Lafayette Escadrille’s ‘Baby’

by Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing historian

When the American volunteer fighter pilots arrived in France in April 1916 to fly with the French air force, they formed the N. (Nieuport) 124 Squadron – the “Escadrille américaine,”   which later became famous as the Lafayette Escadrille (not the Lafayette Flying Corps).

Their squadron commander was French, Capt. Georges Thénault, and the unit was given the most modern fighter in the world at that time – the Nieuport 11.
The single seat 11 was the fighter version of the two seat Nieuport 10 reconnaissance aircraft and was powered by the same 80 horsepower rotary engine behind a horseshoe-shaped cowling. It was dubbed Bébé (Baby). The name appears not to have come from its small size (it was actually only slightly smaller than normal for the time) but because it was a Class B (light) fighter with a biplane (B) wing.

The wing design was somewhat unusual. The Bébé was a sesquiplane – a biplane with a swept back, full-sized dual spar top wing and a much narrower lower wing with just one spar, which provided its nickname – the “1 ½ plane.”

A V strut on each side joined the lower wing with the broader upper wing.
The 11 was not an easy airplane to fly. It had a tendency to go out of control in a lateral skid and the wing design left something to be desired.

Under stress, the lower wing would often twist around the single spar and break because the spar was too far back from the leading edges of the wing. That, combined with the single V support strut, made the wing weak. Interestingly, a much later, and otherwise outstanding German fighter, the Albatros D.III, copied the sesquiplane wing design of the Nieuport and had the same structural problems.
Nevertheless, the Bébé was very maneuverable, had an outstanding rate of climb and was easily able to dominate the primitive, but effective, Fokker E.III monoplane fighters that had ruled the skies over the Western Front.

The British Royal Flying Corps and the Belgian air force placed orders for larger numbers of the Nieuports.

One drawback for the 11 was that neither the British nor the French had satisfactorily solved the machine gun synchronization problem, so the early 11s had a single machine gun mounted on the top of the top wing. The French Bébés carried a clip fed Hotchkiss gun with only 25 rounds in the clip and no way to reload, while the British carried a Lewis gun with a 47 round drum.

In July 1916, the Lafayette Escadrille began to receive an improved version of the Bébé – the Nieuport 16 – to the delight of the American pilots. The Nieuport 16 was actually a Nieuport 11 airframe with a new 110 horsepower Le Rhone 9J rotary engine and a single Vickers machine gun firing synchronized with the Alkan system to fire through the propeller and with a belt feed for the ammunition.

The arrangement made the gun much more accurate and effective than the wing mounted Hotchkiss, but the forward weight of the gun and the added weight of the larger engine made the 16 less maneuverable and very nose heavy in the air and on the ground.

The Nieuports were the first aircraft to use air-to-air missiles in combat – the French “Le Prieur” rockets invented by Lt. Yves Le Prieur. The rockets were similar but much smaller than the British Congreve ground-to-ground rockets (as in the “rockets’ red glare”).

The Le Prieur rockets were nothing more than cardboard tubes about a foot and a half long filled with 200 grams of black powder with conical wooden heads attached by linen tape. They were fitted to thin pine sticks about five feet long and attached to the V interplane struts. They were fired electrically from a cockpit switch that launched all the rockets consecutively, though with some delay.

The main target was German spotting balloons. The Nieuports would dive on the heavily defended balloons and open fire at a range of about 125 yards. This must have been a harrowing experience, but the rockets were given credit for destroying more than 50 German balloons.

For questions or comments, contact Dr. Michel at