Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.8
|Role||Pusher biplane fighter|
|Manufacturer||Royal Aircraft Factory, Darracq Motor Engineering, Vickers|
|First flight||September 1915|
|Introduction||2 August 1916|
|Primary user||Royal Flying Corps|
The Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.8 was a British single-seat fighter of the First World War designed at the Royal Aircraft Factory. Although a clean and well designed little aeroplane for a pusher, it could not escape the drag penalty imposed by its tail structure and was no match for the Albatros fighters of late 1916.
Design and development
With the D.H.2, the F.E.8 was one of the first so-called "scout" aircraft designed from the outset as a single-seat fighter. In the absence of a synchronization gear to provide a forward firing machine gun for a tractor scout such as the S.E. 2, it was given a pusher layout.
On the whole the new design, produced by a team led by John Kenworthy followed the conventional "Farman" layout, as did the competing Airco DH.2 designed by Geoffrey de Havilland, who had also previously worked at the Royal Aircraft Factory – but it had some novel features.
The nacelle was, most unusually for the time, an all-metal structure – being framed in steel tube and covered with duralumin. The prototypes were fitted with large streamlined spinners on the propellers, although these were removed, and the production F.E.8s were built without them. The wings had a narrow chord, giving them a high aspect ratio. They featured dihedral outboard of the wide centre section, and the ailerons were of unusually long span – occupying the entire wing trailing edge outboard of the tail booms. The booms themselves were attached to the main spar of the tailplane, rather than the rudder post, giving them taper in side elevation rather than in plan, as more usual in a "Farman" style pusher. This allowed the fitting of a variable incidence tailplane, although this was not adjustable in flight, but only on the ground. A single 100 hp (75 kW) Gnome 9 "Type B2" Monosoupape rotary engine driving a four-bladed propeller powered the aircraft, with the capability of taking the lower-powered Le Rhône 9C 80 hp, nine-cylinder rotary.
The new aircraft made its maiden flight on 15 October 1915, flown by Frank Gooden, who was happy with the aircraft's handling. The aircraft was then armed with a single Lewis gun, which was originally fitted on a movable mount within the nose of the nacelle, with the machine gun's breech almost at the pilot's feet. This proved awkward in practice, and in production machines the gun was mounted directly in front of the pilot, in the manner of the D.H.2. Other changes required before the aircraft entered production included extra fuel to counter criticism from Hugh Trenchard, commander of the Royal Flying Corps in France, that the F.E.8's endurance was too short.
The new fighter was not a great improvement on the D.H.2 – although a little faster it was rather less manoeverable. It was nonetheless ordered into production from Darracq Motor Engineering Company and Vickers. Neither manufacturer delivered their F.E.8s particularly quickly, so that the type ended up reaching the front in numbers six months later than the D.H.2.
The second prototype, serial no. 7457, had a spinner mounted when it was sent to No. 5 Squadron RFC at Abeele for evaluation on 26 December 1915; this spinner was removed before mid-January 1916. No. 7457 became the nearly exclusive mount of Captain Frederick Powell.
A few early production F.E.8s were briefly used by the D.H.2 equipped No. 29 Squadron RFC in June 1916, but it was not until August that No. 40 Squadron became fully operational on the type. The only other unit to be completely equipped with the type, No. 41 Squadron, arrived in France in October.
After a fairly good start, the F.E.8 units quickly ran into problems with the new German fighters. The only ace on the type was Edwin Benbow. On 6 March 1917 he was credited with shooting down a German fighter, very probably that of Manfred von Richthofen, who force landed with a holed fuel tank, narrowly escaping incineration.
Just three days later, on 9 March, 40 squadron was again involved with Jagdstaffel 11, when nine F.E.8 were engaged by five Albatros D.IIIs led by the Baron himself. Four F.E.8s were shot down, four others badly damaged, and the survivor caught fire when landing. After this disaster No. 40 Squadron was re-equipped with Nieuports but No. 41 kept their pushers until July 1917 – becoming the last single-seat pusher fighter squadron in France, using them for ground attack duties during the Battle of Messines.
Two F.E.8s were sent to Home Defence units in 1917, but the type was not adopted as a home defence fighter.
Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome's founder, Cole Palen, built the first known flyable reproduction of an F.E.8, which is believed to have first flown in 1970 at Old Rhinebeck with a Le Rhône 9C 80 hp rotary engine. It flew in the weekend air shows at Old Rhinebeck for a number of years, before being retired. It is currently on loan to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.
The Owls Head Transportation Museum in Maine has another F.E.8 reproduction in its collection, powered by a modern air-cooled, horizontally opposed engine. It was built in California, before being flown cross country and donated to the Museum upon arrival.
Specifications (F.E.8 (Le Rhône engine))
Data from War Planes of the First World War 
- Crew: One
- Length: 23ft 8 in (7.21 m)
- Wingspan: 31 ft 6 in (9.6 m)
- Height: 9 ft 2 in (2.8 m)
- Wing area: 218 ft² (20.25 m²)
- Empty weight: 960 lb (406 kg)
- Loaded weight: 1,470 lb (668 kg)
- Powerplant: 1 × Le Rhône 9J nine-cylinder air-cooled rotary engine, 110 hp (82 kW)
- Maximum speed: 93.6 mph (151 km/h, 81 knots)
- Service ceiling: 14,500 ft (4,420 m)
- Climb to 6,000 ft (1,830 m):8 min 20 sec
- Endurance: 2.5 hours (Monosoupape engine)
Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era
- Hare 1990, p.87.
- Hare 1990, p. 227.
- Hare 1990, p. 228.
- Cheesman 1960, p. 46.
- Guttman 2009, pp. 60–61.
- Bruce 1982, pp. 434–435.
- Bruce 1957, p. 406.
- Guttman 2009, p. 91.
- Bruce 1968, p. 58.
- Bruce 1982, p. 436.
- Bruce 1968, p. 59.
- Bruce, J.M. The Aeroplanes of the Royal Flying Corps (Military Wing). London: Putnam, 1982. ISBN 0-370-30084-X.
- Bruce, J.M. British Aeroplanes 1914–18. London: Putnam, 1957.
- Bruce, J.M. Warplanes of the First World War: Volume 2 Fighters. London: Macdonald, 1968. ISBN 0-356-01473-8.
- Cheesman, E.F. (ed.) Fighter Aircraft of the 1914–1918 War Letchworth, UK: Harleyford, 1960.
- Guttman, Jon. Pusher Aces of World War 1 (Aircraft of the Aces #88). London: Osprey Publishing Co, 2009. ISBN 978-1-84603-417-6.
- Hare, Paul R. The Royal Aircraft Factory. London:Putnam, 1990. ISBN 0-85177-843-7.
- Taylor, John W.R. "F.E.8". Combat Aircraft of the World from 1909 to the Present. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1969. ISBN 0-425-03633-2.
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