In 1916, Albatros Werke produced the remarkably advanced Albatros D.I. It featured a streamlined semi-monocoque fuselage, with an almost fully-enclosed 160-horsepower in-line Mercedes engine, and the propeller spinner neatly contoured into the nose of the fuselage. A sesquiplane version with narrow-chord lower wings, designated the D-III, was introduced early in 1917, and served with great success, despite the narrow lower wing being susceptible to frequent failure in prolonged dives. The Albatros D.V model was fitted with a more powerful 180-horsepower engine, but was plagued by a rash of upper-wing failures. The wings were strengthened, resulting in a re-designation, the D.Va. Unfortunately, the necessary strengthening increased the weight and negated the performance advantage of the new engine. The D.V and D.Va also continued to experience the same lower wing failure problems in a dive similar to the earlier D.III. A small auxiliary strut was added at the bottom of the outer wing struts to address the issue, but was not entirely successful.
Approximately 4,800 Albatros fighters of all types were built during World War I. They were used extensively by the German Air Service throughout 1917, and remained in action in considerable numbers until the end of the war. Many of the highest-scoring German aces achieved the majority of their victories while flying Albatros fighters.
The Albatros series of single-seat fighters produced between 1916 and 1918 were among the most numerous and distinctive aircraft of the First World War. The Albatros Werke began to build airplanes in 1910. Early in the war, the firm focused on two-seat observation types. In 1916, in response to the fading superiority of the Fokker monoplane to the French Nieuport 11 and the British de Havilland D.H.2, the German government requested the nation's aircraft companies to produce a suitable replacement for the Fokker. Albatros Werke chief designer, Robert Thelen, with his assistants Gnaedig and Schubert, offered a remarkably advanced design, the Albatros D.I. It featured a streamlined semi-monocoque fuselage, with an almost fully-enclosed in-line Mercedes engine and the propeller spinner neatly contoured into the nose of the fuselage. The D.I was quickly modified into the very similar D.II, which had the upper wing repositioned slightly to improve visibility for the pilot. Both fighters entered front-line service in the fall of 1916 and immediately demonstrated strong advantages over their Allied counterparts. Powered by a 160-horsepower Mercedes engine and armed with two machine guns, the Albatros fighters used speed and firepower to overwhelm the lighter, more maneuverable Nieuports and D.H. 2s.
Even before the success of the Albatros D.I and D.II was fully realized, Thelen was already developing an improved model. The Albatros D.III was introduced early in 1917 and it met with instant acceptance by the German pilots. It was easy to fly and was an effective combat aircraft. The principal design change was the use of a narrow-chord lower wing, similar to the sesquiplane wing arrangement of the agile Nieuport fighters. This increased maneuverability as well as improving the pilot's field of view. Initially, the narrow lower wing was susceptible to frequent failure in prolonged dives, but with reinforcement of the structure and improved workmanship, the problem was ameliorated. The Albatros D.III served with great success throughout the first half of 1917.
Beginning in mid-1917, however, with the introduction of the British S.E. 5 and the French Spad VII, German air superiority waned once again. Thelen was forced to refine the sleek Albatros design further in an effort to gain parity with the new Allied fighters. In the D.IV model, Thelen reverted to the equal-width upper and lower wings of the D.I and D.II. The nose was even more streamlined than the D.III and the rudder had a more rounded shape. An experimental geared version of the 160-horsepower Mercedes engine was fitted to the D.IV prototype. But despite its racy appearance, the performance of the D.IV was not up to that of the D.III, and the experimental geared engine was problem-ridden. Thus, no production run of the D.IV was ordered.
