World War I Fokker Planes Flying Near Denver
Aviation museum with unique World War I collection
There is an aviation museum northeast of Denver, just far enough into the farmland to look like the right era for a Fokker triplane. If you are up that way and see the Red Baron's airplane flying around, follow it to this amazing collection of World War I memorabilia, and meet Vintage Aero Flying Museum (VAFM) director Andy Parks, who may be the best connection remaining to the pilots of World War I.
The last World War I combat veteran died recently at the age of 110, but the Parks family is committed to remembering that generation. Though he seems a bit young for it at fifty-something, Andy Parks really has personally talked to about three quarters of the pilots represented in the museum’s collection, and he’s got the stories to prove it. The museum covers both World Wars and the Golden Age of Aviation between them. This article will concentrate on the World War I collection, because I’ve seen other good World War II museums, but as far as I know, the VAFM World War I collection is unique in the world.
Life was different back then
All of the following were true one hundred years ago. Which do you find most surprising?
21st-century Whiskey and Soda
The VAFM specializes in remembering the pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille. This squadron is hardly known today, but they were American pilots who flew with French forces before the US entered World War I (much like what Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers did for China in World War II.) They seem to have been quite a rowdy bunch; as the very first generation of fighter pilots, they established a reputation for pilots for decades to come. As an example, the cats you may see prowling around the museum are named Whiskey and Soda for the mascots of the Lafayette Escadrille...but the real mascots were actually lion cubs!
It is fascinating to learn what kind of man went to war for another nation, flying crafts literally made of wood, wire, and fabric. It was a time when the youngest pilots were older than the profession of piloting, and when pilots were more expendable than their planes.
This group of pilots went by several names (LaFayette Escadrille, LaFayette Flying Corps, Escadrille Americaine, etc.), depending on who was officially at war with whom at the time. When the US did enter the war, many of these pilots who were still alive became part of the 94th Squadron, famous as the “Hat in the Ring Squadron", so named because Uncle Sam had finally thrown his hat in the ring and gotten involved. After the war, the Lafayette Foundation was established to remember what these early pilots did. The VAFM is part of that remembrance.
Private Charles Parks
WWI veterans and the Parks family
The Parks family association with World War I is its own interesting story. Andy Parks’ grandfather was Charles “Fred” Parks, a World War I private, whose cousin, Victor Parks, had a connection with the Lafayette Escadrille. Victor was working on getting Charles into a flying squadron when the war ended for Charles with trauma to his lungs – he inhaled gas while trying to share his gas mask with his officer.
Charles Parks survived, and stayed friends with many pilots and aces of the war on both sides. As Charles’ son James grew up, he became fascinated with the stories of World War I. James Parks became a doctor, well known in the Denver area, but stayed interested in World War I, to the extent that when he went on a family vacation, it was always to someplace where he could talk to a veteran. The veterans appreciated the interest, and many gave Dr. James Parks their war memorabilia, for safekeeping in the hands of someone who understood the value.
Meanwhile, Andy was growing up hearing all these stories, and sharing his father’s interest. Together they built a replica World War I plane. This aircraft has been in the family for 40 years, and is flown regularly by the museum.
World War I medals
The first air victory of WWI happened on the ground
World War I medals, uniforms, and Fokker fragments
The museum has a collection of over 1000 uniforms, medals, documents, and other memorabilia. Some notable items:
- Eddie Rickenbacker’s coat
- the museum copy of his Medal of Honor (only the family may display the actual medal)
- a cigarette case signed by Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron)
- items from Lt John Stetson (yes, the Stetson hat family)
- the 1918 “Teddy Bear” style flying suit
- a uniform of Lt Francis Lowry (for whom Denver’s former Lowry AFB was named)
- goblets presented to the first British ace, Maj Lanoe Hawker (who was also the 11th victim of the Red Baron, after an epic dogfight)
German students can see old German handwriting on display (sort of like the English “s” that was written like an “f” in the 1700s, old German has some letters that aren’t what they look like.)
The museum also has some beautiful miniatures by Steve Lawson, like the one pictured here, showing an abandoned aircraft factory in Belgium, when a little girl discovered it and told her father about the “nest of giant hornets”.
