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Anthony Fokker, who designed and built the monoplane in which he taught himself to fly


a five-seater Fokker III

AN EARLY COMMERCIAL CABIN AEROPLANE used on a Soviet airline between Moscow and Konigsberg (East Prussia). The aircraft, a five-seater Fokker III, was built in Germany and had a 360 horse-power Rolls-Royce engine. Fokker was a pioneer of commercial flying after the war of 1914-18 and introduced the first commercial cabin aeroplane when nearly all aircraft for commercial work were converted warplanes.

A SMALL boy travelled from Java to Holland with his parents. His father was a successful coffee planter, and he came home to Holland to retire. The journey from Java took many weeks.

Thirty-three years later, when the boy had grown up, he stood on the tarmac of the Amsterdam airport and watched one of his own passenger air liners leave for Java, and so begin a service that was to bring within ten days of each other two countries which had once been separated by weeks.

The man’s name-was Anthony Fokker, perhaps the greatest figure in the story of aviation, and certainly its most romantic.

No term has suffered more from careless or ignorant usage than has that of genius, but there can be no denying the genius of Anthony Fokker, who was born in 1890. If scholastic triumphs are a pointer to genius, then few predictions could have been made about the boy Fokker. He was the despair of his parents and his masters. Like so many creative and imaginative men, he found the routine and discipline of school life irksome, his lessons dull. He excelled at only one of the school’s regular subjects, woodwork and metalwork.

He devoted all his spare time, and a great deal of his school time, to designing and building toys and gadgets. At an incredibly early age he and another boy invented a puncture-proof tyre. The invention may have been crude and lacking in finish, but it was a practical possibility and aroused great interest m Holland. But a patent for a similar idea already existed, even if an invention did not.

Thus the non-puncturable tyre came to nothing, but Anthony Fokker was destined to invent and to build more remarkable things than motor tyres.

His youth coincided with the early days of the aeroplane, and his inventive mind was naturally attracted to this new mechanical wonder. He read and studied everything that was available about flying, particularly about the achievements of the Wright brothers. He soon decided that he could improve on the Wright biplane. He worked out his own theories and satisfied himself that the biplane had poor lateral stability. He believed that he could design a machine which, if it had swept-back wings with a pronounced dihedral, combined with a high centre of gravity, would have perfect lateral stability.

Two years later, in Germany, he put his theories into practice. At the early age of twenty he built his first aeroplane, the forerunner of thousands of machines which were to make his name world-famous. If it is remarkable that a young man of twenty, after having had only a brief training as an engineer, should have built an aeroplane that could fly, it is even more remarkable that he should have taught himself to fly on that same machine. This he did by taxying along a field, learning with each movement to control the machine and the engine speed. Then he made a series of small hops. With experience these increased until he was able to make a hop of fifteen hundred feet. Day by day he improved, and he taught himself to climb, glide and land. When he found that he could do this easily, he taught himself to fly in a curve.

With quiet but determined confidence, he knew then that he had mastered the aeroplane, and on May 16, 1911, he qualified for pilot’s licence number eighty-eight. Thus, at twenty-one, he was a fully-fledged professional pilot, and he gave flying exhibitions in Germany and in Holland.

In his spare time he was a designer, but he was seriously handicapped by lack of money. Again and again he appealed to his father, who, although he had been disappointed at his son’s academic failures, and had neither faith nor interest in flying, continually financed him. Young Fokker’s reputation as a designer and as a daring flier increased. He was one of the earliest men to loop the loop. The German Army authorities took an interest in his machines, an interest which was later to have great significance, and which was to have a profound influence on the course of the war of 1914-18. That influence might have taken a different course had not the Dutch Government refused to buy any of his aeroplanes. As it was, the German authorities bought two machines. But it was not only the Dutch Government which refused to deal with Anthony Fokker, and they and others were to regret their decisions.

