The history of the most successful British fighter
of the First World War began in 1916, when the Royal Aircraft Factory's
talented engineers, H.P. Folland and J. Kenworthy, decided to employ
the new French 150 h.p. Hispano Suiza engine in a plane of new design.
The first flight of the prototype RAF S.E.5 in the hands of test
pilot F.W. Goodden took place towards the end of 1916, and in April
1917 the first machines were delivered to 56 Squadron of the Royal
Flying Corps. Later the design was modified; it received the more
powerful 200 h.p. Hispano Suiza engine and became the RAF S.E.5a.
The performance of the new fighter more than satisfied the military:
the S.E.5a was to be very successful, however its mass production
was continually affected by problems with the newly developed Hispano
Suiza 200 h.p. engine. There were many difficulties involved in
manufacturing it in sufficient quantity and, in addition, this engine
was required by the French SPAD fighters.
In the United Kingdom the license for construction of the Hispano
Suiza engine was acquired Wolseley Motors Ltd. An insignificant
number of the S.E.5a had the Wolseley Adder engine which, actually,
was a copy of the Hispano Suiza, but it too appeared unreliable.
Wolseley Motors engineers were obliged to improve the basic Hispano
Suiza design. Externally similar to its predecessor, the new engine
was named the Wolseley Viper. The capacity of the engine remained
constant, however now its running during flight was stable and reliable.
So at last, at the end of 1917, the Royal Flying Corps had received
the right machine to gain an advantage in the sky. The RAF S.E.5a
with the Wolseley Viper engine differed somewhat from the earlier
version, its radiator being noticeably more rectangular.
Flight characteristics of the S.E.5a with the Wolseley Viper engine
also improved: both maximum speed and rate of climb. In maneuverability
the S.E.5a did concede something to its nearest competitor, the
Sopwith Camel; however, in other respects they were almost on equal
terms. The plane began its operational service in Royal Flying Corps
squadrons at the end of 1917, thus many RAF S.E.5a were produced
with the Hispano Suiza engine and saw a lot of action before they
received the new engine at major overhaul. By the middle of 1918
the S.E.5a was playing a significant role on the Western Front -
15 squadrons were armed with this fighter. Three more squadrons
were at war on the Macedonian front, two in the Near East, and one
in Mesopotamia. A quantity of S.E.5a were also transferred to Home
Defence, where they served in 4 squadrons.
In very quick time the RAF S.E.5a gained a reputation it keeps to
the present day. German pilots always took extra care before entering
into a duel with it. Famous British Empire aces - Mick Mannock,
James McCudden, Billy Bishop, Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor and many
others - achieved plenty of victories piloting the S.E.5a.
Apart from the Royal Flying Corps, the RAF S.E.5a was delivered
to the American forces which were at war on the Western Front. Some
more machines were transferred to the British Dominions - Australia,
Canada and the South African Union. During the Civil War in Russia
in 1919-20, at least two S.E.5a came into the hands of the Bolsheviks
and went to war with black stars on their fuselage and wings. After
the termination of the Great War many S.E.5a found their way to
the USA where they were operated right up to the mid 1920s. After
being disarmed most English machines quickly went to the breaker's
yard, but many American S.E.5a went into private hands and were
used for a long time in postal service and for acrobatics. A lot
of them had cinema careers, taking part in many Hollywood films
(for example, Howard Hughes's epic film 'Hells Angels'). During
the war and afterwards, a small quantity of S.E.5a were converted
to two seaters for the training of future pilots. Overall, 5,205
planes - from the first S.E.5 up to the most successful S.E.5a with
Wolseley Viper engine - were produced. Without any doubt, the RAF
S.E.5a was, and is, deservedly prominent in the pages of the history
of Twentieth Century aviation.