The S.E.5 and the Camel

With the S.E.5 book on the shelves, a few requests have come in for stories about the machine and the men who flew it. Here’s one that went out on History of War, in case of interest.

It could be said that posterity has been cruel to the airmen of World War I. As a society, we have an apparently bottomless well of sympathy and interest when it comes to the men in the trenches. Yet the men who fought and died in the bitter campaign three miles above them are often portrayed as comical figures in fluttering silk scarves like Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart.

Perhaps that is why, if ever we have cause to think of their war, the recurring images are those of the anthropomorphic Sopwith Camel and the Red Baron’s scarlet Fokker Triplane. Yet it is the prosaically-named S.E.5, which entered service almost exactly 100 years ago today, which was arguably the greatest fighting aircraft of 1914-18.

Designed around the remarkable Hispano-Suiza V8 engine, a product of pre-war motor racing genius Louis Béchereau, the S.E.5 was a conventional biplane intended to combine manoeuvrability with greater structural strength than earlier aircraft. The V8 engine carried it faster and higher than most other front-line machines while its solid construction made for a stable gun platform.

The Royal Aircraft Factory’s designers Henry Folland and John Kenworthy, together with chief test pilot Frank Goodden, worked to the premise that the war would not be won by flying rings around the enemy but instead by shooting him down. The days of gallant lone hunters jousting in the sky – and the romantic vision of the ‘cavalry of the clouds’ – were coming to an end by the time that the S.E.5 debuted above the Battle of Arras in late April 1917.

Formations of aeroplanes, as many as 50 on each side, would instead jockey for position before unleashing a blitz attack, regrouping and then attacking again. This was not a method of fighting that the swashbuckling pilots who started the war easily adapted to: most notably Britain’s celebrated hero Albert Ball, who was initially an outspoken critic of the S.E.5.

Ball helped modify the original design to its definitive S.E.5a specification, with a raft of improvements that gave the pilots better visibility, greater firepower and even a degree of warmth in the icy world of an open cockpit at 15-20,000 feet. Despite his early misgivings, Ball eventually came to rely upon the S.E.5’s rugged construction but he remained a lone hunter at heart, which ultimately led to his death in combat on 7 May 1917.

Yet despite Ball’s loss the S.E.5 went on to see more of its pilots reach the status of ‘ace’ – namely shooting down more than five enemy machines – than any other Allied aircraft in the war. The most successful S.E.5 pilot was diminutive South African pilot ‘Proccy’ Beauchamp Proctor, credited with 54 victories made exclusively on the type.

In total, 215 pilots ‘made ace’ on the S.E.5 on the Western Front and in the Middle East, while the type also served with distinction in defending Londoners from the terror of large scale bombing raids. Among these men were the classically-educated Arthur Rhys Davids, the working class heroes Jimmy McCudden and ‘Mick’ Mannock, as well as India’s only ‘ace’ of the war, Indra Lal Roy.

“The S.E.5 is a very modern aeroplane in many respects,” says Rob Millinship, who has flown the last original airworthy example of the breed for 25 years as part of The Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden in Bedfordshire. “It’s 100 years old but nothing about it would surprise or disconcert a pilot used to modern high-performance designs.”

Pilots flying the Sopwith Camel accounted for more enemy aircraft destroyed than their counterparts in the S.E.5 but their successes came at an almost insatiable cost to their own lives. Unlike the S.E.5 with its long, stable V8 engine, the rotary-engined Camel was designed to be unstable in flight – perfect for dogfighting at close quarters but dreadful for inexperienced or wounded pilots trying to land safely.

Losses among Camel pilots stood at 831 dead (with 424 being killed in action and 407 killed in flying accidents), with 324 more pilots wounded or made prisoners of war. Among the S.E.5 squadrons, 286 pilots were killed of whom 207 were lost in action and 79 in accidents, with 170 more wounded or POW.

This means that while the Camels scored 3,318 victories in air combat to the S.E.5’s 2,704 the cost was infinitely greater. In statistical terms, one Camel pilot was lost for every four victories scored compared to one S.E.5 pilot for every six victories scored.

“Young guys with very little experience were getting thrown into these machines and it was sink or swim,” says Gene De Marco, head of The Vintage Aviator Limited in New Zealand, which has built three Hispano-Suiza powered reproduction S.E.5s under the watchful eye of proprietor and Lord of the Rings movie mogul, Sir Peter Jackson.

“If you’re a pilot with maybe ten hours of experience in total before reaching the front line, it would be very easy to kill yourself in the Camel… in the S.E.5 there were so many luxuries and so many potential problems had been engineered out of it that it was a very modern, very pleasant aeroplane to fly.”

The original story can be found here: History of War

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More World War 1 aviation for the 2015 season

An exciting airshow season is ahead with much to savour for fans of World War 1 aviation. Last year the national home of airworthy vintage aircraft, the Shuttleworth Collection, was quite rightly focused on the return of its De Havilland DH.88 Comet Grosvenor House to the skies after more than two decades, marking the 80th anniversary of her win in the Macrobertson Air Race but in 2015 it looks like biplanes are in pole position.

This year the Collection’s unique selection of First World War aircraft at its Old Warden home will be bolstered with a reproduction Sopwith Camel, complete with a period Clerget 130hp rotary engine. Originally built in 2001 by Northern Aeroplane Workshops, the Shuttleworth Collection engineers have been beavering away getting it ready for display appearances later in 2015 wearing the markings of the Ruston Proctor-built D1851 when flown in 1918 by 70 Squadron, RAF.

'Ikanopit' is sure to be a hit - and a handful to fly!

‘Ikanopit’ is sure to be a hit – and a handful to fly!

