Report from the British Airfront

by Myles V Cave
Aviation's British Correspondent

Mr Cave continues his observations of American aircraft now in service in the European battle zones and discusses new military airplane and engine developments.

Despite the increased tempo of aerial fighting in Europe, specific information regarding airplane performance has been generally withheld. Official communiques continue to give names of airplanes participating in big-scale operations, but officialdom refuses to allow any new item of immediate technical value to filter through its fine mesh.

The huge scope of naval warfare has given great technical boosts to Navy planes operating from aircraft carriers. The United States, at the commencement of this World War, led the world in Navy fighters and a number of these excellent craft are now operating with the British fleet. The fleet air-arm men appraise the Grumman Martlet very highly, as do the Navy technicians. The experts have profited in experience with the Martlets which have higher performance, better maneuverability, and much lighter handling than British Rocs, Skuas and Fulmars.

The Skua and Roc have served the purpose, but their lack of speed and maneuverability, due to the Navy's tough specification requirements, have made them a comparatively easy target ever since they came into service. There is a good deal of hustle going on here with new Navy airplanes, and two new designs will soon be seen. Their performance can be reckoned high as they will be powered by a new type, still more powerful engine.

Land Fighters

In the air-over-land theatre, America's newest fighters, the Lockheed Lightning, North American Mustang and Bell Airacobra seem to have been kept in the background so far, at least in British operations. So far as can be determined these planes have not been used in action in the Western zone, but they are here in numbers and are still being trimmed to be in the best shape to take part in the very arduous fighting conditions to come. The Lightnings may not be heard about for a while as their numbers here are still very small and some minor difficulties and problems will have to be smoothed out. Some reassembly difficulties with the Airacobra were experienced, but these have been overcome and a couple of weeks ago I saw four long assembly lines of these planes wide open, and I was told that the "job was falling together." Incidentally, the test flier at this factory rates this American lighter very highly, and judging from his flying demonstration of its maneuverability, coupled with heavy firepower, it will certainly prove to be another headache for Hitler, Hirohito & Co.

The Curtiss-Wright Kittyhawk and Airacobra have built up remarkable performance records on the Russian front. The Soviet fliers have claimed their particular liking for the Airacobra. It is ahead of their design, faster, more maneuverable and more heavily armed. They have used it with great effect in destroying enemy panzer formations as well as bombers and dive bombers. Escorting Luftwaffe fighter pilots sidestep this ship wherever possible. They just don't like its big-calibre nose cannon.

This speedy Yankee fighter has a great reputation for takeoff and landing characteristics on temporary airfields, and it looks like Lawrence Bell started something when he built a fighter with a tricycle landing gear. In our opinion this feature has come to stay for this type airplane.

Soviet criticism calls for better altitude performance which shows that they have no turbosupercharged Allisons yet, while they say that the cockpit room is cramped as they have to pick suitable-size fliers. Soviet aircraft technicians claim the Airacobra has better visibility generally than any fighter in service.

New Planes

New American fighters will appear here in a big way shortly and their true merits quickly proved for the present. Spitfires and Hurricanes are meeting their equal in performance, though not in gun power, in the Focke-Wulf Fw-190. This is a new design German fighter and looks, in shape, more American than the previous German design. It is fitted with a new 1,600-bhp BMW 14-cylinder radial motor, making it the only German radial-engine fighter. This gives it a 300- to 400-bhp lead over current American and British single motor design.

The Fw-190 has a very well streamlined form, but it looks like the pilot's visibility would be very poor. Unlike the Messerschmitt 109 and the Heinkel fighter, the Fw-190 has a wide-track landing gear which should take care of some of the troubles the Germans have had in landing on temporary advance fighter airfields.

There have been numerous press comments on the Fw-190, which have given the impression that it is an inferior airplane and that the RAF do not think it at all formidable. RAF fliers who have encountered this new German fighter rate it very highly and pay it the tribute of being a great technical advance over the older German design.

The answer to the Fw-190 unquestionably lies in the American Republic Thunderbolt with its 2,000 hp and terrific armament, and the British Typhoon with a Sabre engine developing a lot more than 2,000 bhp.

The Typhoon is a beautiful ship, with exceptionally strong construction and fine appearance. To look at it closely it resembles a cleaned up Hurricane, but is larger and does not give that broken-back impression that the Hurricane gives from a side view. I have seen test flights of these fighters, and when flying low at full throttle they make the 370-mph Hurricane look very slow indeed. The Typhoon and Thunderbolt certainly seem to be the Allied nations' mainstay in the high-altitude range.

Medium Bombers

The twin-motor medium bomber seems to be passing out of the production picture in Britain, and there are no rumors of new types. The Blenheim, which has rendered such valuable service, is out of date, and the Beaufort, which fol-owed it out, seems to have been adopted for coastal command requirements. Thus the medium bomber field is being looked after by the United States with such ships as the Douglas Boston, North American B-25, Martin Marauder, and Lockheed Hudson.

These will make a formidable quartet and their performance and high bomb loads for size should place Allied strength right to the front in this class. In the event of Allied invasion of Europe they will prove a fine attack bomber for Army support.

