The notable French aircraft manufacturer Société Anonyme des Establissements Nieuport was formed in 1909 and rose to prominence before World War I with a series of elegant monoplane designs. The namesakes of the company, Edouard de Niéport and his brother Charles, were both killed in flying accidents before the war. (The spelling of the company name was a slight variation of the brothers' surname.) The talented designer Gustave Delage joined the firm in 1914 and was responsible for the highly successful war-time line of sesquiplane V-strut single-seat scouts, the most famous of which were the Nieuport 11 and the Nieuport 17.
The Nieuport 28C.1 was developed in mid-1917 and was the first biplane fighter design produced by Nieuport that had relatively equal-chord upper and lower wings. In an attempt to compete with the superior performance of the Spad VII and the recently introduced Spad XIII, Nieuport explored the use of a more powerful motor than the types employed in the sesquiplane series. The availability of a more powerful, and heavier, 160-horsepower Gnôme rotary engine prompted the decision to increase the surface area of the lower wing to compensate for the greater weight of the new power plant, hence eliminating the typical Nieuport sesquiplane V-strut configuration.
In early 1918, the French Air Service rejected the new Nieuport design as a front-line fighter in favor of the sturdier, more advanced Spad XIII. However, the Nieuport 28 found a place with the newly arriving American squadrons. Having no suitable fighter design of its own, the United States adopted the Nieuport 28 as a stop-gap measure before the much-in-demand Spad XIIIs could be made available from the French. The Nieuport 28 performed creditably as the first operational pursuit aircraft in the fledgling U.S. Air Service of the American Expeditionary Force. Thus, the primary significance of the Nieuport 28 for the national aeronautical collection is that it was the first fighter aircraft to serve with an American fighter unit under American command and in support of U.S. troops. It was also first type to score an aerial victory with an American unit. On April 14, 1918, Lieutenants Alan Winslow and Douglas Campbell of the 94th Aero Squadron, both piloting a Nieuport 28, each downed an enemy aircraft in a fight that took place directly over their home airfield at Gengoult.
The Nieuport 28 made its mark in aviation history after World War I as well. Of the 297 total Nieuport 28 fighters procured by the United States from the French government during World War I, 88 were returned to the United States after the war. Twelve Nieuports, along with examples of several other European types brought back, were used by the U.S. Navy from 1919 to 1921 for shipboard launching trials. Many, often harrowing, launches were undertaken. Some of the twelve Navy Nieuport 28s were destroyed in accidents. The surviving aircraft, worn out beyond repair, were surplused after the trials. The other seventy-six Nieuport 28s that were brought back to the United States after the war were operated by the U.S. Army at various bases and airfields in the 1920s, such as McCook, Mitchel, and Bolling Fields.
The Nieuports that survived their post-war U.S. military service found their way into various private hands. Several were modified for air racing, having their wings clipped, adapting non-standard interplane struts, and other changes. A number found their way into Hollywood movies, most notably in the famous Dawn Patrol films of 1930 and 1938. Still others became privately-owned airplanes flying in various sporting and commercial capacities. The specific history of these uses remains quite sketchy.
In short, although aesthetically pleasing and by all reports delightful to fly, the Nieuport 28 type gained fame more for simply being available rather than for any inherently superior performance or design qualities. Nevertheless, in American aviation history, the Nieuport 28 holds a number of important firsts and was used in several significant ways. Because of its varied and interesting role in U.S. aviation history, this aircraft has a richly deserved place in the NASM collection.
The museum's Nieuport 28 has a complex and confusing history. It was acquired in 1986 from Cole Palen, founder and operator of the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome. He flew the aircraft regularly in his air shows from 1958 to 1972. Immediately before its transfer to NASM, the airplane was on loan from Palen to the Intrepid Sea/Air/Space Museum in New York.
Upon close inspection, it became clear that the NASM aircraft is a composite of several different Nieuport 28s. The various components had been owned by a number of different people and used in a variety of capacities over a long period of time. As a result, the pieces have been shuffled around a lot and re-built many times. A large number of parts were not original and in many cases the replacement parts were not prepared to original specification. As a result, a serious investigation of the history of the NASM airframe was undertaken to determine as near as possible the provenance of the museum's Nieuport 28.
