Fokker feature





'I have always understood aeroplanes a lot better than women.'

about the man that gave Boelcke his best Christmas present ever -
and became controversial because of it - early aviator, aeroplane constructor and general mad inventor Anthony Fokker

special Fokker feature

early years: from
"the Flying Dutchman"
the Fokker scourge:
WW I stories
feeding the tale:
rumour around Fokker

short bio:
Anton Fokker was born in 1890 in the Dutch colonies. The family moved back to Holland for his education when he was 11, but he was not a very ardent student, and he only made it through his high school exams by means of a self invented crabbing-machine. He went to Germany to train in a car manufacturing school but decided on the spot that he preferred a newly started course in aviation. The one plane he and his class built was crashed by a pilot that couldn't fly and the course crashed with it. Instead of going back he built his own plane with money his father sent him. In 1910 he flew it for the first time; in 1911 he was giving demonstrations and joy-rides in it to make a living.

He became an aeroplane manufacturer and show pilot, constantly worried by financial difficulties. Then war broke out and Fokker came into his own. Fokker planes became loved and feared. After the war the Dutch government still hesitated to buy aircraft from Fokker, so he sold the salvaged (German) surplus war production to Russia. A second main Fokker factory opened in America and Fokker became the largest civil aircraft manufacturer of the twenties. The all-metal Douglas DC1 of 1933 meant an end to the Fokker supremacy. A last brilliant stroke was the beautiful twin-tailed G-1 fighter of 1936, nicknamed the Reaper. Fokker died in America in 1939. The company went bankrupt in 1996.



the early years:
excerpts from "the Flying Dutchman", Fokker's autobiography, 1931

In which he tells about his schooling, his first flights in his own plane, and the start of the war.

   What I saw; preface
The art of flying and I have grown up together. I was constructing aircraft even before I had seen one fly; that was in 1910. I only started to construct aeroplanes because there seemed to be no one designing exactly the machine I wanted. Without the help of others I learned to fly it. But I never became a hero.

All Europe loved aeroplanes when I was a boy. The papers carried glowing articles about the first passenger flight of Wilbur Wright (in France), which I devoured. In it there was a complete description of the way Wright steered his aircraft and warped the wings. So, back home in the attic, I sat for hours on end in an old wooden chair onto which I had attached a pair of moving sticks, one on either side. Just like flying a two-decker: left hand steering up and down, right hand warping the wings, turn of the hand for rudder.

Wright was a hero in Europe; not so in his own country, where to this day the Smithsonian Institute aviod to acknowledge his pioneer flight. I feel the injustice as a prospective American even more than I already did as a Dutchman.

I admit that I am proud of being a 'self made man'; for that I am American enough. But he that reads between the lines of this my history, will notice that sometimes I am sorry that I did not give others enough opportunity to help me learn.

the early years

   Tony's Laboratory; from chapter 2

School and I did not agree. I was full of mischief and found learning very boring; it rained complaints from the school masters to my father. Only one subject appealed to me, handicrafts, at which I excelled.
I had my boyhood headquarters in the attic at home. With real collectors' mania I gathered stuff there from which I made things to play with. I specialised in model trains. Over time there grew a web of tracks on the floor; four trains and yards and yards of rails that I made myself out of strips of metal that I nailed to the wooden floor. I bought the points with my pocket money. The trains were spring operated; the points had to be set manually. It took many boys from the neighborhood to keep the trains going. When they sometimes left for other - more urgent - business elsewhere, everything came to a standstill. This trouble with the points I resolved with a tangle of threads and levers, so I could run the trains on my own. But now I had to jump up continuously to wind up the trains. That was a bore, so I decided to electrify the net. At that time nobody knew anything about electrical toys, so I copied the system of the Haarlem streetcar that passed our house with its live wire overhead. I didn't know a lot of electricity, but before long I knew very well the unpleasant effects of shock.

The servants used to come up and sit in my room to listen to the music in the park. When they touched the nailed down rails with their chairs, the tracks bended and the whole train service got mixed up! I was resolutely going to stop that happening, so I connected the doorknob with a live wire, making contact when the knob was turned. The first victim was a curious niece that wanted to have a look at the famous railroad. The whole family stormed up the stairs when she screamed and there she stood, wildly dancing with both hands clasped to the doorknob. After that nobody came inside without special invitation.

