RFC Aircraft

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Aircraft development

A Pilot's war

WW1 aircraft exhibits





The early aircraft, 1914-15

The Fokker Scourge 1915-16

1916-17 the development of fighters and bombers

1918 the final developments

An American engined Vickers Gunbus in 1915


The early aircraft, 1914-15

The first RFC aircraft deployed to France were a mixture of BE2’s (No 2 & 4 Sqns), Bleriot monoplanes & Farmans (No 3 Sqn) and Farmans, Avro 504s & BE8s (No 5 Sqn).

The BE2 was the principal aircraft type  (shown opposite). The BE2 was not a practical military design with the pilot at the rear having the best view and the observer sitting forward with his view obstructed by the wing. When guns were fitted to the BE2 they could be placed in four positions but this involved the observer lifting the gun out of one socket and placing it in another. This required the observer to stand and work while the aircraft was likely to be manoeuvering. Later aircraft designs changed crew positions to give the observer/gunner an improved field of fire. The BE2 flew initially in a reconaissance and observation role with a camera fitted to its side next to the pilot. During 1915 it was used in a limited bombing role with the observer being substituted for bombs.

Royal Aircraft Factory BE2c

The BE2 was a slow and steady platform which performed reasonably until the German fighter threat emerged in the form of the forward firing Fokker Eindecker (monoplane) in the Summer of 1915.

The need to defend reconnaissance aircraft was recognised in 1915 and as well as flying escort formations, squadrons were assigned a small number of Bristol Scouts to act as escorts. The Bristol was ahead of its time (closer to the products of 1917) in performance but lacked the ability to fire a gun through the propellor arc and as a single seater, had limited capability with improvised armament.

The French built Morane Parasol was introduced in No.3 Squadron at the beginning of 1915 replacing the Bleriots. With a single high wing, it offered both pilot and observer a good view of the ground. It did however have a bad reputation as a difficult aircraft to fly. The Morane was used in the same role as the BE2 but also as an escort fighter. The Vickers Gunbus FB5 came into service around this time providing a platform with a forward firing gun but it was a relatively slow aircraft.

The Fokker Scourge 1915-16

In the autumn of 1915 the Germans achieved a degree of air superiority with the Fokker Eindecker. Designed by the Dutchman, Anthony Fokker, the aircraft was similar to a French Morane monoplane and was equipped with an interrupter mechanism that allowed a machine gun to be fired directly ahead through the propellor arc. It was on these aircraft that the first of the German Aces, Böelcke and Immelmann made their names. The ability to fire straight ahead improved the accuracy of shooting in the air if the target could be approached directly from behind. The tactics of employing these early fighters developed slowly and defensive measures were possible. The Fokker did however develop a mystique of invincibility which was only countered by the capture of a complete aircraft in April 1916 (now in the London Science Museum). Once the captured Fokker was flown against Allied aircraft in tests, it became clear that it was not particularly manoeuverable.

By this time new aircraft such as the two seat FE2 and the single seat DH2, similar in design to the Vickers Gunbus (opposite), had begun to appear, evening the combat odds. These types were generally known by the Germans as "Vickers", and were both pushers allowing a machine gun to be mounted forward with a good arc of fire. The Germans treated them with particular respect and they proved difficult to shoot down. The single seat Martinsyde G100 was deployed in March 1916 but proved too heavy and unmanoeuvrable as a fighter and was reassigned in July to bombing duties. French built Nieuport fighters were also introduced.

1916-17 the development of fighters and bombers

The German introduction of the Albatross DIII fighter by the end of 1916 regained superiority against the Allies until the arrival of the first of the new British fighter designs in mid 1917: the Sopwith Camel, SE5a and Bristol F2. German tactics at the time failed to take advantage of their superiority.

Sopwith Camel

The Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a proved to be the most successful of the British single seat fighters. Armed with a fixed Vickers gun and a tiltable  Lewis gun above the wing.



The Sopwith Camel single seat fighter was used as a low level fighter with a ground attack role, armed with small bombs and undertaking trench strafing.  The Camel had to fly directly at its target to fire its twin Vickers guns and was consequently vulnerable in low level work to defending machine gun fire from the ground. Its key attribute as a fighter was excellent manoeuvrability which made up in great measure for lack of speed.


The two seater Bristol Fighter was similarly armed but with the addition of an observers lewis gun - sometimes a double gun mounting. After an early setback in 1917, tactics for the Bristol Fighters were changed from a defensive flight to full fighter tactics, manoeuvering to get behind targets. The Bristol was also used successfully in ground strafing alongside the Camels. Later known as the "Brisfit", it proved to be a successful all-round fighter and was one of the types adopted for post war service in the RAF.


The development of the true fighting scout aircraft led to the parallel development of specialist bombers. The two seater DH4 was introduced in this role alongside Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutters and was later largely replaced in RAF service by the DH9 (intended as an improved DH4 it proved a disappointment). FE2's were also used as night bombers. Camels were used in a close support bombing role as were SE5s occasionally.

RE8's (nicknamed Harry Tates) progressively took over the reconnaissance and artillery spotting work of the ageing BE2's, supported by smaller numbers of Armstrong Whitworth FKs (nicknamed Big Acks).

De Haviland DH9A

 1918 the final developments

The Sopwith Dolphin fighter was introduced to service in January 1918 and potentially offered improved performance over the Camel and greater manoeuvrability than the SE5. Its introduction was slowed by a shortage of engines and by the end of the war it only equipped four squadrons. The Germans however maintained a technical edge with the new Fokker DVII fighter though it was not delivered in sufficient numbers to counter the allied air effort. The then giant Handley Page bombers joined the front line in 1917 with the RNAS and later in greater numbers with the RAF and the Independent Force in 1918 , and were used on long range night raids into Germany.

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