BIFFS FOR THE REST OF US
By: Tom Cleaver
Known simply as the Bristol Fighter, designer Frank Barnwell's two-seater more than lived up to its name during the last eighteen months of the First World War, from which it emerged as the best Allied two-seater of the conflict.
While most of its contemporaries soon ended on the scrap heap, the Bristol Aircraft Company's F.2B continued in production after the war, and was the mainstay aircraft of the newly-formed RAF for the next 14 years, as it maintained order on the far-flung edges of the British Empire.
The Royal Flying Corps went to war in 1914 equipped with the BE2 series of two-seaters. These thoroughly unsuitable aircraft (the gunner sat in the front seat with a narrow field of fire directly over his pilot's head!) became little more than targets for the German Jagdflieger starting with the Fokker Scourge of 1915, and extending through the rest of its service in 1916. By the time of the Somme Battle, the Royal Aircraft Factory, maker of the BE series, had come up with the RE8 as a replacement. While this airplane at least got the seating arrangements right, with the gunner in back, and the cockpits close together to facilitate communication, the airplane was little better performance-wise than what it was designed to replace. The RE8, affectionately known as " 'Arry Tate," served as the primary Corps reconnaissance aircraft for the remainder of the war following its introduction in the fall of 1916, but its performance was such that the casualty rate among its crews was little less than that experienced by their "Fokker Fodder" forebearers in their plodding BE's.
At the same time, Captain Frank Barnwell, chief designer of the British & Colonial Aeroplane Co., Ltd. - later known as Bristol Aeroplane Co., Ltd. - was also involved in the development of a potential replacement for the BE His first design, the R.2A, was powered by a 120 h.p. Hispano-Suiza engine. This was quickly replaced by the R.2B, with a Hispano-Suiza powerplant uprated to 150 h.p.
The arrival of the Rolls-Royce Falcon engine of 190 h.p. and the delivery by Vickers of the Constantinescu gun-synchronizing mechanism, attracted Barnwell's attention; he redesigned the R.2 airframe to take the additional horsepower, installing at the same time a forward-firing Vickers machine gun on the centerline within the cowl. This position had the advantage of keeping the gun warm with the engine, and jams could easily be cleared since the cocking handle was inside the cockpit. The new design was re-designated the F.2A to reflect its new "fighter" concept, and the first prototype flew on September 9, 1916, with 50 already on order. Once a faulty altimeter was replaced, it was discovered the airplane could climb to 10,000 ft. in 15 minutes, which was startling performance for its day; further testing revealed the airplane was as maneuverable as a single-seat fighter (though not in the Sopwith class).
As the F.2B, with some re-design of the wing and cowl and a Falcon II engine of 220 h.p., the fighter entered production in November 1916. Demand was so strong that subcontractors were brought into the program, and the airplane was eventually built by Austin Motors Co.; Sir W.G. Armstrong-Whitworth & Co., Ltd.; Gloucestershire Aircraft Co.; Harris & Sheldon, Ltd.; Marshall & Sons; the National Aircraft Factory No. 3;, Angus, Sanderson & Co.; and Standard Motor Co., Ltd. The 275 h.p. Falcon III began to power the fighter in July 1917.
The first squadron to equip on the type and take the Bristol Fighter into action was 48 Squadron, RFC. On April 5, 1917, six F.2As led by Captain William Leefe-Robinson, VC, were intercepted by Albatros D.IIIs of Jasta II, personally led by Manfred von Richthofen. Handling the airplane like a standard two-seater, the 48 Squadron formation was badly mauled, with only two returning from the mission, and those badly damaged. Leefe-Robinson himself was shot down by Vzfw Festner and made a Prisoner of War.
Events took a dramatic turn for the better shortly thereafter when the pilots began flying the airplane like a fighter, with the gunner to take care of the rear while they went after the target. On April 30, six aircraft fought their way back from Douai without loss. The success of the Bristol Fighter was such that the Canadian, Lt. Andrew McKeever, and his gunner, Sgt Powell, of No.11 Squadron were able to bring their score to 31 by November 1917; with McKeever becoming the top-scoring two-seater pilot of the war in the process. The airplane became affectionately known to its crews as the "Biff."
