The SE5a was the mount of many of the fighter aces of the First World War and for any pilot lucky enough to fly it the reasons are obvious as soon as he leaves the ground. The aircraft itself is compact and purposeful although to gain access to the small cockpit the pilot is required to step up with his left foot and swing his right leg over the top of the fuselage in a manner more akin to mounting a horse. At the same time, care must be taken not to gash ones head on the Lewis machine gun mounted on the upper wing.
After a few simple checks, including pumping up the pressurised fuel tank by hand, the 200hp Wolseley Viper V8 engine is ready to start. This is accomplished by a team of 2 ground crew swinging the propeller whilst a third member of the team winds the starter magneto handle on the outside of the rear fuselage. The aircraft is easy to manoeuvre on the ground, having a steerable tailskid, although the lack of brakes and poor forward view require care from the pilot. The liquid cooled engine shows little tendency to overheat on the ground although sometimes fuel from the emergency fuel tank is vented on to the unsuspecting pilot from a tube behind the left upper wing root. This is caused by expansion of he fuel and I now avoid it by draining some fuel from this tank during taxy before reselecting the main tank for take off.
The acceleration on take off is reasonably brisk and with good propeller ground clearance the tail can be quickly raised. Once airborne the aircraft is a delight to fly with well balanced controls and less of the adverse aileron yaw found in most aircraft of this era. During the display the aircraft is flown between about 60 and 120mph with its maximum speed limited to 130mph. With respect to her age, aerobatics are limited to simple loops and barrel rolls and care is required not to exceed the maximum engine rpm of 2200 during steep dives. As with all the collection aircraft, engine temperature and oil pressure are closely monitored during flight although to date I have not had any problems in this department. The most challenging part of a flight in the SE5a is probably the landing. The aircraft is intolerant of crosswinds, and its narrow track undercarriage placed well forward of the centre of gravity combined with a lack of brakes can result in a ground loop for the unwary. The aircraft should be landed into wind in the 3 point attitude to allow the tail skid as much influence as possible in keeping the aircraft straight on the ground roll. To achieve this I cross the hedge at 50mph and hold the stick hard back as the tail touches down whilst working hard on the rudders to contain any slight swing before it becomes severe. To compound the problem, lateral control is becoming poor around this speed and I am cautious of gusty conditions that could cause me to damage the unprotected aileron control brackets protruding from the underside of the lower wing tips. Once safely on the ground, the radiator shutters are fully opened to prevent any overheating and after a short taxy this rare aircraft is returned to the custody of the engineers. As for myself, I am already looking forward to the next time that I shall be allowed the unique experience of flying such a wonderful and historic aircraft.