Author Archives: William Pearce


Beardmore Inflexible / Rohrbach Ro VI Transport

By William Pearce

In 1914, Adolf Karl Rohrbach started working for Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH as the company began to diversify from airship construction into building heavier-than-air aircraft. Claude Dornier was also employed by Zeppelin and was tasked with designing airframes out of metal, rather than wood. Rohrbach worked with Dornier on the design of several aircraft before Rohrbach was reassigned in 1917 to the Zeppelin plant in Staaken, near Berlin, Germany. At Staaken, Rohrbach worked with Alexander Baumann and was involved in the design of large R-Plane (Riesenflugzeuge, or giant aircraft) bombers.


The duralumin fuselage skin of the Beardmore Inflexible exhibited significant wrinkling. The staining above the wings was caused by engine exhaust and oil. Note the cable running from the wing to the lower fuselage.

Immediately following World War I, Rohrbach designed the Zeppelin-Staaken E.4/20. Like Dornier and Hugo Junkers, Rohrbach was pioneering the construction of aircraft using metal and stressed skin. The E.4/20 was an all-metal, four-engine airliner that made its first flight on 30 September 1920. However, the Treaty of Versailles prevented Germany’s possession of large aircraft, and the E.4/20 was scrapped in 1922. That same year, Rohrbach founded Rohrbach Metall-Flugzeugbau GmbH (Rohrbach Metal Aircraft, Ltd) in Berlin. To work around the Treaty of Versailles, aircraft designed at Rohrbach in Berlin were built at an assembly plant in Copenhagen, Denmark or licensed to be constructed elsewhere.

Following World War I, the British Air Ministry became increasingly interested in all-metal aircraft. In 1923, the Air Ministry issued specification No. 18/23 for a large, all-metal, experimental transport, and order No. 445337/23 was awarded to William Beardmore & Company, Ltd in Dalmuir, Scotland for the construction of such an aircraft. At the time, Beardmore was involved in building ships, locomotives, aircraft engines, and airships. In addition, the company had built aircraft under license during World War I. Beardmore was to collaborate with Rohrbach on the design of the transport aircraft. Beardmore outlined the aircraft’s basic specifications, Rohrbach supplied some of the detailed drawings, and Beardmore built the transport. The aircraft was known as the Beardmore AV 1 Inflexible, or the Rohrbach Ro VI, or the BeRo 1—a combination of Beardmore and Rohrbach. Most commonly, the aircraft is referred to as the Beardmore Inflexible. It was not until 1924 that Beardmore obtained the license from Rohrbach and construction of the aircraft began.


The Inflexible at Martlesham Heath. In the lower right of the image are the wheel trollies used to move the aircraft sideways into the hangar.

At Beardmore, the design of the Inflexible was initially laid out and modified by William. S. Shackleton. The project was later taken over by Rollo A. de Haga Haig. The aircraft’s design was tested in the Royal Aircraft Establishment’s wind tunnel at Farnborough. Except for its size, the aircraft possessed a fairly conventional layout. The monoplane trimotor had shoulder-mounted wings and taildragger landing gear. One engine was mounted in the nose, and an engine was mounted on each wing. Each engine was a water-cooled Rolls-Royce Condor II that produced 650 hp (485 kW) and turned a wooden, fixed-pitch, two-blade propeller. The radiator for the nose-mounted engine was directly below the fuselage, and the radiator for each wing-mounted engine was located under the wing between the engine nacelle and the fuselage. The two-place, side-by-side, open cockpit was positioned just forward of where the wings mounted to the fuselage. Below the cockpit on the left side of the fuselage was a small propeller for a wind-driven pump. The pump supplied oil to a servo system that boosted movement of the ailerons and elevator.


The group posing in front of the Inflexible gives scale to the aircraft’s immense size. The radiator for the fuselage-mounted engine can be seen under the nose. Exhaust manifolds carried the gasses from the center engine away from the cockpit. Just under the cockpit is the windmill for the servo system pump.

The Inflexible was made of duralumin, an aluminum alloy that incorporates copper, manganese, and magnesium for increased strength. The fuselage had a rectangular cross section and consisted of front and rear sections that were bolted together. Both sections were made of duralumin sheets riveted to a duralumin frame. Mounted to the rear of the fuselage were the horizontal and vertical stabilizers. The elevator spanned the entire length of the horizontal stabilizer. A Flettner servo tab trailed behind the rudder and controlled its movement.

The wings were formed by a wing box that bolted to the fuselage and made up the center wing section. An outer wing section bolted to each side of the wing box and was supported by two spars. Like the fuselage, the wing was covered with sheets of duralumin. A cable that kept each wing in tension while in flight connected the rear spar, at about two-thirds the span of the wing, to the lower fuselage. This cable was tensioned to about 3,000 lb (1,361 kg). The wings had a six-degree dihedral. Sections of the leading and trailing edges of the wings were hinged for access and inspection of the inner wing. The aircraft’s 656 US gal (546 Imp gal / 2,482 L) of fuel was carried in four wing tanks. The Inflexible did not have any flaps, but its large ailerons spanned the outer half of each wing’s trailing edge. Extending from each of the aircraft’s control surfaces was an aerodynamic balance horn.

The Inflexible was on hand at the Royal Air Force Display at Hendon in late June 1928. The aircraft now has “9” painted on the fuselage. In a size comparison, the Inflexible was displayed with a de Havilland DH.71 Tiger Moth (far left). The Tiger Moth’s 22 ft 6 in (6.59 m) wingspan was about one-eighth that of the Inflexible.

The aircraft’s immense weight was supported by two large main wheels and a steerable tailwheel. During component testing, wire wheels collapsed under the expected weight of the Inflexible. New wheels were designed and made from steel and aluminum. Mounted to the wheels were 90-in (2.29-m) tall tires, specially developed by the Dunlop Rubber Company. The weight of the large tires increased by 70 lb (32 kg) when they were filled with air. Each main wheel was supported by a shock-absorbing strut that extended from just inside the engine nacelle. An A-frame mounted to the lower fuselage secured each main wheel. The main gear had a track of 25 ft 7 in (7.80 m). For landing, the main wheels had a hydraulic braking system that could be automatically applied when the tail wheel connected with the ground. This system was designed by Rohrbach engineer Kurt Tank.

The Beardmore Inflexible had a wingspan of 157 ft 6 in (48.01 m), a length of 75 ft 6 in (23.01 m), and a height of 21 ft 2 in (6.45 m). The aircraft had a top speed of 110 mph (177 km/h) at sea level and 101 mph (163 km/h) at 6,500 ft (1,981 m). Its landing speed was 65 mph (105 km/h). The Inflexible had a climb rate of 359 fpm (1.8 m/s) and took 18 minutes and 06 seconds to reach 6,500 ft (1,981 m). The aircraft’s service ceiling was 9,350 ft (2,850 m). The Inflexible had an empty weight of 24,923 lb (11,305 kg), a gross weight of 31,400 lb (14,243 kg), and a maximum weight of 37,000 lb (16,783 kg). Reportedly, the aircraft could seat 20 passengers, but it does not appear that such accommodations were ever installed.


Underside of the Inflexible as it overflies the Royal Air Force Display at Hendon. The radiators for the wing-mounted engines are visible by the fuselage. Note the aerodynamic balance horns extending from all of the control surfaces.

Construction of the Inflexible progressed slowly and was often delayed by various material shortages. The aircraft was initially given civil registration G-EBNG on 29 December 1925. This registration was cancelled on 12 July 1927, and military serial number J7557 was assigned. The aircraft was completed at Dalmuir, near Glasgow, Scotland, in mid-1927. It was then broken down into various sections and transported by sea from Glasgow to Ipswich, England. However, the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment had no way to transport the large components from the Ipswich docks to the nearby Martlesham Heath Airfield. Disassembled, the two fuselage sections were 41 ft (12.50 m) long, and the outer wing sections were 61 ft (18.59 m) long. Moving the large sections of the Inflexible to Martlesham Heath required the construction of a special transport with steerable axles. Once assembled, the Inflexible’s wingspan was larger than any hanger opening at Martlesham Heath. Special trollies were built that supported each of the aircraft’s wheels and enabled movement in all directions. With the trollies, the aircraft could be moved sideways into the hanger.

Initial ground tests were started in January 1928, and the Inflexible was soon ready for flight tests when the weather was clear. The aircraft’s first flight occurred on 5 March 1928 and was flown by Jack Noakes. A Beardmore mechanic was also on the flight. The Inflexible took off in about 1,014 ft (309 m) and flew for 15 minutes; at the time, it was the world’s largest aircraft to fly. The Inflexible was stable in flight and exhibited good controls. Further flight testing revealed the aircraft to be underpowered, and its pitch and roll control was lacking in rough weather and at slow speeds. Wake turbulence from the fuselage-mounted engine also caused vibration issues with the aircraft’s tail.


The Inflexible makes a pass during the Royal Air Force Display. The pilot, Jack Noakes, is just visible in the open cockpit.

The Inflexible was displayed for the public on at least three different occasions. On 27–30 June 1928, the aircraft was flown during the Royal Air Force Display at Hendon, near London. On 18–20 May 1929, it appeared at the Norwich Aero Club Air Display at the Mousehold Aerodrome. On 10 June 1929, the Inflexible was at the Cambridge Aero Club Display in Conington.

Beardmore struggled financially after World War I, and the aircraft department closed in February 1929. Rohrbach also suffered financial difficulties, and the company merged with a Deschimag subsidiary to form Weser Flugzeugbau GmbH in 1934. Although the Inflexible had demonstrated the feasibility of all-metal, stressed-skin construction, it would be a few years before the technique was fully adopted by the British aircraft industry. In January 1930, the Inflexible was disassembled for static tests at Martlesham Heath. The aircraft had accumulated 47 hours and 55 minutes of flight time. The engines were removed and placed into storage. After the static tests, the wings, fuselage, and other components were left exposed to the elements for corrosion tests. Occasionally, parts of the duralumin skin were removed and repurposed, and the fuselage served as a space for guards to get out of the weather. The remains of the Inflexible were eventually scrapped in 1931. The only surviving component of the aircraft is one main wheel, which is on display in the Science Museum, London.


Aerodynamic wheel covers were added to the aircraft sometime in early 1929. The Flettner tab controlling the rudder extended some distance behind the aircraft. The aerodynamic balance horns of the rudder and aileron are clearly visible.

Beardmore Aviation 1913-1930 by Charles Mac Kay (2012)
British Prototype Aircraft by Ray Sturtivant (1990)
Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 1928 by C. G. Grey and Leonard Bridgman (1928)
British Flight Testing: Martlesham Heath 1920-1939 by Tim Mason (1993)
– “Die Monster von Beardmore” by Philip Jarrett, Flugzeug Classic (May 2002)


Alfa Romeo 1101 28-Cylinder Aircraft Engine

By William Pearce

In the early 1930s, Alfa Romeo began to build aircraft engines based on foreign designs that it licensed for production. By 1938, Alfa Romeo had obtained licenses to produce the Armstrong Siddeley Lynx, Bristol Jupiter and Pegasus, De Havilland Gypsy Major and Gypsy Six, and Walter Sagitta inverted V-12. The company had also used its knowledge and experience with licensed production to design its own engines. However, Alfa Romeo’s own D-series radial engines of the early 1930s were not successful, and its 135 engine, an 18-cylinder air-cooled radial first run in 1938, suffered from reliability issues. Giustino Cattaneo had designed the 135, but he left Alfa Romeo in 1936, before the first engine was built. Still, the design of these original Alfa Romeo engines owed much to the foreign engines built under license.


The Alfa Romeo 1101 28-cylinder engine with its remote, two-speed supercharger. Note the induction system from the supercharger to the cylinders. The fuel injection pump and magnetos can be seen on the back of the engine. One cylinder bank has a seemingly restrictive exhaust manifold attached.

In 1938, Ugo Gobbato, Managing Director of Alfa Romeo, tasked the Special Studies Service (Servizio Studi Speciali / SSS) to design an entirely new aircraft engine. The SSS was Alfa Romeo’s secret or special projects department. Wifredo Ricart, a Spaniard who escaped his country’s civil war and fled to Italy in 1936, was in charge of the new engine’s design, which was designated 281.

The 281 was an inline radial that consisted of seven cylinder banks, each with four cylinders. The liquid-cooled engine was equipped with a single-speed, single-stage centrifugal supercharger. The 281 engine had a 4.72 in (120 mm) bore, a 4.33 in (110 mm) stroke, and displaced 2,126 cu in (34.83 L). With the bore larger than the stroke, the oversquare engine was designed have a relatively small diameter and operate at higher rpm. The engine had an estimated output of 1,480 hp (1,089 kW) at 3,000 rpm. The 281 was designed with then-current power requirements in mind, but did not consider future demands for power increases. The 281 design produced basically the same power as the 135, although it was 35 in (.88 m) in diameter compared to 55 in (1.40 m) for the 135. Realizing that a more powerful engine was needed, Ettore Pagani, also of the SSS, completed a design study in 1939 of an enlarged 281 to produce an excess of 2,000 hp (1,471 kW). This engine became known as the 1101. The 281 was never built.

The Alfa Romeo 1101 was initially designated 101, but it was also referred to as the 1.101 and 1.1.01. However, 1101 has become the most common designation. The design team for the 1101 consisted of Ricart, Orazio Satta, and Giuseppe Busso. The engine had a cast aluminum crankcase with seven cylinder banks mounted radially around its center and spaced at 51.4 degrees. The upper cylinder bank extended vertically from the crankcase. Each cylinder bank contained four cylinders and was made from cast aluminum with an integral cylinder head. Wet cylinder liners made of nitrided steel were installed in the cylinder block. Each cylinder had one intake valve and one sodium-cooled exhaust valve. The intake valve was 2.56 in (65 mm) in diameter, and the exhaust valve was 2.20 in (56 mm) in diameter. The valves for each cylinder bank were actuated via hydraulic tappets by a single overhead camshaft. The camshaft was driven by bevel gears and a vertical shaft from the front of the engine. The one-piece crankshaft was supported by five main bearings. The pistons for each row of cylinders were served by a master connecting rod with six articulated connecting rods. The cylinders had a compression ratio of 6.5 to 1.


Front view of the 1101 illustrates the vertical drives for the camshafts. The four mounts on the front of the gear reduction are visible. A sump is positioned between the two lower cylinder banks.

Mounted to the front of the engine was a propeller gear reduction. Via planetary bevel gears, the propeller shaft rotated at .400 times crankshaft speed. Mounted to the rear of the engine were two fuel injection pumps and two magnetos. The primary injection pump had a maximum flow of 423 gallons (1,600 L) per hour and delivered fuel to the injectors mounted in the intake side of the cylinder head. The secondary fuel injection pump had a maximum flow of 132 gallons (500 L) per hour and delivered methanol (methyl alcohol) to injectors located in the intake manifold just before the intake port of each cylinder. The methanol was used to increase maximum power and reduce detonation. Each of the two magnetos fired one of the two spark plugs mounted in each cylinder.

A shaft extending from the rear of the engine powered a remote, two-speed, centrifugal supercharger. The 1101 engine as built did not have a supercharger mounted in a housing that attached directly to the rear of the crankcase. Some sources indicate that the engine had a two-stage supercharger, but photos show just the remote supercharger with no other stage apparent. Two-stage supercharging was certainly planned for future versions of the 1101 engine. Air entered the back of the supercharger, where it was compressed to provide 11.4 psi (.78 bar) of boost. A duct extending from the supercharger was intended to incorporate an aftercooler, but surviving photos do not show one installed. From the duct, the air entered a semi-annular manifold located at the rear of the engine. Seven individual runners extended from the semi-annular manifold and connected to each cylinder bank. The runners had four outlets grouped in two pairs of two and mounted to the left side of the cylinder bank. Each cylinder bank had four exhaust ports on its right side, and the exhaust ports for the middle two cylinders of each bank were grouped together.

A centrifugal water pump, most likely mounted to the lower rear of the engine, flowed coolant at 14,530 gallons (55,000 L) per hour. The coolant was a mix of 70 percent water and 30 percent ethylene glycol. Double dynafocal engine mounts were located on the back side of each cylinder bank. The propeller gear reduction housing also had four mounts.

The engine was officially designated Alfa Romeo 1101 RC37/87. The “RC” stood for Riduttore de giri (gear reduction) and Compressore (supercharged), and 37/87 designated the critical altitudes (in hectometers) at which maximum continuous power was obtained with its two-speed supercharger. The engine had a 5.31 in (135 mm) bore and a 4.92 in (125 mm) stroke. This gave the 1101 a displacement of 3,057 cu in (50.10 L). However, since the strokes of the articulated rods were slightly longer than that of the master rod, the engine had an actual displacement of 3,066 cu in (50.25 L). Takeoff power was 2,200 hp (1,618 kW) at 2,625 rpm. For one minute at emergency power and 2,800 rpm, the engine produced 2,300 hp (1,692 kW) at 7,546 ft (2,300 m) in low gear and 2,150 hp (1,581 kW) at 26,247 ft (8,000 m) in high gear. For five minutes at military power and 2,700 rpm, the engine produced 2,000 hp (1,471 kW) at 10,827 ft (3,300 m) in low gear and 1,900 hp (1,398 kW) at 28,215 ft (8,600 m) in high gear. Maximum continuous power was achieved at 2,625 rpm, with the engine producing 1,850 hp (1,361 kW) at 12,139 ft (3,700 m) in low gear and 1,750 hp (1,287 kW) at 28,543 ft (8,700 m) in high gear. The 1101 had a diameter of 44.7 in (1.14 m) and was 97.2 in (2.47 m) long. The engine weighed 2,535 lb (1,150 kg) without accessories.


The 1101’s aftercooler was to be incorporated into the induction pipe between the supercharger and the ring manifold. Note the shaft housing extending back from the engine to power the supercharger.

The 1101 was designed and built at Alfa Romeo’s plant in Pomigliano d’Arco, near Naples, Italy. As the 1101 was being built, Italy had secured licenses from Germany to build the Daimler-Benz DB 601 and DB 605 engines and tasked Alfa Romeo with their production. This led to the formation in 1941 of Alfa Romeo Avio, a division focused solely on producing aircraft engines. The 1101 engine was completed in late December 1941 and first run in early January 1942. Under tests, the 1101 experienced detonation issues that damaged the pistons and cylinder heads. These issues were caused by the 87 octane fuel and the timing of the fuel injection system.

Development of the engine progressed until early 1943, when the war situation required the dispersal of factories away from populated areas. The 1101 engine project was moved to Armeno in northern Italy, near the Swiss border. The move caused delays, but the entire project was suspended on 8 September 1943, following news of the Italian armistice. The Armeno plant housing the 1101 fell in the territory controlled by the newly formed Italian Social Republic (Repubblica Sociale Italiana), which was mostly controlled by Germany. It is not clear if work on the 1101 engine was resumed or stayed suspended, but by mid-1943, the Armeno plant housed nearly all of the engine’s documentation, the prototype engines, and parts for approximately 20 pre-production examples. On 18 June 1944, all of the materiel in the Armento plant was destroyed by Italian partisans (resistance fighters) to prevent its use by the German military.

Future development of the 1101 included two-stage supercharging to increase the engine’s military power rating to 2,300 hp (1,692 kW). Most likely, this configuration would include an additional centrifugal supercharger incorporated in a housing mounted directly to the rear of the crankcase and mechanically driven from the crankshaft. Investigations were also conducted into turbocompounding the engine. The turbocompounded 1101 would utilize five turbines. Three turbines would be positioned at the front of the engine to recover power from the exhaust and feed it back to the propeller shaft. The remaining two turbines were turbosuperchargers (first stage of supercharging) positioned at the rear of the engine to feed air into the engine’s centrifugal supercharger (second stage of supercharging). The turbocompounded engine was expected to weight 20 percent more, increase fuel efficiency by 15 percent, and produce 2,600 (1,912 kW) hp. However, no such engines were built.


The 1101 mounted on what appears to be a test bed. This image gives a good view to the spacing of the intake and exhaust ports. Note the two dynafocal mounts on the back of each cylinder bank. It is not clear if the remote supercharger has been omitted or is just obscured by the mounting frame.

Other developments included enlarging the engine’s cylinder, possibly with a 5.71 in (145 mm) bore and a 5.12 in (130 mm) stroke, so that total displacement was 3,668 cu in (60.1 L). Studies were also undertaken to create a 42-cylinder engine by having six cylinders per bank. Some sources indicate that this engine had a displacement of approximately 4,270 cu in (70 L). However, the bore and stroke of the 1101 would displace 4,586 cu in (75.1 L) with 42 cylinders. Therefore, the bore and stroke of the 4,270 cu in (70 L) 42-cylinder engine are not known.

