Royal Aircraft Factory SE.5a (F904)  [@ Shuttleworth Collection]

The SE5a was the best British fighter of WW1 and probably, in most respects, the Spitfire of World War I. The SE.5 single-seat scout entered RFC service in the spring of 1917, being delivered to No 56 Squadron in March. Although less manoeuvrable than the French-built Nieuports and Spads, the SE.5 was faster and had an excellent rate of climb, enabling it to hold its own in combat with the latest German fighter types. The SE.5s of No 56 Squadron flew their first operational patrol on 22nd April 1917.

To the best of my knowledge F904 is the only example of its type still flying.

Royal Aircraft Factory SE.5a (F819)  [@ Science Museum]

The SE.5a followed the original SE.5 into service, in June 1917, with a 200hp Hispano-Suiza engine. The type was first issued to No’s 56, 40 and 60 Squadrons, in that order, and by the end of the year had been delivered to No’s 24, 41, 68 and 84. Deliveries were slowed by an acute shortage of engines, but the pilots of the units that did receive the SE.5a were full of praise for the aircraft’s fine flying qualities, physical strength and performance. At the end of WW1 some 2700 SE.5a’s were on RAF charge, the type having served with 24 British, two American and one Australian squadron.

Many of the first world war's leading fighter pilots flew the SE5a, including Capt Albert Ball VC (44 victories), Major "Mick" Mannock, (73 victories) the leading British fighter pilot, and the Canadian "Billy" Bishop, (72 victories). Like the Sopwith Camel, the SE5a did not survive long in the peacetime RAF and was phased out of service by 1920, although many found their way into private hands and film companies.

After WW1 F819 was bought by Major Jack C Savage who converted it for skywriting purposes and developed the technique as a form of advertising.