|F.E.2b with "V" type undercarriage|
|Role||Fighter/Reconnaissance, Night Bomber|
|Manufacturer||Royal Aircraft Factory|
|First flight||February 1914|
|Primary user||Royal Flying Corps|
|Variants||F.E.1, Vickers VIM|
The third "F.E.2" type was operated as a day and night bomber and fighter by the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. Along with the single-seat D.H.2 pusher biplane and the Nieuport 11, the F.E.2 was instrumental in ending the Fokker Scourge that had seen the German Air Service establish a measure of air superiority on the Western Front from the late summer of 1915 to the following spring.
The Farman Experimental 2 designation refers to three quite distinct designs – all pushers based on the general layout employed by the French aircraft designers, the Farman Brothers – but otherwise completely different aircraft. This "re-use" of the F.E.2 designation has caused much confusion.
The first F.E.2 was designed by Geoffrey de Havilland at the Royal Aircraft Factory in 1911. Although it was claimed to be a rebuild of the F.E.1, a pusher biplane designed and built by de Havilland before he joined the Factory's staff, it was in fact an entirely new aircraft, with construction completed before the F.E.1 was wrecked in a crash in August 1911. The new aircraft resembled the final form of the F.E.1, with no front elevator, but seated a crew of two in a wood and canvas nacelle, and was powered by a 50 hp (37 kW) Gnome rotary engine.
It made its maiden flight on 18 August 1911, flown by de Havilland. It was fitted with floats in April 1912, first flying in this form on 12 April 1912, but was underpowered and its engine was therefore replaced by a 70 hp (52 kW) Gnome, this allowed it to take off carrying a passenger while fitted with floats. Later in the year the F.E.2, refitted with a landplane undercarriage, was modified to carry a Maxim machine gun on a flexible mount in the nose.
The second F.E.2 was officially a rebuild of the first F.E.2, and may indeed have included some components from the earlier aircraft. It was, however, a totally new and much more modern design, larger and heavier than the 1911 aircraft, with the wingspan increased from 33 ft (10.06 m) to 42 ft (12.80 m) and a new, more streamlined nacelle. Loaded weight rose from 1,200 lb (545 kg) to 1,865 lb (848 kg). The new F.E.2 used the outer wings of the B.E.2a, with wing warping instead of ailerons for lateral control, and was powered by a 70 hp Renault engine. It was destroyed when it spun into the ground from 500 ft (150 m) on 23 February 1914, probably because of insufficient fin area. The pilot, R. Kemp, survived the crash, but his passenger was killed.
Work started on another totally new design in mid-1914, the F.E.2a, specifically intended as a "fighter", or machine gun carrier – in the same class as the Vickers FB.5 "Gunbus". Apart from the "Farman" layout it bore no direct relationship with either of the two earlier designs: the outer wing panels were identical with those of the B.E.2c. It was a two-seater with the observer in the nose of the nacelle and the pilot sitting above and behind. The observer was armed with a .303 in Lewis machine gun firing forward on a specially designed, "witches broomstick" mounting that gave it a wide field of fire. The first production order for 12 aircraft was placed "off the drawing board" (i.e. prior to first flight) shortly after the outbreak of the First World War. By this time, the "pusher" configuration was aerodynamically obsolescent, but was retained to allow a clear forward field of fire.
The undercarriage of the "third" F.E.2 was particularly well designed – a small nose wheel prevented nose-overs when landing on soft ground, and the oleo type shock absorbers[a] were also appreciated by crews landing in rough, makeshift fields. In order to reduce weight and drag some of the production aircraft were fitted with a normal "V" type undercarriage. This was not universally popular and when a method was devised of removing the nose wheel in the field without disturbing the shock absorbers, this became the most common form of the F.E.2 undercarriage. The "V" undercarriage remained standard for F.E.2 night bombers, as it permitted the carriage of a large bomb under the nacelle.
The first production batch consisted of 12 of the initial F.E.2a variant, with a large air brake under the top centre section, and a Green E.6 engine. The first F.E.2a made its maiden flight on 26 January 1915, but was found to be underpowered, and was re-engined with a Beardmore 120 hp (89 kW) liquid-cooled inline engine, as were the other eleven aircraft.
