Westland N.1B

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 Yeovil West Hendford N.1B N16 floatplane fighterWestland 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”.

Westland Yeovil West Hendford N.1B N17 floatplane fighterN16 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.


Sopwith 2b2 Rhino


Few aircraft companies in Britain could claim to embrace the triplane arrangement as enthusiastically as Sopwith. While it would be building legendary biplane fighters such as the great Sopwith Camel that the company would be remembered for, it had enjoyed some moderate success with its aptly named Sopwith Triplane fighter which served with the Royal Naval Air Service’s “Black Flight”. Within three months of entering combat the flight had downed 87 German aircraft and the performance of the Triplane was such that it sparked off 1917’s triplane craze in Germany that ultimately led to the famed Fokker Dr.I.

Sopwith Triplane

The Sopwith Triplane didn’t catch on as well as hoped with British forces however and only 147 airframes were built, a comparatively small number for the time. Neither did it attract the hoped-for foreign interest although French, Greek and even Russian forces trialled the aircraft; in the latter case at least one example made its way in to the ranks of the embryonic Red Air Force post-revolution.

While Sopwith would primarily focus on biplanes, they continued to push for research in to triplanes to meet Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service requirements. In 1916, after the RFC issued a requirement for a long-range escort fighter and airship-destroyer, the company began work on another relatively large triplane in response. The resulting aircraft, the rather mechanically-named Sopwith Long Range Tractor Triplane (LRTTr), was a three-bay, narrow chord wing design that featured a streamlined nacelle in the middle of the top wing for a gunner to be positioned. The Sopwith LRTTr was an extremely clumsy aircraft in the sky and by the time of its first flight was already rendered obsolete by the introduction of more capable biplane designs featuring synchronised machine guns that negated the need for the upper wing nacelle.

Sopwith Long Range Tractor Triplane LRTTr

Only the prototype Sopwith LRTTr (right) was built but Sopwith were not dissuaded by this lack of success. On the contrary, they were still so enamoured with the triplane layout that they actually began drawing up a new triplane without there being an actual requirement having been issued by the RFC or RNAS. This time however the aircraft was to be wholly different beast being tailored for the bombing role rather than as a fighter. Experience gained on their previous efforts were put to good use in this new design and the aircraft featured only a single bay within its triplane wings which gave the aircraft a more advanced look to it.

It was intended for the aircraft to carry its offensive armament internally in an effort to streamline the design and so the fuselage was deepened to feature a small bomb bay under the pilot’s seat. It was intended that the aircraft would be armed with 450lbs of bombs that would be first fitted on to a self-contained pack which would then be loaded in to the aircraft. The pilot would be given a forward-firing .303 Vickers machine gun synchronised with the propeller while a defensive gunner had a .303 Lewis machine gun in the rear cockpit.

Sopwith approached the British authorities with their new proposal but were met with opposition since they were working on an aircraft that hadn’t been requested. Nevertheless, the design sufficiently impressed them to grant Sopwith a license to build two prototypes for testing as a private venture. There was in fact reason for Sopwith to be optimistic. After German Gotha bombers began attacking London, the British War Office recommended doubling the size of the RFC with the great majority of new squadrons being equipped with bombers. Airco’s DH.9 looked set to swallow up most of the orders but if Sopwith could prove their new aircraft superior then they might be able to tender it as a replacement in the following year.

Construction of the prototypes began in mid-1917 and the first Sopwith 2B2 Rhino was completed in October before being test flown from Brooklands. Driving the Rhino’s two-bladed propeller was a 230hp Beardmore Halford Pullinger in-line, water-cooled engine; an aeroengine that was widely available at the time and that had powered the prototype DH.9. The engine was mounted ahead and above of the weapon bay with the fuselage curving up toward it the look of which helped inspire the Rhino name. Unfortunately, this engine and its installation would lead to criticism from observers since it was proving unsatisfactory in the DH.9 with poor performance at altitude while its position on the Rhino made the aircraft very nose heavy making it something of a handful to land safely.

Sopwith 2b2 Rhino bomber

The first prototype (above) was nevertheless submitted for official testing in February 1918 which was undertaken at Martlesham Heath. It was joined by the second prototype the following month which was nearly identical except that the simple pillar mounting for the rear gunner was replaced by a more modern scarff ring. Unfortunately, the aircraft proved disappointing. Compared to the similarly powered DH.9, the Rhino was 10mph slower and had a significantly lower rate of climb both of which was of great concern to the RFC who were already unhappy with the speed of the early DH.9s they were receiving. Official figures showed that the Rhino had less endurance than the DH.9 and had a marginally smaller bombload.

Sopwith 2b2 Rhino bomber prototype martlesham heathSopwith knew any effort to develop the design would be fruitless since 1917’s triplane craze which it had largely helped create was now well and truly over. While it was true that triplanes had the advantage of being able to use shorter span wings than an equivalent biplane which made them smaller targets in the air than an equivalent DH.9, the trade-off however was that they were often heavier than their biplane counterparts and they incurred far more drag. They were also prone to cross wind interference which was especially dangerous on landing. As the air war dragged on over the trenches it became increasingly obvious that speed was going to be the deciding factor and the newer biplanes were leaving triplanes behind. Sopwith would continue to dabble in triplane designs up until the end with their last aircraft, the Sopwith Snark, being developed in both biplane and triplane forms.

