SOPWITH TABLOID HISTORY
I built a 36” span electric powered flying model of the Tabloid prototype in early 2000. It flew well, but only when the transmitter was switched on and the rudder connected to the servo: because of this small failing I rebuilt it three times, as the Schneider Trophy winner and then as a production Tabloid Scout, which appeared as a plan in the September October 2001 issue of FSM. Eventually, the uncovered rear fuselage formed the basis of the Hawker “prototype Camel” – of which more later. Immediately after the plan was published I began to find out a whole lot more about all these Tabloid variants, the Gordon Bennett racers, the SS3 machines for the RNAS and the two replicas. I admired the pragmatic way in which Sopwith modified a number of machines (including the prototype and the Schneider winner) for racing and also for the War effort. These changes are referred to only in passing in various books and periodicals and trawls through the usual sites on the Internet got only marginally more information. The 3-views accompanying this article differ in a number of respects from previously published drawings, and yet the differences are in all cases taken from photographs and written evidence that is freely available. In particular, the shape of the prototype and its subsequent rebuilding, the unique Gordon Bennett racers and the development of the RNAS Scouts is carefully and, I hope, fully recorded. The fourth (and perhaps, final) rebuilding of the model is of the prototype as if finally went to war, with the changes Hawker made on his return from Australia: still a two-seater but with the rear fuselage uncovered, a plain V undercarriage and a “Camel” mainplane arrangement.
Only 30 Tabloids were built and each one, it seems, differed slightly from its brothers: a truly hand-made bespoke aircraft, and it is important to bear in mind the context in which they were designed and built. Aircraft were very new and the fundamentals of their design and how to use them in a war were still being worked out. Many people had never seen an aeroplane and the events at which they were displayed drew enormous crowds. A flight (probably no more than a take-off, circuit and landing) cost £20 in 1913 – perhaps £2000 today. Races and challenges were sponsored by the newspapers: competitions were held for manufacturers by the military. If a working flying saucer was developed tomorrow, it couldn’t generate more interest than these early aircraft did. But for all that, the airframes were fragile and the engines unreliable: they had only basic instruments and no creature comforts whatsoever. It must have been physically extremely demanding to fly one in the winter of 1914, dressed in a serge uniform and 3 layers of long johns, wearing goggles and a leather helmet. The pilots might have been Lords and Honourables, but they were hard, determined men. In military terms the Tabloid probably did not achieve very much, but probably “just being there” was as important then as it is now. Certainly it had neither the reputation nor killing ability of its successor, the Pup, which was much stronger, better armed and apparently more agile, yet to the uninformed, looks almost identical. And yet…the Tabloid was the first real single-seat warplane.
One might be put off when researching the history and markings of the Sopwith Tabloid by a line in the bible “Sopwith, the Man and his Aircraft”
“No documentation of Tabloid production can be traced. Service numbers traced are 167, 168, early production aircraft bought by the RNAS directly from Sopwith, with 169, the prototype, bought on the same day. 1201 – 1213 were a developed version for the RNAS, known as the Sopwith Scout, and 326 and 394 were for the RFC.”
Fortunately, other sources have been published since then, in particular the excellent Datafile from Albatros publications. This contains superb photographs, data, opinions and 3-views but even so is incomplete. It contradicts “Sopwith” in a number of areas, but as to which is actually correct, I leave to those with better hindsight than mine!
Some sources say that 40 aircraft were built, but the Mini Datafile lists only 30. The history of some of these was as follows:
The Prototype. This was the only 2-seater and had a skid/wheel “landscape” undercarriage rather than the floats of most preceding company aircraft. Comparing the plans of this aircraft and the preceding “3-seater” the line of descent is obvious, as the wing is the same chord and shape as are the fuselage and tail assemblies and the Tabloid is just a smaller version of it. It was demonstrated on 29 November 1913 and with its 80hp Gnome radial engine could climb at 120 ft/min with a maximum speed of 92 mph: high performance for those days. Shortly afterwards it was crated up and taken to Australia by Harry Hawker, Sopwith’s test pilot. It flew in front of a crowd of 20,000 at Melbourne on 27 Jan 1914 and 25,000 at Sydney on 12 February. In late April it was shipped back to England, arriving in June. Hawker had it rebuilt to incorporate some new ideas: one source mentions a larger rudder, but photographs do not support this. It did have a “V” undercarriage, increased dihedral on the lower mainplane, a flat upper wing and a centre section cut-out to make the cockpit more accessible: in fact it may well have bee rebuilt with a “production” set of wings with the wider centre section. He left the rear fuselage uncovered, apparently to improve its looping ability. When bought by the Admiralty from the Army at the beginning of the War, it was in this state, even the rear fuselage remaining uncovered. After serving with the RNAS for a month it was crashed and was one of a number of other Sopwiths left in Belgium as the Germans advanced. At the time, it had been returned to the Belgian workshop, to be repaired and converted into a single seater.
3-views of the Prototype invariable get the proportions wrong even though there is a very good side view photograph and a contemporary German drawing available. The cowling and the front fuselage were quite different from the production version, as were the tailplane and the rudder.
