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TOM SOPWITH HAD a way with words in naming his World War I aeroplanes: the Camel, the Dolphin, the Pup, the Salamander, and the Snipe, to name five of the firm’s fighter aircraft. But what about the Sopwith Cuckoo? And did this torpedo aircraft ever meet its design goals?

Sir Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith, CBE, Hon FRAeS, 1888–1989, English aviation pioneer, business executive, sportsman.

As described at the Royal Air Force Museum website, the Sopwith T.1 was the first purpose-designed aircraft-carrier-borne torpedo bomber, with its role to attack the German fleet at anchor, rather than engaging it when encountered on the high seas.

Image from Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, 1919 Arco Publishing, 1969.

Torpedo-carrying floatplanes already existed, but the weight and drag of their floats hampered performance and range. A better strategy was seen to employ aeroplanes capable of taking off from the deck of a ship, a “carrier.”

In 1910-1911, American pilot Eugene Ely had already demonstrated a takeoff from and arrested return to a ship. However, in 1916 the Royal Air Department’s expedient approach was to commission a carrier-based aeroplane with sufficient range to reach a German ship moored at its home port, attack it with a torpedo, then return to set down in the water near the carrier for retrieval. That is, no arrestor gear was envisioned.

A Sopwith T.1 releases its torpedo. Image from

Otherwise, the Sopwith T.1 (“T” for torpedo) was well suited for its mission. The T.1 was a large and powerful biplane, with a 46 ft. 9 in. wingspan and 200-hp V-8 engine. To optimize storage aboard its carrier, the T.1’s wings folded aft from their first bay. Fully loaded with fuel and a 1000-lb torpedo, the T.1 could clear its ship’s deck in four seconds and fly for as long as four hours.

A Sopwith T.1 with its wings folded. This and the following images from Milestones of the Air.

Unlike typical landing gear on early aeroplanes, the T.1’s undercarriage had no cross axle interfering with its torpedo ordnance. In their Milestones of the Air, John W.R. Taylor and H.F. King devote a full 16 lines detailing this innovative landing gear.

The T.1’s undercarriage didn’t interfere with its ordnance.

Originally designed for Hispano-Suiza power, the T.1 was hampered in production by the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E. 5a fighter having priority for this engine. A Sunbeam Arab substitution proved less successful, and the last series of T.1s had Wolseley Viper power.

According to Milestones of the Air, with Arab engine and a torpedo mounted, the T.1 had a maximum speed of 103.5 mph at 2000 ft. Its climb to 6500 ft. took a lengthy 15 minutes 40 seconds. The aircraft took 26 minutes to reach 10,000 ft., with a service ceiling of 12,100-ft.

The T.1 first flew in June 1917, though it wasn’t introduced into service until 1918. Only 90 of an intended 300 T.1s were delivered before the Armistice. Wikipedia notes that, “In service, the aircraft was generally popular with pilots because the airframe was strong and water landings were safe. The T.1 was easy to control and was fully aerobatic without a torpedo payload.”

A Sopwith T.1 aboard the H.M.S. Furious.

The RAF Museum writes that “The aircraft was (somewhat enigmatically) christened the Cuckoo, although this was not until after the Armistice.” The last RAF unit flying Cuckoos was disbanded in 1923.

The Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service operated six Cuckoo Mk. II aircraft. The RAF Museum notes, “… it should be borne in mind that Pearl Harbor was attacked by 353 aircraft of which 40 were torpedo bombers.”

Alas, the Cuckoo’s design was not ill-conceived. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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