Bristol F.2B Fighter

Background

The initial designs leading to the Bristol Fighter were produced by Frank Barnwell in March 1916 as a B.E.2 replacement. The R.2A or Type 9 underwent modification as the Rolls Royce Falcon engine became available. The revised F.2A (or type 12) was ordered on August 28, 1916 and the first prototype (A3303) was flown on September 9. The Bristol Fighter went into service with 48 Squadron RFC in February 1917, going into action a month later. Initially the aircraft was considered unsuccessful as misapprehensions about the aircraft resulted in inappropriate tactics as the crew relied on the rear gunner. As the crews adopted 'single seat' fighter tactics, the Bristol Fighter came into its own. It was also found to be a capable light bomber. It was popularly known in service as the 'Brisfit' or the 'Biff'. The type proved so successful that it equipped 14 RFC squadrons and remained in post-war RAF service until 1932 - mostly in the army cooperation role. The F.2B was not phased out by the last Commonwealth user (New Zealand) until 1936.

Modifications to the aircraft resulted in the F.2B (type 14) which featured alterations to the fuselage to improve pilot and gunner's view, larger tail surfaces, increased fuel, and increased ammunition capacity. Changes also followed to the powerplant with the original 190hp engine being replaced by the 220hp Falcon II and 275hp Falcon III. A shortage of engines also resulted in 17 engine variants including the 200hp RAF 4d / 180hp Wolsely Viper / 230hp Siddely Puma powered Type 15, the 200hp Hispano-Suiza powered Type 16, and the 300hp Hispano-Suiza powered Type 17. Further experiments with powerplants resulted in the F.2C with 200hp Salmson, 230hp Bentley B.R.2, and 300hp ABC Dragonfly radial engines. Development of the dominant F.2B saw the Mk.II introduced in 1919 for army cooperation with desert equipment options. The Mk.III was structurally strengthened and included an unarmed dual-trainer variant. Aircraft were produced by Bristol at Filton and Brislington, as well as by a number of contractors (ten factories in all). The type was also license built in the United States by Curtis as the O-1 for US forces. Production amounted to 3,576 airframes, although some were refurbished and upgraded.

New Zealand involvement with the Bristol Fighter began during WW1 even before the type went into service. Blenheim born Capt Clive Collett reportedly installed the first Constantinesco synchronising gear into prototype F.2A A3303 while working with the Experimental Armament Squadron at Orfedness in January 1917. (Collett later went on to become a Camel ace with 70 Sqn before being killed in an accident in December 1917). New Zealand involvement grew when a number of New Zealand aircrew operated the type. Notable amongst these was a young Keith Park, who was later to achieve the rank of Air Chief Marshal in the RAF and become a key figure in the Battle of Britain. As a Major in the RFC he achieved 20 victories flying the F.2B. Not so lucky were two aircrew known to have been killed in F.2B operations. 2nd Lt. Godfrey Johnstone (flying with 22 Squadron RFC from Auchel) was killed on January 30, 1918, along with his observer. Lt. Roy Fitzgerald MC (flying with 35 Squadron RFC from Flesselles) was killed on July 1 1918, although his wounded pilot survived. Although not on operations, Capt. Joseph Hammond was killed on September 22, 1918. At the time he was with the British Air Mission to the United States and was returning from a war bonds air display at Greenfield when he crashed near the Indianopolis speedway. One of his two passengers was also killed. At the time Hammond was the longest serving New Zealand pilot in the British services. He is notable for having been the New Zealand Governments first official pilot when employed to fly the Bleriot XI 'Britannia' in 1913. One other New Zealand connected F/2B pilot died in British service. Australian born F/O Neale Fitzgerald-Eager had served with the NZEF, going on to the RFC and RAF. He was serving with 14 Squadron at Ramleh in Palestine at the time of his death. He died of exposure approximately a week after his aircraft got off course and forced landed in the Sinai desert on June 14, 1920. Deaths in New Zealand service are recorded below.

Seven F.2B aircraft were operated in New Zealand in the 1919-1936 period. The first Bristol Fighters to arrive in New Zealand are associated with the mission of Col.A.V. Bettington RAF to New Zealand early in 1919. Col. Bettington had been appointed by the NZ Government to report on possible arrangements for the establishment of an Air Arm in New Zealand. Two reports were submitted (June and July), neither being deemed acceptable on the basis of cost. At the time Col. Bettington arrived New Zealand was offered a number of 'Imperial Gift' aircraft. The first batch was shipped on June 8, 1919 and arrived in Auckland on August 8, From there the crated aircraft (2 Bristol F.2B, 2 De Havilland DH4 and 2 Avro 504) were transhipped to Lyttleton where they arrived on August 28. H1558 was uncrated and sent to Sockburn (later renamed Wigram), from where it made its first flight on September 4, 1919. The other F.2B, H1557 was not to fly for nearly a year, after the second batch of Imperial Gift aircraft arrived.

