The strange and baffling case of the switched aeroplanes; or, Even when using New Mathematics, 4112 never equals 5878: The tall tale of the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, part 1

The Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum when it belonged to the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, Ontario. H.J. (“Titch”) Jenkins, “Correspondence – Ottawa’s – and Sowrey’s – B.E.2c.” Flight, 12 October 1961, 600.

With your permission, or without it if need be, my reading friend, I would like to launch this issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee with a question. Do your like mysteries and / or oddities? Me too.

By the way, did you know that, as late as 2017, the Public Works & Environmental Services of the city of Ottawa, Ontario, the nonbilingual capital of a bilingual country, sometimes used divining rods to locate an underground pipe suspected of leaking? I kid you not, but I do digress.

Now that yours truly know that you like mysteries and / or oddities, I would like to bring to your attention a strange and baffling tale.

Once upon a time, in merry olde England, during the Belle Époque, a period which was not all that belle for the huge majority of the population, but I digress, there was an outfit called His Majesty’s Balloon Factory. And yes, the king in question was George V, born George Frederick Ernest Albert “Georgie” of house Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a monarch mentioned in a December 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Toward the end of 1910, the superintendent of said outfit, Mervyn Joseph Pius O’Gorman, hired a young engineer and budding aeroplane designer, Geoffrey de Havilland.

Yes, that Geoffrey de Havilland. The cousin of British American actors / actresses Olivia Mary de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland, and…

What is it you type (say?), my flustered reading friend? Geoffrey de Havilland was / is the gentleman behind several / many famous aircraft of the 20th century, aircraft lovingly preserved at the jaw droppingly good Canada Aviation and Space Museum? Do tell, I had no idea. Sorry. And yes, said museum has in its collection aeroplanes like the de Havilland Moth, Puss Moth, Fox Moth, Menasco Moth, Mosquito and Vampire, not to mention the Royal Aircraft Factory (RAF) B.E.2, the latter being at the core of today’s pontification. But back to our story.

Given the decreasing importance of lighter than air flying machines and the increasing importance of heavier than air flying machines in its daily activities, His Majesty’s Balloon Factory became the RAF in April 1911.

Now, it so happened that aeroplane design was not among the activities the RAF was allowed to do. It could repair or reconstruct aeroplanes, however. And so it was that O’Gorman and his chief engineer, Frederick Ernest “Fred / Freddy” Green, concocted the idea of obtaining the permission of the War Office, the ministry responsible for the British Army, to “reconstruct” an aeroplane donated in June 1911, after a crash, by one of the wealthiest Homo sapiens on planet Earth, the mechanically inclined Duke of Westminster, Hugh Richard Arthur “Bendor” Grosvenor.

The reconstructed aeroplane was in fact a totally new 2-seat biplane known as the B.E.1, or Blériot Experimental No. 1, and… Yes, that Blériot, the famous French aviation pioneer Louis Charles Joseph Blériot, a gentleman mentioned several times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since October 2018.

The amusing thing was, and I will admit you may not find this all that amusing, well, the amusing thing was that the aeroplane “reconstructed” by the RAF was not a Blériot aeroplane. Nay. It was another French aeroplane, however, an otherwise unidentified Voisin biplane made by Appareils d’aviation Les frères Voisin – the first aeroplane manufacturing firm in Europe, and the second in the world, a firm mentioned in a May 2020 issue of our you know what.

Test flown in December 1911, by de Havilland himself, the one and only B.E.1 was delivered to the air service of the British Army of the time, the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers, in March 1912.

By then, a rather more significant yet very similar aeroplane had taken to the sky. And yes, you are quite right, my perspicacious reading friend, that aeroplane was the very first B.E.2, the second B.E. type machine. De Havilland tested his new creation in February 1912.

Would you believe that the War Office held, in August 1912, its first military aeroplane competition, designed to fulfil the needs of the Air Battalion or, as it was known from May 1912 onward, the Military Wing of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) of the British Army? Twenty-five or so aeroplanes took to the field.

And no, the B.E.2 did not win the competition, even though it, and a few other machines, were superior, if not far superior to the aeroplane chosen by the military powers that be. If truth be told, the B.E.2 was not entered in the competition. You see, O’Gorman was one of the judges and the presence of that aeroplane among the participants would have raised a serious conflict of interest. In any event, the good people of the RAF were not supposed to count aeroplane design among their daily activities.

In the end, however, 2 examples of the winning entry, the Cody V biplane, were built in 1912, as compared to 4 490 or so B.E.2s, all versions included, completed between 1912 and 1917. Only a few of these machines (5?) were built by the RAF. The others were produced by no less than 23 British firms.

The B.E.2 seemingly entered service around February 1913. As was the case with all military aeroplanes of the period, the primary mission of its crews was to observe the activities of enemy ground forces and report back to base. And no, the pilots and observers did not have access to a radio set, or parachutes, while in the air.

The B.E.2 was one of the aeroplane types flown to France by RFC pilots when the United Kingdom declared war on the German Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in August 1914.

