Military Wiki
Role Reconnaissance, light bomber, night fighter, trainer, coastal patrol aircraft
Manufacturer Royal Aircraft Factory, Vickers, Bristol
Designer Geoffrey de Havilland, E.T. Busk
First flight 1 February 1912
Introduction 1912
Retired 1919
Primary user Royal Flying Corps
Number built ~ 3,500
Variants B.E.9, B.E.12

The Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 was a British single-engine tractor two-seat biplane which was in service with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) from 1912 until the end of World War I. About 3,500 were built. Initially used as front-line reconnaissance aircraft and light bombers, variants of the type were also used as night fighters. Like many warplanes since, the B.E.2 was retained in front line service after it had become obsolete, for want of a suitable replacement. After its belated withdrawal it finally served as a trainer, communications aircraft and on anti-submarine coastal patrol duties.

While the type was designed and developed by the Royal Aircraft Factory, the majority of production aircraft were built under contract by private companies, including well known manufacturers as well as firms that had not previously built aircraft.

The B.E.2 has always been the subject of a good deal of controversy. While it proved fundamentally unsuited to air-to-air combat it had a relatively low accident rate, and its notorious stability actually proved helpful in its artillery observation and aerial photography duties.


The B.E.2 was one of the first aircraft designed by what was then called the Royal Balloon Factory (renamed the Royal Aircraft Factory in 1912) under the direction of Mervyn O'Gorman. These were designated according to a system devised by O'Gorman which classified aircraft by their layout: B.E. stood for Blériot Experimental, and was used for aircraft of tractor configuration. The remit of the Balloon Factory was research into aircraft design and the design and construction of aircraft was not officially sanctioned, but a secondary responsibility was the repair and maintenance of aircraft belonging to the military and an informal arrangement was adopted whereby existing aircraft were nominally reconstructed but actually transformed into new designs, generally retaining little except the engine.

Design and pre-war development

The first two B.E. aircraft were flown within a month of each other and had the same basic design, the work of Geoffrey de Havilland, who was at the time both the chief designer and the test pilot at the Balloon Factory. The layout of these aircraft has come to be seen as a conventional design, but when it first appeared this was not the case. Rather, with the contemporary Avro 500, it was one of the designs which established the tractor biplane as the dominant aircraft layout for a considerable time.[1] On its first public appearance Flight wrote that "everything one could see of the machine was of singular interest".[2]

Both aircraft were two-bay tractor biplanes with low-dihedral parallel-chord unstaggered wings with rounded ends, using wing warping for roll control. The fuselage was a rectangular section fabric-covered wire-braced structure, within which the pilot occupied the aft cockpit behind the wings and the observer the forward cockpit, this arrangement being adopted so that the aircraft could be flown without a passenger without affecting the aircraft's centre of gravity. Behind the pilot a curved top decking extended aft to the tail. The tail surfaces consisted of a half-oval horizontal stabiliser with a split elevator mounted above the upper longerons and an ovoid rudder hinged to the sternpost. There was no fixed vertical fin. The main undercarriage consisted of a pair of skids each carried on an inverted V-strut at their rear and a single raked strut at the front: an axle carrying the wheels was bound to the skids by bungee cords and restrained by radius rods.[3] A sprung tailskid was fitted and the wings were protected by semicircular skids beneath the lower wings.


B.E.1., originally captioned 'The Silent Army Aeroplane'. Note radiator between cabane struts.