The "giant hornets" story illustrates the European attitude toward warplanes after the war. There aren’t any actual original Fokker aircraft around, because it was part of the Armistice agreement to destroy what was seen as those terrible war machines – the same ones which a hundred years later just seem like cute little colorful airplanes. The VAFM has the last known remaining piece of an actual World War I German Fokker DVIII aircraft – a part of the tail. It still has the original fabric and factory sticker.
The Red Baron's point of view
Red triplane and other World War I planes
The best part of this museum is that, whenever it can be, it is a living, flying, history museum. They have several replica aircraft, including the Fokker Dr1, Fokker D7, Fokker D8, and some RAF SE5s. (Update: Sadly, the Dr1 crashed in 2012 - the pilot survived, barely - and the D8 had to be sold.) The replicas have some minor accommodations to enable them to fly in the 21st century. For instance:
- Metal frames work better than wood if you expect a plane to fly for hours, instead of the minutes at a time that the originals flew
- Tail skids work on cow pastures but tail wheels work better on airstrips
- Radio, radar, and pilot safety requirements have changed in the last 100 years (now parachutes are not just for wimps)
- Some original components, and even their materials, are impossible to get now
- UV protection for the aircraft fabric is a good idea for a plane built for future generations rather than for the end of the war
- No need for live guns now; there are regulations against pilots shooting each other over the Colorado plains
Considering these differences reminds us that a lot of lives have been lost for advances in aviation that seem obvious today.
VAFM's Fokker D7 takjng off and landing
How to get to the Oshkosh airshow and Dayton airshow in a World War I plane
In recent years, the Fokker Dr1, D7, and D8 attended the Dawn Patrol vintage aircraft fly-in in Ohio, and the Oshkosh airshow. The aircraft were not shipped to the shows; they actually flew there. That sounds perfectly normal until you realize that World War I air battles were right over the front lines; the planes were only in the air for minutes at a time. Getting from Colorado to Ohio and Wisconsin required flights longer than the expected lifetime of a World War I plane! But the trips were worth it. Airshow audiences jaded by jet thunder and fiery aerobatics stopped and stared as three colorful World War I planes puttered along at top speed.
The museum’s video about the adventure of flying to Dayton, , is one of my family’s favorites, with great footage of these beautiful airplanes in formation. It also shows what happens when one of these planes flips over on its back on landing.... Mission: Dawn Patrol
The original Udet
Air aces and their aircraft: Richthofen, Sachsenberg, and Udet
(Update: Though two of these aircraft are no longer at the museum, their history is still interesting, so here goes:)
Of the three Fokkers, by far the best known is the Red Baron’s triplane, so it is the museum’s star, even though most of von Richthofen’s victories were in a red biplane.
All three of the Fokkers are brightly painted, as were the originals, in an effort to identify friends and scare enemies. The D8 is especially striking with green wings and yellow-and-black diamonds on the fuselage, the colors of ace Gotthard von Sachsenberg. This replica was built from blueprints drawn by the original engineer - as opposed to being drawn from the original blueprints, which were destroyed after the war. However, the engineer had such a good memory for what was done, he re-created them exactly. Or almost exactly. Visit the museum to hear the details of what a one-inch difference in length does to the handling of the aircraft.
My favorite is the D7, the one built by the Parks family and painted in Ernst Udet’s colors. Udet was the highest-scoring ace to survive the war, and apparently quite a character. On the side of his aircraft was written “Lo!” for his girlfriend, who became his wife, at least for a couple years. On the tail of his aircraft he had “Du Doch Nicht!!”, a German idiom that generally means, “Not You!” as in, no, you’re not going to succeed in attacking me. It’s also been translated as “Definitely Not You!” and “No You Don’t!” I think, considering the context, the corresponding American idiom would be “You and what army?”
I wonder if Udet expected British, French, and American pilots to understand German, or if he just expected them to understand that anything written on the tail of an aircraft must be an insult. As the VAFM, like most small museums, is always in need of funds to support the exhibits, I think they ought to sell bumper stickers that say “Du Doch Nicht!!” Let the driver behind you try to figure that out!
