The Royal Aircraft Factory applied its talents to the design of a single-seat fighter as soon as the need for such a machine became clear with John Kenworthy completing his design for Fighting Experimental No. 8 or F.E.8 in May 1915. Like rival designers and limited by firing a machine gun past a tractor propeller, Kenworthy’s design was a pusher powered by a 100-hp Gnome rotary engine driving a four-blade propeller; however, it introduced a number of innovative features. The nacelle frame was of triangulated steel tube that once constructed required no ‘truing up’ in service and was covered with shaped panels of aluminium (these covering items required regular inspection as they were secured by laces as was common for fabric.) The oil and petrol tanks were shaped to match the contours of the upper decking and the underside of the nacelle was fitted with light armour to provide protection against ground fire. The tail surfaces had wooden spars and ribs of aluminium alloy punched out to shape with steel fittings and framework. The tail booms did not meet at the rudder post as in other designs, but at the tailplane spar forming a triangle when viewed from the side. Tailplane incidence could be adjusted while the machine was on the ground by moving the retaining bolts around a quadrant and the skid was fastened to the bottom of the rudder post. The wing structure was more conventional, the high-aspect-ratio wings being rigged in two bays and having a generous five degrees of dihedral outboard of the first interplane struts. The ailerons had no balance cables, being returned to their normal position by rubber bungees.

The F.E.8 was designed to be armed with a Lewis gun mounted in the nose of the nacelle, the breech level with the pilot’s knees and aimed by means of a small sighting bar mounted above the cockpit rim. Instrumentation was typical for the period and comprised of a compass and clinometer with a direct-drive tachometer, fuel pressure gauge and altimeter to the left, and an air speed indicator, fuel gauge and watch to the right. A hand pump was provided to top up the air pressure in the tank if required and a blip switch was mounted on the top of the control column.

Two prototypes, 7456 and 7457, were commissioned, the first being completed and ready for inspection on 6 October 1915; however, it did not make its first flight by Frank Goodden until 15 October when if flew for just ten minutes. Its next flight on 19 October lasted an hour and a half with Goodden finding no fault of any kind. By 5 November, it had been painted with the standard service finish, PC10, and was at the Central Flying School for evaluation. The report stated:

Stability: excellent in all axes. Not at all tiring to fly.

Remarks: the hand pressure pump and 2-way tap might be removed to a more convenient location. Machine is very satisfactory and easy to fly. Being small and high powered, it naturally requires careful handling, especially of the rudder. The seating accommodation is comfortable but rather too much lying back. Pilot would be more comfortable sitting straighter. Machine gun, as now fitted, is rather low and difficult to reload. It is suggested that the gun mounting be raised at least six inches, the pistol grip then being in line with the top of the control column. The machine is in every other respect highly satisfactory, and very handy and controllable and extremely easy to land. Windscreen fitted is efficient and goggles can be dispensed with. Controllability on the ground is good.

The Central Flying School noted that the take-off run was 60 yards and the landing run 90 yards, both fairly typical figures for those days. Also, its top speed was 94 mph, a slightly lower figure than that recorded while under test flying at Farnborough. On 15 November, it was returned to Farnborough by the famous pre-war display pilot B. C. Hucks who had the misfortune to crash on landing, damaging 7456 beyond repair. By this time, the second prototype, 7457, was almost complete and using the engine recovered from 7456, made its first flight piloted by Goodden on 6 December recording a speed of 97.4 mph. It was initially, and for no apparent reason, fitted with a conical spinner to the propeller hub, but was otherwise identical to 7456. On 18 December 1915, Mervyn O’Gorman, Superintendent of the Royal Aircraft Factory, wrote the following note to Brig-Gen. Hugh Trenchard, Commander of the RFC in France:

I am sending you, piloted by Goodden, my F.E.8 fighter. I would like to draw to your notice some points both as regards stability and the fighting qualities of this machine. The machine is absolutely stable fore and aft, and laterally, and may be flown with all controls free. The directional stability is such that the machine will fly straight with the feet off the rudder bar.

