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WWI Mechanics

WWI Mechanics: Fitters and Riggers of the Great War
The careful, precise, and detailed work of enlisted mechanics was essential to winning the air war in World War I.

Although pilots received most of the glory associated with aviation, they could not have done their jobs without the hard work of mechanics. Mechanics were accountable for aircraft maintenance and repair. They had to perform their duties reliably and with certainty—there could be no guesswork. Not only was the pilot’s life at stake, but the success of his mission could also impact the lives of troops on the ground.

There were two primary types of mechanics: fitters and riggers. Fitters were responsible for the engine and propeller. They had to thoroughly understand construction and repair for as many types of motors as possible. Riggers inspected the remaining wood, wire, and fabric components of the aircraft. The stresses caused by flight and weather meant that repairs were nearly constant. For instance, wires tended to loosen over time, but it was vital to keep them taut and well-oiled. At the same time, fabric had to be kept clean and oil-free to prevent rot. Both fitters and riggers completed various inspections weekly, daily, after each flight, and even every few hours.

Mechanics often worked under dull and difficult conditions for modest pay, but they performed with enthusiasm and success, regularly working overnight to ensure planes were ready by the morning.

Rigged to Perfection  

The bracing wires on early aircraft required routine inspection, or “rigging,” to discover any wear and tear that might lead to vulnerability. In flight, wires tended to stretch and loosen. If the tension of these wires wasn’t consistent throughout the aircraft, it could quickly become off balance. Experienced mechanics could adjust the wires by touch and then lock them in place with turnbuckles.

A turnbuckle consists of three parts: the barrel and two eyebolts (also known as shanks)—one on each end. The hollow barrel is threaded with left facing threads on one end and right facing threads in the other. When tightened, turnbuckles hold tension on the structural wires which brace the wings. This keeps the airframe strong and rigid against forces of lift, weight, drag, and torsion (twisting).

Early Aircraft Design

Early biplanes were constructed from a wooden frame covered with fabric, which formed the best combination of strength, weight, and aerodynamic efficiency at the time. After the frame was constructed from spruce, it was covered in with the highest grade of unbleached linen, imported from Ireland. Next, it was painted with a lacquer substance called dope, which shrinks and tightens the fabric against the frame, improving airflow. Between each coat the fabric was lightly sanded to keep the surface in the smoothest condition possible.

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