Icons of Aviation History: Sopwith Camel

Perhaps the most famous fighter plane of World War One, the Sopwith Camel shot down more enemy planes than any other model. But with its tricky handling characteristics, it also killed more inexperienced trainee pilots than any other.

Replica Sopwith Camel on display at Cavanaugh Air Museum, Dallas

In the early autumn of 1916, Sopwith Aviation Company introduced a single-seat fighter armed with a Vickers machine gun and an 80-horsepower LeRhone rotary engine. Although officially designated the “Sopwith Scout”, it became universally known as the “Pup”. It quickly became a favorite with pilots, appreciated for its gentle handling characteristics and maneuverability.

But the Pup quickly became outclassed by newer German fighters, and by the end of the year the Sopwith Company was already working on an improved version. The new plane, designated the F.1, was much larger than the diminutive “Pup”. Fitted with two .303 Vickers mounted side by side in front of the cockpit, it had far superior firepower, and its large 130-horsepower engine could push it at over 100mph. While the upper wing of the biplane was flat, the lower wings slanted upwards in a dihedral, and ailerons on both wing surfaces gave superb maneuverability. The machine guns were modified to have an ejection port on each side so the empty casings would be ejected away from each other. In order to prevent the machine gun breeches from freezing in the wind, they were covered with a metal cowling which produced a distinct “hump” in front of the cockpit—leading pilots to christen it the “Camel”. The F.1 would be more than a match for the newest German Albatros and Fokker machines.

But when the prototype took to the air in December 1916, it was quickly apparent that this was no “Pup”. The Camel had been designed with nearly all its weight at the front end: the engine, gas tank, guns and pilot were all within seven feet of the propeller, covered with sheet metal and plywood, while the rest of the fuselage was lightweight wood and canvas.

On top of this, the big Clerget rotary engine produced an enormous amount of gyroscopic torque, constantly trying to spin the plane to the right. When combined with the forward-of-center balance point, this made the Camel inherently unstable.

When the plane entered combat in the summer of 1917, it was enthusiastically praised by experienced pilots. The superb maneuverability combined with the improved firepower of two machine guns made it a lethal weapon in the hands of a good pilot. The first air victory came in June 1917, when a Camel flown by Canadian ace Alexander Shook shot down a Gotha bomber. Remaining in service till the end of the war, the Camel was credited with shooting down 1,294 German aircraft—more than any other model.

But there was a deadly downside to the Camel. While experienced pilots were able to take advantage of its maneuverability and power, inexperienced trainees found it a very difficult plane to fly. The fearsome engine torque meant that pilots had to apply full right rudder on their takeoff run to avoid a lethal ground loop; landings were equally dangerous, as the Sopwith had a strong tendency to spin if it stalled. The Clerget engines required a specific fuel mixture, and often sputtered out when inexperienced pilots forgot to adjust their settings. In combat, pilots quickly learned that making a left-hand turn in the Camel, against the gyroscopic force of the rotary engine, was painfully slow and made one a sitting duck—experienced pilots would instead turn right through a full 270 degrees, which was faster than trying to bank to the left.

As a result, the Camel gained a formidable reputation as a difficult aircraft that was just as dangerous to fly even if there was no enemy around. In the final 18 months of the War, 413 Sopwith pilots died in combat—while 385 died in accidents and training mishaps. Veteran pilots joked that flying a Camel would get you either a wooden cross, a Red Cross, or a Victoria Cross.

Nevertheless, almost 5500 Sopwith Camels were produced during the War, serving with virtually every Entente air force, including Italy and Belgium. (While the Americans flew mostly French Spad XIII’s and Nieuport 28’s, two US Aero Squadrons, the 17th and 148th, flew British Camels.) Sopwith was unable to keep up with the demand, and licensed versions were manufactured by the Nieuport and Fairey aviation companies.

As the war went on, new variants were introduced. In one version, the cockpit was moved back a short distance and the cowl-mounted Vickers machine guns were replaced with two wing-mounted Lewis guns and racks of Le Prieur air-to-air rockets to serve as a night fighter, called the “Comic”. Several Comic squadrons in England were assigned to defend London against raids by German Zeppelins and Gotha bombers, and one American squadron, the 185th, was equipped with night fighter versions for use on the French front. Another version of the Camel was fitted with racks of 25-pound bombs on the wings and steel plate armor in the cockpit: dubbed the TF.2 “Salamander”, it was used for ground attack and trench strafing. The Royal Navy, which had already begun experimenting with aircraft carriers using Sopwith Pups, now replaced them with more powerful Camels fitted with better engines and landing hooks. As the war ended and the Camel became outclassed by the new German Fokker D7, an improved Sopwith fighter known as the Snipe was already in the works.

After World War One, the Camel continued to serve with some smaller countries such as Belgium, Poland, Canada, and Greece. When the US Navy wanted to carry out some experiments with ship-launched airplanes, using a wooden platform built on the battleship USS Texas, they obtained a number of modified Sopwith Camels from the British for this.

Today, only a handful of original World War One vintage Sopwith Camels remain in existence. One of these is in private hands in California. Two are in London, and others are in Canada, New Zealand, Belgium, and Poland.

A number of fullscale replica Camels have been built from the original factory drawings. The US Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola has a replica naval version on display, in markings used by the test aircraft on the USS Texas after the war. The Air Force Museum in Dayton has another replica, built in 1974, which is exhibited in the markings of American ace Lt George Vaugh, and an airworthy replica constructed with period instrument panel and an original Gnome rotary engine is on display at the Cavanaugh Museum in Dallas. The Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome has a flyable replica Camel fitted with a period 160-horsepower Gnome.





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