American Aircraft in the RAF

by G Geoffrey Smith, MBE

Mr Smith. managing editor tor the authoritative British aeronautical publication Flight, has prepared this candid and shrewd analysis of the faults and virtues of American fighting planes in response to the invitation of Flying. A captain in the RAF during World War I, he has been closely identified with automotive development during the past two decades. He is associated with publications. other than Flight, reporting the fields of automotive equipment as applied to land. air and water.

One of Britain's leading aeronautical experts, editor of Flight magazine, frankly tells us what the RAF thinks of US fighting planes.

You may well ask what Britishers think of American aircraft reaching this country, in view of the many conflicting statements which have appeared in print. I would timorously answer your question in a nutshell by saying "Splendid — now."

You had your troubles. We on this side had ours but happily they are fast disappearing. On every hand one hears most appreciative opinions of the USA types reaching these shores. Our RAF pilots like them and I have often been told in glowing terms of their general qualities, speed, light controls and maneuverability. Our ground engineers on their part admire the exterior finish, the riveting, the common sense features of design and, above all, the unfailing reliability of the air-cooled radial engines with the production of which you have had so much valuable experience. Hats off to Wright and Pratt & Whitney! The newest Allison water-cooled inline engine, I once read in your candid journal, was reported as having given its sponsors a headache. For a time it produced similar worries on this side too, but happily the growing pains seem to have been entirely surmounted and the aircraft types with Allison engines, notably the Kittyhawk, Airacobra and Mustang are now giving yeoman service and winning new laurels.

In apportioning praise, however, no one professing some knowledge of aircraft types could fail to place the versatile Lockheed Hudson at the forefront of any American appreciation. From the outset the Hudson has been a sheet anchor to our services and it has gone on gathering supporters as its operational duties have been extended. But Flying did not invite bouquets; I am asked for a candid commentary.

Quite naturally Americans were fidgety when they learned a year ago that many USA types had reached this country and weeks, sometimes months, elapsed before they were commissioned for service. But your forgivable impatience was shared equally by Britishers, because events indicated to one and all that every single aircraft was badly wanted. By this time one assumes it has been duly appreciated that a machine of magnificent flying qualities and perfect finish is just easy prey if it is not adequately armed and defensively armored for operations. That is just cold reality.

Britain learned its lesson in the matter of self-sealing gasoline tanks, for instance, at the outset of war. It took time for that feature to filter through. Again, armored protection for pilot, gunner and vital parts was lacking in your earlier types coming over here and more important still, firepower was in no way comparable with the eight-gun system found so valuable in the Battle of Britain and adopted universally for our leading fighters before war broke out and, since that time, made far more devastating with cannon. Nor had the USA bigger types of aircraft the gun turrets which have wreaked such devastation on attacking forces and enabled our bombers to fight their way successfully to their allotted targets and home again. These facts today are common knowledge to you and may be dismissed now that American designers and manufacturers have, with that enterprise we all admire, successfully and rapidly grappled with the deficiencies — for deficiencies they were — and enabled our Ministry of Aircraft Production to reduce by many hundreds of man-hours the time expended in modifying the machines as they arrived for war service with the RAF. Offensively and defensively they are far and away superior. The spare parts situation is rapidly being straightened out. Changes in radio equipment remains a problem and some common understanding about bombs, bomb racks and guns would reduce worries still further and help relieve all-precious manpower. However, the fact that American engineers and specialists are over here superintending the erection of USA types at the great assembly depots specially set up by the Ministry of Aircraft Production to deal with imported types is a tremendous help.

I have wandered over most of these government establishments and the keen spirit of cooperation that exists between American and British aircraft personnel in grappling with the inevitable snags has served to brush aside all early deficiencies which caused so much worry and consternation on both sides of the Atlantic. Following the visit here of Lieut Gen George H Brett, technical contacts were established in America so that gradually the need for modifications and extra equipment is being eradicated at the creative centers, which of course is as it should be. Indeed some of the later American fighter types planned and equipped after collaboration and based upon operational experience, now arriving in this country, are within a week handed over to the RAF for service. Bombers may take up to a month. The North American Mustangs, a modern type capable of rapid assembly and highly spoken of by ground engineers, are within a few days handed over to the RAF as operational training aircraft. In wartime, operational requirements demand that aircraft be entirely suited to the particular duties they have to perform. There is no other way of ensuring a measure of supremacy. In service use new discoveries are constantly being made; only after bitter war experience and a readiness to incorporate as quickly as possible any desirable modifications or additional items of equipment demanded by the experienced pilots who fly them, can machines be issued with absolute confidence. This, of course, takes time, and the changes cannot be effected on the production line without causing a hold-up.

