The first FE2 (Farman Experimental 2), designated the FE2a, was developed as a fighter by the Royal Aircraft Factory and made its maiden flight in February 1914. A production order for 12 machines was placed in August of that year and the aircraft entered service as the FE2b with No 6 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps in May 1915.
The FE2b had a crew of two. The observer, armed with a forward-firing.303 Lewis machine gun, was accommodated in the nose of the aircraft with the pilot above and behind. A second Lewis machine gun was mounted to fire rearwards over the top wing, although its operation required the observer to stand on his seat – a rather perilous arrangement during manoeuvre. The FE2b could also carry a small bomb load and as a night bomber variant was given the designation FE2c.
The first FE2bs were powered by a Beardmore in-line engine of 120 hp, soon upgraded to 160 hp, with the final model in the series, the FE2d, being fitted with a Rolls-Royce Eagle of 250 hp. This more powerful engine facilitated the carriage of an additional one or two forward-firing Lewis guns operated by the pilot.
At its peak, the FE2b equipped 16 squadrons in France and 6 in England. It was well-liked by pilots for its handling characteristics and remained a difficult opponent for its adversaries. The German “ace”, Max Immelmann, was killed while in combat with FE2bs of No 25 Squadron and Baron von Richtofen badly wounded during combat with FE2ds. By autumn 1916, the machine was being outperformed by the new generation of German fighters, however, and early the following year was withdrawn from offensive patrols. It nevertheless continued to serve as a night fighter on anti-Zeppelin patrols over England and was heavily used as a dedicated night bomber through to the end of the war.
A total of 2,325 FE2b/c/ds were built with the majority constructed by private aircraft companies. The Australian Flying Corps operated a single machine and variants also saw service with China and the United States.
On 16th November 1916, whilst airborne in a FE2b from Gosport, Geoffrey Dorman made a forced landing near the village of Tangmere. His report on the incident included a suggestion that the site would be eminently suitable for an aerodrome. Associated construction began the following year and so was born RAF Tangmere.