Most of the Imperial gift aircraft were actually distributed amongst commercial operators. However the F.2B aircraft were among six aircraft retained for government use, and a small group of defence personnel were established to maintain and operate them. This was known for a time as the NZ Air Service, although by 1923 they were known as the NZ Aviation Corps. The aircraft were mainly in the 'general purpose' category, although in 1921 and 1923 they were used for refresher courses for former RFC officers. An Air Force Reserve had been officially created in 1922 as part of the territorial forces, but on June 14, 1923 the Government established the New Zealand Permanent Air Force as part of the regular forces, along with the New Zealand Air Force as part of the territorial forces. These forces were both under Army control (until 1937 when the RNZAF was established as a seperate force). Although not strongly supported with funding, the NZPAF did acquire a number of aircraft, including five more F.2bs. Two new Mk.II aircraft (6856 and 6857) were shipped to New Zealand on August 28, 1925. Three further new aircraft were acquired in July 1927. These were a Mk.III dual trainer (7120) and two J-type Mk.III army cooperation models (7121 and 7122). The later was the 3,576th and final F2B built under Air Ministry contract. The NZPAF in general used existing serials or constructor's numbers to identify aircraft. So these five carried their constructor's numbers as serials.

In NZPAF service the F.2B was a multi role aircraft. The aircraft continued to be used as an advanced trainer, for communications, army cooperation work, meteorological flights, and aerial survey work. For the later two Eagle VIII 7x7 inch format cameras were purchased in 1925. These were fitted to H1558 in March 1926. During July of that year Cpt J.L.Findlay carried out the first aerial photographic survey of Christchurch using 200 plates to cover nine square miles from an altitude of 5,400 feet (at a cost to the City Council of 99 pounds). A DH-50 was imported specifically for survey work and although this arrived in Lyttleton on March 31, 1927 the Bristol Fighters are known to have continued in survey work till at least 1929. The aircraft also carried out a considerable amount of 'joy-riding'. This was an accepted task, and many New Zealanders got their first taste of flying in a NZPAF aircraft. The aircraft participated in flying displays and official occassions. On September 11, 1928 four F.2B aircraft escorted Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and the Southern Cross on the final leg of flight into Wigram after making the first successful trans-Tasman flight. This historic occassion was filmed from the rear of one of the Bristol Fighters.

Three aircraft were written off in NZPAF service. H1557 was involved in a fatal crash during an annual pilot refresher course on March 17, 1926. During a type handling demonstration about 5.30pm the aircraft was seen to spin after a loop. The aircraft crashed into the grounds of the Methodist Orphanage in Harewood Rd, coming to rest about 11m (36') from the dining room where the children were eating. Pilot Cpt Frederick Horrell and passenger Lewis Reid (a mess waiter from Wigram) were killed. The pilot under instruction, Lt P.A. Turner was seriously injured, but survived. The other Imperial gift aircraft, H1558 was involved in a non-fatal crash in March 1929. The aircraft was subsequently broken up for spares. The other fatal accident also took place during an annual refresher camp. F2B 7121 was engaged in an air to ground gunnery exercise at the Lake Ellesmere range on February 25, 1936 when it failed to pull out of a dive. The aircraft struck the ground and rolled. The pilot, F/O Graham Owen, died from his injuries several hours later.

Although considered obsolete by 1931, the aircraft continued in service until 1936. By that time they were the last Bristol Fighters in military service in the British Commonwealth and possibly the world. The surviving four aircraft were transferred to instructional airframes. They were disposed off by burning on the Wigram dump at a time variously reported as between 1938 and late 1939. In summary, the New Zealand Bristol F.2B Fighters were:

Subsequent to the NZPAF aircraft, one genuine F.2B and a replica have entered New Zealand. The genuine example is one of a cache of airframes found forming the structure of a mezzanine floor in Weston-on-the-Green in Oxfordshire, England. It later passed to the RAF Museum who swapped the fuselage for a Hudson turret. The aircraft came to New Zealand in mid-2000 and was initially located at Foxton. It is now with Stuart Tantrum at Omaka under restoration for Peter Jackson (well known New Zealand film maker). (illustrated below)

The replica was built by Ed Storo in Memphis, Tennesee. The aircraft took seven years to build and was first flown in 1993. The fuselage features chrome-molybdinium tubing and is based on an Australian replica. However the wings, tail, undercarriage and other assemblies were all built from Bristol drawing and could be fitted to an original. The only Accommodations to modern practicalities are the inclusion of brakes and a small tailwheel. The replica is powered by a 200hp Ranger 440-5 engine which is installed in an upright position - which suits the propeller and cowl configuration of the F.2B. The replica is painted in RAF colours and carries the serial J7624. The F.2B replica was imported into New Zealand in 2001 as a participant in the Classic Fighters airshow at Omaka where it made quite an impact. The aircraft was then put up for sale. The US registration N624,was cancelled in February 2002 and on May 5 the aircraft was registered as ZK-JNU to Peter Jackson. The aircraft remains based at Omaka, near Blenheim. (illustrated below).

Last Update:- 11 May, 2002


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