To solder I used a gas torch. I also made stationary steam engines, sometimes with a boiler of 25 cm across, for which I used gas to fire it. (Especially the larger ones could easily have caused spectacular explosions. But Fate had other things in mind.) My father complained vehemently about the steep gas bills and ordered me to stop wasting the precious gas. That brought me in dire straits; but when I tried to remove a piece of pipe from an area of projected new railroad track, it turned out to be a gaspipe that came from below through the floor and disapeared into the neighbors' house. Without much ado I inserted a T-piece and I managed, nearly gas-poisoned, to close the leak with rubber bands and soap and such. From then on I had gas aplenty and the neighbors never complained, used as they were to the ever increasing cost of living.

In my opinion, the boys of this day and age, that have all those mechanical toys, are not getting the better deal. The greatest joy is in the constructing of things. Parents that buy complicated toys for their children would do better to give them the raw materials and then leave them to their own devices.

the early years

   flight permit no. 88, 1911; from chapter 4

The crash gave me the opportunity to fix a proper rudder and construct a better elevator. When I taxied over the field after the adjustments, I found the plane had gained much in the way of control. Every time I revved the engine we made a small jump into the air. First three and six meters, then thirty and sixty meter jumps. When I made a jump of a few hundred meters I felt like a bird.

In those days nobody dared to fly when there was only the slightest puff of wind. Early in the morning and in the evening were the hours of flying, because of the lack of wind. No one cared to find out what the impact of a stiff breeze would be on a plane. So every morning and every evening I flew and after three days I made jumps of 500 meter - the full lenght of the airfield. I'd be carefully rising from the ground, without haste going higher, then shutting of the engine to glide in and land. All in a straight line, of course.

Up to that moment I had no way of knowing what my plane would do when flying a curve. I was very curious to know, and on May 5th, 1911 I undertook the bold step. With nerves taut in anticipation I flew over the field at a height of about 20 meters. When I reached the end of it I steered the plane to the left in a gentle turn, held on tightly and saw how the horizon moved. Now, the question became whether the machine would let itself be steered back to a straight and level course, or that it would start swinging like a pendulum. When I had gone round a half turn, I steered straight again; the plane reacted like a well built yacht to its rudder, and I shot back over the airfield with the crackling triumphant noise of the engine, over the heads of the dwarfs below. They were waving like mad.

I did this three times, and the third time I felt I was able to fly around the world. I decided to apply for a pilot's license. The sixteenth of May I took my exam, which consisted of flying three figures of eight around two poles and landing at less than 100 meters from a given point. My license number was 88, and it had given me the status of a man of consequence in these parts!

the early years

   the Spider over Haarlem, 1911; from chapter 6 of "The Flying Dutchman"

I had accepted an invitation to come and fly my plane at Haarlem on the occasion of Her Majesty's birthday. When I took a look at the airfield that the friendly but not very knowledgable committee had selected, all courage left me. It was a small strip of grass land bordered on all sides by ditches. It was 90 meters long and 30 wide. All around the perimeter stood 10 meter high flag poles in battle order to impale my plane. When I refused to fly the committee no longer believed that I actually could! Nobody had seen me do it. The papers surely had lied about it. You didn't treat old friends like that. And they summed up all the expenses already made. So I promised I would fly if they removed the flag poles and filled in the ditches, but now their suspicion was aroused and they wanted me to make a test flight in advance of the great day. I grudgingly agreed. Just clearing the ditch at the end of the newly extended field I got in the air, and for five minutes felt absolute bliss while flying over the town at a height of 100 m. The commitee offered their sincere congratulations.

The next day the whole town gathered to see me flying. My aeroplane was the first to have ever flown over Haarlem, and when they saw me circle the church spire the people went wild. The next day papers reported of kitchen maids burning the steak, trams stopping in the streets, and the sick crawling to the windows of the hospitals: each and everyone eager to see the incredible.