His escapes from death were remarkable. He was once demonstrating a special machine before the German Army authorities when his petrol tank burst while he was in mid-air. Petrol poured out, the exhaust pipe was red-hot with fumes. Fokker had no illusions about his fate. Either he reached the ground in a few seconds or he would be burnt to death. He dived down to a small space between some trees and some buildings (a space in which he would never normally have attempted to land). As the wheels touched down he shut off the engine and jumped. As he ran clear of the machine it blew to pieces. The explosion knocked him down and slightly burnt him, but he had escaped.

Another crash, and one which, in his autobiography, Flying Dutchman, he has described as the worst experience in his life, happened in his early flying days. This was no thrilling duel with death, no race against time with an even chance of survival. It was an awful, helpless waiting for the apparently inevitable.

Although he had not been flying for any length of time, his reputation was a sensational one. He records that people were fighting to go up with him in his automatically stable machine. He had a high reputation for safety.

On this particular occasion, Fokker and his passenger, a German Army officer, were flying at 2,400 feet when there was a noise which resembled a small explosion as the flying wire on the underside of the wing (the machine was a monoplane) broke off and hung from the landing-gear. The wing was doomed to crumple. As soon as the wire broke, the wing spar bent under the strain; if it gave, nothing could prevent the wing from crumpling; and when it did crumple nothing could save Fokker and his companion from a 2,400-feet drop on to the forest below them.

The trees might at least break the fall. To reach those trees safely was imperative; but to do so quickly would be fatal, as great care was needed if the wing-spar was to be saved from buckling while they were in mid-air. Fokker glided slowly down, but there was no guarantee that the spar would not give way at any minute during that nightmare glide.

Anthony Fokker, standing beside the landing gear of one of his early air liners

DESIGNER OF FOKKER AIRCRAFT, Anthony Fokker, standing beside the landing gear of one of his early air liners. During the war Fokker was in Germany, where he designed and built many machines for the German air force. The success of German aviation in the early stages of the war was largely due to Fokker’s work.

Weight or pressure on the spar, holding it in place, would save them. Such a weight could be supplied by Fokker’s passenger. Fokker signalled to him to crawl out and put his weight on the spar so that it could be pressed back into place. The passenger was a brave man. Without hesitation he clambered on to the wing, but, unused to such a precarious position, he could scarcely balance himself in the wind. As he staggered and nearly fell he put his foot through the fabric. He hung on to the fuselage and tried to extricate his foot. Fokker, helpless, watched him, afraid that he would pull on the landing wire to haul himself up. But his passenger was able to haul himself up with the help of the fuselage alone. That was his last attempt, not because his courage had failed, but because he had no real idea of what was required of him.

Fokker knew that a crash was almost inevitable. With his passenger back in the machine, he glided down until he was less than 500 feet above the trees. Lower still he went, until he decided that, as the spar still held, he would risk a landing. He brought the machine down carefully and skilfully; a safe landing, or at least one broken by the thick layer of trees, was in sight when he met a bumpy layer of air. The machine was buffeted about. The spar bent. Fokker tried to climb over the trees, but the spar snapped. The machine crashed. Fokker was seriously hurt. His passenger was killed.

The years immediately preceding the war of 1914-18 were triumphant years for Fokker, but shortage of money made them worrying years also. After a disastrous experience with unscrupulous financiers he appealed once more to his long-suffering father, who put aside for him a “final” amount of 50,000 guilders (worth in those days about £4,000). Matters improved, however, when he established a regular connexion with the German Army. He not only supplied it with two of his machines but he also taught many of its officers to fly. He opened a flying school and a factory, but once more he was short of money, his father’s 50,000 guilders having been absorbed.

Famous Flying School

Again the persistent inventor approached his father, who, with an uncle of Fokker’s and a few friends, invested money in Anthony Fokker’s enterprises. Even that was insufficient capital, and he was obliged to borrow still more money. Somehow these backers were persuaded by Anthony Fokker that their investments would ultimately show a profit. His prophecy proved to be correct.

His flying school became a favourite with the German authorities. Twelve new machines for the army were ordered from his factory. The German Navy wanted seaplanes. A staff of one hundred and fifty people was employed in the factory, and Fokker and his backers were looking forward to a profit of some 40,000 marks (about £2,000 in those days) on the year’s working when war was declared in 1914.

