Our Warplanes Are Best

by Brig Gen George C Kenney
as told to Douglas J Ingells
Brig Gen George C Kenney is Assistant Chief of the Army Air Corps Materiel Division at Wright Field. His job is to keep the Army's aeronautical experimental and production program functioning properly. He is in constant touch with aircraft manufacturers, knows their problems and products. Born in Nova Scotia, General Kenney was a newspaperman before he joined the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps as a private. He was one of the observers who went to France in early 1940 and brought back data that changed our warplane designs. At 52, he flies his own plane, is rated as command pilot. —Ed.
Criticism of US Military Aircraft by self-styled experts is answered by one of the key airmen in the nation, who knows all the true facts.

What's wrong with our military airplanes? Are they killers? How fast do they land? Are there flaws in their designs? What's being done about it? How do they compare with planes of England'? Russia? Germany? Are we turning out pilots with too few hours flying time? What is our plane production rate?

The average American, now footing the bill for the biggest defense program in history, has been misinformed about the answers to these vital questions. Accounts written by so-called experts have been misleading, unfair and without basic proof. The real story is one that smacks of American ingenuity and speed — automobile assembly lines transformed into plane production lines, new factories springing up in record time, planes ordered into mass production from the original preliminary drawings — and results have been encouraging.

Our air defense program is getting under way. In August we produced hundreds of military airplanes. In 1942 our production schedule should be twice that of 1941. Some of our planes have been going to the British, some to China, South America and Russia, in addition to our own Air Forces tactical units. Likewise, pilots — thousands of them — are being turned out at our big air training centers. These lads are proving themselves capable of flying every type of plane we are now producing. With only 300 or 400 hours of actual flying time, they climb into our fastest bombers and pursuits and handle them like veterans. This talk about pilots not liking to fly the new planes because the ships are "touchy" is just talk. The youngsters have already shown us that they can handle airplanes hotter than anything we have yet produced.

The planes we are getting are the best in the world. They fly higher, farther, faster, carry more bombs, have better armor and heavier caliber guns than any other ships. We're proving this every day with extensive accelerated tests being run at the Materiel Division, and changes are being made right in the production lines when we find something wrong.

There are some dangers in military flying. The military airplane is built to fly fast, to take a rugged beating. It is built as an implement of war, like a tank or battleship. You can't expect our bombers to be airliners, our fighting planes to be sport planes. We have to install armor to protect the pilot, plenty of guns, the most powerful engines that can be obtained — and we have to do more and more of this while some of the ships are still on the assembly lines.

Take for example, the new Martin B-26 bomber. This plane has been labeled a dangerous killer. The story of the B-26 is something new to all of us — a splendid example indicative of progress made in American aeronautical engineering. The Martin came into being early in 1939. It was shown to War Department officials while it was still in the stages of draftsmanship and they ordered it built. Actually it was a "paper airplane." For the first time a military airplane was put into production without first going through a two or three year design-to-product period. There were changes incorporated in the ship before the first model came off the assembly line in the summer of 1939. These changes were the result of the war abroad.

At that time US military observers in Europe learned from the French that the Germans were contemplating using a 13-mm gun (equivalent to our latest .50-caliber gun) in their fighting planes which would be highly effective against the one-quarter-inch armor then in use on most Allied planes built abroad and in this country. The same armor was being installed on our new planes. As a result of the reports, armor plating on the B-26 and other planes was increased in thickness and the .30-caliber guns being used were replaced by heavier .50-caliber. This added more weight than on original models, naturally increased such factors as length of take-off run and landing speed. But the tricycle landing gear was then becoming standard on our planes, and this gear was designed specifically to allow for faster landings in anticipation of constantly increasing weights. It also proved the solution to a pilot's biggest worry — keeping his plane in a straight line when landing and eliminating ground looping.

The first B-26's produced a bigger problem in their take-off characteristics than in their landing capabilities. It was necessary to clean up the landing gear considerably before we could shorten the take-off run to a desired distance. The additional weight increased the landing run a little with the result that pilots had to sit in the ships a few seconds more while they rolled to a stop. Some of the lads flying these types in accelerated tests put them on the ground at about 100 to 115 mph and take their hands off the controls, letting the ships guide themselves.

It is unnecessary to land these planes at such speeds (110 to 115 mph), but pilots generally prefer to put the wheels on the ground at 10 to 15 mph above actual stalling speed or landing speed. The Martin B-26 can be landed as low as 90 mph, which is not considered high with the modern tricycle undercarriage and brakes. This higher landing speed gives the pilot a reserve that enables him to have better control of his plane in the event that some obstacle presents itself in the landing path, necessitating another approach. We've put special heavy-tread tires on the ships, which help cut the required landing distance by making possible greater use of the brakes. Landing speeds of 100 mph are commonplace on both our bombers and pursuits. There is nothing dangerous about this speed; we are doing it every day. It should be noted that the tricycle landing gear is an American innovation not found on any foreign-built aircraft.

