Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2c (2699) [@ Imperial War Museum]
In 1909, HM Balloon Factory at Farnborough, which as its name implies had been involved in the production of lighter than air craft, began building aeroplanes, and changed its title to the Royal Aircraft Factory. Its first aircraft product, built in 1911, was the BE.1 (Bleriot Experimental) tractor biplane; the BE.2 that followed it used the same basic airframe and was the first military machine to be built as such in Britain. Nicknamed "Quirk", variants of it continued in use by the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service throughout World War I, long after the type was obsolete. The BE.2 was designed by Geoffrey de Havilland (who went on to design other famous aircraft e.g. the Mosquito) as a development of the BE.1 and first flew in August 1912; it soon set a new British altitude record. By mid-1913 it equipped 13 squadrons of the recently formed Royal Flying Corps. Production gave way to the BE.2a with wing of unequal span, and the BE.2b with revised decking around the cockpits and ailerons instead of wing-warping controls. The aircraft's greatest weakness was that it was a product of a time when aircraft design philosophies over-emphasised the value of stability, resulting in designs that lacked manoeuvrability. While stability was indeed an asset to a reconnaissance machine, the degree of manoeuvrability that had been sacrificed to obtain it made it easy prey for enemy fighters and BE.2 squadrons took terrible losses. The British fighter ace Albert Ball VC, a Nottingham hero, summed it up as "a bloody awful aeroplane".
Built in the early summer of 1914 and intended mainly as a reconnaissance aircraft, the BE.2c introduced the 80hp RAF 1a engine and was the first to be armed with a machine gun, for the observer. A few arrived in France later that year, but its lack of speed and manoeuvrability meant that by 1915 it was outclassed by the new Fokker monoplanes, when it became known as 'Fokker Fodder'. After withdrawal from the Western Front, however, it achieved success as a night fighter and as a trainer. It was used with success against German Zeppelin airships in 1916. On the night of 3rd August 1916, Captain William Robinson downed the first Zeppelin to be shot down over Britain, winning Robinson a Victoria Cross and cash prizes totalling £3,500 that had been put up by a number of individuals for the first Zeppelin kill. About 1300 BE.2c’s were built, 111 sub-contracted to Blackburn in Leeds.
The aircraft underwent various refinements during its service career, mostly concerned with improving engine performance and controllability with the last variant being the BE.2e. In wartime service the BE.2 variants performed well in the reconnaissance role, but a great many were lost during the time of the ‘Fokker Scourge’ of 1915-16. According to records, 3535 BE.2s of all types were built, but the real figure is certainly much higher.