Dieselpunks

Dieselpunk + Steampunk Culture

Knights of the Air: Forssman Ten-Engine Triplane

It never dropped a single pound of incentives in anger. Actually, it never flew. Designed too late to be ready for her maiden flight before the Armistice, it remains a dark enigma even today, 95 years after the Great War.

Those who like to talk about Wunderwaffe and Amerika Bomber all but ignore the Kaiserreich secret projects. The Forssman-designed triplane is obscured by the WWII weapons. Besides, it is known under a wrong name, as the Poll Giant Bomber.

Here are some extracts from The German Giants by G.Haddow & P.Grosz:

During 1919 an Inter-Allied Aeronautical Control Commission team reported on the partially-finished remains of a fantastic ten-engined triplane found in a hangar at the Poll airfield near Cologne. For many years the only information regarding this mystery aircraft was that described in the I.A.A.C.C. report dated 29 September 1919. From an engineering point of view the report was fairly comprehensive and was entirely in keeping with the I.A.A.C.C. objectives - not only to control but to describe new German aviation developments. Unfortunately, virtually nothing was mentioned regarding the history of this machine, so that for many years speculation has surrounded its existence. The only clue to the identity of the aircraft was that the designer's name was Forstmann. But the following important statements appeared in the report: "It appears that the 'Forstmann' Giant was intended to carry petrol for 80 hours flight, to have a speed of about 130 km.h. and to land at about 90 or 100 km.h." Then later on: "Function-heavy bombing, long distance machine, alleged to have been intended to bomb New York. No trace of any gear or bomb release gear found." These statements were to be significant in the search for the Poll Giant's true identity, because they established a connection with a document in the German Naval Archives.

"Poll Giant" interior

While searching through the voluminous Naval archives a memorandum dated 18 October 1917 came to the author's attention, quite by chance. It had no heading and ostensibly was a short information note prepared for some high-ranking officer. It read:

A transport aircraft with ten engines capable of flying to America was financially supported by Bruning and the Deutsche Bank. The Navy became interested in the project because of its potential military application. The construction work has lagged behind and costs have risen so that further financing has been refused. The Company approached the Navy for funds, but the Navy declined because its interest was only of technical nature. Mannesmann was ready to re-finance the project, but the Navy considers it worthwhile to inhibit further construction due to the scarcity of material and labour.

The signature was unintelligible.

It is now known that the Poll triplane and the Bruning-Deutsche Bank project were identical. From the outset, the Poll Giant was intended as a long-range transport not bomber. Its designer was Villehad Forssman, creator of the early SSW-Forssman R-plane. Forssman enjoyed a close working relationship with Bruning & Sohn A.G. owner of "the four largest factories in Germany for the manufacture of quality plywood" and operated Fahrzeugbau Bruning at Grossauheim (near Hanau) for manufacturing transport vehicles, including aircraft. In fact Fahrzeugbau Bruning's registered trademark was an exact front view of the Poll triplane. To utilize Bruning's woodworking skills and sell plywood, Forssman actively promoted the company through his design and patent office in Berlin. In this connection, in April 1916 Forssman contacted Anthony Fokker and offered to have Bruning build several plywood wings, at no cost, according to Fokker specifications. Fokker quickly submitted the required wing drawings. Also involved with Fahrzeugbau Bruning was engineer Thorsten von Carlheim, a fellow Swede, who worked for Forssman in Berlin and Grossauheim.

According to the Illustrated London News (p. 992, 1920), the Poll Giant was "intended to fly to America and drop propaganda leaflets over the United States before that country enter the war." Such a far-fetched proposal was entirely in keeping with Forssman's creative fantasy. The "Mannesmann" of the German Navy report was the Mannesmann Wafffen & Munitions Werke in Westhoven near Cologne who, in 1918, were constructing a small radio-guided flying missile designed by Forssman. Although no proof exists, Mannesmann was surely involved in the construction of the Poll Giant.

Waldemar Roeder recalls visiting the Poll Giant construction site as follows:

A very interesting project, under construction in 1918, was the one by Forssman. During my service with the Rea in Cologne, I learned of a huge triplane being built near Kahl (between Hanau and my home, Aschaffenburg; there was no airfield in the vicinity). Naturally, I went there as soon as I could and found a rather primitive building almost in the middle of the woods. Unfortunately, I do not remember who took me through the workshop, but I was impressed by the clean workmanship. Wings and nacelles were made of plywood, the former not yet covered with fabric. The very handsome engine nacelles were intended for a tractor and pusher engine each.