Ostensibly a rebuild of a Voisin powered by a 60 hp (45 kW) water-cooled Wolseley engine, the B.E.1 used only the engine and radiator from this machine, the radiator being mounted between the front pair of cabane struts. The wings were of unequal span: upper wingspan was 36 ft 712 in and lower 34 ft1112 in[4] It was first flown by de Havilland on 4 December 1911.[5] The aircraft was not flown again until 27 December, modified by the substitution of a Claudel carburettor in place of the original Wolseley, which allowed no throttle control. Other minor modifications were made over the following weeks: the undercarriage wheels were moved back 12 in (30.4 cm), the wings (which originally had no dihedral), were re-rigged to have 1° dihedral, and the propeller was cut down in an attempt to increase the engine speed.[4] Later, the Wolseley was replaced by an a 60 hp (45 kW) air-cooled Renault.</ref>[6]


The B.E.2 was not so called because it was considered a separate type. At that time the numbers allocated are more properly regarded as constructors numbers rather than type designations.[4] B.E.2 was almost identical to the B.E.1, differing principally in being powered by a 60 hp (45 kW) air-cooled Renault V-8 engine and in having equal-span wings. Like B.E.1 it was nominally a rebuild of an existing aircraft, but it is unclear as to whether this was a Bristol Boxkite or a Breguet. It first flew on 1 February 1912, again with de Havilland as the test pilot.[7] The Renault proved a much more satisfactory powerplant than the Wolseley fitted to B.E.1, and performance was further improved when a 70 hp (52 kW) model was fitted in May that year.[6] B.E.2 was flown extensively at the Military Aeroplane Competition held on Salisbury Plain in August 1912. It was not allowed to formally compete in the trials since O'Gorman was one of the judges, but its performance was clearly superior to most of the aircraft competing: on 12 August 1912 it set a British altitude record of 10,560 ft (3,219 m)., flown by de Havilland with Major F. H. Sykes as passenger.[8]

Other prototypes of the production B.E.2 series included the B.E.5 and the B.E.6, essentially only differing from the B.E.2 in the powerplant installed. Both these aircraft were eventually fitted with Renault engines and became more-or less standard B.E.2s.

B.E. 2a

Early production B.E.2a: note lack of decking between cockpits and the unequal span wings.

The designation B.E.2a was given to production aircraft. The BE 2a designation first appear on a drawing dated 20 February 1912, these drawing showing an aircraft with unequal span wings with slight dihedral.[9] These differed from B.E.1 and B.E.2 in having a revised fuel system, in which the streamlined gravity tank below the centre section of the wing was moved to a position behind the engine. The main fuel tank remained under the observer's seat. Early production aircraft had unequal span wings like those of B.E.1 and no decking between the pilot and observer's seats. Later aircraft added decking between the pilot's and observer's seats. Sandbag loading tests revealed that the safety factor of the rear spar was less than that of the front, and a revised wing design with a deeper rear spar (and consequently a different aerofoil section) and equal-span wings was designed. This was fitted to later production aircraft, and retrofitted to earlier production aircraft.

The first production order was place with Vickers and shortly afterwards a second order was placed with the Bristol Aeroplane Company.

A B.E.2a in France, 1915 - note "pre-roundel" markings

B.E.2b which followed had revised cockpit coamings, affording better protection to the crew. Some B.E.2bs ordered were completed as B.E.2cs, and others had some B.E.2c modifications, such as sump cowlings and "V" undercarriages.

Further development

At the outbreak of war these early B.E.2s formed part of the equipment of the first three squadrons of the RFC to be sent to France. A B.E.2a of No.2 Squadron RFC was the first aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps to arrive in France after the start of the First World War, on 26 August 1914.

Early model B.E.2c, with Renault engine, skid undercarriage, no cowling on sump, no cut-out in upper centre section

Operational B.E.2c with RAF 1a engine, "V" undercarriage, streamlined cowling on sump, and cut-out in upper centre section to improve field of fire for gunner

File:Belgian B.E.2d.jpg

Much modified B.E.2d in Belgian service, with Hispano engine, synchronised Vickers gun, improvised gun mounts and gravity tank originally located under top wing removed.


