Sopwith Camel

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Sopwith Camel

Sopwith Camel Biplane History
The Sopwith Camel was designed by Herbert Smith, Sopwith's chief engineer, as a replacement for the Sopwith Pup fighter. There were already problems with fighters like the Sopwith Pup; at high speed and altitude their machine gun breach blocks literally froze solid. In an attempt to solve this problem, Herbert Smith incorporated a metal shield over the gun breaches to shield them, to a degree, from the freezing slip stream. The breach shield created a very noticeable "hump" in the otherwise cylindrical nose fairing which resulted in the aircraft acquiring the name "Camel". The prototype Sopwith Camel first took to the air from Brooklands aerodrome at the hands of Harry Hawker on the December 22, 1916. The Sopwith Camel was a very high performance design by contemporary standards.

Flying the Sopwith Camel Biplane
A good dogfighter needs to be of inherently low stability to ensure rapid roll rates etc. Today most fighters with high manoeuvrability rely on the pilot telling a computer what needs to happen and the computer altering the flying surfaces far more accurately than the pilot ever could. Sopwith Camel pilots had no such device, and although it was a great tool for a highly experienced pilot, the Sopwith Camel was a potential death trap for a novice.

The Sopwith Camel was tail heavy requiring continuous forward force on the joystick just to fly level, there were no elevator trims! The Sopwith Camel used the Clerget Rotary engine which, unlike later radial engines, caused massive Gyroscopic effects due to it's heavy cast iron cylinders revolving at propeller speed. The gyroscopic effect resulted in the Sopwith Camel trying to fly at right angles to the direction the pilot wanted to go (up and down stick movements caused left and right turns - right and left turns caused ups and downs!). The Sopwith Camel also turned and rolled three times faster to the right than the left, another result of it's Clerget Rotary engine.

The Clerget Rotary engine had only a very basic throttle. To slow the Sopwith Camel down for landing you had to adjust the mixture control and throttle at the same time! The varying gyroscopic responses caused by this were a little like trying to control a greased eel with one hand. Just to make things interesting, should the pilot get the throttle/mixture control combination wrong, the engine would stop and the Sopwith Camel would, as a result of it's inherent tail heavy configuration, reward it's pilot with a stall, which in turn immediately resulted in a spin that was often fatal.

At 21,000 ft (6,400 m), after allowing for the chill factor caused by the 115 mph slip stream, the temperature was 10 to 30 degrees below zero, a temperature that can cause exposure or frost bite to any exposed skin. The pilot's solution to this was thick leather gloves and clothing. Unfortunately leather goes really hard at these low temperatures, so as the pilot continually looked left, right, up and down, his coat collar tended to rub his neck raw. The best solution was the characteristic silk scarf around a pilots neck, this effectively acted as a dry lubricant between the collar and neck.

The Clerget Rotary engine used a large amount of oil, and exhaust pipes could not be fitted as the cylinders rotated at engine speed. Consequently, much of the oil came out of the rotating engine and covered the pilot's goggles (we have all seen old films of the fighter pilotís oil blackened face), and as the pilot breathed the oil mist in, some ended up in his stomach. The oil was "caster oil" which, when taken orally, has the same effect in flight as it does on the ground. Unfortunately the pilot was in a sub zero environment fighting for his life. The effects of castor oil were so debilitating that many pilots, by necessity, found a "medicine" to paralyse their stomachs and delay the inevitable until they had landed. The preferred "medicine", taken orally prior to takeoff, was French Brandy!

The Sopwith Camel Biplane in WW1
All the above resulted in high attrition rates of novice Sopwith Camel pilots in all three British armed forces, the Royal Flying Corps, Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Air Force. It should however be remembered that the average pilot in WW1 survived only six weeks on operations due to friendly fire, enemy action and flying accidents, regardless of aircraft type.

The relatively few "ace" pilots that had survived many months had mastered every aspect of flying and dog fighting. These pilots found the Sopwith Camel to be a superb fighter, and in a dog fight could turn the fighters characteristic gyroscopic tendencies to their advantage. From the time the Sopwith Camel first entered active service on the Western front in June 1917, to its withdrawal from RAF service in January 1920, a total of 5,490 aircraft were produced, and are estimated to have shot down a total of 1,294 axis aircraft during the Great War.

Various scale models, model kits and plans of the Sopwith Camel have been available in the market place.

Sopwith Camel F.1 Biplane Specifications:

Sopwith Camel Crew: Pilot only
Sopwith Camel Length: 18 ft 9 in (5.71 m)
Sopwith Camel Wingspan: 28 ft 0 in (8.53 m)
Sopwith Camel Height: 8 ft 6 in (2.59 m)
Sopwith Camel Wing area: 231 ft2 (21.46 m2)
Sopwith Camel Empty weight: 930 lb (420 kg))
Sopwith Camel Max takeoff weight: 1,455 lb (660 kg)
Sopwith Camel Engine: Single 130 hp (97 kW) Clerget 9B 9-cylinder Rotary engine
Sopwith Camel Maximum speed: 115 mph (185 km/h)
Sopwith Camel Range: 300 mi (485 km)
Sopwith Camel Service ceiling: 21,000 ft (6,400 m)

Sopwith Camel F.1 Armament:

Twin 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Vickers machine guns

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