Since not all of the Poll Giant's components were found (engines, engine bearers, control surfaces, undercarriage and sections of the tail were missing), it is likely that this aircraft was constructed in at least two locations. The engine nacelles and other part had not yet been shipped to the Poll airfield site when it was inspected by the Allies.

The triplane wing was characterized by a middle wing with a much greater span than the outer two wings. The ribs were set fairly wide apart, and the box-section compression ribs were spaced at approximately 20 foot intervals. These thickened between the spars so that some 5 inches projected below the curve of the camber. The entire wing surfaces were covered with three-ply wood reinforced by a layer of fabric applied to the top veneer. The I.A.A.C.C. considered the workmanship good, but thought the structure to be weighty and disproportionately weak. Ailerons were to have been fitted to the middle wing only. Eight tandem engines were located at the strut intersections on the middle wing. The remaining two tandem engines were located below the fuselage at the centre of the lower wing. No information is available as to the type and horse-power of the contemplated engines.

The rectangular centrally-mounted fuselage was built of wooden longerons and cross-members reinforced with diagonal cable bracing. Although the fuselage was covered with three-ply wood, the I.A.A.C.C. team stated that the fuselage appeared weak and felt the three-ply covering added unnecessary weight. Because cable bracing across the fuselage interior was omitted, the inner (9 feet 3 inches square) fuselage was free from obstruction. The inner sides of the fuselage were covered by a second plywood layer. If strength were uppermost in the designer's mind he had no regard for weight, and the impression was that the Poll Giant was quite heavy in structure. When one considers that the fuselage was 150 feet long, some 12 feet longer than the wingspan of the Staaken R.VI, the designer's preoccupation with strength and rigidity is perhaps excusable.

Only a portion of the tailplane was available for inspection by the I.A.A.C.C. team. The elevators, fin and rudder were missing. A point of much interest to the Commission was that the leading edge of the tailplane was hinged and connected in a manner to assist in working the elevators. A recommendation was made by the I.A.A.C.C. team to test this arrangement in a British wind tunnel.

All that was found of the undercarriage was one of the huge, 7 foot 9 inch diameter wheels, which were entirely built of wood with the exception of the steel hub. For many years this wheel was on exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London, where it is now in storage along with a section of the fuselage.

While there is no question that the Poll Giant was immense in concept, the naivete of its construction betrays the designer's inexperience in methods of aircraft design and fabrication. It is hoped that future research will bring to light the full history of this fascinating but forgotten aircraft. The accompanying provisional general arrangement drawing is based on all available data.

Luckily, we can add a second opinion, published on Warnepieces blog, the homeground of Gary C. Warne:

There was speculation after the war that the Germans only intended to use it to drop propaganda leaflets, but it appears the aircraft was capable of flying with the heavy fuel load along with four thousand pounds of bombs. If they were going to go all the way to New York City, would they have done it with just a load of paper to drop? Had the war lasted into 1919, there is a good chance New York City would have experienced its 9/11 moment 82 years earlier.

Mr. Warne prefers to call this monster "the Forssman triplane". We can argue that common German practice was to use the builder's name, not the designer's one, so "Mannesmann" seems more correct. On the other hand, we do not know what were the actual roles of Mannesmann and Bruning in building the giant. And I'm afraid time won't tell...

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Tags: 1910s, Knights of the Air, aircraft, aviation, bombers, germany, triplane, wwi

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Comment by Will Boucher on June 16, 2012 at 8:36pm

I have been pondering the story told about this plane. Something does not add up. Forssman was not able to design functional examples of any R-Type. Even when the requirements got watered down to almost nothing he simply built aviation accidents waiting to happen. My hunch was it was intended as a paper tiger to feed feel good news to a war weary German population and confound any intelligence operatives reviewing reports  leaked to Britain or France. however this is just MHO.

Comment by lord_k on March 9, 2012 at 1:31am

By the way, the monster is featured in Young Indiana Jones and the Attack of the Hawkmen.

Comment by Cap'n Tony on March 8, 2012 at 2:08pm

Fascinating find! 

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