Warbird Stories: Simply Sopwith

I’ve always been a big fan of World War 2 aircraft, which won’t be of a surprise to any of you. Over the past few years though, the fascinating journey of technology that First World War development of aircraft started to become a real source of interest for me.

As you’ll know from my series which I ran in 2015, the Sopwith family of aircraft are of particular interest. It was quite a transformation from the Tabloid to the Snipe in four short years and it goes without saying the Camel is an unmistakable icon of the conflict.

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I realised when looking back at some of my early posts on here that the most popular seem to be my nostalgic looks back at my own personal Warbird Stories so I thought I’d put together a recent piece looking at Sopwith history.

Why Sopwith? Well, it is without doubt the first name most people think of when it comes to WW1. I was already fairly familiar with the Camel and of course the Pup and Triplane at the Shuttleworth collection but I wanted to find out more. I started researching the Tabloid which led me to the great story of Tommy Sopwith carrying out a private venture that would go on to win the 1913 Schneider Trophy and become one of the most popular aircraft when the war began. The chance to go to Brooklands museum and get a close up look at their replica brought home just how far Sopwith came to get the Camel and Snipe by the end of the war.

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Ever since I started regularly attending airshows at Old Warden in the early 2000s I have always had a great appreciation for the Shuttleworth Collection Sopwith Triplane replica. With my WW2 focused mind at that time the Triplane managed to catch my attention with that wonderful tone of the rotary engine combined with the impressive turn of speed and manoeuvrability. Its been wonderful having “Dixie” back in the collection’s flying displays this year and that attention grabbing sound and performance is still very much in evidence.

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Undoubtedly the Triplane is probably my earliest Sopwith memory, though I’m sure I’ll have seen the Bianchi Camel in the air at some point in the 90s/early 00s. My real interest in Sopwith started in 2014. There was of course much interest in WW1 aviation in the press with the start of the 100 year anniversary period and hit me that these aircraft are one of the few links to that conflict still “alive”. Whether original aircraft or replicas they provide spectators, historians and pilots with a unique and immersive understanding of what those early days of aerial combat were like.

The 1 1/2 Strutter is an aircraft I’d admired through the airworthy restoration at La Ferté-Alais. I’d seen many photographs over the years of the aircraft flying as part of the Memorial Flight collection and there is something quite understated about the type. It’s a fairly big unit for the early days of scout aircraft, which leant itself to being a stable, ultimately too stable flying platform. The 1 1/2 Strutter not only marks the start of that classic Sopwith line but also boasted innovations such as airbrakes, not something you’d expect to find on a 1920s aeroplane, let along World War 1.

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There are two replica 1 1/2 Strutters in the UK, one example built for the Flyboys film, now on display at Manston and the RAF Museum example at Cosford. The ultimate 1 1/2 Strutter for me was the aforementioned Memorial Flight example. I managed to see this aircraft in 2016 on my first visit to La Ferté, albeit only on static. The attention to detail on this restoration is remarkable, truly one of the great First World War rebuilds and I hope that on a return visit to La Ferté I may get the chance to see it fly. On the same French trip I also saw the original 1 1/2 Strutter which hangs in the WW1 gallery of Le Bourget.

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I also managed to make the journey to Brussels and see their original 1 1/2 Strutter which is on display near their Camel, clearly demonstrating the significant size difference between the two. I hope that one day soon, either in France or when the East Fortune replica takes to the skies, I can add my thoughts on seeing a 1 1/2 Strutter take to the skies to this post.

As the story goes “your 1 & 1/2 Strutter’s had a Pup”, one short sentence and a legend was born. Officially designated the Sopwith Scout the Pup is arguably the most established Sopwith on the UK airshow circuit, with the Shuttleworth Collection operating their example (originally a Sopwith Dove) for many years. The Pup captures a turning point in aircraft design, watching it fly it still appears to have that uncertainty and grace of the Tabloid while having the purpose that would soon become synonymous with Sopwith Scouts. It seems to be one of those aircraft that just flys right, not too much power to provide unpleasant handling characteristics as would befall the Camel and just enough instability to provide an excellent fighting machine.

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The Pup sometimes falls into the underdog role when competing with the Triplane and Camel for the limelight, but it really was a game-changer. The 1916 Fokker Scourge saw the Eindecker ruling the skies and British forces suffering crippling losses. The arrival of the Pup turned fortunes around and marked a path for air superiority. I’ve grown up with the Pup being a regular sight at Old Warden, often joined by the Triplane. It was 2017 that brought my personal top Pup memories though.

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A Duxford visit in April led to the chance treat of Dodge Bailey carrying out a test flight in the then HAC operated Pup. I was able to watch with interest as the engine coughed into life and the aircraft leapt into the air in no time at all before carrying out an extended flight test. This was certainly the longest and highest I’ve ever seen a rotary powered type fly. It was fascinating to watch this Sopwith carrying out tight turns at high level and descend through the circuit giving a real impression of the first air war.