The 1101 was proposed for at least three aircraft projects: the Alfa Romeo 1902—apparently a development of the Aeronautica Umbra MB-902 design, with the two engines buried in the fuselage and driving propellers on each wing via extension shafts and right-angle drives; the Caproni Vizzola MCT (Monoposto Caccia Trigona / Tr.1207)—a single seat fighter of a taildragger configuration with the engine buried in the fuselage behind the cockpit and driving a tractor propeller via an extension shaft; and the Savoia-Marchetti SM-96 (II)—a single seat taildragger fighter of a conventional tractor layout with the engine installed in the nose. None of these projects were built.

Two Alfa Romeo marine engines utilized 1101 components: the inline, four-cylinder 1001 engine used a single cylinder bank, and the V-8 1002 engine used two cylinder banks. Both of these engines were built during World War II and neither appear to have entered quantity production. The only known part of an 1101 engine to survive is a fuel injection pump stored at the Alfa Romeo Museum (Museo Storico Alfa Romeo) in Arese, Italy.

Note: The horsepower (hp) figures in this article are actually Cavalli Vapore (CV), which is 1.387% more than a standard hp (100 CV = 98.6 hp). The kilowatt (kW) values are based on CV.


A composite drawing of the Caproni Vizzola MCT (Monoposto Caccia Trigona / single seat fighter, designed by Emmanuele Trigona) with the 1101 engine installed in the fuselage.

– “Destini incrociati” by Luigi Montanari, epocAuto Anno 14, N.1 (January 2019)
– “Le attività aeronautiche in Alfa Romeo fino al 1945” by Fabio Morlacchi, L’Alfa Romeo di Ugo Gobbato 1933-1945, Monografi AISA 92 (2 April 2011)


Martin XB-51 Attack Bomber

By William Pearce

In February 1946, the United States Army Air Force (AAF) sought design proposals for an attack aircraft to replace the Douglas A-26 Invader. The Glenn L. Martin Company (Martin) responded with its Model 234, a straight-wing aircraft of a rather conventional layout, except that the engine nacelle on each wing housed a turboprop and a turbojet engine. The Model 234 had a crew of six and was forecasted to carry 8,000 lb (3,629 kg) of ordinance over 800 miles (1,287 km).


The Martin XB-51 was a unique attack bomber designed at the dawn of the jet age. The first prototype is seen here with its original tail. Note the inlet for the fuselage-mounted engine. The dark square behind the canopy is a window over the radio operator. (Martin/USAF image)

Martin was awarded a contract to develop the Model 234 on 23 May 1946, and the aircraft was designated XA-45. A few weeks later, the AAF decided to discard the “Attack” category, and the XA-45 was subsequently redesignated XB-51. The AAF then requested new requirements for the XB-51 with an emphasis on speed. The AAF’s new desired specifications for the A-26 replacement was a top speed of 640 mph (1,030 km/h) and the ability to carry 4,000 lb (1,814 kg) of ordinance over 600 miles (966 km). The new requirements necessitated a complete redesign of the XB-51, which Martin completed and submitted to the AAF in February 1947. After slight modifications, the design was somewhat finalized by July 1947. The AAF ordered two prototypes, which were assigned serial numbers 46-685 and 46-686.

The Martin XB-51 was a radical departure from the firm’s previous aircraft designs. The XB-51 was an all-metal aircraft that featured a relatively large fuselage supported by relatively small swept wings. The aircraft had a crew of two and was powered by three General Electric J47-GE-13 engines, each developing 5,200 lbf (23.13 kN) of thrust. Two of the engines were mounted on short pylons attached to the lower sides of the aircraft in front of the wings. The third engine was buried in the extreme rear of the fuselage.


The XB-51 with its flaps up and its wing at an incidence of three degrees as the aircraft is rolled out on 4 September 1949. The circle on the side of the fuselage just behind the cockpit is a side window for the radio operator. There is no window mirrored on the left side of the aircraft. Note that the intake for the fuselage-mounted engine has its cover rotated closed. (Martin/USAF image)

The pilot sat in the front of the aircraft under what appeared to be a small canopy in contrast to the large fuselage. Behind the pilot and completely within the fuselage was the radio operator, who was also in charge of the short range navigation and bombing (SHORAN) system. The crew compartment was pressurized, and access was provided by a door on the left underside of the fuselage, between the pilot and radio operator’s stations. In case of an emergency, both crew were provided with upward firing ejection seats.

The engine housed in the rear fuselage was fed by an inlet duct located atop the fuselage. A rotating assembly was installed forward of the inlet to either cover the inlet with an aerodynamic fairing when the engine was not in use, or rotate to provide a duct to feed air to the engine. The rear engine could be shut down in flight to extend the aircraft’s range. When not in use, a door in the intake duct prevented the back flow of air through the rear engine. Large doors swung open beneath the fuselage to access the rear engine.


The first XB-51 with flaps down and its wing at an incidence of 7.5 degrees. Note that only one of the wingtip outrigger gears is touching the ground. (Martin/USAF image)

Mounted above the rear engine was the vertical stabilizer, with the horizontal stabilizer mounted to its top. Originally, the XB-51’s design had the horizontal stabilizer mounted midway up the vertical stabilizer, but the aircraft was not built with this configuration. The horizontal stabilizer was swept back 35 degrees, and its incidence could be changed for trimming. Two rocket assisted takeoff (RATO) bottles could be fitted to each side of the rear fuselage. The RATO packs would be ignited to shorten the XB-51’s takeoff distance, then discarded once the aircraft was in flight. Each bottle provided 1,000 lbf (4.44 kN) of thrust. Hydraulically operated air brakes were located on each side of the fuselage, under the intake for the rear engine. A braking parachute was housed in the left side of a fairing located below the rudder.

The XB-51 used tandem (bicycle) main gear that consisted of front and aft trucks, and outrigger wheels that deployed from the aircraft’s wingtips for support. Martin had used a similar gear arrangement for the straight-wing XB-48 jet medium bomber and had initially tested the setup using the Martin XB-26H, a B-26 Marauder specially modified for to test the tandem landing gear. The main trucks could swivel to counteract the aircraft’s yaw while taking off or landing with a crosswind.


Ordinance for the XB-51 that would fit in the bomb bay. From left to right, four 1,600 lb (726 kg) bombs, eight 5 in (127 mm) High Velocity Aircraft Rockets (HAVR), one 4,000 lb (1,814 kg) bomb, four 2,000 lb (907 kg) bombs, four 1,000 lb (454 kg) bombs, and nine 500 lb (227 kg) bombs. The 4,000 lb (1,814 kg) bomb required an enlarged bomb bay door. (Martin/USAF image)

The aircraft’s bomb bay was located in the fuselage between the main wheels. The bomb bay had a single rotating door to which the bomb load was attached. Opening the rotating door did not create any buffeting or require any speed restriction normally required by two conventional doors. In addition, the rotating door was removable and could be quickly replaced with another door already loaded with ordinance. The standard door could accommodate nine 500 lb (227 kg) bombs, four 1,000 lb (454 kg) bombs; four 1,600 lb (726 kg) bombs; or two 2,000 lb (907 kg) bombs. Two additional 2,000 lb (907 kg) bombs could be accommodated on exterior bomb racks mounted on the bottom of the door. A special enlarged door could be fitted to carry a single 4,000 lb (1,814 kg) bomb or a Mk 5 or Mk 7 nuclear bomb. The XB-51’s maximum bomb load was 10,400 lb (4,717 kg). Eight 5 in (127 mm) High Velocity Aircraft Rockets (HAVR) could be carried in the bomb bay in place of internal bombs.

Three fuel tanks were installed in the aircraft’s fuselage. The forward tank was located above the front main gear and held 640 US gal (2,426 L). The center and aft tanks were both located above the bomb bay and held 745 US gal (2,820 L) and 1,450 US gal (5,489 L) respectively. All the standard fuel tanks could be filled via a single fueling receptacle. A 160.5 US gal (607.6 L) water/alcohol tank to boost engine performance during takeoff was mounted between the front and center fuel tanks. Two 350 US gal (1,325 L) tanks could be carried in the bomb bay for ferrying the aircraft over long distances. The XB-51 had a total normal fuel capacity of 2,835 US gal (10,732 L), and 3,535 US gal (13,381 L) with the bomb bay tanks.


The XB-51 executing a high-performance takeoff provides a good view of the aircraft’s leading-edge slats and large flaps. No RATO bottles are fitted. (Martin/USAF image)

In the nose of the XB-51 were eight fixed 20 mm cannons with 160 rpg and a forward strike camera. The nose of the second XB-51 was detachable, and different noses could be fitted depending on the aircraft’s mission. In addition to the standard gun nose, other noses featured equipment for precision bombing and equipment for photo-reconnaissance. As standard, the XB-51 had a reconnaissance camera installed under the cockpit and a strike assessment camera installed in the lower rear fuselage.

With fuel, engines, and the main landing gear all housed in the fuselage, the XB-51’s mid-mounted wings were very thin. The wings were swept back 35 degrees and had six degrees of anhedral. Outrigger wheels deployed from the wingtips to steady the aircraft on the tandem main gear. Slats extended along the outer 70 percent of the wing’s leading edge. Large, slotted flaps covered 75 percent of the wings trailing edge, with small ailerons taking up 15 percent of the trailing edge. While the ailerons contributed to aircraft’s roll control, their main purpose was to provide feedback for the pilot. The majority of roll control was provided by spoilers positioned on the wing’s upper surface, just forward of the flaps. The spoilers extended about 40 percent of the wing’s span. The incidence of the entire wing could vary from 2 to 7.5 degrees and would automatically change with deployment of the flaps. The wing incidence increased at lower speeds to decrease the aircraft’s stall speed and make the aircraft assume the correct attitude for landing, which was with the nose high approximately six degrees. The tandem landing gear required the simultaneous touchdown of both the forward and aft trucks. To prevent the accumulation of ice, hot air was bled off from the engines, directed through a passageway in the wing’s leading edge, and exhausted out the wingtip.

The Martin XB-51 had a 53 ft 1 in (16.18 m) wingspan, was 85 ft 1 in (25.93 m) long, and was 17 ft 4 in (5.28 m) tall. The track between the outrigger landing gear was 49 ft 5 in (15.06 m). The aircraft had a top speed of 645 mph (1,038 km/h) at sea level and 580 mph (933 km/h) at 35,000 ft (10,668 m). Cruising speed was 532 mph (856 mph) at 35,000 ft (10,668 m), and the aircraft’s landing speed was around 140 mph (225 km/h). The XB-51’s initial rate of climb was 6,980 ft (35.5 m/s) at maximum power and 3,600 ft (18.3 m/s) at normal power. The service ceiling was 40,500 ft (12,344 m); normal range was 980 miles (1,577 km), and ferry range was 1,445 miles (2,326 km). The XB-51 had an empty weight of 30,906 lb (14,019 kg), a combat weight of 44,000 (19,958 kg), and a gross weight of 55,930 lb (25,369 kg).


The first XB-51 undergoing an engine run. The bullet fairing has been added to the tail. Note the covered ports in the nose for the 20 mm cannons. (Martin/USAF image)

On 24 February 1948, a mockup of the XB-51 was inspected by the United States Air Force (USAF), which had become a separate branch of the US Armed Forces on 18 September 1947. Construction of the first prototype (46-685) proceeded swiftly at the Martin plant in Middle River, Maryland, and the completed aircraft was rolled out on 4 September 1949. After completing ground tests, aircraft 46-685 made is first flight on 28 October 1949, piloted by Orville Edward ‘Pat’ Tibbs. Initial flight testing went well until the rear main gear collapsed after landing on 28 December. The aircraft was repaired and returned to flight status in early 1950. High-speed testing had revealed some vibrations with the tail and a tendency to Dutch roll. A bullet faring was added at the intersection of the horizontal and vertical stabilizers in March 1950 to mitigate the issues.

The second prototype (46-686) made its first flight on 17 April 1950, piloted by Frank Earl ‘Chris’ Christofferson. Although 46-686 was initially flown with the original tail, bullet fairings were soon added. Both aircraft were involved in numerous landing accidents, mostly attributed to the tandem landing gear and the pilot’s lack of familiarity with its nuances. Nose high landings resulted in tail strikes that damaged the aft fuselage. Nose low and hard landings resulted in the collapse or shearing of the front main gear. Despite the landing difficulties, pilots seemed to like the aircraft and its performance. While the XB-51 could perform rolls and outpace some fighters, the aircraft was not stressed for aggressive maneuvers.


Another image of the first XB-51 with its bullet tail fairing. Note the RATO bottles attached to the rear fuselage. The shield painted under the cockpit says “Air Force Flight Test Center.” (Martin/USAF image)

The USAF considered putting the XB-51 into production, but the role for which the aircraft was intended had changed again with the outbreak of the Korean War. Speed was no longer the main focus, and the USAF now desired an aircraft that could loiter in an area until needed by ground forces. The USAF compared the XB-51 against the North American AJ-1 Savage and B-45 Tornado, the Avro Canada CF-100 Canuck, and the English Electric Canberra. Under the new criteria, the USAF selected the Canberra as the winner in February 1951, and the XB-51 program was essentially cancelled. The Canberra had more than twice the range and loiter time of the XB-51. The following month, Martin was awarded a contract to build the Canberra as the B-57, and the rotary-style bomb bay pioneered on the XB-51 was installed on the B-57. Ultimately, 403 B-57 aircraft would be produced. Both XB-51 aircraft continued to be evaluated and tested. The two XB-51s underwent performance and armament tests at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB) in California and Elgin AFB in Florida.

On 9 May 1952, the second prototype XB-51 was destroyed at Edwards AFB when Major Neal Lathrop executed a roll at low altitude and collided with the ground. Lathrop was the sole occupant on board. At the time of the accident, 46-686 had accumulated 151 hours of flight time and had made 193 flights.


The second (left) and first (right) XB-51 aircraft at the Martin plant in Middle River. Both aircraft have the bullet tail fairings, and the second prototype (left) has RATO bottles attached. The Martin plant in the background still has the camouflage paint scheme applied during World War II. Compare the different flap and wing positions between the two aircraft. (Martin/USAF image)

The first prototype played the role of the “Gilbert XF-120” fighter in the 1956 movie “Toward the Unknown.” The movie was shot mostly at Edwards AFB in 1955. On 25 March 1956 the 46-685 was destroyed while taking off from El Paso Municipal (now International) Airport in Texas. The stop in El Paso was to refuel as the aircraft traveled from Edwards AFB to Eglin AFB. The accident occurred due to a premature rotation and subsequent stall. The radio operator, Staff Sergeant Wilbur R. Savage, was killed in the crash, and the pilot, Major James O. Rudolph, died of his injuries on 16 April 1956. The first XB-51 prototype had accumulated 432 hours and made 453 flights.

Performance of the Martin XB-51 had exceeded the manufacturer’s guarantees. However, the aircraft was designed and built at a time when USAF’s desires and priorities were rapidly shifting, and it turned out that the service did not really want the aircraft they had originally asked for. Pilots held the XB-51 in a high regard despite its demanding landing characteristics. Ultimately, the XB-51 faded into history as a short-lived experimental aircraft investigating a new direction at the dawn of the jet age.


The second (right) and first (left) XB-51 aircraft make a low pass over Martin Field on 11 October 1950. Note the shadows of the aircraft on the runway. (Martin/USAF image)

The Martin XB-51 by Scott Libis (1998)
“Martin XB-51” by Clive Richards, Wings of Fame Volume 14 (1999)
Martin Aircraft 1909–1950 by John R. Breihan, Stan Piet, and Roger S. Mason (1995)
Standard Aircraft Characteristics XB-51 by U.S. Air Force (11 July 1952)
Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 1951-1952 by Leonard Bridgman (1951)
U.S. Bombers 1928 to 1980s by Lloyd S. Jones (1980)


Hawker Tempest I Fighter

By William Pearce

On 24 February 1940, the Hawker Typhoon fighter prototype (P5212) made its first flight, piloted by Philip G. Lucas. The Typhoon was designed by Sydney Camm of Hawker Aircraft Limited and was intended as a high-altitude interceptor capable of 400 mph (644 km/h) at 20,000 ft (6,069 m). The British Ministry of Aircraft Production placed an order for 250 Typhoons on 8 October 1939, months before the prototype’s first flight. Flight testing revealed a number of design deficiencies and that the aircraft was not quite suited for its intended role. A major issue was that the compressibility of the Typhoon’s thick wing while diving at high speed caused some instability which made it very difficult to accurately fire the aircraft’s cannons. However, the Typhoon did show promise as a low-altitude interceptor and fighter-bomber.


An excellent view of the recently completed Hawker Tempest I at Langley. Note the wing radiators, the large propeller, and the wide track of the main landing gear. The cannons are installed in the wings. A number of newly-built Hawker Hurricanes are in the background.

In March 1941, Camm proposed an updated Typhoon design with a new wing and a more powerful Napier Sabre IV engine to improve the aircraft’s performance over that of the original Typhoon, powered by a Sabre II. This new design was initially forecasted to have a top speed of 430 mph (644 km/h) at 20,000 ft (6,096 m) but was later revised up to 455 mph (732 km/h) at 26,000 ft (7,925 m). The anticipated development time of the new fighter was decreased by utilizing many existing Typhoon components, and the aircraft had an anticipated in-service date of December 1943. Discussions continued with the Ministry of Aircraft Production, and Specification F.10/41 was issued to cover the new aircraft. On 18 November 1941, two prototypes were ordered and issued serial numbers HM595 and HM599. The aircraft was designated as the Typhoon II. An order for 100 production aircraft was placed on 24 February 1942. With detailed design work underway, it was realized that few existing Typhoon components could be used in the Typhoon II. Camm proposed that a new name should be selected for the aircraft. Eventually, in August 1942, the Typhoon II was officially renamed Tempest to reflect that is was essentially a new aircraft.

The Sabre IV engine for the Tempest was expected in December 1941, and the aircraft was to make its first flight in late March 1942. However, complications with the aircraft’s design and delays with its engine resulted in a slip of the project’s entire timeline. In March 1942, Hawker decided to finish the first prototype, HM595, with a Sabre II engine and a chin radiator as used on the Typhoon. This would allow time for the airframe to be developed while Napier finished work on the Sabre IV engine, which would be installed in the second Tempest prototype, HM599.


Side view of the Tempest I with its original framed canopy and cockpit entry door on the side of the aircraft. The tail was very similar to that of the Typhoon, and unlike the Tempest V, its area was not increased. Note the tail wheel doors.

In June 1942, the Tempest project was redefined. As previously specified, HM599 would be finished with the Sabre IV engine as the Tempest I, and HM595 would be finished with the Sabre II and chin radiator as the Tempest V. Four additional prototypes were ordered: two (LA602 and LA607) would be powered by the Bristol Centaurus radial engine as the Tempest II, and two (LA610 and LA614) would be powered by the Rolls-Royce Griffon IIB as the Tempest III. The Griffon IIB would later be replaced by the Griffon 61, at which time the aircraft would become the Tempest IV. An order for 400 production Tempest Is followed in August 1942.

The Hawker Tempest I was a single-engine fighter of all-metal construction with a conventional taildragger layout. The fuselage was made up of four sections: engine and engine mount, center fuselage, rear fuselage, and tail. The center fuselage consisted of the cockpit and forward fuselage and was comprised of a tubular frame covered with aluminum panels. The rear fuselage was of monocoque construction. The Tempest I’s tail section, which included the vertical and horizontal stabilizers, was basically the same as that used on production Typhoons. The tail’s attachment was reinforced with “fish plates,” just like those on mid-war Typhoons. One difference from the Typhoon was that the Tempest I’s tailwheel was fully retractable and concealed by gear doors. The fuselage of the Tempest I was 21 in (533 mm) longer than that of the Typhoon because the engine was moved forward to accommodate a 91 US gal (76 Imp gal / 345 L) fuel tank installed in the fuselage ahead of the cockpit. The cockpit was accessible via a side entry door, and the pilot sat under a framed canopy.


Rear view of the Tempest I with its original canopy. Even though the Tempest I shared many components with the Tempest V, it looks like a different aircraft.

The Tempest I’s new semi-elliptical wing was mounted to the tubular frame of the center fuselage. The wing had two main spars and consisted of an inner and outer section. The inner section had no dihedral and housed the inward-retracting main landing gear that had been redesigned from that of the Typhoon. The landing gear had a wide track of 14 ft 11 in (4.53 m). A 34 US gal (28 Imp gal / 127 L) fuel tank was located in each wing between the main gear leg well and rear spar. Engine coolant radiators and the oil cooler were installed in the leading edge of the wing’s center section. Adjustable flaps on the underside of the wing just aft of the heat exchangers regulated coolant and oil temperatures. Each outer wing section had a 5.5-degree dihedral and housed two 20 mm Hispano Mk II cannons with 150 rpg. Each wing had a two-section, hydraulically actuated split flap and featured a large aileron. The Tempest I’s wing was approximately 5 in (127 mm) thinner at the root and 7 in (178 mm) shorter in span than that of the Typhoon and could not house all the needed fuel, which is why the fuselage tank was added. Provisions were included for the installation of a 54 US gal (45 Imp gal / 205 L) drop tank under each wing. Except for the fabric-covered rudder, all control surfaces were covered with metal.

