IT IS a fact of life that no two persons see things in quite the identical way, whether they are looking at cars, women or aeroplanes. It is rather interesting, however, to consider how war-time aeroplanes from the first World conflict of 1914/18 appeared to the pilots who had to fly them, often under extreme combat conditions, machines we now regard as precious museum exhibits, but which were then new, dangerous, and only slightly more expendable than the young men who flew them.
As an example of aeronautical contrast, there was the warm feeling of a well-known RFC pilot, Duncan Grinnell-Milne, for the Caudron tractor biplane that he was allowed to fly, soon after “taking his ticket” on the inevitable Farman “Longhorns” and “Shorthorns” of 1915. Compared to a clumsy cow-like “Longhorn” he found that the Caudron climbed fast, remarkably so, and that it was speedy when levelled-out. A climb to 1,000 ft. in ten minutes was remembered, also cruising it at 51 m.p.h. at 1,050 r.p.m. The Caudron’s stall came within nine m.p.h. of that steady progression across the sky. Not much of a view from the nacelle, a trace of left rudder required in the air; that was the primitive Caudron, from this pilot’s viewpoint.
The contrast was provided by the BE9. It was a “useless fighting aeroplane”, in Grinnell-Milne’s opinion, called “The Pulpit” because of its cockpit layout, whereas in 1915 the young pilots could shut their eyes to the shortcomings of the BE2c. And as for the aforesaid Caudron, it was perfectly safe, having never been known to spin, was strongly made, needed only a short take-off run, and it landed at a reassuringly low speed and had no vices once in the air. Two opposing views by the same pilot, and Grinnell-Milne had two forced-landings in a rotary-engined Caudron, one at Hayling Island on a flight from Shoreham to Gosport and another at Winchester, in those long-ago days of the First World War.
Many newly-fledged RFC pilots went from training flights on Farman “Shorthorns” and “Longhorns” to the BE2. Of this conventional aeroplane, Grinnell-Milne thought, after not much over 33½-hours on slower machines, that it was very exciting, in 100 h.p. RAF-engined guise. This BE2c was found by this young pilot to be very easy to handle, stable, and very manoeuvrable once he had grown accustomed to it. The BE was also able to execute vertically-banked turns and could be looped with safety — but all those who flew them at Gosport over sixty-five years ago were warned of the sudden stall.
So what did other pilots think of this BE2? Cecil Lewis, that great aviation-writer, has recalled how awe-inspiring these machines were when they first came to Brooklands, with 90 h.p. RAF engine driving the four-bladed propeller, and the top speed exaggerated as more than 80 m.p.h. Inherently stable, they were alleged to be, but this pilot, too, was warned of the unexpected spin he might experience, after using too little rudder in a turn.
It was an age of finding out, often for themselves, the tricks and characteristics of those early aeroplanes. The FE, a pusher like the first training machines, became the latest thing in efficient fighting ‘planes, at a time when the Morane Parasols and DH2s were thought of as death-traps. Yet Cecil Lewis admitted to liking the difficult Morane monoplane best of all! He compared it to a Bugatti or a Delage, in the world of motor cars. He claimed 300 hours on these cigar-like two-seaters, going all through the Somme battle in them and winning his MC behind their controls. Yet he confessed to having had to fly every second of the way, the Parasol’s elevator being an insensitive, the rudder too small, and the ailerons very inefficient.
Dear old Lewis apparently went off in a Morane Parasol after 19 hours solo, never crashed one, and had only one failure of the beautifully smooth-running 80 h.p. Le Rhone rotary engine, with which this French fighter was equipped. Another noted aviation journalist, William Courtenay, did 20 hours solo in BE2cs and Avro 504s before getting his “Wings”.
This once caused him to pay great tribute to the 504 of Sir Alliot Verdon-Roe, and of this immortal Avro, Lewis remarked that the one flown by him as a budding RFC pilot, aged 17½, was very straightforward, handy on the controls, simple to fly, with no vices or idiosyncrasies, the only complexity being the rotary-engine, the ways and controls of which were a distinct law unto themselves, a trap for unwary novices.
Coming to more exciting aeroplanes, the SE5 was recalled by Cecil Lewis as “not a sweet aeroplane”, whatever “Boom” Trenchard had said of it, and inspite of those rumours that greeted its arrival to Squadrons, to the effect that it was the finest fighting Scout ever built, ready to break the hold of the dreaded German Albatrosses. Grinnell-Milne seems to have agreed with Lewis, saying that casualties in 1915 and 1916 might have been less terrible had the Bristol and Sopwith Scouts been made in bigger numbers, instead of waiting for the SE5. When it was a fighting force it was still often necessary to dive the SE5 to get away from the enemy Fokkers, and Grinnell-Milne, who named his personal SE5 “Schweinhund”, admitted to once expending 530 rounds of ammunition to down a single Fokker. But he took good care to preserve his aeroplane’s name-panel, at the end of the war. . . — W.B.