Spad XIII restoration
The museum collection is still expanding and improving. Right now the museum is restoring a Spad XIII; it is built (the detailed work brings a whole new meaning to the word air-craft), but still awaits FAA certification.
Enjoying the museum
Best way to see the World War I planes and museum
If you are into aviation history or war history, you will probably benefit from several trips to the museum to appreciate the different levels of learning that it offers. (Update: Many of the items are currently in the Pueblo Weisbrod Aircraft Museum for the centenary of WWI, and the rest of the museum is open by appointment with Andy Parks.) See what’s in the collection and read all the information on the exhibits. Take notes on the titles of classic books on World War I displayed above the uniforms, then look some up and read them to prepare for your next visit. (Of course, many if not most of the books are out of print; ask Andy Parks for advice on finding a copy.)
Get a tour of the exhibits from Andy Parks personally. Ask lots of questions to take advantage of his first-hand (or at least second-hand) knowledge. Find out when the aircraft will be flying, and watch them take off and land, allowing plenty of time to talk to the pilots. The pilots should be easy to find in a crowd, as they often dress in World War I uniforms. A pilot who knows how to fly a World War I plane a century later is himself a fount of historical information; one pilot associated with the VAFM has more time in a Wright Flyer than the Wright brothers did!
Ask about the maintenance hangar; on a day that’s not too busy, you may be able to watch the aircraft restoration and learn what’s required for that art. And finally, for the serious student of history, ask to see the items not on display to the general public. Newly on display to the general public is one of the nine official documents of World War II’s Instrument of Surrender. You’ll appreciate why the museum has been a source of historical information both to the Smithsonian Institution and Hollywood.
Signatures of World War I aces
Armistice Day observance
I would like to suggest to Denver veterans' groups that the VAFM would be a perfect place for a Veteran’s Day observance, especially in 2011 (11/11/11), and 2014 and 2018 to commemorate the centennial of the start and end of World War I. (Veteran’s Day used to be Armistice Day, November 11th, which was the day World War I hostilities ceased, at 11:11AM.)
I don’t know if the VAFM has plans, and November weather may not be conducive, but I’d like to see them do a memorial fly-by of the Fokker Dr1, D7, and D8.
Getting to the Vintage Aero Flying Museum
On a map, the VAFM appears to be a long way out of Denver on I-76, but between Denver and the VAFM is just open interstate. So if you live in south Denver (as Andy Parks does!) a large part of the time to reach the museum is just getting through Denver.
If you are enough of an aviation enthusiast to have your own airplane, you can fly right into the Platte Valley airpark – many friends of the museum do.
The museum is in the hangar buildings on the south of the Platte Valley Airpark
The museum is out on the taxiway from here; look for the hangar with a Red Baron tri-plane ornament on top.
World War I German uniform
Why you'll be visiting the VAFM
If this article sounds like one long ad for the VAFM, well, it is. But I am not a museum employee, volunteer, relative of the Parks family, or even a history buff. Before finding this museum a couple years ago, my knowledge of World War I aviation was limited to the song about Snoopy and the Red Baron. A museum that can educate and inspire someone like me is a resource the Internet needs to know about!
At the VAFM, you can learn history, you can learn aviation, you can bring your children and teach them, you can bring your grandparents and find out what they remember, and you can keep coming back to see what they’re up to now!
VAFM and other Denver-area aviation museums
- Vintage Aero Flying Museum
Here is the information if you want to contact the VAFM before visiting. The best number for director Andy Parks is probably 303-668-8044.
- Pueblo Weisbrod Aircraft Museum
Site of many Vintage Aero Flying Museum items during the WWI Centenary.
- Spirit of Flight
Not far from the VAFM, the Spirit of Flight museum concentrates more on World War II.
- Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum, Denver, Colorado - Let Your Imagination Soar
Wings Over the Rockies is on the former Lowry AFB. Many static displays indoors and out, and good displays of spacecraft.
- Visitor Center Information | Air Force Academy
The United States Air Force Academy Visitor Center provides self-guided tour maps and information. For additional information call the front desk at 719-333-2025.