Startup: Follow the Camel

The Sopwith Camel was one of the most successful aircraft of the First World War. It racked up more kills than any other Allied craft, and took the lead by being simple, reliable and efficient. But in a way, it was also responsible for the Space Shuttle program.

Now perhaps that’s a bit of a grandiose statement, but as the Shuttle is a giant plane, it certainly applies. There are few craft that can claim as much influence on the aeronautics industry.

One of the first test pilots of the Sopwith Camel was a man named Harry Hawker. A self-taught aviation mechanic, he ensconced himself within the buildings at Brooklands, the aerodrome which became the centre of all British aviation. Tom Sopwith taught the young Hawker everything he knew about designing aircraft, and took him on as an apprentice; the Camel was their greatest joint endeavour. Then, after the war, in 1919 when demand  for aircraft had largely dried up, the Sopwith Aviation Company collapsed.

Hawker didn’t want to leave the realm of aviation altogether, so he immediately formed Hawker Engineering. This company, of course, was responsible for the wholly excellent Hurricane, the plane that won the Battle of Britain. And it was the lessons learned on the Hurricane that made the Spitfire the excellent all-around fighter that it was.

So, the Hurricane, then, was the first truly great Allied fighter, and the Spitfire was an improvement upon that; as it turns out, the Spitfire was a major influence on every craft that followed, including the P51 Mustang, which was essentially designed as an American Spitfire, and two very significant craft that pushed the boundaries of aircraft design, the Lockheed P38 Lightning and the deHavilland Mosquito, which was proposed largely as a two-engined Spitfire. These two craft were of revolutionary designs, and proved to be so fast that no German fighters could track them.

This forced the Germans to develop new technologies to counteract them. The most obvious solution seemed to be the usage of jet engines, which would allow for much faster speeds. By the end of the war, the Germans had developed quite an arsenal of jet aircraft, but not the strategies to use them. When the Soviets conquered Germany at the end of World War Two, they inherited a wealth of jet technologies, which they used to jump start their own jet fighter program.

Most notable among them, and the most direct descendant of the German jet program, was the infamous MiG15, and its MiG17 successor. These nimble little craft proved so effective against the American forces in the Korean war that the USAF was forced to develop a new fighter to combat them, the Lockheed F104 Starfighter.

The Starfighter itself was not the rousing success that they had hoped, but it gave its fuselage to the design of the U2 spy-plane, a craft which taught NASA much of what it needed to know for spaceflight. And the U2’s shortcomings — primarily its low speed — required the development of its replacement, the SR71 Blackbird, from which NASA learned a great deal towards the development of the shuttle itself.

Cause and effect is a fairly simple concept, but when you sit down and watch it happen, it can be truly fascinating. It also makes you appreciate the work that was done in generations past, for it allowed us to reach the point we are at.

  • skitter

    And finally the spacecraft that also took the form of a common glider.

  • tonyola

    Let's not forget the best-known Sopwith Camel pilot ever.
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  • tiberiusẅisë
  • And look who else hit the century mark! Say Hi to Engineerd on the other side for us!

  • Ever higher…

    That was a great read.

  • Slow Joe Crow

    Might as well throw in a side trip, Harry Hawker's lead designer was a guy named Sydney Camm. He designed the Hawker Fury biplane, Hawker's first successful fighter, the Hurricane, Britain's first monoplane fighter, the Hunter, one of the first jet fighters and finished his career working on the P.1127 V/STOL prototype that begat the Harrier and was studying mach 4 aircraft designs when he died.

  • Charles_Barrett

    My Grandmother Barrett's family moved to British Columbia from Scotland when she was a young girl. She was always proud of her arithmetic skills, keeping all of her personal and household financial records in neatly bound ledgers. She always encouraged me to excel in math, and would tell me how, as a young lady, she worked for the War Effort in BC at a lumber yard, calculating board-feet of local spruce to be used in the fabrication of Sopwith Camels. She moved to San Francisco in 1918, but remained a British Subject her entire life (yep, Grandmother was a Resident Alien).
    Footnote: Grandmother's mother was born in India during the Raj to a career British officer and his wife, posted there in service to the British Empire and HRH Queen Victoria.

    • Deartháir

      I don't think I ever asked if you knew what part of British Columbia Gramma Barrett lived in?

      • Charles_Barrett

        I don't know, and I doubt my father does, but I shall ask him tomorrow. My aunt Sandy is working on a biography of my Grandfather Barrett, but she may have info about Grandma's younger years (that side of my family has never been very warm-and-chatty — British, you know — so she may not know either, but I can ask her).
        Footnote: My Grandfather Barrett is an interesting AT story-in-the-making himself. I earned my BSEE from Caltech in Pasadena, whose campus over the years expanded to encompass the Barrett family property where my Grandfather was born and raised at the turn of the 20th century. Small world.

  • . Cause and result is a moderately clear-cut concept, but when you sit down and watch it happen, it can be truly fascinating. Small world.

  • These 2 workmanship were of revolutionary designs, and confirmed in the direction of be so quick that no one German soldiers could pathway them. He fashioned the Hawker Fury biplane, Hawker’s initial winning fighter, the Hurricane, Britain’s initial mono oneplane fighter, the Hunter, one of the initial jet soldiers and finished his career working on the P. This forced the Germans in the direction of develop new techno onelogies in the direction of counteract them. She always encouraged me in the direction of excel in math, and would tell me how, as a young lady, she worked for the War Effort in BC at a lumber yard, calculating board-feet of local spruce in the direction of be used in the fabrication of Sopwith Camels. One of the initial test pilots of the Sopwith Camel was a man named Harry Hawker.

  • It’s really interesting if we normally talk about ideas like this.