The Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2a was a two seat tractor biplane that became the standard equipment of the pre-First World War Royal Flying Corps.
The adoption of the 'a' suffix marked a change in the Factory's system of aircraft designation. It first appears on a technical drawing in February 1912, two months after the maiden flight of the B.E.1, and in the same month as the maiden flight of the B.E.2, on 1 February. This drawing shows an aircraft with the unequal-span wings of the B.E.1 (and the B.E.2 as originally built). It is not known why this design was given a suffix instead of a new number, as was then standard practise within the Factory. Through 1912 when the Factory produced a new aircraft in the B.E. series it was given a new number, eventually reaching B.E.7, and most of these aircraft were very similar to the B.E.1/2, although this plan does predate the B.E.3. The suffix may originally have been meant to show that these plans were for modifications to the B.E.2, possibly a new fuel system, or it may have indicated that these plans were intended for the use of any private company that was given an order to construct the aircraft. The first of these contracts, A.1147, for four B.E.2 type aircraft, was placed with Vickers on 31 May 1912.
This first contract was one of a number of small orders placed for different models of aircraft early in 1912, but by then the Army had already decided to hold a contest, the winner of which would become the standard Army aircraft. The B.E.2 was not allowed to complete in this contest because the superintendant of the Royal Aircraft Factory was one of the judges. The trials took place at Larkhill, on Salisbury Plain, in August 1912. Geoffrey de Havilland operated the B.E.2 as a personal transport for Mervyn O'Gorman (the superintendant), and also took part unofficially in the trials.
The trials were officially won by the Cody 'Cathedral', but this aircraft was clearly inferior to the B.E.2., which had performed well in most of the trials, and on 12 August had captured the British height record, reaching 10,560ft with de Havilland at the controls. Although two Cathedrals were purchased, the B.E.2a was adopted as the standard aircraft for the R.F.C., and an order for four aircraft was placed with the British and Colonial Aircraft Company (Bristol). This was soon followed by orders for five aircraft each from Handley Page and Vickers.
The B.E.2a was very similar to the B.E.2. Early production aircraft had wings of uneven length, but the standard version had equal wings and earlier aircraft had their long upper wing shortened. The large tailplane of the B.E.2 was replaced by a slightly smaller version with a semi-circular plan. Crew comfort was improved by the addition of a short section of decking between the engine and the observer, and another section of decking was added between the observer and the pilot, dividing the single cockpit of the B.E.1/2 into two. The Observer sat in the front, between the wings, with the pilot in the rear seat.
Eventually just under 100 B.E.2a were produced. The R.A.F. only built five production aircraft, and the rest were produced by the British aircraft industry, with Vickers, Armstrong Whitworth, the Coventry Ordnance Works, Handley Page, the British and Colonial Aircraft Company (Bristol) and Hewlett & Blondeau each producing some aircraft. Most went to the R.F.C., but a small number went to the R.N.A.S. and to the Australian Air Service.
The B.E.2a and very similar B.E.2b made up most of the strength of the infant R.F.C. at the start of the First World War. The B.E.2a accompanied the Army to France at the start of the war, and remained in front-line service into the middle of 1915, although by the end of August 1915 there were only five B.E.2as and bs still in France. For most of its operational career the B.E.2s was used as a reconnaissance aircraft, the only role that military aircraft had been expected to perform, although a number of efforts were made to attack bombs to the aircraft.
The B.E.2a was a reliable trusted machine, but the entire series suffered from a major design flaw as a combat aircraft. The pilot had been placed in the rear cockpit so that the balance of the aircraft wouldn't be affected by the absence of the observer. This meant that the observer was surrounded by wing struts and cables, which made it almost impossible to arm the B.E.2. This didn’t stop the more enterprising observers from carrying hand guns or rifles into the air, but with little effect.
Engine: Renault V-8
Wing span: 36ft 11 1/8in
Length: 28ft 4in
Height: 10ft 2in
Weights: 1,100lb empty, 1,600lb loaded
Max Speed: 74mph at sea level
Service Ceiling: 10,000 feet
Range: 210 miles
Endurance: 3 hours
Climb rate: 9 minutes to 3,000ft, 30 minutes to 6,000ft
Armament: None built in, crew carried small arms or rifles only
Bomb-load: None standard, could carry small bombs