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The same aircraft and pilot combination provided another great memory at the Duxford air festival as the Pup made its airshow debut while the entire Great War Display Team held on mass in behind. Surely one of the best WW1 airshow moments of recent times.

Another Pup development (though actually more closely related to the Camel and Snipe) is the Sopwith Dove. This post war training aircraft combines those classic Sopwith lines with an elegant civilian look. The Dove replica has returned to the UK skies in the last few years, again based at Old Warden, often displayed at Shuttleworth Collection shows.

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Once I started delving into the history of Sopwith a few years ago one aircraft came out as the one I’d love to see fly but doubted I’d get the chance. That aircraft was the Sopwith Snipe. There were replicas flying in New Zealand and with Kermit Weeks in the US but it seemed very unlikely that any of those would make it over here. The Snipe is one of those “Full Stop” aircraft that mark the end of one era of design. It falls into the same category as the Gladiator, Sea Fury, Bearcat etc, the last stand against new technology.

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By the time Sopwith were testing the Snipe the tide was turning away from Rotary engines in favour of inline with types such as the SE5a and Fokker DVII ruling the skies. Much like those other “full stop” aircraft, the Snipe is a beast. At first glance it appears to be a “Super Camel” powered by a 230hp Bentley BR2 engine, a work of art in itself. Thankfully the Snipe is actually a far heavier and more refined design than the Camel. Given the unfortunate torque effects on the Camel airframe the idea of 230hp seems more dangerous than anything. With the Snipe Sopwith arrived at a far more stable aircraft. I think the majority of UK enthusiasts shared by surprise and joy at the news that the WW1 Aviation Heritage Trust had managed to negotiate the loan of one The Vintage Aviator’s Sopwith Snipes for UK Displays.

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The Snipe’s debut at Old Warden in July 2015 was highly anticipated and those in attendance had to wait until near darkness for the Snipe to appear. It was certainly heard before it was seen as that Bentley engine barked down the hill before climbing up beside the control tower. What followed was 5 minutes of surreal flying in the final embers of light. I fondly remember the aircraft taxiing back in with flames clearly visible from the exhaust in the fading light.

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Since then Jean Munn, Shuttleworth Collection chief engineer, has performed a large number of stunning displays in the type, one of those perfect pilot and aircraft airshow combinations that don’t come along too often. More than any other memory in this post I think those Snipe displays and the familiar burst of the Snipe blipping its way around the circuit will always hold a special place. Sadly the Snipe returned to New Zealand in 2017 but it certainly made a great impression during its time in the UK.

Finally, as might be expected, I find myself at the legend of legends, the Camel. I may well have seen a radial powered Camel in my younger years but I’ve certainly yet to see a rotary powered example in the air. Even before my keen interest in WW1 aviation had developed I had been following the Shuttleworth Collection’s Camel project with keen interest. I remember seeing the wooden frame of the airframe on display at the 2013 uncovered show and the fuselage receiving its finishing touches at the 2014 engineering weekend. It was one of those genuine highlights to see the aircraft rolled out in 2015 for early engine runs as videos and photographs slowly appeared on social media. Delays and setbacks are always nearby with old aeroplanes and it would take until 2017 before I would see this Camel come to life.

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The 2016/17 engineering weekend saw the Camel as the featured engine run. I’d seen the Snipe running up at close quarters on a number of occasions but the Camel seems so much more of an event. The lighter airframe is thrown around as the engine is blipped and provides that characteristic rocking motion. There is no doubt that this is a powerful machine that is doubtless tricky to tame. It was welcome news in May this year to see pictures of the Shuttleworth Camel in the air after almost 20 years of restoration work. The planned debut of the Camel was the Shuttleworth Heritage day in September, sadly winds put an end to that plan, though we were treated to a pilots account from Dodge Bailey on the morning of the show. Dodge certainly confirmed the Camel’s tricky reputation, explaining the complications of the Rotary Engines torque in great detail. The Camel’s debut performance came at the 2018 Season Premiere as part of the RAF100 theme.

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I found a great position at the far end of the airfield, right by the WW1 aircraft. From here I was able to watch the Camel being prepared for its first appearance, spring in to life and jump into the air off an incredibly short run.

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Dodge Bailey performed a graceful routine in the fighter alongside the collection’s SE5a. The sight of the Camel gently diving in to land right in front of me was a great sight to witness in the fading summer light. A fantastic way to first experience a rotary Camel in the air.

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With the Camel now being a regular performer at Old Warden, thanks in part to the wonderful 2018 weather, my own personal Sopwith journey is now up to date. Hopefully 2019 may offer the chance to see a 1 1/2 Strutter in the sky. Who knows, with a trip further afield planned late next year, the chance to see a Dolphin take to the sky may even be on the horizon!

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