The committee was elated and honored me with an official plaquette commemorating the great event; my father gave me his watch. Afterwards we had our only conversation of any length in which I did not ask him for money.

the early years

   accidents; from chapter 8 and 25

The most horrible experience I had was at Johannisthal, during the annual aero-week there. Tens of thousands of Berliners were witness of my seven slow minutes' wait for death, descending in my severely damaged plane.
Although there blew what we called a stiff breeze, I had gone up with a passenger. I had already made name as the 'Storm Flyer', and people fought to get a chance of a ride, because of their confidence in my automatically stable mono-plane. In those days passengers must have had a blind faith in the pilot, for the plane itself was hardly fit to command much trust. The frail wings of my mono-plane, the body of which was an open frame, were supported by eight wires - four on top and four below. Those wires gave a five-fold security to the plane, but without them the wing structure could not hold.
At that moment we had the air for ourserves; I could see the remains of four crashed planes below me. That meant more money for us the next day: when there were accidents, the public increased in numbers.

Suddendly: Rang!!
It's always like that, a lightning jolt. A wire at the underside of the wing had broken and hung down limp and useless. I expected the wing to break and fold, a fall of 600 meters, the end. To fall seemed inevitable. The steel frame of the wing seemed to be bending already. I decided to make use of my passenger as a counter weight to the increased pressure. I gestured wildly - he looked amazed, but seemed to understand. He scrambled out on the wing, took the full force of the wind, tottered, and stepped through the wing covering. I died of fear thinking that he might pull himself up by the upper wire - in which case we were done. But he grabbed the body itself and looked fearful and questioning to me. I saw it was hopeless. He was a fine fellow, but he was no mechanic, and I could not explain his worth as a counter weight. I motioned him to come back.

I kept circling over a wood, that could break our fall when it came. At a height of a 100 meters it seemed possible that we would make it after all, and I steered the plane towards the field near the woods. Then we hit very bumpy air. I tried to get back over the trees - a tearing noise of the wing covering, and of the impact I felt nothing.

I came to a few minutes later. My passenger, I was told, was all right; only the next day I found out he was dead.

I don't fly for pleasure anymore. The experience in the early days with so many mishaps - with the wings, the tail, the wires, the steering, the engine, the gas tank, the propeller, with every single part of the aircraft - they make me think too much. Rickenbacker, the American ace, long had the same fear. At the end of the war he was convinced that every flight would be his last. I have difficulty in convincing myself that these things do not happen anymore with today's technically advanced machines.

the early years

   the Top Gun was a woman; from chapter 9

The passenger turned out to be a young lady, Luba Galanschikoff, that alledgedly had received her pilot's license in 1911 on a Farman bi-plane. She was very pretty, nineteen years old, and hailed as first woman aviator of Russia. It was love at first sight. In my opinion she needed further training and I offered to teach her fly my plane.

My method was crude but effective. She sat in the front cockpit. I held the back of her coat, pushed her forward, pulled her back, shoved, yanked and shouted at her to make her move the controls correctly. She was a fast learner. At Johannisthal, she flew solo and caused a great sensation. Male pilots were vexed that she could stunt as well as they and generally fly circles around them, although she, like all women, hardly had any technical knowledge. I gave her a job as pilot. People talked.

A really outstanding pilot in those days was called a 'Kanone' in German, a big gun. Luba received its Russian equivalent as nickname, the Pushka, after she put the world altitude record for women at 2200 meter in one of my planes. The Pushka was good company, and had lots of admirers. I could only talk and think of airplanes and flying, and forgot to tell her how dear she was to me. One of her admirers, a handsome guy with a car and a way with women, crashed to his death and the Pushka was heartbroken. I was jealous, I was in a temper, and I was too proud to show my feelings. She flew to Paris to give flying demonstrations.

I have always understood aeroplanes a lot better than women. I am too self-centered. I don't express my feelings, thinking that they must be understood by way of mind-reading. I know now, that one should give in a little. In love, as in business or perhaps even more, one should think smart. Neglect your business, you lose it. Neglect your love, the same happens. You get competitors. Though healthy in affairs, competition is but the end in romance.

the early years

   start of the Great War; from chapter 10

Then all of a sudden, just when my business started to yield a profit, in the peaceful summer of 1914 the bomb of the Great War went off. It was an absolute surprise for me. There were no war preparations that I knew of. I was immersed with heart and soul in the development of aviation, and in the desperate struggle to keep the business afloat I had joyfully sold my planes to the German army - although one day they might even be used against my own country!

