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Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2

From PlaneSpottingWorld, for aviation fans everywhere
Type Reconnaissance
Manufacturer Royal Aircraft Factory, Vickers, Bristol
Maiden flight February 1912
Introduced August 1914
Primary user Royal Flying Corps
Number built ~ 3,500

The Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 (Blériot Experimental) was a British single-engine two-seat biplane aircraft that served with the of Royal Flying Corps (R.F.C.) during World War I. Despite becoming unpopular due to its inherent faults, about 3,500 examples of the type were built and served as fighters, interceptors, light-bombers, trainers and reconnaissance aircraft.

A B.E.2a of No.2 Squadron R.F.C. was the first aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps to arrive in France after the start of the First World War, on August 26, 1914.


The B.E.2 was designed by Geoffrey de Havilland as a development of the B.E.1 and first flew in February 1912 with de Havilland as the test pilot. Shortly afterwards it set a new British altitude record of 10,560 ft (3,219 m). It was ordered into production as a reconnaissance machine, and two years later, formed part of the equipment of three squadrons (the days of squadrons equipped with a single type of aeroplane were still to come). These were all sent to France shortly after the outbreak of war. The early B.E.2a and b aircraft were replaced by a very extensively modified new model during 1915, the B.E.2c (virtually a new type) – and this began to be superseded by the final version, the B.E.2e, in 1916.

It was not until well into 1917 that the last front-line B.E.2e (this final variant was nicknamed the "Quirk") was withdrawn from service – long after the type was obsolete. It continued in service throughout the war as a home defence fighter (in which role it was for a time a surprising success) and as a trainer.

Some 3,500 B.E.2s of all models were built by over 20 different manufacturers: an exact breakdown between the different models has never been made, although the B.E.2c was almost certainly the most numerous. The B.E.2c also formed the basis for a dedicated single-seater version, the B.E.12, that was built in numbers.

A number of aircraft and replicas are preserved at museums around the world, including the Imperial War Museum, Duxford - the RAF Museum, Hendon; the Canada Aviation Museum in Ottawa; the Musée de l'Air et de L'Espace, Paris - the Militaire Luchtvaartmuseum, Soesterberg, Netherlands - and the Forsvarets Flysamling museum in Oslo Airport, Norway.

Faults of the type

Imperial War Museum example from underneath

The B.E.2 has always had a very "bad press" - and had undeniably become an unpopular aircraft by 1916. By this time it had at least three serious weaknesses as a warplane.

The first was that its small air-cooled inline motor left it seriously underpowered, and was in any case unreliable, even by the standards of the time. When bombs were to be carried, or maximum endurance was required, the observer and his gun had to be left behind.[1] Although the B.E.2 had a reasonable performance for 1914/15 it was kept in service long after much more powerful aircraft had become available to the enemy.

The aircraft's second weakness stemmed from this. As it so often had to be flown as a single-seater - it was necessary to have the observer's cockpit over the centre of gravity - in front of the pilot. Thus even when a gunner was carried, he was hampered by the struts and wires supporting the centre section of the top wing (see illustration), and at best had to shoot back over his pilot's head.

The third weakness is actually rather more controversial. In 1912 (and for some years after) there was a good deal of controversy between two competing aircraft design philosophies. One (typified by the Wright Brothers) said that an aeroplane should be inherently UNstable - and that deviations from straight and level flight should be corrected by the pilot. Aircraft designed on this principle tended to be agile, but required constant vigilance and attention (not to mention a fair degree of skill) from the pilot. The opposing philosophy strove towards an aircraft that, while it could be steered, largely kept itself steady in the air, and diverged from straight and level flight only when its pilot wanted it to. This tendency naturally worked against desired changes in flight attitude, as well as involuntary ones, and reduced maneuverability. Since the standard of pilot training was so poor in the R.F.C., a fairly stable aircraft had real advantages but it did make it difficult to escape a more aerobatic enemy even if pilot skills had permitted it. However, there is a good deal of evidence in contemporary accounts that suggests that the B.E.2 was less stable and more maneuverable than it was supposed to have been.

In any case, from the moment it was opposed by enemy fighters, the essential vulnerability of the B.E.2 was plain. This led the British Press to dub the type Fokker Fodder - while German pilots nicknamed it kaltes Fleisch ("cold meat") and British ace Albert Ball summed it up as "a bloody awful aeroplane". Unable to cope with such a primitive fighter as the Fokker E.I, it was virtually helpless against the newer German fighters of 1916-17.

