Near dawn on April 2, 2022, a vision from the past accelerated down a grass airstrip in rural Sweden and lifted smoothly off the ground. The French biplane, the world’s only flyable Nieuport 28, was making its first flight since the 1970s, following a lengthy restoration by Swedish pilot and vintage aircraft restorer Mikael Carlson. Built in France in 1918, the Nieuport—serial number 512—had not seen combat in World War I but it had served with the United States Army Air Service (USAS) after the Armistice and appeared in several Hollywood war films following its retirement from service. In 2019 its owner donated the venerable airplane to the Collings Foundation’s American Heritage Museum in Hudson, Massachusetts.
The airplane was shipped to Sweden for restoration and Carlson went to work. Overall, he found the Nieuport to be in excellent shape, and that included the original 160-hp Gnome Monosoupape 9N rotary engine. The cowling was not authentic and had to be replaced, part of the upper wing needed to be reconstructed and some other parts had to be refabricated and replaced. Carlson then had the entire airframe covered with authentic Irish linen. When it came time to choose a color scheme for the airplane, Carlson chose one that was both historic and unique: that of Nieuport N6164, which 1st Lt. Douglas Campbell was flying on April 14, 1918, when he scored the first aerial victory by an American-trained fighter pilot in the USAS in World War I.
And how did the vintage aircraft fly? “Put it this way,” Carlson said. “I can understand why the French gave the Nieuport 28 to the Americans and kept the better Spad XIII to themselves.”
One of the most elegant looking warplanes of its time, what was formally classified as the Nieuport 28.C1 (the “C” signifying chasseur, or fighter, and the “1” its single seat) first flew on June 14, 1917. Its biplane configuration marked an overdue departure from a series of sesquiplane (one and a half wing) fighters designed by Nieuport’s chief engineer, Gustave Delage, starting in 1914. Featuring a two-spar upper wing and a single-spar lower wing that served as a brace for the support cables, these Nieuport “V-strutters” handled well and provided their pilots with a superb downward view. By 1917, however, the sesquiplane layout was proving too fragile to accommodate more powerful engines or the second machine gun that was becoming standard. With that in mind, Delage returned to the proven format of a wire-braced biplane. Besides allowing a power upgrade to the 160-hp Gnome engine, it would also allow installation of twin .303-inch synchronized Vickers machine guns.
The French government was initially impressed enough with the new fighter to award a production contract, but then cancelled the order because the Aéronautique Militaire was fully committed to the Spad XIII, with its sturdier airframe and 220-hp Hispano-Suiza 8B geared V-8 engine. That’s when the U.S. Army inadvertently became the Nieuport 28’s savior. Although the Army also preferred the Spad XIII, the French intended to equip their own escadrilles first. Thatled the USAS to order 297 Nieuports as a stopgap measure until the Spads became available.
The Americans found the Nieuport to be a mixed blessing. On the plus side, it performed well, with a maximum speed of 123 mph, and it was highly maneuverable. Due to poor quality control, however, an inferior glue led to an alarming number of incidents in which the wing fabric tore away.
Another problem lay in the single-valve Monosoupape engine. To slow it down, the pilot needed to use a “blip switch” that cut the ignition in some of the cylinders. That led to fuel leaking from the valves and accumulating under the cowling, where it frequently burst into flames when the pilot restored ignition to all cylinders. On top of all that, engine vibrations often caused the rigid and improperly annealed copper-tube fuel lines to crack—again with fiery potential. One oft-seen remedy was cutting slots in the lower part of the cowling to let the excess fuel stream out.
The first 36 Nieuport 28s were issued to the 1st Pursuit Group, whose first two aero squadrons, the 94th and 95th, had reached France by February 1918 while its other two, the 27th and 147th, were organizing in the States. New though it was, the 94th had the benefit of transferees with previous experience in the French air service. In March its commander was Major John W. F. M. Huffer, a former member of the Lafayette Flying Corps (LFC) with experience in escadrilles N.95 and N.62 over the Western Front and F.36 over Italy. His operations officer, French-born Major Gervais Raoul Lufbery, had flown with the famed American volunteer Lafayette Escadrille, Spa. 124, and was the war’s highest scoring American ace thus far with 16 victories. Its three flight leaders, Captain James Norman “Jimmy” Hall, David McKelvey Peterson and Kenneth Marr, were also Spa.124 veterans.