Holland had preferred French aeroplanes; England and Italy hardly responded to my offers; in Russia I was put down by the general corruption, and only Germany seemed to give me a civil reception, albeit not with open arms. As a young man of twenty four, I wasn't very interested in German politics and cared not where it would lead. I was Dutch and neutral. There was nobody that expected the War to last longer than three months! In their haste the army was prepared to pay any price, and I was in a state of mind to sell planes to anybody that came up with cash. I sold off everything in the factory - I could pay off my debtors! For the first time in my life I was a free man and could concentrate all my effort on designing the best aeroplane I could think of. It seemed paradise to me.

the early years

   the end of innocence; from chapter 11

Garros had mounted a machine gun in front of his cockpit, pointing forward. Very cunningly he had fitted a wedge shaped piece of steel at the back of the propeller to prevent it from being shot to splinters. He had shot down a few German pilots with it before he had to force-land behind German lines, and his secret was out.
The German Air Force wanted nothing more than to copy the invention of Roland Garros as soon as possible, and asked me to come to Berlin. On Tuesday evening they gave me a Parabellum machine gun, with which I returned to Schwerin. That Friday I had the working synchronized machine gun ready for inspection.

The invention and construction had taken 48 hours. We placed a cog on the prop, that lifted another rod with a spring that released the firing cock of the machine gun. The prop passed a given point 2400 times a minute, so with this machine gun that fired 600 rounds per minute we needed only one cam on the prop. The pilot had a lever that enabled him to make contact between the cam on the propeller and the firing mechanism. That was all.

I was elated with this result and wanted to demonstrate it myself, so we mounted the gun on a small mono-plane, tied its tail behind my 80hp Peugeot, and left Thursday night for Berlin. In my overconfidence I had not taken into account the conservatism of the military mind, that not only must see a thing first, but see it a second time and then needs some time to get used to the idea.
I demonstrated twice on the ground, but the gentlemen doubted the gun would work in the air. So I went up and started firing at a heap of old wings, round which they crowded to see where the bullets would hit. They had not, as I had, remembered that the bullets would ricochet to all sides when they hit the stones beneath the wings. They went like crazy to reach the safe hangars! Still they weren't happy and stated that the only way to test the gun was that I, not a German nor a soldier, would go to the front and shoot down a plane with it myself. Without leaving me any choice I was packed off to the front.

Because of the danger of being shot as a spy I was issued a uniform and an identity card, styling myself Lieutenant Anton Fokker of the German Air Force. In this manner I flew for several days, two or three hours a day, looking for an Allied aeroplane. Then one day I saw a Farman twoseater coming out of a cloud at 800 meters below me. At last I could show off the capabilities of the gun, and I dived towards it. The scout with the propeller pushing behind flew there unconcerned. While I closed in I thought about the deadly accuracy with which I could send a stream of bullets into that plane. Like shooting a sitting rabbit, not even able to fire back. I imagined the piercing of the gas tanks, the burning gas, the flaming plane falling. I thought about the time I myself had narrowly escaped a burning plane at Johannisthal. I only flew to demonstrate a certain mechanical device; I felt no animosity toward the French pilots that were looking up at me now, no doubt wondering why I flew behind them. I decided that the whole thing could go to hell, I would not do it.

I returned to Douai as fast as I could and told the Commandant that I quit the front line flying business. After a short and heated argument it was decided that a German pilot would go up with the plane. The next morning I showed Lieutenant Oswald Boelcke how to operate the gun in the air. I saw him off and went back to Berlin.

Immelmann was the second pilot that flew with the new fighter plane. He instantly had as much success as Boelcke. Three weeks later there were six more, with devastating effect on the Allied air force. It was a fact that British pilots openly called themselves Fokker-fodder. Shortly afterwards, the question was raised in the English Parliament why nobody had troubled to obtain the patents of my planes from me, a neutral Dutchman.

Anton Fokker, The Flying Dutchman (1931)

the early years


special Fokker feature

early years: from
"the Flying Dutchman"
the Fokker scourge:
WW I stories
feeding the tale:
rumour around Fokker

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