Category Archives: World War II

VEF I-16 Front right

VEF I-16 Light Fighter Aircraft

By William Pearce

VEF (Valsts Elektrotehniskā Fabrika or State Electro-Technical Factory, often spelled Valsts Elektrotechniskā Fabrika) was a large industrial manufacturer founded in Latvia in 1919. Kārlis Irbītis was an engineer at VEF during the 1930s and 1940s. Irbītis had designed aircraft since the 1920s and continued the practice in his spare time while employed at VEF. In 1935, Irbītis suggested that VEF should enter the aircraft manufacturing business, and VEF management was responsive.

VEF I-12 International Expo 1938

The VEF I-12 was a light sport plane and a follow-on to the I-11 aircraft. Powered by a 90 hp (67 kW), air-cooled, four-cylinder Cirrus Minor engine, the I-12 had a top speed of 143 mph (230 km/h).

VEF solicited a manufacturing contract from the Latvian government, but the request was denied. Frustrated, VEF decided to build Irbītis’ latest aircraft design, the I-11, as a private venture. The I-11 was the first in a series of fixed-gear, low-wing aircraft designed by Irbītis and built by VEF. The I-11 was a two-seat sport plane that first flew in late June 1936. Some aspects of the I-11 design were less than ideal, as aircraft components had to be made to fit out the workshop’s small door. After the I-11’s successful flight tests, an improved model was designed and designated I-12.

The I-12 was seen as a stepping stone to the design and construction of future military aircraft. VEF approved of Irbītis’ plan to build a military trainer after the I-12, and a light fighter would follow after construction of the trainer. The I-12 was first flown on 26 June 1937 and demonstrated good performance and handling. Ultimately, around 12 I-12 aircraft were built. Construction of the I-14 military trainer started in April 1937, and the aircraft made its first flight on 19 November 1937. The I-14 prototype was damaged beyond repair during an emergency landing on 23 April 1938. Undeterred, VEF authorized the design and construction of two new aircraft types: the I-15 trainer and the I-16 fighter.

VEF I-14

The VEF I-14 was developed as a military trainer and was powered by a 200 hp (149 kW), air-cooled, six-cylinder Menasco B6S Buccaneer engine. The I-14 had an estimated top speed of 186 mph (300 km/h), but a crash prevented the completion of flight tests.

Irbītis continued to improve his aircraft designs. The I-15 and I-16 shared a very similar layout and employed the same construction techniques. Manufacture of the I-15 started in the summer of 1938, and two aircraft were built. The I-15a had a wooden, fixed-pitch propeller and gun camera, but it had no armament. The I-15a was powered by an air-cooled, 200 hp (149 kW) de Havilland Gipsy Six series I engine. The I-15b was powered by a 210 hp (157 kW) Gipsy Six series II engine and used a metal, constant-speed propeller. The I-15b could accommodate a single 7.7 mm machine gun, and its cockpit was moved forward slightly to improve pilot visibility.

The I-15a first flew in April 1939. The first flight of the I-15b was delayed because of the late delivery of its constant-speed propeller but finally occurred around November 1939. The Latvian Aviation Regiment decided to purchase the I-15a and I-15b aircraft based on the favorable experience with four I-12 aircraft given to the Aizsargu Aviācija (Aviation Guard) by VEF in late 1938. The I-15a had a top speed of 186 mph (300 km/h), and the I-15b had a top speed of 205 mph (330 km/h). Both I-15 aircraft had successfully completed flight testing by the time Latvia was invaded by Soviet forces in June 1940; the invasion stopped further development.

VEF I-15a

The VEF I-15a on skis to enable flight testing during the Latvian winter. The I-15A carried the Latvian military serial number 190, while the I-15b carried 191.