The Tempest I’s sleeve-valve, H-24 Napier Sabre IV engine was mounted to the forward part of the tubular fuselage frame. The engine produced 2,240 hp (1,670kW) at 4,000 rpm at 8,000 ft (2,438 m) with 9 psi (.62 bar) of boost. This was some 200 hp (149 kW) more than the Sabre II used on the Typhoon. A small scoop under the engine fed air into the carburetor. The Sabre IV turned a metal, four-blade, constant-speed de Havilland propeller that was 14 ft (4.27 m) in diameter. Omitting the Typhoon’s chin radiator and relocating the cooling system in the wings gave the Tempest I a much more refined and aerodynamic look compared to the earlier aircraft.


The Tempest I in flight with Bill Humble at the controls. The aircraft now has the one-piece bubble canopy, and its armament has been removed. Note the carburetor intake under the engine.

The Hawker Tempest I had a 41 ft (12.40 m) wingspan, was 33 ft 7 in (10.24 m) long, and was 15 ft 10 in (4.83 m) tall. The aircraft’s top speed was 466 mph (750 km/h) at 24,500 ft (7,468 m) and 441 mph (710 km/h) at 13,600 ft (4,145 m). It could climb to 15,000 ft (4,572 m) in 4 minutes and 15 seconds and had a ceiling of 37,000 ft (11,278 m). The Tempest I weighed 8,950 lb (4,060 kg) empty and 11,300 lb (5,126 kg) loaded. The aircraft’s range was 500 miles (805 km) on internal fuel and 800 miles (1,287 km) with drop tanks.

Construction of the Tempest I prototype at Hawker’s new facility in Langley, England was delayed by other war work and by the wing radiators. As previously mentioned, delivery of the Sabre IV was delayed by Napier. The Sabre II-powered Tempest V was first flown on 2 September 1942 by Lucas and gave some indication of what to expect with the Tempest I. The Sabre IV engine was delivered in November 1942, and the Tempest I underwent ground trials in February 1943. Tempest I HM599 was first flown on 24 February 1943, piloted by Lucas. Lucas found the Tempest I to have improved stability over that of the Tempest V, although pitch authority became non-existent under 110 mph (177 km/h).

A new engine was installed in early March 1943, and the aircraft returned to the air on 26 March. Two days later, Bill Humble made his first flight in the Tempest I. In late April and through May, a more developed Sabre IV engine was installed, and the Tempest I was modified with a conventional, one-piece, rearward-sliding bubble canopy. It also appears that the cannons were removed, at least temporarily, at this time. The updated Tempest I flew on 4 June, piloted by Humble. Some performance testing was done during the remainder of June. The Sabre IV engine exhibited a drastic increase in oil consumption at speeds over 3,750 rpm, and the hand-built engines seldom reached 50 hours before needing to be replaced. Despite the engine difficulties, the Tempest I was praised for its performance and handling, especially at higher altitudes.


Another image of Humble in the Tempest I. This angle illustrates the aircraft’s clean lines. The air exit gap aft of the wing radiator is somewhat visible, as are the fish plates to reinforce the tail.

Another Sabre IV engine was installed in late July 1943, and a thinner horizontal stabilizer may have been installed at this time. The Tempest I resumed flight testing in August, at which time speeds of 460 mph (740 km/h) at 25,300 ft (7,711 m) and 443 mph (713 km/h) at 13,300 ft (4,054 m) were recorded. Humble achieved higher speeds in September, which included the aircraft’s official 466 mph (750 km/h) at 24,500 ft (7,468 m) and 441 mph (710 km/h) at 13,600 ft (4,145 m). The highest recorded level speed was 472 mph (760 km/h) at 18,000 ft (5,486 m). Testing continued, but development issues with the Sabre IV engine led to further work on the Tempest I project not being covered by government contract beyond December 1943. The Tempest V with its Sabre II engine required less development, and the type took over the original order for the Tempest I.

There was still life for the Tempest I. The aircraft was fitted with a 2,420 hp (1,805 kW) Sabre V engine, and the combination was first flown on 8 February 1944 by Humble. On 12 February, an order for 700 Sabre V-powered Tempest Is was received. On 9 March, the Tempest I was damaged in a ground accident involving a Hawker Hurricane. The Tempest I was quickly repaired and resumed flying on 28 March. The Tempest I order was cut to 300 aircraft in April and then converted to the Sabre V-powered Tempest VI in May.

The Tempest I continued to serve as a Sabre V engine testbed until at least March 1945. With the Sabre V, the Tempest I recorded a speed of 462 mph (743 km/h) at 17,600 ft (5,364 m) and 444 mph (715 km/h) at 7,200 ft (2,195 m). The Tempest I’s last flight appears to have been made on 31 August 1945. On 11 September 1947, the Tempest I was struck off charge, and the aircraft was scrapped on or shortly after 27 October 1947. At least six pilots made at least 91 flights in the Tempest I, but a full account of its flight time has not been found.


The Tempest I was an elegant aircraft that demonstrated excellent performance. Engine trouble and the more straightforward development of the Tempest V led to the Tempest I ultimately not being produced.

Hawker Typhoon, Tempest and Sea Fury by Kev Darling (2003)
Tempest: Hawker’s Outstanding Piston-Engined Fighter by Tony Buttler (2011)
The Hawker Typhoon and Tempest by Francis K. Mason (1988)
Fighters Volume Two by William Green (1964)
Hawker Typhoon and Tempest: A Formidable Pair by Philip Birtles (2018)
Hawker Aircraft since 1920 by Francis K. Mason (1991)


Napier H-24 Sabre Aircraft Engine

By William Pearce

Aircraft engine designer Frank Bernard Halford believed that an engine using a multitude of small cylinders running at a relatively high rpm would be smaller, lighter, and just as powerful as an engine with fewer, large cylinders running at a lower rpm. Halford was contracted by the British engineering firm D. Napier & Son (Napier) in 1928 and built the Rapier I (E93) in 1929 and the Dagger I (E98) in 1933. Both of these air-cooled engines had a vertical H configuration, with the Rapier having 16-cylinders and the Dagger having 24-cylinders. Ultimately, the 539 cu in (8.83 L) Rapier VI (possibly E106) produced 395 hp (295 kW) at 4,000 rpm in 1936, and the 1,027 cu in (16.84 L) Dagger VIII (E110) produced 1,000 hp (746 kw) at 4,200 rpm in 1938.


The Napier Sabre’s block-like exterior hid the engine’s complicated internals of 24-cylinders, two crankshafts, sleeve-valves, and numerous drives. The Sabre VA seen here was the last variant to reach quantity production. (Napier/NPHT/IMechE image)

Back around 1930, Napier Chairman Montague Stanley Napier and the company’s Board of Directors sought to diversify into the diesel aircraft engine field. Montague Napier and Bill Nowlan laid out the design for a liquid-cooled, vertical H, 24-cylinder diesel engine that used sleeve valves. Given the Napier designation E101, the engine had a 5.0 in (127 mm) bore, a 4.75 in (121 mm) stroke, and a total displacement of 2,239 cu in (36.68 L). Montague Napier passed away on 22 January 1931, but Nowlan continued design work under the direction of George Shakespeare Wilkinson, Ronald Whitehair Vigers, and Ernest Chatterton. Wilkinson took out a patent for the sleeve drive (GB363850, application dated 7 January 1931), and Vigers took out patents for sealing rings on a plug-type cylinder head (GB390610, application dated 15 February 1932) and sleeve-valves (GB408768, application dated 24 January 1933). It appears the E101 diesel was abandoned around 1933. However, two- and six-cylinder test engines had been built to test the sleeve-drive mechanism and prove the validity of the entire design.

In 1935, Halford joined Napier’s Board of Directors, acting as the company’s Technical Director. Halford was disappointed that the Rapier and Dagger were not more successful. He decided to design a new, larger, 24-cylinder, H-configuration engine that would be capable of 2,000 hp (1,491 kW). The design for at least part of the new engine was based on the E101 diesel. As he had done with the Rapier, Halford showed his design to George Purvis Bulman, the Deputy Director of Engine Research and Development for the British Air Ministry. Bulman was aware that designers of fighter aircraft were interested in such an engine and was able to arrange financial support for Napier to develop the H-24 engine. Halford’s 2,000 hp (1,491 kW) engine was given the Napier designation E107 and became known as the Sabre.

Serious design work on the Sabre started in 1936. The spark-ignition engine had a similar layout to the E101 diesel—both being liquid-cooled H-24s with sleeve-valves and possessing the same bore and stroke. Liquid-cooling was selected to efficiently reject the heat that the compact 2,000 hp (1,491 kW) engine generated, and a mixture of 70 percent water and 30 percent ethylene-glycol would be used. The Air Ministry enabled the free flow of information between Napier, Halford, and Harry Ralph Ricardo—a British engine expert who had been researching sleeve-valve engines for quite some time. With the engine technology known in the early 1930s, a perception existed that the poppet-valve engine had reached its developmental peak. Sleeve-valves were seen as a way to extract more power out of internal combustion engines. The sleeve-valve offered large, unobstructed intake and exhaust ports, a definite advantage to achieve a full charge into the cylinder and complete scavenging of the exhaust when the engine is operating at high RPMs.


A drawing of a Sabre II, which was the main production variant. Note the two-sided supercharger impeller and the location of the supercharger clutch at the rear of the engine. The design of these components was changed for the Sabre IV and later variants. All accessories are mounted neatly atop the engine. (AEHS image)

The layout of the engine was finalized as a horizontal H-24. The Napier Sabre had a two-piece aluminum crankcase that was split vertically on the engine’s centerline. Sandwiched between the crankcase halves was an upper and lower crankshaft, each secured by seven main bearings. The center main bearing was larger than the rest, which resulted in an increased distance between the third and fourth cylinders in each bank. The crankshafts were phased at 180 degrees, and a cylinder for each crankshaft fired simultaneously. The single-piece, six-throw crankshafts were identical, and both rotated counterclockwise when viewed from the rear of the engine. Fork-and-blade connecting rods were used, with the forked rods serving the three front-left and three rear-right cylinders of the upper banks and the three front-right and three rear-left cylinders of the lower banks.

A 21-tooth spur gear on the front of each crankshaft meshed with two compound reduction gears, each with 31 teeth. A 17-tooth helical gear on the opposite side of each of the four compound reduction gears drove the 42-tooth propeller shaft counterclockwise. The drive setup created a double gear reduction, with the compound reduction gears operating at .6774 times crankshaft speed and the propeller shaft operating at .4048 times the speed of the compound reduction gears. The final gear reduction of the propeller shaft was .2742 crankshaft speed. A balance beam was mounted to the front of the two upper and the two lower compound reduction gears. A volute spring acted on each side of the beam to equally balance the tooth loading of the helical reduction gears on the propeller shaft. The forward ends of the compound reduction gears were supported by a gear carrier plate that was sandwiched between the crankshaft and the propeller shaft housing. The propeller shaft, balance beams, and volute springs were secured by the propeller shaft housing that bolted to the front of the engine.


Sectional view through a Sabre cylinder block showing the upper and lower cylinders paired by the sleeve-valve drive. Intake and exhaust passageways were cast into the cylinder block, and coolant flowed through the hollow cylinder head. Note that the sleeve extends quite a distance between the cylinder head and cylinder wall. Also note the supercharger torsion bar extending through the hollow sleeve-valve drive shaft. (AEHS image)

Attached to each side of the crankcase was a one-piece, aluminum cylinder block that consisted of an upper and a lower cylinder bank, each with six cylinders. With the exception of a few installed studs, the left and right cylinder blocks were interchangeable. A two-piece sleeve-valve drive shaft was mounted between each cylinder block and the crankcase, and it ran between the upper and lower cylinder banks. Each sleeve-valve drive shaft was driven at crankshaft speed through a layshaft by an upper compound reduction gear. The left and right sleeve-valve drive shafts each had six worm gears with 11 teeth, and each worm gear drove the sleeves for an upper and a lower cylinder pair via a 22-tooth worm wheel made from bronze. This setup enabled the sleeves to operate at half crankshaft speed (and half the speed of the sleeve-valve drive shaft). The worm wheels and their separate housings were mounted to the inner sides of the cylinder blocks. Each worm wheel had an upper and lower sleeve crank, which were phased at 180 degrees. Each sleeve crank drove a sleeve via a ball joint mounted on a lug on the outer bottom of the sleeve. The rotational movement of the sleeve crank caused the sleeve to reciprocate and oscillate in the cylinder bore. In addition, when the sleeve for the upper cylinder was rotating clockwise, the sleeve for the paired lower cylinder rotated counterclockwise. Due to the opposite rotation, the sleeves for the upper and lower cylinder banks had different (mirrored) port shapes. Each sleeve-valve drive shaft was supported by 14 bearings, with each of the six worm wheel housings incorporating two bearings.

Each sleeve-valve drive shaft was hollow and had a supercharger torsion bar running through its center. The two supercharger torsion bars acted on a compound supercharger gear at the rear of the engine. Via a fluid-actuated clutch, the two-speed supercharger was driven at 4.48 times crankshaft speed in low gear (often called moderate supercharging, MS) and 6.62 times crankshaft speed in high gear (often called full supercharging, FS). The supercharger’s centrifugal impeller was double-sided. Air was drawn in through a four-barrel updraft SU (Skinner’s Union) suction carburetor and fed into the impeller. The air and fuel mixture was distributed from the supercharger housing via one of four outlets to a cast aluminum manifold that ran along the outer side of each cylinder bank.

When ports in the sleeve-valve aligned with three intake ports cast into the cylinder, the air and fuel mixture was admitted into the cylinder. As the sleeve rotated and ascended, the ports closed. Two spark plugs mounted parallel to one another in the cylinder head ignited the mixture, initiating the power stroke. As the sleeve rotated back and descended, the cylinder’s two exhaust ports were uncovered to allow the gasses to escape between the upper and lower cylinder banks. The sleeve’s stroke was approximately 2.5 in (64 mm), and its full rotation was approximately 56 degrees (its rotary movement being approximately 28 degrees back and forth from center). Each sleeve had only four ports, one of which was used for both intake and exhaust. Valve timing had the intake ports opening 40 degrees before top dead center and closing 65 degrees after bottom dead center. The exhaust ports opened 65 degrees before bottom dead center and closed 40 degrees after top dead center. Intake and exhaust ports were simultaneously partially uncovered for 80 degrees of crankshaft rotation—the last 40 degrees of the exhaust stroke and the first 40 degrees of the intake stroke. Twelve exhaust ports were located in a single line on each side of the engine, and each ejector exhaust stack served two ports—one for an upper cylinder and one for a lower cylinder.


A Sabre engine being assembled. In the foreground are the individual cylinder heads with their sealing rings. In the row above the heads is a long, slim shaft that is the supercharger torsion bar. It passes through the two-piece sleeve-valve drive shaft. Further right are six sleeve-valve cranks, followed by their housings, and a set of 12 sleeves. The crank end of the sleeve is up, and note the helical grooves for oil control. Next is a row of pistons sitting inverted, each with rings and a piston pin. On the next row is a crankshaft being worked on and a set of six fork-and-blade connecting rods. Further to the right is another set of connecting rods that are already attached to the other crankshaft (out of frame). The lady furthest from the camera is working on the four compound reduction gears that will take power from the two crankshafts and deliver it to the propeller shaft, which is being held in a wooden fixture in front of her. On the far left, behind the ladies, is a Sabre cylinder block with numerous studs to attach the cylinder bank. Next is an upper accessory housing with some accessories attached. Last is a lower accessory housing with fuel, water (both external), and oil (internal) pumps.

The forged aluminum pistons were rather short with a minimal skirt, which was required for the engine’s relatively short stroke, use of sleeve-valves, and narrow width. Each flat-top piston had two compression rings above the piston pin, with one oil scraper ring below. The top ring was later tapered to prevent the buildup of carbon. The piston operated directly in the sleeve-valve, which was .09375 in (2.4 mm) thick and made from forged chrome-molybdenum steel. When the piston was at the bottom of its stroke, it was almost completely removed from the cylinder and supported only by the sleeve. The sleeves had a hardened belt on their inner diameter at the top of the piston stroke. Helical grooves inside the lower part of the sleeve helped prevent excessive oil accumulation on the sleeve walls. Oil was controlled further by an oil scraper fitted at the bottom of the sleeve between its outer diameter and the cylinder. The top of each cylinder was sealed by a cast aluminum cylinder head. The cylinder head acted as a plug atop the cylinder and was sealed against the sleeve by a compression ring. The top of the sleeve extended between the cylinder head and the cylinder wall. The cylinder head incorporated coolant passages that communicated with passages in the cylinder block. The engine had a compression ratio of 7.0 to 1.

The upper and lower crankshafts also respectively drove upper and lower auxiliary drive shafts. These auxiliary drive shafts were contained in their own separate housings which were respectively attached to the upper and lower sides of the assembled engine. The upper auxiliary drive shaft powered a vacuum pump, the propeller governor, two distributors, two magnetos, a generator, an air compressor, a hydraulic pump, and an oil pump for the supercharger. All of this equipment was mounted as compactly as possible to the top of the engine. The lower auxiliary drive shaft powered left and right coolant pumps, a fuel pump, and various oil pumps. The coolant and fuel pumps were mounted below the engine, while the oil pumps were internal. The coolant pumps provided a combined flow of 367 US gpm (306 Imp gpm / 1,389 L/min). Also mounted atop the engine and geared to the rear of the upper crankshaft was the Coffman combustion starter unit. The starter had a five-cartridge capacity.

The upper and lower cylinders were numbered 1–12, starting from the left rear and proceeding clockwise to the right rear. With the simultaneous firing of a cylinder for each crankshaft, the engine’s firing order was Top 1/Bottom 6, T9/B10, T5/B2, T12/B7, T3/B4, T8/B11, T6/B1, T10/B9, T2/B5, T7/B12, T4/B3, and T11/B8. Four mounting pads on the underside of the engine attached it to the support structure in the aircraft. The basic design of the Sabre enabled easy access for routine maintenance. Once the aircraft’s cowling was removed, crews had unobstructed access to all of the spark plugs on the sides of the engine and all accessories mounted atop the engine.


A Sabre IIB being pulled from a Typhoon IB. Note the coolant header tank at the front of the engine, the accessories packaged atop the engine, the two-into-one exhaust stacks, and the hydraulic supercharger clutch at the rear of the engine. The cylinder housing for the five-cartridge Coffman starter can be seen above the supercharger.

The Napier Sabre I (E107) engine had a 5.0 in (127 mm) bore and a 4.75 in (121 mm) stroke. With a bore diameter greater than the stroke length, the Sabre was an over-square engine. Each cylinder displaced 93.2 cu in (1.53 L), and the engine’s total displacement was 2,239 cu in (36.68 L). At 3,700 rpm, the Sabre I produced 2,050 hp (1,529 kW) at 2,500 ft (762 m) with 7 psi (.48 bar) of boost and 1,870 hp (1,394 kW) at 14,500 ft (4,420 m) with 8 psi (.55 bar) of boost. The engine was 81.1 in (2.06 m) long, 40.0 in (1.02 m) wide, and 51.1 in (1.30 m) tall. The Sabre I weighed 2,360 lb (5,203 kg).

Sabre development at Napier’s works in Acton, England progressed quickly, and single-, twin-, and six-cylinder test engines were all running by the end of 1936. The first of four 24-cylinder prototype engines was run on 23 November 1937, and the Air Ministry ordered six additional test engines by December. In January 1938, the Sabre passed initial acceptance tests with a rating of 1,350 hp (1,007 kW), and on 3 March, the Air Ministry ordered two Sabre-powered Hawker Typhoon fighter prototypes. Also in March, the engine passed a 50-hour test that included a peak output of 2,050 hp (1,529 kW). All ordered engines were completed by the end of 1938 and were running on test stands by February 1939. While testing continued, the Sabre I was first flown in a Fairey Battle on 31 May 1939, piloted by Chris Staniland. As installed in the Battle, the Sabre had a single exhaust manifold on each side of the engine that collected the exhaust from all 12 cylinders.

