The Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8 was the standard Corps Reconnaissance aircraft of the RFC and RAF in the second half of the First World War and superseded the B.E.2c and B.E.2e, the much maligned aircraft that had performed that role since 1914.
Despite its designation the Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8 really belonged in the B.E. series, and was a much improved development of the B.E.2e, sharing the same wings, horizontal stabilisers and rudder of the earlier aircraft but with a new fuselage and a more logical arrangement of the crew positions.
The fuselage was built with a conventional wire braced fabric covered wooden structure, without the steel tube construction of the R.E.7. The R.E.8 was slightly larger than the B.E.2e and 525lb heavier when loaded, but its more powerful engine meant that it was 16mph faster at 6,500ft and 17.5mph faster at 10,000ft, a significant increase by the standards of the day.
The R.E.8 was designed in response to a Royal Flying Corps requirement set down in the autumn of 1915 for a new armed corps reconnaissance aircraft to replace the B.E.2 series. The new aircraft was to be capable of defending itself against attack, and from the start was designed to be armed with two machine guns, one fixed forward firing and one flexible gun in the observer's position. This required the crew positions to be reversed from those used on the B.E.2, where the observer had occupied the front cockpit. On the R.E.8 the pilot occupied the front cockpit, sitting just under the trailing edge of the upper wing, with the observer behind him. This gave the observer a much better field of fire than any available on the B.E.2. When work began on the R.E.8 late in 1915 the Allies didn't have any working synchronisation gear and so deflector blocks were fitted on the propeller blades to protect them against bullets from the fixed forward firing Lewis gun. By the time the aircraft entered service synchronisation gear was available, and the Lewis gun was replaced with a Vickers gun.
Two prototypes were built. The first made its maiden flight on 17 June 1916 and the second on 5 July. The prototypes were generally well received, although inevitably a number of detailed changes had to be made before they were ready for service.
Many criticisms of the R.E.8 probably reflect their pilot's frustration at having been allocated to the important but unglamorous reconnaissance squadrons instead of the fighter or new bomber squadrons. Our image of the reconnaissance aircraft comes firmly from the Second World War, when high speed Spitfires and Mosquitoes made daring flights across occupied Europe, finding secret weapons or preparing for the D-Day invasions, but in the First World War the majority of reconnaissance work was very short range. The R.E.8 and its contemporaries spent long hours flying in figures of eight over the German front lines, spotting for the Allied artillery. The very nature of the task made the reconnaissance aircraft vulnerable to German attack.
The R.E.8 was received enthusiastically by the first pilots to fly it in the summer of 1916 (the second prototype was taken to France for service trials on 16 July 1916). Major-General Brooke-Popham, who flew in the aircraft on 18 July 1916 while it was undergoing trials in France, approved of its handling and performance, as did at least eight RFC pilots who tested it on the following day. Early in 1917 Major A Chamier, the commanding officer of No.34 Squadron, reported that his pilots were keen on the machine, almost certainly because it was a much better fighting aircraft than any version of the B.E.2.
Amongst the changes requested during the service change was the use of a forward firing Vickers gun in place of the Lewis gun. In service the pillar mounting for the observer's Lewis gun was soon replaced by a Scarff ring and the Vickers-Challenger interrupter gear by hydraulically operated Constantinesco gear.
The R.E.8 quickly gained a more worrying reputation after its introduction into service at the end of 1916. No.52 Squadron was the first to receive the aircraft, on 21 November 1916, but in the first few weeks of operation a number of aircraft were involved in fatal crashes, and in January-February 1917 the squadron swapped its R.E.8s for the B.E.2es of No.34 Squadron. Most of these accidents, and a number of others suffered at training units, were believed to be caused by the aircraft going into a spin, and the R.E.8 gained a reputation as being easy to spin. Rigorous investigations at the R.A.F. proved this to be false although a larger fin was eventually fitted to the machine.
The R.E.8 was ordered in large number from Austin, the Coventry Ordnance Works, Daimler, Napier, the Siddeley-Deasy Motor Car Company and the Standard Motor Company. The R.A.F. produced the first batch of 50, one of the largest production runs of any aircraft built at the factory during the First World War. Eventually 4,077 R.E.8s were built, of which 2,262 had been delivered to the RFC by the end of March 1918 and 1,800 to the RAF before the end of the war.
Fifteen RFC squadrons operated the R.E.8 over the Western Front, many using it to replace their older B.E.2cs or B.E.2es. The R.E.8 was a much more capable military machine than the B.E.2s, and it was received with some enthusiasm at the start of its front line career. It was used for reconnaissance, artillery spotting and even as a bomber, normally with two 112lb or eight 20lb bombs.
The R.E.8 remained in service in large numbers until the end of the war because its successor, the corps observation version of the Bristol Fighter, was never available in sufficient numbers to replace it. This had a negative impact on the aircraft's reputation, for by 1918 it was verging on obsolescence.
The R.E.8 served alongside the Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8, a somewhat similar aircraft powered by a 160hp Beardmore engine. The two aircraft were roughly the same size and weight. The F.K.8 was slightly slower at all altitudes, had a similar climb rate to 6,500ft but was significantly faster to 10,000ft. A Comparative Report of 17 February 1917 claimed that the F.K.8 was superior in all respects, but the F.K.8 had only been available for a single day, poor weather had restricted the amount of flying that was possible and the R.E.8 hadn't been properly tested. Five RFC squadrons used the F.K.8 on the Western Front but a shortage of the Beardmore engine limited production.
The Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8a was a version of the R.E.8 but with a 200hp Hispano-Suize V-8 engine. It was produced in December 1916 by modifying a standard R.E.8, and gave a 60hp increase in power. Sadly no performance figures survive for the prototype, and a shortage of engines meant that the type never entered production.
Engine: RAF4a air-cooled V-12
Wing span: 42ft 7in upper, 32ft 7.5in lower
Length: 27ft 10.5in
Height: 11ft 4.5in
Weights: 1,803lb empty, 2,869lb loaded with two 112lb bombs
Max Speed: 103mph at sea level, 98mph at 6,500ft; 92.5mph at 10,000ft
Stalling Speed: 47mph
Service Ceiling: 11,000ft
Climb to 6,500ft: 21min
Climb to 10,000 ft: 39min 50sec
Endurance: 4hr 15min
Armament: One fixed 0.303in Vickers gun, one ore two 0.303in Lewis guns on Scarff No.2 Mounting in observer's position
Bomb-load: Up to 260lb of bombs, one 3.45in RL Tube