Design work on the VEF I-16 light fighter began in late 1938. The aircraft was a single-seat, low-wing monoplane with fixed undercarriage. The landing gear was covered in streamlined fairings, and a retractable gear design was to be incorporated on a later model. The I-16 was comprised of a wooden structure covered in plywood and had fabric-covered control surfaces. Each wing accommodated a 10.6 gallon (40 L) fuel tank, and a single fuel tank in the fuselage held 58.1 gallons (220 L). The I-16 had two 7.7 mm machine guns mounted in the upper cowling in front of the cockpit. Provisions were made for an additional 7.7 mm machine gun to be mounted under each wing.

The I-16 was powered by a Sagitta I-SR engine built by Walter in Czechoslovakia. The Sagitta was an air-cooled, inverted V-12 engine that had a 4.65 in (118 mm) bore and a 5.51 in (140 mm) stroke. The supercharged engine displaced 1,121 cu in (18.4 L) and produced 520 hp (388 kW) at 12,467 ft (3,800 m). Air was fed into the supercharger via two scoops on the upper cowling. Engine exhaust was discharged through ejector stacks positioned at the bottom of the cowling. The shroud around the exhaust stacks also allowed cooling air to exit the cowling after passing through the cylinders’ fins. Additional cooling air exited via a vertical slit at the rear of the cowling. The engine turned a two-blade, wooden, fixed-pitch propeller, but a three-blade, metal, constant-speed propeller was planned for future use.

VEF I-16 construction

The VEF I-16 was a continuation of Kārlis Irbītis’ light, sleek monoplane design. The aircraft was the only monoplane fighter designed and built in Latvia. The wooden, fixed-pitch propeller was considered temporary. The cockpit canopy hinged open toward the right.

The I-16’s wingspan was 26 ft 11 in (8.2 m); its length was 23 ft 11 in (7.3 m); and its height was 8 ft 10 in (2.7 m). With the three-blade propeller, the aircraft had an estimated maximum speed of 286 mph (460 km/h) at 13,123 ft (4,000 m) and 249 mph (400 km/h) at sea level. The I-16 had an initial rate of climb of 2,187 fpm (11.1 m/s), and its ceiling was 26,247 ft (8,000 m). The aircraft had an empty weight of 2,425 lb (1,100 kg) and a loaded weight of 3,417 lb (1,550 kg). The I-16’s range was around 497 miles (800 km).

Construction on the I-16 continued through 1939, and the aircraft made its first flight in the spring of 1940 at Riga, Latvia. The pilot for the first flight was Konstantīns Reichmanis, and the I-16’s engine quit after about 20 minutes of flight time. Reichmanis managed to get the aircraft back on the ground without any damage. Poor fuel distribution was thought to have caused the engine trouble, as similar issues had been encountered during ground runs. Reichmanis praised the aircraft’s handling during his short flight. Changes were made to the I-16’s fuel system, and a few more flights were accomplished before testing was halted by the Soviet invasion.

VEF I-16 rear left

The completed I-16 with German markings during an engine runup in 1941. The two intake scoops for the engine are visible on the top of the cowling, with the left gun port immediately below. Armament was never installed in the aircraft, but VEF did have possession of the Browning machine guns until they were removed by Soviet occupying forces.

The Soviets expressed some interest in the VEF aircraft, and the I-15a, I-15b, and other aircraft were shipped to the Soviet Union in March 1941. The I-16 remained in Latvia to resolve the fuel distribution issues. Before the I-16 could be sent to Russia, the Germans attacked the Soviets and took over Latvia in June 1941. Irbītis escaped deportation, but many of his colleagues, including Reichmanis, were not so fortunate and disappeared into the work camps in Siberia. Under German occupation, the I-16 was returned to an airworthy status and carried the identification code AW+10. The aircraft made two test flights before it was taken over by the Luftwaffe. Some accounts list the aircraft as being part of a training school in Toruń (in occupied Poland) until 1942, but its final disposition is not known.

