Aviation History

Camel pilots explain why the iconic Sopwith fighter was a formidable weapon in the right hands but unforgiving with students

Training deaths (380) almost equaled combat deaths (420) for the Sopwith Camel.

The most iconic of the Sopwith fighters—the Camel—appeared on Dec. 22, 1916. It was reputed for its hard right turn and twin rapid-firing Vickers machine guns synchronized to fire through the propeller. As explained by Mark C. Wilkins in his book British Fighter Aircraft in World War I, by grouping all the weight on the CofG up front (guns, pilot, fuel, engine) combined with the gyroscopic effect of the rotary, enabled the Camel to make a very hard and fast right turn—which could also result in a spin rather quickly if the pilot wasn’t paying attention (this could also be useful in combat by the experienced pilot).

Just like the French Nieuports, the Camel’s nose climbed in a left turn, and when you turned right it dove. Arthur Harris, future Marshal of the Royal Air Force (RAF) had this to say: “If you wanted to go into a left turn you put on full right rudder, and if you let go of the stick it looped!”

The Camel in the right hands was a formidable weapon; to the inexperienced or uninitiated, it was unforgiving. Training deaths (380) almost equaled combat deaths (420) such that training, as quickly and efficiently as possible, became paramount. This led to the realization that if students could somehow learn the Camel with an experienced instructor in the same aircraft, these deaths could be significantly reduced. In his Recollections of an Airman, Lt. Col. L. A. Strange, who served with the Central Flying School, wrote: “In spite of the care we took, Camels continually spun down out of control when flown by pupils on their solos. At length, with the assistance of Lt. Morgan, who managed our workshops, I took the main tank out of several Camels and replaced [them] with a smaller one, which enabled us to fit in [a] dual control.”

To compensate for the added weight of a second person, the guns were removed and the fuel and oil tanks were combined into one, reduced in size, and repositioned just aft of the firewall—training flights lasted under 30 minutes usually, thus a larger capacity tank was not needed. The fatal problem with neophyte Camel pilots centered around a smooth transition between a rich mixture, needed for takeoff, transitioning to a progressively leaner mixture with increased altitude. Too often, the new pilot would not lean out the mixture at the correct time resulting in a stalled engine at low altitude which usually resulted in a bad or fatal crash. The “Training Camel,” as it came to be called, was distributed to all the major flying schools and significantly helped in reducing training accidents.

Elliott White Springs, an American fighter pilot who flew Camels with the 148th Aero Squadron, had this to say about them:

“A tricky little biplane … they would do about 90 mph level but you couldn’t fly level because they would shake your teeth out in forty seconds by the clock. You had to climb or glide. But they could fly upside down and turn inside a stairwell. They would stall at 15,000 feet and lose 1,000 feet in a turn. But they were deadly below 5,000 feet if you could suck the Fokkers down to that level.

“… We picked up the castoff rebuilt Camels from Aire. No new Camels had been built since January [1918] when they became obsolete and were replaced by SEs, Dolphins, Bentleys, and Snipes. But that summer they were still the workhorses below 15,000 feet. Camel … [was at a] disadvantage … where speed and height were paramount, but in a dogfight down low nothing could get away from it … a Camel could make a monkey out of an SE or a Fokker at treetop level but it couldn’t zoom and it couldn’t dive. The Dolphin was worthless because the motors were too unreliable and the Bentleys [engines] and Snipes didn’t get to the front until too late.”

British Fighter Aircraft in World War I is published by Casemate Publishing and is available to order here.

Lt. Elliott W. Springs of Lancaster, SC 148th American Aero Squadron and his wrecked plane.

Photo credit: Airwolfhound from Hertfordshire, UK via Wikipedia and U.S. DoD

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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