The Flycatcher’s Rival – the Parnall Plover naval fighter

The Parnall Plover is a footnote in the Fleet Air Arm’s record. The Plover lost the competition to equip the FAA with a single-seat fighter to the Fairey Flycatcher, and was never heard from again. The little biplane was the last naval aircraft that the Parnall company built to enter service. More significantly, it signalled the end of any opportunity the manufacturer had to become the pre-eminent supplier to the FAA.

It is generally recorded that the Plover was inferior to the Flycatcher, in performance and particularly in construction. What is less well known is that Parnall improved their offering so significantly that it threatened to eclipse the Flycatcher, and came within a hair’s breath of taking the Fairey’s place.

One of the first two Plovers, showing the extremely deep fuselage, and the designers’ attempts to fair in the two-row Jaguar radial engine

By the end of the First World War Britain had rapidly built an almost unassailable lead in naval aviation, particularly in the use of shipboard fighters and fighter bombers. In the years immediately following the war, however, this lead was almost completely thrown away. The transfer of naval aviation to the RAF together with peacetime economies had, by 1921, left the RN with only one operational aircraft carrier, HMS Argus, and but a handful of aircraft.

The almost total slump in carrier aviation was untenable, and by the turn of the decade, the Admiralty was taking steps to address the matter with several additional aircraft-carrying ships – another three carriers and a seaplane carrying cruiser would be available by the mid-1920s.

Against this background, in 1921 the Air Ministry and the Admiralty created a specification for a single-seat deck-landing fighter. The requirement was challenging. The fighter would be required to operate from land bases, aircraft carriers and launching platforms on other warships. It had to be readily convertible from landplane configuration to floatplane or amphibian. It had to incorporate alternative engine types, and be armed with machine guns and bombs. Fairey and Parnall submitted designs.

On the face of it, Parnall had the advantage. It had already designed and built a dedicated carrier aircraft, the Panther fleet spotter, of which over 150 had been ordered. Furthermore, Parnall had been responsible for creating the landplane variant of Fairey’s Hamble Baby floatplane which had been considered as a possible carrier fighter during WW1. This had given the company a close look at the workings of Fairey’s camber-changing gear. The Bristol-based company created the Plover, a biplane with a similar plywood structure to the Panther.

However, when the first Plover, N160, appeared the design left much to be desired. Flight Lieutenant Fletcher, a pilot detached from HMS Argus, who had already flown the Flycatcher at Martlesham, said “Taking everything into consideration, there appears to be no doubt that the ‘Flycatcher’ is easily the better machine.”

Nevertheless, the RN did not yet commit to a type to equip its new Fleet Fighter Flights. Part of the reason for the drawn-out process was the number of tasks the aircraft would be required to undertake. With basic flying and deck-landing trials conducted, both fighters still had to be evaluated for flying off battleship and cruiser platforms. Furthermore installations of both the Armstrong Siddeley Jaguar and Bristol Jupiter also had to be assessed. More prototypes of both aircraft were ordered. However, the Flycatcher was deemed good enough to enter limited service while the testing continued.

After the disappointing results with N160, Parnall substantially redesigned the Plover. The third and all subsequent aircraft were built to a greatly improved design.

The third Plover prototype N162, which debuted a much-improved design

During the next round of tests it was clear that the Plover had taken a significant leap forward and was in many respects now superior to the Flycatcher that had already been tested. Pilots found that with the same powerplant, the Plover was “appreciably faster”, lighter on the controls, nicer to fly and its gun installation was felt to be much better. The fuselage had been redesigned, and was now less deep and ungainly. The wings had a little more stagger. The redesign had given the aircraft a slightly lower angle of attack on the deck and had increased the gap between the cockpit and the upper wing – both changes served to improve the pilot’s forward and downward view significantly.

Moreover, while Fairey had concentrated on the Jaguar installation, Parnall had done most work on fitting the Plover with the Jupiter, which it was becoming clear was the more powerful engine and preferred in some circles of the RN and Air Ministry.

The Flycatcher with Jupiter installed never really worked – the heavier engine threw the balance out, and although Fairey revised the design the Flycatcher could not make use of the extra power. The Flycatcher took almost twice as long to come to rest as the Plover did, and suffered several broken propellers, a damaged engine and a collapsed undercarriage. Even with 28lb ballast in the rear fuselage, the Flycatcher’s centre of gravity was too far forward, which led to the landing speed being around 5 kt faster than that of the Plover.

The Admiralty and the Air Ministry were now in something of a dilemma. The improved Plover, powered by the favoured, more powerful Jupiter engine, had a significantly better performance than the standard Flycatcher. Its deck-landing difficulties had been fully rectified and it was now suitable for operation on aircraft carriers, battleships and cruisers. Its construction, structural strength and longevity, however, were in doubt. In July 1924, Plover N9704 with 405 Flight crashed in the river Eden when its upper wing centre section partially collapsed, and less serious issues had come to light during the ongoing trials.

In the Plover’s favour was its performance while the Flycatcher’s proven robustness was its chief advantage. The representatives considered replacing the Flycatchers in service with Plovers and retaining the existing Flycatchers alongside a smaller number of Plovers to be used for flying off ship platforms.

Fears about the Plover’s structural weakness proved hard to overcome. The Chief of the Air Staff noted widespread fears that the Plover “would not stand the strain imposed upon it” and later that he “frankly would not trust to the Plover”.

A production Plover, N9608, equipped with Bristol Jupiter radial

Like the Flycatcher, the Plover could be converted to amphibious configuration with pontoon-type floats fitted with wheels

Nevertheless, the factor that did most to tip the balance finally in favour of the Flycatcher was an improved Jaguar powerplant. Armstrong Siddeley had increased the available power from 325 hp to 360hp and then to 385 hp, and this put the sparkle back into Fairey’s fighter. During the later trials aboard Argus, the officer in charge of the programme sanctioned the inclusion of a 385 hp Jaguar-powered Flycatcher, even though the Air Staff and Admiralty had asked for trials only on the Jupiter-powered machines, and the fact that the more powerful Jaguar had not yet passed its type tests. The experiences here and earlier in the year at Northolt persuaded most of the service pilots that overall, the Flycatcher was the better bet with performance that in most regimes was equal to, or only slightly poorer than that of the Plover.

The abandonment of turret platforms also worked in the Flycatcher’s favour, which rendered the Plover’s better take-off less relevant.

In August, the 385 hp Jaguar passed its service tests and the decision was therefore made that the Flycatcher with this engine would be the Fleet Air Arm’s main fighter “definitely until 1926”. Although the Plover had entered service with some of the FAA’s fighter flights, it was rapidly phased out. The Flycatcher, meanwhile, went on to become one of the best-loved and most recognisable of the FAA’s pre-war aircraft.

If Parnall had got their initial design right, it could have been a very different story. As it was, the Flycatcher became established while Parnall had to go back to the drawing board. Finally, the improvement of the Jaguar engine improved the Flycatcher enough to kill the Plover off, and Parnall arguably never recovered. Fairey, on the other hand, went on to become the supplier of more naval aircraft types than any other manufacturer, from the Swordfish torpedo-spotter-reconnaissance to the Gannet anti-submarine aircraft.

The Transport Archive’s website shows some more images of the Plover, and the difference between the first two prototypes and the subsequent design is apparent

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s