Kit No. A02101
Decals: Two versions, one for Royal Flying Corps, the second for Royal Naval Air Service, both during 1916
Comments: New tooling; injection molded plastic with engraved panel lines; separate engine; nicely molded stressed fabric effects on wings and tail, two detailed aircrew figures; well-proportioned four-bladed propeller
The Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 (for Bleriot Experimental 2) was designed by Geoffrey de Havilland as a development of the B.E.1, and first flew in February 1912 with de Havilland as the test pilot. On August 12, 1912 it earned high marks in aircraft trials at Larkhill, the training center for the Royal School of Artillery, setting a British altitude record of 10,560 feet (3,219 m). The locale was significant in that initially all early military aircraft were primarily employed as artillery spotters. The B.E.2 went into production as a unarmed reconnaissance machine, the B.E.2a, entering service with the Royal Flying Corps in 1913. It was among the first two-seater scout aircraft to do so.
Modifications Fail to Prevent Obsolescence
By early 1914, it formed part of the equipment of three squadrons – squadrons equipped with a single type of aeroplane were still to come. These were all sent to France shortly after the outbreak of war, with the first BE.2a of No. 2 Squadron arriving on August 26, 1914. The early B.E.2a and b aircraft were replaced during 1915 by the B.E.2c, so extensively modified as to be virtually a new type, based on research by Edward Teshmaker Busk to develop an inherently stable aeroplane — stability being critical for artillery spotters. By 1915, when air combat began in earnest, squadrons equipped with the B.E.2c began to suffer heavy losses to more maneuverable enemy aircraft.
Successful Night Fighter…for a time
The B.E.2 developed a reputation as an unpopular aircraft by 1916, by which time it was rapidly becoming obsolete as the pressure of war forced the development of more powerful and more manueverable combat aeroplanes. From 1917 onwards, the B.E.2 was mostly withdrawn from the front line but continued in use for submarine spotting and as a trainer. Prior to its withdrawal from the Western Front, however, it had been the first effective night fighter in RFC service, and armed with a Lewis gun on its top wing, it was deployed with surpising success for a time against the early Zeppellin raids. About 3,500 were built, used as fighters, interceptors, light bombers, trainers and reconnaissance aircraft. The c began to be superseded by the final version, the B.E.2e, nicknamed the “Quirk”, in 1916. The performance of the B.E.2 was inadequate to intercept the German raiders of 1917-18, and it was replaced by later types of night fighter, including the Sopwith Comic, using techniques pioneered by the B.E.2c.
Key Flaws: Power and Design
The B.E.2 had at least three serious weaknesses as a warplane. First, with its small air-cooled in-line engine it was seriously underpowered, and the 90 hp V-8 engine was unreliable even by the standards of the time. When bombs were carried or maximum endurance was required, the observer and his gun had to be left behind. Although the B.E.2 had a reasonable performance for 1914-15, it remained in service long after much more powerful aircraft had become available to the enemy.
Second, the B.E.2’s performance and design were at odds with the realities of air combat. It was often flown as a single-seater, but as the war progressed it could not defend itself against enemy fighters. When the observer was taken aloft, his position in the observer/gunner’s cockpit, in front of the pilot, meant that when called upon to defend the plane his view and his fire were hampered by the struts and wires supporting the center section of the top wing. To make matters worse, he often had to shoot backward over his pilot’s head.
The third weakness centered on two competing aircraft design philosophies that led to a running controversy before and during the First World War. From 1912, one school of design thought, typified by the Wright Brothers, held that an aeroplane should be inherently unstable, and that deviations from straight and level flight should be corrected by the pilot. Aircraft designed on this principle tended to be agile, but required constant vigilance and attention and a fair degree of skill from the pilot (the Sopwith Camel being both the most successful and notorious example of the time). The opposing design philosophy prized an aircraft that, while it could be steered, largely kept itself steady in the air, and diverged from straight and level flight only when its pilot wanted it to. This tendency naturally worked against desired changes in flight attitude as well as involuntary ones, and reduced manoeuverability. Since the standard of pilot training was so poor in the RFC a stable aircraft had real advantages, but it did make it difficult to escape a more aerobatic enemy, even if pilot skills had permitted it. There is however a good deal of evidence in contemporary accounts that suggests that the B.E.2 was less stable and more manoeuverable than it was supposed to have been. In any event, the B.E.2c’s stability made it a relatively easy target for ground fire, but especially for enemy aircraft.
