The planes fly so low and so slowly that you can see the pilots in their open cockpits, silk scarves fluttering. The British planes are painted in Royal Flying Corps khaki, while the Germans sport futuristic camouflage patterns or dare to flaunt a bright, flamboyant paint job, like that of Manfred von Richthofen’s famous all-red Fokker triplane.
Although the pace looks deceptively gentle, this is a matter of life and death. Wind whistles through bracing wires as the machines, made for the most part from canvas-covered wooden frames, chase each other across the sky, looping, rolling and performing Immelmann turns in their attempts to shake a pursuer or gain the advantage. With as many as ten aircraft engaged in battle, it’s a crowded sky, and it can be hard to keep track of the action. Imagine how it would feel to be a pilot whose life depended on keeping the enemy off your tail!
At last the enemy aircraft have been driven off or shot down, and the winners come in to land, perhaps performing a victory roll first. When they’re not soaring like eagles, you can often find the pilots on the ground in their long, leather coats, flying-helmets and perhaps even enormous moustaches, happy to talk to you about their aircraft and how it feels to fly them.
At airshows in the UK, you’re most likely to see a performance from the Great War Display Team. This group flies combinations of their SE5a, Fokker and Sopwith triplanes, Fokker and Junkers monoplanes, and sometimes the entire team, at airshows and events around the country.
Most of the First World War aircraft you’ll see on the display circuit are replicas. Of the planes that flew in that first air war, many were destroyed in battle. The remainder were largely sold off at the end of hostilities, often to disappear without trace. The few survivors are now nearly a century old.
Replica aircraft are usually painted to represent a real aeroplane of the time. Von Richthofen’s all-red triplane is a popular model, but there are plenty of colour schemes to choose from, and great care is taken to ensure that the reproduction is as authentic as possible. The Great War Display Team flies a Fokker Triplane in the colours of Leutnant Johann Janzen of Jasta 6.
The Shuttleworth Collection, based near Biggleswade in Bedfordshire, owns both original and replica aircraft of this period. Original examples which have been restored to full working order include a 1916 Sopwith Pup and a Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a from 1918. Some of these aircraft were acquired by museums after the war, while others were discovered years later. Some have a military history, but some never entered service, rolling off the production line too late. The Collection’s Avro 504K was used in military experiments as late as 1940, and went on to appear in the film Reach For The Sky.
These planes aren’t just museum pieces. If weather conditions allow it, they take to the air at a number of daytime and evening displays held between May and October. It’s a unique opportunity to see aircraft of this vintage doing what they were built for all those years ago.
In the age of stealth and supersonic fighters, fly-by-wire systems and HUDs, it’s important to remember the origins of military aviation – and these displays are still a delight to watch.