Building the Fokker

But those Fokkers were flying...

Within two minutes of seeing the plane, most people would tell that old joke.

I had a sign tacked to the wall of the garage, "I Can Remember When I Started Building This Airplane But Not Why". It was 1968 and the homebuilt airplane craze was in full swing. This was a time when people actually designed and built their own airplanes, not assembling them Erector Set fashion from parts that came in a box. Main reason was that there weren't any kits around in those days.

I knew that I wanted to build something unique but since there were so many WW-I replicas and lookalikes around, I didn't want mine to be just another airplane with two wings and Patee Crosses. That was the German insignia used during the early years of the war, often mistakenly called a Maltese Cross. Also, I wasn't about to tackle building something like a Sopwith or Fokker Triplane. They would certainly be unique but I knew the amount of work building such a ship would involve. I wanted a simple design that I could finish within a reasonable length of time. I browsed through WW-I Aviation books and kept coming back to the Fokker Eindecker. It was unique both in looks and history. It was the first airplane flown in battle by Baron Manfred Von Richtofen and the one in which he earned the famed Blue Max. It was the first to mount a machine gun that would fire through the arc of the propeller and the first airplane able to do the famous evasive turn developed by Max Immelman and was named after him. It was also had a boxy look which would be easy to build.

The Eindecker (one wing) was the first of four very different designs that Fokker came out with during WW-I. The Eindecker of 1915 was followed by the Dreidecker or Triplane (with three wings) made famous by the Red Baron in 1916. Then in 1917 was the year of the biplanes and finally back to a single wing mounted above the fuselage just as the war ended in 1918. Top speed increased from around 100 mph to well over 200.

Airplane design improved so rapidly during the war that the Eindecker was quickly outclassed in both speed and firepower and soon the few remaining ones were relegated to use as trainers. Now, you have to consider that flight training in those days consisted of the instructor (someone who had survived flying one a few times) explaining to the new student how the controls worked, followed by cranking the engine and sending him off. If he survived, he was a pilot; if not, well there were plenty more waiting to take his place. Using them as trainers depleted the supply so rapidly that only a single flyable example remained at the end of the war. It ended up in a museum in France. Other than a few fading photographs and some line drawings, not much was known about the Eindecker.

Fortunately, I was able to locate a set of plans at The Smithsonian for building a scale display model of the airplane. They were amazingly detailed and best of all, I could scale right off the plans. That single sheet of model airplane plans was my entire resource for building the ship. Construction was begun in March of 1968 so true to the way Tony Fokker recorded the serial numbers on his ships, it became Fok. E-III 3/68. I was able to obtain the FAA registration number N-1915F for the year it saw service and F for Fokker.

I overheard my son, who was eleven at the time, telling a friend, "My dad's building an airplane in the garage."

"What does it look like?"

"A pile of sticks."

Now, I must interject at this point that I did have a certain amount of training in both design and construction of airplanes. I was a pilot, had studied aerodynamics and was a licensed aircraft mechanic. Still, having only a basic set of drawings to work from, it took a lot of sitting and studying a problem before I felt confident to cut wood or tubing. I'll admit that I did have a certain amount of waste caused by doing something wrong the first time. I also incorporated several points of design and construction that were unknown in 1914.

I had built many model airplanes as a kid and building the Fokker was more or less the same except on a full size scale. There was one other element; I would actually be in this one. The fuselage was made entirely of wood, hundreds of small pieces cut, fitted together and glued in place. The two sides of the fuselage were built together and then spread apart to add the top and bottom. It was at about that stage and sitting on a pair of sawhorses when a guy stopped by to look at it. I told him it was an airplane but there was no way I could convince him that it wasn't a boat. I let him go on his way with the smug feeling that he had shown me that he wasn't as dumb as he appeared.

Building an airplane in the garage brings about many changes in family life. The cars took up permanent residence in the driveway and the TV no longer occupied my evenings. There was always a strange smell of some chemical concoction or the acrid stench of welding gas seeping in from the garage. The main thing was that it allowed me to work on it any time the opportunity or urge came along and also kept me just steps away from the family if needed.

One of the greatest pleasures in building the Fokker was that I got to design every part except for the hardware and engine. I couldn't drop by the local airplane junkyard and pick up something that would work. Much research went into calculating how strong an item had to be for safety and then arrive at the delicate balance between strength and weight. I will say in retrospect that building it was far more fun than flying it ever was.

Slowly it took form and one of the big milestones was the day it stood on its own wheels. It had now taken on the form of an airplane instead of a boat and I could now roll it around. The main thing was that it could easily be moved out into the driveway to make room for building the wings. They were without a doubt the most tedious and boring of all the jobs. The wings required 32 ribs and each rib consisted of 46 individual pieces of wood, all fitted and glued together. In order to make all the ribs identical, they were built one at a time in a jig. Once a rib was assembled in the jig, it took 24 hours for the glue to dry properly before I could start another one. It seemed that the stack of ribs would never be finished.

