There were a bewildering number of aircraft manufacturers in Britain during World War I but the Royal Aircraft Factory based at Farnborough was perhaps the most important. The Royal Aircraft Factory was barely two years old when war broke it in 1914, it was previously known as the Army Balloon Factory, but already was looking at using aircraft to wage war. Despite the fact that aircraft such as the factory’s own B.E.2 could barely lift a pilot and observer off the ground the factory’s designers had begun looking in to arming aircraft and in 1913 produced the A.E.1 (Armed Experimental 1).
The A.E.1 (later known as the F.E.3) was a pusher-biplane powered by a 100hp Chenu eight-cylinder liquid-cooled inline engine with a crew of two. The aircraft was armed with a Coventry Ordnance Works one pounder (37mm) in the forward fuselage for use against ground targets. However the airframe was found to be too fragile in the tail while its performance was less than stellar and with a Royal Flying Corps (RFC) still being led by generals who had never even flown in an aircraft it was seen as a step too far and the project was cancelled. As the war pressed on an “A.E.2” was conceived in 1917 with tractor engines but this never saw the light of day.
For the very concept of fighting a war in the air the First World War was perhaps the greatest laboratory the aircraft designers of the day could have hoped for. Theories flooded the aviation scene on how to design and build aircraft that would either give the advantage in the air over an opponent’s aircraft or have an impact on the battlefield itself. There was almost a callous attitude taken to the reports of men losing their lives in their machines not from enemy contact but from mistakes made on the drawing board, a situation exacerbated by an unclear view on how to conduct the war in the air by the RFC leadership who sometimes issued contradictory requirements to manufacturers.
A number of terms for aircraft types came and went and in 1917 the RFC issued a requirement for a “contact patrol” aircraft. What this term envisioned was an aircraft that would operate with the infantry by providing reconnaissance, communications and light attack duties. This required the aircraft to fly low where it would be exposed to enemy small arms fire necessitating a certain degree of armour protection for the pilot and observer. It would also have to be rugged for landing on rough strips and have good forward armament for attacking enemy positions.
At around the same time the Royal Aircraft Factory had pinned its hopes on its N.E.1 (left) winning a contract with the RFC to provide them with a night fighter to combat nocturnal raids by Zeppelins. A pusher-biplane design the aircraft failed to meet the RFC’s exacting requirements but when the RFC issued it’s requirement for a contact patrol aircraft the Royal Aircraft Factory decided to save development time by adapting the N.E.1. There was a certain logic to choosing the N.E.1 to base the new aircraft on and not just to speed up development. The pusher configuration kept the aircraft’s engine away from the defensive ground fire during an attack on a target and it also meant that the nose could accommodate more weapons and ammunition.
The new aircraft received the Royal Aircraft Factory designation A.E.1 with the “A” this time standing for “armoured”. An equal span biplane, the pilot and observer were housed in an armoured nacelle protruding forwards along with the aircraft’s main armament comprising two Lewis .303 (7.7mm) drum fed machine guns. The two machine guns were not fixed although they did possess only limited depression and azimuth meaning the pilot would still have to do most of the aiming by pointing the aircraft at the target. The observer, who occupied the front position, also had a third Lewis machine gun mounted on a pillar between his and the pilot’s position for self-defence against enemy fighter attack and had stowage for up to 32 ammunition drums amounting to 3,207 rounds.
To power the aircraft the designers turned to the tried and tested Hispano-Suiza 8b inline engine that was also being fitted to the factory’s S.E.5a fighter and it would be for that very reason that the project ran in to its biggest obstacle. Reliable aero-engines during World War I were exceptionally hard to come by and the Hispano-Suiza 8b was one of the most sought after. Despite the fact that twenty one factories were building versions of it in five countries demand still outsripped supply by a considerable margin with the Royal Aircraft Factory itself having around 400 S.E.5a airframes sat around waiting for their engines in early 1918. Therefore the designers turned to alternative powerplants to get the prototypes in to the air.
