SPAD S.VII Single-Seat. Single-Engine Biplane Fighter Aircraft
The French SPAD S.VII proved a most capable fighter thanks to sound design and strong inherent qualities.
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The SPAD S.VII (or "S.7") was one of France's best single-seat fighters of World War 1 (1914-1918). The type epitomized the quintessential "dogfighter" in every sense of the word with its rugged qualities and solid performance figures, embodied by its appearing in extensive numbers by various air groups of the Allied powers during the conflict including those of the United Kingdom, Belgium and United States. The S.VII more or less became the first successful warplane design effort by Societe Pour l'Avions et ses Derives - otherwise known by the letters S.P.A.D. The SPAD concern was originally founded by Armand Deperdussin prior to the war in 1911 with most of its wartime designs generated by engineer Louis Becherau (including the S.VII itself), many of his aircraft serving into the 1920s and ultimately being considered "classics".
Design-wise, the SPAD VII exhibited a very conventional design layout for its time. It was a biplane design in its basic form consisting of a low wing assembly complemented by a relatively low-set high wing assembly for maximum stability, lift and visibility. The engine, powering a two-bladed wooden propeller, was set at the extreme forward end of the fuselage and covered over in light alloy. The wings and fuselage featured an internal wood structure covered over in fabric. The wings sported dual-bays with parallel struts and equal bay spans. Cabling was used extensively for both structural support and in managing the various flight control surfaces. The open-air cockpit was set just aft of the engine compartment and upper wing assembly with a simple windscreen protecting the pilot from the front. There was a short fuselage spine to help provide a headrest for minimal comfort. The open-air nature of the cockpit made for relatively excellent views despite the large complex wing arrangement allowing the pilot to raise up and peer over the aircraft sections when attempting to spot his enemy or ground target. All major internal components of the aircraft were essentially concentrated towards the front of the fuselage while the empennage was conventional with a single vertical tail fin and a pair of horizontal tail planes. The undercarriage was fixed and consisted of a pair of single-wheeled landing gear legs at the front with a simple tail skid at the rear.
The SPAD VII was armed rather modestly with a single 0.303 Vickers machine gun, proving adequate in engaging enemy aircraft. The machine gun was mounted ahead of the pilot, aft of the propeller and over the engine compartment - synchronized to fire through the spinning propeller blade. This placement was quite a departure from earlier Allied aircraft which saw machine guns mounted over the upper wing assembly as no viable synchronizing feature had yet been perfected. The pilot now had access to his machine gun within relatively easy reach to help clear jams of the ammunition feed. Inline with many similar aircraft of the type, the SPAD VII fielded no other armament options.
SPAD S.VIIs immediately went on to replace the once-excellent Nieuport 11 and 17 "fighting scouts". The type made for an excellent gunnery platform on par with German offerings of the time. Airframes proved highly robust in-the-field, able to withstand a great deal of damage and keep flying thanks to their largely wood construction. Dive qualities were exceptional due to the strong internal structure and this could be a tactic used both offensively and defensively (Nieuport 11s and 17s encountered noticeable structural failings with their weaker "V-strut" wing designs). The S.VII's selection of engine coupled with sound engineering promoted good cruise speeds as well as a useful rate-of-climb. SPAD pilots could therefore engage enemies with a certain advantage or turn tail to "live to fight another day" if the situation required it. If the SPAD S.VII lacked anything it was in her overall maneuverability when compared to her contemporaries. Additionally, handling at low speeds required some reasonable flight experience to help avoid lethal mistakes at the stick - particularly when landing.
Power for the SPAD VII was provided for by a single Hispano-Suiza brand 8-series, V-type, water-cooled piston engine generating between 150 and 180 horsepower depending on the selected fit. Performance included a top speed of nearly 120 miles per hour with a service ceiling of 17,500 feet. Original production models sported the Hispano-Suiza 8Aa series engine but a later, more improved form, appeared as the Hispano-Suiza 8Ac. First flight of the S.VII prototype was in July of 1916 and production ensued quickly thereafter resulting in an initial batch of 500 aircraft. Production models featuring the improved Hispano-Suiza HS 8Ac engine of 180 horsepower appeared later and also managed a slightly wider wingspan. It was this second production model that proved the definitive mark in the series for it was manufactured to the tune of some 5,000 examples. Total SPAD S.VII production peaked at approximately 6,000 units.
In the end, the SPAD S.VII design proved very successful during its operational tenure and was the mount of choice for several notable wartime aces including France's Georges Guynemer and America's Eddie Rickenbacker. The S.VII paved the way for the similar S.XIII (S.13) among other developmental forms issued by S.P.A.D. and also served as the first fighter aircraft for many newly-minted American volunteer pilots serving in France with the Lafayette Escadrille - approximately 189 SPAD S.VIIs made it into American hands. Most American pilots then ended their foreign tour behind the stick of the SPAD S.XIII. The original S.VII's reach was such that the type went on to serve with air elements across the globe - from Europe to Russia, from the Far East to the Americas.