Decals: Two versions – Royal Flying Corps and United States Air Service
Comments: Ex-Aurora kit with raised panel lines; main challenge is painting and rigging; recommend aftermarket decals and detail parts for cockpit
The S.E.5a, a fast, box-like, and deadly fighter of the First World War, was a refinement of the Scout Experimental 5, a British scout/fighter designed around the Hispano-Suiza aircraft engine in 1916. The S.E.5 preceded the S.E.5a in operational service by only two months, with the former having its combat debut on the Western Front on April 22, 1917, and the S.E.5a seeing action for the first time the following June, both with No. 56 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps.
The S.E.5a came about as a result of recommendations for modifying the S.E. 5 made by British ace Albert Ball, who took the S.E.5 on its first flight on November 22, 1916. The S.E. 5 had a large windscreen which was unpopular with pilots and was later removed. Ball found the plane too slow, and subsequent improvements led to the S.E.5a being 20 mph faster than the S.E.5. Ball also recommended adding a Lewis gun with a drum magazine atop the upper wing via a Foster mount; he had used this weapon with great success while flying a French Neiuport 17. Augmenting the fuselage-mounted Vickers gun, which was synchronized to fire through the propeller arc, these two weapons became standard armament on the S.E.5a.
Although 800 of the new aircraft had been completed by mid-1917, plans to equip an additional six squadrons with the S.E.5a were not realized until the end of that year. The delay was due to a shortage of a sufficient number of Hispano-Suiza engines, a problem that was to plague S.E.5a production throughout World War I. The 200 hp Hispano-Suiza was the best aviation powerplant of its day, and much in demand. Other engines, some even license-built, were substituted in the S.E.5a with poor or even disastrous results. Due to the ongoing supply problems, the Hispano-Suiza was eventually abandoned in favor of the Wolseley Viper engine, which had similar performance.
The S.E.5a’s main virtues were ruggedness, speed, and stability. Pilots could literally fly through houses in it, and walk away. One S.E.5a hit the ground at 140 mph after being hit by anti-aircraft fire — the engine flew off its mountings and the fuselage skidded 100 yards, but the pilot was unhurt. While the S.E.5a was fast, it was not a maneuverable as some contemporary fighters like the Sopwith Camel — but unlike the Camel it did not have a tendency to kill off novice pilots. Its steadiness in flight provided a good gun platform, and pilots could open fire at longer range and still score hits. The initial plan for its armament was to have a single .303 caliber Lewis machine gun mounted between engine cylinder banks and firing through the hollow propeller shaft; but this did not prove feasible in production.
After Albert Ball’s first flight in the S.E.5, several changes were made to the design, including dropping the engine-mounted gun in favor of a single .303 Vickers machine gun mounted in the top left section of the fuselage, with the gun breech protruding into the cockpit. While the Lewis gun provided significant additional firepower, changing its 97-round drum magazine in flight was no easy task; coping with the 100 mph slipstream over the upper wing while manhandling the gun along the rails of the Foster mount and simultaneously flying the aircraft was challenging; and lack of oxygen often forced pilots to perform this task at lower altitudes.
The S.E.5a served with 20 British, one Australian, and two American air units on the Western Front. The British also flew the type in Palestine, Macedonia, and Mesopotamia. It was briefly used in Britain for Home Defense, until it was discovered that because of its water-cooled engine it was too slow to warm up; the Sopwith Camel with its rotary engine could be scrambled much faster. Only two German aircraft ever gave the S.E.5a any serious trouble: the Fokker D. VII, and the Siemens-Schuckert D. IV, both of which appeared in late April 1918. It was generally considered superior to the Albatros fighters and even to the superbly manueverable Fokker Tri-plane; it could not out-manuever the Fokker, but could get away from it at will due to its superior speed. Unlike many of its contemporaries, the S.E.5a was rugged enough to pull out of prolonged high-speed dive without structural damage — a characteristic that only the French Spad is reputed to have matched. Pilots found it easy to fly and very responsive on the controls. Major Edward C. “Mick” Mannock scored 50 of his 73 victories in the S.E.5a, and preferred it to the Sopwith Camel.
In all, 5,500 S.E.5a’s were completed before producation ceased, with air forces of other nations, including the United States, Canada, Australia and South Africa operating the type for several years after the war. In Britain, after November 1918, the newly formed Royal Air Force phased out the type fairly quickly in favor of the Sopwith Snipe.
Engine: 200 hp Hispano-Suiza or 220 hp Wolseley Viper
Armament: One .303 Vickers machine gun (synchronized); one .303 Lewis machine gun
Maximum speed: 126 mph at 10,000 feet; 116 mph at 15,000 feet
Service ceiling: 17,000 feet
Endurance: 2.5 hours
Wingspan: 26 feet, 4 inches
Length: 20 feet, 11 inches
Height: 9 feet, 6 inches
Revell-Germany’s 1/48 scale S.E.5a is a simple kit, suitable for modelers of any age. The S.E.5a consists of 28 pieces of tan plastic with raised panel lines, except for the control surfaces, which are engraved. This kit presents an opportunity for detailing with aftermarket parts, since it is surprisingly Spartan – until one considers its origin. The kit box bears a copyright date of 2002, but this is actually a re-boxing of the old Aurora kit initially released in 1956. The cockpit consists of a crude bucket seat that is a bit thick for the scale, and a control stick. Since it is in 1/48 scale with an open cockpit, it’s large enough for a modeler to be sure of seeing most if not all of his aftermarket work, if he undertakes it.
I added the following aftermarket extras: a WWI photo-etch instrument panel and a WWI aircraft seat and straps, from two different Eduard sets. The instrument panel set consists of a series of small, individual photo-etch disks representing dials, which can be glued directly onto the tab provided in the kit which serves as the instrument panel. There are individual decals for each dial, which adhere well with a little decal solvent. For the rigging wires I used ceramic wire from Precision Enterprises Unlimited, rather than the khaki-colored thread provided in the kit. Since the kit lacks a windshield, which was a standard fitting on the S.E.5a, I fashioned a windshield from a small sheet of clear acetate.
The S.E.5a bears a camouflage scheme using acrylics: Model Master Dark Tan as a base coat, with two shades of olive drab, one by Gunze Sangyo, and a second darker one by Tamiya. The under surfaces are Gunze Sangyo Sky Green. The cockpit interior is painted in both acrylic and enamel, Vallejo Flat Tan and Humbrol Natural Wood. For the tri-color on the rudder I used Model Master paints: acrylic Navy Blue, Flat White (enamel), and acrylic Navy Red.
The kit decals are of fairly good quality; they are thin, strong and respond well to decal solvent. My only complaint about them is that the roundels for the upper wing are a little too translucent, and their color does not quite ring true; I used them only because the Xtradecal set I’d intended to use, shattered on impact with water – a bit of a mystery as they were only 4 years old. The S.E.5a bears the markings of RAF No. 74 Squadron, although the unusual camouflage paint scheme it wears is a variation on a scheme used by No. 40 Squadron, which was Australian.
This is an excellent kit despite its age due to its simplicity and fairly accurate lines. The Spartan cockpit screams out for detailing, as do the kit’s relatively few parts. It is a nice, easy kit, good for beginning modelers, and still attractive to those with a few kits under their belt due to the opportunity for detailing and rigging.
- The Great Book of Combat Aircraft by Paolo Matricardi; VMB Publishers, Vercelli, Italy, 2006.
- “Hun Hunter” by John F. Connors; Airpower, Volume 4, No. 2, March 1974, pp. 18 – 35.
- S.E.5a in Action, Squadron Signal Publications; Aircraft No. 69, Copyright 1985.