1913 was an important year for aviation, December especially, as it marked 10 years since the Wright Brothers had made that first daring leap into the sky and changed the world.
It was by this time that Thomas Sopwith had also begun to make his name. After his first flight in a Farnham design at Brooklands, Thomas soon took to the skies himself and qualified for his Royal Aero Club certificate.
On the 18th December 1910, Sopwith achieved the longest flight from England to the continent, covering 169 miles in three hours and forty minutes. This record breaking flight won him the impressive sum of 4000 pounds, which he used to set up his own flying school at Brooklands. These winnings also funded a trip over the United States where Sopwith entered a number of competitions, during this time some issues occurred with the wright brothers and this “new kid on the block.” Sopwith smoothed the ground by purchasing one of the Wright aircraft, which he commented had the strangest controls and soon changed them to a more conventional design.
In 1912 the Sopwith Aviation Company was set up at Brooklands and soon test pilot Harry Hawker would set the world endurance record with a flight time of 8 hours 23 minutes in a modified Wright Model B. This was soon followed by the first Sopwith design: The Hybrid, an ungainly looking bi-plane powered by a 70hp engine. The hybrid was soon replaced by what became known as the type D or “three seater” which started to earn Sopwith more respect.
After receiving their first military orders, the decision was made to move to new premises in Kingston, where larger scale production could begin.
Following earlier designs such as the Hybrid, the Tabloid, or as it was then known “Sopwith 80hp Biplane” took its first flight on the 27th November 1913. The Tabloid had a number of unique features for the time. The most obvious of these was the side by side seating arrangement, as well as the impressive engine cowl which covered up half of the Gnome rotary engine. It was clearly viewed as an impressive aeroplane at the time, with the December 1913 issue of Flight magazine featuring a four page article including detailed drawings of the more interesting aspects.
Powered by a Gnome 80hp engine and still using the wing-warping method of roll control, the Tabloid managed a top speed of 92 mph in a test flight at Farnborough. In further tests flown by Harry Hawker, who also designed the machine, the aircraft managed to climb to 1200 feet in one minute, with 2 and a half hours worth of fuel and a passenger on board.
Despite being largely designed as a sports aeroplane, following this impressive performance the government placed orders early in 1914.
Arguably the more successful variant of the type was the float plane version, which came about as a design to enter the Schneider Trophy air race. For this event the engine was upgraded to a 100hp Gnome.
When in float plane configuration the Tabloid, or Schnieder as it would soon be known, sat on its tail, with the main floats postitioned forward much like the main gear on a wheeled aircraft.
Following test flying in early April, the machine was sent out to Monaco for the main event, which was easily won. In fact the Sopwiths performance was so great that a number of those competing after its run didn’t even get airbourne and a new speed record was set for a floatplane at 92 mph. Not bad for the smallest and lowest powered entrant!
The 100hp engine was kept with the design for the production versions as well. The military versions were single seat variants and were used as fast scout aircraft during the initial deployment in France in 1914. Much like other participants in the early days of the war it wasn’t long before both the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service aircraft had guns mounted above the wings, or firing through props fitted with deflector shields.
Perhaps the types biggest claim to fame is being one of the aircraft to carry out the first bombing raid by British aircraft over Germany On the 23rd September 1914, which also included 2 Sopwith Type Ds.
Not long after that first raid, on the 8th October RNAS Tabloids flew from Antwerp and carried out a bombing attack on Zeppelin sheds at Cologne and Dusseldorf. Lieutenant Commander Spenser Grey, was flying Tabloid 167 but failed to find the sheds in Cologne, so dropped his bombs on the railway station instead. However in Dusseldorf, Flight Lieutenant Reggie Marix had more luck, flying 168 he had no problem spotting the hangar. He dropped his bombs from 600ft and successfully destroyed the hangar along with Zeppelin Z IX No. LZ25.
Following this successful mission Marix ended up running out of fuel 20 miles short of Antwerp due to battle damage and had to borrow a bicycle and car in order to return to base!
In 1915 the Schneider float planes were used, or at least were trialled, as Zeppelin interceptor aircraft, however due to rough seas these flights were almost impossible.
Another Sopwith that deserves mention here is the Sopwith Baby, the Baby was a direct development of the Schneider, designed to be a more effective match for the Zeppelin threat becoming more apparent in 1915. Initially the Babys were simply existing aircraft which had ailerons added to replace the wing warping system as well as a larger tailplane. However once the larger engines were used the Baby instantly took on a more recognisable Sopwith look, with no cowling covering the front of the engine.
None of the 43 Tabloids, or 136 Schneiders survive today unfortunately, though there are a couple of high quality replicas. One of which, the wheeled variant, was on show at Hendon until early 2014, when it was placed into storage to make room for the new First World War in the Air exhibition.
The other replica, which features in the pictures of this post, is the floatplane variant and is kept at Brooklands. The Brooklands replica is displayed in an impressive half uncovered state which allows clear views of the construction of this important aircraft.
Another replica of the type can be found with Airdrome Aeroplanes who make full scale replicas of world war one aircraft as ultralight aluminium designs. As a result this means there is at least an example of the Tabloid design still flying. Available in kit form, hopefully it won’t be too long before it becomes a common sight.
What about the Baby? Well, one original aircraft remains at the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton, currently kept in their reserve collection at Cobham hall. This example, N2078 is otherwise known as “The Jabberwock” was built in 1916 and spent some time with the Italian government as a pattern aircraft. Eventually parts of ‘078 were found amongst the Nash collection at London airport in the 1960s, allowing restoration work to be completed, Albeit involving parts from two other aircraft. There was another static replica which was last seen at Thorpe Park in 1987, its current whereabouts is not known. Airdrome Aeroplanes again make a replica wheeled version of the Baby which is available in kit form.
Flying the Tabloid?
The Hendon replica has quite an extensive back story, originally built by Don Cashmore in 1980 the aircraft actually had a short two-year flying career. There is an incredibly detailed article about the construction and test flying of the replica G-BFDE in Issue 85 of WW1 Aero magazine.
It is worth mentioning first of all that this replica is in the markings of Tabloid 168, the same aircraft flown by Marix on his successful bombing run over the Zeppelin sheds in October 1914.
Don explains how the Tabloid was largely built out of original drawings, with some modifications for practicality and safety. For example, ‘FDE featured ailerons rather than the original wing-warping. The other major deviation was the power plant, opting for a Continental PC 60 GPU over the Gnome rotary as it allowed the aircraft to leave the vicinity of the airfield, which CAA restrictions prevent on single ignition engines.
Test flying was carried out by Shuttleworth pilot John Lewis at Hucknall, with the first flight taking place on 22nd June 1980. This article offers a rare insight into flying the Tabloid: Commenting on his flights in the aircraft, Don explained that the aircraft was generally light to handle and stable to fly though required a fair amount of forward stick pressure to keep in level flight, a common problem of the era.
Moving to Hendon in 1983, the aircraft was returned to stock condition, with the wing warping and Gnome Rotary engine added ready for its display at the RAF Museum.
Full details of the replicas construction and test flights can be found in issue 85 of WW1 Aero magazine, which can be found here.
Sign of Things to Come?:
While the Tabloid and its variants only had a relatively short career, it provided Sopwith with early success and a way in to military aircraft production. The design’s impressive performance in both racing and war clearly showed the direction the Sopwith company would head in the coming years. Much like the S6 provided Supermarine a much needed push, the Tabloid and Schneider did just that for the Sopwith/Hawker lines.
Next time will take a look at the intervening designs before taking a closer look at the Sopwith 1 & 1/2 Strutter.