The essential vulnerability of the B.E.2 became plain in late 1915, with the advent of the first German fighters. This led the British press to dub it “Fokker Fodder,” while German pilots nicknamed it “kaltes fleisch” (cold meat). British ace Albert Ball summed it up as “a bloody awful aeroplane.” Unable to cope with such a primitive fighter as the Fokker E.I, it was virtually helpless against the newer German Albatros and Pfalz fighters of 1916-17. Its poor performance against the Fokker Eindecker and the failure to improve the aircraft or replace it caused great controversy in England, with Noel Pemberton Billing attacking the B.E.2 and the Royal Aircraft Factory in the House of Commons on March 21, 1916, saying that RFC pilots in France were being “rather murdered than killed.”
Scourge of the Zeppelins
As early as 1915 the B.E.2c was used in attempts to intercept and destroy German “Zeppelin” airship raiders. The “interceptor” version of the B.E.2c was flown as a single-seater with an auxiliary fuel tank on the center of gravity, in the position of the observer’s seat in the reconnaissance version. After an initial lack of success while using darts and small incendiary bombs to attack airships from above, a Lewis gun was mounted to fire incendiary ammunition upwards, at an angle of 45°. This tactic required attacks from below, which proved very effective.
The first successful attack took place on the night of September 3, 1916, when a B.E.2c flown by Captain William Leefe Robinson downed the first German airship to be shot down over Britain, winning him a Victoria Cross and cash prizes totalling £ 3,500 that had been put up by a number of individuals for the first Zeppelin kill over the British Isles. This was not an isolated victory: five more German airships were destroyed by Home Defence B.E.2c interceptors between October and December 1916.
Airfix’s newly tooled B.E.2c is an impressive little kit that can be expected to build up rather simply into a fairly detailed WWI scout-fighter. The kit consists of 52 injection molded parts — crisp and devoid of any flash — that include small jigs to help angle the interplane struts appropriately while the glue is drying. There is a separate engine, and the lower wings as well as the horizontal stabilizers are each a single piece connected by spars that will traverse the width of the fuselage and simplify any alignment issues with these parts.
The kit faithfully recreates the loop skids for the under surfaces of both wings, as well as the rather complex looking tail skid, which is thankfully molded as a single part. There is a detailed Lewis machine gun, and two rather detailed aircrew figures. The stressed fabric on the wing and tail surfaces is just right, neither under-emphasized nor overdone. Often, propellers can be mishapen or not to scale, requiring sanding and reshaping, but the dimensions of the B.E.2c’s prop are flawless.
The instruction sheet features large, clear illustrations and a detailed yet easy to follow rigging diagram consisting of no fewer than nine steps — something that is often missing from WWI kits. There is no paint guide provided for the various steps during construction, but there are four-view color profiles for both the RFC and RNAS versions for which markings are provided, calling out Humbrol colours.
The kit markings match the excellent quality of all recent Airfix offerings, whether newly tooled or re-issued. They provide decals for one of two versions: 1) A machine from No. 39 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, based at Sutton’s Farm, England. This aircraft is painted in an overall matt cream scheme with an olive drab nose section, and armed with a Lewis gun, it was flown by Willaim Leefe Robinson, a Victoria Cross recipient who claimed the downing of airship Schutte-Lanz 11 on the night of September 2-3, 1916; 2) a machine from Royal Naval Air Squadron East Fortune, based as East Lothian, Scotland in December 1916. This aircraft is painted in overall olive drab with matt cream under surfaces and a matt chocolate nose section. It is armed with 10 flechettes, or darts, 5 each mounted to the interplane struts, used in initially unsuccessful Zeppellin interception attempts.
This is a vastly improved kit over the nearest earlier Airfix equivalent, the Royal Aircraft Factory R.E. 8, first released in 1957 in the same scale. That kit has been re-boxed many times, most recently in 2009, ocassionally given new decals, but has yet to be re-tooled. Airfix’ newly tooled offering of the B.E.2c is destined to be the highest quality kit of this aircraft in 1/72 scale.