On the following day, 7457 was flown to France by Goodden for service trials. It joined No. 5 Squadron that was operating the first DH2s alongside the Vickers FB5 and for whom the Gnome Monosoupape engine held few surprises. 7457 was flown by Lt Powell who took to it immediately stating that ‘every detail of the F.E.8 was so far advanced from the DH2’ although he, like the Central Flying School, was critical of the gun mounting. Nor did Powell like the propeller spinner that he claimed vibrated and was removed. Powell took 7457 on a patrol and in an engagement with an enemy two-seater, received bullet damage to his petrol tank, but managed to glide home. No spares were yet available and with repair of the tank causing some concern, 7457 was grounded until the undamaged tank from 7456 could be shipped over.

Trenchard, having discussed the machine’s performance and handling with Powell, wanted the endurance increased from 2½ hours to 3 hours, but the necessary increase in petrol tank capacity proved impossible without a major redesign of the nacelle; however, an increase from 25 gallons to 29 gallons was achieved for all future machines giving an endurance of 2¾ hours. He also accepted the criticism of the gun installation and requested that the Royal Aircraft Factory send an engineer to France to arrange the necessary modifications as soon as possible. As a result, the gun was moved to the cockpit rim on a mounting similar to that of the DH2. The hole left in the nose by the removal of the gun was faired over and ammunition racks fitted to the nacelle side. Thus modified, 7457 remained with No. 5 Squadron, Powell choosing it in preference to the DH2 and refusing leave rather than risk another pilot flying it.

On 17 January 1917, Powell shot down an Aviatik and claimed a second kill on 5 February. On the same day, he chased an Albatros over the lines but failed to shoot it down, but was credited with an L.V.G. two-seater ‘driven down’. A similar claim for an Albatros two days later was not confirmed, but on 29 February, he sent an Aviatik down in flames.

The first prototype, 7456, was rebuilt to production standard and was completed by early April. It remained at Farnborough and was tested with the 110-hp Le Rhône and Clerget engines, installations which necessitated modifications to the fuel-feed systems and engine controls in each case. The Gnome, however, remained the standard fitting. Production was undertaken by the Darracq Motor Engineering Co. Ltd and Vickers with the first completed example from Darracq joining No. 29 Squadron on 15 June 1916. This example was shot down a week later on 22 June and its pilot, Capt. L. Sweet, killed. At least five examples of the F.E.8—6378, 6380, 6381, 6383 and 6385—served with No. 29 Squadron alongside its DH2s.

The introduction of the F.E.8 was greeted with a similar fear of spinning as that of the DH2 earlier in the year. However, the Royal Aircraft Factory took prompt action and on 23 August, the results of spin trials conducted in 7456 by Goodden were circulated. His report included what was probably the first ever published instruction on spin recovery:

1] – Switch off motor.

2] – Control stick put central and pushed forward.

3] – Rudder put in centre.

This results in a nosedive from which the aeroplane, having once got up to speed, can easily be pulled out with the control stick pulled back slightly.

The first squadron to be fully equipped with the F.E.8 was No. 40 under the command of Major Robert Loraine and with Frederick Powell as a flight commander. Powell thought Loraine as rather heavy handed, both as a pilot and superior officer, but welcomed the promotion and opportunity to continue flying the F.E.8. ‘A’ Flight went to France on 2 August 1916 and suffered its first casualty with the loss of Lt Davies in 7595 the following day. ‘B’ and ‘C’ Flights flew to France as soon as sufficient aeroplanes were available and the squadron based at Treizzennes was not complete until 25 August.

Their first victory came on 22 September when Capt. D. O. Mulholland in 6084 spotted a Fokker attacking an F.E.2b and went to its assistance, shooting down the enemy fighter (both Mulholland and the F.E.2b crew claimed credit for the kill). On the same day, 2 Lt Hay engaged a Roland two-seater, but the encounter was inconclusive. On 20 October, Mulholland shot down two Fokkers with Lt E. L. Benbow claiming an Albatros and S. A. Sharpe a Roland. The following day, Benbow sent a two-seater down in flames near Vimy. The squadron claimed a total of five enemy machines, a feat that was congratulated by Trenchard with a signal followed by a personal visit a few days later.