The two Rhino prototypes would be returned to Sopwith where they would have a short career testing new propeller designs before they were disposed of to join the list of British aviation oddities of World War I.

Forgotten Aircraft: Avro’s First Bombers (Part 3)

<Avro’s First Bombers (Part 1)
<Avro’s First Bombers (Part 2)

The Avro 557 AvaAvro 557 Ava N171

World War I had completely changed the world’s perspective on the aeroplane as a weapon of war. Whereas before it was seen as little more than a tool for reconnaissance, now it was directly challenging age-old beliefs about the superiority of armies and navies. Nevertheless, the Royal Air Force (RAF) was still fighting for its continued existence and in order to prove its worth it had to show that it had the potential to truly affect the future battlefield. For Chief of the Air Staff, Lord Hugh Trenchard this was no easy feat as the RAF was constantly strapped for cash in the face of peacetime cuts.

Both the Army and Navy lobbied for abolishment of the RAF now that the war was over and to have their respective air arms reinstated but Trenchard and his political supporters put up a staunch defence. In order to prove the RAF’s worth, Trenchard was careful but ambitious about his service’s reequipment program in the 1920s hoping to make the most out of what little he had. One such role he envisioned the RAF undertaking was the defence of Britain against surface warships using air launched torpedoes. During the war, Britain had suffered humiliating attacks by German battleships which shelled coastal towns like Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby and those who supported the RAF believed that aircraft could prevent further attacks using both speed and firepower to intercept the raiders out at sea. Trenchard went further adding that in his opinion, combat aircraft had the potential to render the battleship entirely obsolete.

In 1922, the Air Ministry issued specification 16/22 aimed at acquiring an aircraft to fulfil the challenging role. Like the specification that produced the Avro Aldershot which was at that time undergoing flight testing, it was conceived around a possible war breaking out with France which was now the only real European superpower able to threaten Britain with Germany being crushed by the Treaty of Versailles and Austro-Hungary having broken up. The specification called for an aircraft capable of carrying a 21-inch (533mm) torpedo to a target around 500 miles from its base allowing it to attack shipping as far as Denmark and the entrance to the Baltic Sea. This was no easy feat since the 21-inch torpedo was over 3,000lbs in weight but Trenchard believed this weapon was the bare minimum needed to sink a battleship. To increase the type’s usefulness, the specification also stipulated that the aircraft was to be used as a bomber and carry the equivalent weight in bombs.

Avro and Blackburn Aircraft were both shortlisted to produce prototypes for testing with Avro’s project being led by the talented Roy Chadwick. Both companies had to work under a strict veil of secrecy however since at that time there were calls for world-wide disarmament and it was believed by some that an aircraft capable of sinking a battleship might be perceived as contrary to this. Initially, Chadwick opted for a single engined design centred around the 1,000hp Napier Cub engine which Avro had been testing on the original Avro Aldershot prototype. Blackburn adopted the same engine for their design but eventually Chadwick dropped it in favour of producing a twin engined design equipped with individually less powerful engines that combined produced even more power; something the Air Ministry was looking more favourably upon.

Chadwick’s design was for a three-bay biplane of wooden construction with a biplane tail that had a triple rudder arrangement. The two uncowled engines were mounted close to the fuselage but forward of the main wing resting on pylons that extended down to their relative undercarriage. Chadwick settled on the Rolls Royce Condor III V12 engine which churned out 650hp to power the type. The aircraft was to have a crew of five with two pilots sat in an open cockpit located at the top of the forward fuselage slightly ahead of the propellers. The navigator/bomb aimer worked in the enclosed cabin during the flight but could occupy a “dustbin” gun turret that retracted down from beneath the aircraft when it was under attack. The aircraft also had two dedicated gunners with one located in the extreme nose and the other in a dorsal position behind the wings. Each gunner was equipped with a single .303in Lewis machine gun.  The main offensive armament was carried on racks underneath the fuselage between the two innermost undercarriage wheels.

Avro 557 Ava (1)

The first prototype of the new aircraft was completed in 1924 and given the in-house number 557 and the serial number N171 before the name “Ava” was assigned to it. The origin of the name is unclear but it is likely a derivative of the Latin word “Avis” which means “bird”. Avro test pilot Bert Winkler was at the controls during the type’s first flight and being a man of rather short stature, he had to be propped up in the seat with a few cushions to allow him to see forward over the nose. Not long in to the test program, the central rudder was removed as it was deemed unnecessary. Work also began on a second prototype, N172, which was to be of all-metal construction reflecting this growing trend amongst aircraft manufacturers.

Meanwhile, Blackburn Aircraft had begun test flying their own aircraft to meet the Air Ministry’s specifications known as the Cubaroo – a name likely inspired by its powerful Napier Cub engine. Despite the Air Ministry emphasizing a preference for a twin-engined design, Blackburn submitted their single-engined Cubaroo which was at that time the largest single-engined military aircraft in the world. Despite this fact, flight trials showed that it had good flight characteristics although Blackburn would suffer a temporary setback when the prototype crash landed in January 1925.