In July 1939, the Air Ministry ordered 100 production engines and material for another 100 engines. In August, the Sabre passed a type test with a rating of 1,800 hp (1,342 kW). On 8 October 1939, an order for 250 Typhoons was placed, and on 24 February 1940, the Typhoon prototype (P5212) made its first flight, piloted by Philip G. Lucas. Three four-into-one exhaust manifolds were originally installed on each side of the Typhoon’s Sabre, but these were quickly replaced by what would become the standard two-into-one exhaust stacks. In March 1940, Napier created its Flight Development Establishment at Luton, England for flight testing the Sabre and developing installations for the engine. By all accounts, the Sabre continued to perform well, although some vibration issues were experienced with the Typhoon. In June 1940, the engine passed a 100-hour type test with a maximum output of 2,050 hp (1,529 kW) at 3,700 rpm, making the Sabre the first engine to have a service rating over 2,000 hp (1,491 kW).


The installation of Sabre engines on the Fairly Battle (top) and Folland F.108 (bottom) were well executed. Two Battles and three Fo.108s were employed to test the Sabre, and these aircraft provided valuable information about the engine.

Since mid-1938, a plan was underway to use an uprated Sabre engine in a specially-designed aircraft for a speed record attempt. The special engine produced 2,450 hp (1,827 kW) at 3,800 rpm with 9.2 psi (.63 bar) of boost and was first run on 6 December 1939. Installed in the Napier-Heston Racer, the combination first flew on 12 June 1940, piloted by G. L. G. Richmond. Difficulties with the new engine and airframe resulted in a hard landing that damaged the aircraft beyond repair. The Sabre engine installed in the Napier-Heston Racer featured two six-into-one exhaust manifolds on each side of the engine.

Around November 1939, the Air Ministry ordered 500 examples of the Typhoon. This order was temporarily suspended due to the Battle of Britain but was reinstated in October 1940. At that time, Napier began work to produce additional Sabre engines for the Typhoon order, but production was still a very limited affair. These early engines were limited to 25 hours before being removed for major inspection. The first production Typhoon IA (R7576) flew on 27 May 1941, with other aircraft soon to follow. Nearly all Sabre I engines were used in Typhoon IAs.


With its 14 ft (4.27 m) three-blade propeller turning, this early Typhoon IB warms up its Sabre engine for a flight. The Typhoon IB had four 20 mm cannons, while the earlier IA had 12 .303 machine guns. At the center of the radiator is the open carburetor intake, which was later covered by a momentum air filter. Note the underwing identification/invasion stripes

Napier continued to develop the engine as the Sabre II, and the first production Sabre II was completed in January 1941. The Sabre II produced 2,090 hp (1,559 kW) at 3,700 rpm at 4,000 ft (1,219 m) with 7 psi (.48 bar) of boost and 1,735 hp (1,294 kW) at 17,000 ft (5,182 m). Sabre II engines were first installed in Typhoons on a trial basis in June 1941, and the engine was cleared for 50 hours between major inspections around this time. The Sabre II would ultimately replace the Sabre I in Typhoon IAs and IBs, and the Sabre I was phased out around October 1941. In addition to the Typhoon, the Sabre II also powered the Martin-Baker MB3 fighter, which made its first flight on 31 August 1942, and the Hawker Tempest V fighter prototype (HM595), which made its first flight on 2 September 1942, piloted by Lucas. The Tempest V was a new aircraft developed from the Typhoon.

The Folland Fo.108 was built to Air Ministry Specification 43/37 calling for an engine testbed aircraft. Three of the fixed-gear monoplanes were delivered to Napier’s Flight Development Establishment at Luton in 1941 and were initially fitted with Sabre II engines. The aircraft were to serve Napier for several years testing various versions of the Sabre engine. One of the Sabre-powered aircraft was lost on 14 September 1944.

The Sabre III was similar to the II but was intended for higher engine speeds. The Sabre III was selected for the Blackburn B-37 Firebrand carrier strike aircraft. At 4,000 rpm, the Sabre III had a takeoff rating of 2,250 hp (1,678 kW) and military ratings of 2,310 hp (1,723 kW) at 2,500 ft (762 m) with 9 psi (.62 bar) of boost and 1,920 hp (1,432 kW) at 16,000 ft (4,877 m). At 3,500 rpm, the engine had a normal rating of 1,890 hp (1,409 kW) at 5,000 ft (1,524 m) and 1,630 hp (1,215 kW) at 16,500 ft (5,029 m). The Firebrand (DD804) was first flown on 27 February 1942. However, with production priority going to the Typhoon, the Ministry of Aircraft Production decided to reengine the Firebrand with the Bristol Centaurus sleeve-valve radial engine. Only around 24 of the Sabre-powered versions were built.


The Blackburn Firebrand, was to be powered by the Sabre III. However, Sabre engine production was allocated to the Typhoon, and the Firebrand was reengined with the Bristol Centaurus. Pictured is DD815, the third Firebrand Mk I prototype.

With production engines in production airframes, Sabre reliability issues were soon encountered. After running for a few hours, sometimes not even passing initial tests, Sabre engines began to experience excessive oil consumption and sleeve-valves cracking, breaking, seizing or otherwise failing. Examinations of numerous engines found sleeves distorted or damaged. Since the Sabre’s main application was the Typhoon, it was that aircraft that suffered the most. To make matters worse, the Typhoon was experiencing its own issues with in-flight structural failures. Other aircraft suffered as well. On 12 September 1942, the Sabre II engine in the MB3 failed; the subsequent crash landing destroyed the prototype and killed the pilot, Valentine H. Baker.

The Sabre had performed admirably during testing, but the production engines were encountering issues at an alarming rate. The early engines were built and assembled by hand. Parts with small variances were matched to obtain the desired clearances and operation. This was a luxury that could not be afforded once the engine was mass produced. The sleeves were found to be .008 to .010 in (.203 to .254 mm) out of round. This caused the cascading failure of other components as the engine was operated. In addition, the piston was forming a ridge in the sleeve, leading to excessive wear and the eventual failure of the piston rings, piston, or sleeve.

Carbon build-up was causing issues with the lubrication system. While in flight, aeration of the oil resulted in a heavy mist of oil flowing from the breather and coating the cockpit, obscuring the pilot’s view. The Coffman cartridge starter caused other issues; its sudden jolt when starting the engine occasionally damaged sleeve-drive components, setting up their inevitable failure. Part of the starting issue was that the sudden rotation of the engine with a rich mixture washed away the oil film between the pistons and sleeves. Finally, service crews were misadjusting the boost controller, creating an over-boost situation that led to detonation in the cylinders and damaged engines.


The Tempest I was powered by the Sabre IV engine. At 472 mph (760 km/h), the aircraft was the fastest of the Tempest line. The Tempest I was rather elegant without the large chin radiator, and the wing radiators were similar to those that would be used on the Sabre VII-powered Fury.

Napier worked diligently to resolve the issues. A detergent-type oil was used to prevent the build up of carbon on internal components. A centrifugal oil separator was designed to deaerate the oil and was fitted to Sabre engines already installed in Typhoons. Changes were made to the starter drive, and a priming mixture of 70 percent fuel and 30 percent oil was utilized to maintain an oil film in the cylinders. The boost controllers were factory sealed, and severe repercussions were put in place for their unauthorized tampering.

The issues with sleeve distortion were the most serious and vexing. Methods were devised to measure the sleeve with special instruments via the spark plug hole. While this helped to prevent failures, it also caused the withdrawal of low-time engines as sleeves became distorted. To fix the issue, different sleeve materials were tried along with different processes of manufacture, but nothing seemed to work. The supply of Sabre engines fell behind the production of Typhoon aircraft, and engineless airframes sat useless at manufacturing facilities. The engine shortage was so severe that a good Sabre would be installed in a Typhoon to ferry the aircraft to a dispersal facility. The engine would then be removed, returned to the aircraft factory, and installed in another Typhoon to shuttle that aircraft away, repeating the process over and over.

In October 1941, Francis Rodwell ‘Rod’ Banks replaced Bulman, who was, at the time, the Director of Engine Production for the Ministry of Aircraft Production. Bulman was back in Engine Research and Development and continued to work with Halford and Napier to resolve issues with the Sabre. Banks suggested that Napier work with the Bristol Engine Company on a suitable sleeve for the Sabre. Bristol had been manufacturing radial sleeve-valve engines since 1932, and their Taurus engine had the same 5.0 in (127 mm) bore as the Sabre. Napier was apparently not interested in pursuing that possible solution, so Banks went directly to Bristol and had them machine a pair of sleeves for use in the Sabre two-cylinder test engine. The Bristol sleeves were made from centrifugally cast austenitic steel comprised of nickel, chromium, and tungsten. The sleeve was nitrided to increase its hardness and was not more than .0002 in (.005 mm) out of round. The Sabre two-cylinder test engine with the Bristol sleeves ran 120 hours without issue. Banks then had Bristol produce 48 sleeves for two complete 24-cylinder Sabre test engines. Bristol became unhappy with sharing its components and processes with a competitor, and Napier was still hesitant to utilize Bristol’s materials and techniques.


The Sabre VA had a one-sided supercharger impeller, a relocated supercharger clutch, and a two-barrel injection carburetor. These refinements were introduced on the Sabre IV. The Sabre VA powered the Tempest VI. (Napier/NPHT/IMechE image)

With the Air Ministry’s push, Napier was taken over by English Electric in December 1942. The new management was happy to accept any assistance from Bristol, and Bristol was now more willing than ever to lend support. A lack of support from the Napier board of directors had caused Halford to give a three-month notice of resignation, and he left in early 1943 to focus on turbojet engines at the de Havilland Engine Company. However, Halford continued consulting work on the Sabre for a time. Before his departure from Napier, Halford’s Sabre designs had progressed up to the Sabre V. Ernest Chatterton took over Sabre development after Halford’s departure. Through all this, Bulman continued to work with Napier, but the Ministry of Aircraft Production handed all responsibility for the Sabre engine to Banks in early 1943. To get engine production up to speed, Sundstrand centerless grinders made in the United States and destined for a Pratt & Whitney factory producing R-2800 C engines were rerouted to Napier’s Sabre production facility in Liverpool. While it is not entirely clear how Banks felt at the time, he later wondered what would have become of the Fairey Monarch H-24 engine if the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Aircraft Production had encouraged its development with the same financial and technological resources supplied for the Sabre.

In the spring of 1943, some 1,250 engines had accumulated a total of 12,000 hours of testing and 40,000 hours of service use, and the Sabre’s service life was extended from 25 hours to 250 hours between major inspections. With Sabre reliability issues resolved and production resuming, development of the engine continued. The Sabre IV incorporated a two-barrel Hobson-RAE injection carburetor and a revised supercharger with a single-sided impeller. The supercharger clutches were updated and relocated from the extreme rear of the supercharger to between the supercharger and the engine. Revised gears turned the impeller at 4.68 times crankshaft speed in low gear and 5.83 times crankshaft speed in high gear. The Sabre IV produced 2,240 hp (1,670kW) at 4,000 rpm at 8,000 ft (2,438 m) with 9 psi (.62 bar) of boost. The engine was selected for the Tempest I, the prototype of which was initially ordered on 18 November 1941, followed by an order for 400 production aircraft in August 1942. The Tempest I featured a streamlined nose and its radiator and oil cooler were installed in the wing’s leading edge. The prototype Tempest I (HM599) was first flown on 24 February 1943, piloted by Lucas, and would go on to record a speed of 472 mph (760 km/h) at 18,000 ft (5,486 m) in September 1943. However, delays and development issues with the Sabre IV engine led to the Tempest I order being converted to Sabre IIA and IIB-powered Tempest Vs.

The Sabre IIA (E115) was a refinement of the Sabre II and had been developed in mid-1943. The engine had a modified oil system and used dynamically-balanced crankshafts. The Sabre IIA had a takeoff rating of 1,995 hp (1,488 kW) at 3,750 rpm with 7 psi (.48 bar) of boost. At 3,750 rpm and 9 psi (.62 bar) of boost, the engine had a military rating of 2,235 hp (1,667 kW) at 2,500 ft (762 m) and 1,880 hp (1,402 m) at 15,250 ft (4,648 m). At 3,700 rpm and 7 psi (.48 bar) of boost, the engine had a normal rating of 2,065 hp (1,540 kW) at 4,750 ft (1,448 m) and 1,735 hp (1,294 kW) at 17,000 ft (5,182 m). Fuel consumption at cruise power was .46 lb/hp/hr (280 g/kW/h). Starting around August 1943, Sabre IIA engines were incorporated into production Typhoon IB and Tempest V Series I aircraft.


Cutaway drawing of a Sabre VA illustrating the engine’s propeller reduction gears and sleeve-valve drive. Note the upper and lower accessory drives, the slight fore-and-aft angling of the spark plugs, and the single-sided supercharger impeller. (Napier/NPHT/IMechE images)

In 1944, prototypes of the Sabre IIB (E107A) became available. Compared to the Sabre IIA, the IIB used a different carburetor, had a modified boost controller, and was cleared for additional engine speed. The Sabre IIB had a takeoff rating of 2,010 hp (1,499 kW) at 3,850 rpm with 7 psi (.48 bar) of boost. At 3,850 rpm with 11 psi (.76 bar) of boost, the engine had a military rating of 2,400 hp (1,790 kW) at sea level, 2,615 hp (1,950 kW) at 2,500 ft (762 m), and 2,045 hp (1,525 kW) at 13,750 ft (4,191 m). The Sabre IIB had the same normal rating as the IIA. The engine was used in later Typhoon IBs and was the main Sabre version to power the Tempest V Series II.

The Sabre IIC (E107B) was a similar to the IIB but with new supercharger gears. The impeller turned at 4.73 times crankshaft speed in low gear and at 6.26 times crankshaft speed in high gear. The engine had a takeoff rating of 2,065 hp (1,540 kW) at 3,850 rpm. At the same engine speed and with 11 psi (.76 bar) of boost, the military power rating was 2,400 hp (1,790 kW) at 2,000 ft (610 m) and 2,045 hp (1,525 kW) at 13,750 ft (4,191 m). The Sabre IIC was used in some late production examples of the Tempest V, including those converted as target tugs in 1948.

The Sabre V (E107C) was developed from the IV with an updated carburetor. Linkages were incorporated to allow one lever to control the engine’s throttle and the propeller’s pitch along with automatic boost and mixture control, but this system could be overridden by the pilot. The spark plugs were repositioned, although it is not clear if this change was made on the Sabre V or the Sabre VA engine. Rather than being parallel, as in earlier Sabre engines, the electrode of the front spark plug was angled forward, and the electrode of the rear spark plug was angled back. The engine produced 2,420 hp (1,805 kW) at 3,750 rpm at 4,250 ft (1,295 m) with 15 psi (1.0 bar) of boost. The Sabre V was tested in the Tempest I, and the combination was first flown on 8 February 1944 by Bill Humble. On 12 February, an order for 700 Sabre V-powered Tempest Is was issued. This order was later reduced to 300 examples, and then converted to the Sabre V-powered Tempest VI in May. The prototype Tempest VI (HM595 again) made its first flight on 9 May 1944, piloted by Humble. Cooling the more powerful engine in warmer climates required modifications to be incorporated into the Tempest VI, including a larger chin radiator and a secondary oil cooler in the wing. Carburetor inlets were also relocated to the wing’s leading edge. Otherwise, the aircraft was similar to the Tempest V.


A Tempest V Series I (top) and Tempest VI (bottom). The Tempest V Series I had Hispano Mk II cannons with long barrels that protruded from the wing’s leading edge. The Tempest V Series II and other Tempests had Hispano Mk V cannons with short barrels. The Sabre VA-powered Tempest VI (bottom) has an enlarged chin radiator, an oil cooler in the wing, and carburetor inlets in both wing roots.

The Sabre VA was essentially the production version of the Sabre V. The Sabre VA had a takeoff rating of 2,300 hp (1,715 kW) at 3,850 rpm with 12 psi (.83 bar) of boost. The engine’s military rating at 3,850 rpm with 15 psi (1.0 bar) of boost was 2,600 hp (1,939 kW) at 2,500 ft (762 m) and 2,300 hp (1,715 kW) at 13,750 ft (4,191 m). At 3,650 rpm, the Sabre VA had a normal rating of 2,165 hp (1,614 kW) at 6,750 ft (2,057 m) and 1,930 hp (1,439 kW) at 18,000 ft (5,486 m). Cruise power at 3,250 rpm was 1,715 hp (1,279 kW) at 6,750 ft (2,057 m) and 1,565 hp (1,167 kW) at 14,250 ft (4,343 m). Fuel consumption at cruise power was .50 lb/hp/hr (304 g/kW/h). The engine was 82.2 in (2.10 m) long, 40.0 in (1.02 m) wide, and 46.0 in (1.17 m) tall. The Sabre VA weighed 2,500 lb (1,134 kg). Starting around March 1946, the engine was the powerplant for production Tempest VI aircraft.

The Sabre VI was the same engine as the Sabre VA, but it incorporated an annular nose radiator and provisions for a cooling fan, all packaged in a tight-fitting cowling. The cooling fan rotated clockwise, the opposite direction from the propeller. The intent of the engine and cooling system combination was to produce a complete low-drag installation package that would cool the engine sufficiently for use in tropical climates. The radiator incorporated cooling elements for both engine coolant and oil. Napier and Hawker experimented with annular radiators using various Sabre IIB engines installed on a Typhoon IB (R8694) and a Tempest V (EJ518). In 1944, the Sabre VI with an annular radiator was test flown on a Tempest V (NV768). Numerous changes to the annular radiator and its cowling eventually led to the development of a ducted spinner, which was installed on NV768. The aircraft continued to test annular radiators through 1948. While the annular radiator added 180 lb (82 kg), it decreased drag by eight percent and improved the Tempest’s top speed by 12 mph (19 km/h). Two Sabre VI engines, each with an annular radiator and a cooling fan, were installed on a Vickers Warwick C Mk III (HG248) twin-engine transport. With the Sabre engines, the Warwick’s top speed was limited to 300 mph (483 km/h) due to its fabric covering. This was still about 75 mph (121 km/h) faster than the aircraft’s original design speed. Most of the annular radiator testing was conducted at Napier’s Flight Development Establishment at Luton. While some of the ducted spinner research was applied to the Napier Naiad turboprop, none of the work was applied to production piston engines.


The Sabre VI incorporated an annular radiator and provisions for an engine-driven cooling fan. Tempest V NV768 was used to test a number of different spinner and annular radiator cowling configurations with the Sabre VI. The aircraft is seen here with a large ducted spinner. The configuration slightly improved NV768’s performance over that of a standard Tempest. (Napier/NPHT/IMechE image)

The Sabre VII carried the Napier designation E121 and was essentially a VA engine strengthened to endure higher outputs. The engine was fitted with water/methanol (anti-detonant) injection that sprayed into the supercharger via an annular manifold. The mixture used was 40 percent water and 60 percent methanol. The water/methanol injection lowered the engine’s tendency toward detonation and allowed for more power to be produced. The supercharger housing was reworked for the water/methanol injection, and the cylinder heads were modified to accommodate two compression rings. Individual ejector exhaust stacks were fitted, replacing the two-into-one stacks previously used on most Sabre engines.

Initially, the Sabre VII had a takeoff rating of 3,000 hp (2,237 kW) at 3,850 rpm with water/methanol injection and 17.25 psi (1.19 bar) of boost. This was later increased to 3,500 hp (2,610 kW) at the same rpm with 20 psi (1.38 bar) of boost. The engine’s military rating at 3,850 rpm with 17.25 psi (1.19 bar) of boost and water/methanol injection was 3,055 hp (2,278 kW) at 2,500 ft (762 m) and 2,820 hp (2,103 kW) at 12,500 ft (3,810 m). The water/methanol injection flow rate was 76 US gph (66 Imp gph / 300 L/min) at takeoff, 78 US gph (65 Imp gph / 295 L/min) at military power in low supercharger, and 122 US gph (102 Imp gph / 464 L/min) at military power with high supercharger. The water/methanol flow rates corresponded to 30 percent of the fuel flow at low supercharger and 45 percent of the fuel flow at high supercharger. The Sabre VII’s fuel flow was 284 US gph (235 Imp gph / 1,068 L/min) at takeoff, 287 US gph (239 Imp gph / 1,087 L/min) at military power in low supercharger, and 289 US gph (241 Imp gph / 1,096 L/min) at military power with high supercharger. At 3,700 rpm and 10.5 psi (.73 bar) of boost, the Sabre VII had a normal rating of 2,235 hp (1,667 kW) at 8,500 ft (2,591 m) and 1,975 hp (1,473 kW) at 18,250 ft (5,563 m). Cruise power at 3,250 rpm was 1,750 hp (1,305 kW) at 8,500 ft (2,591 m) for a fuel consumption of .45 lb/hp/hr (274 g/kW/h), and 1,600 hp (1,193 kW) at 17,000 ft (5,182 m) for a fuel consumption of .51 lb/hp/hr (310 g/kW/h). The engine was 83.0 in (2.11 m) long, 40.0 in (1.02 m) wide, and 47.2 in (1.20 m) tall. The Sabre VII weighed 2,540 lb (1,152 kg). Some sources state that a Sabre VII engine achieved an output of 4,000 hp (2,983 kW) and was run at 3,750 hp (2,796 kW) for a prolonged period without issues during testing.


