09 April 2016

The WW1 French Fighter That Got More Fame Than It Deserved: The Nieuport 28

Aviation author Peter Bowers once said of the Nieuport 28 biplane fighter of the First World War "The French Nieuport 28....is unique in aviation history for having achieved a considerable degree of fame that it didn't really deserve." The penultimate Nieuport biplane fighter design was rejected by the French for front line service and that might well have been the end of the story for not just the aircraft but the Nieuport company as well had it not been for the American Expeditionary Force's need for a fighter aircraft as the better SPAD biplane's production was devoted to filling the needs of the French Air Service. Since it was available, it would be the Nieuport 28's claim to fame to be the first combat aircraft to wear American colors into the First World War. 
This N.28 wears the "kicking mule" emblem of the 95th Aero Squadron. The kicking mule is still used by the 95th Reconnaissance Squadron that flies the Rivet Joint.
(USAF Museum)
The story of the Nieuport 28 (N.28C-1 was its company designation, but for brevity reasons I'll just refer to it here on out as the N.28) begins with the formation of an aircraft company by Edouard and Charles Nieuport in 1909, at first devoted to producing aircraft components like engine ignition systems. Both brothers were pilots and began working on their own monoplane designs which were contemporaries of the more famous Blériot XI design that made the first air crossing of the English Channel on 25 July 1909. After a series of prototype designs, the Nieuport brothers reorganized the company in 1911 to focus more on their own aircraft designs as Nieuport et Deplante. Edouard was killed while flying that year and with the help of aviation-minded investors, the company was renamed Société Anonyme des Établissements Nieuport with the remaining brother, Charles, heading the company before his untimely demise also while flying later that year. Swiss engineer Franz Schneider, who would become more famous for his German designs in the First World War, briefly held the post of chief designer at Nieuport until he left for Germany in 1913. French engineer Gustave Delage took over in January 1914 and began work on a sesquiplane racer- not a true biplane as the lower wing was much narrower than the top wing. For lightness, Delage used only a single spar in each wing and used a "V" brace for the wing struts, the apex of the "V" being on the lower "half" wing. By the time the First World War had broken out, Delage's racing aircraft design became the Nieuport 10 fighter which in turn was developed into the faster Nieuport 12 fighter. The V-strut and sesquiplane layout would be the pattern of a series of further developments of the Nieuport fighter over the course of the war. By 1917, the current design was the Nieuport 17- though light and maneuverable, it couldn't deal with the latest crop of German fighters as it was underarmed (it only had a single machine gun when twin guns were pretty much the air combat standard by that point) and the single spar sesquiplane structure wasn't strong enough for extended air combat with the latest German designs. It was painfully obvious that Gustave Delage's design layout had reached its limits. 

With the French Air Service considering the SPAD S.VII fighter, Delage set about to create a better Nieuport fighter and broke with his long-standing design tradition by adopting a true biplane layout with conventional two spar wings and a twin machine gun armament with the Nieuport 28. With a longer fuselage but keeping the same cross section, the N.28 looked sleeker than previous Nieuport designs. Both the upper and lower wings now had two spars for strength and the chord of the lower wing was slightly less than that of the upper wing with Delage abandoning his favored sesquiplane layout. In contrast to the angular wing tips of his previous designs, the N.28 had rounded elliptical wingtips with conventional two strut wing braces attached to the spars, again, breaking with the V-strut configuration of his past designs (which were sometimes referred to as "V-Strutters"). Because of the narrowness of the fuselage, the twin Vickers 0.303 machine guns were offset- one left of center ahead of the pilot and the other nearly on left fuselage side. This was the result of the original N.28 prototype having only a single gun offset to the left ahead of the pilot. The need for a second gun meant that the fuselage was too narrow for two guns side by side ahead of the pilot, the second gun was offset to the left and below of first gun. 

