The Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.7 was based on a high altitude version of the R.E.5. Although it was produced in relatively large numbers the Royal Flying Corps never really had a use for the aircraft and its front line career only lasted for six months in the first half of 1916.
The standard R.E.5 had equal span wings but a small number were given a much longer upper wing to allow them to reach high altitude. One of these aircraft established a British altitude record of 18,900ft on 14 May 1914. The extra lifting power offered by the longer wing suggested that it was worth putting the design into production. The 22nd R.E.5, with the batch number 24, was taken for experiments. By March 1915 it had the standard fuselage and tail of the R.E.5, with the long-span wings and a Heavy Bomb Release Gear, designed to drop a detachable fuel tank that could be used as a bomb.
The production version of the R.E.7 used steel tubes for the front of the fuselage and wood and wires at the rear, all covered with fabric. Like the R.E.5 and B.E.2 the observer occupied the front cockpit and the pilot the rear cockpit. The new aircraft had semi-circular wing tips, and more streamlined struts. The only armament that could be carried was a single 336lb bomb.
The first production contracts were given in October 1915, with Napier given orders for 30, Austin for 2 and the Coventry Ordnance Works for 50. Austin soon received an order for another 50 and eventually 233 were ordered. The first Napier aircraft had been delivered by 2 July 1915 and the first Austin in September. This first Austin produced R.E.7 was the first to go to France, joining No.12 Squadron on 28 September 1915 and by the end of 1915 another six aircraft had reached the front.
The R.E.7 was not a success. All of the early aircraft used the 120hp Beardmore engine and were badly underpowered. By March 1916 General Trenchard described them as useless in the field and wanted to know when their replacements would arrive. Unfortunately the replacement for the Beardmore powered R.E.7 was the 140hp RAF 4a powered version. The first of these was tested early in 1916, and they began to reach France in April 1916. At first the new engine was too unreliable, but even when it was working the extra 20hp was not really enough, and on 20 June 1916 RFC Headquarters ordered that no more should be delivered to France. Over the next few months the remaining R.E.7s were phased out, often in favour of the B.E.12. Plans to produce a version powered by the 200hp RAF 3a were quietly dropped.
The RFC didn't really have a role for the R.E.7 but a shortage of more suitable aircraft meant that No.12 Squadron had to use the type to escort other reconnaissance aircraft, especially in the period before the battle of the Somme. The R.E.7 was a better bomber than fighter, and was most often used to drop a single 336-pounder bomb. At this period, before the advent of radar, it was often difficult to intercept bombers, so the R.E.7 was safer operating behind enemy lines than over the front line, where German fighters were more likely to be found.
One promising modification saw a number of R.E.7s turned into three-seaters. A gunner's cockpit was added behind the pilot armed with a Lewis gun and a second Lewis gun was mounted on the upper wing to be fired by the standing observer. One of the aircraft, powered by a Rolls Royce Eagle III engine, spent the second half of 1916 in France where it was generally well received, but at the start of 1917 it was decided to return it to Britain as no further Rolls Royce engines would be available. The aircraft was then destroyed in a crash on 31 January 1917.
Engines: Beardmore (120hp), RAF 4a V-12 (140hp) or Rolls Royce Eagle V-12 (250hp)
Crew: 2 or 3
Wing span: 57ft 2in upper, 42ft 0in lower
Length: 31ft 10.5in
Height: 12ft 7in
Weights with Beardmore: 2,170lb empty, 3,290lb loaded
Weights with RAF4a: 2,140lb empty, 3.349lb loaded
Weights with Rolls Royce: 2,702lb empty, 4,109lb loaded
Max Speed: 82mph at sea level with Beardmore
Service Ceiling: 6,500ft
Climb: 30min 30sec to 5,000ft
Armament: Three seater has 0.303in gun in rear position.
Bomb-load: One 336lb bomb