One of the many embarrassments for the United States when it entered World War I on April 6, 1917, was its lack of combat aircraft.
On that day, the U.S. military air arm – the “Army Signal Corps” – had only about 50 aircraft, and none of them were remotely suited for combat.
The result was that, when the American Expeditionary Force arrived in France, it was equipped entirely with French aircraft. But the United States did produce an excellent engine – the large 425 horsepower Liberty L-12 water engine – and the U.S. Army Engineering Division began efforts to pair this engine with an indigenously designed fighter.
The most effective fighters at this point of the war were the two seat fighter reconnaissance aircraft – a relatively new type.
The most successful was the British F.2B Brisfit, which, after initial difficulties, had become one of the best fighters of the war. While the Brisfit was large and heavy, it had a powerful engine and formidable armament.
In addition to forward firing guns, it carried one or two .303 machine guns on a mounting firing to the rear. The F.2B was used like a regular fighter to dogfight, and if an enemy got behind the F. 2B, he received an unpleasant surprise from the rear gunner.
The large size of a two seat fighter made it a perfect match for the equally large Liberty engine.
To help with its design, the United States enlisted the aid of French aeronautical engineer Capt. Georges Le Pere, a member of the French aeronautical mission to the United States. Captain Le Pere developed a large (25-foot fuselage and a 41-foot wingspan) two seat biplane fighter powered by the Liberty.
The aircraft was given the awkward name “Engineering Division LUSAC – Packard 11.” LUSAC stood for “Le Pere United States Army Combat” and Packard was the name of the company that built it. It is unknown why it was given the No. 11.
Despite its name, when it first flew in April 1918, the LUSAC-11 proved fast and agile with a performance equal or superior to any Allied or German fighter (though it almost crashed its first flight because the pilot forgot to open the main fuel tank valve).
About 3,525 aircraft were quickly ordered, but just as production hit full swing, the war ended in November 1918 and only 30 were delivered. It never went into squadron service. Nevertheless, the basic airframe was highly amenable to a variety of modifications and provided useful service for the fledgling American air arm.
One LUSAC-11, fitted with a modified turbo supercharged Liberty engine, set the world altitude record of 34,507 feet on Sept. 28, 1921, and then reset it again in 1923 and 1926. Another LUSAC-11 won the Liberty Engine Trophy at the October 1922 National Air Races at Selfridge Air Force Base.
Several other variants were developed but never produced. Three were built with a 420 horsepower different engine – the Bugatti 16 – and designated the LUSAC-21s, and three were built specifically for ground attack. Not surprisingly, these also had an awkward name – the LUSAGH (Le Pere United States Army Ground Harassment).
Le Pere was not immune to the “triplane madness” that infected many designers in 1917 with the wide publicity given the Red Baron’s Fokker triplane, so he also designed a twin engine triplane reconnaissance/bomber for the United States – the LUSAO-10 triplane (Le Pere United States Army Observation), which used two Liberty L-12As. But with World War I over, the project languished and died and Le Pere returned to France where he continued to develop excellent aircraft.
There is a LUSAC-11 display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright Patterson Air Force Base – a fitting tribute to America’s first effective fighter.
For questions or comments, contact Dr. Michel at email@example.com.