The introduction of the new Sopwith Camel fighter
in 1917 was a famous event in the history of the Royal Flying Corps
- it fast became the R.F.C.'s principal fighting plane and gained
glory as the mount of many of Britain's 'warriors of the air'. It
was a plane to be respected by its own pilots, and by the enemy's.
But the Camel was very demanding in flight, and especially take
off and landing, and while other planes also had their difficulties,
in the Camel these stages of flight were risky operations.
This was a natural consequence of the fighter's design features
- critically small dimensions, a rather high undercarriage and a
narrow distance between the wheels; and notably the considerable
moving mass of the rotary engine. For skilled pilots who had survived
the severe flying school of the Western Front all of this did not
represent a vital issue, but in 1917 the Royal Flying Corps dramatically
increased in size and its fighting units received many more beginner
pilots. During only one half year more than a hundred accidents
occurred involving Sopwith Camels, and thirty pilots were lost.
Beginners started to be afraid of the plane and gave it the derogatory
nickname Swine - in other words, "ugly as a pig". In an
attempt to tackle the situation, frontline squadron pilots tried
converting the odd machine into two seat trainers, but these homemade
products turned out to be too unstable in flight due to lack of
attention to center of gravity issues.
At the beginning of 1918, Sopwith Aviation paid attention to this
urgent problem and made the necessary changes to the Camel design,
developing it into a proper two seat training aircraft. The armament
was removed; the fuel tank was greatly reduced, because training
flights did not last more than 10-15 minutes; a forward cockpit
was inserted several inches further forward and the rear cockpit
was tightly closed up to it (yes, room for the pilot's legs in the
rear seat were somewhat restricted). These innovations allowed the
two seater to maintain stability in the air without undue risk of
a fatal spin or of stalling. Certainly, the two seat Camel equipped
with dual controls allowed the instructor to duplicate the actions
of the pupil and supervise the flight.
The plane never received its own name - it was simply called the
Camel Trainer. Having built a quantity of these two seat machines,
useful numbers were then delivered to the training schools and other
instructional centers. In the history of the Great War this small
twin seat plane might have gone almost unnoticed, but it accomplished
an important and noble mission - it achieved trust and respect for
the Allies' best fighter, the fine and unsurpassed Sopwith Camel.