In late 1939, Irbītis began designing a new fighter, the I-19. With a wingspan of 36 ft 1 in (11 m) and a length of 29 ft 6 in (9 m), the I-19 was larger than the I-16. The I-19 also featured retractable gear, two machine guns in each wing, and a top speed of 404 mph (650 km/h). Irbītis persisted with the wooden construction, but the lack of a suitable power plant led him to consider building his own engine comprised of three V-12 engine sections, with each engine section based on a Ranger V-770. The cylinder banks of each engine section were spaced at 120 degrees. The resulting 36-cylinder engine employed three crankshafts and three superchargers. Irbītis estimated that the engine would displace around 2,200 cu in (36 L) and produce 1,450 hp (1,081 kW) at 3,250 rpm. However, Irbītis switched to an Allison V-1710 engine when more serious design work was undertaken. The I-19 never proceeded beyond the preliminary design phase. After World War II, Irbītis immigrated to Canada and helped develop the tiltwing Canadair CL-84 Dynavert.

VEF I-16 Front right

The sleek I-16 aircraft resembled similar light fighters developed in France (Caudron) and Italy (Ambrosini) during the same period. Note the streamlined fairings covering the gear.

Sources:
Of Struggle and Flight: The History of Latvian Aviation by Kārlis Irbītis (1986)
Latvian Air Force 1918–1940 by Richard Humberstone (2000)
http://latvianaviation.com/VEF_I-16.html
http://airwar.ru/enc/fww2/i16l.html

Republic XP-72 No 2 front

Republic XP-72 Super Thunderbolt / Ultrabolt Fighter

By William Pearce

In 1941, the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt had just entered production, and hundreds of the aircraft had been ordered. However, led by Alexander Kartveli, the design team at Republic stayed at the forefront of fighter development by incorporating new engines into new airframe designs. In July 1941, Republic submitted two new designs to the United States Army Air Force (AAF), the AP-18 and the AP-19. The AP-18 was a unique interceptor fighter powered by the Wright R-2160 Tornado engine. The AP-19 design was more conventional and was powered by the Pratt & Whitney (P&W) Wasp X (R-4360). Both engines were under development, but the R-2160 was anticipated first and received much interest from the AAF. As a result, the AP-18 design was ordered on December 1941 as the Republic XP-69.

Republic XP-72 No 1 roll out

The first Republic XP-72 prototype soon after being completed. The 14 ft 2 in (4.23 m) diameter Curtiss propeller was one of the largest used during World War II.

By 1943, the R-2160 engine had encountered major issues, but development of the R-4360 engine was steadily progressing. Republic felt the AP-19 design held more potential and wanted to end work on the XP-69. The AAF agreed, and the XP-69 project was cancelled on 11 May 1943. Two prototypes of the AP-19 design were ordered on 18 June 1943, and the aircraft was designated XP-72 (it also carried the “Materiel, Experimental” project designation MX-189). In addition, Republic felt the XP-72 was superior to the XP-47J, an interceptor derivative of the P-47, and asked that the second XP-47J prototype be cancelled. The AAF approved this request, and Republic focused on the XP-72.

The XP-72 was often called the Super Thunderbolt, or Superbolt, or Ultrabolt, and it benefitted from everything Republic had learned with the P-47 series, including the XP-47J. The XP-72 was essentially the wings, fuselage, and tail of a bubble-canopied P-47D combined with the close-fitting cowling used on the XP-47J. Of course, numerous internal changes made the XP-72’s resemblance to the P-47 a superficial oversimplification of the new aircraft’s design. Under the close-fitting cowling was a 28-cylinder P&W R-4360 engine. The engine drove a fan at the front of the cowling to assist cooling. A small cowl flap was positioned on each side of the cowling. The cowl flaps were automatic but could be manually controlled. At the cowl flaps, air exiting the cowling was combined with exhaust gases being expelled through ejector stacks and provided a small amount of thrust.

PW R-4360 remote supercharger

The Pratt & Whitney R-4360-13 and -19 engines had a remote, variable-speed, first-stage supercharger. This large supercharger was installed behind the XP-72’s cockpit and was connected to the engine via a fluid coupling.

