The S E 5 was one of the most famous British fighter aircraft of World War One. The S E 5, strictly the Royal Aircraft Factory S E 5, had an inauspicious start to its ‘life’ in the Royal Flying Corps, when one of its most famous aces, Albert Ball, told General Trenchard that it was “a bloody awful machine”.
H P Folland and J Kenworthy designed the S E 5. The prototype first flew in November 1916. The use of a gearless engine meant that there was no opportunity to fit the S E 5 with a synchronisation mechanism for the proposed Lewis machine gun fitted in front of the pilot but behind the propeller. To get around this, the S E 5 was fitted with an offset Vickers machine gun on the fuselage and a Lewis gun on a Foster mounting above the upper wing centre-section.
Ball’s description of the S E 5 was based around flying it. However, the S E 5 came with a history as the second prototype had broken up while in flight and killed the pilot. Other pilots also claimed that the S E 5 was impossible to fly at speeds of less than 70 mph when it was windy when it became, in their opinion, too unstable. Changes in the design of the wing were meant to correct this.
The first S E 5’s to be used in combat were handed to No 56 Squadron of the RFC. They were first used in anger in April 1917. Once the pilots had got used to the various flying idiosyncrasies of the S E 5, opinions of it became more favourable. What pilots identified as strengths were the build of the aircraft and its firepower. Lieutenant L M Barlow shot down 18 German aircraft in a S E 5 and was awarded the Military Cross three times.
The original S E 5’s were fitted with engines that produced 150 hp. Later versions were fitted with 200 hp Hispano-Suiza engines. This gave them a top speed of 138 mph at sea level and a climb rate to 5,000 feet in under 5 minutes. Combined with a Vickers and Lewis machine guns, the S E 5 became a potent new weapon in the RFC’s armoury. Ace Mick Mannock gained most of his kills in a S E 5 and his unit, No 74 Squadron, totalled 140 kills between March 1918 and Armistice Day. The S E 5 was also used as a light bomber as it could carry four 25 lbs bombs and was used to bomb retreating German forces after the failure of the 1918 Spring Offensive.
The S E 5 was also used by the United States and Australia.
“In combat the S E 5 soon proved a formidable fighting machine, and its name was quickly to become associated with the foremost British pilots of the day.” (Peter Allez-Fernandez)
Ace James McCudden had his S E 5 specially modified for his own use.
The S E 5 was the subject of constant change. The landing gear, shape of the fuselage and armaments were the subject of much research and change. As an experiment the single Lewis machine gun was removed and replaced with twin Lewis machine guns – a huge increase in firepower. In turn a triple Lewis machine gun placement was tried. Neither worked as well as had been hoped and the S E 5’s flown by the RFC stayed with the single Lewis machine gun.
In total, 5,205 S E 5’s and S E 5a’s were built.
After World War One, many were surplus to requirements and were, for example, sold off to civilian aviation schools in the UK. The average cost of a S E 5 was £700. Others were sold to air forces within the Commonwealth. The abilities of the S E 5 had been seen during the later stages of World War One and the value of an air force was plain to see.