H.King Sopwith Aircraft 1912-1920 (Putnam)
'You could hang it on your watchchain' was the assurance vouchsafed to the present writer by one of the old Sopwith hands (and that was the limit of the information) when seeking some enlightenment concerning the Bee the smallest, and in some ways one of the most intriguing, of all the company's products. Woven round the little aeroplane by other old hands present on the same occasion were the usual stories (so usual that one became cautious of accepting them all at face value) of its having been 'chalked out on the shop floor by Harry Hawker to his own ideas' etc, etc; though the contention that Hawker was indeed the moving spirit behind the design was so sustained, and so clearly plausible, as to admit but little doubt concerning his personal involvement. Much the same premise (at least that the machine was Hawker's favourite 'runabout' and/or aerobatic-display aircraft) would be eloquently supported by the smile on the face of the airman seen, hand-on-hip/hand-on-wing, in a photograph herewith – if, indeed, the man is Hawker himself. Close scrutiny of the original print suggests that this is so, though the print is lacking one of the customary lettered-on-Sopwith captions, and the inked inscription on the back, beyond repeating the number 46, proclaims the subject as 'Single Seater Biplane 50 h.p.'.
Of the horsepower and the engine more in time. Meanwhile the airframe seems to merit more attention than is usually accorded it; that is, the mere notation that it embodied Pup components (the landing gear especially) and that a curious feature of the tiny wings was that they were arranged to warp for lateral control instead of having ailerons.
The feature, surely, that is even more striking is the form of centre section, which had a cut-out not only for the pilot's head, but another at the trailing edge. Thus it corresponded closely not only with the Dolphin (the tail - with its horn-balanced rudder - was likewise Dolphin-style), but with the Bulldog, Snail and Buffalo. Less close, but nevertheless discernible, was a relationship with the Snipe, Salamander and Dragon, though in these named instances the forward cut-out (or more descriptively aperture) had the function of improving the pilot's view rather than that of receiving his head. A similar arrangement was a feature of the Westland Wagtail, concerning which fighter there will be more to say.
Though it is difficult to determine a date for the Bee's construction, one would place this fairly confidently in 1917 a year which brings one sharply to consider why such a venerable powerplant as a 50 hp Gnome should have been selected for any new aeroplane of the period. True, though the '50 Gnome' might have been more at home in a pre-1914 'boxkite', it was still the unit that was being offered (unsuccessfully) post-Armistice by The London and Provincial Aviation Co with their Type No. 4 trainer/’runabout' (or tourer); and that the Sopwith Bee was used as, if not solely intended as, a 'runabout' has already been intimated. The fitting of a 50 hp Gnome might, in any case, have been inherited from Hawker's previous runabout the SL.T.B.P.; but whatever the facts of the matter there are indications - other than the form of centre section mentioned that the Bee was more than a vehicle for transporting Harry Hawker from A to B, whether for test-flying assignments or aerobatic displays. One suggests, rather, that it was regarded as an experimental and development 'hack' - exactly as the Hawker company's famous Fury G-ABSE was to serve in later years.
Failing substantiation, this suggestion commands some further comment the 'fighter-style' opened-up centre section having already been accorded special notice. Now, how to reconcile this 'advanced' feature with such 'old-fashioned' ones as warping wings and a 50 hp Gnome rotary? One fact is sure: Though Sopwith had seemingly 'gone over' to ailerons from warping wings before war came, it is clear that the company's policy for trying everything at least once (one interpretation of which is 'playing safe') was never abandoned. This very policy, indeed, was carried forward well into the Hawker years, the clearest manifestation being the construction of certain biplane types (Snipe, Bulldog, Woodcock, Hawfinch, Hoopoe) both with single-bay and two-bay wing cellules. As for the use of wing-warping on the Bee, this could well have been for reasons of simplicity though this latter was a virtue that did not follow automatically. Equally it could have been reasoned (so short was the span) that a high rate of roll was more or less inherent in the design. At the same time, rolling and yawing moments were considerations of high importance to a company like Sopwith, which made a speciality of highly manoeuvrable aeroplanes; and comparative data (as already instanced by the single-bay/two-bay reference) were an ever-present demand in the Kingston design office.
Aside from the ultra-short span and the wing-warping there was yet another feature of the Bee's wings that calls for remark, this being the narrowness of the gap - approximating to the chord of the wings themselves. Curious (especially so having regard to the aperture in the Bee's centre section) is the use of the term 'gap-chord' in the following - possibly corrupt - summary of an official report, issued very early in 1918: ‘On the Effect of Cutting a Hole in the Top Plane of a Biplane. - Results of tests on the loss of lift of an R.A.F.6 biplane without fuselage, and with a gap-chord, due to the cutting of a hole in the top plane, the tests being carried out for analysis of incidence varying from 6 deg. to plus 20 deg., and the results tabulated and plotted.’
Although the wing section, or sections, tried on the Bee are not known, it may be noted that "R.A.F.6" was a low-camber wing-section, and one that was instanced as such for several years after the Armistice.
As for the Bee's ancient engine, it is permissible to speculate on the possible intention of installing some more modern unit when this became available a possibility sustained by reasonable suppositions that the Bee may not only have been comparable with the officially-ordered 'Kitten' types (Grain, Eastchurch and James V. Martin) but in some way associated also with the 'Aerial Target' programme (see chapter on 'A.T. and Sparrow'). The nominal power of 50 hp would certainly approximate to that expected from a geared version of the A. B.C. Gnat (45 hp), while higher up the prospective A. B.C. scale were the 60 hp Gadfly and the 120 hp Mosquito. And might there not have been an engine called Bee? for it must not be overlooked that the A.B.C. Wasp-engined Westland Wagtail was originally called the Wasp, and the Dragonfly-powered Sopwith Snipe development was the Dragon.
Though the seemingly well substantiated experimental fitment of a single Vickers gun would evidently have posed installation problems, the nature of the installation may have been unconventional - otherwise, indeed, the pilot's field of view might have been calamitously compromised. In the armament context, moreover, we may note that the Sopwith-Kauper mechanical synchronising gear outlived all others of its species, and although first made in 1916, continued in development and variation well into 1917, and perhaps even later the Americans, for instance, having scant regard for the Constantinesco hydraulic system, and favouring instead their own Nelson gear (though Constantinesco also designed a mechanical scheme). In any case, if synchronising gear of any kind (other, perhaps, than electrical) were indeed fitted to the Gnome-powered Bee, some fairly extensive engine modifications would probably have been necessary.
Speculative though much of the foregoing may be, the mere dimensions of the little aeroplane, as given hereafter, are eloquent in themselves. Thus one muses finally on the name 'Tadpole' that was sometimes applied to this same machine.
Bee (50 hp Gnome)
Span 16 ft 3 in (4.9 m); length 14 ft 3 in (4.3 m).
H.King Armament of British Aircraft (Putnam)
Bee. At one stage, a Vickers gun was fitted to this tiny biplane of 1916.