As work on both aircraft continued, the grey clouds of cancellation began to form over their respective aerodromes. Naval observers of the project argued that these relatively large and lumbering aircraft would offer an easy target to the newer anti-aircraft guns being fielded aboard surface warships around the world. They also argued that they would be vulnerable to interception by modern carrier aircraft equivalent to the Royal Navy’s Fairey Flycatcher which was significantly faster than either the Ava or the Cubaroo when carrying their torpedo.

Avro 557 Ava N172In 1924, the Fleet Air Arm was formed within the RAF to handle shipboard operations and this new branch argued for smaller torpedo-carrying carrier aircraft to fulfil essentially the same role as was envisioned for the Ava and Cubaroo. These aircraft would be equipped with the 1,800lb Mark.VIII torpedo so could be smaller, faster and tougher to shoot down with defensive fire. The Air Ministry agreed and had rescinded specification 16/22 by 1926 rendering both the Ava and the Cubaroo surplus to requirements. With the veil of secrecy having been lifted, Avro demonstrated N171 during the 1926 Hendon Air Pageant while at the same time continued work on the second prototype which would not be completed until 1927, flying for the first time on April 22nd. In terms of design, the only difference between the two prototypes was that the second prototype had more rectangular shaped wing tips than the first prototype.

Avro quickly began scouring the Air Ministry’s order books for a requirement that the all-metal Ava could possibly fulfil and settled on the recently issued B19/27 which was designed to produce a replacement for the Vickers Virginia and Handley Page Hinaidi bombers. With some more development, the Ava could just about squeeze in to this requirement which demanded a night bomber capable of carrying a 1,500lb bombload, 920 miles from its base at an average speed of 115mph. However, Avro faced stiff competition from Bristol, Fairey, Handley Page and Vickers all of whom were working on newer designs with Fairey even offering up a new monoplane design in the shape of the Fairey Hendon. The Air Ministry weren’t interested and the Ava joined the list of Avro’s failed attempts to produce an operational bomber.


Crew: 5
Length: 58 ft 3 in (17.75 m)
Wingspan: 96 ft 10 in (29.51 m)
Height: 19 ft 7¾ in (5.99 m)
Empty weight: 12,760 lb (5,788 kg)
Max. takeoff weight: 19,920 lb (9,036 kg)
Powerplant: 2 × Rolls-Royce Condor III water cooled V-12, 650 hp (485 kW) each
Maximum speed: 115 mph [3] (100 kn, 185 km/h)
3 × 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis Guns (Nose, dorsal and retractable ventral positions)
1 × 21 in (553 mm) torpedo or 4 × 550 lb (250 kg) bombs

The Story of the Anglo-French Variable Geometry (AFVG) Aircraft Project

The advent of the jet engine brought about a revolution in military aircraft the likes of which had not been seen since the Wright Brothers trialled fitting a machine gun to their revolutionary Wright Flyer. Aircraft were becoming faster, could fly higher and carry more weapons than ever before. It literally rewrote the book on aerial warfare but in the early days, like in most technological revolutions, it was wrought with difficulties. Designing the new aircraft to make the most of the jet engine particularly at high speeds resulted in compromised slower speed performance. If we look at the English Electric Lightning, it was designed to climb very high very quickly and accelerate to beyond Mach 2. To achieve this the design team created an aircraft with minimal drag and long sharply swept back wings but this resulted in an aircraft with very poor slow speed, low altitude performance. By comparison the Blackburn Buccaneer was designed to operate at its best at low level and so had very thick wings with rather modest sweep that blessed it with good low level performance but was a relative slouch higher up.

Lightning Red Top

The Lightning was designed for speed and nothing else

Designing aircraft this way was all well and good if it was to have just one mission in mind but the advancement of weapons technology coupled with the increasing costs of fielding fleets of combat aircraft tailored to one role meant that by the advent of the 1960s air forces were increasingly becoming interested in the concept of multi-role aircraft. These aircraft could be configured to attack an enemy airfield one day, carry out reconnaissance the next day and still be adept enough at air-to-air combat to defend itself. It was not an entirely new concept with most fighter aircraft during World War II being used in the ground attack role at some point although they were not as effective as dedicated attack aircraft.

Just how such an aircraft should be designed was the problem facing aerospace engineers of the day. Should it emphasize high speed and altitude performance with a sharply swept, possibly delta, wing or should emphasis be on low level performance where the speeds aren’t as high and so a less sharply swept wing offers the best performance? The answer, many thought, lay in a wing that could change its level of sweep to suit the flight parameters that were required of it at any given time. Where speed was needed the wings could be swept fully back to improve aerodynamic performance but at slower speeds the wings could be swept forward to improve handling. Additionally, the wings could be swept fully forward for landing and take-off to produce the maximum lift thus reducing take-off distance and landing speeds.

Messerschmitt Me P.1101

Messerschmitt P.1101 (The-Blueprints.com)

This was the birth of the golden age of variable-geometry wings known more commonly as “swing wings” and there were many proposals for their application in military aircraft. In Britain, a very early leap in to the world of variable-geometry wing technology began when Westland produced the Westland-Hill Pterodactyl experimental aircraft in the 1920s and 1930s that had pivoting wing tips. The Germans took a far greater interest in variable-geometry technology producing the Messerschmitt Me P.1101 although its wings could not be altered in-flight. Instead the aircraft had to be configured on the ground for the type of flight it was expected to undertake. After the war the P.1101 project was transferred to the United States and Bell Aircraft developed the X-5 test aircraft based on Messerschmitt’s research. Back in the UK, the famed inventor of the Vickers Wellington bomber and the “bouncing bomb” used by the Dambusters, Barnes Wallis, proposed a number of tailless designs with variable geometry wings for airliners and bombers but even his genius found stiff opposition from more conservative elements within the Air Ministry.

