Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8

The Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8 was a British two-seat biplane reconnaissance and bomber aircraft of the First World War designed by John Kenworthy at the Royal Aircraft Factory. Intended as a replacement for the vulnerable B.E.2, the R.E.8 was widely regarded as more difficult to fly, and gained a reputation in the Royal Flying Corps for being "unsafe" that was never entirely dispelled. Although eventually it gave reasonably satisfactory service, it was never an outstanding combat aircraft.

In spite of this, the R.E.8 served as the standard British reconnaissance and artillery spotting aircraft from mid-1917 to the end of the war, serving alongside the rather more popular Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8.

Over 4,000 R.E.8s were eventually produced and they served in most theatres including Italy, Russia, Palestine, and Mesopotamia, as well as the Western Front.

Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8
Class Aircraft
Type Reconnaissance
Manufacturer Royal Aircraft Establishment
Origin United Kingdom - UK (Great Britain)
Country Name Origin Year
United Kingdom - UK (Great Britain) 1916
Country Name Operational Year Retirement Year
Australia View
Belgium View
Estonia View
United Kingdom - UK (Great Britain) 1916 1918 View
ManufacturerName Production From Production To Quantity
Royal Aircraft Establishment 4077 View
The first of two prototype R.E.8s (Reconnaissance Experimental 8) flew on 17 June 1916. Design of the new type had begun in late 1915, so that it was conceptually at least almost contemporary with the B.E.12 and the B.E.2e.

The installation of the 150 hp (112 kW) Royal Aircraft Factory 4a air-cooled V12 engine closely resembled that of the B.E.12, with the same large air scoop and similar vertically mounted exhausts protruding over the upper wing to carry the fumes clear of the crew. The only real difference was that the engine was slightly raked back, to improve take off and landing characteristics.

The single bay, unequal span wings were identical to those of the B.E.2e, although the span (and thus the wing area) was increased slightly by the use of a wider upper centre section, and lower stub wings to match. The tailplane was also the same as the B.E.2e. The entirely new parts of the design were confined to the fuselage aft of the engine firewall, and the vertical fin and rudder.

The new type was intended from the beginning to replace the B.E.2, which was already attracting widespread criticism, and an attempt was made to address each of the earlier type’s main failings. The more powerful motor was intended to improve the feeble speed and climb of the B.E.2, and in particular to allow a better payload. This permitted the type to operate as a true two-seater – since the observer no longer had to be left at home when bombs or a full fuel load were carried, there was no need for his seat to be at the centre of gravity – as a result he could now be seated behind the pilot, in the proper position to operate a defensive machine gun. It was also possible to allow for a pilot’s gun. The new wings had already proved themselves on the B.E.2e – maintaining the stability of the B.E.2c while providing rather better manoeuvrability, although the long extensions on the upper wing looked as if they might collapse if the aircraft was dived too sharply, which did not improve the trust in which they were held by some pilots. The new tail, as originally fitted, had a much smaller fin, which it was hoped would improve rudder control and allow the new type to turn more easily without seriously affecting stability.

In July the second of two prototypes was sent to France for service trials, which were successful, aircrew being generally quite favourably impressed, and by September production was well underway. The Vickers-Challenger interrupter gear and the Scarff ring were both still in short supply, being required for the Sopwith 1½ Strutter and other types, and a few early R.E.8s were built with a pillar mounting for the observer’s gun as an interim measure. An alternative to the pilot’s synchronised Vickers had been designed, consisting of a fixed Lewis gun with deflector plates fitted to the propeller, although this was never actually used – a Vickers gun for the pilot being mounted on the port side of the fuselage in a similar position to that on the B.E.12, at first synchronised by the Vickers-Challenger gear - and then by the improved Constantinesco hydraulic gear. Photographs of this armament installation make it clear that the cocking handle of the Vickers gun was in easy reach of the pilot, and that a normal Aldis sight was mounted in the pilot's windscreen, giving the lie to statements that the forward firing gun could not be sighted properly due to its position.

To make the R.E.8 less tiring to fly the pilot’s controls included a wheel to adjust the tailplane incidence in flight, and a form of primitive rudder trim (applied to the rudder bar itself!) was provided to alleviate the constant pressure necessary to counteract the torque of the propeller. Very basic flight controls were installed in the observer's cockpit – these folded out of the way when not in use. They were connected to the elevators, rudder, and throttle, but not to the ailerons, and were plainly intended to give observers a chance to make a forced landing if the pilot was killed or incapacitated rather than to offer true dual control.

Although much better than the B.E.2 in this regard, the R.E.8 was still underpowered; and a model re-engined with the Hispano-Suiza engine was projected from quite an early stage, being officially designated the R.E.8a. The cowling designed for the liquid-cooled engine closely resembled that of the B.E.12b and the S.E.5a. Supplies of Hispano-Suiza engines, more urgently required for other types, never permitted production of the R.E.8a, although a prototype was built and tested in December 1916. Plans to mount Rolls-Royce aero engines, such as the Falcon, never eventuated for similar reasons. These power plants were in chronically short supply, and were reserved for other types such as the D.H.4 and the Bristol Fighter.

A total of 4,077 R.E.8s were produced with a further 353 on order cancelled at the end of the war. As well as the Royal Aircraft Factory, several private companies built R.E.8s, including Austin Motors, Daimler, Standard Motors, Siddeley-Deasy, and the Coventry Ordnance Works.