The war made Anthony Fokker a world-famous figure. His aeroplanes became feared and respected. His invention of the synchronized machine-gun had a revolutionary influence on aerial warfare.

Fokker has been severely criticized, and sometimes bitterly attacked, for his part in the world war. Although he was a Dutchman he worked for Germany during the war and built that country’s most successful fighters. The Germans were the first to benefit from his invention of the synchronized machine-gun. Many people hold that as Fokker belonged to a neutral country he should have remained a neutral himself. Others, according to their opinions and nationalities, held that he should have associated himself with the Allied forces.

Great Britain, France and Italy had each had an opportunity of supporting Fokker in his early days. His activities were well known in Great Britain before the war, but the authorities who, even at the outbreak of war had no faith in the aeroplane as an offensive weapon, rejected his work almost contemptuously. There remained Germany. Some encouragement, even if it was not very enthusiastic, was shown to him. He needed money; in Germany there was a chance of making it. Most of all he needed encouragement and opportunity; in Germany they were offered to him.

Fokker had no interest in international relationships. His dominant interest was the designing and manufacturing of aeroplanes. He was an artist; all he asked for was an outlet for his work. In Germany he found it. It was no concern of his that Germany should be involved in war. As a neutral he was in any event free to have his own sympathies, but he went on with his work, indifferent to the rights and wrongs of conflict.

Much has been written and said about Germany’s preparedness for the war; but Anthony Fokker records that although there were machines working for the German Army, there was no ready-made organization whereby Germany could put aeroplanes into the field at the beginning of the war.

From the day war was declared Fokker’s factory and flying school worked at full pressure. The demand for machines grew to absurd proportions, chiefly because of internal jealousies. The navy wanted machines, the army wanted machines; one set of authorities wanted this, another set wanted that, and each was willing to pay fantastic prices to have its own wishes fulfilled first.

Meanwhile, Fokker realized that it was impossible for the aeroplane to play its part fully until it was more adequately armed. So mistrustful of aeroplanes were the General Staffs of Germany and of the Allied countries during the early days of the war that little attempt was made to use the aeroplane for anything but reconnaissance work. The pilots were at first armed with only revolvers and automatic pistols.

The Synchronized Machine-Gun

Then came machine-guns, but their range of fire was restricted because they could not shoot through the propeller. The first attempt to overcome this problem came from France, when the famous French pilot, Roland Garros, mounted a machine-gun in front of the cockpit and fired through the propeller. So that the propeller should not be put out of action the near side of each blade was fitted with a steel wedge, which deflected any bullet that struck the blades.

Garros was brought down behind the German lines and Fokker was instructed to examine the aeroplane and the gun. Within forty-eight hours of his having taken the gun away he had worked out his invention for synchronized firing. He made the propeller fire the gun. He demonstrated his invention before German staff officers. Despite the fact that they examined the propeller after Fokker had fired the gun, or rather after the propeller had fired the gun, they were not satisfied that the invention was a practical possibility. He did finally succeed in persuading them that the idea was foolproof, but as his tests had been made only on the ground, they insisted that he took a machine up and fired the gun while in flight. He did this so effectively that the officers were obliged to run for cover to escape the stream of bullets from the gun. Still the military mind would not believe what was so plainly demonstrated before it. The Staff insisted that an aeroplane must be shot down.

Fokker was ordered to go to the Western Front and shoot down a British or French flier. A civilian and a neutral subject, Fokker strongly resented this incredible and fantastic suggestion. Even while he protested he was sent to the front and began his patrol work.

FOUR-ENGINED F.36 AIR LINER built by Fokker

FOUR-ENGINED F.36 AIR LINER built by Fokker and capable of carrying thirty-two passengers. When fitted with four Wright Cyclone engines, each of 700 horse-power, the aircraft has a maximum speed of 186 miles an hour at 4,100 feet. The cruising speed at this height on seventy-five per cent of full power is 165 miles an hour.