The problem was the technology for variable-geometry winged aircraft was still very primitive and faced a number of obstacles the biggest one being the sheer weight of the mechanisms used for pivoting the wings. This necessitated a large design with very powerful engines to get it airborne and still have performance comparable to more conventional aircraft. Then there were the problems of having pivoting pylons for weapons so that as the wings swept back they would keep facing forwards; something Soviet engineers didn’t really address with their variable-geometry aircraft until the Sukhoi Su-24. Nevertheless, aircraft technology and research in variable-geometry wings continued through the 1950s at an almost breakneck pace.

Canberra PR.7

GOR.339 sought a replacement for the Canberra medium bomber

In 1957, the British Ministry of Supply issued General Operational Requirement 339 (GOR.339) to Britain’s plethora of aviation companies. The requirement recognised the impending obsolescence of the English Electric Canberra medium bomber in the face of the new high performance Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) being fielded by the Soviet Union and sought a replacement. The requirement went further than simply replacing the Canberra however. It outlined a highly advanced aircraft capable of carrying out several types of combat and reconnaissance (including electronic reconnaissance) missions in the face of a dense threat environment at very low level and high speed. In the typical British pluckiness of the 1950s, Britain’s aviation companies which were revered around the world for their technical skill rose to the challenge.

But 1957 would prove a bad year for manned aircraft development in the UK.

The ink was barely dry on the papers outlining the requirement when the Conservative Government Defence Minister, Duncan Sandys, issued his now notorious 1957 White Paper that brutally cancelled nearly all manned aircraft development on the belief that within the following decade, guided missiles would render them obsolete. GOR.339 managed to survive the chopping board, it possibly being seen as something of a stop-gap until such missiles were made ready, but it was not left unscathed and it was clear that no company’s submission would be taken seriously if it were not in partnership with another. The reasoning behind this was that with few-to-no orders in the foreseeable future the remaining companies would have to settle for shares in all future aircraft projects if they wanted to survive. It was the beginning of the so-called “rationalisation” of the British aviation industry.


BAC TSR.2 (commons.wikimedia)

One such company that responded to GOR.339 was Vickers-Armstrong with whom Barnes Wallis had carried out a lot of his research in to variable-geometry wing technology. Vickers-Armstrong examined ways that the technology could be applied to an aircraft that met the requirements of GOR.339 but when the company was absorbed in to the British Aircraft Corporation or BAC in 1960 the decision was eventually taken to adopt an advanced thin wing design put forward by English Electric in to what became the BAC TSR.2.

However, this was far from the end of the story. BAC still had an interest in variable-geometry wings spurred on by events in the United States where the sophisticated General Dynamics F-111 was taking shape. With TSR.2 set to replace the Canberra, BAC decided to start work on developing an aircraft that could replace the RAF’s fleet of fighter-bombers and light attack aircraft such as the Hawker Hunter FGA.9 that would make use of variable-geometry wings. Designated the P.45 the project did not have official government backing instead being carried out on BAC’s own time and money. Two proposals were put forward for powering the aircraft the first of which saw it powered by two RB.172 turbofan engines based on the French Adour fitted with an afterburner that would have produced around 13,500lbs of thrust for the aircraft. The other proposal called for it to be powered by a single afterburning RB.168 Spey low-bypass turbofan engine which promised even more power but was still under development when BAC approached the government with their project in 1964 (early versions of the engine were only just being fitted to the BAC 1-11 at the time).


BAC P.45 proposal (North West Heritage)

BAC’s timing could not have been worse.

In October 1964, Harold Wilson’s Labour government took power and very quickly began mopping up the survivors of their Conservative predecessor’s 1957 cull of British aircraft development. Within a year the TSR.2 was taken outside and shot; quite literally as some of the completed airframes were used to test the effects of bullets on modern combat aircraft. Not having been financed by the government in the first place the P.45 project survived but without any real financial support was left in limbo.

TSR.2 ii

Scrapped TSR.2s (Key)

Just as British military aircraft development appeared to be coming to an end the new government put forward a vision for its future and that lay in collaborating with other countries. There were a number of benefits to such a policy the biggest being of course the cost. Britain could work with a partner nation on developing an aircraft to suit its needs but only have to contribute a portion of the development and manufacturing costs. This would keep the aviation industry alive and generate a modest return in export sales. It would also have political advantages by strengthening ties both industrially and militarily with the partner nation.

The ideal choice for a partner nation would have been the United States but in the mid-1960s the US economy was booming and this fuelled a defence policy still traumatised by the Cuban Missile Crisis. The US had little to gain from collaborating on defence projects with the UK or anyone else but had plenty to gain from exporting its aircraft to her allies under the Mutual Assistance Program (MAP). Therefore, the UK turned to both an old ally and even older rival; France.

