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

Sunday, September 10, 2023

An SE5 Ace Looks Back

Lt. Cecil Lewis

Just before my nineteenth birthday I was posted to London Colney to join No. 56 Squadron, which was then forming to go overseas. The squadron was to be equipped with the SE 5, the last word in fighting-scouts, turned out by the Royal Aircraft Factory. It was fitted with a 140-h.p. Hispano Suiza engine and two guns: one Vickers, synchonized, and firing through the propeller by means of the new Constantinesco gear; and one Lewis gun, clamped on to the top plane firing over the propeller. To change the drums, the Lewis could be pulled down on a quadrant mounting, and in this position it could, if necessary, be fired straight upwards.

The machine (for 1917) was quite fast. It would do about a hundred and twenty on the level and climb ten thousand feet in twelve minutes. It could be looped and rolled and dived vertically without breaking up. Altogether it was a firstclass fighting-scout (probably the most successful designed during the war), and was relied upon to re-establish the Allied air supremacy lost during the winter.

[Later back on the Western Front] Offensive Patrols were carried out daily, and, unfortunately, it soon became clear that, good as the SE 5 was, it was still not equal to the enemy...Later, when the SE 5 got a larger motor [SE 5a, ed.] things looked up.

Cecil Lewis, Sagittarius Rising

Note:  Cecil A. Lewis (1898-1997) flew in the Royal Flying Corps between 1915 and 1918. After lying about his age to become a combat pilot, he qualified as an ace by downing eight aircraft during May and June of 1917. Lewis spent four months over the battlefield at the Somme, during which he won the Military Cross. He also served as a test pilot.

Lewis went on after the war to write numerous aviation-related books, including Sagittarius Rising, and to win an Academy Award for co-writing the screenplay for George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. He served again in the Royal Air Force during World War II.  (From Smithsonian magazine)


  1. Our nations second highest scoring Ace (behind Eddie Rickenbacher) was Col. William C. Lambert, from Ironton, OH, who scored 22 1/2 victories in an SE5a, flying for the RFC.

  2. Is there a vital phrase missing here? "It was fitted with a 140-h.p. Hispano Suiza engine Constantinesco gear..." only makes sense if it reads: "It was fitted with a 140-h.p. Hispano Suiza engine; a Vickers machine gun with Constantinesco synchronising gear, and a Lewis machine gun..... "
    (And the original engine is usually quoted as 150hp)