“A Machine of few vices and very capable is all aspects of flight” – Captain Crundall
By 1917 Sopwith had laid some impressive foundations for fighting aircraft, providing many of the key aircraft of the war. Most of these types had all been based around the same basic design of the Tabloid from 1913. While the Camel represented a new design it still featured the same basic shape,with a big rotary engine up front.
It was a very different shape however, which took off on the 22nd May 1917.
Aerial combat had moved on very quickly from those early days of the war, as well as moving on, these encounters had gradually grown higher. It was quickly becoming clear that altitude was a key advantage, it gave the element of surprise as well as added security from the enemy below. Sopwith knew, that with the ever increasing height of combat, they would need to build a machine capable of not only operating, but performing at higher levels. The resulting machine would become the Dolphin.
As mentioned above, the Dolphin was a very different shape to the designs that had gone before it. The main change in design was the Hispano-Suiza 8B engine up front, which was of inline design and put out 200hp. In an effort to give pilots an improved field of view the cockpit, or at least the pilots head, was positioned above the upper wing, with the fuselage completely filling the gap between the wings. In order to fit the pilot in there was no centre section for the upper wing. The wings were also unusual in that the bottom wing was staggered ahead of the top, which only added to the Dolphin’s “interesting” appearance.
Test flying began in May 1917 and the new fighter was instantly found to be of a different class, noted as outperforming the Camel in both speed and height. Early military testing and Martlesham Heath found that the Dolphin offered “unsurpassed visibility and was very manoeuvrable”. Early flights also indicated speeds between 143 and 146mph. This was a huge improvement in speed from the earlier design of the Camel.
A famous Dolphin pilot, Captain Crundall DFC, remarked that the Dolphin was machine of few vices and very capable in all aspects of flight, though a little less sensitive than the Sopwiths which proceeded it.
A moment which came about in early testing of the Dolphin was a mock dogfight with the Camel, the Camel pilot found it a humbling experience as he was unable to stay out of the Dolphin’s sights. In this early encounter the Dolphin demonstrated that it was a real step-up, even from Sopwith’s golden child.
Front Line Service
By the 13th June, less than a month after its first flight, the Dolphin was across the channel in France. The machine was tested by Captain Billy Bishop, already a well known ace and he went on to be the highest scoring member of the British Commonwealth in the conflict.
Billy added to the machines praises explaining how quickly it turned, how impressive the visibility was, and even that the guns were well placed should there be any jams or problems.
By the end of June 500 Dolphins had been ordered by the government with 400 more orders coming through in following months.
At this stage only one prototype had been completed, two more were soon to follow with a number of revisions. The main change was the cowling was streamlined further, providing an even greater field of view, and improving the aircraft’s looks considerably. The radiators were moved around in an attempt to provide better cooling for the engine. The third prototype proved to solve the radiator issue, and gave the Dolphin another of its eccentric features, the two radiators, each mounted on the side of the fuselage.
The first squadron to receive the Dolphin on the front line was 19 Squadron, with the fourth prototype being flow to their base near Lille on the 15th November. Over the coming months further Dolphins were added to the squadron until they had a full strength of the new Sopwith by the 9th January.
Getting to Know the New Sopwith
As the Dolphin began to see more regular use problems started to appear:
The Hispano-Suiza engine was not without its gremlins. In early 1918 there were a number of reports of aircraft shedding their propellors complete with gearing whilst being slowly run up from cold!
This led to a number of changes being made to the operation of the Dolphin in order to compensate for the engine problems. They included; Reinforced oil tanks, a new locking mechanism for the propellor and taps being fitted to the radiator.
It became apparent that the new radiator position left them in the firing line from empty machine gun shells. The latter issue was eventually cured by redesigning the cases chute.
The unique design which provided the Dolphin with a number of its plus points made it look decidedly out of place in allied skies. This proved to make for an interesting set of encounters during early combat deployment being plagued by attacks from ground fire and even other British squadrons. Luckily no Dolphins were shot down in these encounters and more care was taken once these mistakes had been made.
With the issues resolved the pilots of 19 squadron started to enjoy flying their new machine, though the concerns over what might happen if they aircraft turned on its back were still at the front of everyones mind.
As has always been the case, there are no improvements without compromise, in the case of the Dolphin the biggest issue was how vulnerable the pilot became. The excellent viewing position, which increased the pilots chances in combat had the potential to be lethal on the ground. With the pilots head sitting above the upper wing, the possibility of the aircraft flipping onto its back was very grave indeed.
In an attempt to ease these concerns a number of roll bar style solutions were tried on the cockpit area, though these were more a comfort for the pilots than actual protection. Luckily more often than not when Dolphins did turn over, the tail remained elevated enough to allow the pilot an escape route. In fact, it is noted that there was only one instance of a serious injury from a Dolphin flipping up onto its back in its time in service, meaning that these fears proved to be generally incorrect.