The B.E.2c was a major redesign which was the result of research by E.T. Busk and was intended to provide an inherently stable aeroplane. This was considered desirable to allow the crew's full attention to be devoted to reconnaissance duties. The first example, a converted B.E.2b, flew on 30 May 1914 and the type went into squadron service just before the outbreak of war.[10] Relatively large orders were placed for the new version, with deliveries of production aircraft starting in December 1914. During 1915 this model replaced the early B.E.2s in the squadrons in France.[11] The B.E.2c used the same fuselage as the B.E.2b, but was otherwise really a new type, being fitted with new wings of different plan form, increased dihedral, and forward stagger. The tailplane was also completely new. Ailerons replaced the wing warping of the earlier models, and a triangular fin was fitted to the rudder.[10] On later machines this fin was enlarged, to reduce a tendency to swing on takeoff, and to improve spin recovery. After the first few aircraft, production machines were powered by a development of the Renault engine, the RAF 1a, and the twin skid undercarriage was replaced by a plain "V" undercarriage. A streamlined cowling to the sump was also fitted to later models, while a cut-out in the rear of the centre section marginally improved the observer's field of fire, as well as giving the pilot a better view forward over the wing.

The B.E.2d was a dual control version. Otherwise identical to the "c" variant it had full controls in the front cockpit. These necessitated a revised fuel system, and the "d" usually featured a large gravity tank under the centre section. It was heavier than the "c" and had a reduced performance, climb in particular suffering in comparison with the "c". Most B.E.2ds were used as trainers, but a few supplied to Belgium were used operationally. These were re-engined with Hispano engines, apparently with further modifications to the fuel system, and as they could be flown from the front cockpit the occupant of the rear cockpit had a much better field of fire for his gun(s).

A B.E.2e - note the single bay wings with large overhang

The c began to be superseded by the final version, the B.E.2e in 1916. This variant was again distinguished by completely new wings, braced by a single pair of interplane struts per side (as a "single-bay" biplane), and a set of shorter wingspan lower wing panels. The ailerons, on upper and lower wings, were joined by light struts. The tailplane was again a new unit - being smaller than that of the B.E.2c and d - and the larger, quadrant shaped vertical fin of the late B.E.2c became standard. It was intended to fit a new version of the RAF 1 - the RAF 1b - but in the event this engine did not achieve production status, and the B.E.2e used the same engine as its predecessor, considerably reducing the expected improvement in performance.

Many B.E.2c and B.E.2d aircraft still under construction when the new model entered production were completed with B.E.2e wings - to rationalise the supply of spare parts these aircraft were officially designated as the "B.E.2f" and "B.E.2g".

Some 3,500 B.E.2s were built by over 20 different manufacturers: an exact breakdown between the different models has never been produced, although the B.E.2e was almost certainly the most numerous.

The B.E.9 and the B.E.12 were variants designed to give the B.E.2 an effective forward-firing armament - the B.E.12 (a single seater) went into production and squadron service, but was not a great success.

Operational career

An aerial reconnaissance camera of 1916 as operated by the pilot of a B.E.2c

The early models of the B.E. 2 had already served in the RFC for two years prior to the outbreak of war, and were among the aircraft that arrived with the British Expeditionary Force in 1914. Like all service aircraft of this period, they had been designed at a time when the qualities required by a warplane were largely a matter for conjecture, in the absence of any actual experience of the use of aircraft in warfare. Like most other prewar types they were relegated to second line duties as quickly as the supply of more modern replacements permitted.

The type that replaced the B.E.2a and B.E.2b (as well as the assortment of other types in use at the time) in the reconnaissance squadrons of the RFC in 1915 was the B.E.2c, which had also been designed before the war. The most important difference in the new model was an improvement in stability - a genuinely useful characteristic, especially in aerial photographic work, using the primitive plate cameras of the time, with their relatively long exposures. A suitable engine was not available in sufficient quantities to replace the aircooled Renault - the RAF 1 being essentially just a higher-revving version of the French engine, so that the improvement in the B.E.2c's performance was less than startling. When bombs were to be carried or maximum endurance was required the observer had to be left behind,[12] so it was still necessary to have him sit over the centre of gravity, in front of the pilot. In this awkward position his view was poor, and the degree to which he could handle a camera (or, later, a gun) was hampered by the struts and wires supporting the centre section of the top wing. In practice the pilot of a B.E.2c handled the camera, and the observer, when he was armed at all, had a rather poor field of fire to the rear, having, at best, to shoot back over his pilot's head.