When it was acquired a number of erroneous assumptions were passed on, probably uncorroborated stories from Cole Palen. Initially the aircraft was believed to have been a war-time product and that it flew with the U.S. Air Service in World War I. Additionally, it was purported to have been one of the twelve U.S. Navy Nieuports tested in 1919-1921, that it was used in the Hollywood epic "Dawn Patrol," and that Howard Hughes had owned it at one point. Painstaking research has demonstrated that nearly all of these assumptions were untrue.
To determine the actual history of the NASM Nieuport, the logical place to begin was with the numbers and markings on the airframe. There are five different serial numbers on the airplane. The fuselage number on the firewall is 6497. The upper wings have a manufacturing date of February 1919 with serial numbers 7103 (left panel) and 7226 (right panel). The lower left wing panel is marked as having been fabricated in November 1918 with serial number 6465. The lower right was made in October 1918 with serial number 6432.
The first obvious conclusion drawn from these data was that the NASM Nieuport 28 is essentially a postwar product. The lower wing panels were made at the very end of the war, which concluded on November 11, 1918. The fuselage serial number being higher than the lower wing numbers dates it as very late 1918 or very early 1919. The upper wings are dated 1919. Therefore, the NASM aircraft could not have been a war veteran. Further, given the late production dates, it can be concluded that the NASM aircraft must be a modified and improved postwar version of the Nieuport 28C.1, sometimes referred to as a Nieuport 28A.
A third conclusion drawn from the serial numbers was that the components are probably from at least five different aircraft. This is not necessarily so, as wing panels, tail units, fuselages, etc., were assembled from production line manufacture. Nevertheless, given that the serial numbers are so far apart, it is hard to believe that all the present components represent one original aircraft. The upper and lower wing sets could have been originally paired together as their respective numbers are relatively close together. But the 6400 series serial numbered wings and 7000 series numbered wings were unlikely to have been on the same airframe when the airplane first left the factory. Moreover, the NASM airplane, on at least one occasion, probably more, was put together from "best available components" from a collection of Nieuport 28 airframes. The most reasonable interpretation based on the evidence is that the NASM Nieuport 28 is not a documented single airframe with a continuous history. It is an amalgam of component parts of several aircraft brought together many years after their original individual manufacture.
Certain that the NASM aircraft is not a war-time Nieuport, the next step was to try to determine its provenance in post-war U.S. military service. Research at the National Archives unearthed the twelve serial numbers of the aircraft tested by the U.S. Navy. None of the five numbers on the NASM Nieuport matches any of those of the Navy airplanes, definitively dispelling the belief that the aircraft was in that group. The lack of evidence on the airframe of the exclusively Navy modifications also supports the view that NASM's is not one of the twelve Navy Nieuports.
Further research demonstrated that seventy-six other Nieuport 28s were operated by the U.S. Army at various bases and fields around the country such as McCook, Mitchel, and Bolling Fields. A reasonable conclusion is that the NASM aircraft was at one of these Army facilities in the early 1920s before the airplane, as a complete airframe or component parts, found its way into private hands. Unfortunately, no records have thus far been found that place the NASM Nieuport 28, or any of its components, at any particular U.S. military post.
After the U.S. military disposed of the Nieuport 28s in its inventory in the mid-to-late-1920s, tracing more than a few of them becomes extremely difficult. Those that were not destroyed in accidents or simply junked were surplused on the open market. Private individuals scarfed them up, re-built and modified them, and used them in a wide variety of private and commercial ventures. Some were converted into air racers. Some were used in Hollywood films. Still others became air show performers and the like. Details on any particular Nieuports used in these capacities remain all but impossible to come by.
