The first aircraft to carry the F.E. designation was the F.E.1 (Farman Experimental No. 1), designed by Geoffrey de Havilland in 1910 and named Farman Experimental because of its resemblance to contemporary Farman pusher biplanes. The F.E.1 was rebuilt as the F.E.2 after a crash in 1911 with a Gnome instead of its original 45 h.p. de Havilland Iris engine, and the F.E.2 was itself rebuilt, to a different design but with the same designation, in 1913.
The first of the Royal Aircraft Factory's series of F.E. fighters, the F.E.2a designed in the summer of 1914, had nothing but the basic fact of being a pusher-propelled biplane in common with the earlier machines, notwithstanding the similarity of the designations.
Twelve F.E.2as were ordered from the Royal Aircraft Factory in August 1914, and the first machine emerged in January 1915 as a large two-bay biplane with accommodation for the pilot and observer in an armoured nacelle forward of the wings and a 100-hp Green engine mounted above the lower wing driving a two-blade wooden pusher propeller. The centre section of the upper wing was hinged aft of the rear spar and could be lowered to act as an air brake, while an even more radical innovation was a small tail-braking parachute tried on the first 2a. The tail assembly, with distinctive triangular fin, was mounted on converging booms extending aft from the upper and lower wing spars, while the oleo undercarriage incorporated a small nosewheel. A mounting for a 7.7mm Lewis machine-gun was provided in the observer's front cockpit, and it was the unobstructed forward field of fire provided by the pusher configuration and cockpit arrangement that was to make the later F.E.2s so successful over the Western Front.
The Green engine proved to have a poor power-to-weight ratio and later F.E.2as were modified to take the 120-hp Beardmore engine. This modification delayed completion of the remaining aircraft, and the last of the 12 was not finished until November 1915, by which time the first F.E.2bs had begun to appear. The early 2b was essentially a simplified version of the 2a, having the same wings but without the centre-section air brake, and a somewhat smaller nacelle mounting the same engine and armament as the earlier type. However, later 2bs had modified wings of the same section as those fitted to the F.E.2c, and the 160-hp Beardmore was fitted in place of the 120-hp in order to improve performance, while other engines were fitted experimentally.
The first F.E.2a flew on 26 January 1915 with a 100hp Green six-cylinder inline water-cooled engine but proved underpowered and the 120hp Austro-Daimler built under licence by Beardmore became the standard for 11 more F.E.2a's and early production examples of the F.E.2b. The latter was the "productionised" version with the Beardmore engine, trailing-edge flap deleted, simplified fuel system and other changes to facilitate large-scale production by inexperienced companies. These comprised, apart from the RAF itself (which built only 47 F.E.2b's): Boulton & Paul (250); Barclay Curie (100); Garrett & Sons (60); Ransome, Sims & Jefferies (350); Alex Stephen and Sons (150) and G & J Weir (600). A 160hp Beardmore engine was adopted later, and the oleo u/c with nose wheel gave way to a simplified form without the nosewheel or, later, a non-oleo V-strut arrangement. All 12 F.E.2a's and almost a thousand F.E.2b's went to RFC squadrons in France, where they engaged in offensive patrols over the enemy lines in the role of fighter escort for unarmed reconnaissance aircraft. Over 200 were issued to Home Defence units, some of these flying as single-seaters, and service use of the F.E.2b continued until the Armistice in November 1918.
In 1916, the War Office in the UK arranged for “a 120 hp Beadmore-engines Gun Biplane (Type F.E. 2B) together with Gun and proportionate spare parts…” to be provided, at a cost of £3,175. The aircraft was packed and shipped (at extra cost), and before arriving in Australia, caused some concern as it was noted as being too great a wingspan to fit in the existing hangers at the Central Flying School, Point Cook, Australia. The aircraft had arrived by mid March, but sans gun, and bomb.
Many experimental armament installations were made in F.E.2bs, including a 1-pdr Vickers quick-firing gun in a raised cowling, twin Lewis mountings, additional Lewis mountings between the cockpits to give a rearward field of fire and a 0.45-in (11.43-mm) Maxim, and some examples were modified for home defence with a single cockpit and two internal Lewis guns firing through the nose. As the 2b became obsolescent as a fighting scout by early 1917 it was developed as a night bomber and antisubmarine aircraft, with the result that it remained in production until the end of the war. Bombload of the fighter/reconnaissance version was up to eight 9k-kg (20-lb) bombs; for night-bombing missions the 2b could carry a variety of bombs in combinations ranging from 14 11.4-kg (25-lb) to a single 104-kg (230-lb).
Many F.E.2bs were built by contracting firms with little or no previous experience of building aircraft, notably Boulton & Paul, G & J Weir and Ransome, Sims and Jeffries, and at least 1000 were produced, the official total of 19-39 probably including conversions of earlier aircraft for bombing, experimental and training purposes.
Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2b of the Royal Flying Corps
Among the 12 F.E.2a's sent to France in 1915, where they were flown by No 6 Squadron RFC and sometimes known by the alternative official designation of Fighter Mark I, one had its seating arrangement reversed. The pilot occupied the front cockpit - located a little farther aft than in the F.E.2a and 2b - and the gunner was in an elevated aft position. An additional Lewis gun was fitted in the nose, remotely controlled by the pilot. In this form, the aircraft was designated F.E.2c. Conversion of a small number of F.E.2b's to 2c configuration was put in hand at the RAF, Farnborough, but only two are thought to have been completed as the F.E.2c was found to offer no advantage over the F.E.2b. Six more 2b's were converted to 2c's in late 1917, however, to serve as night bombers with No 100 Squadron, for which role the improved view for the pilot outweighed the difficulties posed for the gunner.
