The Fieseler Fi 156 Storch was a German designed and built aircraft for Short Take-Off and Landing (STOL) operations. Conceived in 1935 for the sole purpose of proving the STOL concept, the Storch undoubtedly piqued the interests of military strategists prior to the aggressive maneuvers invoked by the Axis powers in 1939. While its stalky front wheel mounts and svelte, if tenuous looking, fuselage give the impression of a balsa wood, i.e. model airplane, the impressive ciconiiforme distinctly resembles its namesake—Storch, meaning stork in German. By objective measures the Fi 156 is substantial in size, long-legged, slender-necked, and well-adapted for wafting (if otherwise wading).

The Wonder Book of the Air by Allen & Lyman, an encyclopedia of aviation sorts from when fascinations were not gleaned with the fingertips, described the Storch in 1941 as a “quick climber.” One American counterpart in the early days of WWII, was the Ryan Dragonfly, which the book states, “makes near-vertical take-offs and landings in ‘tight spots behind the lines.'” While neither held a pervasive role in the eventual six years of global hostilities, their distinguishing features offer a direct correlation with the lighter L-birds that so instrumentally served in negating the marches of fascism.

The Storch had a wingspan of 46 feet 9 inches; in length it was 32 feet 6 inches. Its contemporary, American manufactured interpretation, the Stinson L-1 Vigilant spanned 50 feet 11 inches and measured 34 feet 3 inches long. If assimilated to today’s Daher Kodiak of comparable dimension and fleetness, the Storch and L-1 could accommodate only two crew members while the newcomer, an abundant ten occupants or equivalent payload as a STOL performer.

Liaison aircraft formation flight led by the L-1 restored at Cannon Field with two Fieseler Fi 156 Storch marvels, c. 1984.

Three tellings of the same tale:

Did you know that the last aerial dog fight over Europe was between two unarmed liaison planes? A Piper Cub, unarmed spotting plane named “Miss Me” of the U.S. 5th Armored Division and a German Fieseler Storch, also a spotting plane, met in the sky over Germany in April 1945. Lt. Duane Francis, pilot, and his observer Lt. William Martin, dove on the Storch and fired their .45 Colts, bringing the German plane down. They landed nearby and captured the pilot and German observer. It was the only German plane in World War II shot down with a hand gun. – Box Seat Over Hell by Hardy Cannon

April 13, 1945 – 5th Armd Div pilot, Lt Francis, and observer, Lt Martin, emptied three clips of .45 ammo at a German Air OP (Storch), getting in some hits. The German aircraft crashed while attempting an evasive maneuver. The pilot tried to evade capture by the Cub’s crew, who landed at the scene. The German observer had a bullet wound in his foot. Both became captives. – The Other Ninth Air Force by Ken Wakefield

Though it couldn’t equal the Storch’s 32-mph low-speed handling, 109-mph top speed or substantial load-carrying capacity, the Piper L-4 was simple and effective. As tough and capable an old bird as the Storch was, Mr. Piper’s Cub eventually got its revenge. What may have been the very last dogfight of World War II on the Western Front took place between a Cub and a Storch. On April 12, 1945, two Army airmen scouting near Berlin in an L-4 saw a Storch below them and attacked it with their sidearms. Maneuvering to escape at low altitude, the Fieseler caught a wingtip and crashed. The Yanks landed nearby and took the Germans prisoner. – Stephan Wilkinson on

Though the Fieseler Fi 156 Storch was never utilized in the German marches of WWII to the degree and success of U.S. manufactured STOL aircraft, their numbers were substantial. Storch production is estimated to be around 2,867 and continued though 1949 with perhaps 1/3 of the total coming after the conflict. Piper produced nearly 5,700 of the L-4 in the timeframe of WWII, while 3,590 of the L-5 were built and saw service. Vast L-4 deliveries, and its pervasive use, were largely due to the design being readily produced. In contrast, the developmental L-1 was constantly in a state of change, undergoing design and repair modifications, in particular with its onerous radial engine. Stinson’s successive L-5 was a triumphant attempt to make all that was lacking in the new class of aircraft into a model that served liaison purposes conclusively. Both the L-4/Cub design and the L-5 remain extremely desirable and relevant nearly a decade later.

Read more about the evolution of the liaison plane and a roundup of liaisons enlisted into service.

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