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Aces of Aviation

Royal Aircraft Factory SE5 of Albert Ball

Royal Aircraft Factory SE5 of Albert Ball

Royal Aircraft Factory SE5 of the 56th Squadron of the RFC (Royal Flying Corps), piloted by Captain Albert Ball, in France, the 7th May 1917.

Wingspan: 8.53 meters.

Length: 6.50 meters.

Height: 2.87 meters.

Engine[s]: Hispano-Suiza of 150 horsepower.

Maximum speed: 192 kilometers/hour.

Service ceiling: 5180 meters.

Range: 2.5 hours.

Armament: One Vickers 0.303-inch machine gun.

Born in Nottingham the 14th August 1896, Albert Ball occupied a prominent place in the affections of British public similar to that of Max Immelmann in Germany. His philosophy of combat, which usually involved fighting in solitary against the enemy, had a great attractiveness for the civil observer, for whom the subtleties of air combat were like a closed book. He was still a boy when, being enlisted in the Sherwood Foresters, the First World War started. He earned his Pilot Wings the 22nd January 1916. Destined to the Royal Flying Corps, the 15th February 1916 he was incorporated to the 13th Squadron in France. In May of the same year he was transferred to the 11th Squadron, where he was assigned a Nieuport fighter, an airplane of which he became enthusiastic.

The first successes of Ball in combat took place the 22nd May, when he claimed the destruction of an Albatros D I and the downing of another German aircraft, albeit none of these victories was confirmed. He had another non demonstrated combat the 1st June, when he downed two German fighters which tried to intercept him. He received the Military Cross the 27th June, the day after having destroyed an enemy balloon.

In August 1916 he was transferred to the 60th Squadron, where he had another Nieuport and continued with permission to patrol and fight in solitary. Apparently oblivious to the discrepancies against his ways, he attacked alone enemy formations by unleashing bursts of fire at point-blank range. His habitual tactic was to fall in a dive until placing himself under the enemy airplane, to fire at it in an almost vertical position with his weapon mounted in the upper wing. He was decorated with the Distinguished Service Order, with one bar, the 26th September, and received a second bar the 25th November. When leaving France the 4th October, Ball had accredited to him victories over ten German airplanes, including four Roland and two Albatros fighters.

In England, after an instruction period, he was destined to the 56th Squadron, which was transferred to France the 7th April 1917. This unit was equipped with the SE5, an airplane of which Ball was never enthusiastic. Of course, he continued with authorization to fly his beloved Niewport during some time, but he reconciled with the SE5 after seeing that his record of victories continued increasing with that aircraft. When he was still in England, in London Colney (Hertfordshire), Ball "acquired" the SE5 marked as A'4850, which he modified. The Vickers machine gun was removed, the windshield was lowered and by means of other modifications the pilot could sit in a lower position; all of this allowed to increase the speed somewhat. But despite of all Ball wrote: "The SE5 has turned out to be a failure... It is a rotten airplane."

The 6th May 1917 Ball effectuated his last sortie flying a Nieuport and achieved his last victory, an Albatros from the Jasta 20 which he destroyed near Sancourt. The following afternoon he took place on his SE5 number A'4850, and engaged in combat with a German fighter near Lens. During the fray he was seen diving into a cloud, and the Germans later found his body, which had no signs of shots, and his aircraft destroyed. Albeit his downing was attributed to Lothar von Richthofen, this one denied it, stating that his victim was a triplane.

Ball died at the age of twenty years and nine months, and posthumously received the Victoria Cross the 3rd June 1917. His official record of 44 enemy aircraft downed places him in the eleventh place on the list of best British and Commonwealth combat pilots of the First World War.

Cockpit of an SE5a airplane