The Zeppelin-Staaken Riesenflugzeuge were a collection of exceedingly large bomber aircraft, commonly referred to as “giant aircraft” or Riesenflugzeuge, that were typically equipped with four or more engines.
These aircraft were conceived and constructed in Germany between the years of 1915 and 1919.
The initial Zeppelin-Staaken R-planes were crafted by Ferdinand von Zeppelin, with the assistance of engineers from Robert Bosch GmbH and the Versuchsbau Gotha-Ost (V.G.O.).
Due to insufficient facilities at the Zeppelin works, the V.G.O. I was constructed at the Gothaer Waggonfabrik, hence its V.G.O. designation.
This aircraft, with a wingspan of 42.2 meters (138 ft 5 in), set the standard for what was to come.
The first “V.G.O.”-series of Zeppelin-Staaken “Giants” were remarkably large aircraft for the year 1915, with a four-bay interplane-strut per side wing structure, slightly swept-back leading edges, and general wing structural dimensions that remained largely unchanged throughout the entire series of Zeppelin-Staaken multi-engined giant aircraft until 1917-18.
Other design features included nacelle-mounted engines, with the strut-mounted nacelles suspended between the mainplanes on either side of the fuselage, accommodations for engineers and/or gunners, an engine installed in the nose, tricycle undercarriage, and a box-like tail unit with biplane tailplanes and twin fins with rudders (some later variants also had a central fin).
The engine installations varied with each aircraft type but generally followed the layout of a single nose engine, usually driving a two-bladed propeller, and with the inter-wing engine nacelles on either side suspended by struts between the mainplanes, each housing two engines in tandem, geared to drive single pusher propellers.
The construction of the aircraft was primarily of wood or plywood with fabric covering, steel detail fittings, and struts.
The wings were three-bay strutted and wire-braced assemblies supporting the engine nacelles, at around mid-gap and the single axle main undercarriage units.
Despite the wide variations between all the Staaken R-series variants in their engine configurations, the identical 42.2-meter wingspan figures for nearly all of them indicate that nearly identical wing layouts were likely shared by almost all the Zeppelin-Staaken R-series designs built.
The square-section fuselage, with curved decking forward of the wings, supported the tail unit and nose twin wheel single axle nose undercarriage and housed the majority of the crew, defensive armament positions, cockpit, cabin, and bomb load.
The later versions, especially the “production” R.VI version, used pre-printed lozenge camouflage on their fabric covering in an attempt to “conceal” them on their nighttime operations over the U.K.
The engine nacelles consisted of semi-monocoque wooden constructions, with the paired engines amidships, a cockpit for the engineer, and a defensive gun position for the gunner either forward or behind the engines depending on whether a pusher or tractor arrangement was used.
Aircraft using push-pull nacelles, i.e., individual propellers for each engine, had no provision for defensive armament, just a cockpit for the engineer amidships.
Constructed at Staaken subsequent to the relocation of production from VGO, the R.IV, despite bearing a general resemblance to the V.G.O.III, preserved the utilization of paired 160 horsepower (120 kilowatt) Mercedes D.III engines in the frontal section, while being equipped with paired 220 horsepower (160 kilowatt) Benz Bz.IV engines in each of the twin engine nacelles, with each pair propelling a single four-bladed pusher propeller.
One built, and the only “nose-engined” Zeppelin-Staaken R-plane to survive to the end of the war.
The R.V aircraft adhered to the same layout as its predecessor, the Zeppelin-Staaken R-planes.
However, it differed in its engine nacelles, which were arranged as tractor units with tandem mounted 240 hp (180 kW) Maybach Mb.IV powerplants.
Additionally, the engineers and gunners were transferred to the rear of the nacelles.
In contrast to the R.IV, the R.V featured a single Mb.IV straight-six engine in the nose.
To enhance its defensive capabilities, the R.V was equipped with the Schwalbennest, a nacelle located on the centreline of the upper main plane leading edge, which housed a gunner with a single machine-gun.
The R.VI was the first authentic production Zeppelin-Staaken R-plane.
This colossal aircraft was equipped with either four 245 hp (183 kW) Maybach Mb.IV engines or four 260 hp (190 kW) Mercedes D.IVa engines.
The fuselage bore resemblance to its predecessor, but the cockpit was extended forward, enclosed, and glazed, with a gunner’s cockpit located in the extreme nose.
Other enhancements included an aluminium alloy structure in the triple-finned biplane tail unit, whose twin horizontal planes were constructed with both inverse camber and a positive angle of incidence to enhance the stabilising downforce.
The ‘R.30/16’ model, designated by IdFlieg, served as a supercharged engine testbed and was deployed in the Luftstreitkräfte with Rfa 500 and Rfa 501 on the western front, stationed in the Ghent area.
The R.VII exhibited minimal deviation from the R.IV, with the exception of a modified strut configuration within the tail assembly.
Regrettably, the solitary R.VII constructed, identified by serials R 14/15, met with an unfortunate fate during its transit to the front line and was involved in a crash.
The R.XIV bore a striking resemblance to its predecessors, the Zeppelin-Staaken R-planes, with the exception of its engine installation and minor details.
The Maybach Mb.IV engines were arranged in push-pull pairs within the nacelles, with the engineer situated between them, and a solitary tractor engine located in the nose.
A total of three R.XIVs were constructed, bearing serial numbers R 43/16 to R 45/16.
Unfortunately, R 43/16 met its demise in July 1918 when it was shot down by Captain Yaille of No. 151 Squadron RAF.
The R.XV aircraft maintained the five-engine configuration of its predecessor, the R.XIV, while incorporating a substantial central fin in the tail unit.
Although three R.XV planes were constructed, bearing serial numbers R 46/16 to R 48/16, there exists no substantiated record of their deployment for operational flights.
Zeppelin-Staaken R.XVI (Av)
Upon the availability of the new 530 horsepower (395 kilowatt) Benz VI engine in early 1918, Aviatik at Leipzig-Heiterblick was entrusted with the responsibility of integrating the more powerful engine into the R.VI airframe.
This was due to the commitments of the Zeppelin-Staaken factory and Aviatik’s experience in building the R.VI under license.
The new engines were installed in the nose positions of the nacelles, driving tractor propellers, while 220 horsepower (164 kilowatt) Benz BzIV engines were installed in the rear positions, driving pusher propellers via extension shafts.
Three R.XVI (Av)s were constructed, with R 49 being completed in October 1918.
However, during a test flight, R 49 damaged its landing gear, and evidence of repairs is not available.
R 50 was completed after the armistice as a civil aircraft but was scrapped under the orders of the Military Inter-Allied Commission of Control.
Construction of R 51 was well underway at the time of the armistice but was not completed.
Zeppelin-Staaken Type “L” Seaplane
This particular aircraft was essentially an R.VI model that had been outfitted with sizable 13-meter (42 ft 8 in) long duralumin floats.
It was assigned the serial number 1432 by the Kaiserliche Marine (German Navy), but unfortunately, it was rendered inoperable during its testing phase.
Zeppelin-Staaken Type 8301 Seaplane
In an additional endeavor to create a practical and substantial seaplane for the Kaiserliche Marine, Zeppelin-Staaken employed R.VI wings in conjunction with a completely novel fuselage.
This fuselage integrated the sizable central fin of the R.XV, which was suspended at the midpoint between the mainplanes, and was upheld by floats akin to the “Type L”.