On 7 April 1916, a version of the F.E.2b was flown at the RAF Farnborough, fitted with a 250hp Rolls-Royce Mk I (later, Eagle I) 12-cylinder water-cooled V-type engine, becoming thus the prototype F.E.2d. Compared with the 160hp F.E.2b, the Rolls-Royce-engined version had better rate of climb and ceiling and slightly improved speed performance, and although the heavier engine adversely affected manoeuvrability and field performance, the F.E.2d was ordered into production as an interim supplement for the F.E.2b. Eighty-five were built at Farnborough and 270 by Boulton & Paul, although many of these were completed, in the event, with Beardmore engines as F.E.2b's. In those F.E.2d's completed, several versions of the Rolls-Royce engine were fitted; as well as the Mk I these comprised the 250hp Marks III and IV (later, 284hp Eagle III and IV) and the 275hp Marks I and II (later, 322hp Eagle V and VI). The first few F.E.2d's had the oleo undercarriage with nosewheel extension, but the modified oleo type without the nosewheel was soon adopted. The F.E.2d was in service in France by July 1916, and the type also served with Home Defence units, although its low speed performance made it an ineffective Zeppelinchaser.
The additional power also permitted increased armament, and 2ds were equipped with various arrangements of Lewis guns, some having one or two fixed guns in the nose in addition to one or two free guns fired by the observer. Most F.E.2d's were armed with two Lewis guns, one on a flexible mounting in the nose and another fixed forward-firing for the pilot; in some cases a third gun, on a telescopic pillar mounting, was also provided between the two cockpits.
The F.E.2a had been designed from the outset as a fighting aircraft, and the distin-guished record of the series over three years of war in a number of roles testifies to the soundness of the basic design. The first operational unit to fly 2as in France was 6 Squadron RFC, which had four on its strength by September 1915.
F.E.2bs continued to more than hold their own, but the effect of the introduction of the F.E.2d in June 1916 was adversely affected when the first machine to go to France was landed by mistake on the German airfield at Lille after the pilot had lost his way in fog. Nevertheless, the fixed forward-firing guns enabled 2ds to be flown as true fighters and they gained a number of successes. By the spring of 1917 F.E.2s were clearly becoming outclassed as fighters and the 2bs were withdrawn from offensive duties in April, though the 2d continued in front-line service until the following autumn.
Towards the end of 1916 the first night-bombing expeditions were being mounted, and F.E.2bs carrying bombs or heavy guns proved eminently successful in attacks on such targets as enemy airfields, railway stations and trains. Bombing raids were continued through 1917, and from mid-1917 onwards the number of F.E.2b-equipped night bomber squadrons in France was steadily increased. Frequent raids against enemy communications and other targets continued until almost the end of the war.
The type was not so successful at home defence, since its ceiling of 3350 m (11000 ft) was too low to permit the interception of enemy aircraft and airships. However, another use was found for the 2b in early 1918, when two flights were based on the north-eastern coast of England to carry out coastal patrols. On the evening of May 31, one of these aircraft spotted the German submarine UC49 moving submerged near Seaham, Co Durham, and dropped his two 45-kg (100-lb) bombs near the vessel. The destroyer Locust, attracted by the explosions, was guided by the F.E.2b, and depth -charged and sank the submarine.
When the RAF was formed on 1 April 1918, there were seven squadrons of F.E.2s serving as night bombers and a further four squadrons of the type used for night flying training. The last of the type in front-line service served with occupation forces in Germany until March 1919. Used in offensive patrols over enemy lines to escort unarmed reconnaissance aircraft, with a 160hp Beardmore engine giving a maximum speed at sea level of 147km/h/91.5 mph the F.E.2s were generally outperformed by German fighter aircraft by late 1916 which led to their night-time rather than daytime use.
The Vintage Aviator Ltd F.E.2b
Engine: 1 x 50-h.p. Gnome
Span: 33 ft 0in
Loaded wt: 1,200 lb
Speed: 47 mph
Engine: 1 x 100-h.p. Green
Span: 47ft 9in
Loaded wt: 2,680 lb
Speed: 75 mph
Engine: 1 x 120-h.p. Beardmore
Span: 47ft 9in
Loaded wt: 2,967 lb
Speed: 80 mph
Engine: 1 x 160-h.p. Beardmore
Max take-off weight: 1378 kg / 3038 lb
Empty weight: 935 kg / 2061 lb
Wingspan: 14.56 m / 47 ft 9 in
Length: 9.83 m / 32 ft 3 in
Height: 3.84 m / 13 ft 7 in
Wing area: 45.89 sq.m / 493.96 sq ft
Max. speed: 147 km/h / 91 mph
Ceiling: 3353 m / 11000 ft
Engine: 1 x 160-h.p. Beardmore
Span: 47ft 9in
Loaded wt: 3,037 lb
Speed: 91 mph
Engine: 1 x 225-h.p. R.-R. Eagle 1
Span: 47ft 9in
Length: 9.83 m (32ft 3 in)
Loaded wt: 3,549 lb
Speed: 92 mph
Engine: 1 x 250-h.p. R.-R. Eagle 1e
Max take-off weight: 1574 kg / 3470 lb
Empty weight: 1138 kg / 2509 lb
Wingspan: 14.55 m / 48 ft 9 in
Length: 10.13 m / 33 ft 3 in
Height: 3.85 m / 13 ft 8 in
Wing area: 45.89 sq.m / 493.96 sq ft
Max. speed: 151 km/h / 94 mph
Ceiling: 5334 m / 17500 ft
Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2a & F.E.2b