Recently three Patterson Field pilots, all lieutenants who were brought in from various squadron units, were sent to Martin's Baltimore plant to bring back three of the latest B-26s for accelerated tests. Returning, they ran into a series of thunder squalls so severe that soon after their take-off other ships were grounded. The Martins got through without mishap.

One pilot landed his bomber on a golf course near London, KY. He landed the alleged killer on a fairway that was both uphill and at an angle to the course's level. The only damage was to the nose wheel which rammed into a bunker. None of the crew of four was injured even slightly. A second pilot landed at the Lexington airport, which is far from being a large field. He refueled and flew on to Patterson Field reporting that the ship handled perfectly both in landing and taking off "even on the short field." The third pilot tried to outride the storm and went above it. Flying on instruments, he was carried off his course by a strong crosswind but finally found an opening in the weather and came through, located his position, proceeding to Patterson Field without incident — except for the fact that he landed with only a few drops of gasoline left in the tanks.

Here, then, were actual situations where B-26s proved they can land on emergency fields equivalent to even wartime airdromes. The B-26s can take it, too. The same pilot who landed on the golf course several days later had an engine go dead while flying a Martin on a routine test flight over Ohio. He landed the ship in a small cornfield without injury to himself or his co-pilot. The plane was smashed up, but it proved to be structurally strong enough to take a severe beating in a crash landing.

Regular squadron pilots flying the B-26 have reported favorable results with the airplane. There have been minor criticisms — such as accessibility into the cockpit, window ventilation, egress, installation of non-skid tires, flap adjustment — which pilots have made but, on the whole, everyone seems well pleased with the ship. All recommended changes are being made in production models as quickly as possible. Later models of the B-26 will have a slightly larger wing. This is not being done because the present airplane is dangerous, but because we intend to carry still more guns, more bombs or more gasoline to increase the range of operations. Representatives of the Martin company, and all other companies making engines, propellers and other accessories for the B-26, are at Patterson Field during accelerated tests. They telephone recommended changes to their plant engineers, who immediately get to work on the problem, making corrections in the planes on the assembly line. If some models get through without the changes, these are later called back to the factory or sent to Patterson Field where they are brought up to date.

To date there has been only one serious fatality with the Martin, according to our records. That was a crash during a takeoff at Baltimore on a test flight. An engine failure was to blame. But on any plane, no matter how well-proved its design is, an engine failure on take-off is a serious thing which may easily result in a fatality.

Fifteen of the B-26s were sent from Patterson Field to the recent maneuvers in the south and were operated under simulated war conditions. Both Lieut Gen H H Arnold, chief of our Air Forces, and Assistant Secretary of War for Air Robert A Lovett, have expressed satisfaction at the ships' performances.

In a report to his commanding officer a young lieutenant connected with accelerated tests, when asked what he thought of the B-26 bomber, wrote: "There is nothing too fast about the plane when it lands. The ship just wasn't built for old women to fly, that's all."

Another plane which has been the subject of criticism is the North American B-25 bomber. There has been very little trouble with it, except for minor difficulties that occurred at the factory during test flights and some difficulty with nose wheel operation at one of the Army's west coast fields, where a commanding officer grounded all the ships until the trouble was remedied.

At first, pilots in landing the B-25s were having trouble with the nose wheel gear not locking properly. This was discovered to be primarily a fault in the original construction. On first models the locking collar was so designed that it could be installed in two ways and mechanics had difficulty in getting it on correctly, consequently there resulted a few cases of bad landings, but no fatalities either to pilot or plane. If this collar was installed the wrong way the nose wheel sometimes, when extended, was at a slight angle to, instead of being exactly in line with, the fuselage. The first time this happened it was feared that the landing shock might snap the nose wheel shaft and result in serious damage to the airplane and a good chance of injury to the crew. We had several cases in which pilots landed the planes with the nose wheel at an angle, but always when contact was made with the ground, the motion of the plane straightened out the wheel and resulted in nothing out of the ordinary. North American engineers have entirely eliminated this defect.

One bombardment group has been flying the B-25 under grueling service tests for 437 hours of night flying at this writing. The ships have been landed in small fields and large ones, on grass fields and on concrete runways. In no cases have there been any serious difficulties in landing by day or by night.

In regards to the light attack bomber, the Douglas A-20A, this ship is one of the sweetest flying planes ever put into service. Our pilots will tell you that they would rather by far operate an A-20A from small fields than one of our old obsolete B-18s.

The Douglas A-20A was a development from the DB-7 bombers which were originally designed and built for the French. The A-20A, or redesigned DB-7 incorporated more powerful engines and quite different armament and bomb load arrangements. In this redesign it was necessary to change not only the fuselage but the wings, tail surfaces and landing gear.