The Albatros D.V returned to the sesquiplane wing design of the D.III. Initially it was powered by the same 160-horsepower Mercedes engine used in the D.III, but later it was replaced by an up-rated model that delivered approximately 180 horsepower. The major new innovation was the D.V's elliptical cross-section fuselage, compared to the flat-sided fuselage of the earlier models. Primarily because of changes in the nature of the construction of the elliptical fuselage, the D.V was approximately 32 kg (70 lb) lighter than the D.III, and this improved performance marginally. But hopes for the new version were soon undermined by a rash of upper-wing spar failures shortly after the D.V was introduced. To remedy the problem, the wing ribs and the spars were strengthened, resulting in a re-designation, the D.Va. Unfortunately, the necessary strengthening of the airframe made the overall weight of the D.Va 23 kg (50 lb) more than the D.III, negating the performance improvement of the newer model. The D.V and D.Va also continued to experience the same lower wing failure problems in a dive of the earlier D.III. A small auxiliary strut was added at the bottom of the outer wing struts to address the issue, but was not entirely successful. Even so, the D.Va remained in production until April 1918, when the superior Fokker D.VII appeared.
Approximately 4,800 Albatros fighters of all types were built during World War I. They were used extensively by the German Air Service throughout 1917, and remained in action in considerable numbers until the end of the war. Many of the highest-scoring German aces achieved the majority of their victories while flying Albatros fighters. Although most often associated with the novel Fokker Triplane, the famed Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, won three-quarters of his 80 combat victories in Albatros aircraft.
Despite the large production and pervasive presence of the Albatros fighters during World War I, only two have survived, and both are D.Va models. One is at the Australian War Memorial Museum in Canberra, Australia, serial number D.5390/17. The other is in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum.
The early history of the NASM Albatros is very sketchy. During the restoration of the airplane by NASM, the serial number D.7161/17 was discovered under several layers of paint on the fin. This places it in the final batch of 550 D.Vas built by the Albatros factory during the war. The last of these aircraft reached the front in April 1918. It is apparent, however, that the airplane is comprised of components from more than one Albatros. The individual wings show evidence of workmanship of different quality, suggesting that they were not produced at the same time and at the same place. Further, before restoration, there were straight crosses as well as the earlier Iron Cross national insignia on different components of the airplane.
Another clue to the history of the NASM Albatros was revealed during restoration. The original layer of paint showed green and yellow stripes on the tail. This was the marking for the German squadron Jasta 46. This unit was formed at Graudenz on December 17, 1917, as part of Germany's Amerika Program, an effort to build up German strength rapidly and deliver a decisive blow to the West before American resources could be brought to bear for the Allies. Under the program, the number of German fighter units doubled. The inferred production date from the serial number of the NASM Albatros fits with the creation and equipping of Jasta 46 with Albatros fighters. Evidence that the NASM Albatros did see combat is damage from a bullet that passed through the right machine gun mount, penetrated the emergency fuel tank, and then lodged in the right magneto. The airplane was unlikely to have flown again as the fuel tank had not been repaired.
The distinctive personal marking of "Stropp" on the fuselage side remains a mystery. Some have suggested that stropp can be interpreted to mean a precocious or mischievous boy, but no record confirming this, or even with whom the marking was associated, has been found.
The history of the airplane for the remainder and immediate aftermath of the war remains unknown. The first record of the NASM Albatros in the United States is the presentation of the airplane to the De Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco on July 13, 1919, by Congressman Julius Kahn. It is unclear how Congressman Kahn became associated with the Albatros, but a label placed with the airplane at that time credited it as a gift from the French government. Some years later, NASM curator Paul Garber learned of the Albatros at the De Young Memorial Museum. On a trip to California in January 1947, he located the airplane and approached the museum about donating it to the Smithsonian. Garber was informed that it had recently been sold at auction for $500.00 to George K. Whitney, who planned to display it at Playland near Cliff House, a local San Francisco tourist stop. After Garber explained the importance of the historic aircraft to Whitney, he agreed to donate it to the Smithsonian, with the condition that the museum pay the packing and transportation costs. After a lengthy delay until funds were available, the Albatros was moved to the museum's temporary storage facility in Park Ridge, Illinois, in August 1949. It was brought to Washington, D.C., in 1952 and remained in storage until restoration began in January 1977. The complex and meticulous rebuilding of the NASM Albatros D.Va was completed in February 1979.