This French SPAD XIII wears the crowing cockerel insignia of Escadrille SPA 48 along the rear fuselage. French squadron numbers were prefixed by the basic type of aircraft flown by the unit, ‘SPA’ in this case designating the SPAD fighter.
The insignia of the Lafayette Escadrille is worn on the fuselage of SPAD XIII C.1 serial number S7714. Many members of Lafayette joined the 103rd Aero Squadron after the U.S. entered the war.
Famed as the colourful mount of the American Expeditionary Air Force’s 94th Aero Squadron, the French SPAD XIII was one of the finest Allied fighting scouts of the war, and was also flown by renowned aces Guynemer and Fonck.
First flown in April 1917, the SPAD (Société Pour L’Aviation et ses Dérivés) XIII was designed by Louis Bechereau as a development of the earlier SPAD VII and added a new powerplant in the form of a more powerful, geared Hispano-Suiza 8a that drove a propeller in the opposite direction to that of its predecessor. This power unit was markedly superior to the inline Benz engines that powered German Albatros fighters of the time. Other modifications made to the SPAD XIII compared to the earlier aircraft included inverse tapered-chord ailerons, a slightly increased wingspan and rounded tips to the tailplane and vertical fin. Increased rudder area served to enhance the fighter’s manoeuvrability. The revised armament consisted of a pair of Vickers guns, using synchronizing gear to fire through the propeller arc.
Introduced in the summer of 1917 as a successor to the SPAD VII, the SPAD XIII was better armed with twin-synchronized Vickers guns. Slightly larger and heavier with a wingspan of 27 ft, a length of 20 ft 8 in., and a loaded weight of 1,808 lbs, the SPAD XIII was powered by a series of Hispano-Suiza engines, beginning with the 200 hp Hispano-Suiza 8Ba V-type engine and ending with the 235 hp Hispano-Suiza 8Be V-type engine. Those powered by the former could reach 131 mph and climb to 2,000 m (6,562 ft) in 5 minutes 17 seconds, whereas those powered by the latter could reach almost 140 mph and climb to 2,000 m (6,562 ft) in 4 minutes 40 seconds. Although the SPAD XIII may not have been equal in quality to the more highly regarded Sopwith Camel and Fokker D. VII, it more than made up for any shortcomings in the sheer number produced, which reached approximately 8,400, compared with 5,490 for the Sopwith Camel and 1,000 for the Fokker D. VII. An improved version, the SPAD XVII, which was powered by the 300 hp Hispano-Suiza 8Fb V-type engine, was introduced toward the end of the war and supplied to France’s most famous squadron, Les Cigognes (the Storks). Only twenty SPAD XVIIs were produced by war’s end.
The SPAD VII was already a potent fighter, heavier and faster than many of its contemporaries and although less agile it was of notably rugged construction. These same qualities were inherited by the SPAD XIII, which offered similarly sparkling performance, a result of the SPAD’s heritage in the successful line of Deperdussin racers (SPAD being the successor organization to Deperdussin when the latter declared bankruptcy in 1913). However, the fighters proved trickier to handle during take-off and landing, a result of the considerable torque generated by the engine. In order to counter this, the pilot was required to make liberal use of left rudder. In contrast to many fighters of its era, the SPAD was also unable to glide, which required full engine power on landing. Once on the ground, the pilot had to be careful to avoid ground-looping.
The first examples of the new SPAD fighter reached the Western Front by the end of May 1917. It was in the cockpit of a SPAD XIII that the French ace Georges Guynemer (53 victories) met his mysterious death over Poelcapelle in September 1917. Shot down seven times prior to his final mission, the exact circumstances of Guynemer’s demise have never been fully established, and neither the body of the pilot or the wreckage of his aircraft were ever recovered.
Meanwhile, René Fonck, the leading Allied ace of World War I, scored most of his officially credited 75 victories in the SPAD XIII (Fonck put his personal tally at 127 victories). In one famous incident, Fonck’s marksmanship and use of deflection shooting despatched three enemy aircraft with just 27 rounds fired. In a separate incident, Fonck despatched three enemy aircraft and troops on the ground found their wreckage all within a radius of just 400m (1312ft). On two separate occasions, Fonck succeeded in downing six enemy aircraft in a single day. Another leading French ace to fly the type was Charles Nungesser, who finished the war with 43 victories. The SPAD was not agile enough to take on the Fokker Dr.I on its own terms, but excelled in the dive, lending itself to ‘hit and run’ tactics, engaging the enemy in a single, high-speed diving manoeuvre.
The U.S. decision to adopt the SPAD XIII was taken in July 1918, seeking a successor to the problematic Nieuport 28. Of the American pilots to serve in World War I, the most celebrated was Eddie Rickenbacker of the American Expeditionary Force’s 94th Aero Squadron ‘Hat in the Ring’. Rickenbacker was the much decorated leading ace of the Expeditionary Force, with most of his 26 victories coming in a period of a few weeks at the end of the war.
In the word’s of Rickenbacker himself, the SPAD XIII was ‘the best ship I flew’. Meanwhile, Frank Luke Jr was the fastest-scoring American pilot, with a tally of 18 achieved flying SPAD XIIIs, including a number of observation balloons.
At the outset, production of the SPAD XIII was somewhat slow. By the time of the last major German offensives of the war, in March 1918, SPAD XIIIs were still outnumbered in service by SPAD VIIs. By this time, the earlier aircraft was outclassed by the German Fokker D.VII. However, during the last 14 months of fighting, a total of 81 French escadrilles were flying the SPAD XIII, and these were joined by two squadrons of the British Royal Flying Corps, as well as additional Belgian and Italian units. In the case of Italy, the SPAD XIII was flown by Francesco Baracca, the leading World War I ace of that country, with 34 aerial victories. By the time of the Armistice a total of 16 American pursuit squadrons were operating SPAD XIIIs.
Ultimately, an impressive total of over 8000 SPAD XIIIs were completed. Post-war operators included Japan, Poland and Czechoslovakia, while SPADs remained with the U.S. Army Air Service until the mid-1920s, latterly in the fighter training role.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: France
MANUFACTURER: Société Anonyme Pour l’Aviation et ses Derives
DIMENSIONS: Wingspan 27 ft; Length 20 ft 8 in.; Height 7 ft 11.75 in.
LOADED WEIGHT: 1,808 lbs
POWER PLANT: 1 x 200 hp Hispano-Suiza 8Ba V-type or 1 x 230 hp Hispano-Suiza 8Be V-type
PERFORMANCE: 131 mph maximum speed (200 hp) and 140 mph (230 hp)
SERVICE CEILING: 6,645 m (21,801 ft)
ENDURANCE: 2 hour
ARMAMENT: 2 x 7.7 mm fixed forward-firing synchronized Vickers machine gun
TOTAL PRODUCTION: Approximately 8,400
SERVICE DATES: 1917–1923