Tiny Ascension Island, a dot midway between South America and Africa, has been the clearing place for more than 5,000 planes en route to the European battlefield. Few have ever heard of Wideawake Field where short-range fighters, smaller-type bombers stop for refueling. When Army Engineers took over the tiny island which is less than thirty-eight square miles in area, they built an air base from volcanic rock, cinders, dirt, and one oasis of vegetation. Rising less than 300 feet above the surface of the South Atlantic, Ascension boasted two roads when Americans joined the island populace of 150 persons.
No base in ATC's vast network has more significance, for small fighting ships are able to fly to Europe under their own steam. Formerly, they were shipped in surface vessels, taking up vital cargo space. Airmen who fly this 3,000 mile air route, which necessitates finding a pinpoint in the middle of the South Atlantic, have a special ditty which goes "If we don't hit Ascension, my wife gets a pension."
Greatest obstacle to successful operation were large boobie birds which persisted in nesting on runways. In desperation, the army called in a bird expert, Dr James Chapin, associate curator of New York's Museum of Natural History. He flew to Ascension, concluded the only way to persuade the birds to move was to steal their eggs, successfully solved the greatest operating difficulty.
In a guarded hangar at Wright Field stands a new German Ju-88 bomber. The story behind the ship's arrival is one of the strangest of the war. Last September, a 28-year-old Nazi pilot stationed in the Balkans was discouraged by German war progress. Walking to the flight line one morning, he selected the newest Nazi craft he could find, took off, set his destination at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. After flying for nearly two hours in fog, he set his plane down on an Allied Mediterranean air base, as British Spitfires swooped down after him. The disheartened Nazi stepped from his ship, surrendered willingly. American pilots flew the ship to Wright Field. From that time on, the Ju-88 has undergone microscopic probing by Wright Field engineers. Both mechanics and engineers agree that the Ju-88 is a good plane in any man's language, that new ideas for American aircraft may come from this heaven-sent bomber.
Since the advent of the seventy-ton Martin Mars, and the successful completion of its first war mission, there have been a lot of records shattered. The giant cargo flying boat just returned, from an eight-day round trip flight of 8,972 miles from Patuxent River, MD, to Natal, Brazil. The world's largest airplane set its first world record by flying 4,375 miles non-stop over the Atlantic to Natal with 13,000 pounds of Christmas mail for the armed forces. On the homeward journey, the Mars set another record by flying 35,000 pounds of cargo, heaviest single air shipment ever made, between Belem, Brazil, and Port of Spain, Trinidad. Third pace-setter was record flying time of 55 hours, 31 minutes for the round trip of almost 9,000 miles. Part of the Mars cargo including strategic war minerals was labeled Priority A-1 which rides ahead of admirals. Carrying a total of 48,000 pounds of cargo, the Mars can do the work of ten standard cargo planes, holds well over the capacity of an average freight car.
Latest reports on new Nazi planes indicate that workmanship, design are still up to standard. Newest version of the Fw-190 has been tagged the Fw-290, is powered by a BMW 2100-hp radial engine. Speed is probably, over 400 mph, and a service ceiling of over 40,000 feet is possible. Armament on the new model remains the same, although double the amount of ammunition is carried, giving the fighter greater staying power. Recent addition to the Luftwaffe is the Me-209, reputedly equipped with a pressurized cabin, as carried in several models of the Me-109G. British claim a top speed of 398 mph for the Me-209, while Americans claim a top speed of well over 400 mph. Reports of 40,000 feet dogfights over Europe between British and German fighters suggest that pressurized equipment is being used by both sides.
Mustang II is now considered by English expert Peter Masefield to be the best all-round fighter in the world, surpassing even the Spitfire IX in performance, Mr Masefield credits the Mustang II with a ceiling of above 40,000 feet.
This column was originally published in the March, 1944, issue of Air News magazine, vol 6, no 2, p 12.
Photo credited to Acme.