The prototype was covered in natural white linen, like all aircraft of this period, which was then doped and varnished to make it weather-resistant. Linseed oil varnish was used where rotary engines were installed, which gave “a clean, pale creamy yellow appearance” It had an alloy cowl, under-cowl, side panels (back to the line of the rear cabane strut) and fuselage top, to the rear of the cockpit. The Sopwith trademark was in black, but was lost when Hawker uncovered the rear fuselage. At this time it aquired a white rectangle on each side of the fin, for the Serial number: xxx in the RFC and yyy, then 169 in the RNAS. Union Jacks were almost certainly painted on the underside of the lower wings and may have been in miniature on the fin, above the serial number, although I cannot find any evidence for this.
The Schneider Trophy Winner. This machine, which was the second Tabloid to be made, was different in a number of respects from the Prototype and indeed the subsequent production aircraft. It was fitted with floats and a 100hp Monosoupape Gnome engine in order to allow Sopwith to enter the Schneider Trophy race, which was to be held in Monaco in April 1914. The timescale of the project is extraordinary. Construction started in early February 1914 and on 1 April it was tested on the Thames with a single central float and wing-tip floats, but somersaulted, throwing the pilot, Howard Pixton, clear. After recovery the following day (and drying out!) it was successfully tested on the 8th with the now familiar twin main floats and a rear supporting float. After these tests the main floats were moved forward again and the tail float replaced with a larger design. Pixton then got some air experience with the first of the production land Tabloids (presumably serial no 326) while the crated floatplane was taken to Monaco, arriving on the 16th. It was assembled and tested on the 18th and 19th and Pixton won the race on the 20th, also setting a 300 km speed record of 92 mph. This was “the most important event which had ever happened in the history of British aviation”. And it all happened inside 80 days!
The aircraft had the standard linen covering, with the word “Sopwith” on both sides of the fuselage, in a slightly wider spacing than the prototype. The only other marking was a large racing number “3” in black on the rudder and on the undersurface of each lower wingtip. In photographs a diagonal line is apparent on the cowling starboard side of the upper cowling. The cowl, fuselage top and side panels were alloy. There must have been some problems with overheating, as the lower cowl was removed for the race and holes drilled along the front of the upper cowl. The diagonal line may perhaps have been a cooling slot.
On its return to England, and by the 20th May, it had been modified into a racing landplane, retaining the 100hp engine but with a number of minor changes to the fuselage which appears to have been re-covered and the trademark repainted in slightly different lettering. The upper cowl was beaded down the centre line, presumably to give some extra rigidity and had two elliptical cooling holes. The lower cowl was refitted. A small clear panel can be seen on the starboard side. Marked as “21” it raced in the 1914 Aerial Derby with another Tabloid numbered 18, which was in fact the fifth production machine for the Army. A month later it flew in the London/Manchester/London race as No 14. Some time in July Hawker spun inverted after an engine-off loop over Kingston-on-Thames and crashed it into some trees near Brooklands. He was unharmed, but the aircraft was very badly damaged and was returned to the factory to be repaired. Unfortunately there is no evidence that this ever took place.
Production Machines. 167 and 168 were standard early production machines and were bought for the RNAS (perhaps from the Army: see below) at the same time as the prototype. They had the early skid undercarriages and the serial painted on the fin on a white background with the Sopwith trademark below. Finish was natural linen overall, with alloy cowlings and top decking and alloy side panels. All three aircraft served with No 2 Aeroplane Squadron based at Antwerp, together with a larger Tabloid development, the Churchill, a larger 2-seater twin-bay biplane of very similar design, serial No 149.
General Information on Colour Schemes. Aircraft that served in the RNAS and RFC prior to Dec 1914 carried only their serial number. As the war progressed, some form of identification for ground troops became necessary and in most cases aircraft carried Union Jacks in “various locations”, usually on the underside of the lower wings but also on the fuselage sides to the rear of the cockpit5 and on the fin above the serial number. The flag seems to have been marked as if the flagstaff was to the front of the aircraft (or to the port side in the case of the under wing markings). After 11 Dec 1914, roundels gradually replaced the Union Jacks and from May 1915 rudder stripes were introduced, roundels appeared on fuselage sides and on the upper surfaces of wings. RNAS aircraft had, for a short time, a narrow red roundel on a white background on the undersurfaces of both upper and lower wings.
By the end of 1914 the Tabloids had been replaced by Martinsydes and Bristol Scouts. By 11 June 1915, when Sopwith himself visited France, there was not a single one of his designs on the Western Front. The introduction of the Strutter, the Pup and the subsequent “Sopwith Zoo” changed all that and, allowing that the company became Hawker Aircraft in 1919, began the line of military aircraft that can be traced directly to the Harrier.
All markings are supported by photographic or written evidence, but of the 30 aircraft produced, some have escaped this process. The Sopwith trademark (SOPWITH AVIATION Co Ltd, Kingston upon Thames) appeared in various typefaces, in black, on the lower part of most rudders, sometimes preceded by the word “The” at an angle to the main text.
