B.E.2 Part II

On 9 June 1914, Major W. S. Brancker, officer in charge of Royal Flying Corps supplies, flew from Farnborough in the prototype B.E.2c. After take-off, Brancker climbed to 2,000 feet, set course for Salisbury Plain and was then flown ‘hands off’ for the duration of the journey with slight adjustments of the rudder to maintain course. Brancker, who was almost proud of his indifferent skills as a pilot, was duly impressed and passed the time writing a reconnaissance report on the countryside over which he flew. The purpose of his visit and reason for making it in 602 is unrecorded, but whatever it was for, it was brief as Brancker returned to Farnborough the same afternoon.

Major Burke was evidently absent when the B.E.2c made its brief visit to Netheravon but heard all about it from his crews and, on 16 June, sent the following request to Royal Flying Corps headquarters:

I understand that it is possible to convert the existing B.E.2’s into the type of machine which is inherently stable and which, I believe, is to be called B.E.2c. As we are returning to Montrose at the beginning of next month, I should be very glad if I could do so, with some men thoroughly trained on the new machine. I would therefore be glad if you could consider whether I might convert an existing B.E. of my Squadron into a B.E.2c while we are here.

The request was supported by Burke’s superior, Lt Col F. H. Sykes, and forwarded to the Director General of Military Aeronautics who left it to O’Gorman to explain that a conversion was possible. However, the resulting machine would not be a B.E.2c and that the matter was being discussed at the War Office, but that the wide-scale adoption of the new type seemed likely. Although Burke requested to be issued a B.E.2c before his return north, none were available and had to make do with a promise to issue the type as soon as possible. Probably as a result of this exchange of correspondence, B.E.2c 602, returned to Netheravon on 19 June, again flown by Brancker, remaining there until 26 June to give service pilots an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the new machine. On the return journey to Farnborough it was piloted be Lt Sheppard (Royal Navy).

On 1 July, Burke closed the exchange with the following report:

With reference to the new type of machine which has been called B.E.2c, I have to report that this machine was flown by all the experienced pilots of my Squadron. The result of the trial was to show that, as far as we could see, the machine is inherently more stable than any other type, and in other respects presented no peculiar features. I was informed of several ideas as to peculiarities but they were not borne out by our experience.

602 was to spend time with 3 Squadron in July and 4 Squadron in August so that the crews could gain valuable experience with it before being returned to the Aircraft Park. Meanwhile, the Royal Flying Corps would have to soldier on with their existing B.E.2as. The B.E.2b would only begin to enter service in August and production of the B.E.2c would not follow until the next year.

When the Royal Flying Corps mobilised for war it was able to field just four complete squadrons: Nos 2, 3, 4 and 5. No. 1 was still in the process of converting from airships and No. 6, although formed some months earlier, was incomplete. Of these, both No. 2 and No. 4 were fully equipped with the B.E.2, No. 3 flew a mixture of Bleriot monoplanes and Henri Farman pushers while No. 4 had Avros, Farmans and a flight of B.E.8s. The Aircraft Park, which supplied replacement machines to the squadrons, had three Farmans, four Sopwiths, nine B.E.2as and the prototype B.E.2c in stock. Therefore, not only was the B.E.2 the most numerous single type, it represented more than half the Royal Flying Corp’s effective strength. No. 6, when it too arrived in France, was equipped with eight B.E.2as and four Henri Farmans, increasing the ratio further. That not one of these aeroplanes was armed was not considered in any way remarkable.

The first four squadrons flew to France on 13 August, the first aeroplane to land being B.E.2a, 327, of 2 Squadron, piloted by Capt. F. Waldron. A few days later, a Bleriot of 3 Squadron piloted by Lt Joubert de la Ferte and 4 Squadron’s Lt G. W. Mapplebecke in a B.E.2, carried out the Royal Flying Corp’s first reconnaissance mission of the war.

B.E.2c, 602, was crated and shipped for its trip to France and confusion arose as to its identity, therefore when assembled it was renumbered 807. On 2September, the B.E.2c was issued to 2 Squadron therefore fulfilling the promise made to Major Burke. However, it was later discovered that this serial number had been allocated to another machine. In October, the B.E.2c was renumbered once more, this time as 1807. New squadrons arrived in France as soon as they could be formed, many of them equipped with the B.E.2, the stable platform best suited to the needs of time. The Bleriots, Farmans and other miscellaneous designs with which the pre-war Royal Flying Corps had been equipped were phased out and relegated to a training role, leaving the B.E.2 as the only pre-war design in large scale service. Production of the B.E.2c was increased with orders placed for batches of twenty or more at a time and new manufacturers were added to the lists of those building the aeroplane to cope with increasing demand.

