A.Weyl Fokker: The Creative Years (Putnam)
UNWILLINGLY TO SCHOOL
One day early in 1910, among the passengers aboard a Rhine steamer was a disconsolate young Dutchman. His name was Anthony Herman Gerard Fokker; his destination was Bingen; and his immediate future lay in Bingen’s Technical College. If young Fokker seemed preoccupied and oblivious to the splendours of the scenery it was because he viewed with extreme distaste the prospect of a return to the atmosphere and discipline of the classroom. He had had what he regarded as his fill of academic education in the elementary and secondary schools at Haarlem; now his interests lay in new and more practical fields.
Fokker was never happier than when tinkering with motor-cars and their engines. His was the enthusiasm of the mechanic, for he affected a strong dislike of all paperwork and theoretical engineering, largely because he lacked the ability to understand it. He had seen an aeroplane at an exhibition in Brussels in 1908, and had followed developments from the time of Wilbur Wright’s visit to France. Aviation beckoned young Fokker alluringly: here was a fresh world in which he would - for he had supreme confidence in himself - achieve practical success.
Fokker’s first aeronautical experiments were with model gliders cut from paper and celluloid, and he later designed a man-lifting kite. Perhaps fortunately, this was never built, for he was called upon to perform his year’s conscription just after buying the materials. Fokker regarded his military service as an intolerable interference with his aeronautical experiments; he malingered without scruple and ultimately succeeded in bribing a doctor to declare him unfit for military duty.
Fokker’s father, a well-to-do retired coffee planter, became increasingly insistent that the young man should lay the foundations of a career. Although appalled at his son’s desire to fly, Fokker senior did not try to deflect Tony from his technical interests; he insisted, however, that if Tony wanted to be an engineer he must learn engineering thoroughly and obtain a diploma. Herman Fokker may also have entertained the hope that the training might turn the unruly spirit that was his son into a respectable citizen. He was wrong. Tony was perfectly certain that his father would have done better to buy him a flying machine; that was all he needed in order to become world-famous-not classrooms and examinations. As it turned out, the young man was right.
Thus it was that Tony Fokker came to be aboard a Rhine steamer early in 1910, bound for Bingen. Little did he know that, only eight years later, he would flee from Germany a multi-millionaire, owner of an engineering empire, a world-famous personality - and a criminal; that his name would be one of the most familiar in aviation and be bandied about in politics the world over; that honours would be heaped upon him; that the world’s press would describe - and vilify - him as a most patriotic German. And all because he went the way of his own, not his father’s, choosing.
The Bingen Technical School did not have the status of a university, but it had an excellent reputation for producing practical engineers. Ordinarily students were expected to have served an apprenticeship before entering the school, but it seems that in the case of Tony Fokker an exception was made, perhaps on the strength of his experiments with unpuncturable tyres and other practical work.
Despite this concession the Bingen school was not to enjoy the privilege of enrolling Mynheer A. H. G. Fokker. Before he reported to the school he learned that, some twenty miles away at Zalbach, near Mainz, there was a training establishment for automobile engineers that was advertising a course in aviation with prospects of flying tuition. A carefully worded letter that avoided any mention of the aviation course secured the ready agreement of Fokker pere to his son’s transfer from Bingen to Zalbach.
When Tony Fokker arrived at the Erste deutsche Automobil-Fachschule, Mainz, he discovered - so he alleged in his autobiography - that no-one at the school knew much more about aeroplanes than he did. That statement needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. At that time Tony Fokker could not have known much about aircraft or flying: the one and only aeroplane he had seen had been on static display in an exhibition; he had never seen anyone flying, nor had he met anyone who was working in aeronautics. The Zalbach establishment actually possessed a small laboratory with engines, airscrews and aircraft components, and at the time of Fokker’s arrival an aeroplane was under construction. Someone on the staff must, therefore, have known something about the subject.
In point of fact the Erste deutsche Automobil-Fachschule had opened its aviation department on October 15, 1909. The school’s advertisements had begun to appear in German technical journals as early as June 1909; they included illustrations of a workshop with wing structures and control surfaces for a biplane under construction. Also illustrated was an engine test-bed with a 30-h.p. water-cooled engine driving a two-bladed airscrew by a chain; equipment for the measurement of thrust and torque was available. None of this looked like ignorance or incompetence, nor did it suggest false pretences.
Modesty was never one of Tony Fokker’s failings, and he habitually disparaged contemporary people and institutions. In the light of fact his later attempts to belittle the Mainz school and the grave doubts he cast upon the honesty of its management were absurd. Fokker was probably more deeply indebted than he cared to admit to the Fachschule for his rapid advance in German aviation; indeed it is not impossible that the school may have provided the spiritual and material origin of the first Fokker aircraft, which Fokker claimed to be his own work.
The aviation course provided by the Fachschule was not intended to provide ab initio instruction: according to the prospectus it was intended to help men with engineering experience or apprenticeships to enter aviation. Fokker, of course, did not qualify, but the school welcomed his guilders and a place was found for him; he was promised that he would be considered for flying tuition if and when it became possible to do so.
The Automobil-Fachschule did not possess an aeroplane at the time of Fokker’s enrolment: the students themselves had to design and build the aeroplanes on which they would learn to fly. In 1910 the school erected an aeroplane shed on the military training ground at Dotzheim near Wiesbaden. Flying pupils were invited to join; the tuition fee was modest but, as was customary at that time, a deposit was required as a cover against crash damage caused by the pupil.
Work proceeded on the construction of the school’s first aeroplane, work in which Fokker participated eagerly. As he had neither served an apprenticeship nor had any craft training, his contribution can hardly have amounted to more than that of any interested, enthusiastic beginner. He spent little or no time in attending classes or drawing exercises: such activities he regarded as mere theory; and theory, in his opinion, never led to anything.
The Automobil-Fachschule aeroplane was a pusher of the then-familiar Farman configuration. Some thirty problematic horse-power were provided by a converted motor-car engine, with which the aircraft was considerably underpowered. It was abandoned in favour of a tractor biplane which, although of lighter construction than the first, yet retained the tail booms. This second aircraft was fitted with a 50-h.p. Argus aero-engine, the property of one of the students at the Fachschule.
As test pilot and flying instructor the school engaged Bruno Buechner, a burly, jovial Bavarian whose seventeen stone promised to tax the little Argus engine severely. Buechner’s weight was not his only handicap, however: he himself had not yet learned to fly. He was a racing driver of great repute, but his flying experience was confined to a few tentative hops in a monoplane that he acquired and all too quickly wrecked.