The SE5 (Scout Experimental 5) was a rival of the Camel for the title of the most successful British fighter of the First World War. It was developed by the Royal Aircraft Factory in response to a call from the Royal Flying Corps for the British aircraft industry to develop a fighter that was in all respects superior to the enemy’s machines. Powered by the new 150 hp Hispano-Suiza water-cooled engine, the first of three prototypes took to the air on 22nd November 1916. Two of the prototypes crashed during testing but, following appropriate modification, the aircraft entered service with No 56 Squadron in March 1917 and deployed to France the following month.
Whilst pilots liked the SE5 for its handling qualities and strength, it soon became obvious that the aircraft was underpowered. As a result, it was re-equipped with a more powerful 200 hp engine and re-designated the SE5a. It proved less agile than the Camel at lower levels, but was faster and enjoyed a better overall performance at altitude. Armed with but one synchronised .303-in Vickers machine gun against the Camel’s two, the SE5a also had a wing-mounted Lewis gun that enabled the pilot to fire at enemy aircraft from below as well as from behind. It was also capable of carrying 4 x 18kg Cooper bombs. From June 1917, further units were equipped with the aircraft but it was not until well into1918 that it became available in the required numbers. Some 21 British and 2 US squadrons operated the SE5a by the end of the war. It is significant that many of the top Allied aces flew the aircraft – Albert Ball achieved 17 of his 44 victories flying the SE5 and the SE5a was the aircraft of Bishop, Mannock and McCudden.
Only 77 basic SE5s were built before the advent of the SE5a, of which some 5,000 were produced. One airworthy SE5a is with the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden and a further four are on static display at museums. Several replicas exist including three airworthy machines built and operated by Vintage Aviator Ltd, New Zealand.
Following the armistice in November 1918, several SE5a squadrons recovered from France to RAF Tangmere before disbanding in mid-1919.