At first it was a war of movement for which the Royal Flying Corps had been trained, mainly reconnaissance searching the countryside for enemy troops and reporting their position. But as the trench lines formed and the war changed to that of bloody attrition, the role of the aircraft also transformed. The new reconnaissance role involved studying areas behind the German lines for evidence of increased activity that might indicate a forthcoming attack. Also, artillery observation became more important, reporting the fall of shot as the big guns sought to destroy the enemy’s own artillery, stores and soldiers.

Bombing was a new task for the B.E.2c. Although bombsights were nonexistent and the bombs puny, the crews used enthusiasm and ingenuity to make up for what they lacked in equipment.

On 26 May 1915, 2nd Lt William Rhodes-Moorhouse was sent in B.E.2b, 687, to bomb the railway at Courtrai, hoping to disable the tracks that would slow the flow of reinforcements reaching the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. Flying solo, Rhodes-Moorhouse dropped his 112 lbs bomb at 300 feet as to ensure accuracy and managed to hit and damage the tracks. However, at such a low height, he was subjected to a barrage of small arms fire and was shot in the stomach, hand and thigh. Rather than landing to seek medical attention, Rhodes-Moorhouse returned to his squadron at Estaires to report his success and prevent another pilot being sent to repeat the attack. Although rushed to a field hospital, he died of his wounds the following day and was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his courageous self-sacrifice.

Following the loss of the prototype B.E.2c, 601, the Royal Aircraft Factory adopted an early production example, 1749, which was built by Vickers and completed just before the end of 1914 as a test vehicle for its continued development of the design. By 7 January 1915, it was fitted with a new and simplified undercarriage of the type that was to become the norm for almost all aeroplanes throughout the next decade. This comprised two inverted wooden vees with an axle fixed within their apexes and bound in place with thirty-eight feet of 3/8 rubber shock cord.

The next improvement was the installation of a 90-hp RAF1a engine in place of the Renault with which the machine had been built. New exhausts were fitted which discharged above the centre section to prevent exhaust gases finding their way into the cockpits, and the sump was enclosed in a neat cowling, improving both its appearance and streamlining. The cable bracing was replaced with more streamlined ‘Rafwires’ which were swaged to a lenticular section and threaded at the ends to allow adjustment. The pilot was now provided with an instrument panel to which were fitted a dial-type air speed indicator, altimeter, revolutions counter, compass, clinometer and a watch, the latter detachable and a highly-prized souvenir.

These improvements not only changed the appearance of the machine but so affected its flying characteristics. In May 1915, when the first B.E.2c powered by the RAF1a arrived in France, a brief document was prepared and printed by Harrison & Sons on behalf of Her Majesty’s Stationary Office (HMSO) for distribution to the pilots in all squadrons operating the B.E.2. It read:

A Note for Flyers of B.E.2c Aeroplanes fitted with RAF1a Engines, V type Undercarriages and Rafwires.

1) ADJUSTMENT; The aeroplane should be so adjusted so that it is in trim when flying at “cruising” speed – from 65 to 70 miles per hour. At this speed the machine will then fly without the controls.

2) REVOLUTIONS ON THE GROUND; On the ground, the engine revolutions should be between 1,480 and 1,520 per min.; but under no circumstance should this, or any other engine, be allowed to run at full throttle until after it has warmed up, and the oil is circulating freely throughout the engine. This will require at least 10 minutes slow running.

3) CLIMBING SPEEDS; With full tanks and passenger, the best climbing speed is about 55 miles per hour, and the engine revolutions at this speed should be 1,600 per min. During a test made by the Aeronautical Inspection Department, a climb of 6,000 ft in 13 mins 35 secs, may be obtained; and on service at least 6,000 ft in 16 mins may be expected.

4) MAXIMUM SPEED; At the maximum speed of the aeroplane, when flying at a low altitude, the engine revolutions will approximate to 1,850 ft per min; but at this speed, the fuel consumption will reach 9 gallons of petrol per hour, and if the maximum time in the air is desired the normal engine revolutions of 1,600 per min should be maintained.

5) LANDING SPEED; The landing speed is much the same as with the Renault engined B.E.2c – about 40 to 41 miles per hour, but there is a strong tendency for flyers to alight at too high a speed until they become accustomed to flying this machine, owing to its higher normal speed, 80.6 miles per hour on an Aeronautical Inspection Department test, or 87 miles per hour under service conditions. It should be noted that the gliding angle of this machine is finer than that of the old B.E.’s.

6) FUEL CONSUMPTION; the petrol consumption at the normal engine speed of 1,600 revs per min is 7¼ gallons per hour; but this will vary with the elevation at which the flight is made, being somewhat reduced as height is increased.