The first Nieuport 28s arrived without guns but on March 6 Lufbery, disgusted at the delay, led the 94th’s first front-line patrol in unarmed airplanes, his “lucky” wingmen being 1st Lts. Douglas Campbell and Edward V. Rickenbacker. Campbell, the son of an astronomer, was born on June 7, 1896, near San Francisco, attended Harvard and Cornell universities and typified the elite young collegiates who composed most of the 1st Pursuit Group’s flying personnel. Rickenbacker did not. Born in Columbus, Ohio, on October 8, 1890, Edward Richenbacher, the son of Swiss immigrants, had Americanized his last name to “Rickenbacker” and said he added the middle name “Vernon” “because it sounded classy.” He left school at age 12 when his father died, in order to support his family, became a race car driver in 1912 and in 1914 set a world speed record of 134 mph at Daytona, Florida. In spite of a lifelong fear of heights, Rickenbacker became fascinated with aviation but at 27 was considered too old to join the USAS once the U.S. entered the war. He enlisted in the Army instead, wangled a job as chauffeur to Col. William Mitchell and pestered the colonel—while falsely claiming to be 25—until he received a transfer to the USAS. In September 1917 he graduated from flight training in only 17 days.
Both Rickenbacker and Campbell would soon demonstrate the fruits of Lufbery’s tutelage.
The 94th finally received machine guns—albeit only enough to mount one per Nieuport—and flew its first armed patrol on March 28. The pilots now felt their squadron qualified to adopt an identifying insignia as French units did. Huffer suggested a stovepipe hat with stars and stripes as worn by Uncle Sam—which had been his own personal marking when he flew with N.62. Captain Paul H. Walters, the squadron surgeon, raised a cheer by proposing that, since the 94th’s hat was now “in the ring,” it be depicted accordingly. 1st Lt. John Wentworth, an architect in civilian life, designed the “Hat-in-the-Ring” squadron’s definitive insignia.
On April 7 the 94th was temporarily detached to Gengoult aerodrome, a mile northeast of Toul, to support the French Eighth Army. Toul lay near a wedge-shaped salient centered on the city of Saint-Mihiel, which had been occupied by the Germans since late September 1914. The sector had been relatively quiet while the great battles had raged at Verdun, the Somme and Flanders, making the Toul sector a good one for breaking in the neophyte Americans. The 94th reached Gengoult on April 9 and Wentworth’s “Hat-in-the-Ring” began appearing on its Nieuports the next day.
Low clouds on April 14 promised a dull morning, until French observers reported two German aircraft flying south. Doug Campbell and 2nd Lt. Alan F. Winslow, another of the 94th’s LFC veterans with previous service in escadrille N.152, took their Nieuports in pur-suit. At about 1,500 feet two German fighters emerged from the clouds. After a brief dogfight Winslow sent an Albatros D.Va crashing about 100 yards from the aerodrome. Ten seconds later Campbell sent his adversary, a Pfalz D.IIIa, down in flames less than half a mile away on the other side of the airfield.
It had taken only four minutes from takeoff for Campbell and Winslow to chalk up the 94th’s first two confirmed successes. Campbell’s was the first by an American-trained aviator. On April 26, the French awarded both victors the Croix de Guerre. There was more to the story than met the eye, though. Campbell’s victim had been identified as Vizefeldwebel Antoni Wroniecki of Royal Württemberg Jagdstaffel 64, or Jasta 64w, who had reportedly died. Winslow’s was reported to be Unteroffizier Heinrich Simon, who emerged bruised but alive. In fact, both enemy pilots were alive. Under questioning, Wroniecki explained he was a Pole who hated the Germans and had been waiting for an opportunity to defect to the Allies. His saw his chance when he led Simon on patrol and contrived to get “lost.” As they approached Toul, however, he and Simon were jumped by Campbell and Winslow. To conceal the Pole’s switch of sides, the Allies said Wroniecki had been killed.
Assuming the pseudonym of Wroblewski, Antoni Wroniecki joined a Polish volunteer unit. In 1936 he entered Poland’s intelligence service and spent some time spying in Berlin. In World War II he served in the Royal Air Force, and he died of natural causes at the Polish RAF base in Blackpool, England, on March 31, 1941—almost 23 years after he first “died” in World War I.
