Westland’s First Warplane
The urgent requirement for aircraft to equip the rapidly expanding Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) saw a number of companies start dabbling in the construction of aircraft under license from their designers. One such company was Petters Limited based in Yeovil, Somerset which undertook the construction of petrol and diesel engines but in 1915, a subdivision was established to handle the manufacture of a dozen Short Type 184 seaplanes. The subdivision was named the Westland Aircraft Works and a steady stream of additional orders kept its staff busy well in to 1916 by which time the management team felt confident enough to use their experience manufacturing aircraft to design their own.
At around the same time, the Royal Naval Air Service was looking for a new fighting scout seaplane issuing a demanding set of requirements. The Admiralty stipulated that the aircraft should be capable of achieving 100mph and have a service ceiling of 20,000ft, ample performance for intercepting the Zeppelins which were still terrorising mainland Britain and the latest version of the Fokker Eindecker which was entering service with the German Luftstreitkräfte as the requirement was drawn up.
Westland was under the leadership of Robert Arthur Bruce, a former Royal Navy officer who had worked with Sopwith before heading the establishment of the Westland factory in West Hendford, Somerset. Bruce had taken 24-year old draughtsman Arthur Davenport from their parent company to help him work on the company’s first aircraft. Together they produced a rather compact, two-bay equal-span biplane of wooden and fabric covering with a relatively deep looking fuselage shape. Like nearly all naval aircraft, the wings were designed to fold to save space when it was stowed onboard ship while the trailing-edge camber could be varied producing an effect similar to basic, plain flaps when the aircraft was landing. The powerplant chosen for the aircraft was the Bentley BR.1 aeroengine, a modified version of the French Clerget 9B manufactured in Britain under license. The BR.1 was a nine cylinder, air-cooled rotary engine that churned out 130hp and was already selected for Sopwith’s latest fighter, the Camel.
For the business of engaging enemy aircraft, Bruce and Davenport adopted the familiar two-gun configuration being used by fighting scouts such as the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5. A single .303 (7.7mm) Vickers machine gun was mounted between the cockpit and the engine with firing being synchronised with the two bladed propeller. This was backed up with a flexibly-mounted .303 (7.7.mm) Lewis gun above the upper wing centre section firing over the propeller arc.
Two prototypes were ordered from Westland and work began at West Hendford. During construction of the airframes, attention was turned towards what kind of float arrangement would best suit the aircraft for landing and taking off from water. To cover all their bases, they decided that both aircraft would have different float configurations in order to test which one was best and thus be adopted on any production aircraft. The first prototype was fitted with two 11 ft (3.35 m) long main floats manufactured by Sopwith and supported by a 5 ft (1.52 m) long tail float which meant it had a nose high stance when floating or taxing on the water. The second prototype dispensed with the tail float and instead incorporated longer 17ft 6in (5.34 m) main floats which kept the tail clear of the water and the airframe more horizontal when stationary.
Collectively, the aircraft were known as Westland N.1B reflecting the navy’s requirement N.1B which outlined their desired specification. Individually, the prototype fitted with the Sopwith floats was given the serial number N16 while the second prototype became N17. Literature at the time sometimes confused matters by describing the two aircraft as individual types becoming the “Westland N16” and “Westland N17”.
N16 was rolled out first and would take to the air for the first time in August 1917 with 28-year old Australian-born test pilot Harry Hawker, who was on loan from Sopwith, at the controls. N17 was completed soon after and in October the two aircraft were transported to the Port Victoria Marine Experimental Aircraft Depot on the Isle of Grain in Kent for evaluation. Westland were well ahead of their competitors for the Admiralty contract with Blackburn’s own N.1B and Supermarine’s Baby – interestingly both were flying boat designs rather than floatplanes – still under construction. The pilots assigned to fly the two aircraft praised them for their sprightly performance but more importantly their excellent handling qualities; something highly sought after at a time when just as many pilots were being lost in accidents as they were in combat.
Unfortunately, developments in naval aviation were conspiring to doom the project. On August 2nd 1917, shortly before N16 was completed, Squadron Commander Edwin Dunning landed Sopwith Pup N6453 aboard HMS Furious and in doing so became the first person to land an aircraft on a moving ship. While Dunning would be killed making another landing soon after, he had nevertheless proven that aircraft carriers were feasible and these offered a number of advantages over floatplanes the most significant of which was that aircraft could be launched and recovered far more quickly than floatplanes which had to be hoisted in and out of the sea by a crane. Floatplanes would remain a significant part of British naval aviation for the remainder of the war but carrier aircraft were the future.
Thus, Westland found themselves waiting for a contract that would ultimately never come. Any thoughts of giving the N.1B aircraft wheels for carrier operations was also folly since the RNAS were looking at Sopwith’s Pup and Camel aircraft for the fighting scout role. The two prototypes would soon-after disappear in to aviation history but they had helped kickstart aircraft development at Westland. Robert Arthur Bruce would go on to work on a number of civil aircraft after the war including the Westland Limousine which won a government competition for a light commercial transport aircraft. Arthur Davenport would have his name attached to a number of more successful Westland designs in the future such as the famed-Lysander, the original Whirlwind twin-engined fighter and the Wyvern.