Compared to the UK the French military aviation scene was alive and well thanks in no small part to Dassault’s legendary Mirage III series of supersonic fighter-bombers. The Mirage III, while it certainly looked advanced for its day, was actually a relatively primitive aircraft when compared to the latest US warplanes and while the Mirage did sell reasonably well in Europe it was clear the Americans were leading the pack in sales. What France needed was to develop a technologically advanced but affordable aircraft to meet its own needs and challenge US supremacy in Europe and so Britain and France found themselves turning to one another to start what was an unprecedented aviation partnership. The two countries began looking at their requirements to find those that matched so that work could begin on developing an aircraft to meet both needs. One such project called for an advanced weapons trainer and light attack aircraft and this would lead to the superlative SEPECAT Jaguar while in the civil sector a new project began to show off just what European ingenuity could achieve; a supersonic airliner.

In this new spirit of cooperation work on the P.45 was finally given government support when on May 17th 1965 the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding setting out the guidelines for a new European variable-geometry combat aircraft. It was to be called the Anglo-French Variable-Geometry (AFVG) aircraft and a lot was expected of it to say the least. The French were satisfied that their skies were safe with their fleet of Mirage IIIs backed up by NATO and so wanted the aircraft tailored more closely to the strike role. In the UK however the need for a replacement for the English Electric Lightning interceptor fleet was a high priority and so the British wanted an advanced interceptor armed with Beyond Visual Range (BVR) weapons. The French Navy also had a requirement for a carrier capable version tailored primarily for the fighter role although by this time the Royal Navy had settled on the McDonnel Douglas F-4 Phantom II fitted with British engines for its needs.

BAC worked with the French company Breguet Aviation on what would become the SEPECAT Jaguar on the understanding that Breguet would have the lead in the project. As compensation, the French agreed that the UK and BAC should take the lead on the AFVG project working with Dassault Aviation. For the head of Dassault Aviation, Marcel Dassault, this was intolerable. A stout nationalist and aggressive industrialist, Dassault felt his company was going to be weakened by having to play second-fiddle to the British losing both prestige and a percentage of profits from export sales. Even more crucially his company had initiated work on their own variable-geometry aircraft the year before the Anglo-French agreement and wanted to pursue that to meet the French requirements and export overseas.

Dassault Mirage IVA

Dassault Mirage IV (combatace.com)

Dassault would be momentarily silenced in to cooperation however when the position his company was forced in to with BAC had a potentially profitable side effect. The cancellation of TSR.2 left a void in the RAF’s plans for the future which Harold Wilson’s government wanted to fill by buying the expensive and sophisticated General Dynamics F-111K which would be built in the US. With the government not having signed the contract for them yet, BAC turned to Dassault and proposed developing Dassault’s Mirage IV bomber to meet the requirement. The anglicised Mirage IV (known as Mirage IVK or Mirage IV* depending on the source) would be powered by Rolls-Royce Spey engines and feature a weapons package based on that developed for the TSR.2. BAC believed the aircraft could carry out virtually all the roles expected of the TSR.2 and still undercut the American F-111K project as well as keeping BAC employees working until AFVG production ramped up. There were rumours that the French air force was also interested in their own version powered by the more advanced and capable Spey.

Wilson and his Secretary of State for Defence, Dennis Healey, were having none of it however. With the criticism they had received for the cancellation of TSR.2 fresh in their minds they weren’t about to start funding development of another aircraft for the role even one based on an existing airframe already in service with a trusted ally. There were also political considerations to address such as the consequences of apparently preferring a French aircraft over an American one and what that might do to Anglo-US relations especially when the role envisioned was part of the US-led Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) for dealing with the Soviets which meant carrying nuclear weaponry. BAC and Dassault were told in no uncertain terms to drop the idea and concentrate on the AFVG. This only further angered Marcel Dassault which in turn increased his resentment of his company’s position within the AFVG partnership.

AFVG 1965

Early AFVG sketch (commons.wikimedia)

Regardless of Dassault’s objections, the British and French went to work on the aircraft trying their best to reach some kind of agreement on specifications that would suit both British and French needs. As the project went on in to 1966 the aircraft was finally beginning to shape up on paper at least. It was broadly in the same class as the McDonnel Douglas F-4 Phantom II in terms of projected size and weight and similarly would have a crew of two; a pilot and navigator/weapons operator to handle the advanced weapon systems.

Just as BAC and Dassault collaborated on the airframe, Bristol-Siddeley and SNECMA collaborated on the powerplant. The engine chosen was the Bristol-Siddeley/SNECMA M453G turbofan of which there would be two mounted in the rear fuselage with air fed from two intakes mounted forward of the main wing spar. These were unmistakably of Dassault origin resembling those fitted to the Mirage including the distinctive half-shock cone inlets. The M453G was based on a civil engine that was partly funded by the West German government who wanted it to power the VFW-Fokker 614 twin-engined jetliner. The M453G was listed as being rated at 7,100lbs of thrust increasing to 12,230lbs when the afterburner was engaged. The design team believed that with this engine the aircraft would have a service ceiling of 60,000ft and a maximum speed of Mach 2.5 both of which were quite lofty goals for the time.

