Look At the Record!

by William Levenor

Performance data of America's warplanes offers a factual review of their fighting characteristics.

A great deal of confusion has been created in the minds of the general public by conflicting statements as to the relative merits of American vs Axis warplanes. The one source of accurate facts — the performance reports of the aircraft involved — forms the basis of this general summary.

If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the proof of the plane is in the fighting. When American meets Jap, when American meets German, which is destroyed? As soon as any imponderables enter the discussion, such as the relative merits and qualities of the flying personnel, the argument becomes one of opinion against opinion, not fact against fact.

The facts have been reported by one who should know what he's talking about — Lieut Gen Henry H Arnold, commanding general, United States Army Air Forces, This is not the place for the weighing of opinions, since we are concerned only with a presentation of facts. Here, in brief, is General Arnold's report:

"… We now find our airmen and airplanes in action in increasing strength on fronts all around the world. They are in successful action everywhere, I am glad to be able to report. They have won victories over every type of enemy aircraft.

"There is ground for solid satisfaction in the record as it stands. Our airmen are proving themselves in actual combat, and I can tell you, without reservation, on the basis of the factual record of eight months of war, that the equipment our men are taking into war also is good. In fact, a great deal of it is better than good; it is superior in quality and performance

"American combat airplanes have met the test of modern war on battlefronts around the world and have performed with a high degree of efficiency even when opposed, as in most cases to date, by numerically superior enemy forces.

"The American-made fighter plane which has seen the greatest variety of aerial warfare is the Curtiss P-40 … (which) from the earliest P-40 to the latest and entirely different P-40F, have fought on every United Nations front before and since the entry of the United States into the war. These planes are known to the British as Tomahawks, Kittyhawks, and Warhawks, according to their position in the series.

"… Kittyhawks have recently taken a large part in the smashing British counteroffensive which brought the Axis drive on Alexandria to a halt. The Kittyhawks, equipped with bomb-racks, have become Kittybombers and, as such, are being used both against Nazi tanks and mechanized equipment and against Nazi aircraft, with great success in both cases.

"The Kittybomber … is fast enough to take on any fighter built, even with bombs in the racks. As bombers they are not as vulnerable as the Stukas... "In one of their first forays as fighter-bombers, a formation of Kittyhawks flown by Australian pilots was attacked by a formation of 10 Messerschmitts. The Kittybombers went into a twisting dogfight with bombs still in the racks, shot down two of the Messerschmitts, drove off the others, and then went on with the bombing attack ….

"… a British air observer at Cairo has reported that on May 18, eight P-40s (Kittyhawks) and four British Beaufighters intercepted 20 Ju-52s (transport planes), escorted by three German Messerschmitt Me-110 two-engined fighters. The P-40s accounted for seven of the transport planes and two of the Messerschmitts …

"Another report … relates that in offensive patrol and bomber escort operations in the Libyan battle area, 690 sorties were undertaken by Kittyhawks and 173 by Tomahawks. In addition to attacking motor transport and military targets they destroyed German aircraft as follows: 90 on the ground; nine in the air, certain; two in the air, probable; 10 in the air, damaged. British losses during this whole period were 16 aircraft destroyed and one damaged.

"… A flight of 12 Tomahawks in the Near East encountered a mixed German and Italian force of more than 60 planes. Fighting at odds of better than five-to-one, they destroyed 36 of the enemy planes.

"… The first Tomahawk (in Russia) went out alone, with a Major Pilyutov, a fighter pilot, at the controls. He was attacked by six German Heinkels. Fighting against these odds, Major Pilyutov downed one Heinkel and drove off the others.

"'The Tomahawks are making a good showing during the present spring season, too, it is reported in another Russian account received in this country. 'On April 1 they bagged eight German planes on Leningrad front. On April 13, three Tomahawks, under command of Senior Lieutenant Zelenov, shot down five Fascist planes during one engagement. Since the day when Tomahawks first appeared on Leningrad front five flyers — Pilyutov, Pokryshev, Flotov, Zelenov and Fedorenko — shot down 50 German planes.'