The XP-72’s R-4360 engine used two-stage supercharging. The first stage was a mechanically-driven, variable-speed, remote supercharger positioned behind the cockpit, where the turbosupercharger was located on the P-47. To power the remote supercharger, a covered shaft extended from the unit, through the lower cockpit, and connected to the engine via a fluid coupling. The remote supercharger’s impeller was around 3 ft (.9 m) in diameter. The second stage was the standard supercharger that was integral with the engine.

A scoop positioned under the fuselage and in line with the wings leading edge split air into three ducts. The left and right ducts delivered air to oil coolers positioned on the bottom sides of the scoop. The outlet for each oil cooler was on the lower side of the scoop and about at the midpoint of its length. The larger, center duct fed air to the intake on the back of the remote supercharger and to the intercooler. The intercooler was positioned behind the remote supercharger. After being compressed in the supercharger, the air exited via two outlets and passed through the intercooler. After leaving the intercooler, the cooled induction air was split into two ducts and delivered to the R-4360’s downdraft intake, which is where the two ducts merged. The air then passed through the engine’s integral supercharger and into the engine’s cylinders. Cooling air that passed through the intercooler was discharged via an outlet in front of the tailwheel. No exhaust-driven turbosupercharger was installed on or planned for the XP-72 prototypes or the P-72 production aircraft.

Republic XP-72 No 1 left side

This side view of the first XP-72 illustrates the aircraft’s resemblance to the P-47 Thunderbolt. The notch just before the tailwheel is the air outlet from the intercooler. The serial number painted on the tail should actually be “336598” to conform to AAF guidelines. Neither XP-72 had the “correct” serial number painted on their tails.

Some sources state the XP-72 had strengthened landing gear compared to the P-47, while other sources say it was the same landing gear used on the P-47. The wings incorporated six .50-cal machine guns (three in each wing) with 267 rpg. However, the gun package could be changed to four 37-mm cannons (two in each wing). A hardpoint under each wing could carry a 150-gallon (568 L) drop tank or up to a 1,000 lb (454 kg) bomb. Just like on the P-47, an inlet for cabin air was located on the leading edge of the right wing. Dive recovery flaps were fitted under the wings, just behind the main gear wells.

The XP-72 was roughly the same size and weight as the P-47D but was more aerodynamic and possessed about 50% more power. The XP-72 aircraft had a 40 ft 11 in (12.47 m) wingspan, was 36 ft 8 in (11.18 m) long, and was 16 ft (4.88 m) tall. The aircraft had an empty weight of 11,375 lb (5,160 kg), a normal weight of 14,760 lb (6,695 kg), and a maximum takeoff weight of 17,492 lb (7,934 kg). The XP-72 had a top speed of 490 mph (789 km/h) at 25,000 ft (7,620 m) and an initial rate of climb of 5,280 fpm (26.8 m/s), decreasing to 3,550 fpm (18.0 m/s) at 25,000 ft (7,620 m). The aircraft could reach 20,000 ft (6,096 m) in under five minutes. The XP-72’s service ceiling was 42,000 ft (12,802 m). With 370 gallons (1,401 L) of internal fuel and two 150-gallon (568 L) drop tanks, the aircraft had a range of 1,200 miles (1,931 km) at a 300 mph (483 km/h) cruise speed.

Republic XP-72 No 1 right front

The XP-72 was a formidable aircraft with amazing performance. The scoop under the fuselage brought air to the oil coolers, intercooler, and supercharger. The duct in the wing was for cabin air. The close-fitting engine cowling was one of the best installations of an R-4360 and used an engine-driven fan to assist cooling.