The essential vulnerability of the B.E.2c to fighter attack became plain in late 1915, with the advent of theFokker Eindecker. This led the British press to dub it "Fokker Fodder", while German pilots nicknamed it kaltes Fleisch ("cold meat"). 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. The aircraft's poor performance against the Fokker, and the failure to improve the aircraft or replace it caused great controversy in England, with Noel Pemberton Billing attacking the B.E.2c and the Royal Aircraft Factory in the House of Commons on 21 March 1916, saying that RFC pilots in France were being "rather murdered than killed".[13] This prompted the setting up of two enquiries; one into the management of the Royal Aircraft Factory, and another into the high command of the Royal Flying Corps, the latter headed by a judge. These reports largely cleared both Factory management and the RFC commanders responsible for ordering the B.E.2, but the supervisor of the Factory Mervyn O'Gorman was effectively dismissed by a "sideways promotion", and many of the most talented of the factory's designers and engineers followed de Havilland into private industry.[13][14][15]

Fokker Eindecker, the nemesis of the B.E.2 in 1915/early 1916

In fact, once the threat from the Fokker monoplanes was contained by the availability of allied fighters such as the Airco D.H.2, Nieuport 11 and Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2, B.E.2c losses over the Western Front dropped to an acceptable level, with official records indicating that in the second quarter of 1916, the B.E.2 actually had the lowest loss rates of all the major types then in use.[16] Encouraged by this, the RFC took delivery of large numbers of the BE.2e, which promised improved performance, and combined the stability of the B.E.2c with rather "lighter" controls (i.e. better manoeuvrability). By the spring of 1917, however, conditions on the Western Front had changed again, with the German fighter squadrons re-equipped with better fighters such as the Albatros D.III. It had been planned that by this time B.E.2s in front-line service would have been replaced by Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8s and Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8s, but delivery of these types was initially slower than hoped. This situation culminated in what became known as "Bloody April", with the RFC losing 60 B.E.2s during that month.[17]

An incident illustrating both the poor level of piloting skills with which new RFC pilots were sent to France in 1917 and the level of popularity of the B.E.2e on the Western Front at that time is recorded by Arthur Gould Lee, then a young RFC novice, in his book No Parachute. On 19 May 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 RFC depots at St Omer and Candas. One crashed in transit, three crashed on landing and one went missing (the pilot was killed). Lee, the pilot of the only aircraft to arrive safely, 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. [18]

Fortunately the B.E.2e was by this time already being rapidly replaced on the Western Front by later types, but this was from several points of view more than a year too late.

Night fighter

As early as 1915, the B.E.2c entered service as a pioneer night fighter,[19] being used in attempts to intercept and destroy the German Zeppelin airship raiders. 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. After an initial lack of success while using darts and small incendiary bombs to attack airships from above, a Lewis gun was mounted to fire incendiary ammunition upwards, at an angle of 45°, to attack the airship from below.[note 1]

The new tactic proved very effective. On the night of 2–3 September 1916, a B.E.2c downed the SL 11, the first German airship to be shot down over Britain after over a year of night raids.[20] This won the pilot, Captain William Leefe Robinson, a Victoria Cross and cash prizes totalling £3,500 put up by a number of individuals.

This was not an isolated victory: five more German airships were destroyed by Home Defence B.E.2c interceptors between October and December 1916. The airship campaign faltered - this rate of attrition could not be sustained, especially in combination with quite high non-combat losses.

The performance of the B.E.2 was inadequate to intercept the Gotha bombers of 1917, but the techniques it pioneered were used by the later night fighters.