The top-scoring pilot of 48 Squadron, was an ex-artilleryman from New Zealand, Major Keith Park, who transferred from to the RFC after serving at Gallipoli, and who would score 20 victories with his various gunners by the end of the war after entering combat in May 1917. Park is far better known to history as Air Vice Marshal Sir Keith Park, AOC, 11 Group, winner of The Battle of Britain in 1940.
After the war, 378 new Bristol Fighters were ordered from the parent company and a further 49 new-build examples were exported to foreign operators. The Mk.II, Mk.III and Mk.IV appeared post-war, with a number of "WW I survivors" being rebuilt into later versions over the years. The airplane equipped RAF units which intervened in the Russian Civil War in 1919-1920. Units in Great Britain used them throughout the 1920s, but it was in the Middle East and India that the Bristol Fighter would see operational service into the early 1930s.
In the Middle East, Biffs were used in Kurdistan in 1920, in combat against the newly resurgent Turkey in 1922, again in Kurdistan in 1924 and 1925, and again against the Turks up to 1930. The last one left front-line service in 1932.
The Biff's simplicity and its exceptionally strong airframe made it ideal to fly and maintain in the most backward and rugged circumstances. It was a true adventurer's airplane, which probably more than any other type used by the RAF kept the service together and flying during the lean years of the 1920s and 1930s when the very existence of the service was called into question. It kept its fighting qualities throughout its life and was one of the most beloved types to ever serve the RAF.
Prior to this year, there were three alternatives for the modeler who seriously wanted a Bristol fighter in his (or her) collection: find and build the ancient Airfix 1/72 kit, which had serious outline errors, bad decals, and every other modeler's nightmare associated with Airfix kits of the early Sixties; find - at a price that didn't require renegotiation of the national debt; the old Aurora kit, which had even more serious outline errors, being based on the thoroughly inaccurate William Wylam drawings, in addition to having an airfoil section that was upturned along the trailing edge; spend three years scratch-building an accurate model, as Shane Weier did. I actually did obtain the Aurora kit four years ago, and spent several months changing the fuselage shape and replacing the last 1/4" of the trailing edge of the wings, and it was still wrong due to the too-narrow forward fuselage, which couldn't be changed; Shane's alternative was really the only reasonable one, for those who absolutely had to have a Biff.
And then...and then...Aeroclub's long-announced 1/48 Bristol Fighter became available earlier this year, followed shortly by another 1/48 kit from no less than Blue Max! A surfeit of riches for the dedicated World War One modeler - there was even a choice of doing one with the Eagle or Hispano engine, in the case of the Blue Max kit.
WHICH ONE TO DO?
Fortunately, being associated with Internet Modeler does have its perks, and I soon became the possessor of not one but both of these Bristol Fighters, which allowed me to take the measure of both and pass the knowledge along to you.
THE BLUE MAX KIT:
Ernest Thomas provided a first-look review of this kit in the March issue. I can only add that the kit is seriously marred by the infamous Blue Max "wing ripple" in its production, which results in a very obvious ripple in the upper surface of all four outer wing panels, about one-quarter inch in from the trailing edge. This defect can only be solved by sanding down the last 3/8" of the wings, which removes the ripple. Unfortunately, it also removes the very-petite and very accurate fabric effect, which Blue Max has done better than just about any other World War I kit maker. The solution is either to scribe the rip tape back in, or to use some thin plastic replacement, which is then sanded down to look like the rest. My discovery was that it was easier to rescribe the rib tape; given that the wing surfaces would be painted PC.10, it would not be that noticeable.
I assembled the cowling for the Falcon engine to the rear fuselage half before assembling the fuselage further, which allowed me to strengthen the join with a backing of 10-mil sheet styrene cut in 1/8"-wide strips and laid over the joint inside.
I did the cockpit "straight from the box," finding it necessary to file the white metal fuselage interior structure a bit to insure it would fit tight against the sidewalls.
I cut the ailerons from the outer wings, then assembled upper and lower wings. I drilled out the lower wing center section so that the rear leg of the undercarriage could slip through, thereby providing a stronger brace for the wing, since it does not attach to the fuselage in the standard manner. The ailerons were posed so that they matched the way I had kicked the rudder bar over and tilted the control stick against the instrument panel. I also cut and dropped the elevators to match this.