The first XP-72 prototype (serial number 43-36598) was completed with a single-rotation propeller and a P&W R-4360-13 engine. The Curtiss Electric four-blade propeller was 14 ft 2 in (4.23 m) in diameter, which was one of the largest propellers used during World War II and was probably the largest propeller fitted to a fighter. The propeller left only 5 in (127 mm) of ground clearance, and the pilots employed three-point takeoffs and landings to make sure there were no propeller ground strikes. The R-4360-13 engine could accommodate the remote, variable-speed supercharger, but sources disagree regarding whether or not the remote supercharger was installed in the XP-72. The -13 engine produced 3,450 hp (2,573 kW) with the remote supercharger and 3,000 hp (2,237 kW) without it. The first XP-72 was finished on 29 January 1944. The aircraft’s first flight was made from Republic Field in Farmingdale, New York on 2 February 1944.

The second XP-72 prototype (serial number 43-36599) used a 13 ft 6 in (4.11 m) diameter, six-blade, contra-rotating Aeroproducts propeller. This propeller gave 9 in (229 mm) of ground clearance, and three-point takeoffs and landings were still the standard practice. Sources disagree on which dash number engine was used in the second prototype. Some sources claim a 3,000 hp (2,237 kW) R-4360-3 engine was used on the second XP-72. The -3 had a single-speed, single-stage (non-remote) supercharger and accommodated contra-rotating propellers, but the -3 engine used SAE #60-80 spline shafts. The Aeroproducts propeller used SAE #50-70 spline shafts, so it seems unlikely that the -3 engine was used. Many sources state the second XP-72 used a R-4360-13 engine, the same type fitted to the first prototype. The -13 engine was single-rotation with a SAE #60 spline shaft and could not accommodate contra-rotating propellers. However, it is possible that a contra-rotating gear case from another engine could have been fitted to the -13. The -8 (Douglas XTB2D) and -10 (Boeing XF8B) engines built for the Navy both used SAE #50-70 spline shafts. It is odd that another dash number was not assigned for such a change, but the -13 engine seems like the most likely candidate to have powered the second XP-72. Other sources propose that the engine was a R-4360-19 (see below), but there is no indication that any -19 engines were built.

Republic XP-72 No 2 front

With its six-blade, contra-rotating propellers, the second XP-72 is an impressive sight. Even with its hollow blades, the propeller still weighed around 765 lb (347 kg). Note the installed underwing pylons.

Regardless of the exact dash number, the second XP-72 was first flown on 26 June 1944. The contra-rotating propellers had a slight destabilizing effect on the aircraft, but the effect was manageable, and the aircraft still exhibited excellent flight characteristics. It is often reported that the second XP-72 was damaged beyond repair because of an emergency landing following an inflight fire. However, Ken Jernstedt, the pilot on that flight, has stated the incident never happened. In Jernstedt’s account, he was making a high-performance takeoff from Caldwell, New Jersey when an oil seal on the supercharger failed and caused a massive oil leak. Hot oil sprayed into the cockpit, on Jernstedt’s legs, and on the outside of the canopy. When Jernstedt brought the aircraft around for a quick landing, a Vought F4U Corsair suffering from an inflight fire crossed his path. Jernstedt had to veer around the Corsair to land the XP-72, which was damaged in the incident. While the aircraft could have been repaired, the XP-72 program ended soon after.

The Republic XP-72 was noted as exceptionally fast with amazing performance and for being a beautifully flying airplane. It is often reported that test pilot Carl Bellinger attained a speed of 480 mph (772 km/h) at sea level, but this speed was most likely recorded at altitude. Almost all sources indicate that both XP-72 prototypes achieved 490 mph (789 km/h) at 25,000 ft (7,620 m).

Republic XP-72 no 2 right side

The second XP-72 shortly after an engine run. Note that the tail of the aircraft is tied down. The air outlet from the oil cooler is visible on the lower fuselage, just under the wing’s trailing edge. Another outlet was positioned in the same spot on the opposite side of the aircraft.