As the AFVG was gathering momentum however, events outside of the design team’s control began to interfere. By the start of 1966, France’s position in NATO was reaching breaking point. French President, Charles de Gaulle, had grown increasingly frustrated with US dominance within the alliance and on the European continent in general and had instigated a policy of making France free of US influence. This included France building its own nuclear deterrent but when NATO rejected France’s increasing demands for more authority within the alliance as well as trying to coax NATO to support their actions in their former African colonies the French took the drastic step of withdrawing from NATO. US forces based in France were ordered to leave in March 1966 and while French pride may have had a sudden boost its armed forces were worried by the resultant weakening of their defence particularly in the air. Consequently, the French started to look at the AFVG more as a fighter rather than a strike aircraft as they had originally conceived it.

RAF Phantom FGR.2 AIM-9L

RAF Phantom (massoss.com)

This should have played in to the design team’s hands since now they had a much narrower set of requirements to work with since the British and the French Navy had entered the project on the basis of building a missile armed interceptor. However, across the English Channel the Royal Air Force was now finding itself being handed a number of surplus Phantoms from the Royal Navy as Wilson’s government began to decimate the carrier force. The first RAF Phantoms, diverted from a Royal Navy order, were to be based in the UK supporting the Lightning force in the air defence role. This in turn led to the RAF deciding to acquire more Phantoms for use in the close air support and strike roles in Germany until the mid-1970s when they would adopt the fighter role completely from the Lightning. The RAF would therefore need a strike aircraft to replace the strike-role Phantoms in Germany during the 1970s and began to look at the AFVG as the answer to this requirement (ultimately the Jaguar would fulfil this role).

Therefore, somewhat incredibly both countries had reversed their position on just what role they wanted the AFVG to undertake in less than a year with the French now wanting a fighter and the British wanting a strike aircraft. This only further delayed development work as the specifications were revised again and again. Even worse, the UK government was blundering its way through its F-111K acquisition with the Americans and there was talk of rather than the AFVG supporting the F-111K it was going to have to replace it which increased Britain’s requirements for the type even further only to have it then denied and the previous requirements reinstated.

It was madness.

If there didn’t already seem like there was a conspiracy to collapse the project, it was then revealed that Dassault had been building a prototype of their own variable-geometry aircraft the Mirage G as well as working on the AFVG with BAC. This was in-effect a technology demonstrator proving the variable-geometry concept could work and was intended to lay the groundwork for future all-French aircraft just as Marcel Dassault had wanted from the start. The British sensed treachery but the French government insisted it remained committed to the AFVG.

BAC Dassault AFVG

Full-scale mock-up of the AFVG under construction

In order to throw off the stigma of the AFVG being a paper design, BAC began work on the first full scale mock-up to display in 1967 but despite their promises the French were already showing signs of pulling out due to a combination of projected costs spiralling and the increasing criticism of AFVG by junior partner, Dassault Aviation. With the mock-up almost completed, France finally withdrew from the AFVG project in June 1967 citing cost grounds. It came as little surprise to those involved in the project from BAC who had known for a while that the French had lost any genuine interest in it. For the RAF, and certainly Britain’s reputation, worse was to come in November 1967 when the F-111K was cancelled forcing them to absorb more of the Royal Navy’s hand-me-down aircraft such as the Blackburn Buccaneer and McDonnel Douglas Phantom to at long last replace the ageing Canberra.

Feeling somewhat numbed by the whole appalling affair there were mutterings of BAC going it alone and trying to complete the AFVG aircraft as an all-British design. The AFVG title was dropped, replaced by the rather unimaginative name UKVG standing for United Kingdom Variable-Geometry but funding only trickled down it being just enough to keep it alive at least in research form. Despite the shambolic partnership with the French, which to be fair both sides have to share a certain amount of blame, the British government once again told BAC that they had to find European partners if they wanted to turn the UKVG in to an operational aircraft.

The initial response from Europe was far from encouraging but in 1968 fortune finally began to favour the project’s prospects. In what had been dubbed the “sale of the century”, the Lockheed corporation in America had sold vast numbers of their F-104 Starfighters to European nations in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Soon the aircraft was going to need replacing and a research program comprising of a number of F-104 operators such as Belgium, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands and West Germany was set up to look in to developing and building a common NATO-oriented multi-role aircraft to replace the Starfighter. Although not an F-104 operator, Britain managed to negotiate itself in to the study with the intention of submitting the UKVG as a contender. The pitch worked and on March 26th 1969 the UK, West Germany, Italy and the Netherlands (who would later wihdraw) formed a multi-national consortium to develop what was now termed the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) and the starting point was the work carried out on the AFVG and UKVG. Thus, from the ashes of the AFVG rose a phoenix in the form of the Panavia Tornado.

RAF Tornado GR4The Tornado has secured itself a place in British military history as one of the greatest aircraft ever fielded by the RAF proving exceptionally capable in the low-level strike role and being able to adopt a wide array of roles. The RAF even adopted a dedicated fighter variant in the form of the Tornado F.3 which has now been replaced by the Typhoon, another European aircraft built on the foundations laid by Tornado. The Tornado continues in British service today in its highly upgraded GR.4 form and while it may be in the twilight of its career it is still defending the realm battling Islamic State in the Middle East using precision guided weapons.

While the Tornado bears only a superficial resemblance to the AFVG/UKVG it would not have been possible without it.

Royal Aircraft Factory A.E.3 – The Farnborough Ram

Royal Aircraft Factory A.E.3

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.

