Aircraft the Evolution of British Military Essay

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The Evolution of British Military Aircraft in the 20th Century

(Harvard Citation)

The design and capabilities of aircraft have continuously improved over the 20th century and can be seen by a visit to the RAF museum in Hendon. There one will see aircraft from WWI, WWII, the Post-War period, and even the modern age. Over the past century, aircraft have gone from tiny structures made from wood and cloth, barely able to get off the ground, to giants constructed from space-age materials with almost limitless capabilities. Since British military aircraft made up the majority of the exhibits at the RAF museum, this essay will discuss the evolution of British military aircraft, their design and capabilities, over the past century.

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The history of British military aircraft began with a single, rather unimpressive biplane called the Vickers F.B. 5. This Fighting Biplane, (F.B) also known as the Gunbus, was a two seat biplane with held a pilot and a gunner; who sat in a forward open seat and was armed with a single Lewis machine gun caliber .303. In effect, this was an experimental aircraft which had been rushed into production in 1914 due to the onset of World War I. It was an underpowered aircraft utilizing a 100 hp Gnome Monosoupape 9-cylinder air cooled rotary engine which only had a top speed of 70 mph and could only reach a top ceiling of 9000 ft.. It also had inadequate range as it was limited to only 4 1/2 hours of flight time. (Angelucci 1983) However, as the first aircraft to be specifically produced as a fighter, it holds the honor of the very first produced fighter aircraft. This aircraft was first delivered to troops in November of 1914, but unfortunately it had a rather short life span as new developments by the Central Powers overtook the F.B. 5 and it was obsolete by the end of 1915.

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The Vickers F.B. 5 may have been a short-lived aircraft, but it's limitations led to the development of more advanced and more capable aircraft. This can best be exemplified by a series of planes introduced by the Sopwith Aviation Company; beginning shortly before the start of the war. Sopwith was a company started by Thomas Sopwith, a wealthy sportsman who was fascinated with racing, cars, boats, and in 1912, aircraft. His focus on speed and performance served him well when the war started and Britain found it needed fast, maneuverable aircraft. Sopwith answered this need with the Sopwith Tabloid, but soon followed up with a series of improved aircraft ranging from the Pup to the most famous of all British WWI Aircraft, the Sopwith Camel.

Sopwith's foray into aircraft began with the Tabloid; a fast and light aircraft designed for racing. It too was powered by the 100 hp Gnome Monosoupape engine and only 160 were ever built. (Angelucci 1983) With Britain's entry into the war, Sopwith turned their attention toward modifying the Tabloid for military use. The result was the Sopwith Type 9901, better known as the 11/2 Strutter. It got it's name from a strange strut arrangement and was one of the first "tractor" aircraft; meaning the propellers were in the front of the aircraft pulling the plane forward, as opposed to being in the rear of the aircraft pushing. The 11/2 Strutter was powered by a 110 hp Clerget engine and could reach speed in excess of 100 mph. This aircraft could reach altitudes of 15,500 ft., but could only stay aloft for 31/2 hours, which limited it's operational capacity. In terms of armament, this aircraft boasted a forward firing Vickers .303 caliber machine gun which could fire through the propeller with the aid of an interrupter mechanism. (Spick 2002) Before this time machine guns were limited to wing mounted guns, which were difficult for the pilot to aim and shoot by himself, or use of a separate gunner in a separate seat. At first, if bullets were shot through the propellers, one risked the chance of shooting off the propeller and crashing the plane. However, the Germans solved this problem when the Fokker aircraft company developed an interrupter mechanism making it possible to shoot directly through the propellers. This gave the Germans a great advantage in marksmanship as it was easier to hit a target if one's machine guns were lined up to shoot straight forward. The British captured and copied this idea, snatching away the German's advantage, and incorporated it into the 11/2 Strutter.

