An effective response and a worthy adversary to the Fokker Eindekkers, the F.E.2b appeared in September, 1915. It was a two-seater, pusher biplane, that was quite speedy and allowed for two machine guns, one firing forward, and one (albeit awkwardly) firing rearward over the upper wing. The ‘pusher’ concept would soon be out-moded, but in late 1915 and early 1916, the F.E.s served the R.F.C. well.
[ad#ad-1]Top Speed: 91.5 m.p.h.
Manufacturer: Royal Aircraft Factory
Engine: 160 h.p. Beardmore inline
Wingspan: 47 feet 9 inches
Weight: 3,337 lb.
Armament: 2 machine guns
Photo from Rosebud’s WWI and Early Aviation Image Archive.
The F.E.2b was also used on night operations, as described by Henry A. Bruno, in his book “The Flying Yankee,” about his experiences with the RFC in the First World War:
When I reported back to Southend for duty, I found that I was to be nighthawk from then on, and was detailed to night patrol, flying one of the new two-seater F. E. 2. B. pushers. This plane was fitted with a 120 H. P. Beardmore engine and was not fast. Speed is not necessary for night work, rather a machine that will fly steadily and has large wing surface will be found most suitable. Seventy miles an hour was the best it would do on the level, and it took thirty-five minutes to climb ten thousand feet. With the motor throttled it would glide safely at a speed of fifty-five miles an hour.
From 10 o’clock until midnight were the hours during which I was to patrol and a young Second Lieutenant but recently posted to the aerodrome was to be my companion. It was the C. O.’ s desire that this chap was eventually to be my relief, and he wanted him to get the feel of night flying by going up with me. Mind you, I had only been up at night once or twice before, and then always as a passenger.
At a little after 9 I went over to the hangar to study my machine. It had the usual equipment, but everything in the cockpit was illuminated. The lighting of the instruments was done with electric bulbs, covered by black shades to prevent the light from being reflected. These lights were wired to two sets of accumulators ( batteries) and switches, so that if one set failed the other could be thrown in. Leaving nothing to chance, the dials of the watch, compass, etc., were painted in luminous paint. Under each wing tip were Hoats wing-tip flares which were wired to the accumulator in the fuselage. But- tons controlling these flares were in both my own and the other cockpit. The under sides of the planes and the fuselage were painted black to prevent the reflection from the flares being thrown back into my eyes.
Upon the floor of the cockpit, as in the plane I had used for Zeppelin work, was another electric launching tube, and the four parachute flare bombs were stacked neatly by the dash. The arrangement of the guns was new to me, for instead of having a Vickers fixed to fire through the propeller I had a Lewis fitted in a bay cut out of the top plane, and located directly over my head. In order to fire all I had to do would be to lean forward and shoot straight overhead. This method gave an excellent sight. Perhaps you are wondering how one could draw a bead on anything at night. It’s simple â€” the foresight of the gun is painted with luminous paint which serves the purpose admirably. On each side of my seat were six drums holding forty- seven bullets, and each one of the drums was loaded with tracer, explosive and ordinary bullets. These tracer bullets are very effective at night, for after they leave the gun and have traveled five hundred feet they can be seen for more than one thousand feet. They are combustible, and if a hit is scored will usually set the enemy machine on fire.
Another Lewis was carried behind me on a swivel, so that the observer had quite a large range of fire and could effectively protect the tail of the plane. On each side of the fuselage, between the upper and lower planes, fastened to the struts were several rockets. These are used against Zeppelins, and all that is necessary to aim and fire them is to point the plane at the Zep and press a button. The rocket will do the rest, and if you have aimed correctly you may bag the big balloon with just that one shot. Close to the electric launching tube was a smaller one, used for signaling. Wireless is never used at night by aeroplanes. Eight near this pipe, or tube, were twelve cartridges of different colors, plainly lettered so I could not mistake them. When dropped through this tube a contact is made at the bottom and the cartridge catches fire. If it is red it will fall to earth leaving a trail of red fire, and cartridges of other colors act the same way.
It was almost 10 o’clock as I finished my examination, and I ordered my observer to climb in. The gunnery mechanic warned me about the effect of the night air on the guns.
“If it gets cold, sir,” he said, “the oil is liable to congeal, and should it do so you will have a number two stoppage [a bad jam].” I determined to watch that gun of mine carefully, and told the observer, Shannon, to do likewise. The aerodrome was bright with powerful lights as I tuned the motor up ready for the start. The night looked black and forbidding, but in my little cockpit those dim shaded lights were as comforting as a log fire at home. One final glance around and I signaled to let go. For a few seconds we were in the glare of the lights, then suddenly we were off into blackness. There were no stars, which made things worse, as I could easily have seen my way by them. I pulled the wheel back so that the heavy bus would climb as fast as she could. I did not, however, intend to go any higher than four thousand feet. As I looked over the side, the aerodrome landing lights were lit and formed a brilliant letter L. In order to land on good ground, all I had to do was to glide down and come to earth inside the long arm of the L, and no farther than the short arm. I knew that all ground inside the L was perfectly safe for landing.
Getting my compass bearing I headed off up the coast. As the friendly lights of the aerodrome faded away, I began to feel lonely. I turned and looked back at Shannon, but could just make out his shadowy figure in the blackness, and even he seemed part of the night. I am not a nervous chap, but there is something about night flying that sets a man on edge.
[ad#ad-1]Finally I began to see things. One can’t stare into the dark for long without getting the feeling of being watched by something or someone unknown.
“What’s that?” The involuntary exclamation was wrung from me against my will, as a quick-firing gun awoke to action with its devilish rat-tat. It seemed almost at my back.
Acting on impulse more than anything else, I changed my direction sharply and dove down. Still that cursed firing followed â€” gracious, how close that Hun was! I expected every minute to feel the rip of a bullet in my back, until suddenly the truth broke upon me. Shannon had seen things as I had begun to think I did, and had opened fire on the mysterious shadows. Shutting off the motor I put the plane in a gentle glide, then turned towards Shannon. He had stopped firing and was huddled up in the seat. My own teeth were chattering so that I could hardly talk, but I managed to shout at him: “You blasted idiot, what the devil do you mean by firing off that gun?”
He muttered some incoherent reply and I saved him further explanation by opening up the motor and ascending again. I really had to sympathize with him, as I had been scared stiff myself. I told the story the next day at mess and spared neither Shannon nor myself.