The Quality of US Aircraft

by Maj Oliver Stewart
Editor, Aeronautics, London

A British expert upholds the operational efficiency of American planes and decries unfair comparisons.

THE controversy about the quality of military aircraft designed and built in the United States rises and falls. It worries those whose primary aim is to see the air forces of the United States and Great Britain welded together into a powerful war machine.

I propose to speak here as openly as I can about the position. The first thing I would say is that those who have been spending their time in condemning United States aircraft on the grounds that they are operationally inefficient are mistaken. And that applies to critics who have been doing this in the United States itself as well as in Britain.

In the first place they do not get their facts right and in the second they employ the popular but undesirable expedient of leaving out matter which does not suit their case. I suppose the name of Maj Alexander P de Seversky stands out among the critics. And his remarks have, of course, delighted those in England who want to belittle American achievements.

Major de Seversky is a man whose opinions deserve attention and none can doubt his sincerity. Speaking in America he has a better right to criticize American aircraft than people speaking in Britain. But he does tend to exaggerate here and there and he does tend to forget the good in his anxiety to emphasize the bad.

In one article, for instance, he got in some shrewd thrusts at the excessive claims made for American aircraft in some advertisements. On this basis he wound himself up into a fury of adverse comment. But he altogether forgot to mention the good American aircraft. He did not refer to the Douglas Boston, for instance. He made no comment on the Lockheed Hudson which has as long and good an operational record as any aircraft in the world. He failed to give adequate credit to the North American Mustang — and no one can be louder in praise of this machine than the RAF pilots who fly it and fight with it.

Let me try to put a balanced view of the relative operational merits of British and American aircraft. First I would say that the Vickers-Armstrong Spitfire is the supreme fighter. No American fighter has yet appeared which can compete with it. It has the speed, the rate of climb, the powers of swift maneuver and the firepower which set this famous British fighter in a class by itself.

The Curtiss Kittyhawk is the best American fighter that has so far been in service sufficiently long to enable a clear picture to be drawn of its fighting qualities. But it is much inferior to the Spitfire. Experience with the Lockheed Lightning and the Republic Thunderbolt is not yet adequate to enable a judgment to be formed upon them.

As for the heavy bombers, the Flying Fortress has come in for more adverse criticism than most other types, but it has done useful work and the US Army Air Force in England has made a number of successful sorties with this machine. The powerful armament with the .50-caliber machine gun has been a success. The ball turret under the fuselage has been criticised for its lack of comfort, but it has certain special advantages for bringing effective fire to bear upon fighters attempting to attack from below and most air crews are ready to sacrifice comfort if by so doing they increase the defensive powers of their aircraft.

British bombers ought not to be compared directly either with the B-17 or with what the RAF calls the Consolidated Liberator. The two conceptions are different. The American aircraft cannot carry the bomb loads of the British machines, but they are well planned and generally speaking a little faster. We should do well, therefore, not to draw direct comparisons between the heavy bombers of the two countries.

People in England who want to see that the American aircraft receive fair treatment are under considerable difficulties. The Americans are rightly reticent about the performance of their recent types and about the manner in which they behave when on operations. The English critic who wishes, therefore, to preserve a true balance is often at a disadvantage. It is rather curious to notice this position now for there was a time during the earlier stages of the war when America published information about British machines which had not been released in Britain. Today the position seems to be that Britain publishes information about American machines which is not released in America. An instance is the B-17. Performance figures for the B-17E and the B-17F had not been released (at the time of writing these notes) by the Americans and the manufacturer itself was unable to furnish me with the top speed figures.

But these figures had already been given in the British publications, The Aeroplane and The Aeroplane Spotter, which stated that the maximum speed of this model of the B-17 is 250 mph. It appears an unduly low top speed, but these British journals are usually well informed and their figures are scrupulously checked and are usually trustworthy. We have to assume, therefore, in the absence of information from America that the Fortress is one of the slowest of the four-engined bombers now in service.

The whole question of the issue of information about aircraft is one that demands consideration. There should be in this a combined procedure as there is in military planning. It is in fact urgently needed. Until we have a central source which decides what figures are to be given and what are not to be given unfair criticism will abound.

For instance, the British Ministry of Aircraft Production refuses to give figures for the performance of aircraft which have been modified. Thus the only official figure given for the top speed of the Spitfire is that of 367 mph, the figure obtained at Martlesham Heath with one of the early Spitfires before the war. We do not know, so far as official releases are concerned, whether the later models are faster or slower than this, though there has been a general guessing and it has mostly suggested that the later Spitfires are faster than the earlier ones.

A humorous sidelight on the whole question of information was provided by Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, commander-in-chief of the Fighter Command at the time of the Battle of Britain. When he was being entertained by the American "Q B" organization in London, he told a story of how he was traveling in a train dressed in civilian clothes and how he tried to get into conversation with a young American Army Air Force pilot sitting opposite him. His object was to express his appreciation of the American effort in the air and he asked a few general questions of the young pilot. The American officer, however, apparently suspecting Sir Hugh Dowding of being a spy and conscious of the injunction not to give information to strangers, made a sharp answer which effectively shut down the conversation. It was, of course, a small incident, but I think it has value in showing how difficult it is for the two countries to get on easy terms with one another under present conditions.

The need for secrecy on many military aviation matters is recognized everywhere, but until it is subjected to combined control there may always be misunderstanding and criticism by one country of the other country's aircraft will continue.

This article was originally published in the January, 1943, issue of Flying magazine, vol 32, no 1, pp 26, 134.
The PDF of this article[ PDF, 3.3 MiB ] includes a photo of Bostons flying in formation.
Photo is not credited.