"… In the Southwest Pacific, early and less effective models of the P-40 have acquitted themselves splendidly. On February 9, a formation of 16 P-40s intercepted 25 Japanese heavy bombers escorted by two fighters over Surabaja. They destroyed five bombers and one of the fighters. One American plane was shot down, but the pilot parachuted to safety.

"In another encounter, seven Army P-40s encountered a formation of nine enemy bombers escorted by 14 Jap fighters. The Americans shot down one of the bombers and one of the fighters, damaged four other bombers and two fighters, and forced the entire formation to turn back; a decisive victory at odds of 7-to-23.

"… General Stilwell reports that … on July 30, 27 Zeros attacked Hengyang. They were met by American fighters, which shot down four Japs without any loss to themselves. On the following day 35 Zeros repeated the attack. They were engaged by 13 P-40s and the American pilots shot down six Japanese planes, destruction of which was confirmed. It is believed that three others were shot down. No United States planes or pilots were lost in either of these engagements.

"Brig Gen Claire L Chennault … has been quoted in news reports from Chungking as declaring that the new Zeros, of which 15 have been shot down over Hengyang, 'are better than the old ones, but inferior to our planes, and it will take at least two years before the Japs are able to construct anything equaling our newest.'

"Other American fighter planes which have revealed superior qualities in actual battle are the Bell P-39, or Airacobra, and the North American P-51, or Mustang.

"These planes, like the P-40, are medium-altitude fighters. While designed for maximum effectiveness at altitudes of about three miles, they have been defeating enemy fighters and bombers up to a height of five miles, far above the range for which they were intended.

"A report from Russia has stated that a squadron of P-39s engaged and destroyed 73 German airplanes with the phenomenally small loss of only two planes. All types of German aircraft are reluctant to close with these fast, deadly, cannon-firing fighters, the report declared …

"There have been many encounters in the Southwest Pacific area between our fighters and the Japanese Zero fighters. Maj Gen George H Brett states that when our fighter pilots are asked if they would trade their P-39s and P-40s for the Japanese Zero, their answer is definitely and almost unanimously in the negative. Such a trade would mean giving up the protection of armor, leakproof gasoline tanks, and parachutes, they reply.

"Recently it was announced officially from London by the Royal Air Force that the new North American P-51 Mustang fighter, recently put into combat operation by the Army Cooperation Command, has given a splendid account of itself in action over the invasion coast. Until they are needed for close army support, the P-51s are being employed as Fighter Command aircraft by the RAF …

"American-made fighter planes designed especially for high-altitude combat are now in service or are now being delivered to far-flung battle fronts, but reports on their performance are still too sketchy for public announcement. The Lockheed P-38, or Lightning, however, has already engaged the Japanese with notable success …

"Another Army Air Forces high-altitude fighter — the Republic P-47, or Thunderbolt — now is in production and ready for delivery to combat theaters. This plane is regarded as a tremendous package of power and is believed able to outfly and outfight any other known airplane … Moreover, it is built not only to give but take rough treatment, weighing some 11,000 pounds as compared with 6,000 of ordinary pursuits or fighters, most of the weight being in armor, armament, supercharger and equipment for high-altitude flying. Definitely in the 400 mph class, it will be at its fastest between 25,000 and 30,000 feet.

"American bombing planes have established themselves as superior to anything thus far shown by the enemy. The Boeing B-17, or Flying Fortress, has gained world fame in the present war. The Consolidated B-24 (Liberator) also has made an impressive reputation in all parts of the world. The smaller, agile Douglas A-20 attack bomber, known to the British as the Boston and, in a night-fighter version, as the Havoc, also has performed notably. The North American B-25, in which General Doolittle raided Tokyo, and the Martin B-26, a fast bomber which has 'doubled in brass' by carrying torpedoes at Midway and in the Aleutians, are other bright stars in the galaxy of American bombers. The Lockheed Hudson, built for the British, has been an outstanding performer since the start of its long career.