This advance was also incorporated into Sopwith's next design, a small maneuverable single seat fighter known as the Pup. This aircraft was powered by an 80 hp Le Rhone engine, but due to it's light weight, could reach speeds of over 110 mph and had a top ceiling of 17,500 feet; giving it an advantage as it could climb higher and attack downward. It was armed with a single .303 caliber Vickers forward firing machine gun equipped with an interrupter mechanism. (Angelucci 1983) This aircraft reached the front lines in October 1916, but was already out-powered by the German aircraft of the time. it's only saving grace was it's ability to outmaneuver other planes but within months it was replaced by more advanced models.

The next major development came with Sopwith's most famous WWI fighter: the Camel, which came into service in the summer of 1917, shot down more enemy aircraft than any other British aircraft of the time, and led the Allies to victory over the Central Powers. This amazing aircraft had two forward firing .303 caliber Vickers machine guns, a 130 hp Clerget 9 piston rotary engine capable of speeds of 115 mph, climb higher (21,000 ft), and outmaneuver most enemy planes; and remained in service throughout the rest of the war. (Angelucci 1983) it came in several variants with a variety of engines ranging from 130 hp to 150 hp. While more than 5000 of these aircraft were produced it did have one major flaw: it was difficult to fly and often resulted in the deaths of pilots from accidents.

World War I saw the rapid development of aircraft from clumsy, fragile beasts to fast, sleek, powerful killers. Nothing spurred development more than an urgent need to survive, and in 1916-1917 the British had that need. They also had a need to strike at their enemy's means of production and transportation located far behind the lines. In order to do that the British need large, strong aircraft capable of carrying large bomb loads over long distances. They answered this need with the Vickers VIMY Heavy Bomber; a large two engine aircraft capable of carrying more than 2000 lbs. Of bombs more than 900 miles at a speed of 100 mph. This was a very big aircraft for it's day, measuring close to 70 feet from wingtip to wingtip and weighing close to 10,000 lbs at takeoff. It was powered by two Rolls Royce Eagle IX engines capable of 360 hp each but was armed with only a single .303 caliber machine gun. This aircraft was a great example of how aircraft development, while simultaneously developing smaller, lighter, more maneuverable aircraft, also spurred larger and heavier planes. From this point forward, aircraft development would divide into two types of aircraft: fighters and bombers; each with it's own needs.

The period after World War I saw a steady improvement in the capabilities of British aircraft. The end of the First World War saw the bankruptcy of the Sopwith Aviation Company and the selling off of it's assets. These were purchased by Sopwith test pilot Harry Hawker who later changed the name to Hawker Aircraft Limited. Starting with the Duiker in 1923, Hawker continued to develop faster and better fighter planes such as the Woodcock (1923), Cygnet (1924), Horsley (1925), Heron (1925), Hornbill (1925) Danecock (1925), Hawfinch (1927), and finally the Hart (1928). (Sharp 1999) the Hawker Hart was powered by a 525 hp Rolls Royce Kestrel IB 12 cylinder liquid cooled engine. This aircraft could reach a speed of 185 mph and had a top ceiling of just over 21,000 ft. It was armed with two .303 caliber machine guns and could carry up to 500 lbs of bombs if needed. (Angelucci 1983)

The De Havilland Gipsy Moth is another great example of how the years between World War I and II saw the rapid development of aircraft. Although it was used primarily as a trainer, it was powered by a single de Havilland Gipsy I, 4 cylinder 100 hp engine, had a maximum speed of 105 mph and could carry two; a pilot and a student. This aircraft was built in several models and remained the basic trainer up to the start of WWII. (Angelucci)

The period between the wars saw tremendous advancements in aircraft design and capabilities. Aircraft of WWI were built from wood and cloth and were light, yet fragile; over time these weak construction materials would be replaced by modern materials such as aluminum, steel, and plastics. Engine capabilities… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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"Aircraft the Evolution of British Military."  March 5, 2011.  Accessed September 28, 2021.