The Nieuport 28 had served Campbell and Winslow well on April 14, but its flaws became evident in subsequent combats. On May 2, 1st Lt. James A. Meissner downed a Hannover CL.IIIa, but then most of his upper wing fabric tore loose as he pulled out of his dive. Meissner survived thanks to his skill and the fact that the Nieuport 28’s ailerons were mounted on the lower wing. Diving from an opponent during another encounter with Jasta 64w on May 7, Captain Jimmy Hall saw his upper wing fabric tear away, and then a 37mm anti-aircraft shell smashed his motor. Under the circumstances he was fortunate to survive the crash landing with just his nose and an ankle broken, but he was taken prisoner. Diving on three Albatros D.Vas over Richemont on May 17, Rickenbacker saw one spin down, but as he leveled out his upper wing fabric also stripped away. After spinning down to 1,100 yards altitude, “Rick” managed to gradually flatten out and made a crash landing at his aerodrome.
The 94th’s most dramatic day since the capture of Jimmy Hall occurred on May 19, when a Rumpler from Armee Abteilung C’s Reihenbildtrupp (long-range picture section) No. 3crossed the lines and in the course of several fights its observer shot down Raoul Lufbery, who fell from his plane. An hour after Lufbery died, Doug Campbell drove another Rumpler down in flames near Flirey, killing its crew.
Rickenbacker earned his fifth victory on May 30, when he shot down a two-seater and became the first American-trained USAS fighter ace. While circling with a German fighter in the same fight, Meissner was grazed from above by another’s undercarriage, which tore the guy wires of his upper wing. After nursing his Nieuport back over the lines, Meissner was credited with the plane that collided with him. Having survived two such incidents, Meissner was proclaimed a pilot who didn’t need wings to fly by his squadron mates. He later commanded the 147th Aero Squadron and survived the war with eight victories. The markings of his Nieuport N6144 No.8 now grace the Nieuport 28 at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy annex.
Campbell became an ace on the last day of May when he sent a two-seater crashing off the Limey-Montauville road, killing the crew. Later that afternoon, the 1st Pursuit Group finally reached full strength when the 27th Aero Squadron commanded by Maj. Harold E. Hartney and the 147th under Maj. Geoffrey H. Bonnell arrived from Epiez.
On June 5, Campbell and Meissner downed a Rumpler, wounding its observer, but Campbell was wounded in the back and had to be invalided out of the 94th. He wouldn’t return to the unit until the Armistice. Besides being one of the pioneer USAS fighter pilots, Campbell was exceptional in that all six of his victories—and even one of the unconfirmed ones—corresponded with documented German casualties. He later became vice president and general manager of Pan Am World Airways and died at his home in Connecticut in 1990 at the age of 94.
On June 28, the 1st Pursuit Group moved to Touquin aerodrome, 20 miles southwest of Château-Thierry near the Marne, to participate in Allied efforts to stem what turned out to be the final German bid for victory. The Toul sector had given the 1st Pursuit Group pilots a relatively easy environment in which to hone their skills. They had done well and felt ready, willing and able to take on the enemy’s best—which was just what they were about to do. Instead of Albatros and Pfalz scouts, their principal opponent would be the Fokker D.VII, arguably the best fighter of the war, operated along the Marne by hardened veterans of three Jagdgeschwader, or fighter wings. JG.I, the original “Flying Circus” of the late Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, was now under Oberleutnant Hermann Göring and comprising Jasta 4, 6, 10 and 11. JG.II, commanded by Oberleutnant Rudolf Berthold, consisted of Jasta 12, 13, 15 and 19. JG III, led by Oberleutnant Bruno Loerzer, had Jasta Boelcke, 26, 27 and 36. Between these and a supporting cast of experienced Jagdstaffeln facing it, the 1st Pursuit Group was about to be thrust into the major leagues.
Among the earliest Nieuports lost was that of 2nd Lt. Walter B. Wanamaker of the 27th Aero, shot down by Jasta 4’s commander, Leutnant Ernst Udet, on July 2. Udet cut the serial number from Wanamaker’s rudder as a souvenir. Later, while stunt flying at the Cleveland National Air Races on September 6, 1931, Udet was reunited with Wanamaker—then a judge in Akron—and returned the trophy to him. It can be seen at the Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.