He flew for some days before he saw a French Farman two-seater biplane. He approached it from the rear. Of this incredible incident, one of the most incredible of the war, he wrote in his autobiography:

“Even though they had seen me, they would have had no reason to fear bullets through my propeller. While approaching, I thought of what a deadly accurate stream of lead I could send into the plane. It would be just like shooting a sitting rabbit, because the pilot couldn’t shoot back through his pusher propeller at me.

“As the distance between us narrowed the plane grew larger in my sights. My imagination could vision my shots puncturing the petrol-tanks in front of the engine. The tank would catch fire. Even if my bullets failed to kill the pilot and observer, the ship would fall down in flames. I had my finger on the trigger. What I imagined recalled my own narrow escapes; the time when the petrol tank burst; the breaking of the wing . . . when my passenger had been killed. I had no personal animosity against the French. I was flying merely to prove that a certain mechanism I had invented would work. By this time I was near enough to open fire, and the French pilots were watching me curiously, wondering, no doubt, why I was flying up behind them. In another instant it would be all over for them.

“Suddenly, I decided that the whole job could go to hell. It was too much like ‘cold meat’ to suit me. I had no stomach for the whole business, nor any wish to kill Frenchmen or Germans. Let them do their own killing.”

Fokker returned to the aerodrome and told the commander that he would not continue with the plan. A Service pilot, Lieutenant Oswald Boelcke, later to become the first German “ace”, took up a Fokker E IV monoplane and on his third flight brought down an Allied machine. After this Max Immelman and other German pilots used the synchronized gun and it soon became in general use in the German air service.

The success of the gun brought more work to Fokker’s factory. The synchronized machine-gun became a powerful weapon. For several months the Germans kept the secret of the gun, against which the Allied machines were helpless. Then the inevitable happened. A German machine was captured by the French, and in a short time the synchronized machine - gun was in general use.

THE FOKKER MONOPLANE was used in large numbers by the Germans during the war

THE FOKKER MONOPLANE was used in large numbers by the Germans during the war. The first type was produced in 1915 and was faster than any other German or Allied design at the time. It had a machine-gun synchronized to fire through the propeller and was powered by an eighty horse-power rotary engine. The speed was seventy miles an hour.

The importance of Fokker’s invention cannot be overstressed. Its tactical influence was not confined to the air, for once it was realized that the synchronized gun could make the aeroplane an effective offensive weapon tactical ideas in general were revised.

Fokker machines remained the predominant type of German fighter throughout the war. Altogether 7,600 Fokkers were built, more than 4,000 of them having been built in Fokker’s own factory. The first type, which carried a pilot and a synchronized machine-gun, was driven by an 80 horse-power Gnome engine. These machines had a speed of 70 miles an hour and were faster than any German or Allied design at that time. They had a ceiling of 6,000 feet, and a flying time of two hours’ duration.

For many months the Fokker fighter gave the Germans great superiority in aerial warfare on the Western front. The Allied machines were too slow and too clumsy in manoeuvre to compete with the relatively fast Fokker. The inventor himself pays great tribute to the courage of the British and French pilots who flew and fought against what was for a time overwhelming superiority. The remarkable thing is that the Allied air forces did not suffer more losses, especially when their reconnaissance machines were at work.

German Naturalization Declined

After a while, however, France produced a Nieuport, fitted with a 110 horsepower Le Rhone engine. The British designers followed with the Sopwith Camel and the D.H.2. By this time all the Allied machines were fitted with the synchronized machine-gun, and this, with the faster machines, gave the Allied fighters superiority over the hitherto deadly Fokkers.

Nothing stimulated Fokker himself more than opposition, and he answered the Allied challenge with his famous triplane, in which speed gave way to climb and ease of movement. This triplane was one of the outstanding machines of the war years, and it was used by Baron von Richthofen and his famous “circus”.

Although the Fokker aeroplane remained the predominant and most successful German fighter type until the end of the war, that predominance was not maintained without considerable opposition in Germany itself. Anthony Fokker’s success was resented by jealous rival manufacturers, and there were many attempts to impede his efforts on behalf of German aviation. He was criticized because he was a foreigner. Certain powerful and vested interests worked against him until the authorities, presumably under the influence of those interests, suggested that he should change his nationality and become a German.

