This diary is dedicated to Otteray Scribe, to encourage him, and show him that there IS life after 'complex' aircraft!
In March 1917, at the height of the savage fighting on the Western Front in France, No. 56 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, (motto, ‘Quid si coelum ruat’, ‘What if the heavens fall?’) took delivery of a new version of a fighter which was fated to become the mount of the some of the Allies leading ‘aces’. The S.E.5A had arrived. A revised version of the underpowered and unreliable S.E.5, it was a product of the Royal Aircraft Factory, Farnborough, Hampshire (hence the ‘Scouting Experimental’ designation) and was designed by a team lead by Henry Folland, who later designed such classic fighters as the Gloster Gladiator. The S.E.5A, powered by a Hispano-Suiza 8A/8B or Wolesley W.4A Viper of 200 hp, was armed with a .303 Vickers machine gun, and a .303 Lewis machine gun on an over-wing mounting. It was fast, strong, and could be dived at great speed; not as manoeuvrable as the Sopwith Camel, it could, however, hold its own with the German Fokker D.VII. The very best fighter pilots on the Allied side gravitated towards the S.E.5A, including Major (later Air Marshal) W.A. ‘Billy’ Bishop, V.C., D.S.O. and Bar, MC, DFC, ED, RFC (the top Canadian ace with 72 kills) and Major Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock, V.C., D.S.O. and two Bars, M.C. and Bar, RFC (his kills are listed between 61 and 73; authorities are at odds). By the end of WW1 there were no less than 21 squadrons of S.E.5A’s in action, and plans had been made for large-scale production for the fledgling United States Army Air Service. Despite over 5,200 being built, very few S.E.5A’s survived beyond the early 1920′s.
So, how do you enjoy the flavour of flying a WW1 ’scout’ like the S.E.5A? Well, there were six replicas built in 1967 by the Yorkshire company, Slingsby Sailplanes Ltd (based on the Currie Wot design), and other single examples have been constructed, but if you want to feel like you are dicing with the Fokker D.VII, Pfalz D.III and Albatros D.Va of the Luftstreitkräft (Imperial German Air Service), you need a set of plans from Replica Plans of Chilliwick, B.C., Canada. Designed by ‘Gogi’ Goguillot and Dan McGowan in 1969, the replica is approved by the Light Aircraft Association (formally, the Popular Flying Association) for home building, and allows you to produce an attractive 7/8th scale S.E.5A in about 2,500 hours.
Here you can see a Replica Plans S.E.5A, constructed by Michael Beach, who exhibited it in part-finished form at the PFA Rally at Sywell Aerodrome in 1976. It has been owned since August, 1999 by David Linney of Langport, Somerset. The replica has a plywood fuselage, with fabric covered rear-decking and aluminium cowlings. The wings are fabric covered, with either GRP or aluminium leading edges for strength. Power comes from a Continental Motors Corporation C90-8F producing 90hp; this gives a cruising speed of 90 mph, and a maximum of 110 mph (as opposed to the real S.E.5A’s top speed of 138 mph!).
The aircraft is on the British Register as G-BDWJ, and is parked at the Great Vintage Flying Weekend at Cotswold Airport, Kemble, Gloucestershire; it performed an excellent dogfight sequence with other replica WW1 aircraft during the ‘lunchtime flying display’ at this event. It has appeared at many other air show venues, including Biggin Hill, Old Warden and Yeovilton. Some eyebrows might be raised with regard to the ‘chocolate brown’ colour of the upper surfaces, since many RFC/RAF aircraft are shown in a khaki colour, or even a mid-green! The answer lies in the ‘dope’ used to tauten and protect the Irish linen fabric of RAF aircraft during the Great War, called PC10 (Protective Colouring 10). It was made from two pigments – ground yellow ochre (iron oxide, silica and clay) and carbon black – in the ratio of 250:1, which were added to one of a number of approved varnishes (either oil or cellulose-based) produced by companies such as Cellon Ltd., British Emaillite and the British Aeroplane Varnish Co. Ltd. This formed a suspension (NOT a solution) with the pigments and was painted onto the fabric. When dry, the pigment refracted and reflected light in such a way as to give a ‘greenish cast’ to the surfaces. This diminished with time as the pigment was degraded by the ultra-violet rays in sunlight (sorry about this, but I used to work in a textile research facility!) The final result was a variable ‘chocolate’ hue, due to differences in varnish types, pigment batches, etc.
Oh, and the hexagon on the fuselage? This was the mark of No. 85 Squadron, RFC (later, RAF), motto, Nocto Diuque Venamur, ’We hunt by day and night’. It would later appear on the unit’s Hawker Hurricanes during the Battle of Britain, and later still on Bristol 'Bloodhound' surface-to-air guided missiles!