Monday, August 8, 2011

Birds of Prey: War Bird Alley

I have always loved the fighter and bomber aircraft of the past and have been able to see several of these well preserved historic planes at other airshows and museums but the shear number and variety at Airventure was astonishing. Several acres of ground were covered with an outstanding number and varieties, some of which I had never seen before. The remarkable thing to me was to actually see them fly and to be able to examine them closely. As I noted in an earlier post, a few prewar planes were on display from the WWI era but as the world moved into a true world war in the late 1930's and 1940's we see great strides in performance and destructive power in these machines. These WWII veterans were everywhere at Oshkosh.

A Bit of History
If we look at the beginning of the United States entry into WWII after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, we find our involvement was largely segmented into two major areas of conflict. One was the war in the Pacific to stop the advancement of Japan into the Philippines and Australia following the Japanese victories in China and Southeast Asia. The second area of major conflict was in Europe and Africa in an attempt to save Great Britain as the last major barrier to the German conquest of all of Europe. 

From these two very broad perspectives we see a different type of aircraft was needed for operations in these theaters of conflict. The Pacific war was slanted toward battles at sea and from small islands and covered vast areas while the European theater was much more of a ground war requiring a different type of aircraft that need not be operated from ships or the small islands of the Pacific. As I write about the aircraft I was able to see, I will start with the war at sea in the Pacific and the aircraft that faced each other as enemies in the conflict.

Mitsubishi A6M Zero

Pictured above is the front line fighter of the Imperial Japanese forces, the Mitsubishi Zero. At the beginning of the war the Zero was hands down the finest fighter aircraft in the world. It was fast, maneuverable and well armed. It was also flown by the most experienced fighter pilots in the world. These pilots were well seasoned combat veterans of the conflict that had been raging over China and were the scourge of Malaysia and the islands of the Pacific. The United States had no fighters that could match it in effectiveness or our performance. As war production began to catch up with needs the U. S. was finally able to produce machines that were more than a match for the Zero in the Corsair and Hellcat that finally cleared the skies of the deadly Zero.

So many of the Zeros were shot down during the conflict and so many of the best Japanese pilots were killed that by the time the U.S. was able to reach mainland Japan with regular bombing  attacks the country was virtually without an air defense. The planes that escaped being destroyed in combat were then used as Kamikaze weapons to be crashed into the Navy ships as they approached Okinawa. By the end of the war in 1945 there were very few of these planes still existing. After the surrender the country was completely disarmed and the few that remained were destroyed, meaning none existed anywhere. As sad end for a magnificent aircraft. A few replicas of the Zero have been built in the intervening years but no original examples existed in the world.

Several years ago a crashed Zero was found deep in the jungles of a South Pacific island that was mostly intact. A few brave souls disassembled the wreck, brought it out and have since restored it to airworthy condition. This plane is pictured above and the only veteran of the war to be seen flying and I got to see it at Oshkosh. Below is a photo of the side plate with the serial number of the airframe. I feel very honored to have seen and examined it closely.

Tail and Serial Number
Zero Cockpit

As the Japanese forces drove through the Pacific conquering one island after another it became evident that the U. S. needed a new powerful fighter or fighters if we were to prevail. American ingenuity and production was up to the task. A few of our planes were able to withstand the onslaught and hold their own against this determined foe. The Grumman Wildcat had a few things going for it with well trained pilots, more armor and a self sealing fuel tank the Hellcat was a tough opponent even for the superior Zero. It was able to hold it's own against the enemy. The rugged Curtiss P-40 Warhawk had proven itself in western China as the famous Flying Tigers aircraft that flew for the free Chinese air force  before the U. S. entered the war. 
Curtiss P-40 Warhawk
History of the P-40 Above
Vought F4U Corsair
The Vought F4U Corsair entered combat in the Pacific war in 1943. This was a very large fighter capable of speeds over 400 mph with up to a 2850 horsepwer Pratt & Whitney engine. The plane was designed primarily for use on aircraft carriers and for land use on the small island runways of the Pacific. It was capable of carrying a weapons payload of 2000#, as much as the B-17 heavy bombers used in the bombing campaigns of Europe. It was able to sustain heavy damage and keep flying and fighting. It has a unique gull wing design that making it easy to identify and the deep throated roar of it's powerful engine is unmistakable. The gull wing design was required due to the large 13' propeller installed on the aircraft. To raise the nose enough for the prop to clear the carrier deck the wings and landing gear had to be lower that a straight wing would allow. The Corsair was made famous as the aircraft flown by the famous Black Sheep Squadron of Pappy Boyington. It was greatly feared by the enemy pilots as it could far outperform the Zero. It was given the name "Whistling Death" by enemy pilots. 