An incident illustrating both the poor level of piloting skills with which new R.F.C. pilots were sent to France in 1917, and the level of popularity of the B.E.2e on the Western Front at the time is recorded by Arthur Gould Lee - then a young R.F.C. novice himself, in his book No Parachute. On May 19 1917 six pilots newly arrived in France, and still to be allocated to a squadron, were each given a new B.E.2e to ferry between R.F.C depots at St Omer and Candas. One crashed in transit, three crashed on landing and one went missing (the pilot was killed). The pilot of the only aircraft to arrive safely, Lee himself, wrote in a letter to his wife:

I felt rather a cad not crashing too because everyone is glad to see death-traps like Quirks written off, especially new ones.

Fortunately the B.E.2e was by this time already being rapidly replaced on the Western Front by the R.E.8 and F.K.8 - although for far too many young airmen this was more than a year too late.

Other Fronts

From 1917 onwards, the B.E.2 was mostly withdrawn from the front-line, but continued in use for submarine spotting, and as a trainer. Before this it had already served as the world's first effective night fighter.

As early as 1915 the B.E.2c had been used in attempts to intercept and destroy the German airship raiders (all of which were known as "Zeppelins" by the British - although several of them were built by other makers). The "interceptor" version of the B.E.2c was flown as a single-seater, with an auxiliary fuel tank on the centre of gravity, in the position of the observer's seat in the reconnaissance version. After an initial lack of success while using darts and small incendiary bombs to attack airships from above, a Lewis machine gun was mounted to fire incendiary ammunition upwards, at an angle of 45 degrees. The tactic proposed was to attack the airship from below, in a similar manner to that later employed by German night fighters in the Second World War (Schräge Musik). This proved very effective.

The first successful attack took place on the night of September 3 1916, when a B.E.2c flown by Captain William Leefe Robinson downed the first German airship to be shot down over Britain, winning Robinson a Victoria Cross and cash prizes totalling £3,500 that had been put up by a number of individuals for the first "Zeppelin" kill over the British Isles.

This was not an isolated victory, in fact five more German airships were destroyed by Home Defence B.E.2c interceptors between October and December 1916.

The performance of the B.E.2 was of course inadequate to intercept the aeroplane raiders of 1917/18, and it was replaced by later types of night fighter, using techniques pioneered by the B.E.2c.

Thereafter the surviving B.E.2s (by this time mainly B.E.2es) were used as trainers. In spite of the type's stability it was capable of comprehensive (if somewhat stately) aerobatics, and was by no means as bad a trainer as might have been expected.


  • B.E.2  : Prewar version - important pioneer tractor biplane
  • B.E.2a : Built in small numbers from late 1912 - still a standard type at the outbreak of war in late 1914
  • B.E.2b : Basically the same as the "a" with higher sides to the cockpits, late examples used ailerons instead of wing warping
  • B.E.2c : Extensively redesigned - really a new aeroplane. The most produced version 1914 - 1916
  • B.E.2d : Essentially a "c" variant with a larger gravity fuel tank
  • B.E.2e : The final version, with new wings - expected to be a great improvement on the "c", it was a major disappointment. Nicknamed the "Quirk".


Template:Country data Norway

Specifications (B.E.2c)

General characteristics

  • Crew: Two, pilot and observer
  • Length: 27 ft 3 in (8.31 m)
  • Wingspan: 37 ft (11.28 m)
  • Height: 11 ft 1 in (3.4 m)
  • Wing area: 398 ft² (37 m²)
  • Empty weight: 1,366 lb (621 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 2,138 lb (972 kg)



(NB With full bomb load the B.E.2 was usually flown as a single-seater, without machine gun)


  1. Cheesman, 1962
  • Cheesman, E.F. (ed.). Reconnaissance & Bomber Aircraft of the 1914-1918 War. Letchworth: Harleyford, 1962.
  • Munson, Kenneth. Bombers, Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft 1914-1919. London: Blandford, 1968.

See also

Related development
B.E.1 - B.E.12 Comparable aircraft
Aviatik B.I - Albatros B.I - LVG B.I

Related lists

Template:Royal Aircraft Factory aircraft

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This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.
It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2".