The Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 was the second in the Factory's series of experimental tractor biplanes, and was also the prototype for the B.E.2a and the family of aircraft that followed. Like all early R.A.F. aircraft the B.E.2 was officially a modified and repaired version of either the S.E.1 or a damaged Breguet aircraft that had been sent to the factory for repairs. The only feature it shared with either of these aircraft was the Renault engine from the Breguet. It was otherwise identical to the B.E.1.
When it was first built the B.E.2 was a two-bay two-seat tractor biplane with wings of unequal length. Soon after it was built the upper wing was cut down to make it the same length as the lower wing, and this would later become the standard layout of the B.E.2a. The air-cooled Renault engine didn't need the radiator or pipes of the water-cooled engine in the B.E.1, giving it a higher top speed than the earlier aircraft.
When it was first built the B.E.2 had the same open double cockpit as the B.E.1, with the observer between the wings and the pilot behind him. A section of decking was later added between the two crew members, splitting the cockpit in two, although there was still no decking between the observer and the engine, which was mounted just in front of him.
The B.E.2 made its maiden flight on 1 February 1912 with Geoffrey de Havilland at the controls. For a few weeks it flew alongside the B.E.1, before on 11 March 1912 that aircraft was delivered to the Air Battalion. The B.E.2 was used in a number of important experiments while it was at the factory, including one of the earliest uses of airborne wireless at the end of March 1912 and floatation trials in May. After the wireless tests it was given a more powerful 70hp Renault engine, which increased its top speed to 68mph, 9mph faster than the B.E.1.
In December 1911 the British Army announced that it was to hold a contest in August 1912 to find a standard aircraft. The B.E.2 wasn't allowed to enter the contest, but Geoffrey de Havilland operated it as a general transport 'hack' during the trials, and carried out most of the same tests as the contestants. The contest was eventually won by S.F. Cody's 'Cathedral', but this aircraft wasn't really suitable for front line service, and the Army decided to order the B.E.2 into production as the B.E.2a.
The B.E.2 was involved in a number of 'firsts' and record attempts. During the Army Trials de Havilland took it to 10,560ft, establishing a new British altitude record both for solo and passenger flight.
While the B.E.2 was a reliable aircraft, it did have one design feature that would soon become a serious liability. The pilot had been placed in the rear seat so that the aircraft's centre of gravity wouldn't be altered if it was flown without an observer. This meant that the observer's seat was surrounded by the struts and cables between the wings. In 1915, when the appearance of the Fokker E.I ended the era of unarmed military aircraft it was thus almost impossible to arm the B.E.2c or its successors and the entire family of aircraft has gained an unwarrantedly poor reputation because of the heavy casualties suffered during the 'Fokker Scourge'.
Engine: Renault V-8
Power: 60hp as built, 70hp later
Wing span as built: 38ft 71 1/8in (upper), 34ft 11 5/8in (lower)
Length: 28ft 4in
Height: 10ft 2in
Weight: 1,700lb loaded
Max Speed: 70mph at sea level with later 70hp engine
Min Speed: 40mph
Climb to 1,000ft: 244ft/min with 60hp, 305ft/min with 70hp