Developed by the Sopwith Aviation Company concurrently alongside the Sopwith Pup and Sopwith 1½ Strutter, the rotary-engined Sopwith Triplane created havoc during the heavy aerial fighting on the Western Front in 1917.
The single-seat fighter’s three-wing configuration gave it an exceptional climb performance, and along with the lessons learned during the development of the Pup, the Triplane soon became the most formidable fighting asset being used by the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) — if only for a relatively short period.
Based largely on the fuselage and tail unit of the Pup, the new Triplane was designed as a private venture by the Sopwith Design Team and had been completed at Kingston by the third week of May 1916.
The three narrow-chord wings offered a much-improved view for the pilot whilst the ailerons fitted to all three wings provided excellent maneuverability. Featuring a 110 hp Clerget 9Z rotary engine, the prototype (N500) was transported by road to Brooklands on 28th May 1916, where it made its first flight two days later, in the hands of Sopwith Test Pilot Harry Hawker. Spectators stood astonished as within minutes after take-off, he completed three successive loops during the type’s maiden flight.
Both the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) quickly expressed their interest in the new, state-of-the-art fighter, and orders were placed by both organisations within days.
In June 1916, the prototype was sent to France for trials with the RNAS and it was an instant hit with pilots, especially its ability to climb to 12,000 ft (3,657 mts) in a mere 13 minutes.
Production of the Sopwith Triplane began in short order and the RNAS received its first aircraft in February 1917. The first RNAS units to receive the type were No 8 and No 9 (Naval) Squadrons, with No 10 (Naval ) Squadron taking its first deliveries later in May.
The RFC meanwhile, changed its operational strategy regarding its flying machines and an agreement was brokered in which the RFC would relinquish its Sopwith Triplanes to the RNAS, in exchange for the latter’s Spad fighters. The meant that the 'Tripe' as it was nicknamed (it also known as 'Tripehound'), never served with the RFC in frontline service, although one RNAS example was actually tested extensively at Martlesham Heath.
Although resembling what one RNAS pilot referred to as 'a drunk flight of steps' whilst flying in combat, the Sopwith Triplane represented a quantum leap in aerial dog-fighting upon its introduction to the front line in 1917. This was all the more impressive as it was relatively poorly armed, boasting only one fixed Vickers machine-gun synchronised to fire through the propeller arc.
Nevertheless, the Sopwith Triplanes, and in particular those of Flight Sub-Lt Raymond Collishaw’s 'B' Flight of No 10 (Naval) Squadron, struck terror into the hearts of their victims. The five aircraft (named Black Death, Black Maria, Black Roger, Black Prince and Black Sheep) dispatched no fewer than 87 German aircraft between them, during May and July 1917.
Such was the pace of fighter development at the time, the Sopwith Triplane's early success as a fighter was soon equalled, and often outclassed by enemy designs. Because of this its career whilst glorious, was relatively short.
By November 1917, a mere seven months after its introduction, the Sopwith Triplane had been supplanted in RNAS service by Sopwith’s exceptional Camel.
Two Sopwith Triplanes were acquired by the French government whilst one example was sent to Russia to be fitted with skis in May 1917.
Sopwith continued the triplane theme with a pair of experimental aircraft fitted with Hispano-Suiza tractor powerplants, but these were substantially different machines in terms of construction, size and prospective role and not comparable to the 'Clerget Triplane' in any meaningful way.
147 Sopwith Triplanes were built, made up of two prototypes, 95 production aircraft from Sopwith, 47 from Clayton & Shuttleworth Ltd and 3 from Oakley & Co Ltd.
Two original Sopwith Triplanes survive today although four reproductions have also been built including the airworthy example operated by the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden in the UK.
One original aircraft (N4586) is displayed at the Central Air Force Museum, Moscow, this being the aircraft sent for evaluation in May 1917. The second example (N5912) is one of the three aircraft built by Oakley & Co Ltd of Ilford. This rare survivor is on display in the Royal Air force Museum at Hendon, London.
|Powerplant||One 110 hp or 130 hp Clerget rotary engine|
|Capacity & Armament||Single pilot. One or two synchronised forward-firing Vickers machine guns mounted on the forward fuselage.|
|Maximum speed||With 130 hp Clerget; 117 mph at 5,000ft|
A total of 147 Sopwith Triplanes were built: Two prototypes and 95 production from Sopwith and contract production of 47 from Clayton & Shuttleworth and three from Oakley & Co Ltd.
Survivors & Replicas
|N4586||On static display at Central Air Force Museum at Monino, Moscow. Fitted with skis and used operationally until captured by the Bolshevists; served in the Red Air Force, probably as a trainer; rebuilt many times. Website www.moninoaviation.com/|
|N5912||On static display at Royal Air Force Museum Hendon, London, UK. One of three aircraft built by Oakley & Co Ltd and delivered in late 1917. After the war, the Imperial War Museum displayed the aircraft in a temporary exhibition until 1924. Website www.rafmuseum.org.uk|
|N5492 (Reproduction)||Reserve Hangar, Canada Aviation & Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Reproduction of N5492, Black Maria, flown by Raymond Collishaw. Built by Carl R. Swanson during 1963–66. Acquired by museum in 1966 and fitted with Clerget 9B rotary engine. First flew on May 5th, 1967, and remained airworthy until 1971. www.ingeniumcanada.org/aviation|
On static display at The Hangar Flight Museum in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Painted as serial N6302, flown by Alfred Williams Carter of No 10 (Naval) Sqn, RNAS.
|G-BOCK (Reproduction)||Airworthy at The Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden, UK. Built by the Northern Aeroplane Workshops of Heckmondwike, named Dixie II, and painted as N6290, Dixie, of No 8 (Naval) Sqn, RNAS. First flown on 10th April 1992. Website www.shuttleworth.org/|
Built as G-PENY in 1988 by John Penny, initially powered by a Lycoming O-320. Damaged in an accident in August 1990. Rebuilt in modified form by Ernie Hoblyn powered by a Warner 165 radial engine, flying as G-BWRA in 1997. Currently airworthy and flies painted as N500, the prototype Sopwith Triplane. Displays as part of the Great War Display Team.