Developed concurrently with the Sopwith Pup and 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.
The distinctive head-on view of the only British operational triplane fighter.
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 and 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 May 28th 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.
Harry Hawker taxies the Triplane prototype at Brooklands after its first flight.
Both the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and RNAS quickly expressed 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 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 and 8 (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 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 although one RNAS example was actually tested extensively at Martlesham Heath.
The Triplane was ultimately only used by the RNAS in operational service.
Although resembling what one RNAS pilot referred to as 'a drunk flight of steps' whilst flying in combat, the Triplane represented a quantum leap in aerial dog-fighting on 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 Triplanes, and in particular those of Flight Sub-Lt Raymond Collishaw’s 'B' Flight of No 10 (Naval) Squadron who struck terror into the hearts of their victims. The five aircraft (named Black Death, Black Maria, Black Roger, Black Prince and Black Sheep) dispatched 87 German aircraft between them during May and July 1917.
Such was the pace of fighter development at the time, the 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 Triplane had been supplanted in RNAS service by Sopwith’s exceptional Camel.
On its introduction, the Sopwith Triplane was a state-of-the-art fighting machine.
Two 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 in Moscow and 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.