Eddie Rickenbacker and his N.28. Note the offset guns and the Hat-in-the-Ring emblem
still used to this day by the 94th Fighter Squadron which flies F-22s from Langley AFB.
In keeping with past Nieuport designs, a rotary engine was used from either the Gnome or Le Rhone engine manufacturer. To keep the engines lightweight, they lacked carburetors and could not be throttled down- as a result, the N.28 had what was called a "blip switch" on the control stick that would briefly turn off the engine when power needed to be reduced, such as landing. The Le Rhone rotary engines were a bit more flexible and could be throttled between 900 to 1250 rpm, but even at the lowest setting it was still too much power for the N.28, so the "blip switch" was still necessary regardless of the engine type installed. Later engines would feature additional switches that could cut out certain cylinders on the engines to reduce power, but these systems would prove to be continual maintenance headaches. The late model Gnome engines boasted 100 hp which for the N.28 was a lot of power, but to keep engine weight down, the engine cylinders had only a single valve instead of the traditional two valves and as such, were referred to as "Monosoupape" engines which worked not unlike a two stroke engine. Unfortunately this was very wasteful when it come to fuel consumption and incompletely burned fuel posted a constant engine fire hazard for N.28 pilots. 

While the engine issues alone might have been enough cause for the French Air Service to reject the N.28, the performance gains offered were eclipsed by the SPAD S.XIII which became the standard French fighter of the period. That might have been the end of the Nieuport story at that point had it not been for the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force in France. Lacking a suitable fighter aircraft of their own, the Americans turned to the French for the SPAD S.XIII, but all of SPAD's production was committed to French needs and none were available for the AEF. The French offered the N.28 which wasn't ideal but it was better than nothing and Nieuport would build 297 N.28s for the AEF. 

The introduction into service was lackluster at best. The First Pursuit Group assigned the N.28 to four of its squadrons- the 27th, 94th, 95th, and 147th Aero Squadrons. The 95th AS arrived first to the front in February 1918, but the N.28s were delivered without guns! To boost morale and show that that the Americans were ready for action, Major Raoul Lufbery, a veteran of the Lafayette Escadrille of American volunteers, led unarmed patrols over the front lines the following month. It was an inauspicious start to American air combat operations that the first fighters in action lacked armament. On 14 April 1918, the 94th's sister squadron, the 95th Aero Squadron, made its first armed patrol with three N.28s- with the flight lead aborting due to weather, the other two pilots, Lt. Reed Chambers and Lt. Eddie Rickenbacker, decided to press on with their patrol. Returning to the airfield, two German fighters were overhead, apparently lost above the fog. The second patrol launched with Lt. Alan Winslow and Lt. Douglas Campbell and they downed the two Germans, Winslow scoring the first victory for the AEF and Campbell (soon to become the first American ace) getting credit for the second German by forcing it to crash land.

In the weeks of air combat that followed, the Americans found the N.28 had other short comings besides its troublesome rotary engine. During extended dives, the upper wings tended to shed their fabric covering, often taking the wing ribs forward of the forward wing spar with it. Several American pilots were lost due to the wing failures. Even Eddie Rickenbacker nursed home a crippled N.28 when he lost most of his upper wing's fabric. By the time Nieuport had a fix for the problem, adequate SPAD S.XIIIs became available and the Americans quickly converted to the superior SPAD fighter in July 1918. After the last N.28s were built for the AEF squadrons, Nieuport switched over to license production of SPAD fighters in an ironic twist. By August 1918, the last N.28s were phased out from the AEF in favor of the SPAD. 

Despite the shortcomings of the N.28, the Americans maintained a favorable win-to-loss ratio, the most appreciated quality of the N.28 being its maneuverability. The kill ratio was about 3:1, respectable given the shortcomings of the N.28 and the relative inexperience of the American pilots early on. By the time the four squadrons had converted to the SPAD, the kill ratio had slipped to 1:1 on account of there being more veteran German pilots in combat than earlier in the N.28's combat career. 
An N.28 flies off the turret platform of either the USS Oklahoma or USS Pennsylvania
(US Navy)
Following the First World War, about 50 N.28s that did not see combat service over France were shipped to the United States and used by the US Navy as gunnery observation aircraft. Small fly-off platforms were built atop some battleship turrets and the light weight and rapid acceleration of the N.28 allowed them to be operated off these platforms. Flotation gear and hydrovanes were fitted that allowed the N.28s to be recovered from water landings. 

Further reading: 

Sources: Profile Publications No. 79: The Nieuport N.28C-1 by Peter Bowers. Profile Publications, 1966. National Museum of the US Air Force, Wikipedia. 

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