The F.E.2a was quickly followed by the main production model, the F.E.2b, again powered by a Beardmore, initially of 120 hp, although later F.E.2bs received the 160 hp (119 kW) model. The air brake of the "a" failed to deliver a worthwhile reduction in the landing run and was omitted to simplify production. The type could also carry an external bomb load, and was routinely fitted with a standard air-photography camera. A total of 1,939 F.E.2bs were built, only a few of them at the Royal Aircraft Factory, as most construction was by private British manufacturers such as G & J Weir, Boulton & Paul Ltd and Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies.
Early in the F.E.2b's career, a second Lewis gun was added in front of the pilot's cockpit, on a high telescopic mounting so that the pilot could fire forward, over his observer's head. In practice, this gun was appropriated by the observers, especially when they discovered that by climbing onto the rim of their cockpits they could fire backwards over the top wing – to some extent overcoming the notorious deficiency of pusher types in rear defence, although even this failed to cover a very large blind spot under the tail. The observer's perch was a precarious one, especially when firing the "rear gun", and he was liable to be thrown out of his cockpit, although his view was excellent in all directions except directly to the rear.
The arrangement was described by Frederick Libby, an American ace who served as an F.E.2b observer in 1916:
When you stood up to shoot, all of you from the knees up was exposed to the elements. There was no belt to hold you. Only your grip on the gun and the sides of the nacelle stood between you and eternity. Toward the front of the nacelle was a hollow steel rod with a swivel mount to which the gun was anchored. This gun covered a huge field of fire forward. Between the observer and the pilot a second gun was mounted, for firing over the F.E.2b's upper wing to protect the aircraft from rear attack ... Adjusting and shooting this gun required that you stand right up out of the nacelle with your feet on the nacelle coaming. You had nothing to worry about except being blown out of the aircraft by the blast of air or tossed out bodily if the pilot made a wrong move. There were no parachutes and no belts. No wonder they needed observers.
The Royal Aircraft Factory was primarily a research establishment and other experiments were carried out using F.E.2bs, including the testing of a generator-powered searchlight attached between two .303 inch (7.7 mm) Lewis guns, apparently for night fighting duties.
The F.E.2c was an experimental night fighter and bomber variant of the F.E.2b, the main change being the switching of the pilot's and observer's positions so that the pilot had the best view for night landings. Two were built in 1916, with the designation being re-used in 1918 for a similar night bomber version of the F.E.2b, which was used by 100 Squadron. In the end, the observer-first layout was retained for the standard aircraft.
The final production model was the F.E.2d (386 built) which was powered by a Rolls-Royce Eagle engine with 250 hp (186 kW). While the more powerful engine made little difference in maximum speed, especially at low altitude, it did improve altitude performance, with an extra 10 mph at 5,000 ft. The Rolls-Royce engine also improved payload, so that in addition to the two observer's guns, an additional one or two Lewis guns could be mounted to fire forward, operated by the pilot.
At least two F.E.2bs were fitted with 150 hp (110 kW) RAF 5 engines (a pusher version of the RAF 4 engine) in 1916 but no production followed. The F.E.2h was an F.E.2 powered by a 230 hp (170 kW) Siddeley Puma. The prototype (A6545) was converted in February 1918 by Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies, in the hope of producing a night fighter with superior performance. When tested at Martlesham Heath, it proved to be little better than the F.E.2b. Despite this, three more aircraft were converted to F.E.2h standard, these being fitted with a six-pounder (57 mm) Davis gun, mounted to fire downwards for ground attack purposes.
While the F.E.2d was replaced by the Bristol Fighter, the older F.E.2b proved an unexpected success as a light tactical night bomber, and remained a standard type in this role for the rest of the war. Its climb rate and ceiling were too poor for it to make a satisfactory night fighter.
The F.E.2a entered service in May 1915 with No. 6 Squadron RFC, which used the F.E.2 in conjunction with B.E.2s and a single Bristol Scout. The first squadron to be equipped entirely with the F.E.2 was 20 Squadron, deploying to France on 23 January 1916. At this stage it served as a fighter-reconnaissance aircraft – eventually about ⅔ of the F.E.2s were built as fighters (816) and ⅓ as bombers (395). The F.E.2b and F.E.2d variants remained in day operations well into 1917, while the "b" continued as a standard night bomber until August 1918. At its peak, the F.E.2b equipped 16 RFC squadrons in France and six Home Defence squadrons in England.