"Here are a few typical actions in which B-17s were engaged:

"On July 25, at Buna, New Guinea, one B-17 was engaged by 15 Japanese Zero fighters. The B-17 was slightly damaged. Enemy losses, one zero shot down and two others probably shot down.

"On July 17, at Tulagi, one B-17 was engaged by three Zeros. The B-17 was not damaged. One enemy plane was shot down and one was left burning.

"On July 19, in the Rabaul area, five B-17s were engaged by 10 Zeros. None of the American ships were damaged but one Jap was shot down and two possibly shot down.

"There are the well-known examples of Captain Wheless, whose aerial gunners fought off a sustained attack by a squadron of Zeros during a running fight of more than 75 miles; and Captain Sharp, whose crew fought 23 Jap Zeros for two hours over Burma, destroying at least four of them before being forced down.

"The British have called the B-24 Liberator bomber one of the finest military aircraft yet produced. While it is true that the bomb loads carried by the B-17 and B-24 bombers are less than those which can be carried by the new British four-engine bombers, their range is far greater. The American bombers were built with an eye to vast distances while the British ships were designed for and have been used in the European war, almost exclusively, with the German industrial centers as their principal targets. The American bombers also have been designed for daylight bombing of specific military targets — a mission which demands greater speed and gun-power than any type of night bombing … .

"In the B-25 and B-26, the United States has a pair of medium bombers that definitely outclass anything in the world. They carry about two tons of bombs at speeds of over 300 miles per hour and are very heavily armed.

"Other United States medium bombers, such as the Lockheed Hudson and Ventura and the Martin Maryland and Baltimore, have been going to the British and have been used with very great success….

"The B-26 is regarded as a very advanced type. Reports from the Japanese theater show that it has speed and firing power enough to make it self-sufficient and that it can conduct raids over heavily protected enemy territory without fighter protection.

"At Lae, New Guinea, on July 4, 10 B-26s were intercepted by 15 Zero fighters. Four Zeros were shot down and one more probably shot down. Four of the B-26s were damaged but returned. One B-26 was lost by having the wing knocked off by a falling Zero that had been shot down by another B-26 …

"One of the war's most striking examples of versatility and all-around efficiency has been provided by the Douglas A-20 two-engine attack bomber. The British have used, it as its American designers intended originally that it should be used — as a tree-top attack plane. The latest plane of this model, the Boston III or A-20C, carries a heavier bomb load and is considerably faster than the RAF's principal attack bomber, the Blenheim, we are informed.

"It was with this airplane that American Army Air Forces pilots, on July 4, made the first AAF raid on the European continent. One of the group, Maj Charles C Kegelman, was forced down on the DeKooy airdrome in Holland with one motor shot apart, the tail assembly riddled with bullets and other damage. He caromed off the runway at 275 mph, tearing a gaping hole in the fuselage, but got the ship back into the air, blasting two antiaircraft towers at the edge of the field as he did so, and came home safely.

"Recent sorties by the Bostons in Northern France have included 16 against power stations, 10 against German airdromes in occupied countries, and 26 against industrial targets. In these 52 raids, in spite of the concentrated antiaircraft defenses and. German fighter protection in the areas raided, only one Boston failed to return …."

Such was the report by General Arnold. There were other examples, adding to the evidence that in general, American planes are at least as good as enemy aircraft, and class-for-class are better. And to his written report, he added a verbal postscript: In the Pacific, 1,010 Army planes met 1,549 Japanese planes; the Army lost 104, the Japs 190. That did not include the performance of General Chennault's AVG Flying Tigers, who destroyed 218 Japs with a loss of 84 of their own planes.

That is the score, and the score is the proof.

This article was originally published in the December, 1942, issue of Flying magazine, vol 31, no 6, pp 25, 74, 76.
The original article includes photos of B-26, P-39, P-40E.
Photos are not credited.
A PDF of this article [ PDF, 3.2 MiB ] is available.