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World War I: Sopwith Camel

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World War I: Sopwith Camel

Sopwith Camel

Photograph Courtesy of the US Air Force

Sopwith Camel Specifications:

General

  • Length: 18 ft. 9 in.
  • Wingspan: 26 ft. 11 in.
  • Height: 8 ft. 6 in.
  • Wing Area: 231 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 930 lbs.
  • Crew: 1

Performance

  • Power Plant: 1 × Clerget 9B 9-cylinder Rotary engine, 130 hp
  • Range: 300 miles
  • Max Speed: 115 mph
  • Ceiling: 21,000 ft.

Armament

  • Guns: 2 × .30 cal. Vickers machine guns

Sopwith Camel Design & Development:

Designed by Herbert Smith, the Sopwith Camel was a follow-on aircraft to the Sopwith Pup. Initially known as the "Big Pup" the Camel was initially powered by a 110 hp Clerget 9Z engine and featured twin .30 cal. Vickers machine guns firing through the propeller. The fairing over the guns' breeches formed a "hump" which led to the aircraft's name. Structurally, the aircraft featured a straight upper wing with a very pronounced dihedral on the lower wing. The fuselage was largely composed of fabric over a wooden frame with plywood panels around the cockpit and an aluminum engine cowling.

Within in the fuselage, the engine, pilot, guns, and fuel were grouped within the first seven feet of the aircraft. This forward center of gravity, coupled with the significant gyroscopic effect of the rotary engine, made the aircraft difficult to fly particularly for novice aviators. The Sopwith Camel was known to climb in a left turn and dive in a right turn. Mishandling the aircraft often could lead to a dangerous spin. While these handling characteristics challenged pilots, they also made the Camel extremely maneuverable and lethal in combat when flown by a skilled pilot.

Sopwith Camel: Operational History:

Flying for the first time on December 22, 1916, the prototype Camel impressed and the design was further developed. Accepted into service by the Royal Flying Corps as the Sopwith Camel F.1, the majority of the production aircraft were powered by 130 hp Clerget 9B engine. During its production run of around 5,490 aircraft, the Camel was fitted with a variety of engines including the 140 hp Clerget 9Bf, 110 hp Le Rhone 9J, 100 hp Gnome Monosoupape 9B-2, and 150 hp Bentley BR1.

Arriving at the front in June 1917, the Camel debuted with No.4 Squadron Royal Naval Air Service and quickly showed its superiority over the best German fighters. The aircraft next appeared with No. 70 Squadron RFC and ultimately would be flown by over fifty RFC squadrons. An agile dogfighter, the Camel and the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a reclaimed the skies over the Western Front for the Allies. In addition to British use, 143 Camels were purchased by the American Expeditionary Force and flown by several of its squadrons. The aircraft was also used by Belgian and Greek units.

In addition to service ashore, a navalized version of the Camel, the 2F.1, was developed for use by the Royal Navy. This aircraft featured a slightly shorter wingspan and replaced one of the Vickers machine guns with a .30 cal Lewis gun firing over the top wing. Camels were also used as night fighters though with some modifications. As the muzzle-flash from the twin Vickers wrecked the pilot's night vision, the Camel "Comic" night fighter possessed twin Lewis guns mounted on the upper wing. Flying against German Gotha bombers, the Comic's cockpit was situated farther aft than the typical Camel.

By mid-1918, the Camel was slowly becoming out-classed by new fighters arriving on the Western Front. Though it remained in frontline service due to development issues with its replacement, the Sopwith Snipe, the Camel was increasingly used in a ground support role. During the German Spring Offensives flights of Camels attacked German troops with devastating effect. On these missions the aircraft typically strafed enemy positions and dropped 25-lb. Cooper bombs. Replaced by the Snipe at the conclusion of World War I the Camel downed a minimum of 1,294 enemy aircraft making it the deadliest Allied fighter of the war.

Following the war, the aircraft was retained by several nations including the United States, Poland, Belgium, and Greece. In the years after the war, the Camel became entrenched in pop culture through a variety of films and books about the air war over Europe. More recently, the Camel commonly appeared in the popular Peanuts cartoons as the favored "plane" of Snoopy during his imaginary battles with the Red Baron.

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