Pfalz Scout D-III

Pfalz Scout D-3

A German fighter of World War One.

The Pfalz D.III appeared in 1917. It was a biplane fighter, the design of which owed much to the L.F.G. Roland D.I and D.II. While not an outstanding fighter, the Pfalz D III handled well and its monococque fuselage was very sturdy. Between 600 and 1000 were built. Flown by Oswald Boelcke and Heinrich Gontermann.


The Pfalz DIII scout biplane was produced in 1917 as a possible successor to the Albatross single seater on the Western Front. The sudden rise of the Fokker Dr-1 eclipsed the D.III program but the Pfalz was nevertheless favored by many German aces.

[ad#ad-1]The sturdy design and the diving ability of the Pfalz D.III suited it for dangerous attacks on observation balloons, and it was flown very successfully by two German “balloon busters:” Gontermann and Buckler. Gonterman shot down 18 Allied gasbags while flying the D.III.

Compared to the contemporary Albatros, the Pfalz D.III was slower, but stronger overall, and its tailplane design enabled it to pull out of a fast dive with marked agility. Also it was one of the slowest climbing German scouts ever built. Taking seventeen minutes to climb to 10,000 feet, this put it at a great disadvantage to allied Camel, SPAD XIII, and SE5a types, which only needed six minutes. In early 1918, after the Fokker Dr.I had lost favor, and before the emergence of the Fokker DVIII, the Pfalz D.III was the mainstay of the German Jastas.

Design and Production

Before 1917, Pfalz only built aircraft designs under license: Morane-Saulnier monoplanes as the Pfalz A- and E-series, and Roland D.I and Roland D.II fighters.

In November 1916, Pfalz hired Rudolph Gehringer as chief engineer, who immediately began working on an original fighter design. The resulting D.III emerged in April 1917. Like the Rolands, the D.III used a plywood monocoque fuselage. Two layers of veneer strips were spirally wrapped in opposing directions over a mold to form one half of a fuselage shell. The fuselage halves were then glued together, covered with fabric, and doped. This gave the fuselage great strength, light weight, and smooth contours, but it also was more labor intensive and expensive. Furthermore, the D.III fuselage was prone to warping as it aged, a defect variously attributed to the use of insufficiently seasoned wood or to moisture absorption in damp conditions.

Its twin Spandau guns were completely buried, except for their muzzles, in the front fuselage.

The Idflieg directed Pfalz to deliver 70 of the new D.III aircraft. After flight tests at Adlershof in May, 1917, and certain changes, Pfalz received a second order for 300 aircraft in June.

The first D.III design appeared in mid-1917: a small machine with a streamlined fuselage. Its 160 h.p. Mercedes engine was installed in the pointed nose; the protruding cylinder block was enclosed in metal cowlings. A short horizontal exhaust pipe discharged on the starboard side. The raked wings had hollow box spars and plywood ribs; both fabric-covered. Fin and tall-planes were of ply-covered wood; the latter was of inverted aerofoil section. a common device of the time to assist recovery from dives. The rudder was framed in steel tubing; both it and the wooden one-piece elevator were fabric covered.

Vees of steel tubing formed the undercarriage, and a small fairing covered the axle and spreader bars. Twin Spandau guns were fitted to fire through the revolving propeller; on early models these were mounted inside the fuselage with only their muzzles protruding; later they were placed on top to facilitate maintenance.

The D.IIIa, which followed it into production, had a 175 hp Mercedes engine, and its guns mounted on top of the fuselage, where they were easier to aim and to service. The wingtip shape on later D.IIIs and D.IIIas was more rounded.

Operational History

Deliveries to the front began in August 1917, starting with Bavarian Jastas 10 and 4. While markedly better than the earlier Rolands, the D.III was generally considered inferior to the contemporary Albatros models. The Pfalz D.III was neither fast nor maneuverable, compared to the Albatros. It stalled sharply, spun readily, and was difficult to pull out of a flat spin. The Pfalz’s main advantage was its strength and sturdiness. The D.III could safely dive at high speeds due to its twin-spar lower wing. For this reason, the Pfalz was well-suited to diving attacks on heavily defended observation balloons.

[ad#ad-1]By 31 December 1917 two hundred and seventy-six D.IIIs, and one hundred and fourteen D.IIIas were at the Front. The D.IIIs dwindled thereafter, while D.IIIa numbers rose in proportion. The D.IIIa reached its peak in April 1918 when four hundred and thirty-six were at the Front. Forty-six Jastas are known to have had some D.III/ IIIas on strength.

The Pfalz fighters’ reputation suffered in comparison with other late-war German fighters. Certainly they were not as fast as the Albatros D.Va, nor had they the altitude performance of the Fokker DVII. But the Pfalz was certainly not weakly constructed – indeed, it could dive harder than the Albatros, which led to its extensive use as a balloon-buster. It was also a stable gun platform and could absorb a great deal of punishment. The numbers in service, especially in the early spring of 1918, suggest that it played a large part in re-establishing German air superiority. Production totals are not known precisely, but perhaps as many as one thousand were built. The D.IIIa was gradually replaced by the Albatros D.Va and Fokker D.VII after early 1918, but one hundred and sixty-six were still in service at the end of August.

An improved model, the D-IIIa. had a 175 h.p. Mercedes engine, rounded lower wingtips and a larger curved tail-plane. Early in 1918 Pfalz production was increased, and as availability was then more important than performance. Largely for want of a better alternative, the Pfalz continued to operate until mid-1918. By then, S.E.5a, Camel, and Spad pilots saw the D.III as ‘easy meat’.