The days when fighter pilots aimed pistols at each other

Enormous technical developments have happened in the world of aeroplanes.

Wednesday, 29th November 2017, 11:20 am
Updated Tuesday, 12th December 2017, 12:01 pm
A DH9 at Hylton Airfield.

But some of the earliest models flew out of the Hylton Airfield in Sunderland.

Wearside historian Trevor Thorne, from the Sunderland Antiquarian Society, began his look at the airfield and the people who flew from it earlier this month.

The departure of the last Bristol aeroplanes.

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Here, he continues the tale with a more detailed look at the development of technology on board those magnificent flying machines.

In any long war, there are enormous technical developments in weapons and equipment.

The aeroplane particularly benefitted from considerable innovation and improvement during the First World War.

In 1914, the standard ‘string bag kite’ was in use but it struggled to achieve flying across the Channel on its way to the Western Front.

Boy Scouts show an interest in a Lewis gun.

After that, designs improved so that some planes were eventually capable of carrying bomb loads of 300lb.

But fighting was a very different process to that of modern day flying. In those early days, pilots from the two sides aimed pistols or rifles at each other as they flew. Later machine guns could fire through the aircrafts propeller without damaging its mechanism to great effect.

The Royal Flying Corps had 2,100 personnel in 1914 which rose to 114,000 by 1918.

By then, there were over 7,000 planes in use. The importance of ‘eyes in sky’ was an essential support to the army.

The departure of the last Bristol aeroplanes.

This work included ‘spotting’ for artillery, monitoring troop movements, photographing the enemy trenches and surrounding land. This contribution was recognised and a separate force called the Royal Air Force was formed in April 1918.

The best aeroplanes were sent to the Western Front with the older models being sent for home service or training.

As the war developed, aircraft were designed for different roles with examples being the fighter and bomber.

The Bristol Fighter F2b was a two-seat bi-plane with a Rolls Royce Falcon engine. It was fitted with a Vickers machine gun but also often carried a second Lewis gun operated by the observer at the rear.

Boy Scouts show an interest in a Lewis gun.

Initially, this plane was viewed with suspicion in the war zone.

Famous flyer Leefe Robinson, who won a Victoria Cross for being the first to bring down a Zeppelin, was one of the first to take the machine into combat. He led a patrol of six new F2bs over France where they met five German Albatross commanded by the legendary Manfred Von Richthofen. Four of the Bristols were shot down including Robinson, who was captured.

This did not help to persuade the other pilots to accept it.

Our photographs show one of the last Bristols leaving Hylton as they were replaced by newer machines in 1918.

Another shows Boy Scouts getting a demonstration of a Lewis Gun at the airfield.

The DH9 (de Havilland) was a single engine bi-plane bomber which was not universally liked by the pilots on the Western Front. As a result it was used extensively for anti-submarine work around Britain’s coast, including over our own North East waters.

The pilots found the work – looking for submarines – particularly tedious. Hours were spent over the sea in aircraft which were still not wholly reliable and subject to engine trouble.

Our third photograph shows a DH9 fuselage in the snow at Hylton.

Of the other planes at the time, the Sopwith Camel is one of the best known.

Another built by the same company, was the Sopwith Pup which flew from or visited Hylton in 1918. It was used on the Western Front between 1916 and 1917 before being retired to home service.

The Pup was suitable for early aircraft carriers where space was limited and keeping the plane level on take-off essential.

Our thanks go to Trevor for his articles on Hylton Airfield, which is the site of the Nissan car plant these days.

To find out more about the Sunderland Antiquarian Society, it is open Wednesdays and Saturdays between 9.30am and noon, or visit