Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8 (Reconnaissance Experimental 8)

Vital Statistics


The Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8 was a British two-seat biplane reconnaissance and bomber aircraft of the First World War designed by John Kenworthy at the Royal Aircraft Factory. Intended as a replacement for the vulnerable B.E.2, the R.E.8 was widely regarded as more difficult to fly, and gained a reputation in the Royal Flying Corps for being unsafe. Although it gave satisfactory service, it was never an outstanding combat aircraft.

In spite of this, the R.E.8 served as the standard British reconnaissance and artillery spotting aircraft from mid-1917 to the end of the war, serving alongside the rather more popular Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8.

Over 4,000 R.E.8s were eventually produced and they served in most theatres including Italy, Russia, Palestine, and Mesopotamia, as well as the Western Front.

The first of two prototype R.E.8s flew on 17 June 1916. Its design and appearance had much in common with the B.E.12 and the B.E.2e. The Royal Aircraft Factory 4a air-cooled V12 engine closely resembled that of the B.E.12, with the same large air scoop and similar vertically mounted exhausts protruding over the upper wing to carry the fumes clear of the crew. The only real difference was that the engine was slightly raked back, to improve take off and landing characteristics.

The wings were identical to those of the B.E.2e, although the span, and therefore the wing area, was increased. The tailplane was also the same as the B.E.2e. The entirely new parts of the design were confined to the fuselage aft of the engine firewall, and the vertical fin and rudder.

The R.E.8 was intended to replace the B.E.2, which was already attracting widespread criticism and an attempt was made to address each of the B.E.2’s main failings. The more powerful motor was intended to improve the speed and climb of the B.E.2 and in particular to allow a better payload. This permitted the R.E.8 to operate as a true two-seater – since the observer no longer had to be left at home when bombs or a full fuel load were carried, there was no need for his seat to be at the centre of gravity – as a result he could now be seated behind the pilot, in the proper position to operate a defensive machine gun. It was also possible to install a pilot’s gun. The longer wings had already proved themselves on the B.E.2e – maintaining the stability of the B.E.2c while providing better manoeuvrability, although there were fears that the long extensions on the upper wing might collapse if the aircraft was dived too sharply. The new tail, as originally fitted, had a much smaller fin, which it was hoped would improve rudder control and allow the R.E.8 to turn more easily without seriously affecting stability.

To make the R.E.8 less tiring to fly the pilot’s controls included a wheel to adjust the tailplane incidence in flight, and a form of primitive rudder trim was provided to reduce the constant pressure necessary to counteract the torque of the propeller. Very basic flight controls were installed in the observer's cockpit – these folded out of the way when not in use. They were connected to the elevators, rudder, and throttle, but not to the ailerons and were plainly intended to give observers a chance to make a forced landing if the pilot was killed or incapacitated rather than to offer true dual control.

The first R.E.8s reached No. 52 Squadron RFC in France in November 1916. The inexperienced pilots found these new aircraft to be dangerous as several of them were killed spinning in off a stall while attempting to land. They were grateful to return to the B.E.2e by exchanging aircraft with 34 Squadron in January 1917. Experienced pilots had fewer problems with the R.E.8 and re-equipment of B.E.2 squadrons continued. Pilot’s notes for the R.E.8 prepared in the field drew attention to the fact that it had a higher landing speed than the B.E.2e (hardly surprising, since it was heavier, and had almost the same wing area) and that it gave almost no warning of a stall.

The Royal Aircraft Factory conducted spinning tests on the R.E.8 and concluded that it was quite hard to spin and recovered easily. Despite this, the vertical fin area was redesigned with slightly increased area to improve spin recovery. This modification resulted in the production version being no less stable than the B.E.2e, and while this was an advantage for artillery spotting and photography, it gave the R.E.8 little chance of out-manoeuvring enemy fighters. A still larger fin was fitted to some R.E.8s used as trainers.

Although supplemented by other aircraft, the R.E.8 remained the RFC’s standard artillery spotting, air photography, and general short range reconnaissance aircraft for the remainder of the war. By November 1918, the R.E.8 was regarded as completely obsolete and surviving examples were quickly retired after the Armistice.

Adapted from various sources including Wikipeadia.

Royal Aircraft Factory RE8