Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Biggles's First Fighter

What is that pusher-type aircraft  that is about to be crash-landed  by Captain W.E. Johns's character,  James Bigglesworth, aka Biggles, shown on the book cover above?  It is an F.E. 2b from the Royal Aircraft Factory that Biggles flew when he  started his operational career in the fictional 169 Squadron.  It was a most interesting airplane of the Great War and surprisingly saw service for three years on the Western Front, right up to the Armistice (and beyond).

First introduced as a two-seat fighter on the Western Front in late 1915, the Beardmore-engined Royal Aircraft Factory F.E. 2b and its successor the similar Rolls-Royce engined F.E. 2d were later used extensively in the night bomber role in Europe, which is the variant represented by the RAF Museum's aircraft at Hendon.

When the RAF was formed on 1 April 1918, there were seven squadrons of F.E.2s serving as night bombers and a further four squadrons of the type used for night flying training. The last of the type in frontline service served with occupation forces in Germany until March 1919. The pilot occupied the rear cockpit and the gunner the front, giving his one or two Lewis machine guns an unobstructed field of fire of over 180 degrees. Used in offensive patrols over enemy lines to escort unarmed reconnaissance aircraft, with a 160hp Beardmore engine giving a maximum speed at sea level of 147km/h/91.5 mph, the F.E.2s were generally outperformed by German fighter aircraft by late 1916 which led to their nighttime rather than daytime use. The F.E.2b was specifically designed for large-scale wartime production by companies inexperienced in aircraft production.

Note the Gunner's Rather Precarious Situation

The life of the gunner/observer on the F.E. 2b was especially exciting.  The arrangement was described by Frederick Libby, an American ace who served as an F.E.2b observer in 1916:

When you stood up to shoot, all of you from the knees up was exposed to the elements. There was no belt to hold you. Only your grip on the gun and the sides of the nacelle stood between you and eternity. Toward the front of the nacelle was a hollow steel rod with a swivel mount to which the gun was anchored. This gun covered a huge field of fire forward. Between the observer and the pilot a second gun was mounted, for firing over the F.E.2d's upper wing to protect the aircraft from rear attack...Adjusting and shooting this gun required that you stand right up out of the nacelle (housing) with your feet on the nacelle coaming. You had nothing to worry about except being blown out of the aircraft by the blast of air or tossed out bodily if the pilot made a wrong move. There were no parachutes and no belts. No wonder they needed observers.

RAF Museum,, Wikipedia, Military Wiki

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