For a number of years I have been involved in an enjoyable and challenging airplane building project with two close friends, Bill Hadden, formerly of the Wright Experience and now with the Preservation and Restoration Unit at the NASM Udvar-Hazy center and Mike Dale, retired president of Jaguar USA. Recently, my hangar mate and neighbor, Dan Damron, has brought his skills to bear on the wiring and radio installation. (They let me sweep the floor).
The airplane we are building is a modernized replica of the 1917-1918 French Nieuport 28. Our replica is dimensionally identical to the original but with an aluminum structure replacing the wood and a modern static radial engine replacing the original Gnome 9N rotary radial, cost and operation being the driving force behind the engine change. The Nieuport 28 is an elegant, Art Nouveau styled airplane that possessed excellent speed, climb and handling qualities, acquitting itself well in the hands of the First Pursuit Group pilots of the United States Air Service, AEF from early 1918 until replaced by the SPAD 13 in late summer. The names of Douglas Campbell, James Meissner, Quentin Roosevelt and Edward Rickenbacker are, I’m sure, familiar and all scored their early victories over the German air force in the Nieuport 28.
Our project’s goal was to not only build a WWI airplane but to tell the story of the early USAS and so we began a search for a specific airplane and pilot to recreate. Bill lobbied for a 94th Aero squadron airplane as he maintained F-15s as a member the modern 94th at Langley field, VA. A secondary goal was a unique airplane, not a Rickenbacker, Meissner, Campbell or Roosevelt machine as there are several of those airplanes flying or displayed in museums. The primary goal was to find a Virginia native who flew the Nieuport and honor that individual by replicating his airplane but, unfortunately, after a significant amount research, we were unable to identify a Virginia pilot. In the end we settled on an airplane and pilot, both significant in in several ways. We chose ship N6334 flown by Lt. William Brotherton of Chicago. Brotherton was a Nieuport 28 ace and was the last pilot credited with a kill in the Nieuport 28. Unfortunately, Brotherton did not survive the war as he was KIA while attacking a German observation balloon in his SPAD during the Argonne offensive on October 10, 1918, one month before the armistice halting WWI.
During my research I did uncover one Virginia connection to the air campaigns of the 1914- 1918 world war. Robert G. Eoff of Christiansburg, Virginia joined the French Arme’e de L’air as a Corporal and trained with the French before being posted to an operational unit at the front. Eoff was designated a member of the Lafayette Flying Corp, one of a group of 269 Americans who volunteered to fly for the French in WWI. Eoff later transferred to the USAS and flew SPADs when the U.S., somewhat late to the game as the Brits will tell you, entered WWI. The Lafayette Flying Corps should not be confused with the pilots of the Escadrille Lafayette, the all American squadron N.124 of the French Arme’e de L’air. N.124 had a full pilot compliment by 1916 but the French accepted and wished to honor the Americans who had volunteered to fly and so designated that group the Lafayette Flying Corps. Most of the N.124 and LFC pilots transferred to the USAS when it became operational providing a skilled and experienced core of pilots to train and lead the fledgling USAS.
What started as an airplane building project has led to a more thorough understanding of WWI and the development of air power in Europe and the U.S. It’s fascinating where history will take you.