The above are probably two of the more famous fighting aircraft of the Pacific war but were by no means the only such aircraft to see action in this arena. Also as a side note as I discuss the planes I saw of this age, it should also be noted that the aircraft were not used in one theater of action only but a great number saw action in Africa, Europe and the Pacific. My intent is to make the reader aware of why certain planes were designed for specific purposes as the Corsair was for defeating the Zero in the pacific and were mainly deployed to the Navy and Marine Corps fighting there. The Pacific action also included many of the same fighters and bombers used in Europe which I will cover in my next post.

Grumman TBF Avenger Torpedo/Bomber

Te Grumman Avenger was by far the most successful torpedo bomber of the U.S. fleet during WWII. It was the heaviest of all the carrier based aircraft and was a major player in the first successful battle against the Japanese at Midway Island in 1942. Six of the Avengers were launched loaded with torpedoes to try to sink the enemy carriers that had been lured into a trap. Of the six, five were lost in the attack and the last was severely damaged with one crew member killed and the other two wounded. None of the torpedoes struck the enemy but the planes were successful in luring the Japanese fighters into the air and expending ammunition on them allowing the later attacking planes such as the Hell Diver easy bombing runs that sunk four enemy carriers which was a severe blow to the Japanese Navy. With limited resources and access to raw materials these losses were never fully recovered by the Imperial Japanese Navy.

You really have to walk around the Avenger to grasp just how large it is. It carried a three man crew of a pilot, turret gunner and bombadier/radioman. It is a massive airframe with a very large bombay to carry one torpedo or up to 2000 pounds of other ordinance. It was equipped with the turret gun and another remotely fired machine gun manned by the radio operator but was not able to stand up against a true fighter aircraft such as the Zero. As with all the carrier based aircraft of WWII the wings folded to allow more planes to be stored on the limited space of the carriers.

I understand that there are several examples of this aircraft still airworthy today but the one we saw at Oshkosh was a beautiful one. It is well maintained and shines like a new dollar. As we poked around and looked it struck us that to man the aft turret or radio station you really needed to be a small framed person as the area was very tight. Bailing out of such an aircraft from  either of these positions would be a difficult task as you really only had limited wiggle room. It took a very brave young man to crawl into these things to face the enemy guns and flak from ships.
Torpedo Loaded in the Avenger

  The angle of the picture above makes it hard to see but this is a shot of the open bay on the Avenger loaded with a torpedo. The early years of the war were very problematic as far as the torpedos used by the U. S. were concerned. Very few were actually used with any degree of success. I have done some reading and it appears the depth settings were faulty among other things and a lot of cover ups of the deficiency were done by contractors and inspectors. This seems do absurd as we had our men in combat risking and losing their lives to deliver a blow and then the attack doing no damage due to poor design of the ordinance. 

Curtiss SB-2C Helldiver

The Curtiss Helldiver was designed to replace the Dauntless dive bomber but was a bit late getting into the fray in 1943. Once it was operational it was a very potent weapon and was very successful in the island hopping campaigns of the South Pacific. It was used to sink the enemy ships and attack the island airbases destroying or damaging both the runways and aircraft parked in the area. It was also used as a close ground support aircraft to knock out gun emplacements of the Japanese forces.
SB2C Helldiver Facts

  As seen in the photo above this is the only known surviving airworthy example of this plane existing. At the end of the war a great many aircraft of many designs were simply left parked on the islands throughout the pacific. The Helldiver was a good example of this practice as it had little value for anything other than as a dive bomber. It was a rather difficult aircraft to fly and was not useful as a trainer or for any other non-wartime use. A few of the planes we saw were actually recovered from these abandoned islands after sitting for some 60 years and restored. The Australians did a lot of this salvage work by transporting a large number of Corsairs back to their homes and have since made a fortune selling them in recent years to restorers in the States. One gentleman is said to have a stockpile of Corsair engines and supplies them at a price to those needing a new engine. We were also told that he drives around his property in an old U.S. Army tank that he brought home on one of his salvage trips. 

