Gabriel and Charles Voisin were among Europe's leading pioneer aviators. Their classic 1907 pusher biplane was one of the most significant aircraft of the pre-World War I era. In 1912, they developed a military version. Thereafter they built aircraft almost exclusively for military contracts. The Voisin 1912 Type, as it was referred to by the French military, also called the Type 1, launched the standard configuration of almost all Voisin aircraft throughout the war. The Voisin design philosophy was conservative. There were only slight, incremental design changes in the airframes during the war. Improvements principally consisted of installing more powerful engines, usually necessitating wings of greater span. The Voisin Type 8 entered service with French night bombing squadrons in November 1916.
NASM's Voisin Type 8 is the oldest surviving aircraft that was specifically designed as a bomber. When manufactured in February 1916, it was equipped as a night bomber, with internal bomb racks, cockpit lights, and provision for landing lights.
Gabriel and Charles Voisin were among Europe's leading pioneer aviators. Gabriel began his formal aviation career in 1903 when he was engaged by a prominent French aeronautical promoter, Ernest Archdeacon, to build gliders for him. In 1905 he formed the first commercial aircraft manufacturing company in Europe with the soon-to-be famous Louis Blériot. Numerous disputes between the two quickly arose, however, and Voisin bought out Blériot's interest in the venture in 1906. He immediately reformed the company with his brother Charles, thus establishing the highly successful Appareils d'Aviation Les Frères Voisin. The firm's first truly successful airplane appeared in 1907.
The classic Voisin pusher biplane design of 1907 was one of the most significant aircraft of the pre-World War I era. Many of Europe's leading aviators flew the Voisin. On January 13, 1908, Henri Farman made the first one-kilometer circuit in Europe with a Voisin biplane, winning a 50,000-franc prize and much acclaim for the Voisin product. By 1912, Les Frères Voisin had produced more than 75 airplanes that were based on the simple and sturdy 1907 design.
In 1912, the Voisin brothers developed a version of their successful design for the military. Thereafter they built aircraft almost exclusively for military contracts. The Voisin 1912 Type, as it was referred to by the French military, also sometimes identified as the Voisin Type 1, launched the standard configuration of almost all Voisin aircraft throughout the war. Designated the Type L by the Voisin factory, this seminal airplane was an equal-span biplane with no dihedral, with a short nacelle carrying the crew of two in front and an 80-horsepower Le Rhône 9C engine at the rear. A cruciform tail was attached to the wings with a set of booms, and it had a quadricycle landing gear. A second pre-war military design, similar to the Type L, powered by a 70-horsepower Gnome 7A engine, was produced in 1913. Although they were largely obsolete by the start of the war, the sturdiness and the reliability of these, and subsequent, Voisin aircraft enabled them to form the backbone of the French night bomber force until late in 1918.
Les Frères Voisin was conservative in its design philosophy. There were only slight, incremental design changes in the airframes during the war. Improvement in performance of the successive types was made principally by installing more powerful engines, usually necessitating wings of greater span. The first wartime version, the Voisin 3, powered by a 120-horsepower Salmson M9 engine, had a range of 200 km (125 mi), carrying a bomb load of 150 kg (330 lb). The 1918 Voisin 10 by comparison, which in outward appearance looked much like the Voisin 3, had a range of 350 km (220 mi) with a bomb load of 300 kg (660). The 280-horsepower Renault 12Fe engine of the Voisin 10 gave it a maximum speed of 135 kph (84 mph) at 2,000 m (6,562 ft) altitude, 37 kph (23 mph) faster than the Voisin 3 at the same altitude.
During the war, the Voisin pusher series performed a variety of missions, including reconnaissance, artillery spotting, training, day and night bombing, and ground attack. The first recorded armed aerial victory of the war occurred on October 5, 1914, when a French pilot and his observer, flying a Voisin 3, downed a German Aviatik B.1 with bullets fired from a Hotchkiss machine gun.
The Voisin 3 is also notable in having equipped the first dedicated bomber units. Voisin 3 units staged a retaliatory attack against the Badische Anilin Gesellschaft at Ludwigshaven, Germany, on May 26, 1915, shortly after the German Army introduced poison gas in battle. Successful daytime attacks on targets within Germany ensued, but by 1916 the Voisin 3 and its immediate successors became vulnerable to new, better performing, German fighters. (The Voisin Type 4 was similar to the Type 3, but was fitted with a 47 mm cannon and used primarily for ground strafing. The Types 5 and 6 were virtually the same as the Type 3, except that they had more powerful Salmson engines.) The Voisins were slow and with their pusher configuration they were defenseless from the rear. Despite these limitations, these rugged and reliable aircraft still had a role to play. Voisins were used as trainers and for night missions for the remainder of the war. Voisin pusher aircraft were supplied to, or built under license by, twelve countries, including Britain, Russia, Italy, and the United States.
The Voisin Type 8 entered service with French night bombing squadrons in November 1916. (The Type 7 was a transitional model of which only about a hundred were built.) The Type 8 was intended to be powered by a 300-horsepower Hispano-Suiza engine, nearly double the output of the 155-horsepower Salmson used on the Type 6. But the Hispanso-Suizas were not available in sufficient numbers, and a 220-horsepower Peugeot 8 Aa inline was substituted. To accommodate the bulkier and heavier Peugeot, the Type 8 required an enlarged and strengthened fuselage, and greater wingspan. It was fitted with either a single machine gun or a 37 mm cannon.
The new engine provided a nominal increase in performance over the Voisin Type 6 while carrying the same bomb load of 180 kg (396 lb); but it was unreliable. Voisin then developed the Type 10, which combined a lighter and more powerful 280-horsepower Renault 12Fe engine with the Type 8 airframe. The Type 10, with improved range, speed, and bomb load, replaced the Voisin Type 8 early in 1918. (Only one Type 9 was built. It was a modified Type 8 with 160-horsepower 8G engine intended for reconnaissance.)
The Voisin 8 in the NASM collection was one of three aircraft purchased by the United States Government early in 1917 through the American Ambassador, Mr. Sharp. The Voisin was acquired, along with a Caudron G.4 (also in the NASM collection) and a Farman aircraft, for technical evaluation by the United States. However, by the time the aircraft were transported to the U.S. and prepared for flight demonstrations, they were already outmoded. On July 12, 1918, Lt. Col. L.S. Horner, of the War Department's Bureau of Aircraft Production, wrote to Smithsonian Institution Secretary, Charles Walcott, regarding "obsolete airplanes for exhibition purposes," offering to the Institution the Voisin, the Caudron, and the Farman. The offer was accepted and the three airplanes were delivered to the museum on September 16 and 17, 1918. The Farman was very incomplete and was deemed unacceptable for exhibition. It was returned to the War Department in June 1921. (Because of an oversight when packing the Farman for shipment, its wings remained at the Smithsonian until September 1925, when they were either returned to the War Department or destroyed. The record is unclear.)
Like the Caudron, the Voisin arrived at the Smithsonian without an engine. It was displayed in the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries building until 1928 when it was removed and placed in storage. It was restored in 1989-1991 for display in the museum's First World War exhibition, Legend, Memory, and the Great War in the Air. A 220-horsepower Peugeot Aa engine that had been transferred to NASM from the U.S. Air Force Museum in 1983 was installed during the restoration.
NASM's Voisin Type 8, serial number 4640, is the oldest surviving aircraft that was specifically designed as a bomber. When manufactured in February 1916, it was equipped as a night bomber, with internal bomb racks, cockpit lights, and provision for landing lights. Painted in the markings of French bombing squadron VB 109, it is the sole survivor of the 1,100 Type 8s produced.