Fokker declined. He was then told frankly that if he did not become a German citizen there would be no more contracts for him. Fokker, however, placed independence above profit. He refused again and said he would sell his factory and return to Holland. The Germans refused to let him go, maintaining that he was too familiar with the secrets of German and other service activities. He was placed under no guard, nor imprisoned, but the plain fact was that he was a prisoner in Germany.

Still he refused to change his nationality, although he realized that his refusal might lead to serious results. Finally, the Germans lost patience and he was informed that his naturalization had been “expedited”, and, further, that he had been drafted to the reserve section of the German Army. The implication of this latter move was obvious; either Fokker did exactly as he was told or he would be sent to the front, where he would not only waste his time and his talents, but where he would also have to fight as a German.


ONE OF THE OUTSTANDING MACHINES OF THE WAR was the Fokker triplane. This aircraft was built to compete with new machines introduced by the Allies; in its design, speed gave way to climb and ease of movement. The wings were of cantilever design and had no external wire bracing: a speed of about 100 miles an hour at 10 000 feet was attained.

But Germany needed Fokker and his genius before the war was ended, and he designed several new types up to the Armistice in 1918. The efficiency and power of the German air force on the Western Front owed a great deal to Fokker. Many famous German fliers, including Richthofen, Boelcke and Immelmann, made their reputations in his fighting machines. The German pilots, who trusted the Fokker aeroplane implicitly, remained his supporters when there were attempts to impede his production activities. In fact, it was largely through the insistence of the pilots that the Fokker machines regained their predominance after a period when it seemed as if Fokker’s enemies would be successful.

During the closing stages of the war Anthony Fokker was working on the design for a machine-gun with twelve barrels mounted on a revolving unit. Half of the explosive chamber was cut away to be closed by another revolving unit underneath. When the two parts of the barrel came together the bullets were fired. The great weakness of machine-guns had been the possibility — and sometimes the probability — of the bullets jamming. In Fokker’s new gun this could not have happened. The bullets were not inserted into a chamber. The belt containing the bullets was run between the two parts of the barrel.

The gun was almost ready for service when fighting was ended by the Armistice. When the Armistice was signed, Fokker — who had been manufacturing aeroplanes and machine-guns until the end — had an aeroplane factory with 1,800 workmen, another factory for the manufacture of his machine-guns, and a third factory at Travemunde, on the Baltic Sea, where he was making seaplanes. In addition he owned a controlling interest in a motor works near Frankfurt. In these four factories he employed some 6,000 workmen.

Aircraft Smuggled into Holland

The war stopped, and Germany’s industrial machinery, used almost exclusively for armaments and the like, stopped with it. Fokker had foreseen the inevitable slump. The aeroplanes in his factories, and those about to be completed, he had planned to use as a basis for commercial aviation.

Fokker, however, had reckoned without such things as peace treaties. Article IV of the Peace Treaty mentioned that all D-7 type machines (which were Fokkers) must be surrendered to the Allies. This was a death-blow to his plans and to his ambition to find work for his 6,000 employees. Although those plans were now useless, Fokker was not going to be defeated. An Allied Commission visited his factory and ordered all the machines and engines either to be destroyed or to be surrendered. This was done, but before their visit Fokker had hidden more than 200 aeroplanes and 400 engines.

The problem of disposing of them was a formidable one; the solution of that problem is another of those incredible stories with which Fokker is associated.

Fokker decided to smuggle his machines and engines over the closely-guarded frontier into Holland. It was a fantastic and seemingly impossible scheme to put into practice.


A TWIN-ENGINED LIGHT BOMBER of Fokker design; it can be used also as a reconnaissance aircraft. Two tail booms extend from behind the engine nacelles to support the tail unit. The fuselage ends aft of the trailing-edge of the main plane in a conical gun turret. When two Hispano-Suiza 750 horse-power air-cooled radial engines are used, the maximum speed at 13,120 feet is 279 miles an hour.