An order for 100 P-72 aircraft was placed in late 1944. Production P-72s were to be powered by the P&W R-4360-19 engine, which used the Aeroproducts contra-rotating propeller and had an engine-driven, variable-speed, remote supercharger similar to the one used on the -13. The -19 engine was planned to provide 3,650 hp (2,722 kW) at sea level and 3,000 hp (2,237 kW) at 25,000 ft (7,620 m), allowing the P-72 to attain an estimated speed of 504 mph (811 km/h) at 25,000 ft (7,620 m). Further engine development resulting in 4,000 hp (2,983 kW) would reportedly enable the P-72 to reach a speed of 540 mph (869 km/h) at 25,000 ft (7,620 m). The 540 mph (869 km/h) speed seems a little optimistic. An upgraded wing, similar to that used on the P-47N, was to be applied to production P-72s. The P-47N wing held more fuel and increased the aircraft’s span by about 2 ft (.61 m). The speeds mentioned above were most likely estimated with the original, smaller wing.

As excellent as the P-72 may have been, the war situation indicated the aircraft was not needed, and the emergence of jet aircraft indicated that the P-72’s speed would soon be outclassed. The order for 100 P-72 aircraft was cancelled on 4 January 1945 so that Republic could focus on the P-84 Thunderjet fighter. On the day the P-72 was cancelled, the AAF ordered 100 P-84 jet aircraft (25 pre-production YP-84As and 75 production P-84Bs). The two XP-72 aircraft survived the war but did not last much longer. One airframe, without its engine, was given to a local (on Long Island, NY) chapter of the Air Scouts in August 1946. The other airframe was eventually scrapped.

Republic XP-72 No 2 right rear

With the war winding down and jet aircraft on the horizon, the XP-72 never entered production, despite the aircraft’s impressive performance. Production P-72 aircraft could have been the ultimate piston-engine fighter.

Sources:
Correspondence with Tom Fey
U.S. Experimental and Prototype Aircraft Projects: Fighters 1939–1945 by Bill Norton (2008)
R-4360: Pratt & Whitney’s Major Miracle by Graham White (2006)
Republic’s P-47 Thunderbolt by Warren M. Bodie (1994)
American Secret Projects: Fighters, Bombers, and Attack Aircraft, 1937-1945 by Tony Buttler and Alan Griffith (2015)
US Army Air Force Fighters Part 2 by William Green and Gordon Swanborough (1978)
http://www.seabee.info/seabee_history_racac.htm
http://www.joebaugher.com/usaf_fighters/p72.html

Douglas XB-42 no1 in flight

Douglas XB-42 Mixmaster Attack Bomber

By William Pearce

In the early 1940s, Edward F. Burton began to investigate ways to simplify bomber aircraft. Burton was the Chief of Engineering at the Douglas Aircraft Company (Douglas), and he had noted that each subsequent generation of bomber aircraft was substantially larger, more complex, and more expensive than the preceding generation. Burton and his team started with a clean sheet of paper and designed what would become the XB-42.

Douglas XB-42 no1 in flight

The Douglas XB-42 Mixmaster had a unique design that provided very good performance. However, it was too late for World War II and too slow compared to jet aircraft. The first prototype (43-50224) is seen with its short tail on an early test flight.

Acting on their own, with no official United States Army Air Force (AAF) requirement, Burton and his team worked to design a two-engine tactical bomber with a top speed of over 400 mph (644 km/h) and that was capable of carrying 2,000 lb (907 kg) of bombs to a target 2,500 miles (4,023 km) away. The aircraft’s high speed would eliminate the need for extensive defensive armament, which would minimize the bomber’s crew and save weight. Burton’s team placed the wings, tail, and propellers in their optimal positions; the designers then filled in the rest of the aircraft with the needed equipment. What emerged from the drafting table was the Douglas Model 459: a mid-wing aircraft operated by a crew of three. At the rear of the aircraft were a set of coaxial contra-rotating pusher propellers driven by engines buried in the fuselage. In May 1943, Douglas proposed the aircraft to the AAF, and they were sufficiently impressed to order two prototypes and a static test airframe on 25 June 1943.

