Supermarine P.B.31E Nighthawk Zeppelin Hunter

Developed during World War I, the P.B.31E Nighthawk was an experimental aircraft, part of the efforts to counter the German Zeppelin threat over Britain.

In 1915, Germany initiated Zeppelin bombing raids over Great Britain, marking the first time the nation faced an aerial assault. The initial countermeasures against these airships were unsuccessful.

To address this, the Royal Air Corps required an aircraft capable of long, nocturnal missions to track and engage Zeppelins. The Pemberton-Billing aircraft company took on this challenge, creating the PB.29E quadruplane.


However, the aircraft underperformed and was subsequently lost in a crash before its effectiveness could be fully evaluated. Later, in 1917, the company, now rebranded as Supermarine and under new leadership, revisited the project with the PB.31E.


Named the Nighthawk, this aircraft, similar to its predecessor, failed to fulfill its intended purpose effectively. Notably, the Nighthawk was significant for its unique and large quadruplane design and being the inaugural aircraft produced by Supermarine.

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The introduction of the Zeppelin in 1915 marked a daunting development in warfare. This new weapon changed the dynamics of strategic bombing, as Zeppelins could fly faster and reach higher altitudes than contemporary aircraft.

Nighthawk faced significant challenges

They also instilled terror among the civilian population in England, who had never before experienced such attacks, particularly those carried out at night. The initial efforts to thwart Zeppelin raids were largely unsuccessful, primarily because anti-aircraft guns struggled to detect and target these high-flying airships.

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Early defensive strategies included using aircraft to drop flares, illuminating the Zeppelins for the gunners below. However, these aircraft weren’t employed to directly intercept the airships.

The Royal Air Corps was in dire need of an aircraft capable of ascending to the heights necessary to chase and engage Zeppelins both over British soil and in combat zones. A potential answer to this challenge was proposed by Noel Pemberton Billing.

P.B.31E Nighthawk Development

The Supermarine P.B.31E Nighthawk’s development began in the context of World War I, particularly during the period when Britain was seeking effective means to counter the German Zeppelin airship raids. These raids were causing significant civilian and material damage, leading to the need for an effective countermeasure.

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The design of the Nighthawk was spearheaded by the Supermarine Aviation Works, a company that would later gain fame for developing the iconic Spitfire. The Nighthawk was conceptualized as a “Zeppelin chaser,” designed to have a long endurance capability to patrol the skies for extended periods, seeking and engaging enemy airships.

Spearheaded by the Supermarine Aviation Works

The Nighthawk was a large biplane, characterized by its unconventional design. It had a wingspan of about 97 feet and was powered by four 100 hp Anzani 10-cylinder radial engines. The aircraft featured a twin-boom layout, with a central nacelle housing the crew, fuel, and armaments, and twin tailbooms extending to a large horizontal stabilizer.

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The aircraft was designed to carry a sizeable amount of fuel and armaments, allowing for long-duration flights of up to 18 hours, a remarkable feat for its time. The armament typically included Lewis guns for defense against airships and potentially bombs for offensive operations.

P.B.31E Nighthawk Operational History

The first prototype of the P.B.31E Nighthawk underwent testing in 1917. However, its performance was hindered by several design and mechanical issues. The aircraft suffered from stability problems, and the Anzani engines proved unreliable, failing to provide the necessary power for sustained flight.

Despite its ambitious design, the Nighthawk faced significant challenges. Its large size and complex engineering made it difficult to maneuver, and its slow speed limited its operational effectiveness. The unreliability of its engines was a critical setback, often grounding the aircraft for repairs and maintenance.

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The Nighthawk never saw significant operational use. By the time its design and performance issues could have been addressed, the threat posed by Zeppelin raids had diminished, largely due to the introduction of more effective interceptor aircraft and ground-based defenses.

End of the Runway

Britain’s air defense capabilities significantly improved with the advent of new incendiary ammunition that could easily ignite Zeppelins. These enhanced anti-aircraft (AA) guns, coupled with the innovative rounds, bolstered Britain’s defensive measures.

In addition, the Royal Aircraft Corps (RAC) began employing the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 for nocturnal interception of Zeppelins. Although initially designed for dogfights, the B.E.2 was found to be somewhat sluggish and less effective against fighter aircraft. However, its performance against the larger, slower-moving Zeppelins was notably more successful.

Supermarine Nighthawk propeller in the Solent Sky, an aviation museum in Southampton, England
Supermarine Nighthawk propeller in the Solent Sky, an aviation museum in Southampton, England

This development rendered the P.B.31E Nighthawk, which had been specifically designed for combating Zeppelins, redundant. Consequently, Supermarine discontinued the project, scrapping both the first prototype and the incomplete second one in 1917.

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It was among the earliest aircraft specifically designed for night fighting, a concept that would be extensively employed and refined during World War II. Additionally, the Nighthawk holds the distinction of being the first aircraft constructed by Supermarine under their own brand name, marking an important moment in the company’s history.


Its design reflected a willingness to push the boundaries of aircraft capabilities, particularly in terms of endurance and multi-engine configuration.

The challenges and failures of the Nighthawk provided valuable lessons in aircraft design, particularly in the realm of engine reliability and aircraft stability. These lessons would be instrumental in the development of later aircraft, contributing to the evolution of aviation technology.

While not a successful aircraft in operational terms, the Nighthawk holds a place in aviation history. It symbolizes the innovative spirit and experimental approach of early 20th-century aviation, where designers and engineers were still exploring the fundamental principles of aircraft design and operation.

The experience gained from the Nighthawk project contributed to Supermarine’s growth as an aircraft manufacturer. Lessons from the Nighthawk would eventually contribute to the development of the Supermarine Spitfire, one of the most famous fighters of World War II.