Editors Note: This is an excerpt from an article published by René de Leeuw in Airways, September-October 2019 issue. For a complete copy of this and other prime content, please subscribe and get your print and/or digital Airways issues.
If there was one aircraft manufacturer that was synonymous with KLM for much of the storied carrier’s 100 years, that was Fokker; a once-familiar name that played a major role in aviation history.
In the late 1920s, it was actually the world’s largest aircraft manufacturer.
Anthony (Tony) Fokker grew up in Haarlem, in North Holland, a young man entranced by the feats of the Wright Brothers. Soon, he was flying his own versions of early aircraft. In 1911, having trained in Germany in building and flying planes, he became a national celebrity by flying his Spin (“Spider”) around the tower of Haarlem’s Saint Bavo Church in 1911.
In spite of the enthusiasm of the city’s people, who had never seen an aircraft fly before, Fokker had little success in selling his first products in The Netherlands. Hence, he set up his first factories in Germany and, during World War I, produced several famous fighter aircraft, including the E.III monoplane, the D.VII biplane, and the Dr.1 triplane.
After the war, Fokker refused to submit to the restrictions the Allies had imposed on the German aircraft industry. He organized the large-scale smuggling of aircraft, parts, engines, tools, materials, and machinery to Holland. Bribes helped secure the unhampered crossing of the German/Dutch border for about 350 fully loaded train wagons. The prototype of his first airliner, the F.II, was literally stolen from his factory in Germany and flown to Holland, where Fokker founded new factories in Veere and Amsterdam.
In 1920, KLM was the first airline to operate the F.II, as it would be the first to operate many Fokker aircraft types to come.
The F.II had an enclosed passenger cabin and an open-air cockpit for the Pilot. A cabin was a big improvement over the surplus World War I aircraft, in which passengers sat exposed to the elements.
Still, being a passenger on a F.II required some courage and a healthy constitution. “The cabin was closed, but it could be very cold in there,” said Peter van de Noort, of the Aviodome museum in The Netherlands, when introducing a Fokker history exhibition in 1998.
“Before departure, the passengers received fur coats, a foot warmer, and ear protectors. Passengers also received a notepad and pencil for writing notes to the Pilot, which were handed to him through a small hatch. In the F.III, which soon followed, an exhaust pipe was led through the cabin in order to warm it.”
WOODEN WINGS AND LINEN
In Fokker’s early designs, the aircraft had wooden wings and fuselages made of steel tubes, triplex, and linen. This simple and light but reliable construction was the key to the success for Fokker airliners during the Twenties and early Thirties.
The F.II and F.III led to the larger and much improved F.VII, which could carry up to eight passengers. The F.VII and its many derivatives can be rated among the most important transport aircraft in the early days of civil aviation.
The singleengine F.VII was first flown in April 1924 and, later that year, made a pioneering flight from The Netherlands to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Some 40 F.VIIs and improved F.VIIa’s were built for KLM, Balair, LOT, MALERT (Hungary), and other airlines.
A breakthrough came with the threeengine F.Vlla-3m and F.VIIb-3m. One hundred and sixty of the tri-motors were built, including more than 70 under license in Poland, England, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Italy, and Spain.
The tri-motors were successful in the United States as well. In 1925, Fokker attracted a lot of publicity with the prototype F.Vlla-3m dominating the Ford Reliability Tour, organized by the Ford Motor Company to encourage the development of safe and reliable passenger aircraft. Richard Byrd used the same aircraft for his first flight over the North Pole in 1926. Other historic flights with tri-motor F.VIIs were Charles Kingsford Smith’s crossing of the Pacific in 1928 (Airways, May 1998) and the first transatlantic flight completed by a woman, Amelia Earhart, also in 1928. These flights resulted in a great deal of interest in Fokker aircraft from American airlines.
ADVENTURES IN AMERICA
During these years, Fokker had his own production plant in the US, at Teterboro, New Jersey, near New York. In 1924, his Atlantic Aircraft Corporation started modifying de Havilland DH-4 bombers, followed, in 1925, by a small successful four-seat, single-engine transport—the Universal—and, in 1927, by the Super Universal.
Fokker developed several versions of the F.VII, including the F-10 and F-10A. From 1927, major US airlines—including American, Northwest, Pan American, and TWA—operated Fokker aircraft.
In 1931, however, the crash of a Transcontinental & Western Air F-10A marked the beginning of the end of Fokker’s American adventures. One of the fatalities in the crash was the popular football coach Knute Rockne of the University of Notre Dame, and his death was heavily covered in the news. A month after the accident, F-10As were grounded for inspections and modifications. Public confidence was lost, and airlines soon replaced their Fokkers, ignoring the new F-32, a 32-seat giant which was a real ‘jumbo’ for its time.
Anthony Fokker, who had already sold his business to General Motors, returned to the Old World.
Fokker also had problems in Europe. He varied the F.VII theme with the twinengine F.VIII and the larger F.XII and F.XVIII tri-motors; however, as the world’s major economies were sinking into the Depression, these were built in small numbers.
Still, the planes were very important for KLM’s Dutch East Indies service, which started in 1929. But, in 1933, KLM boss Albert Plesman was attracted by something new: the beautifully streamlined all-metal Douglas DC-2. Fokker answered with the F.XXXVI, a chubby-looking 36-seater which was still constructed of wood, metal tubing, triplex, and linen. Only one was built. KLM choose the DC-2.
Fokker’s pre-war role as a major airliner manufacturer was over.
CHANGES IN DESIGN
Until the outbreak of World War II, in September 1939, the company mainly produced military aircraft, although it also brought its first all-metal passenger airliner onto the drawing board—the 24-passenger F.24. With its high wing and two engines, it looked like a forerunner of the later F.27 Friendship. Although KLM had ordered four in 1939, the aircraft never progressed beyond the drawing board.
By 1945, however, the F.24 was an obsolete design. The factories in Amsterdam-Noord had been completely devastated and the engineers had missed the results of intensive research carried out under the pressure of war. Fokker’s first postwar designs were smaller aircraft, like the twintailboom F.25 Promotor business airplane and several military trainers.
For a return to airliner manufacturing, Fokker eyed a DC-3 replacement. Many ex-military C-47s had found work as the workhorses of airlines in the years after the war, but more modern aircraft would soon be needed to replace them. Fokker’s answer was the 40 to 50 seat F.27 Friendship—a novel design. The most important innovation was the use of metal-to-metal bonding as a primary method of construction. Metal bonding gave the F.27—one of the first turboprop airliners—a smooth surface and reduced drag, and resulted in a lighter and more fatigue-resistant airframe. Fokker remained a world leader with this technique until its bankruptcy in the 1990s.
On November 24, 1955, the first Friendship made its maiden flight. A true prototype, it did not have a pressurized cabin and one of the doors and the ailerons were made of wood. The second prototype, a ‘complete’ Friendship Mk 100, flew for the first time on January 29, 1957.
The F.27 became the most successful and versatile of the many ‘DC-3-successors’, with 786 built, including 206 under license by Fairchild in the US. Fokker might have sold even more F.27s if Cold War trade embargoes against Eastern Bloc countries hadn’t prevented Western European countries from dealing with them.
The same can be said of the F.28 Fellowship short-haul jetliner, which flew for the first time in May 1967. With 241 sold, the F.28 was less successful than the F.27, but it paved the way for the derivative Fokker 100.