5 years of air war

The time-worn proverb that necessity mothers invention is nowhere more axiomatic than in the present global conflict. It is well known that in wartime the vital demand for science to discover and produce is increased a hundred-fold, for existence of a nation may hang upon the creative genius of its scientists. During the past five years martial pressure has fostered aeronautical evolution and accomplished what might have taken fifty or sixty years in peacetime.

With America on the sidelines watching the beginnings of war on September 3, 1939, the British Royal Air Force and the Nazi Luftwaffe hurled superb fighting aircraft into combat. That the French did not arm themselves with warplanes of appreciable quality proved the deciding factor in the crushing defeat of June, 1940.

Meanwhile, a small British air arm was crushing hordes of Luftwaffe planes over the British Isles — and America saw the importance of quality, the impotence of quantity alone. Almost at once engineers and designers 3,000 miles from Dunkerque altered construction of front-line fighters through refabrication of hundreds of planes. Production lines were readied for conversion to the manufacture of more powerful warbirds. Performance improving devices were evolved as a result of lessons learned from the aerial duels over Europe.

Then war struck at the United States on December 7th, 1941, before complete production of the new weapons could have any noticeable effect upon the enemy. Bugs had to be ironed out of new experimental aircraft. Conversion of existing plants and building of others would take valuable time. American forces fell back against an enemy hopelessly superior in quality and quantity. Our lend-lease fighters, the Buffaloes, Hawks and Mohawks, were all falling easy prey to enemy guns. The old Boeing B-17B and B-17C Flying Fortresses proved inferior to standards of European warfare, and were condemned by the British after many of the giant craft were destroyed by Nazi fighters. But as we fought with our backs to the wall, then slowly withdrew from our island possessions, heavy casualties were inflicted on the Axis hordes. Important information was absorbed from our first actual aerial conflicts with the enemy and rushed back to the States.

Before long, the prime failing of our fighting machines — insufficient firepower — was remedied. The old Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats with four .50-cal machine guns had joined with rugged Curtiss P-40s to stop the onrush of the Nipponese armies. Boeing B-17C Fortresses were improved sufficiently in the B-17D versions to go out against Jap interceptors. American warplanes soon had as much as a two-to-one armament advantage over Japanese machines and were on an equal footing with the deadly German warplane.

That we have come a long way is obvious when one compares the present force of the Republic Thunderbolt's eight .50-cal. wing guns to the old .30-cal guns of the Curtiss P-36 Mohawks. Or consider the whiplash of the Lockheed Lightning with its five guns and cannon located in the nose of America's most versatile fighter. Similarly, the 200-pound bomb load of the early Grumman Wildcat has given way to the 5,200-pound load of Lockheed P-38J Lightnings.

Firepower has also become important in the aerial defense tactics of our day-raiding bombers, as evidenced by latest armament specifications. A day bombardment machine must battle its way through swarms of German interceptors studded with rocket projectiles, machine guns and cannon — by no means a choice assignment even for the most powerfully armed aerial dreadnaught, The Boeing B-17G5 Fortress and Convair B-24K Liberator medium-heavy bombers are fine examples of powerfully defended aircraft. Not only do they reach and destroy their intended objectives, but usually eliminate large numbers of opposing fighters. These two airplanes have good speed for their size, but unless a heavy bomber can advance its maximum speed substantially under combat conditions, as can the mighty Boeing B-29 Superfortress and Consolidated-Vultee B-32 superbomber, speed does not become a defensive tactic to evade the enemy. The B-17G5 and B-24K must rely upon their own defensive fire-power.

Five years of bitterly fought air war have taught us the necessity for aeronautical improvement in many other aspects as well. Boeing Fortresses above 40,000 feet demand every possible protection for crew and ship against the extreme cold. De-icers must function perfectly every second while the giant bomber is in or above the eight mile level; sixty-seven degrees below zero will freeze an entire wing in a matter of seconds. Gun and engine oils had to be adapted to operate under abnormal conditions; the average oil becomes a sticky, soggy mass at the extreme altitudes where the Fortress fights. Shock-absorbing rubber underwent constant experimentation. At 40,000 feet and above, rubber will snap like a brittle piece of straw. The metal skin on a plane actually shrinks away from its coating of paint in the incredible atmosphere. Control systems, instruments, oxygen feed lines, fuel cells, hydraulic controls, high altitude suits for the crew — all these had to be still further developed and improved. The combat successes of the Liberator above 36,000 feet and the Fortress at above 40,000 feet again testify to the perseverance and ingenuity of our aerial scientists and engineers.