Early training flights proved difficult for inexperienced pilots, with such an excellent field of clear vision ahead and above from the pilot’s “perch”. This positive for combat made flight training difficult, as it removed any reference for the horizon. The hoops that were trialled to protect the occupant in the event of nose overs remained in place on most of the training Dolphins, as it was considered a more likely occurrence with novice pilots and no doubt would provide peace of mind!
Despite being designed from the off as a high level fighter aircraft, the Dolphin was pushed into ground attack service as early as March 1918, as part of the Kaisers Battle on the Somme front. This attack brought a brutal blow to the allies, as soon as was possible all the aircraft that could be brought to the area were scrambled to deal with the incoming threat.
The Dolphin was among the aircraft chosen, used to shoot artillery positions as well as infantry on the ground. Unsurprisingly however, a machine designed for high level air to air combat with poor downward visibility made for a very poor record on these ground attack missions.
No 19 and No 79 squadron were the two Dolphin units called up for this duty, 79 lost a great number of airframes to ground fire during the campaign. No 19 squadron took a beating as well, although they only lost three Dolphins themselves. Fortunately for the pilots, the necessity for these flights started to ease in April 1918, meaning they could return to the higher levels at which they were more comfortable.
Much like the Camel and Strutter before it, it wasn’t long before the powers at be started discussing the prospect of a night-fighting version of the new fighter. The result of these discussions appeared in February 1918 in the shape of Dolphin C3858.
There were no big visual changes to the design, as had been seen in night-fighting versions of the earlier Sopwith fighters. Two half hoop tubes were fitted to the upper wings though, yet another attempt to deter pilots from worrying about nosing over on the ground. Additionally there was a rudimentary trim system installed with a variable incidence tailplane. Though these changes were at least made to ‘858, most of the Dolphins marked for home defence duties had been delivered, so these modifications were to be adjusted at squadron level.
C3858 was passed to 141 squadron at Biggin Hill for evaluation, the CO, Major Babbington gave the Dolphin poor reviews. Initial tests with the un-modified machines found them to be too unstable for night operations and flying without a visible horizon.
While C3858 represented a much more stable example of the machine, Babbington still found the Dolphin too unstable to fly at night. This opinion was shared Col Christie, who simply stated that the Dolphin was unsuitable for night operations, with the unreliable engine adding more fuel to the fire. Unsurprisingly then, the Dolphin was rejected from the night fighting role.
No 87 Squadron – The last Dolphin unit to the front
One of two new squadrons formed with Dolphins in England, was No. 87. The new squadron trained up at Hounslow and by March 1918 they were deemed ready for action on the front line. Unfortunately as seen above, Dolphins were in short supply after the high losses the type had encountered during its enforced stint as a ground attack aircraft. Due to the high losses that No. 79 squadron had taken, they had to borrow airframes from No 23. 23 needed more Dolphins and for a while, so 87’s machines were lined up for a transfer.
Once hostilities eased slightly, 87 were re-equipped with new Dolphins and were able to make the flight across the channel on the 25th April.
Once settled in near Dunkirk, the unit claimed their first victory on the 6th May against a German Rumpler machine, shot down by Lt Biziou at, for the Dolphin, the low altitude of 3000ft. That first succesful sortie didn’t end so well for Biziou as his engine gave up shortly after the encounter and he ended up nosed over following a forced landing, like most in this situation, he survived without incident. Biziou later went on to claim eight victories in the type.
Further combat generally took place at a far greater heights, with regular encounters at 20,000ft where the Rumplers normally operated.
As well as being a Dolphin unit from the start, 87 went on to become the highest scoring of all four, shooting down 89 enemy aircraft during their time at the front. Their highest scoring ace was Captain Arthur Vigers who claimed 14 victories, all while flying the same Dolphin.
Three other units were equipped with the Dolphin during the First World War, 79 was the other squadron whose first combat was carried out in the Doplhin, while 23 and 19 were older squadrons which already had history dating back to 1915.
As the end of the war drew closer, Sopwith started looking at updating the Dolphin design. the most impressive of these improvements became known as the Dolphin II and featured a 300hp Hispano Suiza, which gave very impressive performance figures for the time. The RAF were uninterested in this upgrade, but the United States ordered around 2000 of them, though ultimately the armistice came in before they could be delivered.
Follwing the war most Dolphins were soon retired, Nos 19 and 87 Squadrons were demobbed as soon as February 1919 with 23 squadron gone by March. 79 stayed in service a little longer, flying out Bickenforf in Germany. Even with an extended period of service, the squadron were also demobbed by July. The Dolphin was declared obsolete in September 1921.
Other nations such as the Canadian Air Force, kept the Dolphin on strength along with a number of other fighters from the war, both allied and German, until January 1920. Poland also operated the Sopwith from August 1920, though this resurrection was short lived as the Polish machines were soon disbanded due to a lack of spare parts.