A Vickers Warwick C Mk III (HG248) was used to test the installation of the Sabre VI engine with an annular radiator and an engine-driven cooling fan. Note that the fan rotates in the opposite direction from the propeller and that the lower cowling folds down level to be used as a work platform. The rear four exhaust ejectors were replaced with elongated stacks to prevent excessive heat build-up on the wing’s leading edge. (Napier/NPHT/IMechE image)

The Sabre VII was intended to power the Hawker Fury Mk I, of which 200 were ordered in August 1944. Shifting priorities at the end of the war all but cancelled the aircraft, and only two prototypes were built. The first prototype (LA610) made its initial Sabre VII-powered flight on 3 April 1946. This aircraft would go on to record a speed of 483 mph (777 km/h) at 18,500 ft (5,639 m) and 422 mph (679 km/h) at sea level. The Sabre VII was also test-flown on a Tempest V or VI in mid-1946, but additional details have not been found. This aircraft had the larger radiator and wing root carburetor inlets of the Tempest VI, but it did not have the additional oil cooler in the wing.

The Sabre VIII carried the Napier designation E122 and was based on the Sabre VII. The engine incorporated contra-rotating propellers and a two-stage supercharger. Four aftercoolers were to be installed—one on each induction runner leading from the supercharger housing to the intake manifold attached to the cylinder bank. Although some sources say the Sabre VIII was built, it appears to have remained an unbuilt project. The engine was forecasted to have a military rating of 3,350 hp (2,498 kW) and be capable of 25 psi (1.72 bar) of boost.


A Sabre VII with its revised supercharger housing that accommodated water/methanol injection. The injection controller is mounted just above the supercharger housing. The Sabre VII ultimately produced 3,500 hp (2,610 kW) at 3,850 rpm with 20 psi (1.38 bar) of boost and was installed in the Hawker Fury Mk 1 prototype. (Napier/NPHT/IMechE image)

Production of the Sabre was halted shortly after the end of World War II with approximately 5,000 engines produced. Starting in October 1939, Napier worked to establish a shadow factory in Liverpool to produce Sabre engines. The first engine, a Sabre II, was completed at this factory in February 1942. The Liverpool site manufactured around 3,500 II, IIA, IIB, and VA engines, with the remaining 1,500 engines, including all prototypes, coming from Napier’s Acton works. With Sabre development at an end, Napier focused on their next aircraft engine, the two-stroke diesel/turbine compounded Nomad.

A number of engine designs based on the Sabre were considered, but most stayed as projects, and none progressed beyond cylinder testing. The E109 of 1939 was half of a Sabre, with 12-cylinders and a single crankshaft. It would have displaced 1,119 cu in (18.34 L). The E113 of 1940 was a fuel-injected, two-stroke, uniflow, Sabre-type test engine intended for increased engine speed and boost. The design concept originated with Harry Ricardo, and a two-cylinder test engine was built in 1942. Reportedly, the test engine was so loud that people on the street had to cover their ears as they passed by Napier’s works in Acton. The E120 of 1942 was a 32-cylinder Sabre consisting of four banks of eight cylinders. It would have displaced 2,985 cu in (48.91 L). The E123 of 1943 was a complete 24-cylinder, fuel-injected, two-stroke Sabre based on the E113 test engine. It had a forecasted output of 4,000 hp (2,983 kW) but was never built.

Although the Sabre was proposed for many projects that never left the drawing board and powered a few prototypes, the engine’s main applications were the 109 Typhoon IAs, 3,208 Typhoon IBs, 801 Tempest Vs, and 142 Tempest VIs produced during World War II. After the initial production difficulties, which were quite severe, the engine served with distinction. The Sabre could be difficult to start, and it was advisable to use a remote heater to pre-heat the coolant and oil in cold temperatures. Sleeve trouble came back with Typhoons stationed around Normandy, France in the summer of 1944. Fine dust particles from the soil were getting into the engines and causing excessive sleeve wear. A momentum air filter developed by Napier cured the trouble. The filter was designed and test flown the same day of its original request, and all the Typhoons in France were fitted with a filter within a week. Production of the Sabre was an expensive affair, with each horsepower costing four to five times that of the Rolls-Royce Merlin. However, Typhoons and Tempests played an important role in attacking German forces on the ground and countering V-1 flying bombs. Around a dozen Sabre engines survive and are on display in museums or held in private collections. As of 2020, there are no running Sabre engines, but efforts are underway to create running examples to power Typhoon and Tempest aircraft under restoration.


General arrangement drawing of the unbuilt Sabre VIII (E122). The engine featured a two-stage supercharger and contra-rotating propellers. It was forecasted to produce 3,350 hp (2,498 kW).

Major Piston Aero Engines of World War II by Victor Bingham (2001)
Allied Aircraft Piston Engines of World War II by Graham White (1995)
Aircraft Engines Volume Two by A. W. Judge (1947)
By Precision Into Power by Alan Vessey (2007)
An Account of Partnership – Industry, Government and the Aero Engine by George Bulman and edited by Mike Neale (2002)
I Kept no Diary by F. R. (Rod) Banks (1978)
Boxkite to Jet — the remarkable career of Frank B Halford by Douglas R Taylor (1999)
The Napier Way by Bryan ‘Bob’ Boyle (2000)
The Hawker Typhoon and Tempest by Francis K. Mason (1988)
Hawker Typhoon, Tempest and Sea Fury by Kev Darling (2003)
Tempest: Hawker’s Outstanding Piston-Engined Fighter by Tony Buttler (2011)
Hawker Aircraft since 1920 by Francis K. Mason (1991)
Blackburn Aircraft since 1909 by A. J. Jackson (1968/1989)
Aircraft Engines of the World 1945 by Paul H. Wilkinson (1945)
Aircraft Engines of the World 1946 by Paul H. Wilkinson (1946)
– “The Napier Sabre Engine Parts 1–3” by J. A. Oates, Aircraft Production Volume 6, Numbers 66–68 (April–June 1944) via The Aircraft Engine Historical Society
– “Napier Sabre II” by F. C. Sheffield, Flight (23 March 1944)
– “Napier Sabre VII” Flight (22 November 1945)
– “Napier Flight Development” Flight (25 July 1946)
Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 1945/46 by Leonard Bridgman (1946)
Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 1947 by Leonard Bridgman (1947)
Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 1948 by Leonard Bridgman (1948)


Napier H-24 Dagger Aircraft Engine

By William Pearce

In 1928, independent aircraft engine designer Frank Bernard Halford was contracted by D. Napier & Son (Napier) to design aircraft engines with a displacement between 404.09 and 718.37 cu in (6.62 and 11.77 L). Halford’s first designs for Napier were the H-16 Rapier (Napier designation E93) of 1929 followed by the inverted I-6 Javelin (Napier designation E97) of 1931.


The Napier Dagger I air-cooled H-24 with its downdraft carburetor and propeller shaft in line with the engine’s centerline. “Napier Halford” can be seen on the upper camshaft housing. Note the two engine mounts on the side of the crankcase and third mount on the accessory housing. (Napier/NPHT/IMechE image)

Around 1932, Halford and Napier reached a new agreement, and the design of engines larger than the 718.37 cu in (11.77 L) limit were initiated. The first of these designs was a 24-cylinder development of the Rapier with an enlarged bore and elongated stroke. This engine was named the Dagger, and it carried the Napier designation E98. The engine was also called the Napier-Halford Dagger. Like the Rapier, the air-cooled Dagger was a high-revving aircraft engine with numerous small cylinders and minimal frontal area. Halford’s belief was that a smaller engine running at higher speeds would produce the same power as a larger engine running at slower speeds.

The Dagger had a vertical H configuration with four cylinder banks, each with six cylinders. The two-piece aluminum crankcase was split horizontally at its center. The two crankcase halves supported left and right crankshafts via seven main bearings each. An eighth crankshaft bearing was located in the gear reduction housing. Each one-piece, six-throw crankshaft served one vertical and one inverted bank of cylinders. The crankshafts were phased at 30 degrees with power strokes occurring sequentially between the two crankshafts. The connecting rods were of the fork-and-blade type, with the forked rods serving the upper front three cylinders on the left side of the engine and the upper rear three cylinders on the right side of the engine. Spur gears at the front of each crankshaft meshed with a larger gear mounted to the propeller shaft, which turned at .372 crankshaft speed. When viewed from the rear, both crankshafts rotated clockwise, and the propeller shaft rotated counterclockwise.


A Dagger II engine preserved and in storage as part of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The engine appears complete with its upper and lower air ducts as well as the baffling around the cylinders. At one time, this particular Dagger II belonged to the US Navy. The engine data plate says “Halford-Napier Dagger.” (NASM image)

The individual cylinders were made from forged steel barrels with cast aluminum heads. The heads for each cylinder bank were first installed to a common camshaft housing and then drawn down on the cylinder barrels via four studs protruding from the crankcase around each cylinder opening. An aluminum sealing ring was sandwich between the cylinder head and barrel. The cylinders had a 7.75 to 1 compression ratio, and each cylinder had a single intake and a single sodium-cooled exhaust valve. The intake port was on the inner side of the cylinder, and the exhaust port was on the outer side. The valves for each cylinder bank were actuated via rockers and tappets by a single overhead camshaft. The self-adjusting hydraulic valve tappets were designed by Halford. Each camshaft was driven via a vertical shaft and bevel gears from the rear of the engine.

Each cylinder had one spark plug mounted on its outer side and another mounted on its inner side. The spark plugs were fired by two magnetos mounted to and driven from the gear reduction housing. An accessory drive case was mounted to the back of the engine. A shaft extending back from the propeller shaft powered the accessory drive case. Driven from the accessory case were the camshafts, supercharger, generator, oil and fuel pumps, and various accessories. The single-speed supercharger drew in air through a downdraft carburetor and compressed the air and fuel mixture with a centrifugal impeller. The air and fuel mixture exited the supercharger housing via upper and lower passageways in the crankcase. These passageways were located between the upper and lower cylinder banks, and each had six outlets. A T-shaped manifold that was attached to each induction passageway outlet delivered the air and fuel mixture to two cylinders, one on each bank.


A Dagger III with individual exhaust stacks and many components chromed and polished to perfection for display purposes. Note the “Napier Halford” placard on the upper camshaft housing. (Napier/NPHT/IMechE image)

For engine cooling, air was ducted between the upper and lower cylinders. Baffles directed the air’s flow through the cylinders’ integral cooling fins and to the outer side of the cylinder banks. The cooling air exited via a cowl flap on each side of the aircraft and behind the engine. Two engine mounting pads were incorporated into the crankcase on each side of the engine. Two integral pads on each side of the rear accessory case were used together to form a third engine mount.

The Napier Dagger I (E98) had a 3.8125 in (96.8 mm) bore and a 3.75 in (95.3 mm) stroke. Each cylinder displaced 42.8 cu in (.70 L), and the Dagger’s total displacement was 1,027 cu in (16.84 L). The engine had a maximum output of 705 hp (526 kW) at 4,000 rpm at 12,000 ft (3,658 m). At 3,500 rpm, the Dagger I had a normal output of 630 hp (470 kW) at 10,000 ft (3,048 m) and produced 570 hp (425 kW) at sea level. The engine was 80 in (2.03 m) long, 22.5 in (.57 m) wide, and 45.125 (1.15 m) tall. The Dagger I weighed 1,280 lb (581 kg).


Front view of a Dagger III illustrates the engine’s two 24-cylinder distributors mounted under the propeller shaft and the 300 ft (91 m) or so of ignition cables. Just visible between the upper cylinder banks is the T-shaped manifold delivering air to the first two cylinders. (Napier/NPHT/IMechE image)

As engine design was underway, a two-cylinder test engine representing a Dagger’s upper and lower cylinder pair was built and tested. A complete 24-cylinder engine followed and was first run around early 1933. The Dagger I was installed in a two-seat light bomber biplane Hawker Hart (K2434) to serve as a testbed for the engine. The Dagger-powered Hart made its first flight on 17 December 1933. The engine experienced vibration and reliability issues and was later replaced with a Dagger II.

Napier continued to develop the Dagger engine line. Dagger E104 was a test engine with its bore enlarged to 4 in (102 mm). This increased the engine’s displacement by 104 cu in (1.70 L) to 1,131 cu in (18.53 L). It appears the E104 was built up using components from a Dagger I, but the engine never entered production.

The Dagger II was a refined Dagger I with additional supercharging for higher altitudes. The engine had a maximum rating of 760 hp (567 kW) at 4,000 rpm at 12,250 ft (3,734 m) with 1.5 psi (.10 bar) of boost, a normal rating of 695 hp (518 kW) at 3,500 rpm at 10,000 ft (3,048 m) with 1.5 psi (.10 bar) of boost, and a takeoff rating of 710 hp (529 kW) at 3,500 rpm with 3.0 psi (.21 bar) of boost. Fuel consumption at cruise power was .420 lb/hp/hr (255 g/kW/h). The Dagger II weighed 1,305 lb (592 kg). The engine was first run around early 1934 and passed a 100-hour type test on 18 June 1934. The Dagger II made its first flight in Hawker Hart K2434 in January 1935. Like the Dagger I, the Dagger II needed further work before the engine could enter production.


The Dagger VIII incorporated many changes from the previous Dagger engines and was capable of 1,000 hp (746 kw). Note the propeller shaft’s position has been raised above the engine’s centerline. (Napier/NPHT/IMechE image)

The Dagger III (E105) was a moderately supercharged version of the Dagger II. The engine had a maximum output of 805 hp (600 kW) at 4,000 rpm at 5,000 ft (1,524 m) with 2.25 psi (.15 bar) of boost, a normal output of 725 hp (541 kW) at 3,500 rpm at 3,500 ft (1,067 m) with 2.25 psi (.15 bar) of boost, and a takeoff output of 755 hp (563 kW) at 3,500 rpm with 3.5 psi (.24 bar) of boost. Fuel consumption at cruise power was approximately .448 lb/hp/hr (273 g/kW/h). Hawker Hart K2434 again served as a testbed and first flew with the Dagger III around September 1935. The improved engine was found to be reliable and was selected for the Hawker Hector, a two-seat liaison biplane. Hart K2434 was used to develop the engine cowling and installation for the Hector, and the Dagger III entered production in 1936. The Hector was first flown on 14 February 1936, and 179 examples were built. By June 1937, the Dagger III had completed a 100-hour test run at 4,000 rpm. Its initial output was record as 850 hp (634 kW). The engine was also selected for the Martin-Baker MB2 monoplane fighter, which made its first flight on 3 August 1938, but only the prototype was built. The Hector served in World War II, but the aircraft required extra maintenance due to its tight cowling and problematic Dagger III engine and was never a favorite of ground crews.


Rear view of a Dagger VIII highlighting the engine’s supercharger housing that conceals a two-sided impeller. The updraft carburetor can be seen on the right side of the engine. (Napier/NPHT/IMechE image)

In 1937, Dagger E108 incorporated several major changes. The engine had a double-entry, two-sided supercharger impeller for increased boost and incorporated an updraft carburetor. The propeller gear reduction housing was redesigned to accommodate a controllable-pitch propeller and moved up approximately 3.5 in (90 mm) above the engine’s centerline. The raised propeller shaft enabled the use of a larger diameter propeller. The relocation of the propeller shaft and redesign of the gear reduction housing resulted in the accessory drive shaft being powered by the left crankshaft, and the right crankshaft drove the magnetos and distributors mounted to the nose case. The propeller gear reduction was lowered to .308. New cylinders were designed with finer and more numerous cooling fins. Cylinder compression ratio was decreased slightly to 7.5 to 1. A single mounting pad on each side of the accessory case replaced the two pads previously used. Dagger E108 produced 935 hp (697 kW) at 4,100 rpm at 9,750 ft (2,972 m), and the engine was developed further as the Dagger VIII.

For the Dagger VIII, Napier developed a nose cowling with air ducts between the upper and lower cylinders. This was done in an attempt to make sure that the engine, once installed in an aircraft, was properly cooled. The Dagger VIII (E110) was first run in 1938 and had a maximum output of 1,000 hp (746 kw) at 4,200 rpm at 8,750 ft (2,667 m) with 5.0 psi (3.4 bar) of boost. The engine was rated at 925 hp (690 kW) at 4,000 rpm at 9,000 ft (2,743 m) with 4.0 psi (.28 bar) of boost and 955 hp (712 kW) for takeoff at 4,200 rpm with 6.0 psi (.41 bar) of boost. Its cruising output was 830 hp (619 kW) at 3,600 rpm at 7,000 ft (2,134 m) with 3.5 psi (.24 bar) of boost. Fuel consumption at cruise power was .461 lb/hp/hr (280 g/kW/h). The Dagger VIII was 73.9 in (1.88 m) long, 26.8 in (.62 m) wide, and 47.8 in (1.21 m) tall. The engine weighed 1,390 lb (630 kg).


A Hawker Hector with its Dagger III was the most successful application of the engine in an airframe. However, maintenance crews did not like the engine or its tight cowling.

In March 1937, the Dagger VIII was selected for what would become the Handley Page HP.53 Hereford I, a twin-engine medium bomber monoplane. The Hereford was simply a Dagger-powered HP.52 Hampden, and 100 examples were ordered in August 1937. The selection of the Dagger engine was more out of necessity than desirability. With all the other orders coming in during the scramble to rearm in the late 1930s, an alternative powerplant was desired to substitute for the standard Bristol Pegasus engines in the Hampden. The Hereford prototype (L7271) made its first on 8 October 1938. Cooling issues were encountered during flight trials, and the cowlings were modified and redesigned several times. The first production Hereford I (L6002) first flew on 17 May 1939. Persistent issues with the Dagger engines resulted in most of the 100 Herefords ordered being finished with Pegasus engines, since Pegasus production was able to keep up with demand. The few Herefords that retained their Dagger engines were used mostly as trainers. The Dagger VIII was also installed in Fairey Battle K9240 for engine tests. The Dagger VIII-powered battle made its first flight in November 1938.

The last of the Dagger line was the E112. This was an enlarged Dagger with a 4.0625 in (103 mm) bore, a 3.9375 in (100 mm) stroke, and a total displacement of 1,225 cu in (20.07 L). The E112 engine design dated from around 1939 and may have been a development of E104. It does not appear that the E112 was ever built.


The first Handley Page HP.52 Hereford I production aircraft (L6002) with its Dagger VIII engines. The cowling was similar to that developed for the Rapier. Note the carburetor intake under the engine and the cooling air exit door on the side of the rear cowling.

Like the Rapier, cooling the Dagger engine was difficult while the aircraft was on the ground. Cylinder head temperatures would often reach their upper limit before oil temperatures reached their lower limit. The result was that an aircraft would take off with oil temperature too low. This affected the oil’s ability to flow and led to the failure of various internal engine components. The Dagger did not achieve a level of success that warranted the engine’s mass production. However, what production there was of the Rapier and Dagger was enough to keep Napier going. The British Air Ministry was somewhat sympathetic to the powerful, compact, high-revving, small-frontal-area aircraft engine concept and continued to support Napier and Halford. By 1939, Napier was fully focused on developing the 2,000 hp (1,491 kW) Sabre engine for the war in Europe. While the air-cooled Dagger H-24 may have contributed to the knowledgebase upon which the liquid-cooled Sabre H-24 was built, the engines were very different. A Dagger II is preserved and in storage as part of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. One Dagger VIII is on display at the Royal Air Force Museum in London, England and another is part of the Science Museum’s collection at Wroughton, England.


A Dagger VIII engine preserved and on display at the Royal Air Force Museum in London, England. Note the baffles on the cylinders to direct the flow of cooling air through the fins. (Nimbus227 image via Wikimedia Commons)

Aero Engines Vol. II by Various Authors (1939)
British Piston Aero-Engines and Their Aircraft by Alec Lumsden (2003)
By Precision Into Power by Alan Vessey (2007)
Boxkite to Jet — the remarkable career of Frank B Halford by Douglas R Taylor (1999)
Aircraft Engines Volume Two by A. W. Judge (1947)
Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 1935 by C. G. Grey (1935)
Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 1939 by C. G. Grey (1939)
Aerosphere 1939 by Glenn D. Angle (1940)
Aircraft Engines of the World 1941 by Paul H. Wilkinson (1941)
An Account of Partnership – Industry, Government and the Aero Engine by George Bulman and edited by Mike Neale (2002)
Hawker Aircraft since 1920 by Francis K. Mason (1991)
Fairey Aircraft since 1918 by H. A. Taylor (1974/1988)
Handley Page Aircraft since 1907 by C. H. Barnes (1976)
– “The Napier-Halford Daggers” Flight (11 July 1935)
– “Accent on the Aspirate” Flight (10 June 1937)
– “The Napier Dagger VIII” Flight (12 January 1939)


Napier H-16 Rapier Aircraft Engine

By William Pearce

Frank Bernard Halford had been an aircraft engine designer since World War I. In 1923, he established himself as a for-hire consultant to design aircraft engines for established manufacturers. By 1927, Halford had designed a new high-revving aircraft engine with numerous small cylinders and minimal frontal area. Halford’s belief was that a smaller engine running at a faster speed would produce the same power as a larger engine running at a slower speed. The new engine design was a vertical H with four cylinder banks, each with four individual cylinders.


The Napier Rapier I with its intake and exhaust ports mounted on opposite sides of the cylinder, Note the magnetos mounted to the rear of the engine and the external oil line on the crankcase.

Halford showed the design to George Purvis Bulman, the Chief Inspector (of engines) for the British Ministry of Munitions. Bulman was impressed with the design and knew that the British engineering firm D. Napier & Son (Napier) was in search of a new product. Napier’s Lion W-12 aircraft engine was designed 10 years previous, and the company had stopped producing automobiles in 1924. Napier wanted to pursue the development of new aircraft engines but felt that its current in-house design department did not have the needed experience.

Bulman introduced Halford to George Pate, Napier’s Production Chief Engineer. With the blessing of Napier’s board of directors and its chairman, Montague Stanley Napier, Halford was contracted in 1928 to design aircraft engines for Napier. One stipulation was that the engines must fall between a displacement of 404.09 and 718.37 cu in (6.62 and 11.77 L) to not conflict with any of Halford’s projects with other companies. Halford immediately began detailed design work on the H-16 engine, which would eventually be known as the Rapier. The engine is often referred to as the Napier-Halford Rapier.


Rear and front views of the Rapier I. On the left, the upper “Y” intake pipe can be seen behind the spark plug wires. On the right, the intake manifolds can be seen atop the inner side of the cylinder banks, just under the valve rocker housings.

Much of Halford’s previous aircraft engine experience was with air-cooled cylinders, and the 16-cylinder Rapier was no different. An Air-cooled engine was lighter and less complex than a liquid-cooled engine. The Rapier had a two-piece aluminum crankcase that was split horizontally at its center. The left and right crankshafts were supported between the two crankcase halves via five main bearings each. Each one-piece, four-throw crankshaft served one vertical and one inverted bank of cylinders. The crankshafts were phased at 180 degrees (some sources say 90 degrees, and it may be that the Rapier I was so phased and that later engines were at 180 degrees). Power strokes occurred simultaneously for both crankshafts. The connecting rod attached to each crankpin was a master rod with an articulating rod mounted to its end cap. When viewed from the rear, master rods served the upper left and lower right cylinder banks. Spur gears at the front of each crankshaft meshed with a larger gear that was mounted to the propeller shaft, which turned at .390 crankshaft speed. When viewed from the rear, both crankshafts rotated clockwise, and the propeller shaft rotated counterclockwise.

The air-cooled cylinders were made of aluminum heads that were screwed and shrunk onto forged steel barrels. Each cylinder was mounted to the crankcase via four studs. The cylinders had a 6.0 to 1 compression ratio, and each cylinder had a single intake and a single exhaust valve. The intake port was on the inner side of the cylinder, and the exhaust port was on the outer side. The valves for each set of eight upper and lower cylinders were actuated by a single camshaft via pushrods and rockers. Each camshaft was located between its respective set of cylinders (upper and lower). Each cylinder had one spark plug mounted on its outer side and another mounted on its inner side.


The Havilland DH.77 prototype fighter monoplane was initially powered by a Rapier I engine, but a Rapier II was later installed. Note the individual exhaust stacks and the machine gun installed on the side of the aircraft.

An accessory drive case was mounted to the back of the engine. A shaft extending back from the propeller shaft powered the accessory drive gears. Driven from the accessory case were the camshafts, magnetos, supercharger, generator, and various accessories. The engine’s two magnetos were mounted to the rear of the accessory case, and each magneto fired one of the cylinder’s two spark plugs. The single-speed supercharger drew in air through an updraft carburetor and compressed the air and fuel mixture with a centrifugal impeller. The air and fuel mixture exited the top and bottom of the supercharger housing into a Y pipe that distributed the charge to each cylinder via a manifold that ran along the inner side of each cylinder bank. A hand crank or an air starter was used to start the engine.

Napier developed a cowling for the Rapier so that the engine could be installed as a complete package. The cowling was narrow in form and had large upper and lower scoops. For engine cooling, air was ducted between the upper and lower cylinders. Baffles directed the air’s flow through the cylinders’ integral cooling fins and to the outer side of the cylinder banks. The cooling air exited via a cowl flap on each side of the aircraft and behind the engine.


The Rapier II had a revised cylinder with intake and exhaust ports on its outer sides. The supercharger housing was also modified with four outlets serving individual intake manifolds for each cylinder bank. Note the crankcase’s horizontal parting line.

The Napier Rapier I was designated by Napier as the E93. The engine had a 3.5 in (88.9 mm) bore and a 3.5 in (88.9 mm) stroke. Each cylinder displaced 33.7 cu in (.55 L), and the Rapier’s total displacement was 539 cu in (8.83 L). At sea level, the engine had a maximum output of 350 hp (261 kW) at 3,900 rpm and a normal output of 300 hp (224 kW) at 3,500 rpm. The Rapier I was 54 in (1.37 m) long, 21 in (.53 m) wide, and 35 (.90 m) tall. The engine weighed 620 lb (281 kg).

The Rapier I was first run around the start of 1929 and was mainly a developmental engine. The engine was installed in the de Havilland DH.77 (J9771) prototype fighter monoplane, which made its first flight on 11 July 1929. Although the aircraft exhibited good qualities, it was not selected for production. After completing its evaluation, the DH.77 was used to accumulate 100 hours of engine tests until December 1932. A Rapier II engine (see below) was then installed with a modified cowling. Engine development continued until the summer of 1934, when the aircraft was scrapped. The Rapier I was also installed in a Bristol Bulldog TM (K3183) biplane trainer around 1933. The aircraft served as the Rapier I test bed to evaluate the engine and cowling in a wind tunnel and in flight. Bulldog TM (K3183) kept its Rapier powerplant until 1938, when it was used to test another engine.


The Rapier IV was very similar to the Rapier II but with decreased supercharging. The baffles helped direct cooling air through the cylinder’s fins. Note the magneto mounted vertically from the accessory case.

The Rapier II was a development of the Rapier I with the supercharger’s impeller geared at a higher speed to improve the engine’s performance at altitude. New cylinders were used that had the intake and exhaust ports both located on the outer side of the cylinder. The induction system was revised with four outlets from the supercharger that distributed the air and fuel mixture via separate manifolds to each cylinder bank. The accessory case was also updated with the magnetos mounted vertically.

The Rapier II carried the Napier designation E95 and was first run in 1932. At 10,000 ft (3,048 m), the Rapier II had a maximum output of 355 hp (265 kW) at 3,900 rpm and a normal output of 305 hp (227 kW) at 3,500 rpm. The engine was 55.25 in (1.40 m) long, 20.75 in (.53 m) wide, and 35.25 (.90 m) tall. The engine weighed 710 lb (322 kg). As mentioned above, the engine was installed in the DH.77 prototype, which flew in this configuration in early 1933.


The Rapier VI had a revised, magnesium crankcase, a separate gear reduction housing, and used a downdraft carburetor. Otherwise, its structure was similar to that of the Rapier IV.

The Rapier IV was similar to the Rapier II, but it generated maximum power at low altitude due to revised supercharger gearing. At sea level, the Rapier IV had a maximum output of 385 hp (287 kW) at 3,900 rpm and a normal output of 340 hp (254 kW) at 3,500 rpm. The Rapier IV was 52.0 in (1.32 m) long, 21 in (.53 m) wide, and 37.7 in (0.96 m) tall. The engine weighed 726 lb (329 kg). The Rapier IV was first run in 1933, and Napier purchased an Airspeed Courier AS.5C (G-ACNZ) touring aircraft to serve as an engine testbed that same year. The AS.5C with its Rapier IV engine was first flown in June 1934. The aircraft was used as a demonstrator for a few years. By 1937, the engine had been replaced, and the aircraft was sold. Prior to AS.5C’s delivery, two Rapier IV engines were installed in a Saro A.19/1A Cloud (G-ABCJ) amphibious transport. The A.19/1A was the first testbed for the Rapier IV. The aircraft was loaned to Jersey Airways in August 1935 and withdrawn from service in December 1936.

The Rapier V was a further development of the Rapier line. Changes consisted of a magnesium crankcase, a separate updated gear reduction housing, fork-and-blade connecting rods, and an increased compression ratio of 7.0 to 1. The forked rods were in the rear lower cylinders, second from rear upper cylinders, second from front lower cylinders, and front upper cylinders. The induction system was revised to accommodate a downdraft carburetor. The engine was given the Napier designation E100 and was first run in around 1934. At 10,000 ft (3,048 m), the Rapier V had a maximum output of 380 hp (283 kW) at 4,000 rpm and a normal output of 340 hp (254 kW) at 3,650 rpm. Fuel consumption at cruise power was approximately .429 lb/hp/hr (261 g/kW/h) at 240 hp (179 kW) and 3,300 rpm. The Rapier V was 57.37 in (1.46 m) long, 23.37 in (.59 m) wide, and 36.0 in (.91 m) tall. The engine weighed 720 lb (326 kg). Four of the engines were installed in the Short S.20 Mercury (G-ADHJ) seaplane, which first flew on 5 September 1937. These engines were replaced with Rapier VIs in June 1938.


Front and rear views of the Rapier VI. Internally, the engine used fork-and-blade connecting rods and had a cylinder compression ratio of 7.0 to 1. It was the most powerful of the Rapier engines.

The Rapier VI (possibly E106) was similar to the Rapier V, but with decreased supercharging. The Rapier VI had a maximum rating of 395 hp (295 kW) at 4,000 rpm at 6,000 ft (1,829 m); a normal rating of 370 hp (276 kW) at 3,650 rpm at 4,750 ft (1,448 m); and a takeoff rating of 365 hp (272 kW) at 3,500 rpm at sea level. Fuel consumption at cruise power was approximately .412 lb/hp/hr (251 g/kW/h) at 310 hp (231 kW) and 3,500 rpm. The engine was 56.6 in (1.44 m) long, 22.4 in (.57 m) wide, and 36.0 in (.91 m) tall. The Rapier IV weighed 713 lb (313 kg). The engine was first installed in the Fairey Seafox reconnaissance float plane, which made its first flight on 27 May 1936. Early issues were experienced with engine cooling, but ultimately 66 Seafoxes were built, making it the most successful Rapier application. The Seafox was withdrawn from service in 1943. The Rapier IV was also installed in the Blackburn H.S.T.10 transport, the development of which was halted in 1936, before the aircraft was completed.


The Fairey Seafox reconnaissance float plane was powered by the Rapier VI engine, and 66 examples of the aircraft were built.

As previously mentioned, four Rapier VI engines were installed in the Short S.20 Mercury in June 1938. When the S.20 was mounted atop the Short S.21 Maia, the pair formed the Short-Mayo Composite, which was envisioned to provide long-range transport service. After being hoisted aloft by the Short S.21 Maia on 21 July 1938, the S.20 separated and later completed the first commercial, non-stop East-to-West transatlantic flight by a heavier-than-air machine. The Maia-Mercury composite went on to establish a seaplane distance record, covering 6,045 miles (9,728 km) between 6 and 8 October 1938. The Mercury and Maia made several flights until commercial operations were suspended due to World War II.

Cooling the Rapier engine was particularly difficult while the aircraft was on the ground. The uncuffed propellers did not provide sufficient airflow to effectively cool the engine, especially the rear cylinders. This issue was never fully resolved. In the early 1930s, Napier and Halford were working on the development of other aircraft engines, which would ultimately lead to the air-cooled Dagger H-24 and liquid-cooled Sabre H-24. By mid-1935, resources at Napier were wearing thin, and the decision was made to discontinue Rapier development so that efforts could be concentrated on other projects. Rapier production continued until around 1937. One Rapier VI engine was preserved and is on display at the Shuttleworth Collection in Bedfordshire, England.


The Short S.20 Mercury (top) and Short S.21 Maia (bottom) seaplane composite. Although originally fitted with four Rapier V engines, the Mercury had Rapier VIs installed for its service flights. The Maia was powered by four nine-cylinder Bristol Pegasus radial engines.

– “The Napier Rapier” Flight (14 March 1935)
British Piston Aero-Engines and their Aircraft by Alec Lumsden (2003)
By Precision Into Power by Alan Vessey (2007)
Boxkite to Jet — the remarkable career of Frank B Halford by Douglas R Taylor (1999)
Aircraft Engines Volume Two by A. W. Judge (1947)
Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 1931 by C. G. Grey (1931)
Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 1934 by C. G. Grey (1934)
Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 1936 by C. G. Grey (1936)
Aerosphere 1939 by Glenn D. Angle (1940)
An Account of Partnership – Industry, Government and the Aero Engine by George Bulman and edited by Mike Neale (2002)
Aircraft Engines of the World 1941 by Paul H. Wilkinson (1941)
Bristol Aircraft since 1910 by C. H. Barnes (1964/1994)
De Havilland Aircraft since 1909 by A. J. Jackson (1987)
Airspeed Aircraft since 1931 by H. A. Taylor (1970)
Saunders and Saro Aircraft since 1917 by Peter Jackson (1988)
Shorts Aircraft since 1900 by C. H. Barnes (1989)
Fairey Aircraft since 1918 by H. A. Taylor (1974/1988)
Blackburn Aircraft since 1909 by A. J. Jackson (1968/1989)


Piaggio P.7 / Piaggio-Pegna Pc 7 Schneider Racer

By William Pearce

Giovanni Pegna was an Italian aeronautical engineer who started to design racing seaplanes and other aircraft in the early 1920s. Partnering with Count Giovanni Bonmartini, the pair formed Pegna-Bonmartini in 1922 to bring some of Pegna’s aircraft designs to life. Pegna was particularly interested in designing a racing seaplane for the Schneider Trophy Contest. Pegna-Bonmartini was short lived, as it was bought out by Piaggio & C. SpA (Piaggio) in 1923, when the latter company decided to start designing its own aircraft. Pegna was appointed head aircraft designer for Piaggio.


Giovanni Pegna’s previous racing seaplane designs. The engine and propeller of the Pc 1 pivoted up to clear the water for takeoff, landing, and while operating on the water’s surface. The Pc 2 and Pc 3 were fairly conventional designs but were advanced for their 1923 time period. The Pc 4 had tandem engines in a push/pull configuration and a single, central float. Wing floats would have been incorporated into the design. The Pc 5 and Pc 6 both used a retractable hull that was extended for takeoff and landing. The Pc 6 also had tandem engines in a push/pull configuration.

Pegna’s racing seaplane designs focused on minimizing the aircraft’s frontal area. Some of the designs used floats, while others incorporated a flying boat hull. Construction of the Pc 3 was started by Piaggio in 1923. The “Pc” in the aircraft’s designation stood for Pegna Corsa (Race), and this aircraft most likely carried the Piaggio designation P.5. The Pc 3 was a fairly conventional, single-engine monoplane utilizing two floats, but the aircraft was never finished.


The Schneider Trophy Contest inspired a number of extraordinary designs, but the Piaggio P.7 / Pegna-Piaggio Pc.7 was the most radical to be built. Its hydrovanes were much smaller and lighter than floats, offering the aircraft a distinct advantage if it could get airborne. Note the water rudder behind the water propeller.

In 1927, Pegna was asked by the Ministero dell’Aeronautica (Italian Air Ministry) to design a racing seaplane for the 1929 Schneider Trophy Contest. After studying three designs (Pc 4 through Pc 6), Pegna became increasingly focused on utilizing a central float that would be extended to support the aircraft on water and retracted while the aircraft was in the air. However, the complexity and estimated weight of the float and its retraction mechanism, combined with the unknown aerodynamic forces during retraction and extension, made the design impractical. Pegna returned to the drawing board and, aided by Giuseppe Gabrielli, designed the Pc 7, which was also known as the Piaggio P.7. On 24 March 1928, the Italian Air Ministry ordered two examples of the P.7 and assigned them serial numbers (Matricola Militare) MM126 and MM127.

After experiments in a water tank, Pegna finalized the aircraft’s design. The Piaggio P.7 (Piaggio-Pegna Pc 7) had a watertight fuselage that sat in the water up to the shoulder-mounted wings when the aircraft was at rest. A two-blade propeller at the front of the aircraft was just above the waterline. The engine was located just forward of the wing and drove the propeller via a shaft. A second shaft extended behind the engine to a water propeller positioned in a skeg under the tail. Clutches on both shafts allowed the front propeller or the water propeller to be decoupled from the engine. When the front propeller was decoupled, it would come to rest in a horizontal position. For takeoff, the engine would power the water propeller with the front propeller stationary. As the aircraft gained speed, the front would rise about 10 degrees out of the water by the hydrodynamic forces imparted on two hydrovanes extending below the fuselage and by a third hydrovane located in front of the water propeller. With the front propeller clear of the water, engine power was diverted from the water propeller to the front air propeller. The front propeller would continue the aircraft’s acceleration until enough speed was gained to lift off from the water’s surface.


A view of the P.7’s internal layout. A and B are the drive shaft clutches. C is the lever that engages and disengages the air propeller; when disengaged, it locks the propeller in a horizontal position and closes the main carburetor inlets. D is the lever that engages and disengages the water propeller; when disengaged, it feathers the water propeller. E is not recorded, but it appears to be a bulkhead and support for the propeller shaft. F is a rubber diaphragm operated by the air propeller lever that seals the propeller shaft when the air propeller was disengaged.

The P.7’s airframe was made mostly of wood with some metal components. The aircraft was skinned with two layers of plywood with a waterproof fabric sandwiched between the layers. Two watertight compartments were sealed into the fuselage, and the vertical and horizontal stabilizers were watertight. A single fuel tank was positioned in the fuselage under the wing and between the engine and cockpit. The one-piece wing had three main spars and was mounted atop the fuselage. Two legs extended below the fuselage, and each supported a planing surface. The planing surfaces, including the one on the tail, were inclined approximately three degrees compared to the aircraft while in level flight. The relative angle would increase as the aircraft was landed with a slight tail-down configuration. A water rudder extended below the fuselage directly under the aircraft’s tail. The movement of the water rudder and normal rudder were linked.


The nearly complete P.7 without its engine or hydrovanes. The original carburetor inlets are visible on the side of the aircraft. Note the pipes for the surface radiators on the wings.

Originally, the P.7 was to be powered by a 1,000 hp (746 kW) FIAT AS.5 V-12 engine. For reasons that have not been found, the engine was switched to an Isotta Fraschini Asso 500 V-12 that produced 800 hp (597 kW) at 2,600 rpm. Isotta Fraschini fully supported the P.7 project, and Giustino Cattaneo, the Asso 500’s designer, redesigned the engine with a rear drive for the water propeller. In addition, new cylinder heads were designed with the exhaust ports on the inner, Vee side of the engine. As originally designed, the Asso 500 had intake and exhaust ports on the outer sides of the engine. Having the open exhaust ports on the side of the fuselage would lead to water intrusion when the aircraft was at rest on the surface. Relocating the exhaust ports to vent out the top of the fuselage resolved this issue. The cylinder heads were most likely the same or very similar to those that Cattaneo had designed for the Savoia-Marchetti S.65 Schneider racer. Cattaneo and Isotta Fraschini also designed at least some of the P.7’s drive systems. Surface radiators on the wings cooled the engine’s water coolant, and engine oil was cooled by a surface radiator on the sides and bottom of the aircraft’s nose.

The cockpit was situated low in the aircraft’s fuselage and between the wing’s trailing edge and the tail. Two levers on the left side of the cockpit controlled the engine’s output to the air and water propellers. One lever engaged and disengaged the air propeller. When engaged, the main carburetor inlets at the front of the aircraft were automatically opened. When disengaged, the carburetor inlets were closed, a rubber seal was pressed against the front of the propeller shaft, and the propeller was slowed and subsequently locked in a horizontal position. The carburetor inlets were originally located on the sides of the aircraft by the engine but were moved to above the nose. When the carburetor inlets were closed, the engine drew in air from the cockpit. When the water propeller’s lever was disengaged, the blades were feathered to offer as little aerodynamic resistance as possible.


The completed P.7 supported by a hoist illustrates the aircraft’s sleek design. The pilot sat quite far aft, and landings would have been a challenge.

