When discussing the pioneering nations of early aviation, well, Lithuania isn’t one that generally pops up much in the discussion. But in fact, that nation had a very keen appreciation of the importance of aeronautic development, especially for military purposes. Plus, it was also blessed, albeit briefly, with a talented designer and pilot who sought to give the tiny country fighters that were at least on par with those of other countries, and indeed better than many.
A little historical context to start with.
The modern nation of Lithuania was born out of chaos of the First World War and the collapse of both the Russian and German Empires. What is now Lithuania had been part of the Russian Empire for centuries, before effectively being taken over by Germany during the war.
The surrender of Germany saw Lithuania now effectively cut adrift, and the country created its first government as an independent state in November 1918. It also had to create a military in quick order as well as Lithuania faced invasions from the Soviet Bolsheviks, then the Bermontians, who were basically a massive war band of White Russian and German Friekorps, and finally in 1920 an invasion by Poland for good measure.
Needless to say, these bloody beginnings gave the Lithuanians a keen awareness of their vulnerabilities and an appreciation for modern weapon systems – especially air power.
And into this came Dobkevičius. Born in 1900 in St. Petersberg, Dobkevičius volunteered for service in the new Lithuanian army in 1919. Because of the technical education that he had received in Russia, he was swiftly put in for pilot training at the new Lithuanian air force academy and appointed as commander of the country’s first – and indeed only – fighter squadron. Dobkevičius would fly twenty-four missions against the Poles but with the end of the conflict and peace finally being achieved in late 1920, he was able to start exploring building his own aircraft.
Here we have a minor issue with the historical record because, though we know what designs Dobkevičius created we don’t have much in the way of technical detail. The reason for this is that it appears that Dobkevičius kept much of the information on his designs in his head. As he was reputed to be capable of playing chess against two opponents at once WITHOUT A BOARD, it’s fair to say his memory was pretty good.
But it does leave some gaps in the historical record, unfortunately.
However, we do know that Dobkevičius proceeded to design and build Lithuania’s first aircraft, the Dobi I, in 1922.
The Dobi I was a small light aircraft which was powered by a tiny 30-hp engine and basically served as Dobkevičius introduction to designing and building aircraft. He very swiftly followed up with the Dobi II, a two-seater which was intended for military use as a reconnaissance aircraft.
When this first flew in 1923 it demonstrated an impressive speed of 154mph (248km/h) and garnered international attention, particularly as it was the product of a country that had built precisely one aircraft previously. It also inspired Dobkevičius to explore on improving his knowledge of aircraft design, and so he resigned his commission and enlisted at the Aeronautic School in Paris.
It was while conducting his studies here that he designed his pièce de resistance; a single-seat fighter that was intended to match performance with anything else flying at the time.
The Dobi III.
This began construction at the Lithuanian Air Force workshops in June 1924.
Now I will be honest, details in English seem to be practically non-existent, so my research for this is composed of online articles in Lithuanian and Russian that I’ve run through Google translate. But the Dobi III seems to have been a very innovative design with a range of cutting-edge ideas incorporated.
The aircraft was skinned in plywood, with only the flaps covered in fabric, and was – I think – a semi-monocoque design, meaning that the aircraft’s skin provided much of its structural strength, with minimal internal struts, though I may be wrong on this. Armament was to be two Vickers machine guns either side of the fuselage, though these were not fitted.
But two things really stand out just from inspection, one obvious, the other less so.
The Dobi III was a monoplane with a single, shoulder mounted wing. And this had a very distinctive crescent look that seems to have had both a very thin profile and possibly several kinks to give a sort of double-gull wing, though it’s hard to be sure from the pictures available.
In fact to be honest, the wing of the Dobi III reminds me more of a bird’s wing than an aircraft’s.
Combined with this was the engine cooling system, which apparently was mounted mid-wing in a surface cooled configuration. And that leads us to the big issue for the Dobi III and for Dobkevičius, which was that the only engine available was a BMW IIIa 6-cylinder that produced, at best, 185hp.
This engine was apparently taken from one of the Lithuanian Air Forces Fokker D.VIIs and which just a few years before in 1918, was a truly formidable powerplant. But by 1924, it was badly outclassed.
As an example, in 1923 the Royal Air Force took into service the Gloster Grebe. This was powered by a Jaguar IV radial that produced 400hp.
Plainly, the Dobi III was going to be struggling to compete with contemporaries with such limited horsepower available. But here the cleverness of Dobkevičius design shows through. Because while the Grebe could manage a top speed of 152mph (245km/h) the Dobi III was listed at 160mph (257km/h).
Now, as already said, the details are all a little sketchy on this aircraft, plus any recorded figure is for the aircraft not weighed down with its armament or ammunition. But even so, the Dobi III had impressive performance for its day.
It seems that Dobkevičius foresaw the future trend of performance trumping agility, as the Dobi III was reputed to be both a fast climber and good at altitude, though not as agile as its contemporaries. And despite its innovative qualities and the limitations of the infant Lithuanian aircraft industry it was ready in surprisingly short order.
In December 1924 the aircraft was able to conduct a test flight in front of a host of dignitaries, including the head of the Army and the Minister of Defence. Dobkevičius took his creation up and put it through its paces, but on returning to land had a bit of a mishap – a “prang” in the parlance of the day.
Again, I am not sure of the details, but it seems that the weather was not good and Dobkevičius may not have been able to identify the landing field and so the Dobi III suffered some damage to its right wing, undercarriage and propellor.
Not a great start, but it proved the aircraft could fly though landing, however, does seem to have been an issue. However, future development had to wait as Dobkevičius had to return to Paris to complete his studies and so the Dobi III languished in a shed for a period awaiting its creator’s return in 1925.
Repairs and improvement began on the aircraft, but an unexpected further delay occurred when Dobkevičius broke his leg writing off the Dobi I in a crash on the 1st of December 1925. It took several months before he was recovered enough to attempt another flight, and in June 1926 Dobkevičius took the repaired and improved Dobi III up once again.
In fact, he had to sneak out of his mother’s house via a window because she had made him promise not to fly again after his accident. It seems his mother had had a premonition.
Dobkevičius took the Dobi III up, but seems to have had difficulty landing, having to abort twice. On his third attempt he seems to have overshot and hit either an oak tree or some telegraph cables, causing the Dobi III to break up and crash.
Dobkevičius was critically injured and died a few hours later in hospital, another tragic casualty in the early days of flight. But the pioneer aviator also helped encourage the efforts of his contemporaries, and Lithuanian design work and construction of military aircraft would continue after Dobkevičius’ death up until the occupation of the country by the Soviet Union in 1940.