Withdrawal from combat

From 1917 onwards, the B.E.2 was mostly withdrawn from both the front line and night fighter use. The surviving examples continued in use for submarine spotting and as trainers for the rest of the war. In spite of the type's stability it was capable of comprehensive (if somewhat stately) aerobatics, and was by no means a bad trainer.[21]

A B.E.2c at the Imperial War Museum in London.

Survivors and reproductions

Surviving restored aircraft and reproductions are on display at several museums, including the Imperial War Museum, Duxford; the RAF Museum, Hendon; the Canada Aviation Museum, Ottawa; the Musée de l'Air et de l'Espace, Paris; the Militaire Luchtvaartmuseum, Soesterberg, Netherlands; United States Army Aviation Museum and the Norwegian Armed Forces Aircraft Collection at Oslo Airport, Gardermoen, Norway.

B.E.2c in the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

B.E.2f serial A1325 has been restored to airworthiness by The Vintage Aviator Ltd in New Zealand,[22] with a B.E.2f reproduction and two reproduction B.E.2cs also well underway by the same firm. The B.E.2f restoration utilises an original RAF1A V8 powerplant, and made its debut at the Classic Fighters Omaka airshow in April, 2009.

The UK's latest reproduction was built at Boscombe Down, Wilts, and completed around 2008.[citation needed]


  • B.E.1: Prototype - important pioneer tractor biplane. The first B.E.2 was virtually identical, except for the engine originally installed.
    • B.E.5: Prototype, officially a rebuild of a Howard Wright biplane, powered by 60 hp (45 kW) ENV engine, otherwise similar to original B.E.2. First flight 27 June 1912. Rebuilt with Renault engine and effectively became a B.E.2.[23]
    • B.E.6: Prototype, officially a rebuild of the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.1. First flown 5 September 1912, powered by a 60 hp (45 kW) ENV engine like the B.E.5, but refitted with Renault before delivery to RFC later that month, as a B.E.2.[24]
  • B.E.2a: Initial production version of B.E.2. 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 (perhaps those completed after the B.E.2c went into production) used ailerons instead of wing warping and featured other "c" characteristics such as "V" undercarriages and engine sump cowlings.
  • B.E.2c: extensively redesigned - really a new aeroplane.
  • B.E.2d: essentially a "c" variant with dual controls, and a larger gravity fuel tank

B.E.2f A1325 at Masterton, New Zealand, 2009

  • B.E.2e: the final version, with new single-bay wings. Expected to be a great improvement on the "c", it was a major disappointment. Nicknamed the "Quirk".
  • B.E.2f: B.E.2c with B.E.2e wings.
  • B.E.2g: B.E.2d with B.E.2e wings.
  • B.E.9: B.E.2c with a wooden box (called a "pulpit", somewhat like the French SPAD A.2) in front of the propeller for an observer/gunner's seat. It remained a prototype only.
  • B.E.12: single-seat B.E.2c with a synchonised gun and more powerful engine. The B.E.12a had B.E.2e wings.


  • One aircraft only.
 South Africa
Serial numbers A3109 and A3110 build by Wolseley Motors Limited and nicknamed Rio de Janeiro Britons Nos. 1 & 2 were two of the first aircraft used by the South African Air Force
 United Kingdom

  • Royal Naval Air Service
    • No. 1 Wing (Dunkirk)
    • No. 2 Wing (Imbros and Mudros)
    • No. 3 Wing (Imbros and Tenedos)
    • No. 7 (Naval) Squadron (East Africa)
    • Coastal Air Stations at Eastbourne, Hornsea, Great Yarmouth, Port Victoria, Redcar and Scarborough
    • Training schools at Chingford and Cranwell
United States

Specifications (B.E.2c - RAF 1a engine)

Data from British Aeroplanes 1914–18[26]

General characteristics

  • Crew: Two, pilot and observer
  • Length: 27 ft 3 in (8.31 m)
  • Wingspan: 37 ft 0 in (11.28 m)
  • Height: 11 ft 1½ in (3.39 m)
  • Wing area: 371 ft² (34.8 m²)
  • Empty weight: 1,370 lb (623 kg)
  • Loaded weight: 2,350 lb (1,068 kg)
  • Powerplant: 1 × RAF 1a air cooled V-8 engine, 90 hp (67 kW)


