12 min read

How to fly and preserve a First World War combat veteran aeroplane

a photo of an RAF biplane with roundels flying across a blue sky with a few cotton clouds

The SE5A airborne at Old Walden Airfield. Copyright Darren Harbar Photography

Dodge Bailey, Chief Test Pilot of The Shuttleworth Collection, on the Museum’s SE5a, an original flying combat veteran that shot down a German Fokker DVII during the First World War

I went to the 1962 Farnborough Air Show as a ten year old boy and one of my lasting memories was this little biplane whizzing about in the air. I subsequently found that it was Allen Wheeler displaying the SE5a there, not long after it had been restored.

One of the founding fathers of the Shuttleworth Collection, Sir Allen Wheeler had been an RAF colleague and close friend of Richard Shuttleworth who was killed in a Fairey Battle in 1940. After the war he set about fulfilling Richard’s dream of establishing an aviation museum at Old Warden which became the Richard Shuttleworth Remembrance Trust.

Wheeler had been at Farnborough and Boscombe Down doing aircraft testing during the war. Post-war he stumbled across the remains of an SE hanging in the roof of a hangar at Coventry, acquired it for the Collection and, using wartime contacts, arranged for its restoration at Farnborough as an apprentice exercise in the 1950s.

What we knew about the aeroplane when I joined the Shuttleworth Collection was that it was an ex-Sky Writing aeroplane. ‘Mad’ Jack Savage bought some SE5as to do skywriting after World War One, and the assumption was that our aircraft had never gone to France, but had been sold off as surplus after the War. If you look at all the old Shuttleworth books about the aeroplane that’s what they’ll say.

a close up photo of a joystick inside an aircraft cockpit

Inside the SE5A cockpit. Photo Dave Scott

a photo of an RAF roundel on the side of an aircraft

Photo Dave Scott.

a photo lokking through the windshield of an old biplane with a gun site mounted on it

Photo Dave Scott.

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that one of our chaps was doing a bit of personal research and stumbled across a clue which meant that they went delving a bit deeper.

In The National Archives they came across a combat report from a Major Pickthorn that showed that he had delivered the aeroplane to France as the new boss of 84 Squadron. Within a day or two – on November 10 1918 – he got airborne and shot down a Fokker DVII.

“I’m not aware of another flying World War One combat victor”

Because these aeroplanes can be dismantled and reassembled, robbed to repair others and such like, there’s always some doubt about provenance, but they’ve gone to a lot of trouble and they’re as certain as they can be that it is Pickthorn’s SE5a F904.

That discovery has turned an already valuable aeroplane into a priceless aeroplane. I’m not aware of another flying World War One combat victor.

It’s an immense privilege to be trusted to fly it. And when you’re flying the aeroplane you really don’t want to be the person who bends it, so we are reasonably careful with it.

a photo of the dials and meters mounted on a walnut dashboard of the SE5A

Photo Dave Scott.

a photo of an oil tube beneath an engine cowling in smooth metal

Photo Dave Scott.

a photo of a wing strut of the SE5A

Photo Dave Scott.

It’s a pretty strong aeroplane and the engine is a good powerful engine, but of course it’s a very rare engine now and hard to maintain so we’re careful not to ask too much of it. But when I started here we used to aerobat the SE5A and dog fight it. We don’t do that anymore and that’s mostly to protect the engine, not the aeroplane.

In terms of handling it’s probably about as good as British aeroplanes get in World War One. Going into that war there was virtually no understanding of stability and control; I think the scientists understood the theory but most of the manufacturers didn’t, and they just made aeroplanes that kind of worked.

“The SE5a turned into the best British fighter of the war”

Some of them are extremely challenging to fly, and the Sopwith Camel is one of those. The Camel was a pretty successful fighter but probably more pilots died learning to fly it than were lost in combat. It was effective because it was very manoeuvrable due to its instability and pilots either coped or they didn’t. There was a sort of Darwinian process – the best ones mastered the aircraft and did marvels with it but you don’t hear much about the less good ones because they didn’t survive.

The SE5 was not like the Camel. It was a Royal Aircraft Factory product, and while most if their aircraft like the BE2 and RE8 were pretty dreadful for one reason or another the SE5a turned into the best British fighter of the war.

There had been a change in designer. Geoffrey de Havilland was responsible for a lot of the BE2 type horrors, but the SE5 designer was Henry Folland who went on to design the Folland Gnat years later. Folland took a different approach and designed a pretty good aeroplane. It had its teething troubles, but it came good in the end and I think the goodness is its balance between stability and control.

You might hear people talk about the Sopwith Camel having no stability, it’s all control. You can make the aeroplane do whatever you want but if your controls are shot away or you are injured so you can’t actually control the aeroplane, it will fall out of control and crash. The pilot is the fly-by-wire stabilisation system.

The SE5a is more like a post-war aeroplane; if you don’t do anything the aeroplane will fly itself at the trimmed speed. If you want to make it manoeuvre you use the controls in the way you want. If you stop moving the stick it stops trying to manoeuvre.

The Sopwith Camel wants to manoeuvre all the time so for example you are always pushing on the stick until it’s nearly out of fuel when the push force becomes a pull. But most of the time if you let go of the stick the aeroplane will pitch up rapidly, so you always have to be on top of it.

a photo of a pulley wheel on an aeroplane

Photo Dave Scott.

a photo of a brass petrol cap

Photo Dave Scott.

a photo of the serial number on a plane's fuselage

Photo Dave Scott.