The assembly units in this country handling aircraft arriving by the ferry service or in huge packing cases, is an organization which now works very smoothly. Among American factory representatives available for prompt settlement of problems as they arise is H H Ogden, general manager of the Lockheed assembly division, Paul Young, Curtiss company, and Louis Bouchelle of North American Aviation.

Let us review the procedure in modifying a type of machine arriving here in quantities with their unsuitable equipment which must be replaced entirely or some form of gear requiring altering; and always remember that even during the time taken for these aircraft to cross the Atlantic, operational requirements may have changed.

In the case of major modifications called for by the air staffs, suitable designs have first to be prepared, stresses calculated and approval of the Directorate of Technical Development obtained, as well as the concurrence of the American manufacturer concerned. While the modified parts are being produced in the different factories, the aircraft naturally stand idle while more and more flow into this country requiring similar treatment. Thus, some weeks may elapse before the various parts are finished and ready for application. Thereafter, for the most part, the accumulation of aircraft is expeditiously dealt with.

Unfortunately Britain and America use different methods of assessing performance figures. Forgive me if I say that some of our disappointments have been due entirely to your habit of quoting maximum performance figures together. Non-technical American journals re-quote the figures prominently and use them to compare British aircraft adversely. There is frankly no need for exaggeration, as the machines make excellent showings on their actual achievements. But when maximum bomb loads are quoted in conjunction with maximum range and speed and absolute ceilings, it becomes necessary to reassess their merit and apply some sort of yardstick of performance. Take, for instance, the London-Berlin flight or better still an even 1,500-mile trip (I quote figures given by the former Minister of Aircraft Production), the Fortress carries 4,000 pounds and the Liberator 6,000 pounds which may be compared to the 10,000 pounds capacity of our Stirling and Halifax bombers with their 99-foot wing span. I have seen far and away bigger bomb loads at 3,000-mile ranges quoted in USA aircraft journals for your production, which must fog the issue. One wonders how well the real facts are known, for after all, the exact load-carrying capacity on a stipulated long-range flight is of paramount importance and the true test of a first-rate heavy bomber.

We keenly look forward to the Anglicized E-type Fortress with gun turrets which has such an attractive specification and, we feel, will prove formidable in service, for we now are well accustomed to the reliability and high ceiling of the Boeing. The regularity with which your bigger types cross the Atlantic has created an enormous impression over here. You have amply demonstrated dependability on these long ferrying trips; bigger load-carrying capacity is your next achievement and cool, calculating Britishers will again be stirred to enthusiasm.

Propellers from American sources are giving excellent service, and we are now leaning to the electrically-operated type. As to blades, the hollow steel variety are not so easy to repair as normal types. In this country blades of improved wood are definitely in the ascendancy as their repairability has been proved and there is less risk of damaging the hub when a wooden blade is broken. America with its accumulated experience of bonded plywoods could relieve one of the bottlenecks by concentrating more on this type of propeller blade which will, incidentally, ease metal shortage.

To revert to engines I cannot stress too highly how much admiration your exhaust turbosuperchargers have evoked among British engineers. For years a subject for research among continental and home aircraft engineers, we have to hand the General Electric Company, Dr Sanford Moss and your metallurgists the palm for a remarkable engineering achievement which gives that extra ceiling we all seek. In this country development has been along the line of two-speed superchargers with many detail improvements in the superchargers themselves and gradually no doubt leading to the multistage supercharger with intercooler, a line of research followed by Farman for many years past. Two-speed drive for superchargers to increase boost pressure is nothing new to your technicians for we do not forget that the late Wiley Post had one (developed by Farman Brothers) fitted to the Winnie Mae during his long distance altitude flights.