Between July 2 and August 1 the American Nieuport pilots were credited with 35 victories, although only a fraction of them match German loss records. Their own losses included 10 killed in action, four wounded and 12 taken prisoner. Among the dead was 1st Lt. Quentin Roosevelt, youngest son of former President Theodore Roosevelt, shot down in a Nieuport of the 95th Aero Squadron on July 14 over Chamery by Unteroffizier Carl Emil Gräper of Jasta 50. Among the captured was Alan Winslow of the 94th, who received a bullet through his left elbow while battling a Fokker and had the arm amputated in a German hospital.
By July 25 the last German push had failed and the Allies were going on the offensive. That was also the day the 95th Aero Squadron’s newly acquired Spad XIIIs made their combat debut. First Lieutenant Grover Vann was killed, but the 95th’s three claims included Leutenant Karl Menckhoff, commander of Royal Saxon Jasta 72 and a holder of the Orden Pour le Mérite with 39 victories. Taken prisoner, Menckhoff was much chagrined to learn that 1st Lt. Walter L. Avery had brought him down in his first air-to-air combat.
On August 1 the 27th sent up 12 Spads and six Nieuports, but took a beating at the hands of the Flying Circus, including at least two Spad pilots, 1st Lts. Oliver T. Beauchamp and Charles B. Sands, among the three dead. Four others were taken prisoner.
Even while the Nieuports fought their last fight, the Americans had remedied their technical problems and wanted to order another 600 with American-made Marlin machine guns in place of the Vickers. By then, however, Spad XIIIs were available and the U.S. cancelled the order. But transitioning to the Spads meant relearning combat tactics to fit the new airplanes, and some of the pilots in the 1st Pursuit Group were unhappy about that. On July 24, 1st Lt. Wilbert W. White of the 147th Aero wrote in his log: “Trial hop in Spad #9589. Give me my Nieuport!” Rickenbacker, who became America’s top-scoring ace of the war, transitioned well to the new airplane. He made his first six kills with the Nieuport but notched his final 20 in the Spad.
The Spad XIII proved to be a greater headache to its mechanics than it was to its pilots. With nine contractors scrambling to provide the fighters for the French, British, Italians and Americans as fast as possible, their quality was inconsistent to say the least. Of 14 Spads delivered to the 1st Pursuit Group on July 13, only one was listed as flyable the next day. The 94th Aero Squadron alone reported 124 cases of leaking oil pipes and problems with oil pumps, carburetors, magnetos, gas tanks, gauges, reduction gears and other parts between July 18 and 31.
“Our mechanics dug into their job with fine spirit,” wrote the 1st Pursuit’s commander, Major Harold Hartney. “Although it meant four days for a complete overhaul of the new water-cooled engine against four hours on the air-cooled Monosoupape, they realized the additional risks being taken by the pilots and accepted the situation with good grace.”
Thanks largely to a postwar career in Hollywood films, six original Nieuport 28s have survived—two of them in Switzerland, which used 15 as fighter trainers until 1930—but only the Collings Foundation Nieuport that Mikael Carlson restored still flies. “Sure, it flies as well as anything else from this era—or rather, it flies just as badly as anything else,” Carlson said after logging his first flights. “It’s OK, but it is extremely heavy on the ailerons; it’s rock-solid. If you were to fly it at maximum speed, you’d have to use both hands to be able to roll it.
“It feels safe in flight, the only thing is that it runs on full throttle all the time. So, it’s always pushing. When you throttle up for take-off everything happens in an instant—it just goes ‘bam!’ The tail comes up in the blink of an eye and you are airborne after 50 to 70 meters. I don’t pull it up. I will let it leave the ground by itself. I’d rather roll for a few meters extra just to make sure to keep the speed up.”
By June Carlson had logged five flying hours in the Nieuport, each flight recreating the look, sound and smell of a lost aviation era, a time when American pilots needed French technology to join the war in the air. After its flight tests, the airplane was packed up and shipped to the American Heritage Museum in Massachusetts—traveling in the opposite direction from the Americans who had cut their teeth on Nieuports more than a century earlier.