As I think back on our visit and the things we were able to see, I think I could write an entire book on the trip. Many other aircraft were vital to victory in the Pacific theater but this covers the major players we saw so I will close this post. My next post will be on the European Theater of Operations and the aircraft we saw that played major parts in that action.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Classic and Vintage Aircraft

Black Waco Biplane
As I thought about how best to organize my postings I had first thought I would do it chronologically but after giving it some thought I have decided to go with categories. One of the areas that I really enjoyed was the collection of vintage or classic aircraft from the 1920's through the 1930's, the golden age of flying just prior to WWII.

This was an age of rapid development of aircraft and the era of the old time barnstormers who flew from one small town to another in canvas covered wooden planes making a few dollars giving demonstrations, airshows and rides for the population who may have never seen an airplane up close. Flying was seen as an exotic activity only for the brave and foolhardy. This was the time when new companies were being formed to produce a long list of new developments and new names that have since become famous in the industry. The Wright Brothers may have discovered the secrets of controlled powered flight but people like Glen Curtis were making great strides and improvements in the field.

I had hoped we would see a few examples of the very early examples such as the the famous Curtiss "Jenny" JN-4 which was a favorite of the old time barnstormers. It was used as a trainer during WWI and after the war thousands were surplussed by the army and bought cheaply by the pilots who flew them during the war. These men then used them for the barnstorming and new airmail system being developed by the postal system. Unfortunately I saw few of this era. There were a few examples pictured below of very early designs.

French Morane Saulnier Type L                       

The Morane was a very early French monoplane and the first equipped with a machine gun that fired through the propeller using steal wedges to avoid damage to itself. It was the original fighter aircraft in 1914. This development set off a great arms race as everyone then worked out how best to make a fighting aircraft capable of inflicting damage on the enemy. The model on display was used in the movie "Amelia" depicting when she first began her flying career. The Type L seen here used wing warping for lateral control but a later model the LA was converted to use ailerons to control the lateral axis. This model saw action early in the war and was the first aircraft to actually shoot down an enemy plane as well as destroy a Zeppelin Airship. As others improved on the idea of a fighter aircraft such as the German Fokker and British Sopwith it was relegated to simple observation and scouting roles. As I looked on this very small aircraft my thoughts were drawn to the fact that this is the mother, "Eve," of the F-18 Tomcat and the F-35 being flown today at supersonic speeds able to destroy an enemy miles away and out of sight. To think this progress has taken place in just 100 years is mind blowing. It also begs the question of what will develop over the next 100 years? 

Bleriot 13
An even earlier aircraft the Bleriot 13 of 1909 was present in two examples. The Model 13 seen above is a replica of the aircraft Louis Bleriot designed, built and flew across the channel to claim the 1000 Pound prize offered by the London Daily Mail to the first person to fly across the channel. His airspeed on the venture was clocked at a sizzling 40 mph with the engine running at a wild 1200 RPM's.  I spoke with the pilot who built the plane from scratch and he told me the original used wing warping following the Wright brothers example and it was very difficult to control. His plans were of the later vintage that had converted to ailerons and he first built it with the aileron and it actually was a nice flying aircraft. He then decided he wanted it as originally designed by Bleriot and rebuilt it to use the wing warping approach. Big mistake, he said as all he accomplished was to turn a very nice airplane into a very difficult one to fly. The other model on display was of the same vintage but marked up a little differently with some cosmetic differences as seen in the photos below.

Above is a view of the second Bleriot from the rear showing the elevator and rudder section. To the right a view of the cockpit. Notice the Steel bracing at the top with cables going toward the wings. This was the apparatus used to warp the wings causing the aircraft to bank left or right. Wing warping worked as first demonstrated by the Wright Flyer but it was very difficult to control and maintain level flight as the plane had a tendency to continue to roll in the direction of the turn allowing wind to get under the wing causing an uncontrolled side slip.

