The Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2c was the most controversial British aircraft of the First World War. Designed to be a stable reconnaissance platform it was a perfectly capable military aircraft until the arrival of the Fokker E.I, when its built-in stability and lack of any defensive armament made it a sitting duck. The lack of a suitable replacement meant that the B.E.2c remained in use on the Western Front well into 1917, steadily gaining a worse and worse reputation as time went by.
In the years before the First World War the only military use seen for aircraft was in reconnaissance. Stability was seen as the most desirable feature for a reconnaissance aircraft, making the aircraft less tiring to fly and allowing the pilot to contribute to the reconnaissance. Although the B.E.2c was eventually to be criticised for its inbuilt stability, the same characteristics were still seen as essential for maritime patrol aircraft during the Second World War. The problem with the B.E.2c was that it was designed before the era of the fighter aircraft, but eventually had to operate in the dangerous skies over the Western Front.
The Royal Aircraft Factory's expert on stability was Edward Teshmaker Busk. In 1913 he worked with Geoffrey de Havilland to produce the R.E.1 (Reconnaissance Experimental 1), a more compact aircraft than the B.E.2, and designed with stability in mind. The first R.E.1 made its maiden flight in May 1913, and over the next few months was used in a series of experiments in stability. Busk made a series of changes to the design of the aircraft, replacing its wing warping controls with ailerons and increasing the wing dihedral up to 3 degrees. With these chances in place the R.E.1 was flown for seven minutes without any need to use the ailerons. The rudder could be used for turns and the dihedral helped the aircraft to return to level flight without any intervention by the pilot. A second R.E.1 was produced in September 1913 and then Busk turned his attention to the B.E.2.
Busk's new design retained the fuselage, engine and rudder of the standard B.E.2b, but with completely new wings and horizontal stabilizers. The large rounded horizontal stabilizer of the B.E.2b had also produced a certain amount of life. Busk replaced this with a rectangular none-lifting stabilizer. This altered the aircraft's centre of gravity, and so the lower wing was moved backwards, giving the aircraft staggered wings. The ear-shaped rudder remained the same, but a triangular vertical fin was placed just in front of it.
The main wings were replaced with a completely new design. The wing warping controls of the B.E.2a and 2b were replaced with ailerons on the upper and lower wings and both wings were given 3.5 degrees of dihedral.
The prototype B.E.2c was produced by converting a standard B.E.2b and made its maiden flight on 30 May 1914. On 9 June Major W. S. Brancker flew it to the RFC's 'Concentration Camp' on Salisbury Plain. Brancker reported that once he had reached his cruising height of 2,000ft he hadn't needed to touch the controls for the next forty miles!
The B.E.2c was ordered into production to replace the older B.E.2a and B.E.2b. The first production aircraft, built by Vickers, was delivered on 19 December 1914. Busk himself didn't survive to see his design taken into combat. On 5 November 1914 the second B.E.2c, with Busk at the controls, caught fire and he was killed in the crash.
The first machine to go to France was the first Bristol-built aircraft. This was delivered on 4 January 1915, and went to France on 25 January. By the end of March there were 12 B.E.2cs on the Western Front, and by the end of 1915 that number had risen to over 120. Despite its poor later reputation the B.E.2c was very popular when it first appeared. At this early stage of the war neither side had gun carrying aircraft. Aerial combat was limited to the observers firing at each other with rifles, and so the B.E.2c's lack of any defensive armament didn't matter, while its stability made it much easier to fly.
This popularity became to fade away once the Germans introduced the Fokker E.I, the first aircraft to feature a gun synchronised to fire through the propeller. This exposed two major flaws in the design of the B.E.2c (and the entire B.E.2 family). Its inherent stability meant that the B.E.2c wasn't very manoeuvrable, so it was almost impossible to escape from attacking aircraft. In theory the same stability might have made the B.E.2c a good gun platform, but it had been designed with the observer in the front and the pilot at the back. This meant that the aircraft retained its normal flying characteristics when it was flown solo, but it also meant that the observer was surrounded by the struts and wires between the wings, making it very difficult to mount a machine gun.
The obvious course of action would have been to swap the pilot's and observer's positions, a move that would have allowed the observer to be given a standard machine gun mounting. This change was made to a number of B.E.2cs that were operated by the Belgians, but not by the RFC. When it became necessary to try and give the B.E.2c some defensive firepower a number of alternative gun mounts were used, but none were completely satisfactory. The observer's position just behind the propeller limited the range of fire of forward firing guns, rear facing guns had to be fired over the pilot's head, and sideways firing guns were almost impossible to mount.
In 1916 the B.E.2c was dragged into the controversy caused by Noel Pemberton Billing's attacks on the RFC and with it the Royal Aircraft Factory. Pemberton-Billing resigned his commission in March 1916 and in the same month was elected to Parliament, where on 22 March he made the first in a series of speeches attacking the aircraft in use with the Royal Flying Corps, describing them as Fokker Fodder. At first his attackers were focused on the War Office, but the Factory soon came under attack. Pemberton Billing was not a disinterested critic, but the owner of the aircraft manufacturing company that would become famous as Supermarine. His attacks were forceful but often inaccurate, exaggerating the performance of German aircraft. The Fokker E.I was a flimsy pre-war monoplane, and its success was entirely due to its synchronized forward firing machine gun, but Pemberton Billing failed to mention any of this.