Variants

  • R.E.8 : Standard general purpose aircraft, powered by 140 hp (104 kW) RAF 4a engine.
  • R.E.8a : Conversion of one R.E.8 with 200 hp (149 kW) Hispano-Suiza engine in a square, S.E.5 (or B.E.12b) type cowling. No production due to shortage of Hispano engines. At least some of the R.E.8s supplied to Belgium were also re-engined with Hispanos - in this case in a cowling resembling that of the later SPADs.
  • R.E.9 : R.E.8 modified with equal-span wings similar to those of the B.E.2c/d and the larger fin and rudder fitted to some R.E.8s at training units. Two were converted in 1917, but they showed no advantage over the standard R.E.8 (climb and manoeuvrability were worse) and no production followed. 

The first production aircraft reached No. 52 Squadron RFC in France in November 1916. The inexperienced pilots of No. 52 found their new mounts thoroughly dangerous – several of them were killed spinning in off a stall while attempting to land – and they were grateful to return to the B.E.2e by exchanging aircraft with 34 Squadron in January 1917. Experienced pilots had fewer problems with the new type, and re-equipment of B.E.2 squadrons continued. Pilot’s notes for the R.E.8 prepared in the field drew attention to the fact that it had a higher landing speed than the B.E.2e (hardly surprising, since it was heavier, and had almost the same wing area) and that it gave almost no warning of a stall. This seems to have been the source of most complaints about the type's "trickiness".

The Royal Aircraft Factory conducted spinning tests on the type, concluding that the R.E.8 was quite hard to spin, and recovered easily – but, nonetheless, the vertical fin area was redesigned with slightly increased area to improve spin recovery. This modification resulted in the production version being no less stable than the B.E.2e, and while this was an advantage for artillery spotting and photography, it gave the R.E.8 little chance of out-manoeuvring enemy fighters. A still larger fin was fitted to some R.E.8s used as trainers. Some pilots flew the R.E.8 with an empty reserve fuel tank (or even filled the tank with fire extinguisher fluid) to avoid a perceived tendency of R.E.8s to burn on crashing. None of these measures made the aircraft any "safer", if, as seems likely, the problem was basically one of poor stalling characteristics. Several pilots who flew the type mentioned that they had no problems, but were careful to keep the airspeed well above stalling point.

R.E.8s began to arrive at the front in numbers just as the period of German air superiority known as "Bloody April" was taking a heavy toll of all types in the RFC and early service was, unsurprisingly, not auspicious. On 13 April 1917, six R.E.8s from No. 59 Squadron RFC sent on a long range photo reconnaissance mission missed their intended escorts, and were met by the picked fighter pilots of Jasta 11, who shot them all down within five minutes.

The casualty rate in R.E.8 squadrons dropped as new Allied fighter types regained air superiority, and as a result of improved pilot training and tactics. Although never a popular aeroplane, it was reasonably satisfactory for the tasks demanded of it and was even regarded with some affection, gaining the rhyming slang nickname "Harry Tate" (after a popular music hall artist of the time). Some crews flew their slow, cumbersome mounts quite aggressively; the German fighter ace Eduard Ritter von Dostler was shot down by an R.E.8 of No. 7 Squadron RFC, while No. 3 Squadron AFC was credited with 50 air victories in 12 months of operations. Lts Pithey and Rhodes of No. 12 Squadron RFC were the most successful R.E.8 crew in air-to-air combat, being credited with twelve victories.

Although supplemented by other types the R.E.8 remained the RFC’s standard artillery spotting, air photography, and general short range reconnaissance aircraft for the remainder of the war – equipping 18 Royal Flying Corps squadrons in 1917 and 19 squadrons in 1918. Belgium was the only country other than Britain (and its Dominions) to operate the R.E.8 during the First World War, receiving 22 in July 1917. At least some of the Belgian examples were fitted with Hispano-Suiza engines – but in a SPAD type cowling – rather than the S.E.5a type cowling of the R.E.8a.

It was hoped to be able to replace the R.E.8 with a version of the Bristol Fighter powered by the Sunbeam Arab engine but the combination proved highly problematic, and few "Arab Bristols" had been completed by the end of the war. A few R.E.8 squadrons were issued with one or two standard (Falcon engined) F.2bs in the last weeks of the war.

By November 1918, the R.E.8 was regarded as completely obsolete and surviving examples were quickly retired after the Armistice. Nor was the type popular with the private owners who purchased surplus RAF aircraft after the war, and no R.E.8s came onto the civil register.

Role Reconnaissance, Bomber
Manufacturer Royal Aircraft Factory
First flight 17 June 1916
Introduction 1916
Retired 1918
Status Retired
Primary user Royal Flying Corps
Produced 1916- 1918
Number built 4077
Unit cost £2068 (RAF 4a engine)


General characteristics

  • Crew: 2 (pilot & observer/gunner)
  • Length: 27 ft 10 in (8.5 m)
  • Wingspan: 42 ft 7 in (12.98 m)
  • Height: 11 ft 4 in (3.47 m)
  • Wing area: 389 ft (35.07 m)
  • Empty weight: 1,577 lb (717 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 2,862 lb (1,301 kg)
  • Powerplant: 1 x Royal Aircraft Factory 4a air-cooled 12-cylinder inline engine, 150 hp (112 kW)

Performance

  • Maximum speed: 102 mph (164 km/h)
  • Service ceiling 13,500 ft (4,115 m)
  • Rate of climb: 22 minutes to 10,000 ft (3,045 m)

Armament

  • 1 x .303 in (7.7 mm) forward-firing Vickers gun
  • 1 or 2 x .303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis guns in rear cockpit
  • up to 224 lb (102 kg) bombs

End notes