Sopwith Camel -
Aviation History

From Flying Birdcages To Drones: How Air-Combat Tactics Began

Sopwith Camel -

From the 'flying birdcages' that the first reconnaissance aircraft were described as, to today's modern drones (which, as it happens, also have their origins in World War 1), military aviation has come a long way in the last century.

Here, aviation historian Chris McNab looks back at the early days of aircraft training and explains the evolution of British air-combat tactics and training.

To learn more on that subject, as well general doctrine, training and corps flying skills, aircraft assembly, care and repair and air-to-surface operations, read his book, ‘The World War I Aviator’s Pocket Manual’, which features official documents from the period. Use the code AVPFN18 to get a 25% discount.

Article by Chris McNab

It takes a considerable act of imagination to place yourself mentally in the cockpit of a World War One combat aircraft. 

First, remind yourself that when war broke out in 1914, powered, sustained and controlled flight was a mere 11-years-old, its birth marked by the 12-second hop of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s Flyer near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on 17 December 1903

The intervening period between 1903 and 1914 saw admittedly significant steps forward in aviation technology and understanding, but flight itself was still in the birth stages of its evolution. 

Aircraft of this time were slow, vulnerable, rattling creatures, made from wire, canvas and wood and powered by sputtering and unpredictable engines. The understanding of aeronautics was exploratory at best.

Add generally poor levels of training amongst early aircrew, and it was a recipe for disaster.

A study of 153 Royal Flying Corps (RFC) pilots killed between August 1914 and December 1915 found that, while 58 per cent died from combat-related wounds, the remainder – 42 per cent – were killed by mechanical failure or simple human error.

Archival footage of an SE5 with the Royal Flying Corps

Part of the problem for RFC aviators was that just coping with the physical conditions of open-cockpit flight took extraordinary resilience.

In winter, sub-zero temperatures at ground level would drop to polar lows at altitudes as high as 18,000ft, to which was added a 100mph slipstream windchill factor.

Although electrically-heated body suits were introduced in very limited numbers later in the war, most pilots simply had to shiver and survive in layers of fur clothing, whale oil smeared on exposed skin.

Even in the most clement weather, life in the skies was merciless. Flying through clouds, let alone rain, soaked you through and clouded goggles.

At higher altitudes, hypoxia was an ever-present risk; oxygen bottles were sometimes issued, although many pilots and other aircrew did not rely on such assistance, regarding an artificial oxygen supply with an air of stoic disdain.

Furthermore, if anything went wrong there was no option to bail out – parachutes were not issued as standard.

First World War

A Sopwith Camel at the Imperial War Museum (image: Les Chatfield)

Added to the dangers inherent in the aircraft, and the adversity of flying, were the twists, turns and violence of combat itself. 

In the early months of the war, the primary purpose of military aircraft was reconnaissance, the aircrew carrying a handgun or rifle to make opportunistic and largely ineffective potshots at enemy aircraft. 

Yet in 1915, pure combat aircraft – fighters and bombers – had emerged in earnest, boosted especially by the invention of fixed machine guns firing directly through the propeller arc, first via Roland Garros’ propeller bullet-deflector plates, then in the invention of the ‘interrupter gear’ (variously attributed) that synchronised the individual moments of firing with the turn of the propeller blades. 

What this invention did was make aerial fighter combat into a true direct-fire war, expressed on the British side through aircraft such as the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5, the Sopwith Camel and the Sopwith Pup.

To gain superiority over the enemy in this new battle, two factors were critical:

1) Aircraft performance, particularly speed, manoeuvrability and climb rate;

2) Tactical manoeuvres designed to bring the aircraft into optimal firing position, ideally directly on the tail of the enemy, or to shake off an enemy attempting to do the same.

The former came through progressive improvements in airframe and engine design, but efficiency in the latter was crucially dependent upon two human factors – training and experience.

An overview of the Sopwith Camel

Training in the RFC during the First World War was a somewhat haphazard affair.

A Central Flying School (CFS) had been established on 12 May 1912, instructing both Navy and Army pilots, but it was quickly overwhelmed by the high rates of demand imposed upon it by war conditions. 