When Pemberton Billing made his attacks in 1916 the B.E.2c was still the best reconnaissance aircraft available to the RFC. The problem was that it was already becoming obsolescent, and no replacement was in sight. The somewhat faster B.E.2e helped to some extent, but not by enough. By the time the B.E.2e was phased out on the Western Front in the spring of 1917 it was genuinely as obsolete as Pemberton Billing had claimed a year earlier.
One crucial reason for the retention of the B.E.2c and 2e was a shortage of more powerful engines. Those engines that were available went to the higher priority fighter aircraft that began to appear in 1916 (starting with the Airco D.H.2 with its 100hp Gnome Monosoupape engine). Other reconnaissance aircraft were designed around the 90hp R.A.F 1a engine used in the B.E.2, amongst them the Armstrong Whitworth F.K.3, but these aircraft didn’t offer a significant improvement. Only when more powerful engines became available did suitable replacements become available, most notably the Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8, which was powered by a mix of 150-160hp engines and the Factory's own R.E.8, with its 140hp R.A.F. 4a engine.
The B.E.2c began to enter service in large numbers on the Western Front early in 1915. Of the sixteen squadrons that operated the type eleven had received their aircraft by the end of that year (see squadron list). At first its increased stability was welcomed, but July 1915 the Fokker E.I, with its synchronised machine gun, entered service, and the skies over the Western Front began to become increasingly dangerous. The Allies had no synchronising mechanism of their own, and the stability of the B.E.2c made it an easy target for the Fokkers.
The B.E.2c was actually no more vulnerable than any other Allied reconnaissance aircraft during 1915 – the French suffered equally heavy loses to the Fokkers, and didn't operate the type. One should also be careful not to exaggerate the scale of loses. In the second quarter of 1916 the RFC only lost 11 B.E.2cs to enemy action, out of a total of 83 that were struck off charge. The vast majority of these losses were accidental, while simple deterioration accounted for twice as many aircraft as the Germans. The position did deteriorate during 1916. Although the Allies were finally able to field their own fighter aircraft, the B.E.2c was increasingly outclassed by newer German fighters, especially those armed with twin machine guns.
The B.E.2c and B.E.2e were used as impromptu bombers, carrying a variety of small bombs under the wings and fuselage. This followed a pattern set with the B.E.2a and B.E.2b, one of which had been flow by
It isn't entirely clear when the last B.E.2cs disappeared from the Western Front. In eight of the fourteen squadrons that operated the B.E.2c they continued to be used in small numbers alongside the B.E.2e until the squadron converted onto more modern designs and in one case may even have remained in use for longer. Twelve B.E.2 squadrons on the Western Front finally received more modern aircraft in the first half of 1917. No. 10 Squadron was the last to operate the type, retaining its B.E.2es until September 1917.
The B.E.2c was more effective as a Home Defence aircraft. Here its stability became an asset once again, especially in night operations. Its slow rate of climb was still a problem, but no more than for any other aircraft used against the zeppelins, which could gain height much quicker than any contemporary aircraft. Eventually twelve squadrons would operate the B.E.2 on home defence duties, more than half of them from early in 1916.
A B.E.2c took part in the destruction of Zeppelin L.15 on 31 March 1916, but its first solo victory came on 2/3 September 1916 when Lt. William Leefe Robinson of No.39 Squadron shot down the Schütte-Lanz airship SL.11. The airship went down in flames in the skies over London, and Robinson was awarded with the Victoria Cross. Another five airships, all Zeppelins, were shot down by the end of 1916, but increasing losses then forced the Germans to abandon Zeppelin raids. The B.E.2's useful career as a home defence fighter ended rather suddenly in 1917 with the first raids by the Gotha bombers, with their service ceiling of over 20,000 feet, twice that of the B.E.2c.
The B.E.2c and B.E.2e were used in large numbers on overseas theatres. The biggest concentrate came in the Middle East, where eight R.F.C. squadrons and a number of R.N.A.S. flights used the B.E.2 against the Turks. The type was also used by one squadron in East Africa, two in India and two based in Salonika, in each case remaining in use into 1918.
The R.N.A.S. received around 300 B.E.2cs, most from its own orders. Deliveries began in March 1915, and the first aircraft were sent out to the Dardanelles, where they were used as bombers and as general-purpose aircraft. They were also used on anti-submarine patrols, where their stability became an asset.
The R.N.A.S. also received at least 95 B.E.2es, but they were used almost entirely for training purposes.
Wingspan: 36 feet 10 inches
Length: 27 feet 3inches
Empty Weight: 1,370lbs
Maximum Weight: 2,142lbs
Engine: 90hp RAF 1a liquid cooled engine
Max. Speed: 86mph at sea level, 72 mph at 6,500ft
Ceiling: 10,000 feet
Climb rate: 6 minutes to 3,000ft
Range: 270 miles