More than 2,000 Dolphins clogged airfields at the war’s end, though almost all of them were scrapped within a few years of the Armistice.
Original Sopwith “Flying Zoo” fighters are rare breeds these days, with only a handful of Camels and Pups and two Snipes known to exist. Fittingly, the RAF Museum in London has a Pup and a Camel, and it just added an even rarer gem to its collection—a partially original Sopwith Dolphin, perhaps World War I’s most underrated fighter. Though more than 2,000 Dolphins clogged airfields at the war’s end, almost all of them were scrapped within a few years of the Armistice. The U.S. Army Air Service canceled an order for 2,000 Mk. IIs, and only a single Dolphin was converted for civilian use. Just bits and pieces remained in warehouses and private collections.
So it’s taken several generations, significant resources and some fortuitous finds for RAF Museum restorers to complete the Dolphin. Beginning in 1967, the process has involved cobbling together parts from three and possibly more Dolphins, creating what the museum calls a “complex composite.” The largest original piece is a 6-foot length of rear fuselage from a Mk. I variant, C3988. A test officer declared C3988 a dud during proving flights in March 1918, perhaps due to the Mk. I’s Achilles’ heel—its unreliable geared 200-hp Hispano-Suiza 8b engine. The reduction gears would often strip, resulting in propellers shearing off during run-up. The horizontal tail surfaces and elevators are from a Mk. III donated by the Shuttleworth Collection, a much safer version that featured a direct-drive Hispano-Suiza. The museum decided to restore the Dolphin to the reduction-geared Mk. I variant, a sure sign that it won’t be flying anytime soon.
To complete the composite, the restorers machined and fitted ash longerons and most of the attachment jigs. The resulting mishmash of completed parts suits a plane that was not much to look at—its overly long back-staggered wings led some pilots to call it “Hunnish”—but proved to be an effective late-war fighter, serving in four RAF squadrons.
True to RAF paint schemes, C3988 is decked out in utilitarian, factory-finish metallic gray and dull green. It is currently on display at the Graham White Hangar, next to the museum’s Sopwith Pup. Several posts on Internet message boards suggest taking the Sopwith Camel down from the ceiling of the main Milestones of Flight gallery and installing it next to the Dolphin and Pup, to reunite the Flying Zoo menagerie—not a bad idea. For more information, visit the museum website at rafmuseum.org.uk.