Wills’s Aviation Card #85 – “Coventry Ordnance” Military Bipane.

Wills Aviation 85F.jpgHistory Behind The Card: “Coventry Ordnance” Military Biplane.

Card #85 of 85, W.D.& H.O Wills, Aviation series 1912, Vice Regal Mixture – Black-back issue

  • W.O. (William Oke) Manning, October 20, 1879 in Staines, Middelesex, England, Great Britain – March 2, 1958, in Farnham, Surrey, England, Great Britain;
  • Howard Theophilus Wright, circa 1867 in Dudley, England, Great Britain – died circa 1945;
  • Sir Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith on January 18, 1888 in Kensington, London, England, Great Britain – January 27, 1989 in Hampshire, England, Great Britain.

Although this is the last of the Wills’s aviation cards I will be writing about (because I will have done them all), I will continue this blog with write-ups on other aircraft – much as I have been doing these past years. I do have some other aviation cards, and certainly I could do write-ups on famous pilots – see, plenty to do.

So… Card #85… the “Coventry Ordnance” Military Biplane.

Although more famous for the weapons it built leading up to and through WWI, the Coventry Ordnance Works Limited also built the Coventry Ordnance Military Biplane – unfortunately, a rather unsuccessful aeroplane.

Better known as the Coventry Ordnance Works Biplane (aka the COW Biplane), only two of the tractor aeroplane (engine and propeller at the front) were built – slightly different from one another, but COWs, none the less. It had an upper and lower wing of very different spans. In fact, that huge difference in wingspans was duly noted on the Wills’s write-up on the aircraft on the reverse of the card.

Wills Aviation 85R.jpg

The fact that Wilbur Wright’s calculations regarding biplane wing span differences was not followed on the COW Biplane, might be a reason why the plane failed to achieve success.

The Coventry Ordnance Works Limited was formed in July 1905 by a consortium of British shipbuilding firms John Brown & Company of Clydebank and Sheffield (50 per cent), Cammell Laird & Co. of Sheffield and Birkenhead (25 per cent) and Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company of Govan, Glasgow (25 per cent) with the encouragement of the British government, which wanted a third major arms consortium to compete with the duopoly of Vickers Sons & Maxim and Sir W G Armstrong Whitworth & Co. to drive down prices.

Hinging its success on the 1912 British Military Aeroplane Competition whereby companies built aircraft to demonstrate to the military why they should purchase large swathes of their aeroplanes, at this time, it was to create aircraft for the newly formed Royal Flying Corps.

As mentioned, the Coventry Ordnance Works had until this time only been manufacturers of heavy naval guns, and itself was made up of shipbuilding firms.

Coventry Ordnance Works designed and built:

  • the QF 4.5 inch howitzer which entered service in 1910;
  • the 5.5 inch Naval gun in 1913;
  • the 15-inch siege howitzer in 1914 for the British Army;
  • C.O.W. 37mm gun in 1917 was the first modern autocannon – a fully-automatic, rapid-fire projectile weapon that fires armor-piercing or explosive shells – not bullets.

You’ll notice from the dates above that the main construct built prior to the move into aviation was the QF 4.5 inch howitzer, called a very successful artillery weapon in its day.

So… how hard could it be to design and manufacture an aeroplane that the British “airforce”could use? And hey, what the heck… let’s build and enter two aeroplanes into the competition.

To be fair, the shipbuilding consortium had recently purchased the Howard T. Wright aeroplane business.

The main thing you need to know, is that despite all his best intentions, Howard T. Wright was not a successful aeroplane manufacturer, even though he did design and build a few aeroplanes that DID successfully fly.

Apparently Mr. Wright and fellow employee William Oke Manning were part of the purchase of Wright’s Scottish Aeroplane Syndicate company, and were asked by COW to build them an aircraft that could win the competition and get them the military contract. You can read about Mr. Wright and Oke Manning HERE.

Manny was the chief designer of both aeroplanes  – Trial No. 10 and Trial No. 11… similar in all regards, except for a few things. While COW had only differentiated the aircraft by its engine model (Gnome and Chenlu), the War Department who ran the British Military Competition called them Trial No. 10 and Trial No. 11, respectively. Afterwards, each was simply referred to as Biplane 10 and Biplane 11.

(Aeroplane) Trial No. 10:

  • two crew seated side-by-side;
  • Gnome Omega Omega rotary 100 horsepower motor;
  • two blades on the propeller;
  • wider wingspan than No. 11;
  • longer fuselage than No. 11;
  • No wheel covers.

Coventry Ordnance Works Biplane – two-seater (beside each other) version, known as Trial No. 10 aka Biplane No. 10, had two blades on its propeller.

(Aeroplane) Trial No. 11:

  • two crew seated in tandem (one behind the other);
  • Chenlu inline 110 horsepower six-cylinder motor.
  • four blades on the propeller – made by joining two two-bladed propellers, one atop the other;
  • smaller wingspan than No. 10;
  • shorter fuselage than No. 10;
  • Wheelcovers and a skid under the fuselage.
COW Biplane  No. 11.jpg

COW Biplane Trial No. 11 aka Biplane No. 11 with its four-bladed propeller system.

The first aircraft to be worked on was, unsurprisingly, No. 10 with the Gnome motor, starting early in 1912 and completed by the end of April that year.

