The United States took a long time to be come involved in ‘the Great War’, and it took an intelligence coupe, in the shape of the Zimmerman telegram, to make it become a belligerent. Amazingly, despite being the first nation to have powered flight, and having good trainers and maritime seaplanes, it had NO combat-worthy types which could survive the rigors of the Western Front. Consequently, The American Expeditionary Force’s air component would have to be equipped with French and British machines, if they were to play a part in the final defeat of the Kaiser’s Germany. Obviously, many American pilots had established an enviable fighting record with the French Escadrille Lafayette, and there were also Americans who had got into the War by the simple expedient of heading north and joining the Canadian Army (a situation that would occur once again, a generation later). These flyers of the American Expeditionary Force had strong views about what aircraft would suit their style of air warfare. However, sometimes the French were unable to supply the Americans prefered ‘mounts’ (providing the less-than-optimal Nieuport 28, for example), but they did arrange for the American Air Service to be supplied with the magnificent Spad XIII for their ‘Pursuit’ squadrons.
The Société Pour L’Aviation et ses Dérivés, was the name of a company founded by the French entrepreneur Armand Deperdussin. The Spad XIII was derived from the earlier Spad VII, which had a 150 hp Hispano-Suiza V-8 engine and a single Vickers .303″ machinegun. The company’s Chief Designer, Louis Béchéreau, needed more power, and more fire-power, if he was to make up for a lack of maneuverability in his big fighter. He solved the first problem by fitting a higher-compression, geared version of the original V-8 engine – the 220 hp Hispano-Suiza H-S 8Bc (or 8/Be in later aircraft) – into the strong, fabric-covered, wooden airframe, and doubling the armament to two Vickers .303″ machineguns. The result was a fighter that was very fast for the day (135 mph), with tremendous dive speed, and a ceiling of over 21,000ft. This was a lot considering that its pilots would have started to suffer, badly, from lack of oxygen at that altitude. The new fighter’s first flight was on 4th April, 1917. It was obvious that here was a fighter able to hold its own in combat with the German’s formidable Fokker D.VII, and easily outclass the Albatros D.Va and Fokker Triplane.
Eddie Rickenbacker (born to American/Swiss parents as Edward Reichenbacher), was a famous race driver before the war, and ended up as General John. J Pershing’s personal chauffeur in France. He pestered the General, and got his wish, a posting to the U.S. Army Air Service. By May, he was with the 94th ‘Hat in the Ring’ Squadron, of the 1st Pursuit Group, which were equipped with the rather fragile Nieuport 28. On the 28th May, 1918, he shot down an Albatros, then lost part of his wing diving on two others (this was a common occurrence). Somehow he managed to limp back to base. Shortly afterwards he was on leave in Paris, and rather than go back with his comrades, went to the American Air Depot at Orly Aerodrome. There he found three brand new Spad XIII being being readied for dispatch to the 94th, and flew one of these back. This aircraft, ‘S’ 4523, known as ‘Old # 1′ was his mount for the rest of the war. He was a daring, highly skilled fighter, who shot down more enemy aircraft than any other American – a total of 26. For example, on 25th September, 1918, he engaged five Fokker D.VII and two Halberstadt CL.II two-seaters in combat – on his own – and shot down one of the Fokkers and one Halberstadt! He was presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor, and returned to the U.S.A to fame and glory, the likes of which he could never have imagined.
By the time the Armistice rolled around -the fighting stopping at 11am on 11th November, 1918 – the United States had accepted delivery of no less than 893 Spad XIII, which equipped 15 out of 16 American fighter squadrons. The eventual final production total came to 8,472 of the type, produced by no less than nine different companies. Over 10,000 OTHER examples were cancelled at War’s end!
The aircraft you can see here is on display in the American Air Museum at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford. It is, of course, a replica, as are several others displayed around the world; the original Spad XIIIs on display in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, and the National Museum of the Air Force in the United States, despite being painted as Richenbacker’s aircraft, are not his. This example was built in Germany by Williams Flugzeugbau in 1978 and registered D-GOWM, and powered by a 200 hp Lycoming AIO-360-A2I3 engine. It was owned by Leisure Sport Ltd, of Thorpe Park, England, and flew as part of a ‘flying circus’ until it was grounded in 1982. It was then exhibited, rather oddly in my humble opinion, at the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton. I know of no Royal Naval Air Service unit equipped with the Spad XIII; the only British unit to be fully equipped with the Spad XIII was No. 23 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps. The Imperial War Museum acquired the aircraft in 1997, and it forms part of their excellent collection of American aircraft on display in The American Air Museum at Duxford Airfield.
The Spad XIII – a fast, ferocious fighter, and one of the best aircraft of World War One.