Too much, too soon – the Bristol M.1C Monoplane


The Fokker scourge on the Western Front in the First World War had come and gone. The slaughter of the ‘innocents’ – principally the RFC’s ill-starred, over-stable, badly designed B.E.2 biplanes, in the ‘Fokker Scourge’- by the monoplane Fokker E.III Eindeckers, with their centrally-mounted, synchronized 7.92mm Spandau machine guns, had faded. The Royal Flying Corps needed better, faster ‘scouts’ as soon as possible, or it would cede the initiative to the German Luftstrietkraft permanently. Blind courage, as shown by the early British aviators, could only do so much. However, a possible solution was on the way.

Captain Frank Barnwell had been given ‘indefinite leave without pay’ to return to the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company, as it was then, to take up the post of Chief Designer, in 1915. He was bent on designing a monoplane successor to the dainty Bristol Scout biplane. The new, private venture, monoplane was of conventional wood and fabric construction, save for the fact that its fuselage contours were rounded out to neatly fair into the mounting for the 110 hp Clerget rotary engine. Wire bracing, above and below the monoplane wing was kept to a minimum, and a large hemispherical spinner, as tried on a Bristol Scout, was fitted. Named as the Bristol M.1A, it was armed with a single Vickers .303 machine gun utilising the first generation Constantinesco-Colley British-built synchronising gear, allowing it to shoot through the propeller arc. The initial example of this carefully streamlined aircraft made its first flight in the capable hands of Freddie Rayneham, the noted test pilot, on 14th July, 1916.

There were some faults, it is true, the vision downwards for the pilot was poor, and this problem was first tackled by removing the Irish linen covering between the two wing ribs closest to the fuselage, on either side. At first these were covered with Cellon (a transparent form of polymerised cellulose acetate, that I actually used to help manufacture at one time. No! I mean in the 1970s!) However, this was too fragile, and was removed to leave the opening uncovered.

The other ‘fault’, which was to prove to be the Monoplane’s undoing, was it’s landing speed of 49 mph. This, coupled with a relatively long take-off run, condemned it in the eyes of senior RFC officers. It also did not help that Hugh Trenchard, at that time a Major General in the RFC, hated all monoplanes, and that included the product from Bristol. This was a commonly held belief amongst senior RFC officers, mainly due to the fact that there had been a series of fatal crashes involving monoplanes of various types prior to the War.

It did not seem to matter that the M.1A had matured quickly through various stages, including the use of a 150hp Bentley rotary, so that the final version, the M.1C, powered by a 110hp Le Rhone was capable of 130 mph. Finally, in August, 1917, an order was procured – for a measly 125 machines! Not only that, but some of these in an unarmed state were sent to RFC Flying Schools. There, senior officers, many of whom had served on the Western Front and appreciated the M.1C’s performance, appropriated them as their ‘personal’ mounts, often adorning them with garish markings. Tales of this ‘wonder kite’ were carried to Squadrons in France, by graduates of the Flying Schools, making RFC scout pilots await eagerly for the appearance of the type.

Sadly, it was not to be. The majority of the production M.1Cs were sent to the Mediterranean or the Middle East. Squadrons – partially equipped with the M.1C – which saw action against the Turks and Bulgars, included Nos 17 an 47, whilst No. 111 had some on charge in what was Palestine at the time. About the only successful combat recorded was when an M.1C, along with another fighter, brought down a D.F.W biplane over Prosenik in southeastern Bulgaria, on 26th April, 1918. The end of WW1 saw the rapid disposal from RAF stocks of the M.1C.

An oddity was the dispatch of  a total of 18 M.1C to the Chilean Aviacion Militar – in two batches – as part settlement of a debt, caused when two warships (both originally laid down as 28,000 ton battleships) were seized during WW1 by the Royal Navy.

