The Sopwith Triplane (dubbed "Triplehound" by her pilots) was a three-wing fighter design built by the Sopwith Aviation concern of Britain and based on the strengths of the successful Sopwith "Pup" biplane fighter (detailed elsewhere on this site). The aircraft strayed from conventional aviation design of the time, where biplanes proved the accepted norm for most major air services, and sought to combine additional lift and maneuverability by the addition of a third wing element. This resulted in the first-ever operational deployment of a triplane fighter in the Sopwith Triplane. For a short time in World War 1 (1914-1918), the Triplane had no equal though its eventual end came with the arrival of the Sopwith Camel biplane - the classic fighter aircraft of the war. Triplanes continued to see second-line service as trainers from mid-1917 onward.
First prototypes were developed during the early part of 1916 and a first-flight was recorded on May 28th, 1916. Such was the promise of the aircraft design that it was rushed to the frontlines, seeing formal service introduction as soon as December of 1916. Initial operational use was outstanding enough to warrant serial manufacture and some 147 were ultimately delivered - the primary operator being the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).
Beyond its triplane wing arrangement, the aircraft exhibited traditional qualities of fighters of the period - a slab-sided, tapering fuselage with open-air cockpit for one, a fixed, twin-wheeled undercarriage for ground-running, and a single-finned tail unit. To brace the three wing pattern, a thick, large strut joined the planes outboard and shorter struts connected the upper wing assembly to the upper fuselage ahead of the pilot. The pilot sat just behind the wing assemblies which did hinder visibility. However it was in maneuverability and rate-of-climb that the Triplane excelled - giving the pilot a considerable advantage in aerial firefights that were close-ranged.
Armament was typically a single 7.7mm Vickers machine gun firing through the spinning propeller blades by way of a synchronizer. There were some attempts to field a twin-gunned version but it was found that a single gun approach was more effective - the weight gained from the addition of a second machine gun, along with its ammunition supply, degraded overall performance of the fighter.
Power stemmed from a single Clerget 9Z series, 9cylinder rotary piston engine driving a two-bladed wooden propeller at the nose. This allowed for speeds to reach 117 miles per hour as well as a service ceiling up to 20,500 feet. The aircraft held a mission endurance window of 2.75 hours and time to 6,000 feet was nearly six minutes.
Results for the Triplane were exceptional in the early-going - for a period in 1917 the series racked up over 100 enemy kills. However, the machines proved complicated to maintain and repair and steep diving actions often resulted in the wing elements giving way. Its single machine gun also lacked the firepower seen in other twin-gunned contemporaries. These inherent deficiencies ultimately led the Triplane to see a very short operational career over the battlefields of Europe in the war.
Nevertheless, for its time, there proved few equals. Indeed, the Germans respected the Triplane enough to put forth a reward to any German aircraft-maker that could deliver a similar fighter. Anthony Fokker responded with what would become the Fokker Dr.I Triplane (detailed elsewhere on this site). There were many other "multi-winged" creations (some simply aerial monstrosities as aircraft go) seen during this period as well though few ever saw the light of day.
Beyond its service with the British Navy, the Sopwith Triplane found homes in the inventories of France (Navy), Greece (Navy, single example) and the Russian Empire (single example). The French received seventeen examples. The sole Russian Empire example fell to the Soviet Air Force when it was captured.
France; Greece; Russia; Soviet Union; United Kingdom
(OPERATORS list includes past, present, and future operators when applicable)
✓Air-to-Air Combat, Fighter
General ability to actively engage other aircraft of similar form and function, typically through guns, missiles, and/or aerial rockets.
Developed ability to be used as a dedicated trainer for student pilots (typically under the supervision of an instructor).
Addition of more mainplanes to enhance inherent agility, providing a tactical edge in tight engagements.
Inherent ability of airframe to take considerable damage.
Ability to operate over ocean in addition to surviving the special rigors of the maritime environment.
18.8 ft (5.74 m)
26.5 ft (8.08 m)
10.5 ft (3.20 m)
1,100 lb (499 kg)
1,541 lb (699 kg)
+441 lb (+200 kg)
(Showcased structural values pertain to the base Sopwith Triplane production variant)
1 x Clerget 9B rotary piston engine developing 130 horsepower and driving a two-bladed propeller at the nose.
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