Thus, numerous training units were improvised, often based around civilian flying schools, but the variability of training was wildly spread. 

From 1916, the RFC did begin to impose regulations over training standards, but, even so, pilot recruits regularly entered combat with fewer than the stipulated 15 hours of solo flying under their belts.

The result was a truly appalling loss rate amongst pilots. During the infamous ‘Fokker Scourge’ of 1916, for example, pilot life expectancy dropped to just 17.5 hours of flying time.

Although combat flying in World War One would remain a violent and perilous business to its end, the RFC recognised the need for greater professionalism to be built into its training and the distribution of combat knowledge.

Certain fighter aces played an individual role through compiling and transferring tactical good practice.

An example is found in the rules written down by Edward Corringham ‘Mick’ Mannock, an aggressive pilot and inspirational leader who downed at least 61 enemy aircraft during his combat flying career.

Mannock truly cared for the men who fell under his command in 74 Sqn and later 85 Sqn, a humanity demonstrated by the way in which he distributed his knowledge through lectures and leaflets.

Rules of Air combat World War I
Background picture: A Fokker Triplane, replica of the Red Baron’s aircraft (image: Oliver Thiele)

But alongside the shared experience of talented pilots, the RFC also needed a better organisational training structure if air combat training was to achieve a degree of commonality and rigour. 

In July 1916, it formed a specific Training Brigade, which, in August 1917, was expanded into a full Training Division, consisting of three training brigades: Northern, Eastern and Southern, all staffed by experienced flyers and instructors. 

By the time of the RAF’s formation in April 1918, the RFC had developed more than 100 training squadrons and 30 specialist flight schools. 

One particularly significant advance in pilot training was brought about by Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Smith-Barry, a battle-tested commander of 60 Sqn. 

Appalled by the losses he witnessed amongst air crew, Smith-Barry set about pioneering a new, professional method of flying instruction, centred around the use of dual-control Avro 504 biplanes at 1 (Reserve) Sqn at Gosport. 

Mick Mannock rules of aerial combat
Fokker Triplane (image: SDASM Archives)

The instructor sat behind the pilot, communicating instructions through a ‘Gosport Tube’ (a voice tube that terminated in earpieces for the pilot), hence the method of training later became known as the ‘Gosport System’. 

Smith-Barry focused not just on giving the recruits basic flying skills, but on getting them to push the aircraft to their limits of manoeuvrability and power, wrenching the machines through tactical manoeuvres that could either save their lives or bring them in line for a kill over in war-torn Europe. 

It was hair-raising flying, about which Smith-Barry remarked: 

“If the pupil considers this dangerous, let him find some other employment as, whatever risks I ask him to run here, he will have to run a hundred times when he gets to France.” 

But it produced a far-higher calibre of pilot than other, more ad hoc approaches, and the RFC authorities recognised that fact.

Mick Mannock Royal Flying Corps
Closeup of a Fokker Triplane, machine guns visible

In August 1917, the 1 (Reserve) Sqn became the School of Special Flying, dedicated to producing expert Gosport System instructors, who then went out to the wider world to train up the next generation of pilots.

As already implied, even higher standards of training could never make combat flying in World War One appreciably less dangerous, and, compared to present-day expectations, the casualties remained astonishing – 37,970 British aircraft were lost during the conflict.

Yet, as we can see, when the RAF was born in 1918, straight away it stood on the shoulders of giants.

The professionalism and tactical expertise that became synonymous with the RAF was born, experimentally and violently, in the hands of thousands of aircrew who, inch by painful inch, steadily learned the hard lessons of aerial combat and progressively attempted to distribute those lessons professionally and systematically.

The rewards for doing so, paid in so much blood, were seen in the RAF’s defeat of the Luftwaffe in 1940, and in all subsequent operations to this day.

To learn more, pick up a copy of Chris McNab’s book, ‘The World War I Aviator’s Pocket Manual’. Readers can get 25% off when they order at To apply discount simply enter voucher code AVPFN18 to your basket before proceeding to checkout.

* (Cover image: Shutterstock / Paul Fleet).

* This is an edited version of an article first published in 2018.

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