by Budd Davisson
When World War One broke out in 1914, the airplane was barely eleven years old and was nothing more than a plodding, noisy kite barely more dangerous than an observation balloon. As a weapon, it was difficult to take seriously. Four short years later it had been transformed into a multi-dimensional weapon system of awesome potential and the Royal Airplane Factory’s S.E.5a is a classic case in point. It showed clearly that in time of war man quickly finds more efficient ways rain death on his enemy.
The Scout Experimental 5, (S.E.5) was designed specifically to eliminate the awful short comings aircraft such as the Sopwith Camel, while at the same time, giving it a combat edge over Germanyís lethal Fokkers. The heart of the design for the SE-5 was the Hispano Suiza, liquid cooled V-8. Here was a 150 hp, easily controlled engine that was much easier for the neophyte pilot to operate and it didnít constantly try to twist the airplane into a pretzel as did the whirling rotary of the Camel.
The less cantankerous engine was coupled with an airframe that replaced the fragile bones of the Camel with a robustness that would stand the new pilot in good stead both in combat and in day-to-day operations. It was an extremely easy airplane to take off and land, something that absolutely could not be said about the Camel and itís all-or-nothing kill switch engine control. Moreover, when being thrown around during a dogfight, it was working with the pilot, where the Camel often fought its pilot requiring him to compensate for its eccentricities. Although not as maneuverable as the Camel, the SE-5 was much easier to fly (read that as less dangerous), and this meant a pilot could concentrate on killing his enemy rather than being killed by his own airplane. Because of this, the RAF could take a fledgling pilot and make him into an effective aerial warrior in a much shorter period of time.
The original 150 hp SE-5 had little effect because of reliability problems and the limited number to reach the front. However, by 1918, the 150 Hispano Suiza had been replaced with the more powerful, geared 200 hp Hispano and later the Wolseley Viper, which gave rise to the ìaî in SE-5a. With either engine the airplane carried a synchronized Vickers, belt-fed .303 caliber machine gun firing through the propeller and a drum-fed-Lewis gun on the top wing in a sliding mount. The Lewis could be fired straight ahead over the prop or upwards at an oblique angle. The ability to fire upward let the SE-5a pilot shoot into the belly of an unsuspecting enemy or fire across the circle, when in a dogfight.
Fast (135 mph), easy to fly, with a high rate of climb, the SE-5a became an ace-maker, including Mick Mannock (73 kills) and Billy Bishop (72 kills). The fact that the SE-5a was in combat barely a year, speaks volumes: In that short period of time, the airplane cut a swath through the enemy and, in so doing earned itself a place in history’s fighter hall of fame.