Wings of War: The Sopwith Camel

By , in News

The Sopwith Camel was designed by Herbert Smith to replace the Sopwith Pup and the Sopwith Triplane. It immediately proved an exceptional aircraft: far from being as manageable and easy to manoeuver as its predecessors, it nonetheless possessed some traits which made this plane into a legend of aviation, for better or for worse. On one hand, the Camel was the most lethal flying machine of the entire war, totalling 1294 victories; on the other hand one should note that at the end of World War I, 413 pilots had been killed in combat flying Camel planes, while 385 had lost their lives in flying accidents.

About 90% of a Camel's weight was loaded onto the first seven feet of its fuselage. For this reason the powerful effect created by the rotary motor, which did not possess a counter-balancing mechanism, and the gyroscopic effect of the propeller, ended up strongly enhancing the tendency to end swerves to the right: a Sopwith Camel could thus accomplish tighter turns to the right than any other airplane, a crucial advantage when expert pilots were at the controls during air duels. However, this same characteristic could turn into a lethal trap for young and inexperienced airmen: while veering right the plane tended to point its muzzle downwards, which could cause it to sideslip and spin out of control. This could happen while veering left, when a pilot might be tempted to turn the muzzle abruptly skywards by pulling the stick backwards in an attempt to offset the gyroscopic effect too quickly. Moreover, the Camel was prone to choke at takeoff which could cause engine cut out and stalling which often proved lethal.

In spite of this, the Camel was the most agile fighter plane of the whole conflict, excepting perhaps only the Fokker Dr.1.

The prototype of the F.1 made its maiden voyage in December 1916: it was fitted with a 110 hp rotary Clerget engine. However even the earliest models of the series, delivered in May 1917, had already been equipped with 130 hp Clerget engines. Over time a wide variety of different engines were used for this aircraft, ranging from 110 hp Le Rhone to 150 hp Bentley B.R.I. The wood and canvas wings had wooden longerons and centring, while the tips' structure was constructed out of steel tubing. The upper wing was straight, while the lower made a positive angle. To improve the pilot's view there was an opening at the centre of the upper wing. All the tail was constructed out of steel tubing. The fuselage structure was made of canvas covered wood except for the aluminium panels immediately behind the engine hood and the cockpit, which was made of plywood.

Wingspan 8.53 m
Length 5.72 m
Weight 659 Kg
Max. Speed 181.8 Km/h
Service Ceiling 5791 m
Armament 2 Vickers
Maximum Range 2 h 30 min
Nations using Sopwith Camel during WWI GB - USA
Period ½ 1917 - 1918

The Camel was the first British fighter plane to be fitted with Vickers machine guns synchronized with the propeller. The guns' rear were protected by an aluminium carter forming a sort of “hump” behind the motor cowling, hence the “Camel” nickname which soon took the place of “Big Pup”, the first nickname which it was awarded when it had just arrived at the war front and seemed a larger brother of the Sopwith Pup. During night flights however it was found that flames from the Vickers guns dazzled the pilot: special night versions were built, in which the pilot's seat was moved to the rear and two Lewis guns were fitted to the usual Foster rail-mounting on the upper wing.

The Sopwith 2F.1 Camel was designed to operate from aboard ships. The wings were shortened by about about one foot (33cm) to ease embarkation, while the central structure was built in steel to ward against the strain usually caused by landing on deck. These versions included a Vickers on the cockpit's left side and a Lewis on the usual Foster rail-mounting.

Camel planes were used to good purpose in the battles of Ypres and Cambrai, where they were equipped with a rack which allowed four 20 pound bombs to be placed under the fuselage. As of August 1917, Camels fitted with Le Rhone engines could rely on a greater climbing capacity, and were thus used for Home Defence in the war against the Zeppelin: these planes were equipped with eight Le Prieur phosphorous rockets which could be ignited by means of an electrical switch device.

At the end of World War I the R.A.F. still had 2548 planes out of a total of 5490 which had been ordered from Sopwith. The US acquired 142 Camel airplanes fitted with Clerget engines in June 1918, which were re-engined with 150 hp Monosoupapes. At the end of the war Donald MacLaren, who had shot down 54 planes, was acclaimed as the Sopwith Camel pilot who could boast the largest number of victories.