What of the claim that the NASM aircraft participated in the making of the two Dawn Patrol films? Four original Nieuport 28s were acquired by Garland Lincoln, a war-time U.S. Air Service instructor and movie stunt pilot, for the 1930 production of Dawn Patrol. The airplanes did not fly in the film, they were only run up and taxied. Some have argued that the NASM aircraft is one of these four. At best, this can only be said of the fuselage. Several famous photographs from the production show a line-up of the four Nieuports. All four Dawn Patrol Nieuports had their wings shortened by several feet. This is quite clear in the photographs. The NASM airplane has full-span wings, at least proving that the NASM wing set was not part of any of the Dawn Patrol aircraft. The fuselage of the Nieuport is probably from one of the four Garland Lincoln airplanes used in the film. The next phase of the story points in that direction.
At this point, the trail of the NASM Nieuport begins to emerge, faintly. Garland Lincoln sold his entire stable of airplanes, including the four original Nieuports, to Paramount Pictures in 1938. In 1941, Paramount sold the lot to United Air Services, a firm owned by movie stunt pilot, Paul Mantz, and which in 1946 became Paul Mantz Air Services. None of the Nieuport 28 airplanes that Mantz had acquired was in flying condition. Photographs taken by Don Brady in the mid-1950s at Orange County Airport show these airplanes to be disassembled and derelict. Beyond the four clipped-wing Nieuports first sold by Garland Lincoln to Paramount in 1938, Mantz apparently acquired at least one other set of original Nieuport 28 wings at some time before the parts were photographed by Brady at Orange County in the 1950s.
In 1957, Paul Mantz traded one Nieuport 28 to James H. "Cole" Palen of the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, Rhinebeck, New York, for a Standard J-1. (Mantz later added approximately $200 to the trade to compensate for the Nieuport 28 being in poorer condition than the Standard J-1.) The fact that Palen's Nieuport, i.e., the NASM airplane, has full-span wings supports the belief that Mantz must have acquired more Nieuport 28 parts beyond the four clipped-wing airplanes that were in the original "Dawn Patrol" movie. Palen apparently selected the "best components" of those stored at Orange County airport to complete one aircraft. Cole Palen died in 1993, and some years earlier his home burned, destroying all his records. To confirm anything regarding his transaction with Mantz is now impossible.
The provenance of the NASM Nieuport 28 from this point on is clear. Palen completed the restoration of the aircraft to flying condition in 1958 and flew it regularly at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, and at other special shows elsewhere, until he retired the airplane in 1972. It was on display at Rhinebeck for several years before being lent to the Intrepid Air/Sea/Space Museum. It was on display there until 1986 when the Nieuport was traded to NASM for an original Nieuport 10 trainer, and transported directly from the Intrepid to the museum.
This brings us back to the original question: What is the history of the NASM Nieuport 28? Based on the foregoing research, the best interpretation is that it is an assemblage of components of various aircraft that were all manufactured at the very end or soon after World War I, which almost certainly means that they were originally Nieuport 28 "type A" rather than standard 28C.1 parts. The components undoubtedly emanated from the seventy-six Nieuport 28s operated by the U.S. Army at numerous installations in the 1920s. Without serial numbers by location for these aircraft, it is impossible to place any of the NASM components at any specific military airfield. The period between disposal by the military and acquisition by Paul Mantz is extremely sketchy. For the most part, it can only be determined what the NASM aircraft is not, rather than what it is (e.g., that it is not one of the twelve Navy aircraft, that its wings are not from any of the four Garland Lincoln Nieuports, etc.).
Regarding the origin of the NASM Nieuport 28, all that can be said with certainty is that the airplane comprises original components that can be narrowed down only to the seventy-six post-war U.S. Army Nieuports. The circumstantial evidence that Palen received Nieuport parts from Mantz, who obtained Nieuport parts from Lincoln, tantalizingly suggests that the NASM fuselage could be from one of the Dawn Patrol aircraft. The evidence cannot support anything more definitive.
