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Aces of Aviation

Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter of Willy Coppens

Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter of Willy Coppens

Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter of the 4th Flight of the Belgian Military Aviation, piloted by First Sergeant Willy Coppens, in 1917.

Wingspan: 10.81 meters.

Length: 7.70 meters.

Height: 3.12 meters.

Engine[s]: Clerget of 130 horsepower.

Maximum speed: 164 kilometers/hour.

Service ceiling: 3960 meters.

Range: About 3.75 hours.

Armament: One Vickers 0.303-inch machine gun; four 25.5-kilogram bombs.

With deeds very superior to those of any other Belgian pilot in any of the two world wars, Willy Coppens has the record of 37 air victories, including the destruction of not less than 26 German observation balloons, second record number of the First World War, only surpassed by that of French pilot Michel Coiffard, who destroyed 28.

Coppens was born in Watermael, near Brussels, the 6th July 1892. Recruited at the age of twenty, he was incorporated to the 2nd of Grenadiers. Destined to accompany a Belgian squadron of reconnaissance vehicles to Russia in 1915, the young infantryman decided to switch to the Air Service, and obtained the 6th September a two-month permit to attend the Ruffy-Baumann School of Hendon, from which he obtained his Aviator's Certificate the 5th December. He returned to the continent and enrolled in the Belgian Flying School of Etampes, where he received supplementary instruction.

Provisionally, Coppens was destined to the 6th Flight in Houthem, piloting a BE2, aircraft which he cordially hated, but in which he flew long time, effectuating reconnaissance missions for the Belgian artillery. He was eventually assigned to one of the eight Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter delivered by the British Royal Flying Corps to the Belgian Military Aviation. The aircraft which he flew more often was that marked as S6 in the Belgian service, the one depicted in the illustration, which continued displaying its old identification (N5240) in the fuselage during some time after its acquisition. It was the 1st May 1917 when Coppens received his baptism of fire, when he was attacked by four German fighters; he managed to escape and received an honorable mention for managing to return to home with his aircraft.

Still dissatisfied and with missions of simple reconnaissance, the 15th July Coppens was sent to the 1st Flight to pilot Nieuport fighters along with other two famous Belgian pilots, Jan Olieslagers and André de Meulemeester. And, at last, after 37 fights without consequences, Coppens managed to shoot down an enemy fighter near Sluype, the 25th April 1918. Early in the following month, after "appropriating" twenty incendiary ammunition cartridges from the French, he destroyed his first Zarren observation balloon over the Houthulst forest. Since then his record quickly grew, and his attacks were characterized by an extraordinary economization of ammunition (at least once he managed to destroy a balloon with a sole cartridge). The Houthulst forest was Coppens' favorite hunting area, and he often delighted the Belgian ground soldiers with acrobatic exhibitions during his risky attacks.

The 14th October he carried out his last combat. During an attack against a balloon over Thourot he was hit on a leg by a shrapnel grenade. Despite the intense pain he managed to return to base with his airplane and effectuate a forced landing. Later his leg was amputated.

Decorated with the British Distinguished Service Order and the French Legion of Honor, among other many decorations, Willy Coppens remained in the Belgian Air Force and continued flying until the Germans invaded again his country in 1940. Then he retired and moved to Switzerland. Taking the title from his old battlefield, he was appointed Baron Coppens of Houthulst.