But it was accomplished — by taking the most extraordinary risks, by bribery and by bluff. Certain inspecting officials were bribed; the Allied authorities heard of a gigantic smuggling plot from Germany to Holland. They went to investigate. There was very little to investigate, for Fokker and his associates had spread a false trail; and while a frantic search was being made elsewhere the first trainload of aeroplanes and engines moved off. Everything was skilfully hidden and when

an inspector did discover something suspicious he was bribed. It was easy enough to do, as the Germans were desperately in need of food and money. In any event, the German inspectors were willing, as they could not be expected to have much sympathy for Article IV of the Peace Treaty.

The scheme was working within a week of Fokker having thought of it, and the organization in so short a period was remarkable. Even the locomotives were changed during the journey. As it was impossible to take a German locomotive into Holland, a Dutch locomotive was run over the frontier into Germany. The train was composed of sixty trucks instead of the regulation forty trucks; this meant that, as the train would be too long to be kept in the sidings, it would have to be taken into Holland without any stops.

Not only did this train reach Holland, but six other trains also made that hazardous trip. Altogether over 400 engines and 120 D.7 Fokkers, a number of other machines, and thousands of spare parts were carried into Holland by one of the most daring smuggling feats ever attempted.

Fokker had been driven to this drastic scheme by force of circumstances. It was not only Article IV of the Peace Treaty which had made him decide to leave Germany. During the closing days of the war the country was in a state of revolution, which continued after the Armistice had been signed. Fokker was seriously involved in this revolution. Some of his workmen, hungry and penniless, threatened to shoot him if he did not obtain money from Berlin.

Commerce in general, and Fokker’s aviation in particular, slumped. To keep his men employed and to keep the organization going he turned to boat-building. That failed. Then he turned to scales making, but that failed also.

When he did eventually return to Holland he realized that there was no immediate future for military flying, and he concentrated on commercial work. He was one of the pioneers of civil aviation after the war.

Commercial Aviation Pioneer

He had smuggled into Holland the F.2 machine, which became the first commercial cabin aeroplane. Such a machine was a novelty in those days, when nearly all aeroplanes for commercial work were converted warplanes.

The F.2 had a closed cabin and carried five passengers. Immediately after the Dutch air lines had begun to use cabin machines, other air line companies had to follow. Fokker himself claims that but for his pioneer work, commercial aviation in Europe would have been seriously delayed; and there is nothing to dispute that claim. His influence was felt beyond Europe. The United States of America, eager to use Fokker machines, bought £150,000 worth of aeroplanes for the U.S. Army and Navy.

Among these machines was the F.2 type, one of which made the first transcontinental flight. Later, Fokker went to America and developed his aviation business there. His American activities included the manufacture of a giant air liner, the F.32. At that time F.32 types were the largest landplanes in America, and carried thirty-two passengers.

The name of Fokker, always respected and frequently feared, gained worldwide admiration in the post-war years. He designed and built machines for all purposes.

Aviators from every country were eager to fly a Fokker machine. Like the German pilots in the war, they were quick to realize the value and high reputation for safety of a Fokker. Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith’s Southern Cross was a Fokker; Rear-Admiral Byrd used a Fokker for his Atlantic and Polar flights.

Today, Fokker machines are flying over Dutch air lines, on many of the American systems (including the famous Pan American Airways), in Canada, and elsewhere in the world — tributes to the most remarkable of all the makers of air history.

the high-wing Fokker F.VII Princess Xenia

NUMEROUS RECORD AND LONG-DISTANCE FLIGHTS have been accomplished in Fokker aircraft. This photograph shows the high-wing Fokker F.VII Princess Xenia in which the Duchess of Bedford and Captain Charles D. Barnard made a flight from England to India and back in fewer than eight days in 1929.

You can read more on “Evolution of the Fighter”, “Royal Dutch Air Lines” and “Sir Charles Kingsford Smith” on this website.

Anthony Fokker: Holland’s Famous Designer-Pilot