A Fokker's Worse Nightmare
When World War One broke out in 1914, the airplane
was barely eleven years old and was nothing more than a plodding, noisy
kite barely more dangerous than an observation balloon. As a weapon,
it was difficult to take seriously. Four short years later it had been
transformed into a multi-dimensional weapon system of awesome potential
and the Royal Airplane Factory’s SE-5a is a classic case in point.
It showed clearly that in time of war man quickly finds more efficient
ways rain death on his enemy.
The Scout Experimental 5, (SE-5) was designed specifically to eliminate
the awful short comings aircraft such as the Sopwith Camel, while at
the same time, giving it a combat edge over Germany’s lethal Fokkers.
The heart of the design for the SE-5 was the Hispano Suiza, liquid cooled
V-8. Here was a 150 hp, easily controlled engine that was much easier
for the neophyte pilot to operate and it didn’t constantly try
to twist the airplane into a pretzel as did the whirling rotary of the
The less cantankerous engine was coupled with an airframe that replaced
the fragile bones of the Camel with a robustness that would stand the
new pilot in good stead both in combat and in day-to-day operations.
It was an extremely easy airplane to take off and land, something that
absolutely could not be said about the Camel and it’s all-or-nothing
kill switch engine control. Moreover, when being thrown around during
a dogfight, it was working with the pilot, where the Camel often fought
its pilot requiring him to compensate for its eccentricities. Although
not as maneuverable as the Camel, the SE-5 was much easier to fly (read
that as less dangerous), and this meant a pilot could concentrate on
killing his enemy rather than being killed by his own airplane. Because
of this, the RAF could take a fledgling pilot and make him into an effective
aerial warrior in a much shorter period of time.
The original 150 hp SE-5 had little effect because of reliability problems
and the limited number to reach the front. However, by 1918, the 150
Hispano Suiza had been replaced with the more powerful, geared 200 hp
Hispano and later the Wolseley Viper, which gave rise to the “a”
in SE-5a. With either engine the airplane carried a synchronized Vickers,
belt-fed .303 caliber machine gun firing through the propeller and a
drum-fed-Lewis gun on the top wing in a sliding mount. The Lewis could
be fired straight ahead over the prop or upwards at an oblique angle.
The ability to fire upward let the SE-5a pilot shoot into the belly
of an unsuspecting enemy or fire across the circle, when in a dogfight.
Fast (135 mph), easy to fly, with a high rate of climb, the SE-5a became
an ace-maker, including Mick Mannock (73 kills) and Billy Bishop (72
kills). The fact that the SE-5a was in combat barely a year, speaks
volumes: In that short period of time, the airplane cut a swath through
the enemy and, in so doing earned itself a place in history’s
fighter hall of fame.
Peanut Pirep? Return to PEANUT.