Of American flying boats, and particularly the exceptionally long-range Consolidated Catalina, our official communiques stressing their notable successes will have been absorbed by all; on patrol service they proved of inestimable value.

The four-engined Liberator, when equipped with four cannon, has proved a striking addition to the range of machines on long distance coastal reconnaissance duties.

This is how a former member of the editorial staff of Flight, now, like several other of his confreres, a pilot in the RAF, sums up certain USA types: "The Douglas DB-7 (or Boston) has a good if not spectacular performance; Brewster Buffalo a splendid performance with a rate of climb and maneuverability which must be seen to be realized; Martin bomber (akin to the Heinkel) very satisfying all-round qualities. Control layouts of American types are always good, but Britishers would prefer the control column in the lap for comfort and full control, rather than set so far forward."

Your multi-purpose types such as the Douglas DB-7 which the RAF designate the Boston as a day bomber and Havoc as a night fighter, have proved their mettle in many a sortie. Speed, maneuverability and light responsive controls are the attributes most appreciated by our pilots. If fuselages tend to be more cramped than on British corresponding types the benefits from extra speed is a counterbalancing feature. Speaking to a pilot regularly using the Havoc, I was impressed by the enthusiasm he had acquired for the type. He was especially pleased with tricycle landing gear. "One can put these aircraft down quite confidently," he observed, "with no fear of nose over and at once apply brakes as on a car." The tail-up attitude for takeoff also appealed to him. The Flight pilot already referred to says, in praise of tricycle landing gear: "Where the tricycle scores and impresses me with its practicability is that as soon as the main wheels have hit the ground the whole machine tips on to the nose wheel and remains forcibly down in an attitude at which the stalling speed is higher than anything likely to be encountered in gusty conditions. I doubt if any large plane will be built in the future without a tricycle landing gear."

To be successful, a tricycle-type aircraft must be just right — a perfect balance between weight distribution and elevator control — otherwise the machine will pitch badly when on the ground and perhaps even break the tail when landing on rough surfaces; or it may need an incredibly long run for the takeoff. A heavily loaded aircraft without a nose wheel can be very tricky. Thus, you see how Britishers acknowledge with satisfaction the pioneer work of their American cousins. Since tricycle types involve a slightly modified technique in handling it is obviously right that pilots should receive their training with tricycle gear.

I suppose no fighter type was more eagerly awaited than the Bell Airacobra. Something new and bristling with original features such as this can always be relied upon to provide a new thrill. Comments of RAF pilots on this remarkable type is that the ceiling might with advantage be higher and that forward visibility is not quite equal to other fighter types, but rearward it is superior. The car-type doors do minimize objections to the rather cramped cockpit, the fixed cover of which limits the height of pilots to 5' 10". But altogether it is regarded as being as fascinating in flying qualities as it is unconventional in design. Six machine guns and a quick-firing 20-mm cannon give excellent firepower. It is a pity that for various reasons the big cannon cannot be retained yet awhile for "tank busters" with large caliber quick-firing cannon are the real need of the moment. Bombs have not proved effective against tanks.

If I add that we also await eagerly the later American types which have designed into them the real lessons of war I am only half stating the truth. Lightnings, Thunderbolts, Curtiss P-40Fs with the Packard-built Merlin engine, for example — what a whirlwind range of hard hitters! The Vultee Vengeance dive bomber, too, with such a remarkable specification. We are simply impatient for these new aircraft as well as your fast day bombers which all are confident will add luster and fame to the splendid range of American types in action.

Need I conclude with the observation that we, as a race, tend to be undemonstrative. The bitter lessons of war have re-taught us the need to look facts in the face. One detects a curious wartime trait, too, in that we tend to rouse one another to still greater national effort by minimizing what we have accomplished and are doing. If such a tendency could be in any way interpreted from these candid observations, well, it simply cloaks the genuine inward gratification we Britishers feel for the magnificent part America is playing under President Roosevelt.

This article was originally published in the June, 1942, issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 30, no 6, pp 18-20, 102.
The original article includes a thumbnail portrait of the author and 5 photos.
Photos are not credited.

Photo captions: