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.

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