Post-war, some surplus M.1C aircraft were raced, particularly one example, C5001, which had been taken out to Australia, where it carried some of the first over-water airmail. It survives, in a modified state in a small museum in Minlaton, South Australia, as the only original member of the M.1 family.

Several flying replica Bristol Monoplanes have been constructed over the years, including a fine example built by the Northern Aeroplane Workshops, and delivered to the Shuttleworth Collection in 1997. Here we see a replica M.1C, constructed by Don Cashmore of Nottinghamshire, in 1986, which was flown from the Rolls-Royce airfield at Hucknall. It was powered by a 125hp  Warner Scarab radial. After a few flights, the aircraft was sold to the RAF Museum (minus the engine) in August, 1987. Fortunately, the RAF Museum had an original 110hp Le Rhone rotary in stock, and this was carefully fitted to the Cashmore replica. The aircraft is finished as C4994, which had been used by an instructor at an RFC Flying School in the period 1917-18. The personal ‘red dragon’ motive is probably his. It is shown here in the Grahame-White Hangar at the RAF Msueum’s Hendon facility, but is currently on loan to the other branch of the Museum, at RAF Cosford, as part of a temporary exhibition on WW1.

The Bristol M.1C Monoplane, a warplane whose time never came.

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5 comments on “Too much, too soon – the Bristol M.1C Monoplane”

  1. That is an interesting design. The designers had, rather obviously, been concerned about streamlining the round open cowl of the rotary engine. The solution of a large spinner was replicated more than two decades later by Kurt Tank with his FW-190.

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    • It is, indeed, Chuck. The M.1C is one of those ‘lost designs’ from WW1, and I think little is known of it in the United States. The M.1 was flown with a 150hp Bentley rotary. Goodness what it would have done on the late War BR.2 of 230hp (and it was shown post-War, in Australia, to be able to take inline engines, too)! I think that with a bit more development – and another Vickers – it would have been a real ‘Fokker-killer’, especially below 15,000ft. However, Lord Trenchard set his face against it, and that was enough to doom any aircraft!

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  2. Ross–this is the first I’ve heard of this aircraft. Thank you so much! This may be the first of many examples to come where aviation’s rapid development was hindered by the ponderously paced bureaucracy. Thanks too for placing the context of the times with the aircraft information. Joe

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  3. Ross, nice to have you back – and featuring the aircraft that is perhaps closest to my heart of all. I’ve certainly put more research into the M1C than any other type (and that’s saying something). It is one of those great ‘what if?’ aircraft, a bit like the TSR2 and CF105. The fact that most of the small production run were sent to the wide open spaces of Palestine and Mesopotamia would seem to confirm the theory that its landing speed/roll was simply too much for the small fields of France.

    One real test of ay aircraft is development potential, and the M1C had it in spades. The M1D raced with a 140HP Bristol Lucifer radial; another M1C raced in the US during the 20s; one became the first aircraft to cross the Andes (and back, in the same day); and a Gypsy-engined M1C was still winning air races in Australia in 1932. It last flew, from Adelaide to Perth, in 1940.

    To my mind, there’s no doubt that Frank Barnwell’s clean and fast reaction to the Fokker Scourge was a work of genius, foiled by a prevailing prejudice against speed in favour of manoeuvrability. Twenty years later, fighter development would totally vindicate Barnwell and the M1C.

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    • Thanks! Sadly, I have had to switch most of my writing effort to Patreon these days (in a desperate effort to raise a little cash) patreon.com/RossSharp But I thought I owed you a post here! The M.IC, as you so rightly pointed out was nearly as fast as a Camel on a 110hp Le Rhone! With a fully-developed Bentley BR.1 (230hp) it would have been dynamite, to say nothing of a geared 200hp Wolseley Viper, with a much ‘cleaner’ entry. The stalling speed was only one or two mph more than the Camel, and I am certain that the spinning characteristics could not have been worse. A favourite of mine too (I went to Old Warden to photograph their replica – very nice!)

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