Perhaps the finest example of what five years of air war has taught us is seen in the mightiest aerial weapon of all, the B-29. As the pinnacle of contemporary air progress, this gargantuan flying machine deserves our closer scrutiny. Operating under command of the 20th Air Force Headquarters in the Pentagon Building in Washington, DC, the Superfortresses are the ultimate in bomber design for World War II.

As evidence of the ability of the Superfort's fire system, the B-29 turrets usually accommodate only two .50-cal. machine guns instead of the full emplacement for four weapons. More ammunition may be carried in this manner and service model B-29s are armed with a 20-mm tail cannon plus the twin machine guns for increased range of rear defensive weapons. Total armament of the Superfort is ten .50-cal. guns and one 20-mm cannon.

Comfort was a major factor in designing crew positions. Long raids carried out by Liberators showed that no man is capable of staying wide awake for long periods, Ability of the Superfortresses to cruise for great lengths of time at high speeds meant the crew must have sleeping quarters and food. The pressurization and turret equipment for the Superfortress is the most efficient yet installed on any combat machine. The B-29 is equipped with all necessary pressurized heating equipment to maintain 8,000 foot comfort to the peak of its ceiling.

The success of the laminar flow wing in the Mustang, and the Davis airfoil of the Liberator has contributed to design of the Boeing 117 wing structure, which presents a minimum of drag in fight. An increase of nineteen percent for wing area when landing is provided by giant flaps which slide out in sections from the inner rear of the 142-foot wing.

American flying boats have proved to be the most efficient in the world. No transport or passenger flying boat has come near to equaling the magnificent record of the forty-two and a half ton Boeing 314A trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific Clipper. Vought's Excalibur and the civil version of the Convair Coronado will prove to be the smaller four engine transports for Yank airlines.

The three mightiest aircraft ever devised for the nation's airlines are already under flight and mockup testing. Martin's stupendous seventy-four-ton JRM-1 Mars has proved so efficient under cargo-carrying conditions that design alterations have been made and the ship will be ready for use following the cessation of hostilities. Passenger types of this aircraft will carry as many as 150 passengers on 5,000-mile non-stop hops. If not for the wartime development of giant cargo flying boats, these aircraft would not have existed for perhaps another ten years. The last five years of aeronautical progress have made them possible.

Douglas already has its post-war DC-7 in the mockup stage. Known as the world's largest transport plane, the giant aircraft was made possible through lessons and experience gained in the servicing and fabrication of its smaller counterpart, the Douglas DC-6, evolved from the old DC-4 which was sold to Japan in 1939. This is the first indication of the true super-airliner of the future.

Perhaps the greatest and most efficient airliner ever released to the public for future use is the Consolidated-Vultee super six-engined transport. It now has an official but secret designation in the USAAF, will carry over 400 passengers for peacetime duty at high altitudes while maintaining a high cruising speed. Powered by six thundering engines of restricted power rating, the Convair model has a gigantic wingspread of 300 feet. In volume, the airliner will surpass anything yet devised by any nation. Thus it is that a scant five years in which planes have devastated a world at war have, at the same time, brought the essential flying tools for world reconstruction.

This article was originally published in the November, 1944, issue of Air News magazine, vol 7, no 5, pp 26-27.
The PDF of this article [ PDF, 9.5 MiB ] includes captioned comparison photos of XB-17 vs B-17G, early vs late P-38, early vs late F4U, and C-47 vs C-69.
The original was printed on 9½" × 12¾" paper. The images in the PDF (9.5 MiB) have been reduced to fit on letter-size paper.
Photos credited to Boeing, Rudy Arnold, Chance Vought, Lockheed, Douglas, TWA.