Six air propellers were ordered for testing on the P.7. They varied in diameter and profile. Three were made from steel with a ground-adjustable pitch, and the other three were made from duralumin, and each had a different fixed pitch. One of the steel air propellers was designed by Pegna. Originally, the adjustable-pitch water propeller was made from duralumin components, but testing resulted in a switch to a steel hub with duralumin blades. The Piaggio P.7 had a 22 ft 2 in (6.76 m) wingspan, was 29 ft 1 in (8.86 m) long, and was 8 ft (2.45 m) tall. It had a maximum speed of 373 mph (600 km/h) and a landing speed of 103 mph (165 km/h). The aircraft weighed 3,122 lb (1,416 kg) empty and 3,717 lb (1,686 kg) fully loaded.

The design of the complex and unique aircraft delayed its completion. It appears that the first aircraft, MM126, was completed and sent to Desenzano before the Schneider Trophy Contest was held in September 1929, but there was not enough time to test the P.7 before the race. Both P.7 aircraft were finished by late October 1929, which is when testing began. Most pilots of the Italian Reparto Alta Velocità (High Speed Unit) were not interested in testing the radical machine. However, Tommaso Dal Molin was up to the task. Testing occurred on Lake Garda, just off from Desenzano, home of the Reparto Alta Velocità.


The P.7 on Lake Garda for tests. A simple structure connected to hardpoints above the wing was used to raise and lower the aircraft out of the water. More so that most Schneider Trophy racers, the P.7 could only be operated on calm waters.

Using the water propeller, Dal Molin in MM126 was able to raise the nose of the aircraft to a sufficient height to engage the air propeller, but this was not done. The P.7 was unstable planing on the water, and issues were experienced with the clutch for the water propeller. Oil on the clutch caused it to slip, resulting in a loss of power to the water propeller. In addition, the sudden cavitation of the main hydrovanes while planing caused a loss of buoyancy, which resulted in the P.7 suddenly and violently settling back on the water’s surface. Because of the issues, it seems that tests were conducted over only a few days.

There was no cover to easily access the clutch. The needed repairs would require substantial disassembly of the aircraft. By this time, the Air Ministry and Piaggio showed little interested in the P.7, but Pegna wanted to continue its development. Some of the changes Pegna had in mind were adjustable hydrovanes and cooling the engine oil with water rather than using a surface radiator. However, it appears that the repairs were never made. MM126 was stored at Desenzano for a time but was destroyed after a few years. MM127 was taken to Guidonia Montecelio, near Rome, for testing in a water tank to improve the aircraft’s hydrovanes. The aircraft was eventually abandoned, and it is not clear if any tests were ever conducted. MM127, along with other aircraft, was destroyed in 1944—a casualty of World War II.


The P.7 surrounded by contemporaries at Desenzano. At left is the Macchi M.39. At right is the Savoia-Marchetti S.65. The Macchi M.52’s wing is in the foreground. Note the P.7’s exhaust stacks protruding above the engine.

Some Ideas on Racing Seaplanes (Technical Memorandums National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics No. 691) by Giovanni Pegna (November 1932) 31.4 MB
Schneider Trophy Seaplanes and Flying Boats by Ralph Pegram (2012)
MC 72 & Coppa Schneider Vol. 2 by Igino Coggi (1984)
Schneider Trophy Aircraft 1913–1931 by Derek N. James (1981)
Volare Avanti by Paolo Gavazzi (2000)
Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 1932 by C. G. Grey (1932)


Cobb Railton Land Speed Record Car

By William Pearce

John Rhodes Cobb was a fur trader who turned to auto racing and setting endurance records in his Napier-Railton car. The Napier-Railton was designed by Reid Antony Railton, head engineer at Thomson & Taylor. Run by Ken Thomson and Ken Taylor, the company was located at the Brooklands raceway in Surrey, England and specialized in designing and building race cars.


John Cobb and the Railton streak across the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1947. The car was the first to go over 400 mph (644 km/h).

Around October 1935, Cobb approached Railton and Taylor about designing a Land Speed Record (LSR) car. At the time, a new record had just been set on 3 September 1935 by Malcolm Campbell. For the record, Campbell ran his Campbell-Railton-Rolls-Royce Blue Bird car at 301.129 mph (484.620 km/h) on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. After the record, Campbell retired from attempting any further LSRs. Railton had done much of the design work on Campbell’s car, and Cobb did not care much for Campbell. What Cobb offered Railton was the freedom to design a LSR car from scratch. All of Railton’s work with Campbell was redesigning and modifying a car that was originally built in 1926.

Cobb made slow, deliberate steps toward his goals, and his work on the LSR car would be no different. It was not until early 1937 that Railton and Ralph Beauchamp began serious design work on the car. At the same time, Cobb’s friend and fellow record-breaker George Eyston began the construction of his own LSR car, Thunderbolt. Eyston’s huge car was powered by two Rolls-Royce R engines and needed eight wheels to distribute its immense weight. While similar in concept and designed to achieve the same goal, Railton’s LSR car design would stand in stark contrast to the Thunderbolt. Railton’s LSR design carried the Thomson & Taylor designation Project Q-5000. Cobb named the car Railton in honor of its designer.

While Cobb was financially well-off, he did not have unlimited funds for an LSR car. Railton wanted to design the car using existing technology and keep its proportions within the limits suitable for four wheels. Railton also felt that four-wheel drive was necessary. Having the front and rear wheels driven independently by their own engine circumvented many challenges and simplified the overall design. The choice to use two Napier Lion W-12 engines was an easy one. Railton had experience with the engine when he first worked on Campbell’s Blue Bird in 1930. The Lion was also selected to power Cobb’s Napier-Railton, and Thomson & Taylor had much experience with the engine type, as they converted them for marine use.


Rear view of the Railton shortly after its completion in 1938. Once the one-piece body was quickly removed, nearly all of the car’s components were accessible. The large water tank is on the left, and the air brake can be seen forward of the rear tires.

Originally designed in 1917, the Lion was a 12-cylinder aircraft engine with three banks of four cylinders. The center bank extended vertically from the crankcase, with the left and right banks angled at 60 degrees from the center bank. Two supercharged Racing Lion VIID engines were available for Cobb’s LSR car. Built in 1929, the engines had been used by Marion Barbara (Joe) Carstairs to power her Estelle IV motorboat. The Lion VIID was the same type of engine Campbell had used to power his Blue Bird in 1931 and 1932. The modified engines produced 1,480 hp (1,104 kW) at 3,600 rpm during tests, but would only produce 1,250 hp (932 kW) at Bonneville’s 4,200-ft (1,280-m) elevation. Carstairs gave both Lion VIID engines to Cobb. Incidentally, Carstairs had funded Campbell’s purchase of two Lion VIID engines in 1930 for his Blue Bird.

After the basic design of the car’s body was determined by wind tunnel tests, Railton focused on filling the body with the needed equipment. The Railton’s frame was a single central boxed girder made from high-strength steel and perforated with large lightening holes. The girder was 11 in (279 mm) wide and varied between 8 and 12 in (203 to 305 mm) tall. When viewed from above, the girder took the shape of a flattened S. Mounted above the front and rear of the girder were the front and rear axles. The cockpit was mounted in front of the front axle on cantilevered supports that extended from the girder. The central part of the girder was angled seven degrees across the car’s centerline. Staggered outriggers extended from each side of the girder to support a Lion engine. The engines were installed 10 degrees off the car’s centerline. The front engine was offset to the right and drove the rear wheels, and the rear engine was offset to the left and drove the front wheels.

Each engine drove a three-speed transmission without a conventional clutch or flywheel. Gear changes were made carefully and with the aid of an overrunning clutch device with locking dogs. Linkages were synchronized so that the single throttle pedal operated both engines, the single clutch pedal unlocked both clutches, and the single gearshift lever operated both transmissions. Each driveshaft also incorporated an 11 in (279 mm) drum brake with hydraulically actuated shoes contracting on its outer diameter. The drums were water-cooled, utilizing the same coolant as the engines. Just forward of the rear wheels was a pneumatic airbrake. Its operation could be linked to the brake pedal so that it deployed vertically as the brake was pressed.


Front view of the Railton on the Salt Flats in 1938. The open covers at the bottom of the car allowed access for two of the body’s eight mounts. Note that the air brake has been removed, as Cobb found the driveshaft brakes more than adequate.

The front axle featured a differential and independent wishbone suspension. The rear axle was narrower than the front and had a solid housing with no differential. The axles’ final drive ratio was 1.35. A combination coil spring and shock absorber controlled the suspension’s movement at each wheel. Forward of the left engine was a 90 US gal (75 Imp gal / 341 L) water tank for engine cooling. The tank was filled with ice, and delivered water to the engines. The Railton had no radiator, and the heated water was purged after passing through the engines. Behind the right engine was a 22 US gal (18 Imp gal / 82 L) fuel tank and an 18 US gal (15 Imp gal / 68 L) oil tank.

The Railton was entirely encased by its streamlined body. The body was designed to not create any lift. Wind tunnel experiments and calculations indicated that the nose of the car would need to be lifted 12 in (305 mm) before aerodynamic lift overcame the car’s weight. The maximum expected lift on the Bonneville Salt Flats was 3 in (76 mm). The one-piece upper body was made of aluminum panels welded and riveted to aluminum supports. The body weighed approximately 450 lb (204 kg) and was designed to be quickly removed to allow access to the entire vehicle for servicing. The 44 x 7.75 in (1,118 x 197 mm) Dunlop tires were mounted on 31 x 7 in (787 x 178 mm) steel wheels and were concealed beneath humps protruding above the body’s upper surface. A square opening covered the cockpit, which was sealed by an aluminum cover with a bulge and a small windscreen for the driver’s head. Two cockpit covers were built, one with an open top and one with a closed top. The open top version was discarded shortly after arriving at Bonneville.

The car’s body could be lowered in place over the seated driver, or the driver could enter the cockpit with the body in place via the opening. However, an overhanging structure to the cockpit opening was needed to support the driver if the body was in place. An undershield covered the underside of the chassis. The body was secured to the car’s frame at eight points and attached to the undershiled via approximately 36 Dzus fasteners. Exhaust from the upper cylinder bank of each engine exited via a manifold protruding above the body. Exhaust from each engine’s left and right cylinder banks exited via a manifold protruding from the underside of the car. The inboard exhaust passed though the girder frame. All exhaust manifolds were directed to the rear. The Railton was 28 ft long (8.53 m), 8 ft (2.44 m) wide, and 4 ft 3 in (1.30 m) tall. The car’s wheelbase was 13 ft 6 in (4.11 m). The front axle had a track of 5 ft 6 in (1.68 m) and the rear track was 3 ft 6 in (1.07 m). The Railton weighed 6,280 lb (2,849 kg).


The Railton being prepared at Bonneville in 1939. The fuel tank has been relocated to the car’s port side, and a large ice tank has been added at the back of the car. The man by the body is painting the Gilmore Red Lion on the nose of the car.

On 5 April 1938, the nearly-complete Railton was debuted for the press. The car was missing its wheel covers, but the craftsmanship involved in its construction and the vehicle’s purpose were evident. Attending the event was Eyston, who, in his Thunderbolt car, had established a new LSR of 311.42 mph (501.18 km/h) over the mile (1.6 km) and 312.20 mph (502.44 km/h) over the km (.6 mi) on 19 November 1937. The Railton was first displayed to the public on 18 April at Brooklands. There were no suitable places in Britain to test the car, so once it was completed, it was packed up and sent to the United States at the end of July.

When Cobb, his team, and the Railton arrived on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Eyston and Thunderbolt had been there for a few weeks. The weather had been bad, and Eyston had not been able to make any record attempts. The course was shortened to about 10 miles (16 km) because of the poor conditions. For starting, first gear was engaged, and the Railton was pushed by a truck to about 20 mph (32 km/h), at which point the magnetos were energized to start the engines. Cobb began testing the Railton, including a first shakedown run up to around 250 mph (402 km/h) without the car’s body. Initial test runs with the body resulted in deformations caused by air pressure pushing on specific areas at the rear of the body. Also, hot exhaust from the center cylinder banks damaged the top of the aluminum body. The body was straightened and reinforced, and an asbestos-lined steel shield was added behind the upper exhaust stacks. On 20 August 1938, conditions had improved, and Cobb took the Railton out for a serious test run. The peak speed was 300 mph (483 km/h) and the Railton averaged 270 mph (435 km/h) over the mile (1.6 km).

On 25 August 1938, the camera timing equipment failed to record Eyston in the Thunderbolt on what would have been a record-breaking run. The failure was caused by a lack of contrast between the car and the background. As a result, both Thunderbolt and Railton were partially painted black to improve contrast. On 27 August, Eyston in the Thunderbolt established a new LSR at 345.49 mph (556.01 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km) and 345.21 mph (555.56 km/h) for the km (.6 mi).


Cobb and the Railton making a run on the Salt Flats in 1939. The trip that year was quite successful, but the start of World War II overshadowed the records.

On 30 August 1938, Cobb made a record attempt. The Railton’s quick acceleration caused the tires to spin, subsequently damaging them, and the attempt was aborted. Even so, Cobb reached 325 mph (523 km/h). More work was done while the surface of the Salt Flats continued to improve. Cobb had found that the driveshaft friction brakes were sufficient to stop the car, and the airbrake was removed. A record attempt was made on 12 September, but issues with shifting the car resulted in a speed of 342.50 mph (551 km/h). With the knowledge and experienced gained by all the previous runs, another record attempt was made on 15 September. Cobb made his run north and covered the mile (1.6 km) at an average of 353.29 mph (568.57 km/h). The body was quickly removed, and the tires were changed during the turnaround. On the return south, the Railton averaged 347.16 mph (558.70 km/h). Cobb and the Railton were successful and set new records of 350.20 mph (356.59 km/h) over the mile (1.6 km) and 350.10 mph (563.43 km/h) over the km (.6 mi).

Eyston and his team had been modifying Thunderbolt for even more speed in case Cobb got the record. On 16 September 1938, one day after Cobb’s record run, Eyston and Thunderbolt made another attempt. The runs established a new LSR at an average of 357.50 mph (575.34 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km) and 357.34 mph (575.08 km/h) for the km (.6 mi).

Cobb and Railton knew their car was capable of more speed. They also learned a lot from its first outing and had a number of modifications in mind. The decision was made to not push the Railton for higher speeds, but to return to England, modify the car, and return to Bonneville in 1939, when conditions might be even better.


Cobb sits in the bodyless Railton in 1947. This image illustrates the tight fit under the body of the two Lion engines, various tanks, and other components. The twin belts, pulley, and shaft of the anti-stalling device can be seen between the cockpit and rear engine, which drove the front wheels.

Back in England, the Railton’s frame was modified to prevent its deflection by engine torque, and the suspension was upgraded. The cooling system was revised by incorporating a new 90 US gal (75 Imp gal / 341 L) tank for ice between and behind the car’s rear wheels. A new 22 US gal (18 Imp gal / 21 L) water tank with an additional header tank of about 6 US gal (5 Imp gal / 23 L) replaced the fuel tank on the right side of the car. The fuel tank was relocated to the left side of the car where the old water tank used to be. For the new cooling system, a thermostat controlled the flow of ice water from the ice tank to the water tank. Water from the water tank flowed to the engines. The total-loss system did not circulate water back to the tank, but vented the heated water out of the car. An opening was added at the front of the car that ducted air to the front engine. The engines’ supercharger gears were changed to increase impeller speed and provide additional boost. The Gilmore Oil Company of California was brought on as a major sponsor for the 1939 record attempt, and the car was often referred to as the Railton Red Lion for that year. Gilmore’s mascot/logo was a red lion, and the company had a line of Red Lion Gasoline.

Cobb, his team, and the Railton were back at the Bonneville Salt Flats in mid-August 1939. The salt was in good condition, and Cobb would have a course of about 13 miles (21 km) for the record attempt. On 17 August, a single run north was made at 352.94 mph (568.00 km/h). A tire tread had separated, and some adjustments to the car were needed. The baffling in the coolant header tank was subsequently modified, and the car was put back into good working order. On 22 August, an attempt was made, and speeds for the run north were recorded at 369.23 mph (594.22 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km) and 365.57 mph (588.33 km/h) for the km (.6 mi). On the return south, the left engine powering the front axle acted up, and the run was aborted. Adjustments were made to the carburetors, and another run was planned for the following day.

On 23 August 1939, the car was prepared, and Cobb set off in the early morning. The run north was covered at 370.75 mph (596.66 km/h) through the mile (1.6 km) and 367.92 mph (592.11 km/h) through the km (.6 mi). The car was back on the course in 25 minutes, after changing all four tires and adding fuel, oil, and water. On the run south, the Railton averaged 366.97 mph (590.85 km/h) over the mile (1.6 km) and 371.59 mph (598.02 km/h) over the km (.6 mi). The average of the runs were new LSRs at 368.86 mph (593.62 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km) and 369.74 mph (595.04 km/h) for the km (.6 mi). Cobb had exceeded six miles a minute, and a tachograph recording unit in the car indicated the peak speed was 380 mph (612 km/h).


While the body could be lifted by six men, many hands make light work. The oil tank is just forward of the rear wheel, followed by the relocated (in 1939) water and header tank. Many Dzus fasteners used to secure the body can be seen on the undershield. Note the very forward position of the driver

The Railton had performed so well that the decision was made to attempt longer distance records, and the car and the course were subsequently reconfigured. On 26 August 1939, Cobb and the Railton set new speed records covering 5 km (3.1 mi) at 326.66 mph (525.71 km/h), 5 miles (8.0 km) at 302.20 mph (486.34 km/h / timing equipment issues made this speed unofficial), 10 km (6.2 mi) at 283.01 mph (455.46 km/h), and 10 miles (16 mi) at 270.35 mph (435.09 km/h). Since the runs were made on the 13-mile (21-km) course, Cobb applied the brakes before exiting the longer, timed sections.

When the team had set off for the United States, Europe was in an unstable state and seemingly headed toward war. On 3 September 1939, as the team returned to England after their successful record runs, Britain declared war on Germany after the latter’s invasion of Poland on 1 September. Against such a backdrop, record setting became insignificant and irrelevant. During the war, the Railton was placed in storage, and Cobb served as a pilot with the Air Transport Auxiliary. But there was still some unfinished business, as Cobb knew the Railton was capable of more speed.

Toward the end of 1945, Cobb had the Railton removed from storage and sent to the Thomson & Taylor shop to be put in working order. Since the engines did not have a flywheel, they had a tendency to rev down and stall out during gear changes. Such an occurrence essentially brought a record run to an end. While the car was being worked on, Railton, who was now living in the United States, had a device fitted to both engines to prevent the stalls. The device was essentially a shaft that connected the engine to its drive line via a belt-driven overrunning clutch. If the engine speed dropped below one-seventh that of the drive line, the shaft turned by the drive line would keep the engine running. Other modifications were additional ducting to feed air from the opening at the front of the body to both engines and changing the final drive gears for high speed. New fuels allowed the engines to operate up to 4,000 rpm, and the pair produced a combined 3,300 hp (2,461 kW). The work on the Railton was performed under the ever-watchful eye of Ken Taylor. The Gilmore Oil Company, a major sponsor from 1939, had been bought out by the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company, which marketed its products under the “Mobil” name. The company agreed to sponsor Cobb’s efforts in 1947, and the car became the Railton Mobil Special.


A serious Cobb peers out the windscreen of the Railton. The slits forward of the canopy brought in air to the cockpit. A steel and asbestos panel behind the upper exhaust stacks protected the car’s body from heat damage.

The restored Railton was displayed before the press in late June 1947 and departed for Bonneville in July. The salt flats and the course were found to be in poor condition, and the Railton’s engines ran roughly. It took some time to resolve carburation issues and make the engines run right. One of the engines was later damaged during a test run. A camshaft was shipped from England to repair the Lion. When the engine issues had been resolved, the ice tank was punctured during a test run. After the tank was repaired, everything was finally in order for a test run on 14 September. The run north was timed at 375.32 mph (604.02 km/h). However, the rough course had caused the aluminum body to crack, necessitating yet more repairs.

On 16 September 1947, the wind had picked up considerably and the course was still less than ideal, but the car was ready. Cobb decided to make a record attempt. Setting off to the south, Cobb shifted into second gear at around 120 mph (193 km/h) and hit third at around 250 mph (402 km/h). The Railton shot through the measured mile (1.6 km) at 385.645 mph (620.635 km/h). The tires were changed and fluids refilled. On the run north, Cobb covered the mile (1.6 km) at 403.136 mph (648.785 km/h). The two-way average of the runs was a new LSR at 394.197 mph (634.399 km/h). And so it was that a 47-year-old man in a 10-year-old car with 20-year-old engines established a new LSR. It had taken quite a bit of effort to set the record in 1947, but Cobb and the team were confident the car could break 400 mph (644 km/h) on both runs if the course were a little better and the wind a little less. The Railton had left the measured mile (1.6 km) at about 410 mph (660 km) and was still accelerating. Plans were started to make another attempt the next day, but a serious rainstorm ended any hope for further runs.