As an escape from the endless sticks and gussets for the ribs, the engine was fitted, instruments installed and the cowling formed. I had found a used engine of modern design and rebuilt it to like-new condition. There was no choice when it came to the engine I would use. The original was a cantankerous and unreliable thing that was often impossible to start and when running, it belched out a cloud of smoke and a swirling spray of oil in all directions. The odd, horseshoe shaped cowling was to keep the spray of oil out of the pilot's face and direct it out beneath the ship. The average life of one of the original engines was about 25 hours and the few remaining examples are all in museums. The engine I chose was the same horsepower, weighed half as much, was very dependable and could easily be hidden inside the original cowling.

The day I lashed the tail to a garage door rail, swung the prop through and it barked to life made all that time and work worthwhile. It had to be run on the ground for two hours before flight and doing so in the driveway did create some immediate problems. Neighborhood kids gathered to watch and while I was keeping them at a safe distance from the spinning propeller, a man driving by stopped to have a look while a less impressed but equally distracted driver failed to see the car parked in the middle of the street and smacked him in the rear end. I had the attractive nuisance safely back in the garage when the police arrived. "But officer, there was an airplane sitting in the driveway with its engine running and I stopped to look at it," was probably hard for the officer to write with a straight face.

An airplane 19 feet long with 36 feet of wingspan simply will not fit inside a 22 by 26-foot garage. With levels, plumb bobs and protractors in place, I put on one wing and adjusted the flying and landing wires to give it the proper pitch and incidence. When it was properly fitted, it was taken off, the fuselage was turned around and the same done with the other wing. The ship was never completely assembled until after it had been to the auto body shop for painting and taken to a hangar at the airport.

Two years and two months after I cut the first piece of wood, the Fokker stood like an apparition from the past, waiting for its first flight. By the time one has become as close as possible to something they built with their own two hands, there is no question that that I can fly it. After all, it's only an airplane and I had been flying for 25 years and had flown many different kinds of them. Of course, I'd never flown a design nearly 60 years old and there certainly wasn't anyone around who had and could give me tips. I was on my own.

I did the usual taxi runs, each getting a bit faster and faster to see how it handled on the ground. Everything seemed to work properly. All the control inputs were normal and it felt ready and anxious to fly. I announced to the local Experimental Aircraft Association group that the first official flight would be made on Saturday morning.

Friday evening was calm and with no one at the airport except for my wife and myself, I decided that it was time for the Fokker to try its wings. Actually, I wanted to avoid embarrassing myself in front of a bunch of my fellow pilots in case something went wrong.

I taxied to the end of the runway, checked the magnetos, turned the nose into the light wind and advanced the throttle all the way. The little ship bounded down the runway, the tail came up and I felt it getting light on the wheels. Suddenly I was airborne with fresh summer air flowing around my head. The speed picked up and I heard what started as a moan but quickly became a scream. At first I thought it was a bearing in the newly overhauled engine was about to fail but then realized that it was the forest of wires screaming in the air. My wife on the ground also heard it and was about beside herself thinking that something terrible was about to happen. She was so excited that she took only one photo of the takeoff.

The strange, all-flying tail, which the Germans dubbed "The Influencers" became rather unstable as the speed increased and seemed to take on a life of their own. I could feel them trying to over-react any time I moved the stick even slightly. I flew a large, careful circle around the airport and returned to land. As soon as my speed dropped for the landing, the controls became normal again and the wires ceased to scream. I flew it one more time that evening and rolled it into the hangar. Little did my friends realize the next morning that they weren't watching its first flight. At least I could do it with far more confidence.

The Fokker flying in an airshow near Philadelphia.

While it certainly didn't fly like a modern airplane, it was an interesting experience to find what aviation was like during the First World War. As one friend who flew it said, "No wonder they lost the war."

I flew it for about a year and sold it to an airshow company near Philadelphia where it thrilled the crowds each Saturday in mock dogfights. Of course, it was like Charley Brown trying to kick the football, it never won. While the Fokker was cavorting in the air, the announcer would spin a tale of how a German pilot ran out of fuel and landed it behind the enemy lines in France. His plane was moved into a barn by a French farmer who covered it with hay and it remained hidden for 50 years. When it was discovered, all they had to do was pour in gas and it was ready to fly. Then he would tell that it is the only remaining one of its type anywhere in the world, which was the only part of his spiel that was true.


Click here to see more pictures of the Fokker

Click here for a short movie about the Fokker

Click here to read the fascinating letter from the current owner of the Fokker
(dated March, 2004) and see pictures of her restoration.

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Copyright 2000 by Jim Foreman