Royal Aircraft Factory N.E.1At 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 Royal Aircraft Factory A.E.3. ii jpgfrom 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:
  • Armament:
    2x forward firing .303 Lewis machine guns
    1x pillar mounted .303 Lewis machine gun for self defence



Supermarine Spitfire Mk.III

Spitfire III 2

The legend of the Supermarine Spitfire was forged in the skies over Britain during the summer of 1940. The graceful looking aircraft made it easy for the British media spindoctors to turn R.J. Mitchell’s design in to an unbeatable weapon of war as far as the public image was concerned but this hid the truth that already its shortcomings were becoming obvious even before the Battle of Britain and the early Spitfire Mk.I and the slightly improved Mk.II would need replacing by 1941.

The Supermarine engineers returned to the drawing board and looked at almost every aspect of the aircraft taking in to account the lessons learned from the early experiences in service. Assigned the in-house designation of Supermarine Type 330 the Spitfire Mk.III would need to be faster than its predecessors in order to allow it to keep up with the latest German fighters and to achieve that the Rolls-Royce RM 2SM engine (later redesignated Merlin XX) was chosen to power the new type. This provided an additional 215hp over the Merlin XII as fitted to the Spitfire Mk.II and was the first Merlin engine to feature a two-speed supercharger.

Not satisfied with simply putting a more powerful engine in the aircraft the designers at Supermarine incorporated a number of aerodynamic improvements including the fitting of doors over the wheels that closed when they were retracted in to the wing thus preventing the space around the wheel from producing drag. Additionally the tail wheel was made to retract in to the rear fuselage and the armoured windscreen was moved inside the cockpit both of which improved aerodynamic efficiency.

Spitfire IIIPerhaps the most noticeable change was the cropping of the Spitfire’s signature pointed wingtips making them come to a flat straight line. This reduced the Spitfire III’s wing span from 36ft 10in in the Mk.I/II to 30ft 6in which improved roll rate at lower levels, something for which the Spitfire was found to be lacking compared to its rivals, but high altitude performance dropped off slightly. The reduced forward cross section of the aircraft with cropped wings also helped improve acceleration by reducing drag. The wing was essentially a modified “c” wing which allowed the aircraft to be fitted with different weapon options (see below). A less obvious change to the aircraft was a 7in fuselage extension to fit the engine and balance it out.

All these efforts resulted in the first Spitfire III being able to attain a maximum speed of 400mph at 21,000ft, almost 50mph faster than the previous Spitfires. This offered a big advantage in the air compared to some of the aircraft’s rivals in late 1940;

  • Messerschmitt Bf109E – 336mph at 19,685ft
  • Macchi C.202 – 372mph at 18,370ft

The first Spitfire Mk.III was N3297 and the aircraft first flew on March 16th 1940. Testing of the aircraft continued despite the constraints of the Battle of Britain that was raging overhead and the RAF was sufficiently interested in the aircraft to eventually put in place a production order for over 1,000 aircraft with deliveries to begin in early 1941. However the Merlin XX was already earmarked for use in the Hawker Hurricane Mk.II project which was seen as a higher priority largely thanks to the fact that the Hurricane needed the uprated engine more than the Spitfire to make up for its shortfalls in combat with the Bf109. The Spitfire Mk.III was not abandoned but merely put on hold and N3297 continued testing in order to perfect the design.

As 1941 came it was becoming increasingly clear that the window for the aircraft to enjoy its advantages to the fullest was rapidly closing thanks to the Merlin XXs going to the Hurricane. Also Rolls-Royce was already developing their Merlin 45 series of engines which would ultimately power the Spitifre Mk.V which was ordered in to production in late 1940 with the first examples arriving just a few months later. Despite this the Spitfire Mk.III prototype was providing a lot of useful data to Supermarine allowing them to fine-tune the airframe changes and incorporate them in to production Spitfires. A second aircraft, Spitfire Mk.V W3237, was configured to an almost identical standard (minus the retractable tailwheel) to continue Mk.III testing while N3297 was fitted with a standard “A” wing and delivered to Rolls-Royce for engine testing eventually being fitted with the first Merlin 61 engine that would be used in the Spitfire Mk.VIII and IX. Even with a second prototype the Spitfire Mk.III project was now cancelled altogether but W3237 continued testing until 1944 to support development work on newer model Spitfires.

While the Spitfire Mk.III was a non-starter the fruits of the testing carried out by the two prototypes can be seen in many of the improvements made to the later Spitfire marks such as cropped wings and doors over the landing gear. The Merlin XX did find its way in to around 50 Spitfire II aircraft converted for use in the air-sea rescue role.


ENGINE: 1 x 1,390hp Rolls-Royce Merlin XX inline engine

MAX SPEED: 400mph at 21,000ft

WINGSPAN: 30ft 6in

LENGTH: 30ft 4in

HEIGHT: 9ft 10in

WING AREA: 220ft2


  • 8x .303 (7.7mm) Browning machine guns
  • 2x 20mm Hispano cannons / 4x .303 (7.7) browning machine guns
  • 4x 20mm Hispano cannons

Sopwith Snark

Sopwith Snark showing off its triplane configuration (flyingmachines.ru)

Sopwith Snark showing off its triplane configuration (flyingmachines.ru)

Sopwith’s Last Fighter

The famed blood-red triplane design of the Red Baron Manfred Von Richthofen’s Fokker Dr.I became the iconic image of the air war over the Western Front of World War I. Richthofen’s Dr.I became an indispensable tool for the German propaganda machine and in an age of countless biplane designs there was a feeling in the general public that this “extra wing” was what made Richthofen so unbeatable in the air.