The fuselage required putty on all joints, which is pretty standard for a limited-run kit. Sanded out, it looked good. With Blue Max kits, one has to fashion their own interplane struts from the strut-shaped plastic rod provided.
FINISH AND MARKINGSs:
With the wings set right, and the fuselage and tail assembled properly, I painted the airplane in sub-assemblies: the clear doped linen undersides were done with Gunze-Sanyo "Sail Color," H-85, while the PC.10 is a private mixture using Tamiya Olive Drab and Gunze-Sanyo Dark Earth. The engine cowling was painted Battleship Grey inside and out, while the fuselage interior had been painted with "Sail Color" prior to assembly. The fuselage structure had been painted the color of yew, a yellowish-brown, prior to assembly.
I then "futured" everything when dry and applied the markings. The markings provided by Blue Max are for an anonymous machine on the Western Front in 1918. However, since I had the Aeroclub kit also, it was possible to do "mix and match" with the decals, and I used the markings from the Aeroclub kit for the Biff flown by Major Keith Park of 48 Squadron.
After assembling the lower wing and landing gear, I then attached the interplane struts and attached the upper wing. I rigged the model using high-E guitar string straightened and cut to the proper lengths.
For the rear gunner's weapons, I decided to use an Aeroclub set I had for the scarff ring with twin Lewis guns, since to me the white metal parts for this provided in the kit left a bit to be desired.
THE AEROCLUB KIT:
The Aeroclub kit betrays its origins in vacuforms, but in the case of Aeroclub - who have done some of the best vacuforms ever made - this is not a criticism. In comparison with the Blue Max kit, the wing rib detail is heavier, though there is no "ripple" to contend with in the mold. The fuselage interior structure is molded in to the kit, with white metal parts for throttle, seat, control stick, rudder bar, instrument panel, and Vickers machine gun. There is no alternative as far as the engine is concerned, and the cowling is therefore molded integral to the rest of the fuselage.
Assembly was not that much different from the Blue Max kit, and I cut both the ailerons and elevators as I did with the other model. I also drilled out the lower wing center section to allow the rear undercarriage longeron to come through for the same reason of final assembly structural strength.
PAINTING AND MARKINGS:
I had decided at the outset that I would do a post-war Biff with this kit. I therefore painted the interior fabric surfaces brick red, the color used in post-war British aircraft for interior fabric finish. The exterior was overall silver, except for the Battleship Grey metal engine cowling. I decided to do this as D-8096, the only surviving flyable Bristol Fighter, which has been operated for thirty-some years by the Shuttleworth Trust in Great Britain. The airplane was operated in Turkey in 1922-24 in these markings.
Once again, I had the model in subassembly, with the landing gear attached to the lower wing, and the fuselage with tail surfaces. The decals went on easily as is the usual case with Aeroclub decals, and snugged down under Micro-Sol.
Aeroclub provides white metal interplane struts, which I painted "yew" and used. Assembly went together as easily as the Blue Max kit, and again I used guitar string for the rigging wire.
The two kits are very close so far as price is concerned, at about $41.95 USD each. So far as accuracy of outline, both are spot-on according to drawings Robert Karr gave me when I tried to correct the Aurora kit.
While the Aeroclub kit has heavier surface detail, it has the added benefit of not being marred during the production with the Blue Max "ripple."
The Aeroclub white metal parts are superior to the Blue Max offerings, but then Aeroclub has made its reputation producing these detail parts; I am surprised Blue Max doesn't use them, as do so many other manufacturers. The nose radiator casting of the Aeroclub kit has better small detail than does that in the Blue Max kit, but - assembled - one will not notice this without close inspection.
The Aeroclub decals give more markings possibilities, and are also of better-known airplanes than is the single marking set for each variety of Bristol Fighter in the Blue Max kit.
The Blue Max kit does provide the opportunity to use the alternative cowling; given that the Eagle-engined Bristol Fighter was an abomination that saw little front-line service, the "classic" Falcon-engined variant is the one most modelers are likely to want in their collection.
While the Blue Max kit is definitely for the modeler with more experience in doing World War I models, the Aeroclub kit could be nicely done by someone just entering the World War I modeling fraternity.
There you have it. I am very glad I have both in my collection, and would have been happy with either. Thanks to Squadron Mail Order for providing the Blue Max kit, and to Aeroclub for their kit.
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