THE SOPWITH SPARROW
Sopwith’s had been working at full capacity since 1914 with the Tabloid and its successors the Schneider and Baby, but none of these aircraft was really a fighter plane. In late 1915 legend has it that Hawker, Sigrist and Sopwith chalked out, on the floor of the Sopwith Experimental Works, a single-seater to be powered by a 50 hp Gnome radial engine. When built, this became “Hawker’s Runabout” or the SLTBP (Sopwith Land Tractor Biplane) and was really the development airframe for the Pup, having the same dimensions and general arrangement. By early February 1916 the prototype Pup was flying, so the SLTBP has an important but generally unacknowledged place in the history of fighter aircraft. It apparently lasted throughout the war and may even have survived to 1925 before being converted into a two-seater with ailerons. In the one existing picture the rudder is right but the fin is not.
Despite the success of the Pup, working drawings were prepared in late 1916 for 4 more “Small Scouts” to the SLTBP design. These were called the Sparrow and were produced with the same 50hp Gnome powerplant in mind. They were not well documented and nothing seems to be known of their use during the war and although Serial numbers A8970-8973 were allocated there is no evidence of their being marked on the aircraft: in fact they were not recommended for purchase by the RFC, being “very old machines” in 1917. My guess is that one of them was modified to take the ABC Gnat 35 hp horizontally-opposed twin cylinder engine as part of the Aerial target programme and another was given to the apprentices at the works as an ARTF for the rudder/elevator Aerial Target, also known as the Sparrow. A third survived the war and was bought and flown by John Whitworth Jones and a friend after they left the RFC. It was already decorated with the black and white striped scheme shown in my drawings, so it must presumably have been used as an airfield hack, perhaps at Northolt, where it had been in store. Both men rejoined the RAF and by the time Whitworth Jones returned to England in 1925 he had lost track of the aircraft.
But in 1925 the same Sparrow was sold to Mr Mouser by a Mr Shelley, still in its stripes, with its Gnome engine and various spares. He painted it grey and named it Flycatcher on the metal side panels. It was taxied but never flown, but sold on to Mr Anderson, who fitted 2/3rds span ailerons on the lower wing and an 80hp Le Rhone engine. (The 50 hp Gnome was removed and ended up in Shuttleworth’s Blackburn Monoplane, where it may still reside.). A photograph of Anderson’s Sparrow shows a gravity tank over the upper wing centre section and the rear of what must have been two cockpits. The only marking is a G on the rudder and signs of an overpainted roundel on one wing on an otherwise plain finish, although the fin and rudder appear to be outlined in a darker colour.
The most astonishing of these aircraft was the immaculately prepared Sparrow built in Australia between June and November 1916, by Basil Watson, an ex Sopwith assistant test pilot. This implies that working drawings were available much earlier than had been thought, or that Watson drew up his own plans whilst at Sopwiths and took them back to Australia. But where did all the hundreds of special parts come from, the cowling, the engine and so on? Six months seems just too short a time for anyone, even an Aussie superman, to build a plane from scratch, but apparently all the wood used in the construction was native ash, so it was indeed his own achievement. He flew his Sparrow regularly until in March 1917 a wing folded during an aerobatic display and he was killed.
It is extraordinary (but is not unusual for Sopwith’s) that such an undistinguished little aircraft could have produced so many variations. All of them are shown on the plans, although the details of the AT Sparrow are based on one rather dark photograph in which the wheels are not fitted and you can see the damage to the port lower wingtip that prevented it from flying. It seems to have PC10 upper wings and fuselage, which is why I believe it may have been made from one of the Sparrows, which, if the Gnat is used as supporting evidence, were painted to match a 1916 operational aircraft. The three roundels might have been white with a red centre. However it is that rarest of model aircraft, the one that can properly be flown without a model pilot.
Sources. There is an excellent article and photographs in “Cross and Cockade” Vol 10 No 1, 1979 and photographs and text in the usual Sopwith books, as well as the Pup Datafile by Albatros Publications. My thanks to H Stevens (Steve) for his support in my pursuit of these little-known aircraft.
Mike Roach, Christchurch, 2003