The Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2 was a two-seat pusher biplane that was operated as a day and night bomber and as a fighter aircraft by the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. Along with the single-seat D.H.2 pusher biplane and the Nieuport 11, the F.E.2 was instrumental in ending the Fokker Scourge that had seen the German Air Service establish a measure of air superiority on the Western Front from the late summer of 1915 to the following spring.
Design and development
The F.E.2 (Farman Experimental 2) designation actually refers to three distinct designs - although all were pushers based on the general layout employed by the French aircraft designers, the Farman Brothers. The first F.E.2 was developed by the Royal Aircraft Factory in 1911 by "rebuilding" the F.E.1 - a "boxkite" style biplane designed and built by Geoffrey de Havilland before he joined the Factory's staff. A further design with the "F.E.2" designation came out in 1913, but was destroyed in a fatal crash when the pilot, R. Kemp, lost control while in a dive.To avoid confusion - these designs are covered in the article for the F.E.1.
The F.E.2a that appeared in February 1914 was yet another totally new design, specifically intended as a "fighter". The first production order was placed in August. By this stage, the "pusher" design was becoming obsolete as far as aerodynamic performance was concerned, however, the RFC had not yet solved the problem of firing a machine gun through the propeller of a tractor aircraft (which the Germans were shortly to manage using Anthony Fokker's interrupter gear) and consequently, pushers, with a clear forward field of fire, remained the favoured configuration for fighters.
The F.E.2 was a two-seater with the observer sitting in the nose of the nacelle and the pilot sitting above and behind. The arrangement was described by one pilot as follows:
The observer was armed with one .303 in Lewis machine gun firing forward on a specially designed, swivelling mount that gave it a very wide field of fire. Later, another Lewis was added, mounted to fire backwards over the top wing – however, the observer was required to stand on his seat in order to fire this weapon, which failed to cover a very large "blind spot" under the tail. The observer's perch was a precarious one, especially when firing the rear gun, and he was liable to be thrown out of his cockpit, however, his view was excellent in most important directions. The F.E.2 could also carry a small external bomb load.
The first production batch was for 12 of the initial F.E.2a variant, with a large airbrake under the top centre section, and a Green engine. This was quickly replaced by the main production model, the F.E.2b which was powered by a Beardmore liquid-cooled inline engine, initially the 120 hp (89 kW) version while later F.E.2bs received the 160 hp (119 kW) Beardmore. The airbrake of the "a" having proved unsatisfactory, it was simply omitted. A total of 1,939 F.E.2b/cs were built. The Royal Aircraft Factory itself built only a few, most construction was by private British manufacturers with G & J Weir, Boulton & Paul Ltd and Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies, the main suppliers.
The F.E.2c was an experimental night fighter and bomber variant of the F.E.2b, the main change being the switching of the pilot and observer positions so that the pilot had the best view for night landings. Two were built in 1916, with the designation being re-used in 1918 for a similar night bomber version of the F.E.2b, which was used by 100 Squadron. In the end, the "observer-first" layout was retained for the standard aircraft.
The Royal Aircraft Factory was always primarily a research establishment, and other experiments were carried out using F.E.2bs, including the testing of a generator-powered searchlight attached between two .303 inch (7.7 mm) Lewis guns, apparently for night fighting duties.
The final model was the F.E.2d (386 built) which was powered by a Rolls-Royce Eagle engine with 250 hp (186 kW). While the more powerful engine made little difference in maximum speed, especially at low altitude, it did improve altitude performance, with an extra ten mph at 5,000 ft . The Rolls-Royce engine also improved payload, so that in addition to the two observer's guns, an additional one or two Lewis guns could be mounted to fire forward, operated by the pilot.
While the F.E.2d was replaced by the Bristol Fighter, the older F.E.2b proved an unexpected success as a light tactical night bomber, and remained a standard type in this role for the rest of the war. Its climb rate and ceiling were too poor for it to make a satisfactory night fighter.
The F.E.2b entered service in May 1915 with No. 6 Squadron RFC, which used the F.E.2 in conjunction with B.E.2s and a single Bristol Scout, with the first squadron completely equipped with the F.E.2 being 20 Squadron, deploying to France on 23 January 1916. At this stage it served as a fighter/reconnaissance aircraft - eventually about two thirds of the F.E.2s were built as fighters (816) and one third as bombers (395). The F.E.2b and F.E.2d variants remained in day operations well into 1917 while the "b" continued as a standard night bomber until August 1918. At its peak, the F.E.2b equipped 16 RFC squadrons in France and six Home Defence squadrons in England. On 18 June 1916, German ace Max Immelmann was killed while in combat with F.E.2bs of No. 25 Squadron RFC. The squadron claimed the kill, but the German version is either that Immelmann's Fokker Eindecker broke up after his synchronizer gear failed and he shot off his own propeller, or that he was hit by "friendly fire" from German anti-aircraft guns.
In combat with single seater fighters, the pilots of F.E.2b and F.E.2d fighters would form what is probably the first use of what later became known as a Lufbery circle (defensive circle). In the case of the F.E.2 - the intention was that the gunner of each aircraft could cover the "blind spot" under the tail of his neighbour, and several gunners could fire on any enemy attacking the group.
By autumn 1916, the arrival of more modern German fighters such as the Albatros D.I and Halberstadt D.II meant that even the F.E.2d was outperformed and, by April 1917, it had been withdrawn from offensive patrols. Despite its obsolescence in 1917, the F.E.2 was still well-liked by its crews for its strength and good flight characteristics and it remained a difficult opponent for even the best German aces. Rittmeister Baron von Richthofen was badly wounded in the head during combat with F.E.2d aircraft in June 1917 - the Red Baron, like most German pilots of the period, classed the F.E.2 as a "Vickers" type, confusing it with the earlier Vickers F.B.5.
Although outclassed as a day fighter, the F.E.2 proved very suitable for use at night, and was used both as a night fighter in home defence squadrons on anti-Zeppelin patrols and as a light tactical night bomber. It was first used as a night bomber in November 1916, with the first dedicated F.E.2b night bomber squadrons being formed in February 1917. F.E.2bs continued to be heavily used as night bombers in eight bomber squadrons until the end of the First World War, with up to 860 being converted to, or built as, bombers. Service as a night fighter was less successful, due to the type's poor climb and ceiling.
A total of 35 aircraft derived from the F.E.2 were sold to China in 1919 by Vickers as Vickers Instructional Machines (VIM), to be used as advanced trainers, having a redesigned nacelle fitted with dual controls and powered by a Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII engine. Although acquired as trainers they were used in battles between Chinese warlords. The last combat operations were those in early 1927, when Zhili clique and Fengtian clique warlords joined their forces to defeat Guominjun. VIM in the hands of Fengtian clique warlords continued to fly in training mission until their capture by the Japanese in the Mukden Incident, and the new owner soon disposed the obsolete aircraft.
Derek Robinson's novel War Story is centred around a fictional Hornet Squadron flying the F.E.2b, and later the F.E.2d, giving a realistic, albeit darkly humorous account of flying the fighter in the months leading up to the Battle of the Somme.
Two very authentic reproductions of the Fe2b have been manufactured by The Vintage Aviator Ltd of New Zealand. The first aircraft, ZK-FEE, is scheduled to make its international debut on April 25 2009 at Hood Aerodrome, Masterton.
Data from Warplanes of the First World War: Fighters, Volume Two
Vintage Aviator Co. (NZ) restoration
Published - July 2009
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