger) was designed by Reinhold Platz in response to the Sopwith Triplane. The Fokker was lightly loaded, fast-climbing, and highly maneuverable and first saw service in August, 1917, by Lieutenant Werner Voss, one of Germany’s leading aces and a member of Jagdgeschwader Nr 1, nicknamed the Flying Circus. Apart from the Sopwith Camel, the diminutive Fokker Dr-I triplane was the only other World War I fighter plane to hold the public’s imagination. Its fame was due largely to the exploits of another member of the Flying Circus, Germany’s leading ace, Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron,” who fought and died flying his crimson Fokker Dr-I. The Dr-I had a relatively short combat life. Only about 320 Dr-I’s were built before it was withdrawn from service due to structural failures.
Other fighter triplane designs that were less successful during the war were the British Blackburn triplane, which never saw production; and the German two-seater Pfalz Dr.1, of which only ten were manufactured. A successful triplane not put to fighter use was the Italian Caproni Ca.42 heavy bomber. Introduced in 1918, thirty-two Caproni Ca.42’s were built, six of which saw service with the British. The airplane had a wingspan of 98 feet and stood nearly 21 feet tall. Its slow top speed of only 78 miles per hour made it vulnerable to fighter attack, limiting its use to night-time bombing raids.
Angelucci, Enzo. The Rand McNally Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft, 1914-1980. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1981. A superbly illustrated and informatively written book covering the history of military aircraft. Bowyer, Chaz. The Age of the Biplane. New York: Crescent Books, 1981. Though emphasizing biplanes, the book gives a good overview of triplane development. The book is richly illustrated with historical photographs. Imrie, Alex. The Fokker Triplane. London: Arms & Armour, 1992. An illustrated history of the Fokker triplane, with bibliographical references and an index.
Manfred von Richthofen