1911 Curtiss Pusher

 At the left is one of the first aircraft obtained by the Navy for experimental purposes. This is what is called a pusher aircraft as the prop faces the rear and pushes the aircraft forward rather than the more familiar pull configuration seen in later aircraft design in which the engine and prop face forward. This is one of the early aircraft to use ailerons to control the turning of the craft. The Wright brothers first designs which were copied by almost everyone else used a technique called wing warping which actually used cables to change to angle of the wing in the direction you wanted to turn. Although this approach worked it took a very skilled pilot to maintain level flight in a turn causing many of the early craft to crash or suffer damage striking the ground. In the image below notice the flat section protruding between the top and lower wings.
Aileron detail

This is one of the earliest designs using this form of control and made the craft much easier to control. The Navy was far from impressed with aircraft in general and could see no real need to experiment with the new invention. The Navy was actually drug into the aircraft business very reluctantly and primarily to use them for scouting and observation devices. This stance was held through WWI until Gen. Billy Mitchell demonstrated the bombing of a great battleship. This feat was hard for the brass to accept and Billy was so dedicated to the idea that due to his constant badgering of the brass, he found himself court marshaled and reduced in rank over the affair. He was eventually driven fro the service due to his forcing of the issue. He was of course later proven right during WWII and since as the aircraft carrier and naval airpower came into it's own with the carrier becoming the linch pin of sea and military power. Today the U. S. Navy has no battleships at sea or in commission but relies on the carrier and it's aircraft to protect and defend.

A Line of Stinson Reliants

 Above is a picture of a line of excellent examples of the 1930's era of Stinson aircraft. These are some of the most beautiful aircraft of that classic era. You can see the streamline look so popular during those years. The lines are very similar to the Streamliner Railroad engines that were produced at the time. I think they are beautiful aircraft and the owners of these aircraft have lovingly restored these examples to perfection. These pilots fly their privately owned planes into the fly in and set up tents camping beside the planes. They are all very friendly and are all anxious to talk about their prized possessions. The interior of the planes are as beautiful as the outside. The Oshkosh EAA holds a judging and awards trophies in various categories culminating with a "Grand Champion" which is then invited back to be displayed along the flight line with signs designating them as "Past Grand Champion." It is amazing to see so many of these planes still flying and being lovingly maintained by their owners. The area cover several acres covered in classic aircraft with tents sprinkled among them. Some merely cover a wing with a tarp tied to the ground and camp under this.
Staggerwing Beech

Shown here is a Staggerwing Beech aircraft produced in the early 1930's. Walter Beech and a designer friend Ted Wells had the foolhardy idea of producing a fast "executive" type aircraft at the height of the Great Depression. The Staggerwing came out of their collaboration and the Beechcraft Aircraft Company was born. It was very slow going selling only 13 aircraft in 1933 the first year of production. Gradually sales picked up and the Staggerwing became the standard for passenger aircraft at the time. They were very luxurious and were seen as a true status symbol of the day as the Gulfstream is today for the top executives. Some of these aircraft were even pressed into service as bombers during the Spanish Civil War of the "30's. They were equipped with large radial engines and even entered into the popular air races of the time until protests from other entrants over safety concerns eliminated them form competition. The models we saw were cared for and restored to the same degree as the other classics of the day.

The picture at the top of this post is of a Waco 17 produced in the early 30's. At first glance it may seem to look like the Staggerwing Beech but notice the lower wing of this biplane is set to the rear of the top wing while the Stagger wing has the lower wing forward of the top wing. The Waco name is not taken from the Texas city but named for Waco Field in Ohio. It is pronounced Wah-co and is mispronounced by many to the irritation of the owners of these planes. They were a very rugged aircraft and were used for everything from polar exploration to airmail services in their day. I tried to get a good picture of the instrument panel of this plane but unfortunately did not get good results. the instruments were set into a hand rubbed wood panel that looked like a fine piece of the best furniture you could imagine.This is just an example of the care and attention to detail the owners lavish on these planes. There are still many of these planes flying today even though the company went out of business in the late 40's when the post war boom in aircraft sales did not materialize.

