When you’re strapping into a Fokker Triplane the difference between it and most other airplanes is palpable. The instrument panel doesn’t exist and the few rudimentary gauges are snuggled between the butts of two dummy Spandaus that seem to be almost in your face. When you look outside, that middle wing sits exactly where youíd look when landing a normal taildragger and just having three tremendously stubby wings out there makes for a really strange feeling.
On this flight, the more modern (1930s) 145hp Warner engine up front would eliminate the wild gyroscopic effects of the original 110hp Oberusel rotary engine and provided an actual throttle not an intermittent kill button. Still there was no doubt that I was about to fly an unusual airplane.
By the time I got to the runway it became obvious why the middle wing had the cutout at the root: you need it to see where you’re going. Even with lots of “s” turns, I was constantly ducking down under the wing to see what was in front of me.
Takeoff was a revelation. I’d barely started the throttle forward when the tail was ready to pop up off the runway. Instantly, the visibility increased a hundred fold and the airplane floated off in a nearly level attitude at some unbelievably low speed. The first airspeed I saw was 60mph and it was already climbing like a bandit.
To a modern pilot the airplane can be thoroughly disconcerting and it takes some getting used to. It has zero yaw stability and the rudder has virtually no feel. In level flight, if you take your feet off the rudder bar, the nose will gradually slide one way or the other so you’re constantly futzing with the rudder to keep the ball centered. Even in turns I could feel my butt sliding back and forth and the wind alternately hitting different sides of my face. The changing direction of the slipstream was actually the best indication of what the airplane was doing. It’s a different way to fly and the upcoming landing constantly haunts you.
The good news about landing a Fokker Triplane is that everything happens in slow motion. It approaches at about 70mph and the nose is well down because of all that drag, so visibility is good–until you flare. In a three-point attitude, the entire world disappears and everything gets very quiet as the airplane slows to its 40 mph stall.
On touchdown, I found myself looking under the middle wing, desperate for anything that gave me ground references. I don’t know why I even bothered looking because, as the airplane slowed down, it was obvious I was more a passenger than anything else. If there had been a hint of crosswind, I doubt if I could have kept it straight.
During “The Great War,” airfields were big rectangular patches of grass and you always landed into the wind. There’s a reason, however, that Triplanes have axe handle skids under the wing tips. And there’s a reason Triplane pilots don’t feel embarrassed when they ground loop one. It’ll happen to everyone sooner or later.
I’d survived my first landing without embarrassment and I didn’t go back for a second. I’m not stupid. –Budd Davisson