- 02 Nov 2023
- Jamie Chalkley
- Historic Aircraft Articles
Dive into the rich history of Sopwith Aviation, founded in 1912 by Sir Thomas Sopwith. Explore over 17,000 aircraft produced during WWI, including the iconic Sopwith Pup. Learn about the evolution of aviation and Sopwith's lasting impact on aerospace innovation. Discover the connections with Hawker Engineering, the fascinating life of Thomas Sopwith, and the Pup's role in pioneering feats like landing on an ocean-going ship.Back to Articles
Founded in 1912 by Sir Thomas Sopwith, the Sopwith Aviation Company produced over 17,000 aircraft during WWI alone! At the turn of the next decade, the company was taken over by world renowned Hawker Engineering and indeed many of Hawker’s aviation masterpieces were built in the very same factories that Sopwith had kickstarted into life all the way back in those early years of aviation. Interestingly, Harry Hawker (founder of Hawker Engineering) was Sopwith's chief test pilot. And perhaps a more relevant link whilst reading this today exists in connection with the birth of these very pages; for one such factory location was also the place where GA Buyer Europe first opened its doors too (see GA Buyer August 2022 for more info!).
Thomas Sopwith, who lived to a ripe old age of 101, must have had quite the personal reflection of time in aviation; he witnessed not only the birth of the first aircraft, but advancements from then all the way through to the space race, supersonic passenger aircraft, and VTOL (Vertical Take-off and Landing) aircraft such as the Harrier. Those must have all seemed incomprehensible when viewed from the footprints of his young Sopwith Pup out on the grass strip.
Sopwith was born in London in 1888, and lived through not just one, but several ‘generations’ of change in aerospace design and technology! He was formally recognised for his contribution to the industry when he was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame ahead of his passing in 1989. However, he was not only a pioneer in aviation; he pushed a few boundaries in the world of yachting too! Indeed, he mixed the two genres of transport into some of his own designs whilst venturing into the world of flying boats and amphibious aircraft. A couple of which he flew off the river Thames, much to the surprise of a few residents! But I think just one of his most iconic aircraft to fly, was his Sopwith Pup; A British single seat bi-plane built for the British Forces during WWI, an aircraft based on an earlier version used by Harry Hawker as his personal hack!
Powered by a 80 hp French made rotary engine and armed with a single synchronised firing machine gun (nose mounted, firing through the propellor arc), the Pup came into service in the Autumn of 1916 and was considered a very effective aircraft with good flying characteristics. This was largely thanks to its lightweight design and the two sets of ailerons per side (upper and lower wing ailerons).
Originally, in fact, ‘officially’; the Pup was named the Sopwith Scout! But the ‘Pup‘ name turned out to be a popular nickname after many of its pilots referred it to as being the smaller craft to that of its bigger brother; the two-seat, Sopwith Strutter. And after the birth of the ‘Pup’ came along a few other animal names; interestingly, all later Sopwith aircraft (except for the Triplane) were named on a similar thread i.e. the Sopwith ‘Camel’, ‘Dove’, ‘Dolphin’ etc. Indeed, spectators in industry gave the whole clan a nickname referring to Sopwith having created the first “flying zoo” such were the collection of animals (names) taking to the sky!
As enemy aircraft advanced in design and capability, the Pup started to make its pilots feel progressively more vulnerable. It's single armament fixture just wasn’t enough of a match against the newer period of combat aircraft coming over the enemy line. This led to the Pup progressively being pulled off the Western Front and being replaced with its successor; the Sopwith Camel. But the Pup remained active and was instead posted to serve on home defence missions. Some of these Pups were upgraded to a 100hp engine which gave a helpful power boost.
Other Pups, because of their handling qualities, were increasingly being used in the area of research and development. Did you know it was a Sopwith Pup that, during the summer of 1917, became the first aircraft to land on an ocean-going ship; HMS Furious! This being the earliest generation of aircraft carriers meant it had a very short take-off deck to offer the brave Naval Aviators. The catapults and arrestor hooks of the future were not yet even sketches on a drawing board. So instead, those bold early days required floatation bags on every aircraft so the pilot could make a controlled ditch landing alongside the Carrier (well, more ‘ship’ than ‘carrier’ compared to the modern term). Once safely at a state of rest, the aircraft could then be hoisted back aboard to be dried out and used again. The pilot on the other hand probably needed a stiff drink and a Fisherman’s friend lozenge before heading back to the take-off deck again.
A familiar name from a few issues back (see ‘the Prospector’ from the August issue of GA Buyer) and respected test pilot; Edgar Percival, flew a Sopwith Pup from the USS Idaho in the mid 1920's whilst stationed offshore Cuba. So, the Pup was anything but limited to the UK shores, indeed international interest increased progressively with over 10 other overseas countries calling for the Pup to join their operational fleets.
Over a century has passed since the Pup first took flight with just under 1,800 examples having been built. If you would like to see one in person there’s a few very nice replicas around and even some originals, including one at the Shuttleworth Collection, Old Warden (UK), another at the Museum of Army Flying, Middle Wallop (UK) and also one at the Royal Air Force Museum Cosford (UK).
Sopwith Scout "Pup"
Wingspan: 8.08 m
MGW: 556 kg
Powerplant: Le Rhône 9C 9-cylinder air-cooled rotary piston engine, 80 hp
VNE: 111 mph (IAS)
Cruise speed: 85 mph (IAS)
Service ceiling: 17,500 ft