By then, the first example of a new version of the B.E.2 had been tested. Given the functions of that aeroplane, it occurred to some people that an automatically stable version of the B.E.2 would be a most useful weapon. After all, the pilot of an airplane able fly itself without any human intervention could help his observer gather the maximum amount of information on enemy activities. The first production example of the automatically stable version of the B.E.2 arrived at the front in January 1915.

When B.E.2s were used as bombing machines, seemingly from, 1915 onward, their pilots flew alone as the presence of their observer seriously limited the bombload the aeroplanes could carry.

Would you believe that a number of (modified?) B.E.2 fuselages were used as crew nacelles on early examples of the hastily-designed SS type non rigid airships used from March 1915 onward to look for German submarines along the shores of the United Kingdom?

As might have been expected, the ever-increasing number of observation and bombing aeroplanes flown by the British and French air services did not go unnoticed. Around July 1915, the Fliegertruppe of the Deutsches Heer, as the air service of the German army was known at the time, began to field the first examples of the very first fighter plane in history. The Fokker M5K/MG, a single seat monoplane later and better known as the Fokker E.1, was not particularly impressive, performance wise. It carried a most formidable weapon system, however: the first machine gun able to fire through the rotating blades of its propeller.

The German pilots lucky enough to fly the relatively rare E.Is struck fear in the hearts of many an Allied pilot. And yes, the automatically stable version of the B.E.2, poorly agile, proved especially vulnerable to these attacks.

RFC ground crew began to install machine gun mounts on B.E.2s during the summer of 1915. The fact that the observer sat in the front seat (seriously?) reduced the effectiveness of the weapon carried by these aeroplanes. Sending several machines to perform a mission helped, to a point, but reduced the number of places the RFC could observe at any given time. In the end, the most effective countermeasure proved to be the introduction of British and French fighter planes, around January-February 1916.

In March 1916, a pilot, aviation enthusiast and recently elected independent Member of Parliament claimed very loudly, in the House of Commons, that incompetence on the part of mandarins in the RFC’s leadership meant RFC pilots were being murdered through the use of defective, inferior or obsolete aeroplanes. Noel Pemberton Billing, born Noel Billing, was the most vociferous critic of the RFC and RAF but he was no means the only one.

The British government set up a committee to look into Pemberton Billing’s allegations against the RAF – and push them off centre stage, in the hope they would be forgotten, perhaps one of the reasons parliamentary committees were, are and will be created in the United Kingdon – and Canada. This being said (typed?), allegations made against the top brass of the RFC by Pemberton Billing all but forced the government to create a second committee. Both of them concluded that his allegations were basically baseless which, speaking (typing?) both positively and negatively, was not all that surprising.

Even though no blame was put on his shoulders, the aforementioned O’Gorman was saddened to hear, in the fall of 1916, that his contract would not be renewed, but back to our story.

Even though the number of B.E.2s lost to enemy action went down significantly as the number of British fighter planes present at the front went up, and yes, for a time, the B.E.2 was one of the most numerous and effective aeroplanes of the RFC, the top brass of that service knew that this machine would have to replaced sooner than later.

Sadly enough, the new observation / reconnaissance aeroplanes of the RFC began to enter service only in late 1916 or early 1917. Worse still, the number of machines delivered was not as high as expected, or hoped. As a result, squadrons equipped with B.E.2s suffered appalling losses in the spring of 1917. These aeroplanes were no match for the fighter pilots of the air service of the Deutsches Heer, the Luftstreitkräfte, as it was called by then, and their fighter planes.

The B.E.2 was gradually taken out of service but remained in use as a training machine. Some were also used to look for German submarines along the shores of the United Kingdom.

Mind you, the B.E.2 was also used as a single seat night fighting airplane. Indeed, it was / is one of the first machines of this type to see action, in October 1915. You see, German rigid airships of the Kaiserliche Marine and Deutsches Heer had been bombing England, with more or less success, since January 1915. Long range bombing airplanes supplemented, then replaced airships from June 1917 onward.

The number of people killed or injured as a result of this strategic bombing campaign, the first ever actually, was quite small by Second World War standards (almost 1 400 killed and more than 3 325 injured between January 1915 and August 1918), but the outrage and fear bordering on panic and terror among wide segments of a civilian population, which had thought itself totally safe from attack, was such that the British government was compelled to act.

The British Army formed numerous anti-aircraft artillery and searchlights units in the United Kingdom. In turn, the RFC stationed a number of squadrons in various locations, especially near London. Many of these units were equipped with B.E.2s. The automatic stability of the aeroplanes used for that purpose greatly facilitated the work of the pilots, who flew alone.

Given the stage of our story where we now find ourselves, yours truly propose that this session be prorogued until next week. And no, I am afraid you have no say in this matter.

But yes, my fogged-up brain seems to remember being somewhat baffled by the New Maths. I must have met this dramatically different way to teach mathematics introduced in the United States as a result of the shock and embarrassment caused by the launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, in October 1957, at some point in the 1960s, but let’s not dwell.

Have fun. Moderation is for monks.

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Rénald Fortier