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5 January 1975 (USA)  »

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Neglected Aspects of Airplane Design in WWI
3 October 2016 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

What would we do without PBS and Nova? How much dumber would we be? It's hard to imagine a program based on ratings and commercial ads putting out a description of a New Zealand group, the Vintage Aviators, building precise replicas of World War I machines and testing their abilities and flying properties in real skies.

To detract further from its commercial value, the program isn't filled with fighters shooting each other down wholesale. Instead, the first half hour is devoted to observation biplanes that spied on enemy positions and directed artillery fire. The group has not only built the first model of a British observation airplane, the BE2, but updated models concluding with the BE2-C. Consideration is given to the quality of the photographs taken and the speed of their delivery to the base.

The second half is mostly directed at the mounting of machine guns. It was quickly found (and illustrated by experiments with these replicas in New Zealand) that manually aimed guns were dangerous because the gunner's own aircraft sported so many easy accidental targets like struts and empennage. Forward-firing fixed machine guns were the answer, but how to mount them so that they'd fire bullets through the propeller arc without shooting the prop to pieces? The answer was developed by a twenty year-old Dutch techie named Fokker. He offered his services to the British Royal Flying Corps, was turned down, then hired by the Germans. Fokker's mechanism used a series of cams that prevented the gun from firing when a propeller would be in its path. The device revolutionized war in the air and designated fighters began to be built.

Technological superiority seesawed back and forth during the course of the war and ended with the British simply outproducing the Germans by using assembly lines efficiently. No mention is made of von Richthofen or his Fokker Dreidekker.

Like most documentaries of this type, it's composed of much footage of the Vintage Airmen, newsreel footage from the war, and an informative narration.

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