The A.F.B.1 pictured outside Austin's Longbridge works
Albert Ball's interest in fighter aircraft design predated his first aerial victory. As early as 14 April 1916, he had written home to his father about the plans for a new fighter "heaps better than the Hun Fokker", although he made no claim that the plans were his own work. In a further letter he remarked that he could not post the plans, and was carrying them home the next time he received leave. Some writers have taken this to be an early reference to the design that eventually emerged as the A.F.B.1 (Austin Fighting Biplane); this has been since largely discounted, among other reasons because the A.F.B.1 was designed around the new Hispano-Suiza engine, which places the commencement of serious design at sometime after August 1916.
It would be six months before Ball received his leave; it seems to have been during this period he began drawing up his own ideas for specifications for a single-seat fighter aircraft; these he mailed to his father.
The Austin Motor Company was one of several firms not part of the pre-war aircraft industry to receive contracts to build aircraft for the war effort. An early contract for examples of the R.E.7 was followed by substantial contracts for the R.E.8 and the S.E.5a. Austins also opened their own design office sometime in late 1916; although several war-time Austin designed aircraft were built as prototypes none received production orders. The first of these was the A.F.B.1.
Albert Ball Sr, was (or had been) on the Board of Directors of Austins, and was certainly in a position where he might have presented plans for new aircraft to the company. The position of Ball’s biographer Colin Pengelly seems to be that he most certainly did present his son’s ideas and drawings to the company, and that these formed at least the basis of the design of the A.F.B.1. Whatever the nature and extent of Ball's input, the bulk of the design work was carried out at Austins, under the leadership of C. H. Brooks.
Ball arrived on home leave on 5 October 1916, prior to taking up duty in England. By this time, Ball had scored 31 aerial victories, and was by far the most famous pilot in the RFC. In addition to his contacts with Austins, he used his celebrity to contact Sir David Henderson, Director-General of Military Aeronautics about the proposed fighter; Ball subsequently also lobbied General Sefton Brancker.
On 1 December 1916, events had progressed to the point of the War Office formally requesting technical data from the motor company. Ball visited the Austin works that month. He recommended arming the plane with two Lewis guns mounted on the centre section, and firing above the plane's propeller; however, this arrangement was replaced by an installation patented by Herbert Austin, in which a Vickers machine gun fed by a 500 round belt of ammunition fired through a hollow propeller shaft, (A Lewis gun seems to have been actually mounted in this position in the prototype as completed). A supplementary Lewis gun stocked with four 97-round magazines was in the event mounted on the centre section. He also added a note at the end of the specifications sheet, dated 8 December 1916, that the finished plane should have "neutral flying characteristics".An internal memo critiqued the proposed design, with an eye toward its fitness for production. It was noted that, in an attempt to lower the plane's weight and thus increase its performance, it would only carry fuel enough for two hours running at full throttle. The relatively high design wing loading of 7 pounds per square foot might increase speed, but decrease manoeuvrability. Mounting of the engine exhaust pipes alongside the cockpit would hinder downward view, (In the event shorter exhausts were fitted, that discharged forward and downwards). The A.F.B.1's "vaguely Germanic" appearance was also criticised. An endorsement atop the memo noted that Ball was to see Sefton Brancker.
On 13 February 1917, after Ball had seen Brancker, Austins requested a formal contract to produce the new fighter. It was issued soon after, for the fabrication of a pair of prototypes, although only one prototype was allocated a serial number, and this seems to have been after it was completed: suggesting it had been started, at least, as a private venture.
The A.F.B.1 was a biplane with un-staggered, equal-span wings. They had no dihedral but were slightly swept. The tailplane was triangular in shape - the rudder was small aad balanced, with no vertical fin.
While the fuselage was of conventional construction it was deep, almost filling the gap between the planes. The dimensions of the fuselage made for a fairly clean engine installation - but the radiators were attached to the fuselage sides. Either could be bypassed to limit loss of coolant in the event of battle damage. An advanced feature was that the controls were operated by rods mounted within the airframe rather than cables carried externally. The small gap between the top wing and the fuselage gave the pilot excellent visibility above, but existing photographic evidence points to a fixed gun pointing up at a slight angle to clear the propeller arc.
At the time Ball returned to combat on 6 April 1917, the prototype was still unfinished. Construction of the prototype was not completed until after Ball's death; its first flight taking place on 27 July 1917.
Only a single prototype was built, assigned the serial number B9909, official flight testing started in July 1917 at RAF Martlesham Heath. Performance was excellent - it had about the same speed as the S.E.5a, but climbed rather better. The only complaints about its handling were of rather poor lateral control.
A.F.B.1 at Martlesham
The S.E.5a was by this time already in production, and was proving itself an excellent service type - it was however in chronically short supply, and this situation could only have been exacerbated by an attempt to introduce a new type that would have competed with it for production facilities (Austins already had a large SE.5a contract) and engines (since both fighters used the Hispano-Suiza 8, of which there was at this stage a severe shortage). The A.F.B.1 therefore had no real chance of being accepted for a production order.
A photograph of an A.F.B.1 exists with straight SPAD-type wings, complete with the usual SPAD mid-bay reinforcing of the interplane bracing. They may well have been a pair of SPAD S.7 wings. Nothing is known about when and why this modification was tried, or if it improved the characteristics or performance of the machine in any way.
Austin-Ball A.F.B.1 with Spad style wings
At the end of October 1917, the testers at Martlesham Heath were instructed to remove the A.F.B.1's engine and ship it to Ascot by train. The fate of the aircraft after that is not reported.
Engine: 1 × Hispano-Suiza 8, 200 hp (150 kW)
Propeller: 4-bladed wooden fixed-pitch
Wingspan: 30 ft (9.14 m)
Wing area: 290 sq ft (27 m2)
Length: 21 ft 6 in (6.55 m)
Height: 9 ft 3 in (2.82 m)
Empty weight: 1,525 lb (693 kg)
Gross weight: 2,075 lb (941 kg)
Fuel capacity: 31.5 imp gal (143 l; 37.8 US gal)
Oil capacity: 5 imp gal (23 l; 6.0 US gal)
Water capacity: 9 imp gal (41 l; 11 US gal)
Maximum speed at sea level: 138 mph (222 km/h; 120 kn)
Maximum speed at 10,000 ft (3,000 m): 126 mph (203 km/h; 109 kn)
Endurance: 2 hr 15 min
Service ceiling: 22,000 ft (6,706 m)
Rate of climb: 1,120 ft/min (5.7 m/s)
Time to altitude: 10,000 ft (3,000 m) in 10 minutes
Wing loading: 7 lb/sq ft (34 kg/m2)
Power/mass: 0.108 hp/lb (0.177 kW/kg)
2 × fixed, forward-firing 0.303 in (7.70 mm) Lewis guns