De Vijf

It’s time to go back to the cradle of Dutch military aviation. Here’s a background to the famed aerobatics team, “Vijf Vingers aan één Hand”.

Actually, it turned into quite the wall of text, but please bear with me!

On July 1st 1913, as dark clouds were gathering over Europe, the “Luchtvaartafdeeling” (LVA), the Dutch air division of the army, came to life. Aviation had not enjoyed the popularity in Holland as it had in the rest of Europe and we were late to the party. And with every nation’s industry producing for the war effort, for five years the LVA  had to make due with flimsy Farman pusher planes and whatever damaged aircraft accidentally made an emergency landing across our neutral country borders.

The end of the war saw Anthony Fokker, the Dutch aircraft designer and manufacturer who had supplied the Germans so well, making his escape back to his home country. Escape is the right word: the allied victors of the war sought to confiscate his brilliant products, and the Germans had some pressing questions about taxes and other monetary matters. Fokker planned to answer to neither, and on his escape he smuggled with him 6 trains with a total of 350 carts of aircraft, airframes, engines and parts, a suitcase with money and a large part of his staff, including the brain behind his designs, Reinhold Platz.

The duo of Fokker and Platz would turn the Netherlands into a leading country in aircraft design with Fokker planes being flown the world around and putting many records to their name. But not before Anthony had supplied the LVA with the most modern of fighter planes, the Fokker D.VII: the plane that was regarded as the best fighter of the war, and that made up most of the cargo of the aforementioned traincarts.

Fokker and Platz had always aimed together to produce the most efficient plane possible. Cheap to build, easy to maintain, and friendly to fly: not a high performer in any particular area but with a good performance overall. The Fokker embodied this philosophy, with its welded steel fuselage, and thick cantilever wings that did not require the use of bracing wires. The D.VII was hard to stall and when it did, it refused to drop a wing. A stable plane, it was also adequately fast and manoeuvrable.  And with the powerful high compression BMW IIIa engine with altitude control, it performed best where the fight was hardest: up high, where the air was thin and cold. The Fokker D.VII was in many ways far ahead of any contemporary design at the time.

The last of the Dutch D.VII’s served until 1938, where it ended its service as a training craft. Only two years before those other Fokker fighters, the G.1 and D.XXI, played their swansong to the German Messerschmidts. during that time it achieved some notable feats.

Commander Versteegh lead his pilots through training with a strong hand and a soft heart and was well loved in the division. He had been with the LVA from the very beginning and from 1919 on he took the position as commander and main instructor of the military flight school, a function he held until 1935.

Shortly after the war, he had performed as a display flyer on Fokker biplanes and as a thank you, Anthony Fokker had gifted him a two seater version of the D.VII for his personal use, the F.600. It was in this plane that Versteegh lead his formation of military stunt flyers and won prestige and prizes both in the Netherlands and outside. The height of their fame was a trip to Götenborg, Sweden, where they flew their D.VII’s so perfectly in synchronisation that journalists commented they must be five fingers from the same hand. The official name, “Vijf Vingers aan één Hand”, and even a logo and a calendar followed.

Here and on many other occasions, the Dutch showed that not only could they build planes like nobody else, they could bloody well fly them better than any as well.

Like no other flightsim, Rise of Flight offers the opportunity to re-live these glory days of Dutch aviation and I certainly hope to perform some formation flying in the Fokker D.VII type, with Dutch livery, at the LLTM. Although I’m sure we will never come close to the prowess of the Five Fingers. The following video, where we are lead by an experienced formation flyer in 1930’s biplanes, already goes some ways to show just how incredibly difficult it is and the experience greatly raised my respect for anyone who has the skill to do this not only in a virtual plane but also the real thing!

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