Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 (Blériot Experimental 2)

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The Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 was a British single-engine tractor two-seat biplane which was in service with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) from 1912 until the end of World War I. Being an early design, the first models used wing warping. Ailerons were used on later models.

About 3,500 were built. Initially used as front-line reconnaissance aircraft and light bombers; variants of the type were also used as night fighters. Like many warplanes since, the B.E.2 was retained in front line service after it had become obsolete, for want of a suitable replacement. After its belated withdrawal it finally served as a trainer, communications aircraft and on anti-submarine coastal patrol duties.

The B.E.2 was not suited to air-to-air combat but it had a relatively low accident rate, and its notorious stability actually proved helpful in its artillery observation and aerial photography duties.

Early models were two-bay tractor biplanes with rounded, unstaggered wings, using wing warping for roll control. The fuselage was a rectangular section fabric-covered wire-braced structure. The pilot occupied the aft cockpit behind the wings and the observer the forward cockpit. This arrangement meant that the aircraft could be flown with no passenger without affecting the aircraft's centre of gravity.

The B.E.2 was almost identical to the B.E.1, differing principally in being powered by a 60 hp (45 kW) air-cooled Renault V-8 engine and in having equal-span wings. It first flew on 1 February 1912. The Renault proved a much more satisfactory engine than the Wolseley fitted to B.E.1s and performance was further improved when a 70 hp (52 kW) model was fitted in May that year.

The B.E.2 was flown extensively at the Military Aeroplane Competition held on Salisbury Plain in August 1912. Its performance was superior to most of the aircraft competing. On 12 August 1912 it set a British altitude record of 10,560 ft (3,219 m., flown by de Havilland with Major F. H. Sykes as passenger.

Other prototypes of the production B.E.2 series included the B.E.5 and the B.E.6, essentially only differing from the B.E.2 in the engine installed. Both these aircraft were eventually fitted with Renault engines, in which form they were really more-or less standard B.E.2s.

The early models of the B.E. 2 had already served in the RFC for two years prior to the outbreak of war, and were among the aircraft that arrived with the British Expeditionary Force in 1914. However, they had been designed at a time when the role of a warplane was largely a matter for conjecture but their deployment produced a stream of ideas that were incorporated into later designs. Like most other pre-war aircraft, they were relegated to second line duties as quickly as the supply of more modern replacements permitted.

In 1915 the B.E.2c, which had also been designed before the war, replaced the B.E.2a and B.E.2b in the RFC reconnaissance squadrons. The most important difference in the new model was an improvement in stability, a useful characteristic, especially in aerial photographic work, using the primitive plate cameras of the time, with their relatively long exposures. The B.E.2c's performance was less than startling due to the low power engines available at the time. When bombs were to be carried or maximum endurance was required the observer had to be left behind, so it was still necessary to have him sit over the centre of gravity, in front of the pilot. In this awkward position his view was poor, and the degree to which he could handle a camera (or, later, a gun) was hampered by the struts and wires supporting the centre section of the top wing. In practice the pilot of a B.E.2c handled the camera, and the observer, when he was armed at all, had a rather poor field of fire to the rear, having, at best, to shoot back over his pilot's head.

The essential vulnerability of the B.E.2c to fighter attack became plain in late 1915, with the advent of the Fokker Eindecker. This led the British press to dub it "Fokker Fodder", while German pilots nicknamed it Kaltes Fleisch ("cold meat"). British ace Albert Ball summed it up as "a bloody awful aeroplane". Unable to cope with such a primitive fighter as the Fokker E.I, it was virtually helpless against the newer German fighters of 1916-17.

Once the threat from the Fokker monoplanes was contained by the availability of allied fighters such as the Airco D.H.2, Nieuport 11 and Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2b, B.E.2c losses over the Western Front dropped to an acceptable level, with official records indicating that in the second quarter of 1916, the B.E.2 actually had the lowest loss rates of all the major aircraft then in use. Encouraged by this, the RFC took delivery of large numbers of the BE.2e, which promised improved performance, and combined the stability of the B.E.2c with rather "lighter" controls (i.e. better manoeuvrability). By the spring of 1917, however, conditions on the Western Front had changed again, with the German fighter squadrons re-equipped with better fighters such as the Albatros D.III. It had been planned that by this time B.E.2s in front-line service would have been replaced by Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8s and Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8s, but delivery of these aircraft was initially slower than hoped. This situation culminated in what became known as "Bloody April", with the RFC losing 60 B.E.2s during that month in 1917.

As early as 1915, the B.E.2c entered service as a pioneer night fighter, being used in attempts to intercept and destroy the German Zeppelin airship raiders. The interceptor version of the B.E.2c was flown as a single-seater with an auxiliary fuel tank on the centre of gravity, in the position of the observer's seat. After an initial lack of success while using darts and small incendiary bombs to attack airships from above, a Lewis gun was mounted to fire a mixture of explosive and incendiary ammunition upwards, at an angle of 45°, to attack the airship from below.

The new tactic proved very effective. On the night of 2–3 September 1916, a B.E.2c downed the SL 11, the first German airship to be shot down over Britain after over a year of night raids. This won the pilot, Captain William Leefe Robinson, a Victoria Cross and cash prizes totalling £3,500 put up by a number of individuals.

This was not an isolated victory: five more German airships were destroyed by Home Defence B.E.2c interceptors between October and December 1916.

The performance of the B.E.2 was inadequate to intercept the Gotha bombers of 1917, but the techniques it pioneered were used by the later night fighters.

From 1917 onwards, the B.E.2 was mostly withdrawn from both the front line and night fighter use. The surviving examples continued in use for submarine spotting and as trainers for the rest of the war.

Adapted from various sources including Wikipeadia.

Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2