The Morane-Saulnier Type L was a parasol winged two-seat reconnaissance aircraft, most famous for being the aircraft used by Rolland Garros when he achieved the first successful victory by an aircraft with a fixed forward firing machine gun.
Morane-Saulnier first produced a parasol winged aircraft in the summer of 1913. This was a modification of their earlier Type G shoulder-wing two seat monoplane, but with the wing raised well above the only slightly modified fuselage. One of these aircraft was exhibited at the Paris Aero Salon on 5 December 1913. It was powered by a 100hp Gnome Monosoupape engine, and in an attempt to sell it as a reconnaissance aircraft was equipped with a downward pointing camera mounted behind the observer's seat.
At this stage the French Aviation militaire wasn't interested in the Type L, but it did catch the eye of the Ottoman Turks, who ordered fifty. These aircraft had to use a 50hp Gnome engine as all 80hp or larger engines were reserved for French aircraft. The production version of the Type L had a 3ft wider wing span than the prototype, a longer fuselage and individual seats for the crew of two, replacing a long single 'bench' that had been used on the Type G. The Type L had a slab-sided fuselage, used wing warping controls and had a cross axle landing gear with large V struts. There was a large cut-out in the rear of the wing to improve access for the observer. They had a small tail with a small rudder and elevator but no fixed surfaces.
Later production aircraft received a fixed vertical fin and had the V struts on the undercarriage modified, with the forward strut moved back so that it was almost vertical when the aircraft was in flight.
In August 1914 the Turkish aircraft were taken over by the French military as part of the mobilization before the outbreak of the First World War. They were given 80hp engines and then used to equip two new Escadrilles, MS 23 and MS 26. These were reconnaissance units, and the aircraft were normally unarmed, but the crew often carried pistols or carbines. Late in 1914 some were give a Lewis gun, but their main claim to fame came in the spring of 1915.
One of the early Type L pilots was Roland Garros. In December 1914 he got together with Raymond Saulnier and attempted to come up with workable interrupter gear that would allow a machine gun to fire through the propeller disc without hitting the blades. For the moment these efforts failed, and so Garros moved onto a more brute-force approach. His mechanic, Jules Hue, fitted armoured bullet deflectors to the propeller blades. These protected the blades against any bullet hits, and made Garros's Type L the first tractor driven aircraft to be equipped with a fixed forward firing machine gun.
On 1 April 1915 Garros took to the skies in his modified aircraft, and achieved his first combat victory with the new equipment. He scored two more successes, one each on 15 April and 18 April, but later on 18 April he was forced down behind German lines after his aircraft was hit by ground fire. Garros survived, and his aircraft was captured intact. The Germans turned to Anthony Fokker, who used the opportunity to introduce his interrupter gear. This was installed on the Fokker E.I, beginning the period of the 'Fokker scourge', where German fighter pilots gained an ascendancy over the Western Front.
Although the Type L is most famous for Garros's exploits, its main function was still as a reconnaissance aircraft. Over 600 were built, and they remained in use with the Aviation militaire until replaced by the improved Type LA and the newly designed Type P. The Type L wasn't a popular aircraft in French service and was seen as difficult and dangerous to fly.
The Type L also saw service with the British, in both the RFC and the RNAS, with the Russians, and ironically with the Germans. The RFC received just over 50, with the first aircraft being delivered on 2 December 1914. They were mainly used by No.3 Squadron, although a small number went to No.1 and No.2 Squadrons. The RFC used them as a reconnaissance aircraft during 1915.
The RNAS received twenty-five Type Ls. Six were sent to Mudros, where they briefly served over Gallipoli, but once again they were unpopular and were soon replaced by alternative aircraft. They were more successful with No.1 Wing, RNAS, which was based at Dunkirk. On 7 June 1915 Flt Sub-Lt R.A.J. Warneford became the first Allied pilot to destroy a Zeppelin in flight. Zeppelin LZ 37 was taking part in a raid on Dunkirk when Warneford flew over it and dropped six 20lb bombs onto its envelope. The Zeppelin caught fire and crashed, tragically killing two nuns on the ground although some of the crew survived. Warneford was awarded the Victoria Cross, but was killed ten days later in a Henry Farman F.27.
Early in 1914 the Pfalz Flugzeugwerke acquired a licence to build the Morane-Saulnier Type H and Type L. Pfalz produced three variants - the A.I powrred by an 80hp Oberursel engine and the A.II and E.III with a 100hp Oberursel engine. The E.III carried a synchronized fixed forward firing machine gun and was used as a single-seat fighter by some Bavarian units.
The Type L was also produced under licence in Russia, where around 430 were built. They were used a two-seat reconnaissance aircraft and later as training aircraft.
The Type L was followed in 1915 by the modified Type LA, which was a similar aircraft but with mainly minor modifications and then by the new Type P.
Engine: Gnome or Le Rhône Rotary engine
Wing span: 36ft 9in
Length: 22ft 6 3/4in
Height: 12ft 10 3/4in
Empty Weight: 849lb
Maximum take-off weight: 1,444lb
Max Speed: 71mph
Endurance: 2 hours
Armament: 8mm Hotchkiss or 7.7mm Lewis machine gun in rear cockpit