The Douglas Boston is being used in increasing numbers in large scale daily fighter and bomber attacks on German targets in France. Due to their high performance, maneuverability and great striking power, the loss of these machines on all operations to date has been negligible. All Boston air crews give them high praise for their light control and fighting characteristics, while the tricycle landing gear is universally popular with those who have used it. The only criticism I have heard mentioned involves the rather cramped crew accommodation. Maybe this is an indirect advantage for the comparatively small size of the Boston makes it harder to hit and unquestionably increases its verve in the air.

The Lockheed Hudson rates as one of the greatest air achievements of this war, and has set a high standard for reliability and ability to take it. Total distances covered by Hudsons of the Coastal Command reach an astronomical figure, and loss through technical failures is an infinitesimal percentage.

American planes have not yet taken direct action in the large-scale offensive against Germany. However, the trusty Bostons and hard-worked Hudsons had a real part in these stupendous operations through diversion operations. Another American plane, the Consolidated Catalina, has been a real mainstay of the Coastal Command. Like the Hudson, these ships have covered millions of miles over many oceans and range thousands of miles from bases. They have taken heavy punishment, but always do their job and get home safely.

Now comes the amphibian Catalina with wheels retracting sideways into the hull directly below the wings. I do not know to what purpose these amphibians will be put, but it is plain that the scope of the Catalina operations will be more than doubled. The Catalina is a lighter ship to handle than the Sunderland, though the latter has larger crew accommodations.

Another new German plane supposed to be operating on the Russian front is the new Messerschmitt medium bomber, th1e Me-210. This seems to be an enlarged version of the Me-110 which has not been the one hundred percent success or threat as some experts figured it was going to be. No details are available regarding the motor in the new German plane, but it would appear that the latest and more powerful Mercedes Benz is installed, which gives the airplane a bomb load of around 4,000 lb, with a maximum speed of 350 mph.

As for engines, their worst and initial troubles were with the Allison, particularly in connection with the accessory drive mechanism. This was probably due to mishandling in the early days as a result of the unfamiliar front-to-rear accessory drive shaft used on the Allison, but I hear that this trouble has been straightened out and the motor is functioning well and is regarded as very reliable. British and American pilots and the RAF all rate the Merlin very high indeed, and because of the confidence both bomber and fighter fliers have come to place in it, any other inline motor is regarded with certain suspicion.

Ground Work

The Air Ministry recently released some interesting facts and figures in connection with the tremendous strain imposed on ground staff in looking after tighter command needs when day-after-day fighter planes are used to escort bombers and conduct large-scale sweeps over northern France.

During April a single Spitfire squadron put in 750 flying hours covering 180,000 miles at an average speed of 240 mph. During this time they shot 15,000 cannon shells and 42,000 rounds of machine gun ammunition. The groundwork involved in such operations does not only cover routine servicing, but repairing, and often changing major components like wings, tail surfaces and motors that have been damaged by gunfire.

From these figures there comes a. great story of hard work and devotion to duty by the ground staff who must work without cessation to beat the clock. To maintain British airplanes in condition to undertake over two hours' flying daily under battle conditions is one thing, but when American fighters and bombers carrying unfamiliar equipment, etc, are added to the problems, you've certainly got to hand it to the RAF ground crews who get little or no newspaper glamour and whose only reward is satisfaction in a job well done, and the words of a communique, "none of our aircraft is missing."

Two and a half years' of intensified war production in America, and the huge increases in output that have been accomplished are generally appreciated here, but there are many people who really understand that with the big production increase there has also been a tremendous volume of technical development. The increase in power output, speed, bomb-carrying capacity and hitting power have been more than doubled in most cases, and American aircraft are performing equally well with the British planes.

In the battle of Britain the eight-gun Hurricanes and Spitfires had greater fire power than the Messerschmitt 109, but lacked the latter's ceiling by some 2,000 ft, and did not compare in performance at high altitude. At that time the available American fighters were hopelessly outclassed, both in performance and gun power, so they were diverted to other fields where their capabilities were adequate and so that their manufacturers could learn the requirements of actual combat.

How quickly these lessons have been learned can be seen from the performance figures for the Thunderbolts, Mustangs and Lightnings for the Americans, and the Mark II Hurricanes, Mark V Spitfires and Beaufighters for the British. The Ministry of Aircraft Production has given every facility to American engineers to study their own airplanes and equipment under fighting conditions, and has placed at their disposal a raft of information on enemy types, as well as sending over German aircraft and motors for study.

There have been critics who have raised doubts about the performance claims for American ships, but these have mostly been the result of confused understanding. There are many here who still do not appreciate that Americans quote performance data and engine output maximum figures, and that they cannot be compared directly with British quotations. Great Britain quotes carrying loads with relative flight range, with performance figures at altitude, etc, while motor powers are quoted on the International Rating Basis. American firms would do well to copy this procedure, for it would minimize the chance of stories being spread that American airplanes do not come up to specified performance.

This article was originally published in the August, 1942, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 41, no 8, pp 191, 193, 195.
The original article includes 4 photos: Hudson, Airacobra, Kittyhawk, Boston, all in RAF markings.
Photos are not credited.