In early WW1 the flying licence was the Royal Aero Club ticket, and all you had to do to get that was to fly a figure of eight – “left turn, right turn, a figure of eight” over the airfield and from 1,000 feet stop the engine and glide down and land next to your examiner. Pilots could generally do that with between five and ten hours of instruction. Later on guys learned to fly on something like an Avro 504 which is a very stable dual control aeroplane.

They would then put their wings up and go to France. Once there they would be faced with: “Here you go, off you go in the Camel. Be careful!” and some would make it and some didn’t.

“If you’re in a Sopwith Camel you can’t choose to run away. You have to stay and fight.”

With the SE5a, as well as its stability, they made the aeroplane very strong. It could be dived to a very high speed and there are accounts of it diving to 200 miles an hour – that’s pretty rare in World War One. If you took a Sopwith or an Albatross to that sort of speed the wings would twist themselves off.

It was also quite fast and if you’ve got an aeroplane that can dive faster and fly faster than the enemy it means you can choose when to fight and when to not to. You can choose the terms of the engagement. You can dive away from the fight, get out of range, climb to height, come back and start again. If you’re in a Sopwith Camel you can’t choose to run away, it’s simply not fast enough. You have to stay and fight.

And so the SE5a gave Allied pilots that superiority and confidence to engage, disengage, engage, disengage. In that way it was a game changer, in the same way as the Fokker DVII was.

The DVII was heavier and had about the same engine power as the SE5 but its wing was ‘new technology’ and didn’t need bracing wires. It was structurally better and could dive into a fight, pick up a lot of speed, shoot for a few seconds, pull up and climb away with all the energy it got from the dive, due to its low drag and its mass. In that zoom away, the aeroplane that it had attacked could not chase it, it did not have the climb performance to chase it, so the Fokker was in control.

On the other hand a fighter like the Camel could turn very tightly; let’s call that an ‘Angles Fighter’ because it can turn through angles very quickly. The Fokker DVII is heavy and fast so it cannot turn as tightly; let’s call that an ‘Energy Fighter’ because it’s got more kinetic energy.

a photo od metal support struts beneath an aeroplane

Photo Dave Scott.

a photo of an aircraft's landing wheel and wooden landing gear

Photo Dave Scott.

The SE5a was our ‘Energy Fighter’ and on the German side the Fokker Triplane was their ‘Angles Fighter’, so it depended on who met who, and whether they were clever or not, but in an SE5a v Fokker DVII combat the SE5a becomes the Angles Fighter and the DVII is the Energy Fighter.

There are lots of stories of SE5as shooting down DVIIs and that would be down to tactics as much as anything else. Fighter pilots try and sneak round behind their opponent and shoot him before he knows he’s being engaged. That element of surprise can overwhelm a superior aeroplane because its pilot doesn’t know he’s in a fight until you’ve shot them.

But it’s all down to the esprit de corps of the squadron, the skill of the pilots and tactics they use – that’s actually just as important as the aeroplane.

There’s no space provision for a parachute in any of these fighters. You can barely squeeze into the cockpit as it is so there was a fairly practical reason why they didn’t have parachutes.

There was also an alleged policy that our generals thought that if the crews had parachutes they would jump out rather than fight. I don’t know whether that was true, but it was simply impractical to wear a ‘chute in our frontline fighters. The bombers could have had them, and the Germans started mounting the parachute pack on the outside of the aeroplane next to the pilot, so it deployed as he jumped out. But we never got round to that.

There were some pilots who were obviously ‘Spit-fire’ types, not spitfire in the aeroplane sense but in the aggression sense, who never worried about the lack of a parachute. And there were others where it preyed on their mind a lot.

There is a book called War Birds which is the diary of an American pilot who flew SE5s and he starts off as a very confident guy and an aggressive fighter pilot. But pilots rarely if ever got any rest, they were on the frontline until they weren’t, and in this account you can see his attitude of mind deteriorating over time. One of the things preying on him is the fact that they haven’t been given parachutes and the Germans now have them. He gets pretty morose by the end of it. And then the diary stops, because he’s been killed.

It affected some pilots and it didn’t affect others. But they were in their twenties when you feel immortal. During the Second World War I think the maximum age for a Spitfire squadron commander was little more than 25, because once you get past that age you start to realise that you’re not immortal and you may have plans for after the war.

So they were naturally adventurous and patriotic guys.

a photo of two biplanes lined up next to each other on a grassy airfield

The SE5A with the Shuttleworth Collection’s Bristol F2b. (anothe genuine WWI fighter). Courtesy Darren Harbar Photography

There was no formal aptitude test for pilots in those days, but there are several accounts of the interview where they would be asked: “Do you ride a horse?” And if the answer was “yes” you were halfway there.

If you rode to hounds or were in the cavalry you were in because the skills required to control a spirited horse at speed across country, jumping hedges not knowing quite what’s on the other side meant you were probably the sort of guy that could cope with the sensations of flying an aeroplane.

A horse has a mind of its own which you bend to your will most of the time. Sometimes there’s a bit of a battle between what the horse wants to do and what the rider wants to do and to cope with those sort of unexpected behaviours and to stay on the horse actually is a pretty good aptitude test for flying a First World War aeroplane.

And we still don’t wear a parachute when flying these planes. But then nobody is shooting at us remember.

Dodge Bailey was speaking to Richard Moss.

The Shuttleworth Collection features several First World War aircraft, with airshows running from May to October. See the website for more details www.shuttleworth.org



Biggleswade, Bedfordshire

The Shuttleworth Collection - where everything flies or drives! The Collection is home to an exciting array of vintage aircraft from the early days of aviation up until the 1950s. We also hold an interesting selection of mostly Edwardian cars and buggies, classic motorcycles and early bicycles. Airshows run throughout…

Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *