Roland Garros, Anthony Fokker And The WWI Fighter Plane Revolution

Left: Roland Garros c. 1910, Right: Anthony Fokker c. 1916, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


In World War One, the French airman, Roland Garros, took the first step in revolutionizing the airplane for warfare. His dream was to be able to fire a machine gun through turning airplane propellers without endangering the aircraft. Garros’ design was simplistic and not the most efficient model, but it got the job done—he basically armored his propellers with metal wedges that deflected bullets away from the propeller blades. Even though his design was a bit brutish, Roland Garros managed to shoot down four German airplanes by the time he crashed and was captured by the Germans in 1915. He would remain a prisoner of war in Germany until 1918.

Unfortunately for the Allied Powers of WWI, Roland Garros was not all that was recovered from the crash in 1915—Germany also salvaged Garros’ airplane propeller and gun design. The Germans then handed the design over to the brilliant Dutch engineer, Anthony Fokker. Although Fokker wanted to remain neutral in WWI, and had actually tried to sell his airplanes to the Allies, the Allied Powers had refused to buy his planes and Germany became his main client. The Allies would soon regret their decision not to work with Fokker, for he would take Garros’ design and improve it exponentially.

In less than a year after Roland Garros was captured, Anthony Fokker designed a mechanism that synchronized an airplane’s machine gun to the propellers in such a way that the bullets passed by the propeller blades like clockwork without collision. With this new invention in 1915, the Fokker E-1 fighter plane was born and the Fokker Scourge of German air superiority began.

As for Roland Garros, he escaped from German custody in February of 1918 and immediately took to the skies in an Allied fighter plane. Unfortunately for Garros, however, his plane was shot down later that year, but this time, he did not survive. In a twist of irony, the German plane that shot Garros out of the sky was none other than one of Anthony Fokker’s synchronized fighter planes.

Written by C. Keith Hansley


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