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Airplane Tales – The Vought VE-7 Bluebird: The US Navy's first fighter

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, American aircraft development seriously lagged behind that of her European allies, and most American pilots who fought overseas flew French- or British-built machines. Lieutenant David Ingalls, the US Navy’s first (and only) fighter ace of WWI, scored his six victories while flying a Sopwith Camel. But American industry soon geared up to close the technology gap with Europe, and the first American-built fighter to serve the US Navy started out as a surprisingly good trainer.

Vought VE-7SF single-seat fighter (San Diego Air and Space Museum)

The Lewis & Vought Company, founded in 1917 to support the American war effort, had little to go on with their new aircraft, so they used European designs as a model. Though the VE-7 was four feet longer to accommodate a second cockpit, its lines resembled those of the SPAD.XIII, and Vought chose the same Hispano-Suiza 8 V8 engine that was used in a host of European fighters. But the surprise came in the VE-7's performance, which was comparable to the latest European designs, and the aircraft that had been developed as a trainer was clearly capable of serving as a fighter. The Army was so impressed that they ordered 1,000 copies of an improved VE-8, but that order was canceled with the end of the war. The Navy, however, was sold, and placed an order for 128 aircraft.

Vought VE-7 two-seat trainer (US Army)

To convert the trainer to a fighter, the VE-7's forward seat was faired over and a single synchronized Vickers .30 caliber machine gun was mounted on the left side of the engine cowling to create the VE-7SF fighter. While the Wright-built Hispano engine produced 180 horsepower and carried the VE-7 trainer to a top speed of 106 mph, the VE-7SF, topped out at 121 mph with a service ceiling of 15,000 feet. Inflatable bags were also added in the event of an emergency landing on the water, and some original VE-7s were equipped with floats.

Richard Byrd climbs into the cockpit of his VE-7 in 1925 (US Library of Congress)

The Navy received the first VE-7s in 1920, and they equipped the Navy’s first two fighter squadrons, VF-1 and VF-2 (VF-2 remains active today). On October 17, 1922, Lieutenant Commander Virgil C. “Squash” Griffin piloted a VE-7 from the deck of the USS Langley (CV-1), America’s first aircraft carrier. Thought not the first time a plane had been flown off of a ship, the historic flight marked the official entry of the United States into carrier warfare, and signaled the beginning of the ascendance of the carrier over the battleship as the primary weapon of naval warfare. With the VE-7, the United States demonstrated that it was capable of creating fighter aircraft that were every bit the match of those built in Europe, and the VE-7 served as the Navy’s frontline fighter, and remained assigned to the Langley, until 1927.

A Vought VE-7 takes off from the flight deck of the USS Langley (US Navy)

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