167, 168. Skid/wheel UC. Serial in black on white on rudder. UJ on lower wings?
326, 394. No 334 had the early type of skid/wheel UC, with 334 in black on white on the rudder. In the photo the natural fabric looks quite dark. No 326 looks much the same. Source D. 12 of these aircraft were delivered to the RFC. Other serials were 362, 378, 381, 386, 387, 392, 395, 611 and 654. One serial is missing. At an early point in these planes’ life, the undercarriage was strengthened by an additional strut, on the insistence of the RFC, perhaps as a result of Pixton himself crashing one of the first deliveries to Farnborough!
One Tabloid was delivered to the famous Louis Bleriot and another to the Russian manufacturer V Lebedev. There is no evidence that the former ever flew (it was delivered without an engine), but Lebedev produced a small number of copies, including an enlarged version, very similar to the Sopwith Churchill.
At some point in late 1914 Sopwith made a number of changes to the design of the Tabloid. Early RNAS versions were called the “Sopwith Scout”. An intermediate development surfaced as 1214, the more conventional of the Gordon Bennett aircraft, but 1201 – 1212 differed as follows:
The wings were unstaggered, being orientated about the same c of g as the earlier Tabloids. The upper wing was higher above the fuselage, higher even than the protoype. Ailerons were fitted to both wings: steel interplane and centre-section section struts replaced the earlier wooden ones.
- The fuselage alloy side panels ended between the strut locations, with a vertical cut-off: there seems to have been a ply or fabric panel aft of this line. There was a very obvious dark coloured circular cut-out in the alloy panel above the front wing spar, possibly an access hatch.
- The fin and rudder were larger, by about 25%.
- The tail skid was supported by a nest of struts, like the Gordon Bennett racer to give a degree of steering on the ground.The tailplane was redesigned with a straight leading edge, like the Pup’s.
1201 – 1212. Later production models for the RNAS, which had a number of significant changes over the earlier aircraft,. 1209 – 1211 were allocated to Eastchurch for Home defence. There does not appear to be a 3-view of this type.
1213. Ordered by the Italians but not delivered. Bought by the Admiralty for RNAS service, it had features of both earlier and later aircraft but no photograph has been found.
1214 A relatively standard Tabloid intended for the GB races, it was impressed by the Admiralty, fitted with a Vickers machine gun on the LH side of the fuselage firing through the propeller arc. The side view4 shows this Tabloid with the roundels, rudder stripes and side-mounted Lewis gun that are supported by photographs in the MD. The fin and rudder were smaller than usual: a Hawker trademark.
1215 A version of the Tabloid built for the GB races. I can imagine Harry Hawker coming into the works and buttonholing Sopwith: “Tommy, we have got to enter the Gordon Bennett races. I’ve got this fantastic idea for a real speed model. We can use the old Tabloid bits & pieces left over from the Army contract, hell, it won’t take long.” In fact, the only standard items were the wings, and it looks as if they had a different spar arrangement from the Tabloid: certainly the interplane strut spacing is different. It was very similar in design to the SE2 and SE4, having a large radial cowling, a slim fuselage, the narrow steel struts of the SS3, a ridiculously small fin and rudder and a distinctive colour scheme of black side panels (or possibly red or varnished ply) with a white border. The war intervened and when bought by the Admiralty, a photograph shows that it had Union Jacks on the undersurfaces of the lower wings. The fuselage was carefully faired with stringers aft of the side panels, in much the same way as the later Sopwith Snipe. In fact the whole project (together with the Sigrist Bus and Hawker Runabout) seems to be a “missing link” in Sopwith development between the lightweight Tabloid and the more battle-worthy Pup, which was flown 2 years later in May 1916.
A variation of the Tabloid (the “Sigrist Bus”) established a British height record of 18,393 ft in June 1915. This and another development, the “Hawker Runabout” were the forerunners of the 11/2 Strutter and the Pup respectively..
A. Albatros mini Datafile No 9 (Tabloid).
B. http://members.nbci.com/_XMCM/otprojects/sopwith/build_sopwith_sp.html (The great Sopwith Cookup - a plastic modellers site, well worth a visit)
C. http://members.home.net/british-ac/Sopwith_Tabloid.jpg (3-view drawings of a number of early aircraft)
D. http://www.geocities.com/aerodromeaces/images/tabloid_1.jpg (a mine of excellent WW1 aircraft pictures, including Tabloids 334 and 326)
Incidentally, after the early problem with stability, all my models flew beautifully; only piloting errors brought them to earth!
For the technically minded, all my Tabloid models were 1/9 scale, or 34” wingspan and were rudder/elevator controlled. The Gordon Bennett racer had wing warping as well but flew perfectly well on rudder/elevator despite its tiny fin. The late production RNAS model had ailerons but again flew on R/E. All were powered by electric motors (Graupner SP 400 with gearbox or SP 280 with gearbox), 7 or 8 cells and a speed controller. Target weight was 20 oz (16 oz for the Gordon Bennet) I also made a very successful all-foam SS3, which had a geared 150 motor for indoor flying. This weighed about 8.5 oz.
Mike Roach, Christchurch, March 2005