In light of the vague provenance of the NASM Nieuport, some considered judgement was required concerning the final configuration and markings of the aircraft when it was restored by the museum. One obvious possibility would have been to restore the aircraft closest to what the documentation suggests the parts represent, namely a post-war U.S. Army experimental/training aircraft. Despite the apparent common sense to that approach, there were several strong reasons not to take this route. First, there are no clues indicating at which Army installation the NASM Nieuport operated, not even a single component of the airframe. It would not only have been a pure guess which airplane it is, but total conjecture even with which airfield it was associated. Further, details on the markings of only a handful of the Army post-war aircraft exist. Painting it as one of these would only in the most remote sense represent the correct aircraft. Moreover, the Nieuport 28 type is in the national collection primarily because of its place in U.S. air operations during World War I, not because of its minor role as a post-war trainer.
Configuring it as a U.S. Navy aircraft, with the unique modifications of that use of the Nieuport 28, would have been interesting. But as it was known definitively that the NASM aircraft is not one of the Navy airplanes, and that only twelve were employed in this specialized role over a short period of time, to follow this course seemed inappropriate. For similar reasons, restoring it as one of the movie airplanes did not make sense. At best, only the fuselage of the NASM Nieuport 28 can be linked to any of the film work, and that only circumstantially. More significantly, movies represent only a small part of the Nieuport 28's history. Further, the movie Nieuports only were run up on the ground; they never actually flew in the films.
This presented the final option, which was taken: configuring the airplane as one of the war-time U.S. Air Service Nieuport 28s. Even though the NASM Nieuport is certainly not a war veteran because it was manufactured after the United States ceased to use them in combat, the best alternative was to configure the airplane in this fashion. As noted above, the main reason for inclusion of a Nieuport 28 in the NASM collection is to document the aircraft type first used by organized American units under American colors in combat. Because the history of the NASM Nieuport cannot be documented with any specificity, and certain configurations can be ruled out, the most reasonable approach was to represent the aircraft in accordance with the justified rationale for bringing it into the collection. Therefore, it was restored to a 28C.1 configuration and painted and marked as a U.S. Air Service combat Nieuport.
The particular Nieuport 28C.1 that the museum chose to represent was that of First Lieutenant James A. Meissner of the 94th Aero Squadron, U.S.A.S., a/c serial number 6144. This aircraft was chosen, rather than one of the more famous ones such as Eddie Rickenbacker's, Douglas Campbell's or Alan Winslow's, because it is representative of the famous "hat-in-the-ring" 94th Aero Squadron without misleading museum visitors into thinking that the NASM aircraft is actually one of the especially well-known American Nieuport 28s. Furthermore, Meissner's number 6144 has an interesting history in its own right.
On two occasions, with Meissner at the controls, 6144 experienced the infamous wing failure in a dive associated with the Nieuport 28. He landed safely both times. Meissner went on to command the 147th Aero Squadron. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross with Oak Leaf Clusters and the Croix de Guerre. He scored a total of 5 2/3 victories while flying with the 94th and the 147th. (Meissner is often credited with eight victories, but in 1969, the U.S. Air Force divided the credit of shared victories among all the pilots involved. Before this, each was given full credit for the victory in their totals. Having several shared victories, Meissner's official tally was reduced accordingly.) He survived the war, leaving the Air Service in 1919. Meissner's aircraft carried the standard factory-applied French camouflage, the famous "hat-in-the-ring" insignia, and standard U.S. wing and tail markings of the period, making it especially representative of the way American Nieuport 28s appeared when flown in the first U.S. air combat operations.
The airplane is painted as Meissner's appeared after May 10, 1918, after repairs from the first wing fabric shedding incident. Before this date, Meissner's Nieuport carried a black, or possibly red, number "14" on the fuselage sides and probably on the wings. He shot down one enemy aircraft with the airplane so marked, for which he was awarded the DSC. After May 10, the "14" on the fuselage was replaced with a white "8" with a thin black outline. A white "8" (with no black outline) also was applied to the top of the upper left wing of Meissner's 6144 upon repairing and re-numbering the airplane. Marked as number "8," Meissner shot down three more enemy aircraft in 6144 and experienced a second wing structure failure. Number "8" was chosen because more photographs exist of 6144 as number "8" and because it flew longer with this marking.