The leaflet then continued with a four-page description of the construction, operation and maintenance of the engine, and concluded with the following advice on flying the machine, reinforcing the advice previously given:

Open throttle full, and the motor should run 1,800 revs per min when climbing. When sufficient height has been reached, throttle the motor so that the revolutions are about 1,600. This is the intended normal speed of the motor and, flying level at 1,600 revs per min, the consumption of petrol will not exceed 7½ gallons an hour and will probably be 6½ gallons. If extra speed is required the motor may be accelerated to 1,800 revs per min, but the petrol will be increased to 9 gallons per hour, or a little more if flying low.

The B.E.2c crews, with the fatalistic humour that characterised the First World War, composed their own note on their mounts in the form of the following poem:

The Pilot’s Psalm

The B.E.2c is my bus, therefore I shall want.

He maketh me to come down in green pastures,

He leadeth me where I will not go.

He maketh me to be sick, he leadeth me astray on all cross-country flights.

Yea, though I fly over no-man’s land where mine enemies would encompass me about I fear much evil, for thou art with me.

Thy joystick and thy prop discomfort me,

Thou prepares a crash for me in the presence of mine enemies,

Thy RAF anointed me with oil,

Thy tank leaked badly,

Surely to goodness thou shalt not follow me all the days of my life

Or I shall dwell in the House of Colney Hatch forever.

In early 1915, Mr Samuel Hiscocks, the Royal Aircraft Factory’s assistant superintendent, had made a trip to France, visiting squadrons operating Factory-designed machines and reported as follows:

Nos. 2 and 6 Squadrons mentioned that the B.E.2c with the 70 hp Renault when getting away from the ground or just alighting in a strong cross wind tended to turn down wind. This is more noticeable with the B.E.2c than with the B.E.2a and B.E.2b machines owing to the smaller reserve of power. With the B.E.2c’s having the RAF1 engine this tendency should not be so noticeable, as the reserve of power will be increased nearly 100 per cent.

Immediately upon Hiscocks’ return to Farnborough, an investigation was made by the Factory’s chief test pilot, Frank Goodden. No Renault-powered machine was available and Goodden carried out the test in a B.E.2c powered by an RAF1a, presumably 1749. He took-off in a southerly direction, at right angles to a strong wind blowing from the west, and during the take-off run the machine was blown to the east. After take-off, Goodden turned into the wind and at 500 feet found that the machine virtually stood still when flying at its lowest speed and therefore concluded that the wind speed, at that height, was about 35-40 mph. Goodden reported that a very long run had been necessary to take-off safely and that, in a machine more heavily loaded or powered by the Renault engine instead of the RAF1a, it would have been quite dangerous. Goodden found no tendency to turn away from the wind, but rather the reverse, the machine on the ground showing tendency to turn into wind that he had had to correct with the rudder. On 7May, O’Gorman forwarded this report to the War Office together with praise for Goodden’s bravery in carrying out the trials. He also added that the difficulty arose from the choice of bad flying grounds and that, with properly chosen airfields, the necessity for taking-off crosswind should not arise. O’Gorman further suggested that the following advice be issued to pilots:

Getting Off in a Side Wind.

Pilots should remember that for getting off in a side wind a very much longer run is necessary. The following is the method of procedure recommended;-

(1). When starting rudder hard to prevent aeroplane turning into wind.

(2). As the aeroplane gathers speed ease off rudder. Keep the aeroplane straight.

(3). As the aeroplane gets off bank gently and turn into the wind as soon as possible.

While this advice to pilots helped them to operate the B.E.2c, engineers at the Royal Aircraft Factory were aware that the type was capable of improvement, especially in top speed and rate of climb. Both could be improved by an increase in engine power and so attempts were made to get more out of the RAF1. A new version, its compression ratio increased, was developed and bench tested at an output of 105 hp at 1,800 rev/min; however, cooling and reliability were both adversely affected by the modification and it did not go into production. Another version, the RAF1b – in which the bore was increased from 100 to 105 mm, increasing its displacement to 9.7 litres – gave a similar increase in power, but cooling, which was marginal in the standard engine, was again an issue. A supercharged version was also developed and when fitted to a B.E.2c, its climb was improved from 8,500 in thirty-six minutes to 11,500 feet in a similar time. Despite this improvement, it was not adopted for mass production, largely due to the inevitable delay to output that it would cause.

If the 90-hp engine were to be retained, as seemed most likely, solutions to the improvements in speed and climb initially appeared mutually exclusive. The top speed could be increased by reducing the area of the wings, but this would adversely affect the rate of climb and result in an increase in landing speed. While climb could be improved by an increase in wing area, this would create additional drag and reduce the maximum speed. The answer was a more efficient wing, one that would increase lift and yet reduce drag. The Factory had, in conjunction with the National Physical Laboratory, been experimenting with new wing sections for some time but none had proved superior to that already in use, i.e. a section based on RAF6 but with an increased under camber.