By this time, a second F.E.8 squadron was in action in France. No. 41 Squadron had arrived on 15 October with just twelve of eighteen aircraft that had taken off from Gosport for St Omer with mechanical problems and forced landings accounting for the other six. After a week to regroup, the squadron moved to Abeele where ground crews and equipment caught up with them. They began operations only to discover that their pushers were significantly outclassed by the latest German machines. The squadron’s duties were largely ground attack and their first victory was achieved on 24 January 1917, the successful pilot, Cecil Tooms, being shot down just hours later.

On 9 November 1916, Capt. Tom Mapplebeck, a flight commander with No. 40 Squadron, was shot down during an engagement with Jasta 8 and his F.E.8, 7624, landed behind enemy lines and was captured more or less intact. It was test flown by the Germans for evaluation purposes with black crosses painted over its British markings.

Problems were experienced with the fuel feed, it proving difficult to maintain pressure when the tanks were nearly empty and 6426 was therefore fitted with the gravity tank from a DH2 in addition to its pressure tank. This solved the issue but its drag cut at least 4 mph from the machine’s top speed. Therefore, an internal tank was made from sheet copper by Sgt Ridley to fit inside the centre section. This solved the fuel feed problems without a reduction in speed and so copies of this tank were manufactured in England and shipped out to be fitted to all F.E.8s in service.

It was discovered that after a time in the field, electrolytic corrosion was occurring between the duralumin ribs of the elevators and the steel tube frame to which they were fixed. 7456 was therefore fitted with the elevators of a DH2, the hinge positions being suitably modified. Other machines were similarly fitted until replacement elevators with wooden ribs could be manufactured.

No. 40 Squadron’s Lt Benbow shot down a two-seater on 16 November and an Albatros DII fighter on 4 December with Mulholland scoring the same day. Benbow’s success with the F.E.8 continued into 1917 and on 14 February, he downed an Albatros DII while flying A4871. Benbow also shot down another Albatros the same day. Lt John Hay of No. 40 Squadron scored three victories flying 6388, but fell victim to the guns of an Albatros DII flown by Manfred von Richthofen on 23 January 1917. This was the Red Baron’s seventeenth victory and the first with Jasta II.

Capt. R. H. Saundby, who joined No. 41 Squadron at the end of January 1917, shared a victory on 4 March when flying 6431 in company with 2 Lt A. Fraser in 7622. He spotted a Nieuport in combat with an Albatros and immediately dived to assist in sending the enemy down.

The F.E.8’s career with No. 40 Squadron effectively ended in March 1917 after nine machines took part in a lengthy dogfight with Albatros DIIs of Richthofen’s Jasta II and all were shot down, five of them being destroyed. The squadron began to swap its F.E.8s for the new Nieuport 17 almost immediately, although a number of the squadron’s pilots who had never flown anything but pushers found the reduction in a forward view a disadvantage.

No. 41 Squadron began the process of changing over to the DH5 on 11 June 1917, scoring a final victory with the F.E.8 on 16 June with the changeover completed by the beginning of July. But this was not the end of the F.E.8’s role in the war. As like most outdated fighters, it carried on serving with training and home defence units in the UK. Lionel Blaxland, later a county cricketer, flew an F.E.8 with No. 61 (HD) Squadron at Rochford and wrote of it:

The F.E.8 was a very pleasant machine to fly, but was extremely cold. I recall one of our pilots having to be helped out of his machine and, on putting his feet to the ground, having his legs give way under him.

One example, A4919, was handed over to a French liaison officer on 30 September 1917 in rather mysterious circumstances for no one knew why they wanted it. Having arrived in a crate at the Aircraft Acceptance Park at Hendon towards the end of the September, it was assembled and on 29 September, test flown by A. G. D. Alderson who recalled:

I took my seat in the nacelle which felt very strange after a tractor, it being impossible to see any part of the machine from the cockpit.

Alderson commented more favourably on the unobstructed forward view.

The following day, A4919 was flown away and never heard of again—an appropriate end to a machine that, despite the excellence of its design, arrived too late to do any good and had long outlived its usefulness.