In reality the triplane design was something of fad in aviation design that was quickly falling out of favour. Triplanes had the advantage of being able to use shorter span wings with the same or even greater levels of agility than an equivalent biplane which made them smaller targets in the air than an equivalent De Havilland DH.4. The trade-off however was that triplanes were often heavier than their biplane counterparts and incurred far more drag. They were also prone to cross wind interference which was especially dangerous on landing. As the air war dragged on over the trenches it became increasingly obvious that speed was going to be the deciding factor and the newer biplanes were able to surpass even the feared the Dr.I in this respect.

1917 Sopwith Triplane (Commons.wikimedia)

1917 Sopwith Triplane (Commons.wikimedia)

Nevertheless some aircraft designers persevered with the configuration believing they could find a balance between the agility a triplane offered and the speed of the latest biplanes. One such company was Sopwith of Great Britain who had produced the near legendary Sopwith Camel, Snipe and Pup fighters. Sopwith had long been a proponent of triplane designs and in early 1917 their appropriately named Sopwith Triplane fighter entered very limited service with the Royal Naval Air Service.

Spurred on by this brief success Sopwith decided to return to the triplane configuration when in early 1918 the Air Ministry requested proposals for a replacement for the Snipe. Sopwith knew that the triplane was falling out of favour and took no chances designing a common fuselage and tail section that could be fitted with either a biplane or triplane configuration. This produced two aircraft the Snapper (biplane) and the Snark (triplane). As designed the Snark had a wooden monocoque fuselage with equal span single-bay wings each fitted with ailerons for a high degree of agility. The wings were unequally spaced and staggered with the gap between the mid and upper wings being less than that between the lower and mid wings.

Included in the specification was the requirement for the aircraft to be powered by the ABC Motors Ltd Dragonfly I 320hp engine then under development. The Dragonfly was an air cooled radial engine which promised very high performance and based on this promise the Air Ministry decided it was to become the main engine for the next series of combat aircraft for the newly formed Royal Air Force. For the aircraft manufacturers this would prove to be a frustrating and costly decision for the aeroengine proved extremely problematic and ABC constantly had to push back its service entry. This delayed numerous aircraft projects such as the promising Avro 533 Manchester bomber and Sopwith’s Snark.

Snark prototype (Aviastar.org)

Snark prototype (Aviastar.org)

Despite the problems with the engine the Air Ministry was sufficiently interested in Sopwith’s Snark to order three prototypes for testing on May 14th 1918. One of the aircraft’s main selling points was that for its day it had an exceptionally heavy armament. Nearly all British aircraft of the period had the proven configuration of two .303 (7.7mm) Lewis machine guns mounted forward of the pilot synchronized with the propeller and indeed the Snark did feature two such weapons. Additionally however the aircraft featured four more Lewis guns under the lower wing firing outside of the propeller arc; a configuration more akin to World War Two fighters. Despite the fact that the pilot couldn’t reach these weapons in-flight to reload them or correct a jam it did mean that the Snark had huge potential as a bomber destroyer although the weapons did add even more weight to the aircraft.

Sopwith’s engineers worked steadily to produce the three prototype airframes by October 1918 but the Dragonfly I engine was nowhere to be seen and so the three prototypes sat grounded until finally the first Dragonfly I aeroengine was delivered in early 1919 well after the armistice ended the war it was designed to fight in. The aircraft finally took flight sometime in July 1919 (exact date is unknown) and the first flying prototype arrived at Martlesham Heath for official trials on the 12th of November 1919. The other two prototypes still had to wait for their engines to be delivered and the second prototype didn’t reach Martlesham until March 17th 1920 while the third prototype, which was fitted with a 360hp Dragonfly la engine, didn’t arrive until much later in the year.

Testing must have been a sullen experience for those involved from Sopwith. The company was in trouble and a lot was riding on the Snark’s success. Testing of the first two prototypes revealed that it had fine handling qualities being quite responsive although not as nimble as previous triplanes. It achieved a top speed of 130mph, 9mph faster than the Snipe it was to replace, but this came at a price. The loathsome Dragonfly engine was not yet finished ruining the Snark’s prospects and proved horribly unreliable being prone to overheating in flight. Testing continued at a relaxed pace in to 1921 but by then the requirement for a Snipe replacement was brought in to question as the RAF found itself watching every single penny almost lecherously. The detection of deterioration in the fuselage structure sounded the death knell for the Snark and all three were written off by the end of the year.

It was a sad end to the great Sopwith Company who had been at the forefront of British fighter technology throughout the war. Even before the Snark project ended the company had gone in to liquidation it being unable to survive in the harsh post war climate where its expertise in fighter design was no longer wanted.


  • ENGINE: 1 x 320hp ABC Dragonfly radial engine
  • MAX SPEED: 130 mph
  • WINGSPAN: 8.08m (27ft 6in)
  • LENGTH: 6.25m (21ft 6in)
  • HEIGHT: 3.30m (11ft 10in)
  • WING AREA: 29.91 m2 (321.95 sq ft)
  • ARMAMENT: 6x .303 (7.7mm) Lewis Mchine guns