Sopwith Camel :
Treacherous Gun Fighter

Budd Davisson

When the Sopwith “Camel” went into combat in 1917—barely 14 years after the Wright boys had proved flight was even possible—it represented cutting edge technology. Unfortunately, its 160 hp Ghome rotary engine could make the airplane as dangerous to its pilots as its twin machine guns were to its adversaries.

The personality of the Camel was forged not by its aerodynamics but by its engine, which was a massive gyroscope bolted on the front of a featherweight airplane. In a rotary engine, the crankshaft stands still and is fixed to the firewall while the entire engine whirls around with the propeller attached to it. How could bad things NOT happen. Then, to make matters much worse, it had no throttle. An on-off switch on the spade-shaped stick was used to momentarily kill the engine when power reductions were needed. Of course, the airplane rocked every time the pilot let go of the button and all that rotating mass suddenly started firing the fuel that had never stopped flowing.

The result of what appears to be an awkward power control situation was an airplane that was anything but easy to fly. While it would turn left in a more or less conventional manner, right turns, while quick and wonderful combat maneuvers, were potentially lethal to the pilot. When turning right, the airplane wanted to snap over the top and the pilot held almost full left rudder all the way through the seemingly simple maneuver.

In the right hands the airplane was a deadly, nimble foe. It could out climb most of its contemporaries and its 120 mph speed made it one of the fastest airplanes of the era. In careless or inexperienced hands, however, the Camel was all too willing to help the Germans win the war by killing yet another fledgling Allied airman.

Want another Peanut Pirep? Return to PEANUT.