When France capitulated, the DB-7s on order were taken over by the British, who christened them Bostons. Immediately the British wanted to replace the original 1,200 hp engines with 1,600 hp engines. They added more machine guns and armor. The result was the same airplane as the A-20A, and large quantities were ordered by the British and renamed Havocs.

Additional power gave the ships added weight, but increased the planes' speed and rate of climb. This factor together with the ease of making night landings foolproof with the tricycle landing gear, has led the British to adopt the Havocs as night fighters, installing as many as 12 guns in the nose of the ships.

One pilot, after a mission with a Douglas A-20A, landed at Wright Field and told a young pursuit pilot: "You give me two minutes start and I'll run your plane out of gas before you catch up with this ship." This is possible at altitudes below 15,000 feet with most of our twin-engined bombers.

With regard to our heavy bombardment airplanes such as the Boeing B-17s and the Consolidated B-24s, these ships speak for themselves. We have never had any serious trouble with either of them. The B-24s are making non-stop flights across the Atlantic both ways every week. Recently 20 B-17's made the trip to England. About six months ago a flight of 21 Flying Fortresses flew from Oakland, CA, to Hawaii in record breaking time.

Under actual combat conditions in Europe, the B-17s are proving to be superior fighting planes. The British are using the ships effectively at altitudes of 30,000 to 40,000 feet. At these heights the planes are out of range of Nazi antiaircraft guns. Above 32,000 feet, the B-17 can outclimb any fighter plane in Europe. German planes have been known to attack at altitudes up to 32,000 feet, but above that the best Nazi fighters can't touch the four-engined American-built bombers.

All the new bombers being produced here are being equipped with the latest power-driven gun turrets. The turrets are mounting .50-caliber machine guns to replace the original .30-caliber guns. The .50-caliber shell will pierce one-half inch armor and is effective against any armor plating now in use on European craft. In addition, our large bombers are all equipped with new superchargers, developed by the Army Air Corps, which make possible the high altitude operations. Regarding the .50-caliber firepower, I have seen these high-powered shells during fire tests pierce the quarter-inch armor, originally used in our planes, as if it were so much cheese. The .30-caliber bullet is stopped by this armor. Today all our fighting planes are being equipped with standard .50-caliber guns.

We are turning out the fastest bombing and pursuit planes in existence. There are only two fighters in the world whose speeds are substantially over 400 mph — and we've got both of them. These are the Lockheed P-38 and the Republic P-47. They have landing speeds about the same as the light and medium bombers. Tests have shown they are superior to anything in Europe.

It has been stated falsely that many of our fighting planes — bombers and pursuits alike — are sitting idle at factory fields and Army air bases and that the reason for their not being in action is because they are too dangerous to fly. There are a number of planes at our aircraft factories and Army fields. But the reason they are inactive is not because they are "too hot" but because there has been a serious bottleneck in deliveries of airplane propellers. But the construction of new propeller factories is relieving the tension. Soon these "too-hot-to-handle" planes will be flying.

For the past several weeks at Wright Field we have been conducting evaluation tests with four types of British airplanes, a Vickers Wellington bomber, the Boulton Paul Defiant, Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire fighters. Tests have shown that the Spitfire, the best of the foreign fighters, compares with our own Curtiss P-40 up to altitudes of 15,000 ft. Above 15,000 ft. the performance of the P-40 falls off and the Spitfire is more effective. But the P-40 is not our latest airplane. Lockheed's P-38 and the latest air-cooled Republic P-47 are far superior.

The Wellington night bomber is a plane apparently designed for heavy, slow work and its performance figures in no way compare with any of our American bomber types, which are of a later design. English Hurricanes are much slower than the Spitfire. But the Hurricane is a highly maneuverable plane. The Defiant two-place fighter has about the same speed as the Hurricane and, in general, the same performance figures.

Performance figures on the Messerschmitt Me-109, the standard German fighter, and all available testimony indicate that it is inferior to the British Spitfire. Our engineers are constantly studying German equipment which is sent over here by the British with a view to adopting any features which are desirable. We are not missing any bets. If the Germans have something better than ours, we can make it as well as they can.

There is no question in our minds that we are now getting the product in our planes that we have been aiming at. The "bugs" have been ironed out. We're waiting for the new factories to go into production, for more skilled labor to be introduced from the vast organizations of training schools, for more pilots. But each phase is being completed at an astounding pace. Monthly plane production is steadily increasing and there is no reason to doubt that by the end of next year (1942) we will be producing at the rate of 50,000 planes per year, set as a goal by President Roosevelt a little more than a year ago. Then we will have the air power that we have been seeking. In every phase of aviation, America will have the superiority in the air that is so essential to ultimate victory.

This article was originally published in the December, 1941, issue of Flying and Popular Aviation, vol 29, no 6, pp 32-34, 68, 96, 98.
The original article includes a photo of the general and photos of A20, B-24, B-26, P-38, B-17, B-25.
Photos are not credited.
A PDF of this article [ PDF, 10.8 MiB ] has been prepared.