On 18 June 1916, German flying ace Max Immelmann was killed in combat with F.E.2bs of No. 25 Squadron RFC. The squadron claimed the kill, but the German version of the encounter is either that Immelmann's Fokker Eindecker broke up after his synchroniser gear failed and he shot off his own propeller, or that he was hit by friendly fire from German anti-aircraft guns. In any case, by this time the F.E.2b was at least encountering the German monoplane fighters on more or less even terms and the so-called "Fokker scourge" had ended.
By autumn 1916, the arrival of more modern German fighters such as the Albatros D.I and Halberstadt D.II meant that even the F.E.2d was outperformed and by April 1917, it had been withdrawn from offensive patrols. Despite its obsolescence in 1917, the F.E.2 was still well liked by its crews for its strength and good flight characteristics and it still occasionally proved a difficult opponent for even the best German aces. Rittmeister Baron von Richthofen was badly wounded in the head during combat with F.E.2d aircraft in June 1917 – the Red Baron, like most German pilots of the period, classed the F.E.2 as a "Vickers" type, confusing it with the earlier Vickers F.B.5.
In combat with single-seater fighters, the pilots of F.E.2b and F.E.2d fighters would form what was probably the first use of what later became known as a Lufbery circle (defensive circle).[b] In the case of the F.E.2, the intention was that the gunner of each aircraft could cover the blind spot under the tail of his neighbour and several gunners could fire on any enemy attacking the group. On occasion formations of F.E.2s fought their way back from far over the lines, while under heavy attack from German fighters, using this tactic.
Although outclassed as a day fighter, the F.E.2 proved very suitable for use at night and was used as a night fighter in home defence squadrons on anti-Zeppelin patrols and as a light tactical night bomber. It was first used as a night bomber in November 1916, with the first specialist F.E.2b night bomber squadrons being formed in February 1917. F.E.2bs were used as night bombers in eight bomber squadrons until the end of the First World War, with up to 860 being converted to, or built as bombers. Service as a night fighter was less successful, owing to the type's poor climb and ceiling.
F.E.2bs were experimentally fitted with flotation bags for operation over water and were also used to conduct anti-submarine patrols, operating from the Isle of Grain at the mouth of the Thames River.
A total of 35 aircraft derived from the F.E.2 were sold to China in 1919 by Vickers as Vickers Instructional Machines (VIM), to be used as advanced trainers, having a redesigned nacelle fitted with dual controls and powered by a Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII engine.
Derek Robinson's novel War Story is about the fictional Hornet Squadron flying the F.E.2b, and later the F.E.2d, giving an account of flying the fighter in the months leading up to the Battle of the Somme.
Robert Radcliffe's novel Across the Blood-Red Skies is narrated by an F.E.2 pilot, and offers an insight into the skills required to fly the aeroplane.
William Stanley's novel One Spring in Picardy is the story of a night bomber FE2b squadron in France in the spring of 1918.
Grif Hosker's five book series about Royal Flying Corps air combat in WWI: 1914, 1915-Fokker Scourge, 1916-Angels Over the Somme, 1917-Eagles Fall, and 1918-We Will Remember Them, vividly depict combat from an F.E.2. The protagonist, (a fictional character) Capt Bill Harsker, begins his flying career as an enlisted gunner in the front of a "gunbus" and advances to become a leading ace pilot. By the 1917 book, the F.E.2 suffers badly at the hands of the more advanced German aircraft and Harsker converts to a Sopwith.
The Royal Air Force Museum London displays an F.E.2b. The wings and tail struts are replicas but the aircraft's nacelle and engine are original. The nacelle was made in 1918 by Richard Garrett & Sons, who were subcontracted to make the nacelles for Boulton & Paul Ltd, who assembled the complete aircraft. However, this nacelle was unfinished and never built into a complete aircraft. It was retained by Garretts until 1976 when it was passed to the RAF Museum. In 1986, the museum began a restoration project and commissioned the construction of replica wings and tail; a Beardmore engine was bought in New Zealand in 1992. The lengthy restoration was finally completed and the aircraft put on display in 2009.
During its widespread service, four dozen aces used the FE.2 as their mount. Notable aces flying the FE.2 included:
F.E.2b pilot aces
F.E.2d pilot aces
Ace's honours were not reserved solely for FE.2 pilots. Though slightly in the minority in the listings, a score of observers who manned the guns also became aces. The more notable among them are listed below:
F.E.2b observer aces
F.E.2d observer aces
Data from Warplanes of the First World War: Fighters, Volume Two
Aircraft of comparable role, configuration, and era
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