• Royal Flying Corps •

Early RFC documentation leaves a lot to be desired and the loss of records over time has made it near impossible to accurately trace pre-war production contracts. However, this narrative hopefully summarizes the available data in order to establish the production history of the B.E.2a, B.E.2b and B.E.8 machines.

Serial System

A brief explanation of the early R.F.C. serial system is necessary.

A joint numbering system was introduced by the Army, Navy and Central Flying School in 1912.

Serials ran numerically from 1 upwards, with batches allocated to the different branches of the services as follows:


The Army further subdivided their initial allocation between different units:

201-250No.2 squadron
251-300No.3 squadron
301-350No.4 squadron
351-400No.5 squadron
401-600Central Flying School
601-800Royal Aircraft Factory

RFC Serials were initially allocated to individual aircraft when the machine was allotted to a unit following delivery and acceptance at Farnborough, rather than at the time orders were placed. If an aircraft was transferred between squadrons and the CFS, Royal Aircraft Factory or Navy it would be renumbered, and if the original serial had not been applied to the aircraft prior to transfer the number would be re-used. A serial would not be re-used if an aircraft was simply written off. Consequently serials in this range were not issued in numerical sequence, and the system caused much confusion. As a result this practice was discontinued in mid 1914, although the squadrons had abandoned the system much earlier.

The Royal Aircraft Factory

The Royal Aircraft Factory was authorised to carry out experimental work and tests but not to design or build aeroplanes. The subterfuge of 'reconstructing' aircraft donated to the Factory was employed in order to bypass this constraint.

Early designs produced by the Factory were give a prefix representing a design classification:

B.E.Bleriot Experimental
B.S.Bleriot Scout
F.E.Farman Experimental
R.E.Reconnaisance Experimental
S.E.Santos Experimental
T.E.Tatin Experimental

Completed aircraft were given identifiers such as B.E.1, B.E.2 etc. Although developments were continuous these were not necessarily different models, but simply sequential production numbers.

During 1912 and 1913 the Factory produced a number of designs within the B.E. category. Although given different designations they can all be considered developments of the same basic design. These comprised:

Serial Type Manufacturer Date Comments Order
201B.E.1Royal Aircraft Factory04.12.11Ex B1 BE1A45
BE2B.E.2Royal Aircraft Factory01.02.12
601B.E.2aRoyal Aircraft Factory20.03.12RAF @19.05.14; cv to BE2c 18.09.14A106
203B.E.3Royal Aircraft Factory03.05.12Ex BE3560/4
204B.E.4Royal Aircraft Factory24.06.12Ex BE4-
205B.E.5Royal Aircraft Factory27.06.12Ex BE5-
206B.E.6Royal Aircraft Factory08.09.12Ex BE6-
416B.E.6Royal Aircraft Factory01.12.12CFS560/7
417B.E.4Royal Aircraft Factory09.12.12CFS-
303B.E.4Royal Aircraft Factory20.01.134Sq-
438B.E.7Royal Aircraft Factory28.02.13CFS337

Into production

In mid 1912 orders were placed with the Royal Aircraft Factory and private contractors for small batches of designs deemed to have potential, and these included the B.E.2. The production machines were designated B.E.2a, to be fitted with the 70hp Renault V8 engine.

It seems the Royal Aircraft Factory built at least 5 aircraft in the initial batch, even though authorization for them to build new machines was not formally given until 14th November 1913.

The first private order in 1912 (variously reported as contract A.1141 and A.1147) was for 13 machines: 4 from British and Colonial, 4 from Vickers and 5 from Handley Page.

The R.F.C. closely monitored the progress of the contractors, charting the number of parts produced by each contractor each month. Some months later a scathing report was issued into the lack of progress made by Handley Page following an inspection of their premises. Although the Bristol and Vickers machines were delivered prior to June 1913 the first Handley Page machine was not delivered until January 1914 (serial 460). The second (488) and third (709) took until August 1914. Subsequent documentation refers to these H.P. machines as B.E.2b and it seems likely that modifications to B.E.2b standard were made on the production line on at least the last two machines. The remaining two Handley Page machines were cancelled.

The first Bristol machines (217 and 218) went to 2Sq in February 1913. A further Bristol aircraft (273) was with 3Sq by April and the Central Flying School received 449 in May. Vickers delivered 222 in May 1913 and 3 machines for the C.F.S. (441, 442 and 447) in May and June. The Royal Aircraft Factory delivered 220, 267 and 272 in March 1913 along with 2 machines for the Royal Navy (46 and 47).

However, there is a mystery surrounding a further machine with the serial 271 which several reports state was at Farnborough in April 1913 awaiting handover to 3Sq. The aircraft was never taken into service by 3Sq. In November 1913 this serial was cancelled and re-issued to a Bleriot.

As explained previously this implies that 271 was still in existence until this date, and was transferred to one of the other branches of the R.F.C at this time. In early 1914 the Royal Aircraft Factory started testing the second B.E.2c prototype, given the serial 602 and believed to have been converted from an unknown B.E.2a. It would be reasonable to assume that 271 had been held at Farnborough for tests and re-serialled 602 following conversion to B.E.2c standard. The manufacturer of the machine is unknown, but the Royal Aircraft Factory seems to be the most likely candidate, as all the contractor machines delivered up to June 1913 can be accounted for under the above contract.

Further production

The second order was probably for 4 more Bristol machines and 4 Vickers. These were delivered from August 1913 onwards.

The Bristol machines were most likely 225, 226, 227 and 228. The Vickers machines most likely included 452, 453, and 454. The last one was either ICFS1 (see below) or 236.

In about September 1913 a B.E.2a was shipped to the Indian Central Flying School, and given the serial ICFS.1. This aircraft had been purchased with a donation from the Maharajah of Rewa, the first of many machines he donated. This aircraft traveled to Egypt with the Indian Expeditionary Force 'D' and probably became the second longest-surviving BE.2, lasting until November 1917. It is not clear whether the machine was taken off the RFC contract or was produced under a separate contract. It was most likely Vickers built.

The third order appears to have been A.2044, being 5 machines from Bristol and 5 Vickers. The Bristol machines were most likely 229, 230, 231, 232 and 233.

The fourth order is believed to have been A.2159 and covered Bristol, Vickers and Coventry Ordnance Works ('COW') machines.

Two further machines were built for the Navy by Hewlett and Blondeau, being serials 49 and 50.

The Australian Central Flying School received two B.E.2a in October/November 1913, these being CFS1 and CFS2. Both were Bristol built.

These were probably the longest surviving BE2's, lasting until at least February 1918.

A number of other manufacturers also built individual aircraft or small batches for the R.F.C.: Grahame-Wight built a single example, 299, as did S.E. Saunders (469), and Armstrong Whitworth built at least 2 (383 and 385). COW built at least 12 (235, 318, 321, 347-349, 368, 384, 468, 471, 474 and 667) of which 10 are quoted as being on contract A.2159

Production listing...