LSRs were big news in the late 1920s and early 1930s. By 1947, and with no challengers on the horizon, Cobb breaking his own record was not nearly as sensational as previous LSRs. Cobb decided not to race the Railton again unless his record was broken. The LSR remained Cobb’s long after his tragic death on 29 September 1952, when his Crusader jet boat disintegrated during a water speed record attempt at over 206 mph (332 km/h). Cobb did make at least one demonstration of the Railton at Silverstone Circuit in England on 20 August 1949. In 1953, the Railton was sold by Cobb’s estate to the Dunlop Rubber Company, which donated it to the Museum of Science and Industry in Birmingham in July 1955. The car was displayed in the United States in 1954 (New York) and 1962 (San Francisco), and at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958. In September 2001, the Railton was moved to the Thinktank, Birmingham Science Museum, where the car is currently on display.


The Railton on the wide expanses of the Salt Flats in 1947. The various exhaust manifolds can be seen above and below the body. Note the two streams of water pouring out the underside of the car from the total-loss cooling system.

Essentially, Cobb and the Railton held the LSR for 25 years*—from 1939 until Donald Campbell went 403.10 mph (648.73 km/h) in the turboshaft-powered Bluebird CN7 on 17 July 1964. Cobb’s record represented the end of an era, as later speed machines used jet engines to push them along. But, the LSR for the class of piston-powered, wheel-driven cars is still the goal for many racers. On 9 September 1960, Micky Thompson made one run at 406.60 mph (654.36 km/h) in the Challenger 1 before a failed transmission aborted his return. Bob Summers went 409.277 mph (658.667 km/h) in Goldenrod on 12 November 1965, a speed that was not bettered until 21 August 1991, when Al Teague averaged 409.986 mph in Spirit of ’76. Tom Burkland in the Burkland 411 Streamliner achieved 415.896 mph (669.319 km/h) on 26 September 2008. On 17 September 2012, George Poteet in Speed Demon averaged 439.024 mph (706.541 km/h) over the mile (1.6 km). In a car originally built by his father in 1968, Danny Thompson averaged 448.757 mph (722.204 km/h) in Challenger 2 on 12 August 2018. On 13 August 2020, Poteet in Speed Demon took back the record, averaging 470.016 mph (756.417 km/h) over the mile (1.6 km).

*Or 24 years if Craig Breedlove’s 407.447 mph (655.722 km/h) run in Spirit of America on 5 August 1963 is considered. At the time, the record for the three-wheel, jet-powered, non-wheel-driven Spirit of America was not officially recognized.

Note: Spirit of ’76 and Burkland 411 Streamliner both used supercharged engines, while Goldenrod was normally aspirated. Goldenrod’s speed record for a piston-powered, normally aspirated, wheel-driven car stood for 45 years until 21 September 2010, when Charles Nearburg in Spirit of Rett achieved 414.316 mph (666.777 km/h).


The Railton on display at the Thinktank, Birmingham Science Museum. Although fitting, the name “Dunlop” was never painted on the car while it was breaking records. (Geni image via Wikimedia Commons)

This article is part of an ongoing series detailing Absolute Land Speed Record Cars.

Reid Railton: Man of Speed by Karl Ludvigsen (2018)
Napier: The First to Wear the Green by David Venables (1998)
The Land Speed Record 1920-1929 by R. M. Clarke (2000)
The Land Speed Record 1930-1962 by R. M. Clarke (2000)
The Fast Set by Charles Jennings (2004)
The John Cobb Story by S. C. H. Davis (1953)
Napier: Lions at Large 1916 – 2016 by Alan F. Vessey (2016)


Eyston Thunderbolt Land Speed Record Car

By William Pearce

In 1935, Englishman George Edward Thomas Eyston traveled for the first time to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, United States. At Bonneville on 3 September 1935, Eyston was able to witness Malcolm Campbell setting a Land Speed Record (LSR) in the last of his Blue Bird cars at 301.473 mph (485.174 km/h) covering one km (.6 mi) and 301.129 mph (484.620 km/h) covering one mile (1.6 km). In August, Eyston set a number of endurance records in his car, Speed of the Wind, which had been specially designed and built by Eyston and his partner, Ernest Arthur Douglas Eldridge. Eyston and Speed of the Wind set more records in 1936 and intended to return to Bonneville in 1937.


George Eyston in the Thunderbolt on the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1937. Note the short headrest fairing and the clearance bulges in the body panels above the wheels and engine.

In early 1937, Eyston and Eldridge began the design of an LSR car to break Campbell’s record and achieve a speed greater than 350 mph (565 km/h). Campbell’s last Blue Bird car was powered by a Rolls-Royce R engine and was supported by six wheels. It was quickly decided that the new LSR car would use two engines. After consulting with Dunlop, it was determined that the car’s weight necessitated the use of eight wheels. The car was primarily designed by Eyston. Eldridge contracted pneumonia returning from Bonneville after Speed of the Wind’s successful runs in 1936. Eldridge passed away on 27 October 1937, one day before the new LSR car was first run at Bonneville.

The new vehicle’s design progressed quickly, and Eyston and Eldridge were able to use their many contacts to obtain the parts needed for the car. However, major sponsors for their effort were in short supply. Eyston had become acquainted with many people at Rolls-Royce while he was building the Kestrel-powered Speed of the Wind. Eyston was able to acquire two Rolls-Royce R engines, the same type that Campbell had used to set several LSRs and had been used to set water and air speed records. Some sources state that Eyston wanted Merlin engines. However, since the Merlin was in an early production stage at the time and only produced around 1,030 hp (768 kW), this seems unlikely. Although heavier, the R engine had proven its reliability and produced twice the power of the then-current Merlin. With the power plant decided, serious work began on the new LSR car, which was later named Thunderbolt.


This top view of the Thunderbolt under construction illustrates the car’s layout. Note the track difference of the two front sets of wheels. The header water tank for each engine can be seen by the cockpit. The exhaust for the inner banks is at the center of the car. Only a single wheel is mounted on each side of the rear axle. The airbrakes are deployed and being skinned.

Thunderbolt was built to be strong and heavy. Two frame rails, 18 in (457 mm) tall at their maximum, ran the entire length of the car and supported all major components. A radiator was positioned at the front of the car and had an elongated, eight-sided opening. Behind the radiator was a splitter that directed air that had passed through the radiator either up above the car or below it. Both upper and lower air exits were positioned between the front-most wheels, which did not have brakes. Another set of front wheels with a slightly wider track were positioned behind the first set. This configuration allowed for a more streamlined nose and ensured the second set of front wheels would not ride in the ruts created by the first set of wheels. Drive shafts connected to the second set of wheels were equipped with hydraulically actuated disc brakes at their inner ends, which were supported by the main frame rails. This arrangement provided friction braking for the front of the car. All four front wheels were used to steer the Thunderbolt and featured independent suspension actuated by transverse leaf springs.

Behind the second set of front wheels was the cockpit. While the cockpit was open, the driver sat behind a windscreen. A headrest extended behind the cockpit and was faired into the car’s body. The main frame rails ran on both sides of the cockpit. The Rolls-Royce R engines were positioned behind the cockpit and outside of the main frame rails. A supporting frame extended outward from each of the main frame rails and cradled the engines. The placement of the engines added weight on the rear axle and helped improve adhesion to prevent wheel spin.

A header water tank was positioned in front of each engine, above the supercharger and alongside the cockpit. The intake scoops for the engines protruded above the car’s body and were located just forward of the cockpit. The intake duct ran under the header tank and to the supercharger. For the outer cylinder banks, individual exhaust stacks protruded from the car’s sides. Exhaust from each inner cylinder bank was collected by a manifold and directed out the upper-center of the car with the outlets protruding above the car’s body. Between the engines and the main frame rails was a 22 US gal (18 Imp gal / 82 L) oil tank and a 48 US gal (40 Imp gal / 182 L) fuel tank.


Nearing completion at Bean Industries, the Thunderbolt goes through an engine test run. Compressed air was used to start the engines. A cover is installed on only one of the engine intake scoops. Note the eight-sided radiator. (Getty image)

The output shaft of each engine was coupled to the three-speed transmission through friction plate clutches. However, the final drive gear was locked in using dog clutches to prevent slip. To accommodate the two engines, the transmission was 5 ft 6 in (1.68 m) wide and located on the Thunderbolt’s centerline. The transmission alone was 2,469 lb (1,120 kg) and contained 54 US gallons (45 Imp gal / 205 L) of gear oil, which was water cooled. It was connected to the drive wheels via a bevel gear. Two wheels were mounted to the drive axle on each side of the car, and each side used independent transverse leaf spring suspension. The drive shaft extended behind the rear axle and supported a hydraulically actuated disc brake, providing friction braking for the rear of the car. Behind the rear wheels were hydraulically controlled air brakes.

A light metal frame surrounded the car and served to secure Thunderbolt’s aluminum body panels. The body was designed by French aerodynamicist Jean Andreau. The body panels were made by Birmal Boat, Ltd and covered the car except for the radiator and cockpit openings. The panel fitment to the frame was so tight that bulges were needed to provide clearance for each wheel and for the valve covers of the engines’ outer cylinder banks. Most of the panels were designed to be quickly removed, especially those covering the wheels and engines. The Thunderbolt’s body tapered back behind the rear wheels, and a vertical tail was fixed at the extreme rear.


Thunderbolt at Bonneville in 1937. Note the fixed vertical tail. The dual rear wheels are visible, as is the outline of the retracted air brake. Eyston did not use the air brakes in 1937.

Thunderbolt was 30 ft 5 in (9.27 m) long, 7 ft 2 in (2.18 m) wide, and weighed 13,900 lb (6,305 kg). All eight tires were made by Dunlop and were 7.75 in (197 mm) wide and 44 in (1,118 mm) tall. The tires were mounted on wheels that were 7 in (178 mm) wide and 31 in (787 mm) tall and had a steel center and an aluminum rim. Each tire and wheel weighed around 210 lb (95 kg). At speed, the tires rotated 45 times each second and became 1.5 in (38 mm) taller. Reportedly, the R engines used in Thunderbolt had been derated for reliability and produced around 2,000 hp (1,491 kW). At power, the engines consumed 9.6 US gallons (8 imp gal / 36.4 L) of fuel each minute. Engines R25 and R27 were used in Thunderbolt. R25 was previously used in the Supermarine S.6B S1596 to set an absolute speed record of 379.05 mph (610.02 km/h) on 13 September 1931. Engine R27 had previously powered S.6B S1595 to set a new absolute speed record of 407.5 mph (655.1 km/h) on 29 September 1931. Additionally, Campbell had loaned one of his spare engines, R17, to Eyston.

Design and construction of Thunderbolt took about seven months, but the actual assembly of the car took only around six weeks. The car was built by Bean Industries, Ltd in Tipton, England. Reportedly, as the car was nearing completion, a public relations representative from Castrol wanted a name for the car. Eyston said to name it whatever he liked, and the representative from Castrol decided on Thunderbolt. Eyston, Speed of the Wind, and the untested Thunderbolt left for Bonneville in late August 1937 and arrived on 3 October. Upon arrival, the weather was poor, and the Salt Flats were in a sorry state. Time was needed for everything to improve, and that was time Eyston needed to finalize Thunderbolt.


This view of the Thunderbolt being serviced in 1937 with body panels removed shows the car’s inner frame. Part of the engine’s supporting cradle can be seen just under the engine. Note the coolant lines extending above the front axles.

Before getting behind the wheel of Thunderbolt, the fastest Eyston had ever driven was around 170 mph (275 km/h). On 28 October 1937, Eyston made his first test of Thunderbolt and decided to push the car. The run north was clocked at 309.6 mph (498.3 km/h), about eight mph (13 km/h) above the existing record set by Campbell. On the southbound return, the dog clutches were damaged by the engines running out of sync.

While Thunderbolt was being repaired, Eyston turned his attention to Speed of the Wind. On 3 November 1937, Eyston and co-driver Albert W. Denly set a new 12-hour record at 163.68 mph (263.42 km/h) and covered 2,000 miles (3,219 km) at an average speed of 163.75 mph (263.35 km/h). On 6 November 1937, Eyston made another run in Thunderbolt. Hoping to spare the clutches, Eyston utilized another vehicle to push start Thunderbolt and averaged 310.69 mph (500.01 km/h) on the northbound run. However, the dog clutches again failed on the southbound return.


Thunderbolt in 1938 with its new nose with rounded radiator opening, new intake scoops, and an extended tail. The headrest fairing has been extended back to the exhaust stacks, and the panels covering the wheels no longer have bulges. Barely visible are the shutters for radiator air exit on the car’s upper body between the first set of front wheels.

The clutch system underwent a modest redesign, and new parts were made. Some of the clutch redesign and new parts were made by Leo Goossen and Fred Offenhauser in Los Angeles, California. Eyston and the repaired Thunderbolt made another record run on 19 November 1937, with bad weather soon to close in. On the run north, Eyston shifted into second at 100 mph (161 km/h) and third at 200 mph 322 km/h). He covered the mile (1.6 km) at 305.34 mph (491.40 km/h) and the km (.6 mi) at 305.59 mph (491.80 km/h). It took just 16 minutes for Thunderbolt to be refueled and prepared for the return run with new tires. On the southbound leg, speed averages were 317.74 mph (511.35 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km) and 319.11 mph (513.56 km/h) for the km (.6 mi). Eyston’s goggles had gotten caught by the slipstream, and he had to grab them with one had while steering with the other at over 315 mph (507 km/h). All the effort had been enough—Eyston and the Thunderbolt set a new LSR of 311.42 mph (501.18 km/h) over the mile (1.6 km) and 312.20 mph (502.44 km/h) over the km (.6 mi).

In 1938, Thunderbolt was modified to improve its performance. The radiator inlet was extended slightly and rounded, with vanes added to help direct airflow. Shutters were added to the air exit to help regulate flow through the radiator. The engine intake scoops were enlarged, extended forward, and raised above the car’s body. The cockpit was enclosed by a rearward sliding canopy, and a respirator system was added. The respirator brought in fresh air from the front of the car. The headrest fairing was extended back to the center exhaust stacks. Exhaust manifolds replaced the individual stacks for the outer cylinder banks. New larger body panels without individual bulges over the wheels were installed. The vertical tail was decreased in size and modified so that it could be removed. The rear body of the car was extended for better streamlining. Coil springs replaced the heavy leaf springs used in the suspension. With all the modifications, Thunderbolt was lightened to about 12,000 lb (5,443 kg) and lengthened to about 35 ft (10.67 m).


After the timing camera failed to trigger in 1938, Thunderbolt had its sides painted black with matte paint to add contrast with the bright landscape. It was in this configuration that the car set its second LSR.

Eyston faced a challenger in 1938 in the form of John Rhodes Cobb and his LSR machine, the Railton. The Railton was designed by Reid Railton, powered by two Napier Lion engines, and much smaller and lighter than Thunderbolt. Eyston had intended to make his LSR runs in July, before Cobb arrived at Bonneville. However, bad weather and water on the course delayed any attempts until late August, by which time Cobb had arrived. On a test run at about 270 mph (435 km/h), smoke filled the cockpit due to an issue with the friction brakes. Eyston could hardly see and struggled to keep the car on the course. He felt that the respirator prevented asphyxiation and probably saved his life. Eyston decided to rely on the air brakes until the Thunderbolt slowed to 180 mph (290 km/h).

On 24 August 1938, Eyston averaged a blistering speed of 347.16 mph (558.70 km/h) on the northbound run. The return run may have been even faster, but the timing equipment malfunctioned and did not record a speed. The camera failed to trigger, most likely due to the lack of contrast with the silver car, white salt, and bright background. On the run, salt spray from the damp course was flung off the drive wheels and damaged the aluminum body panels above the wheels.


To beat Cobb, Thunderbolt’s vertical tail was removed and its nose faired over. This image shows the car with its tail removed. Also visible are the sliding canopy and the exhaust manifolds for the outer cylinder banks—all added for 1938. Note that the car’s sides are no longer black.

Repairs were made, and the sides of Thunderbolt were hastily painted matte black for contrast. On 27 August 1938, Eyston made another northward run and averaged 347.49 mph (559.23 km/h) over the mile (1.6 km) and 346.80 mph (558.12 km/h) over the km (.6 mi). The return south covered the mile at 343.51 mph (552.83 km/h) and the km at 344.15 mph (533.86 km/h). With those speeds, Eyston had established a new LSR at 345.49 mph (556.01 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km) and 345.21 mph (555.56 km/h) for the km (.6 mi). However, not to be outdone, Cobb bettered those marks on 15 September 1938, averaging 350.20 mph (356.59 km/h) over the mile (1.6 km) and 350.10 mph (563.43 km/h) over the km (.6 mi).

Eyston had been preparing Thunderbolt for more speed in case Cobb took the record. The Thunderbolt’s radiator was replaced with a water tank. The radiator intake and air exit between the front tires were faired over. With the runs lasting mere seconds, the water would not completely boil over. Two small scoops, perhaps to cool the front brake, were added behind the new nose. Small bulges for the first set of front wheels were added to the body panels. The car’s vertical tail was removed. The black paint that had been hastily applied was removed, and a back high-contrast section that incorporated a yellow circle was painted on the panel covering the rear set of front wheels. On 16 September 1938, one day after Cobb took the record, Eyston and Thunderbolt made another attempt. Northward, the mile (1.6 km) was covered at 356.44 mph (573.63 km/h) and the km (.6 mi) at 355.06 mph (571.41 km/h). Traveling south, the speed was 358.57 mph (577.06 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km) and 359.64 mph (578.78 km/h) for the km (.6 mi). The runs established a new LSR at an average of 357.50 mph (575.34 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km) and 357.34 mph (575.08 km/h) for the km (.6 mi). Eyston reported no stability issues in the tailless car, but said that the lack of a radiator caused the cockpit to get quite hot on the return run as the water boiled off.


Eyston and Thunderbolt setting their third LSR. The black, high-contrast section by the second front wheel is visible. Note the lack of a vertical tail.

Wanting to break the 360-mph (580-km/h) mark and go faster than six miles (9.7 km) per minute, Eyston took Thunderbolt out again on 21 September 1938. Just entering the measured mile (1.6 km) on the run north at over 360 mph (580 km/h), the cover for the right rear wheels broke free. As the cover tore loose, it damaged the two right rear tires and caused them to destroy themselves. Unsure of the issues, Eyston kept the throttle down through the mile (1.6 km), which was only about 10 seconds. After the mile (1.6 km), Thunderbolt skidded to a stop three miles (5 km) short of the course’s end with its right rear corner dragging. The car was too damaged to be repaired at Bonneville. Despite the damage and extra resistance through the measured mile (1.6 km), the car’s average speed was recorded as 349.85 mph (563.03 km/h).

While Cobb returned to Bonneville in August 1939 and set new LSRs at 368.86 mph (593.62 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km) and 369.74 mph (595.04 km/h) for the km (.6 mi), Eyston decided to take some time off from LSRs. Thunderbolt had been repaired, and Eyston knew it was capable of more speed, but not much more. Rather than racing again, Thunderbolt went on a world tour and was displayed at the New York World Fair in mid-1939. The car was subsequently sent to New Zealand and displayed in the British Pavilion at the Centennial Exhibition. After the Exhibition ended in May 1940, Thunderbolt and some other exhibits were stored at the Exhibition site in Rongotai, near Wellington. The outbreak of World War II put other priorities ahead of the exhibits. Extra space at the Exhibition site was used to store wool and several aircraft and aircraft engines. On 25 September 1946, the wool spontaneously ignited, and the blaze spread quickly amongst the 27,000 bales of wool in storage. Everything in the building, including Thunderbolt, was consumed by the fire. Reportedly, the remains of Thunderbolt were still located near the site as late as December 1956. The engines had been removed before the car was on display and were preserved. Engines R25 and R27 are respectively on display at the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon and the London Science Museum.


Thunderbolt at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. This image illustrates the car in its final record-setting configuration. Note the covered nose, small scoops behind the nose, and the small bulges above the front set of wheels. The black section on the car’s side had a yellow circle at its center. The cockpit canopy and outer cylinder bank manifold are also visible. At this point, the R engines had been removed and mockups installed in their place. The Union Jack on the nose (and the rear body at one point) was added after the final record run.

This article is part of an ongoing series detailing Absolute Land Speed Record Cars.

The Land Speed Record 1920-1929 by R. M. Clarke (2000)
Fastest on Earth by Captain G. E. T. Eyston (1939)
Reid Railton: Man of Speed by Karl Ludvigsen (2018)
Land Speed Record by Cyril Posthumus and David Tremayne (1971/1985)
The Fast Set by Charles Jennings (2004)
Leap into Legend by Steve Holter (2003)
– “An Interview with Capt. G. E. T. Eyston” by William Boddy, Motor Sport (October 1974)
– “Thunderbolt Damaged in Speed Trail” San Pedro News Pilot (21 September 1938)