The Royal Aircraft Factory's B.E.2 two-seat biplane scout gave exceptional service during World War 1 (1914-1918) despite having originated as early as 1912. About 3,500 of the type were taken into service and the aircraft generally received praise for her part in the war. Her design was such that the last B.E.2 was not retired until 1919 - after the fighting had concluded and despite it being labeled obsolete during the long-running war. It ended its days as a trainer and maritime bombing/spotting platform.
The Royal Aircraft Factory moved on finding a replacement for the B.E.2 series in due time and this became the R.E.8 model of 1916. A first flight was had on June 17th of that year and the line soldiered on through to the end of the war in 1918 - though it was retired even before the B.E.2. About 4,077 of the new aircraft series were produced and these saw considerable combat exposure though the design would never live up to its hype - the stability inherent in the B.E.2 was not to be found in the R.E.8 and therefore its combat exploits were not as fondly remembered.
For the new aircraft a two-seat, biplane form was once again used. The crew (pilot and observer/gunner) were seated in tandem across two individual open-air cockpits. Dimensions included a length of 8.5 meters, a wingspan of 13 meters and a height of 3.5 meters. Empty weight was 820 kilograms against a Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW) of 1,300 kilograms. Power was served from a single Royal Aircraft Factory 4a series V12 air-cooled engine delivering 140 horsepower and driving a two-bladed wooden propeller at the nose. This provided a maximum speed of 103 miles per hour, a service ceiling of 13,500 feet and an endurance window of 4.25 hours.
Armament was led by 1 x 0.303 caliber (7.7mm) Vickers machine gun in a fixed, forward-firing position on the forward fuselage and operated by the pilot. The rear gunner managed 1 or 2 x Lewis machine guns on a trainable mount. In addition to these standard fittings, the aircraft was cleared to carry up to 225 lb of bombs.
Compared to the B.E.2, the R.E.8 was faster, could fly higher and given more base power. By these factors it should have impressed more than it did but the Grand War became the ultimate testbed for all military aircraft of the period and any weaknesses in a given design were to come through eventually.
Service trials were conducted in France through two prototypes during July 1916 and this led to approval for serial production coming that fall - first deliveries to the Front were in November. Due to limitations of certain components (including the intended machine gun fits) early R.E.8 models were given varying arrangements of armament in the early-going. Despite their more powerful engines, the line was still deemed underpowered mainly due to their heavier weight so attempts were made to re-engine the type - a sole model represented the R.E.8a variant with a Hispano-Suiza of 200 horsepower but this design never entered serial production, mainly due to shortage of the engines in question.
In practice, the R.E.8 lacked the stability pilots had come rely on with the B.E.2 series and some, typically greenhorns, paid with their lives. Landing and spinning actions were particularly of concern to new pilots for the aircraft proved unforgiving. Engineers ultimately tried to address the spinning/recovery issue by instituting a larger tail fin but this had limited results in-the-field. Restricted as a direct-combat platform, R.E.8s was eventually operated in reconnaissance and artillery spotting roles before moving on to pilot training.
Beyond the British - who stocked over thirty squadrons with R.E.8s - the Belgian Air Service operated the aircraft line during the war and these featured Hispano-Suiza engines in a revised cowling. British use of the aircraft was given up rather quickly after the Armistice of November 1918 though post-war service saw the R.E.8 utilized in Australia, Estonia and the Soviet Union.
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Royal Aircraft Factory / Siddeley-Deasy - UK Manufacturer(s)
Australia; Belgium; Estonia; Soviet Union; United Kingdom Operators
1 x 7.7mm Vickers machine gun in fixed, forward-firing position.
1 OR 2 x 7.7mm Lewis machine gun on trainable mounting in rear cockpit.
Up to 225lbs of bombs.
R.E.8 - Base Series Designation; initial production models; fitted with RAF 4a engine of 140 horsepower.
R.E.8a - Single conversion of R.E.8 model fitted with Hispano-Suiza engine of 200 horsepower.
R.E.9 - Two modified R.E.8 examples; revised equal-span wing assemblies; enlarged tail rudder for improved control.
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