One of the last original Dolphins to fly was D5469, which Handley Page converted for civilian use in 1920, giving ‘469 the new identity of G-EATC. The last Dolphin remained in used as a demonstrator until 1923, when it was sold abroad.
A Job Well Done
In service, the Dolphins would be operating up to heights of 20,000 feet, which is where the deep fuselage came into its own. The deep cockpit provided a warm environment for the ever increasing height that aircraft have to perform at.
Once the problems with the engine were tamed the Dolphin became an enjoyable aircraft to operate in combat, the impressive tally of victories over its 8 month service span speaks volumes in support of that. It is clear from pilots accounts that the Dolphin was a hugely popular fighter once they got used to it, even if many were critical of its design quirks.
Sopwith had stepped away from their tried, tested and very successful formula with the Dolphin. It showed that despite reliability issues, the time of the rotary engine may be coming to an end as the chosen power-plant for fighting aircraft.
The inline Hispano that powered the Dolphin could be made to reach 300hp, even the mighty Bentley BR-2 which powered the Sopwith Snipe could only reach 230! So the Dolphin clearly represented where the future was heading, maybe even heralding the age of the monoplane with the clear advantages of no wing above the pilots head in combat? The thought must have been there. While it remained something of an unknown compared to its more famous siblings it clearly played an important part in the war and proved a memorable machine for many. Perhaps, had the war lasted a little longer, the Dolphin may have left more of an impression.
There is no complete surviving airframe remaining, though the RAF museum’s example, outlined below is made up from a number of original aircraft and parts.
Sopwith Dolphin Replica/Composite – “C3988”
The RAF musuem’s example is the closest we now have to a surviving Sopwith Dolphin. Its modern origins lie with Doug Bianci of Personal Plane Services at Booker, who was offered a collection of Dolphin parts in response to an Exchange and Mart advert in 1967. In June that year the parts were purchased by the RAF museum, though some parts were later identified to be from an F.2b.
The rare find contained the main fuel tank, radiators, a section of the bulkhead, three wheels a number of struts a fin and a data plate amongst other small components. It was discovered that the part originate from Hooper and co Ltd who built Dolphin D5329 in 1918. Restoration attempts first began in 1968 and continued on and off until 1974 when work was suspended as the museums workshops moved.
In 1977 a further section of fuselage was found in Bexley, this turned out to have a data plate from Dolphin C3988 which was built at the Sopwith works in Kingston in January 1918.
No further work on the project was carried out until 1997 when restoration began again at Cardingdon, it was decided that the project would wear the identity of the newley found components, C3988. The Shuttleworth trust were able to contribute to the project as well, providing an original set of horizontal tail surfaces. Of course this added another identity into the project, two infact, C4033 and D3725.
The project moved again in November 2001 when it was transfered to the Cosford site for further work. At this stage a number of missing parts were remanufactured. The engine, propellor and pilots seat are all from the orignal time of the airframe.
After 11 more years of restoration the finished aircraft was rolled out at Cosford in February 2012, before being moved to Hendon later that month. The Dolphin now forms a central part of the new First World War in the Air exhibition at Hendon.
It’s fitting that if we are to only have a single “original” remaining, that it incorporates so many different identities of this unique fighter.
N47166 Old Rhinebeck
Old Rhinebeck is a name that has well known links with early aircraft. Cole Palen, the founder of the wonderful collection at the field started to look for accurate replicas of these historic aircraft. During the 1970s it was fairly easy to get hold of the and cole had a complete set of Dolphin drawings in his possession.
Palen sought the services of Andy Keefe, a Florida based restorer, to built the replica, work began in 1976. While this replica was accurate in a number of ways, it featured a non-authentic fuel tank, which was also much smaller, given that the aeroplane would only be used for local displays.
The project took 4,000 man hours and the replica was registered in 1977 as N47166. Powered by a 150hp Simplex Hispano-Suiza, the newly built replica suffered damage on its first flight. Once repaired the Dolphin went on to be flown regularly at airshows though Palen was never that impressed by the Dolphin’s flying characteristics, finding it hard to judge the correct landing angle.
On the 30th September 1990, while being flown by Dick King, the Dolphin suffered an engine failure which led to a crash in the tall trees around the airfield. King escaped unhurt thankfully, though the airframe sustained substantial damage.
Over the years the Dolphin has been being restored and is gradually nearing completion. The fuselage and tail surfaces are complete, with the wings currently being covered. The engine will then need an overhaul and the instruments need to be installed. The aerodrome welcome donations towards the project, take a look at their website here. Once complete it will not only be the second complete representative of the type and the only one flying.
The final Scout….
The next post in this series will take a detailed look at the final Sopwith Scout of the First World War, the Sopwith Snipe.
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