  • Maximum speed: 72 mph (63 knots, 116 km/h) at 6,500 ft (1,980 m)
  • Endurance: 3 hr 15 min
  • Service ceiling: 10,000 ft (3,050 m)
  • Climb to 3,500 ft (1,070 m): 6 min 30 s
  • Climb to 10,000 ft (3,050 m): 45 min 15 s


  • Guns: Normally 1 × .303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis gun for observer
  • Bombs: 224 lb (100 kg) of bombs

(With full bomb load usually flown as a single-seater, without machine gun)

See also


  1. A similar tactic of firing from below was employed in World War II by German nightfighters with the so-called Schräge Musik cannon installation.


  1. Gibbs-Smith 2003, pp. 192-3
  2. The New Army AeroplaneFlight 6 January 1912
  3. Bruce p.394
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Hare 1990 p. 15
  5. Hare 1990 p. 14
  6. 6.0 6.1 Hare 1990, p. 138.
  7. Bruce 1982, p.344.
  8. Bruce 2 April 1954, p.394
  9. Penrose 1966
  10. 10.0 10.1 Hare 1990, pp. 147–148.
  11. Bruce 1982, pp. 355–357.
  12. Cheesman, 1962
  13. 13.0 13.1 Bruce 16 April 1954, p.478.
  14. Hare, 1990 pp. 92-100
  15. "R.F.C Inquiry Committee:Interim Report". Flight, 17 August 1916, pp. 696–699.
  16. Bruce 1982, pp. 360–360.
  17. Bruce 1982, pp. 365–368.
  18. Lee, 1968 p.5
  19. Bill Gunston (1976). Night fighters: a development & combat history, Volume 1976, Part 2. 
  20. Knell, Hermann (2003). To destroy a city : strategic bombing and its human consequences in World War II (1. ed., 1. print. ed.). New York: Da Capo Press. pp. 109–111. ISBN 0-306-81169-3. Retrieved 10 April 2011. 
  21. Lewis, Cecil, 1936 (Chapter II, The Somme) pp. 38-40, Corgi Edition
  23. Hare 1990, p. 169.
  24. Hare 1990, pp. 170–171.
  25. Gerdessen 1982, p.64, 76
  26. Bruce 1957, pp. 368–370.


  • Bruce, J.M. British Aeroplanes 1914–18. London: Putnam, 1957.
  • Bruce, J.M. "The B.E.2 Series: Historic Military Aircraft No.7, Part 1". Flight, 2 April 1954, pp. 393–397.
  • Bruce, J.M. "The B.E.2 Series: Historic Military Aircraft No.7,Part 2". Flight, 16 April 1954, pp. 478–482.
  • Bruce J.M. The Aeroplanes of the Royal Flying Corps (Military Wing). London:Putnam, 1982. ISBN 0-370-30084-X.
  • Bruce J.M. The B.E.2, 2a and 2b. London: Profile publications, 1966
  • Cheesman, E.F. (ed.). Reconnaissance & Bomber Aircraft of the 1914-1918 War. Letchworth: Harleyford, 1962.
  • Gerdessen, Frits. "Estonian Air Power 1918-1945". Air Enthusiast No. 18, April–July 1982, pp. 61–76. ISSN 0143-5450.
  • Hare, Paul R. The Royal Aircraft Factory. London: Putnam, 1990. ISBN 0-85177-843-7
  • Lee, Arthur Gould No Parachute - a fighter pilot in World War I. London, Jarrolds,1968
  • Lewis, Cecil Sagittarius Rising. London, Peter Davis, 1936
  • Thetford, O. British Naval Aircraft Since 1912 London: Putnam 1982 ISBN 0-370-30021-1
  • Munson, Kenneth. Bombers, Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft 1914-1919. London: Blandford, 1968.

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).