An Illustrated History of World War 1 Aviation
1917 Sopwith Camel F1
Sopwith Camel F1, s/n B6299, 'B' Flight 10 Squadron RNAS, France 1917-1918
Sopwith Camel F1, s/n D9496, 'A' Flight 17th Aero Squadron USAS, Circa 1918
An agile, highly maneuverable biplane, the Sopwith Camel accounted for more aerial victories than any other Allied aircraft during World War I. Credited with destroying 1,294 enemy aircraft, it was called the Camel due to the humped fairing over its twin machine guns. Much like a real camel, this aircraft could turn and bite you. Noted for its tendency to kill inexperienced flyers, many pilots feared its vicious spin characteristics.
Until sufficient speed was developed during takeoff, Camel pilots maintained full right rudder to counteract the torque the rotary engine. Failure to do so often resulted in a ground loop with the Camel crashing on its starboard wingtip. During World War I, 413 pilots died in combat and 385 pilots died from non-combat related causes while flying the Sopwith Camel.
The type entered squadron service in June 1917 with No. 4 Squadron of the Royal Naval Air Service, near Dunkirk. The following month, it became operational with No. 70 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps. By February 1918, 13 squadrons were fully equipped with the Camel.
Intended as a replacement for the Sopwith Pup, the Camel prototype first flew on 22 December 1916, powered by a Clerget 9Z. Known as the "Big Pup" early on in its development, the biplane design was evolutionary more than revolutionary, featuring a box-like fuselage structure, an aluminum engine cowling, plywood-covered panels around the cockpit, and fabric-covered fuselage, wings and tail. Two 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Vickers machine guns were mounted directly in front of the cockpit, firing forward through the propeller disc with synchronization gear. A metal fairing over the gun breeches created a "hump" that led to the name Camel. The bottom wing had dihedral but not the top, so that the gap between the wings was less at the tips than at the roots. Approximately 5,490 units were ultimately produced.
Unlike the preceding Pup and Triplane, the Camel was not considered pleasant to fly. The Camel owed both its extreme maneuverability and its difficult handling characteristics to grouping the engine, pilot, guns and fuel tank within the first seven feet of the aircraft, coupled with the strong gyroscopic effect of the rotary engine. The Camel soon gained an unfortunate reputation with student pilots. The Clerget engine was particularly sensitive to fuel mixture control, and incorrect settings often caused the engine to choke and cut out during takeoff. Many crashed due to mishandling on takeoff when a full fuel tank affected the center of gravity. In level flight, the Camel was markedly tail-heavy. Unlike the Triplanes, the Camel lacked a variable incidence tail plane, so that the pilot had to apply constant forward pressure on the control stick to maintain a level attitude at low altitude. However the machine could also be rigged in such a way that at higher altitudes it could be flown "hands off." A stall immediately resulted in a spin and the Camel was particularly noted for its vicious spinning characteristics.
The Camel proved to be a superlative fighter, and offered heavier armament and better performance than the Pup and Triplane. In the hands of an experienced pilot, its maneuverability was unmatched by any contemporary type. Its controls were light and sensitive. The Camel turned rather slowly to the left, which resulted in a nose up attitude due to the torque of the rotary engine. But the engine torque also resulted in the ability to turn to the right in half the time of other fighters, although that resulted in more of a tendency towards a nose down attitude from the turn. Because of the faster turning capability to the right, to change heading 90° to the left, many pilots preferred to do it by turning 270° to the right. Agility in combat made the Camel one of the best-remembered Allied aircraft of the First World War. It was said to offer a choice between a "wooden cross, red cross and Victoria Cross." Together with the R.A.F S.E.5a, the Camel helped to wrest aerial superiority away from the German Albatros fighters.
By mid-1918 the Camel was becoming limited by its slow speed and comparatively poor performance at altitudes over 12,000 ft (3,650 m). However, it was then used as a ground-attack and infantry support aircraft. During the German offensive of March 1918, flights of Camels harassed the advancing German Army, inflicting high losses (and suffering high losses in turn) through the dropping of 25 lb (11 kg) Cooper bombs and ultra-low-level strafing. The protracted development of the Camel's replacement, the Sopwith Snipe, meant that the Camel remained in service until the Armistice.