Some classic airplanes, such as the Sopwith Camel F.1 and the Messerschmitt Bf 109, achieved great victories in World War I combat but proved to be almost equally lethal to the pilots who flew them. Both of these legendary fighters were highly regarded by their enemies, and both had characteristics that claimed the lives of many pilots in accidents.
It is somewhat ironic that the British-made Sopwith Camel F.1, with its reputation for vicious stalls and spins, should have succeeded the Sopwith Pup in combat, for the latter was one of the most benign aircraft in history. Yet, the designers at Sopwith wanted to create a highly maneuverable aircraft that would take advantage of the 130-horsepower Clerget rotary engine that powered it.
They therefore created a very short-coupled aircraft, with the pilot, fuel tank, and twin-Vickers armament all mounted as close together as physically possible. The torque of the engine caused the nose to rise in left-hand turns and drop in right-hand turns, and if the rudder were mishandled, the aircraft would quickly spin.
Sopwith achieved its design aim, for the Sopwith Camel F.1 became one of the most maneuverable fighter planes of World War I, seemingly able to turn in its own length. Unfortunately, its rotary engine required adroit manipulation to run properly during the take-off process. Inexperienced student pilots, some with as few as 20 hours of flying time, often found themselves unable to manage the engine while taking off, and far too many spun to their deaths.
The Sopwith Camel F.1 shot down more enemy aircraft than any other Allied plane -- the number varies according to source from 1,294 to more than 3,000. About 5,700 of these classic airplanes were manufactured. The Sopwith Camel F.1 served as a night-fighter, a ground-assault plane, and was launched at sea from lighters (barges). It is best described, fictionally, in V.M. Yeates's immortal novel Winged Victory.
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