Arriving at the front in February 1916, the Airco D.H.2 was fairly late in the British series of fighter pusher biplanes. A single-seater, it was considerably faster and more agile than the Vickers Gun-bus, and enjoyed some successes against the Fokkers in early 1916. But improved German models soon surpassed it. About 450 were built.
[ad#ad-1]The D.H.2 was the second design of Geoffrey de Havilland. As the British still did not have synchronizing gear for their machine guns, they persisted with the ‘pusher biplane’ concept. The pilot sat up front, both flying the plane and firing the Lewis gun. The gun was originally swivel-mounted permitting a wider field of fire. The pilots soon discovered that it was simpler to clamp the gun in a fixed position and aim the whole airplane at the target, but this practice was immediately forbidden by the armchair generals in the rear. Of course, they knew better!!
In February, 1916, it was delivered to Major Lanoe Hawker’s 24 Squadron of the RFC, the first to be equipped with single-seat fighters. The pilots familiarized themselves with the new machine, and downed their first German plane on April 2. On the 25th, they even shot down a Fokker Eindekker, a real morale-boost for the squadron. Two other squadrons, No. 29 and No. 32 were also equipped with the D.H.2 in Summer 1916.
Top Speed: 93 m.p.h.
Manufacturer: Aircraft Manufacturing Co.
Engine: 100 h.p. Gnome Monosoupape rotary
Wingspan: 28 feet 3 inches
Weight: 1,441 lb.
Armament: 1 machine gun
The early British ace, and Victoria Cross winner, Major Lanoe Hawker flew an Airco D.H.2 in late 1916, and was flying the type on his last, fatal flight.
On November 23, 1916, he encountered Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron. That morning, Hawker led three planes in an attack on some German two-seaters. But it was an ambush. The bait promptly fled, while Richthofen’s fighters dived after the British fliers. Lieutenants Andrews and Saunders were hit, but managed to escape. Hawker stayed to fight; against him were Richthofen and the best pilots of Jasta 2.
Starting at 6,000 feet, the airplanes tore at each other, twisting and turning in descending circles, down to 2,000 feet. Desperate to gain an advantage, Hawker looped and got off a burst. He missed and fled for home, now at tree-top level. But the German aircraft was faster and Richthofen was determined.
In Richthofen’s own words:
Our speed is terrific. [Hawker] starts back for his front. He knows my gun barrel is trained on him. He starts to zigzag, making sudden darts right and left, confusing my aim and making it difficult to train my gun on him. But the moment is coming. I am fifty yards behind him. My machine gun is firing incessantly. We are hardly fifty yards above the ground – just skimming it.
Now I am within thirty yards of him. He must fall. The gun pours out its stream of lead. Then it jams. Then it reopens fire. That jam almost saved his life. One bullet goes home. He is struck through the back of the head. His plane jumps and crashes down. It strikes the ground just as I swoop over. His machine gun rammed itself into the earth, and now it decorates the entrance over my door [to the family home at Schweidnitz]. He was a brave man, a sportsman, and a fighter.
Hawker was Richthofen’s eleventh victim. Another order went to his Berlin silversmith, for a plain, silver cup, just two inches high, engraved briefly with the aircraft and date of his victory.