Test-piloted by Thomas Sopwith (yes, that Sopwith… the guy who would build such famous WWI aircraft as the Sopwith Camel, the preferred aeroplane of none other than Snoopy as he hunted the cursed Red Baron in the comic strip Peanuts. Of course, animated beagles aside, the Camel was considered to be one of the top aircraft of the Great War, aka WWI), and immediately after its first test flight No. 10 was entered into a competition and race at Brooklands. It flew with Sopwith as the pilot, and three other passengers, one sitting beside the pilot, and the other two balanced outside the cockpit on the lower wing.You can read more about the amazing Sopwith HERE.

While I can only hope the wing passengers were strapped in, I doubt it… probably holding on to a strut and the side of the cockpit for the thrill ride of their life.

COW began to work on No. 11 and its Chenu motor immediately, finishing it in July of 1912.

The 1912 British Military Competition was held at Larkhill Aerodrome in Wiltshire, England near Stonehenge, beginning on August 2, 1912, though all aircraft had to be on site by July 15.

At this time, Great Britain only had 19 aeroplanes in its arsenal, while global leader France had some 200.

The competition began with 32 aeroplanes slated to be in the trials, but not every manufacturer was able to deliver their aircraft by the July 15 date, and so were excluded from actual participation.

No. 10 was delivered on time, but No. 11, which was being shipped by road, and met with some delays and so was unable to actually meet the deadline. For whatever reason, however, No. 11 was allowed to participate in the trials, but failed to actually fly owing to engine issues, as the magneto drive failed numerous times, along with the reduction gear housing failing – a similar fate befell another manufacturer’s entry – Martin and Handasyde which also utilized a Chenu motor.

As an aside, the Martin & Handasyde business was formed by partners H.P. Martin and George Handasyde in 1908, and although its No.1 monoplane of 1908 did manage to get off the ground, it was wrecked in a windstorm while in a shed. While it did go on to build a number of of successful monoplanes, its 1914 S.2 biplane was the company’s big success, helping it eventually become Britain’s third-largest manufacturer of aeroplanes during WWI.


The Martinsyde (an amalgamation of Martin and Handasyde) S.1 scout aeroplane used an 80 horsepower Gnome motor to power its success, rather than continue its failure with the Chenu.

To be fair to Chenu and its motors, it was adept at building large horsepower motors, used in many a dirigible in this era.

As for No. 10, it developed propeller issues and because it could not be fixed in time, was withdrawn from the competition.

Back at Brooklands, Manning took apart No. 10 and rebuilt it, using new wings and landing gear, eventually getting it up into the air successfully on January 13, 1913.

Since no one knows of the fate of No. 11, one could assume that some of its components were retrofitted or cut-down and reused in the modified No. 10 – but that again, is just MY guess.

Coventry Ordnance Military Biplane (No. 10) specifications

  • Crew: Two (2): one pilot and one passenger;
  • Length: 33 feet 3 inches (10.13 meters);
  • Wingspan: 40 feet (12.2 meters);
  • Height: (?) A guess using the photo puts it under 12 feet (3.66 meters);
  • Wing area: 336.7 square feet (31.3 meters squared);
  • Empty weight: 1,200 pounds (544 kilograms);
  • Loaded weight: 1,950 pounds (885 kilograms);
  • Fuel capacity: 40 gallons (151.42 liters) plus 10 gallon (37.85 liters) gravity feed auxiliary;
  • Powerplant: 1 × Gnome Omega-Omega two-row 14-cylinder air-cooled rotary engine using Omega cylinders, with a 2:1 chain reduction, pushing out 100 horsepower;
  • Propellers: two-bladed propeller;
    • Propeller diameter: 11 feet 6 inches (3.51 meters);
  • Maximum speed: 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers per hour).

About mreman47

Andrew was born in London, UK, raised in Toronto, Canada, and cavorted in Ohtawara, Japan for three years. He is married, has a son and a cat. He has over 35,000 comic books and a plethora of pioneer aviation-related tobacco and sports cards and likes to build LEGO dioramas. He has written and been an editor for various industrial magazines, has scripted comic books, ghost-written blogs for business sectors galore, and hates writing in the 3rd person. He also hates having to write this crap that no one will ever read. He works on his Pioneers Of Aviation - a cool blog on early fliers - even though it takes him so much time to do. He also wants to do more writing - for money, though. Help him out so he can stop talking in the 3rd person.
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7 Responses to Wills’s Aviation Card #85 – “Coventry Ordnance” Military Bipane.

  1. FFF says:

    Happy to see this post. I’ve missed your writing! Hope things are going well for you.


  2. Dave Gierke says:

    How is the employment situation for you in Toronto? With the North American economic boom in progress, I hope that you have met with success. I always enjoy your posts – please keep up the outstanding work!

    To Caress the Air:Augustus Herring and the Dawn of Flight, is slowly picking up momentum in terms of sales. I hope that you have found time to read the two volumes.

    Best wishes,

    Dave Gierke


    • mreman47 says:

      Employment is still the same Dave. As in not. I just haven’t felt much like writing. But, that is changing. I feel the energy returning. Having said that, I am going to do a write up on the books. Spoiler Alert: I thoroughly enjoyed them. I read them within the first week or so after I got them. And then I read them again. Really. Talk soon.


  3. Pingback: 3 Reasons Why Your Blog Content Isn't Getting Traffic – And What To Do About It

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