As I said earlier there were literally hundreds of these classic and vintage aircraft on display filling many acres of parking. This was a fascinating area for me and I returned a couple of times to just stroll among them in awe and admiration. I wonder what Wilbur and Orville Wright and all those other early pioneers would think if they could walk this field today with me. Did they ever imagine that man would conquer the sky and space based on the ideas and dreams they made come true. Man has dreamed of flying ever since he first saw birds moving through the air and now using their ideas we can fly around the world nonstop and fly faster than sound can travel. Put hundreds of people into a single aircraft and move them from any spot on earth to another in a matter of hours. Most of us take the idea of flying so casually today but I am still amazed by it. I hope by reading these posts you too will catch some of the excitement of flight.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Story Continues

A Portion of ConocoPhillips Square
I must begin by apologizing for the gap in posting last week. I had great plans to post each night during the week I was at Oshkosh but like the best laid plans they went astray. One issue I faced was the great barrier to all good intentions - lack of time. The days would start around 6:00 in the morning as we woke from our slumbers to greet the new day. Coffee and breakfast were foremost on our mind and usually took more time than one would think as we had to drag everything out of the back of the truck since we had lost our canopy/shelter on the first night there. Once the stove was unpacked, lit and coffee making, we could start the cooking of bacon, eggs and toast. My friend Andy is a great cook by the way. Eating the food did not take long as we were usually famished from the activities and walking of the day before. Next we had to clean up and wash the dishes by heating water on the two burner stove and packing everything away when done. The showers were next and this took some time to walk to the bath house, wait in line for an empty stall, shave without a mirror, walk back to camp and dress for the day.

As an aside I need to tell you about the number of campers and people. The campground would be measured in square miles as the estimated attendance was between 200,000 and 300,000 people and 15,000 airplanes. This creates some difficulties in getting anywhere or doing anything. We were a considerable distance out in a very large field that was divided up into squares with room to drive between the areas. These were not really roads, just lanes in the grass and after the rains they became muddy quagmires. At the worst times it was almost impossible to get from one side to the other and to the showers. I don't mean this as a complaint as everyone was considerate and helpful and the staff did an amazing job of keeping everything under control and running smoothly. You just need to understand that everything took longer than I thought it would before I got there.

To continue the outline of our typical day, we would then walk to one of the main hard roads to catch a bus to the flight line for the day. They ran the school buses very well and a number of them running but sometimes the bus would be full and you would have to wait for the next one to come by. Once on the bus it was anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes to the flight line as the bus had to meander through the entire campsite while dodging bicycles, four wheelers, walkers and every other device known to man to carry people. We saw some amazing home made motorized transportation devices such as bicycles with small lawnmower engines mounted and pulling all sorts of devices behind them. The ingenuity of these folks is absolutely amazing and is a show in itself. It was usually around 9:00 when we got off the bus to begin our day at the flight line and display areas. When I say flight line and display area I am speaking of a VERY large chunk of land. It runs for miles in two directions along both runways and a huge hanger area, all centered around Conoco Square. The square is a concrete pad large enough to park the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, a B-29, sn Airforce tanker, several fighter aircraft from WWII, a Blackhawk helicopter and an F18 with space left for people to walk about and see the displays. This is surrounded by large tents and buildings with displays from vendors, food services and the like. Then to the far north end of the runway area is Warbird Alley where all the WWII aircraft are parked along with the acres of home built aircraft. To get to this end you have to catch a tram and ride as the walk is at least a mile. Going another mile to the south on a different tram is the vintage aircraft parking and the very end is the ultra lite area.  To the west of the square lie four huge hangers filled with vendors of all kinds surrounded by more tents and flea markets for tools and used aircraft parts.

Map of the area:

We would spend the next 3-4 hours of the day gawking at all the planes and strolling through the displays before heading back to the tent site to smear on the suntan lotion, fill our water bottles, pick up our chairs and get back to the flight line in time for the airshow that began daily at around 3:00 running until 6:00. You wanted to get to the airshow early to get a good location as close to the runway as possible with good view in both directions. Then we would fight the crowds to catch the bus back to camp for cooking dinner before darkness fell. Normally we would finish cooking, eating and cleaning up around 8:30 or 9:00. By this time we are so tired we button up the tent and collapse into slumber for the night.

Wireless access points were a few blocks away but were always busy and I just did not have the energy to walk there and post to the blog. All this to explain a little of the situation and my decision to just take some notes during the day and wait until I returned home to write the posts.

Please understand the comments above are not complaints as the entire event was very well ran and the volunteer staff  were amazing and very patient and considerate of everyone. I just did not realize the scale of Airventure and am still amazed at how well it is conducted. It is just the size and magnitude of it all that made it difficult to post as I intended. I beg your understanding of my departure from the announced plan but do hope you will follow the rest as I post as time permits.