The original Sopwith Triplane, serial N500, was designed as a private venture by Herbert Smith. It had been evolved as a faster-climbing derivative of the Pup, with even better manoeuvrability and improved vision for the pilot. Wing span remained the same as for the Pup, but each wing was of much narrower chord and had an aileron fitted.
The prototype made its first flight on 28 May 1916 with test pilot Harry Hawker at the controls, and so delighted was he with the Triplane’s handling that he looped the aircraft three times within three minutes of taking off.
Both the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service ordered the type but policy changes led to the Triplane only being used by the Royal Naval Air Service fighter squadrons on the Western Front. The Triplane single-seat fighter was nicknamed ‘Tripe’ or 'Tripehound'.
The exact number of Triplanes that became operational with the RNAS is not clear. What is known is that the first prototype was followed by three more fitted with Clerget and Hispano-Suiza engines of 112kW and 149kW. A further 148 aircraft were built, of which five were presented to France, another three were loaned and probably returned, and one went to Russia.
Initial production Triplanes, with 82kW Clerget rotary engines, had been ordered for the RFC. In the event they were delivered to the RNAS, as were later examples with 97kW Clerget engines fitted.
The top exponent of the Triplane was Raymond Collishaw, who commanded 'B' Flight of No 10 (Naval) Squadron from April 1917 - a unit which received some of the first Triplanes. Known as the 'Black Flight' because of the colour of its Triplanes and the names given to individual aircraft (Black Maria, Black Sheep, etc), it was composed exclusively of Canadian pilots, who accounted for 87 kills between May and July. Collishaw managed to average more than one kill every two days throughout June. He ended the war as the highest-scoring RNAS pilot, with 60 victories.
It made such a profound impression on the Germans that a specific request was made to their aircraft manufacturers to design and produce triplane fighters. Only the Fokker Dr1 was built in quantity. The triplane concept had a brief life and in less than two years it had been eclipsed by the new and more powerful biplane fighters on both sides.
Although not so famous as its Fokker counterpart, the Sopwith Triplane achieved impressive success in its brief career, entering service early in 1917 until the autumn of that year, when it was superseded by the Camel. Approximately 150 Sopwith Triplanes were built. No other machine could match its rate of climb, and no other fighter could regularly operate at 6100 m (20,000 ft), a height at which the Triplane frequently patrolled.
Flt. Sub-Lt. Ray Collishaw along shot down 16 German aircraft in 27 days of fighting. His ‘Black Flight’ of No 10 Sqn accounted for 87 enemy aircraft in three months.
Willie Sopwith Triplane
St Croix Sopwith Triplane
Northern Aeroplane Workshops Sopwith Triplane
Engine: 1 x Clerget 9 Z, 130 hp / 96kW
Length: 18 ft 10 in. (5.72 m.)
Wing span: 26 ft 6 in (8.07 m)
Height: 3.1 m / 10 ft 2 in
Wing area: 24.6 sq.m / 264.79 sq ft
Weight empty: 1,100 lb (500 kg)
Max take-off weight: 699 kg / 1541 lb
Fuel capacity: 20 Imp Gal.
Max speed: 117 mph (190 kph)
Ceiling: 20,500 ft (6,250m) fully loaded
Endurance: 2.75 hours
Range w/max.fuel: 450 km / 280 miles
Armament: One 7,7mm Vickers machine gun, firing forward