In the summer of 1915, a breakthrough was made with RAF14 that offered a distinct improvement with an increase in lift and a reduction in drag. Tests were moved out of the laboratory for full-scale trials with the new section given to the workshops on 19 August 1915. It was necessary to modify the section slightly to simplify manufacture, which delayed completion, but the change fortunately had little adverse effect on performance.

Fitted with wings of the new section, the top speed of the B.E.2c increased by 4 mph, and although not a significant increase, was useful and would have required an additional 14 hp to achieve with the previous wing section. Climb was less easy to assess, an accurate measurement requiring numerous tests in differing weathers, but a simple climb to 6,000 feet in a machine fitted with the original wings took fifteen minutes; a similarly powered B.E.2c fitted with the new wings took just fourteen minutes to reach the same height. Tests flights were undertaken by two Royal Aircraft Factory pilots, Frank Goodden and William Stutt, and neither could detect any difference in either landing or stalling speeds. These improvements in performance could be obtained by the simple expedient of issuing new drawings and wings of RAF14 section were therefore substituted for all B.E.2s from that point on.

Meanwhile, 1749’s career as a test vehicle continued, and in June 1915, was fitted with an improved Rouzet wireless set, development of which was one of the many areas of aeroplane design investigated by the Royal Aircraft Factory’s scientists. Wireless development was later conducted by a separate unit within the Royal Flying Corps based in Hounslow and then relocated to Biggin Hill in Kent where the airfield’s hilltop location improved the range obtained. The robust oleo undercarriage adopted for the big pusher F.E.2b was also experimentally fitted to a B.E.2c, but reduced performance without offering any significant improvement in landing.

Bristol-built 1688 was another machine adopted by the Royal Aircraft Factory as a test vehicle. By June 1915, it had been fitted with an oleo undercarriage and later with a larger, balanced rudder. Its upper centre section was, at one time, covered with transparent cellon dope in an attempt to improve the pilot’s upward view. In December 1915, it was used to test the Factory’s new low-level bombsight developed by R. H. Mayo and was later used to test the Fiery Grapnel, a device invented for use against Zeppelins. This device comprised a pair of hooks fitted on the end of a cable and towed behind the aeroplane with the intention of attaching itself to the enemy airship whereupon the cable would break and the device explode, igniting escaping hydrogen gas. Like many weird ideas for weaponry, it was not adopted.

Another experiment intended as defence against Zeppelins was the Airship Plane in which a B.E.2c was suspended beneath an SS-class non-rigid airship envelope, replacing the car. The idea being that the ensemble could stay aloft until a raiding Zeppelin was sighted whereupon the crew would release the envelope and fly off to attack. Initial trials were made at Kingsnorth in August 1915, the device piloted by Flt Cmdr W. C. Hicks, but control problems meant that no release was made and the Airship Plane landed intact. A further trial was made on 21 February 1916 using B.E.2c, 989, and with the idea’s instigators, Cmdr N. F. Unwin and Sqn Cmdr deC. W. P. Ireland, in the cockpits. However, at about 4,000 feet, a sudden loss of pressure in the envelope caused the forward suspension wires to release the nose of the B.E.2c that dropped down breaking the remaining wires. As it fell, the aeroplane’s controls were damaged and the B.E.2c dived in a sideslip. During the violent manoeuvre, Ireland was thrown out and fell into the River Medway and drowned, the doomed B.E.2c crashing near Strood railway station, killing Unwin. The experiment was promptly discontinued, and although a revised proposal using a manned rigid airship was eventually successful, the B.E.2c had no further involvement.

In an attempt to steepen the B.E.2c’s angle of glide and so facilitate landing in small, constricted fields, the Factory’s physics department devised an early form of airbrake. The struts could be turned at right angles, so presenting their broad face to the airflow and therefore creating additional drag. B.E.2c, 4550, a production machine built by G & J. Weir, was modified in December 1915 and the idea tested with the trials concluding on 9 January 1916. The results, as described in ‘H’ Department’s Report No. 917, were that an additional resistance of 61 lbs at 100 feet per second was achieved that steepened the glide angle at 60 mph from 1 in 6.5 without the brakes, to 1 in 5.6 with them operated. This improvement was not considered sufficient to justify the complication of the mechanism required to achieve it and the idea was scrapped. The same aeroplane was employed to test the action of gyroscopes in a series of experiments in connection with the development of an automatic pilot, but the device, although offering very promising results, was not sufficiently developed for adoption at the time. Another production machine, 4721, which had seen service with 24 Squadron and at the School of Aerial Gunnery, was, towards the end of 1916, fitted with floats manufactured by the well-known boat builders S. E. Saunders of Cowes and successfully test flown from Loch Doon. The main float was a single box-like structure and was attached to the skid of the machine’s early pattern undercarriage in what appears to have been a repetition of an experiment first carried out in 1912. More sophisticated floats had been developed and the reason for the trial has not been discovered.


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