The AAF originally gave the aircraft the Attack designation XA-42. Douglas had presented the aircraft in a variety of roles that suited the Attack aircraft profile. However, the aircraft was reclassified as a bomber and redesignated XB-42 on 25 November 1943. Unofficially, the XB-42 was given the name Mixmaster, on account of its eight contra-rotating propeller blades loosely resembling a popular kitchen mixer.

The Douglas XB-42 Mixmaster was a unique aircraft. It was an all-metal aircraft with a tricycle landing gear arrangement, which was novel at the time. A plexiglass nose covered the bombardier’s position. Atop the fuselage were two separate bubble canopies for the pilot and copilot. At the rear of the aircraft was a cruciform tail; its ventral fin contained an oleo-pneumatic bumper to protect the propellers from potential ground strikes during takeoff and landing.

Douglas XB-42 no1 nose

Nose view of the first prototype shows the twin bubble canopies to advantage. Both XB-42 aircraft were originally built with the canopies, but they were disliked. The second aircraft was later modified with a more conventional canopy.

The aircraft’s long wing used a laminar flow airfoil and was fitted with double-slotted flaps. An inlet in the wing’s leading edge led to the engine oil cooler and radiator, both fitted with electric fans for ground operation. After air flowed through the coolers, it was expelled out the top of the wing. The main landing gear retracted back into the sides of the fuselage, below and behind the wings. The complex retraction required the gear legs and wheels to rotate 180 degrees. Fuel tanks in each wing carried 330 gallons (1,249 L) of fuel. Four additional 275 gallon (1,041 L) fuel tanks could be installed in the bomb bay to extend the aircraft’s range. In addition, a 300 gallon (1,136 L) drop tank could be installed under each wing.

Housed in the fuselage behind the cockpit were two Allison V-1710 engines. Each engine was installed with its vertical axis tilted 20 degrees out from center, and the engines were angled toward the tail. Ducts flush with the aircraft’s skin and positioned below the cockpit on both sides of the aircraft brought induction air to the engines. A row of exhaust stacks was located above the leading edge of each wing, and two rows of exhaust stacks were positioned along the aircraft’s spine. The engines of the first XB-42 prototype produced 1,325 hp (988 kW) at takeoff and 1,820 hp (1,357 kW) at war emergency power. The second prototype had engines that produced 1,675 hp (1,249 kW) for takeoff and 1,900 hp (1,417 kW) for war emergency power.

Douglas XB-42 no2 gear retract

An unusual view of the second prototype (43-50225) that displays the aircraft’s slotted flaps and uncommon main gear retraction that required the legs and wheels to rotate 180 degrees into the fuselage sides. Also visible are the wing guns and revised leading edge inlets, both features exclusive to the second prototype.

Extending from each engine was an extension shaft made up of six sections. The shaft sections were like those used in the Bell P-39 Airacobra (which used two sections). The shafts extended around 29 ft (8.8 m) and connected the engines to a remote, contra-rotating gear reduction box from an Allison V-3420-B engine. The gearbox had been slightly modified for the XB-42 and used a .361 gear ratio that was unique to the aircraft. Each engine turned a three-blade Curtiss Electric propeller. The left engine drove the forward propeller, which was 13 ft 2 in (4.01 m) in diameter. The right engine drove the rear propeller, which was 13 ft (3.96 m) in diameter. The engines and propellers were operated independently—if needed, one engine could be shut down and its propeller feathered while in flight.

To eliminate the danger the propellers presented to the crew during a bail out, a cord of explosives (cordite) was threaded through holes carefully drilled around the gearbox mount. Before bailing out, the crew could detonate the explosives, which would separate the gearbox and propellers from the aircraft.

Douglas XB-42 Allison engine test

Two Allison V-1710 engines connected to the V-3420 remote gear reduction for the contra-rotating propellers as used on the XB-42. The power system accumulated over 600 hours on the test stand and never caused serious issues during the XB-42 program.