Carrying the legend ‘Ikanopit’ (I can hop it!), the original D1851, in the hands of Lieutenant W. Gowan, survived a mid-air collision with its squadron mate D1796 flown by Lieutenant S. Rochford. Its reproduction will make an extremely welcome addition to the Shuttleworth shows this year, where it will doubtless fly alongside the collection’s original Sopwith Pup – although a three-ship formation with the reproduction Sopwith Triplane is still some time off as the damage from the latter’s landing accident last year is repaired.

Two beautiful Sopwith scouts will star in 2015

Two beautiful Sopwith scouts will star in 2015

Also currently at Old Warden is a Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a, which is ultimately going to join the WW1 Aviation Heritage Trust (WAHT), based at Bicester Heritage in Oxfordshire. Last year the Bicester group took the WW1 scene by storm with a pair of Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2e aircraft and is following up with three new additions, of which the S.E.5a is the first arrival.

Pictured behind Shuttleworth's genuine ex-Savage S.E.5 a is WAHT's new replica

Pictured behind Shuttleworth’s genuine ex-Savage S.E.5 a is WAHT’s new replica

Still to arrive in the UK are WAHT’s other two new attractions: a reproduction Albatros D.Va and a muscular little Sopwith Snipe reproduction, both of which hail from Peter Jackson’s Vintage Aviator company in New Zealand. The Albatros,  was recently air tested by the legendary Kermit Weeks prior to disassembly and freighting halfway around the world. The flying schedule for the year includes a display at the Shuttleworth Collection and an appearance at the Goodwood Revival.

WAHT's Albatros gets an air test from Kermit Weeks

WAHT’s Albatros gets an air test from Kermit Weeks

WAHT has now opened a funding campaign to raise the £11,200 it needs to reassemble the newcomers when they arrive in Britain – details of which can be found at the trust’s website.

A little Christmas present

‘Tis the season to be jolly, so with plenty of jostling at the bar and festive ribaldry, we wish you the most splendid of Christmases from the Scarf & Goggles Social Club.

The story of Eddie Rickenbacker’s rise from the mean streets of Columbus, Ohio to the pantheon of pioneering airmen and motor racers will be continued in the days ahead. For now, however, please sit back and relax, enjoy a stoup of something nourishing and the goodwill of all men.

In case nobody buys you a nice DVD or you cannot find a single thing worth watching on the box, feel free to enjoy the little offering below. It features the last original S.E.5a fighter still airworthy, strutting its stuff above Old Warden at one of the Shuttleworth Collection’s celebrated air days. Like its sisters in London’s Science Museum and the RAF Museum, it is one of Major Savage’s sky-writing machines, so as you enjoy it in action, feel free to imagine that it is writing:

Merry Christmas from the S&G

The lone Parnall Elf

The birth of civil aviation after World War 1 was greatly assisted by the number of ex-military machines flooding the market and available for next-to-nothing. Types from the humble Avro 504k trainer to genuine fighter machines like the S.E.5a and Sopwith Pup were snapped up and flown privately, while larger reconnaissance and bomber types were put to work delivering mail and passengers.

Not until the late 1920s was a new generation of aircraft needed to replace these increasingly careworn machines on the grounds of maintenance cost if not outright safety or performance. The de Havilland company was at the forefront of light aircraft design with its Moth series, but rivals sprang up aplenty, among which was the Parnall Elf, designed by Harold Bolas and built by George Parnall & Co in their factory at Yate near Bristol in 1929.

The sole surviving Parnall Elf at its Old Warden home

Like the Moth, the Elf was a two-seat light biplane. Although relatively conventional in construction, with a wooden airframe and a combination of plywood and fabric covering, Bolas placed great emphasis on making the Elf user-friendly with inbuilt sturdiness, ease of operation and cost-effective maintenance.

Its wings therefore featured struts in the form of warren girders to avoid the requirement for wire bracing, which needed a seasoned rigger to maintain, and they could be folded for storage. They were also set well forward on the fuselage as a feature to assist crew escape in an emergency – still an extremely common occurrence.

The first example, later registered G-AAFH, was powered by a 105 hp Cirrus Hermes I four cylinder in line engine. It made its public debut alongside a number of new aircraft at the Seventh International Aero Exhibition at Olympia in London in 1929. The purchase price of the aircraft was between £875 and £890, depending upon whether the owner opted to upgrade to a uprated 120 hp Hermes II engine.

Doing what it does best – the Elf has little razzmatazz but lots of style

Orders were few and far between, however. Unfortunately the prototype received a less than glowing report when tested at Martlesham Heath, and although an Elf came fifth overall in a field of 88 in the 1930 King’s Cup air race, de Havilland was making headlines the world over with its Moth series, setting new world records in the hands of both men and women pilots.

The Elf was not a record breaker, nor was it ever intended or cleared to perform aerobatics. It was quite simply a touring aeroplane, intended to allow private pilots unruffled progress from A to B. With no great feats to add to its sales pitch, only two more Elfs were built, registered G-AAIN and G-AAIO, both fitted with the uprated 120 hp Hermes II.

Both the prototype and G-AAIO were destroyed in separate flying accidents during 1934, caused by the Elf’s reliance on a fuel pump rather than the simplicity of a gravity-fed system. This left G-AAIN as the sole survivor when it was bought by Lord Apsley at Badminton, who flew it until World War 2 and then put it into storage, emerging briefly in 1946 before being mothballed until the Shuttleworth Collection team restored it in 1980.

Today the Elf stands as a reminder of that gentler age and that while air shows thrive on high adrenaline there is always a place for a gentleman’s carriage of the skies.

A rare and graceful sight: the Elf in action