The first prototype, B8781, was therefore completed with a Sunbeam Arab engine. This was similar to the Hispano-Suiza in that it was an inline V8 design that churned out 212hp and this allowed the aircraft to take flight from Farnborough for the first time in April 1918. Initially the radiator for the engine was installed between the rear centre-section fuselage struts but was soon relocated above the centre-section alongside the fuel tank positioned over the wing. The Arab was never seen as an ideal engine for the project and so the decision was taken to redesign the second prototype, B8783, with a Bentley BR.2 rotary engine. This produced 230hp and went some way to compensating for the weight of the aircraft. The BR.2 powered second prototype first flew in June 1918 and became known in-house as the A.E.2 while the term A.E.3 became a blanket term for the project as well as covering the third prototype, B8782, which returned to the Arab engine but included some design alterations.
By this time there had been a number of changes in Britain’s military aviation scene that would affect the project in both minor and major ways. The biggest change was the dissolution of the aircraft’s initial customer, the Royal Flying Corps, it having been merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to create Britain’s and indeed the world’s first independent air arm the Royal Air Force in April 1918. This went a long way to free military flying from Army and Navy thinking (in theory) that many believed had held back Britain’s military prospects in the air but in doing so brought in to question concepts such as the “contact patrol” aircraft.
The formation of the RAF had the effect on the Royal Aircraft Factory that it needed a new name since the abbreviation “RAF” had previously covered their operation. This led to the Royal Aircraft Establishment and was quickly followed by a new policy of naming aircraft rather than just being given designations. The A.E.3 project therefore acquired the name Ram possibly in reference to its forward armament resembling horns to some. The Arab powered aircraft became known as Ram I while the single Bentley powered aircraft became the Ram II.
As the wheels of the Great British bureaucracy turned, testing of the aircraft continued. It was found quite quickly that the aircraft was borderline uncontrollable with the control surfaces barely up to the job which made handling the aircraft a laborious and dangerous affair at low level. It was clear to all that given the aircraft’s role this was wholly unacceptable and the Bentley powered aircraft was taken back in to the factory to have increased span ailerons and rudders to compensate. This did help alleviate the problem somewhat but the aircraft remained a handful to fly. As the Royal Air Force ordered field trials of the Bentley powered aircraft the designers at Farnborough quickly worked on a redesigned aircraft known as the Ram III to address these issues further.
On June 30th the Bentley powered B8783 touched down in France and was given to the men of Nos.201 and 209 squadrons for field testing. Both squadrons were an unusual choice for the trials since at the time they were flying Sopwith Camel fighters (No.209 Squadron included Canadian ace Captain Roy Brown who was controversially credited with shooting down the Red Baron, Manfred von Richtofen) although they had adopted a ground strafing role in support of the infantry. However, this fact might go some way to explaining the rather appalling results the pilots who flew it reported back. As had been revealed at Farnborough the aircraft’s low handling performance was woefully unimpressive and this was most likely exacerbated by the fact that the trials pilots had come from one of the Great War’s most agile fighter aircraft. Following a demonstration to Major General John Salmond who commanded RAF units in France he determined that the lumbering aircraft had no tactical use to his men and sent a damning letter to the Air Ministry voicing his opinion. The Air Ministry concurred with Salmond and all work on the project ceased with the Ram III never being built.
The story of the “Farnborough Ram” is one of a number of aircraft that was designed at a time when the research in to aerial warfare was still rather infantile and confused despite the advances made as a result of actual combat.
Specifications (Ram II)
- Role: Ground attack and reconnaissance
- Crew: 2 (pilot and observer)
- Powerplant: Bentley BR.2 rotary engine (230hp)
- Maximum speed: 95mph
- Wingspan: 47ft 10in
- Length: 27ft 9in
- Height: 10ft 0in
- Chord: 6ft 0in
- Wing area: 560sq ft
- Dihedral: 5°
2x forward firing .303 Lewis machine guns
1x pillar mounted .303 Lewis machine gun for self defence