Dick Forsythe

The fastest thing in the sky! A Champion of the SE5a

Sir Sholto Douglas, a first world war fighter pilot who later became a senior commander in the second world war, was a key champion of the SE5 which he described as a pleasure to fly:

“We sat in quite a roomy and well-padded wicker seat with a cushion on it, and were quite reasonably protected from the blast of the slipstream. In front of us, well under the padded rim of the fuselage, there were the instruments, above which there was a small, solid windscreen, with the gun sights in front of that. We were strapped into our seats with a broad belt around our waists attached to the back of the seat in such a way that while we were secure, we still had quite a fair amount of movement.”

In the first part of his autobiography, Years of Command, Sir Sholto said that few aircraft could match the splendid lines of the wonderful SE5: “It was a very strong aeroplane, and even under the most ham-fisted and violent handling it never caused the slightest apprehension about the possibility of breaking up in the air.

“It was fast for its time with a top speed of 170mph, and although that may sound almost ridiculous by modern standards, or even by the standards of fighters of the second world war, it was then the fastest thing in the sky over the Western Front.”

The speed of the SE5 in a dive was one of its major attributes:

“Although, later, the Fokker DVII was slightly faster than the SE5 in level flight, the SE5 would pick up speed in a dive much quicker, and for a few precious seconds one was sometimes able to draw out of range of the enemy. Then, with the fine zoom that the SE5 had, even at high altitudes, we could return to the attack.  In the low flying attacks at Passchendaele, this zoom often enabled us to rocket up to comparative safety when we suddenly came across an unexpected machine gun nest.

Author: Sean Feast



SE5 versus Camel – a fighter pilot’s view

Arguments still rage as to what was the Royal Flying Corps’ best fighter aircraft of the first world war. Was it the nimble, dancing Sopwith Camel, described by aviation historian Robert Jackson as “…one of the most superb fighting machines ever built…”? Or was it the more workmanlike SE5, the fifth articulation of the Scouting Experimental from the designers at the Royal Aircraft Factory in Farnborough, heralded by the same historian as “… the Spitfire of world war one…”?

Before achieving such high rank in the 1940s, Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir William Sholto Douglas had been a fighter pilot on the Western Front in 1917, and Officer Commanding 84 Squadron. He had many good-natured arguments with an equally famous flying contemporary, Harold Balfour, as to the relative merits of the Camel and the SE5:

“I have to concede,” Douglas wrote in his memoir Years of Command, “that the SE5 was not as manoeuvrable, but it was manoeuvrable enough, and because of its greater speed and rate of climb, I have always thought that it was a better fighting machine.”

A particular attribute of the SE5, he said, was its ability to readily pick up speed in a dive, allowing a pilot to charge down on its prey (a favoured method of attack) or quickly escape from an unequal fight: “From the point of view of morale, this was important because the SE5 pilots knew that they could nearly always get away from trouble just so long as they avoided being taken by surprise.”

The SE5 retained its performance at high altitude, which the Camel did not. The faster the SE5 dived, the steadier the aircraft became as a gun platform. The Camel, on the other hand, became increasingly unstable and began to vibrate in a dive, which made good shooting difficult to achieve.
Author: Sean Feast

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The black Albatros with the huge Edelweiss as the steed of  Otto Kissenberth  who was born in Landshut, Bavaria.  He worked at Otto-Flugzeugwerke (no relation) before the war and entered the air service as soon as hostilities commenced. Early in the war he flew Pfalz and Fokker monoplanes and then Albatros’ in Royal Bavarian Jasta 16b and chalked up 6 victories before taking command of Royal Bavarian Jasta 23b on 4 August 1917, where he would win his remaining 14 victories. Seriously injured after crashing his captured Sopwith Camel on 29 May 1918, Otto never returned to combat but commanded a flying school until the Armistice and would die in a mountaineering accident in August 1919 aged 26. Unusually there is no radiator shutter handle for the Daimler­ Mercedes radiator. Otto flew at least 3 different Albatros DVs marked with his large edelweiss, as well as an Albatros DVa, Pfalz DIIIa and Roland DVla.