The XB-42’s bomb bay was covered by two-piece, snap-action doors. The bay accommodated 8,000 lb (3,629 kg) of bombs, or a single 10,000 lb (4,536 kg) bomb could be carried if the doors were kept open six inches. The bay was long enough to carry two 13 ft 9 in (4.2 m) Mk 13 torpedoes. Two fixed .50-cal machine guns with 500 rpg were installed in the aircraft’s nose. Housed in the trailing edge of each wing, between the aileron and flap, were a pair of rearward-firing .50-cal machine guns, each with 350 rpg. The guns were concealed behind snap-action doors. Once exposed, the guns could be angled through a range of 30 degrees up, 15 degrees down, and 25 degrees to the left or right. Their minimum convergence was 75 ft behind the aircraft. The rear-firing guns were operated by the copilot, who rotated his seat 180 degrees to use the gun’s sighting system.

Douglas designers envisioned that the B-42 aircraft could be fitted with a solid nose containing different weapons for different roles. This is the same concept that was applied to the Douglas A-20 Havoc and A-26 Invader. Three of the possible B-42 nose configurations were as follows: eight .50-cal machine guns; two 37 mm cannons and two .50-cal machine guns; or a 75 mm cannon and two .50-cal machine guns. Douglas also thought the aircraft’s speed and range would make it very useful in a reconnaissance role. None of these plans made it off the drawing board.

The XB-42 had a 70 ft 6 in (21.49 m) wingspan and was 53 ft 8 in (16.4 m) long. Originally, the aircraft was 18 ft 10 in (5.7m) tall, but the tail and rudder were extended to cure some instability. The extension increased the XB-42’s height to 20 ft 7 in (6.3 m). A brochure published by Douglas in April 1944 predicted the B-42 would be able to carry 2,000 lb (907 kg) of bombs over 5,333 miles (8,583 km) and have a top speed of 470 mph (756 km/h). These numbers proved very optimistic. Perhaps the speed was a misprint, because some sources indicate the anticipated top speed was 440 mph (708 km/h). Regardless, the aircraft only achieved 410 mph (660 km/h) at 23,440 ft (7,145 m), and its cruising speed was 312 mph (502 km/h). The XB-42 had an empty weight of 20,888 lb (9,475 kg) and a maximum weight of 35,702 lb (16,194 kg). The aircraft’s service ceiling was 29,400 ft (8,961 m). Its combat range was 1,800 miles (2,897 km), but additional fuel tanks in the bomb bay could extend the XB-42’s range to a maximum of 5,400 miles (8,690 km).

Douglas XB-42 no2 rear

Rear view of the second prototype shows the ventral tail and rudder. Note the oleo-pneumatic bumper on the tail and its minimal ground clearance. The wing guns and new canopy are just barely visible.

Construction of the XB-42 proceeded rapidly. The AAF inspected and approved an aircraft mockup in September 1943, and the first prototype (43-50224) was completed in May 1944—one year after the aircraft was proposed and 10 months after the contract was awarded. The XB-42 flew for the first time on 6 May 1944, flown by Bob Brush and taking off from the Palm Springs Army Airfield in California. The second prototype (43-50225) flew for the first time on 1 August 1944, taking off from Santa Monica Airport in California.

Both XB-42s were originally fitted with separate bubble canopies. This cockpit layout was not very popular with the pilots. Although they could communicate via intercom, the pilots often found themselves leaning forward to speak with one another face to face under the canopies. The second aircraft was modified with a more conventional single canopy that encompassed both pilot and copilot. While the bubble canopies reduced drag, the single canopy was preferred. Another issue facing the aircraft was that cracks formed in the plexiglass nose. After the plexiglass was replaced several times, the nose was eventually covered with plywood.

Both prototypes were heavier than expected, which reduced performance. Some work went into lightening the second aircraft, like the use of hollow propeller blades. However, issues with vibrations occurred when disturbed air encountered the propellers, and this phenomenon was exacerbated by the hollow blades. No issues were encountered when the aircraft was clean, but when the bomb bay doors were open or when the gear or flaps were deployed, the vibration issue occurred. Some pilots lived with the vibrations and dismissed the issue, but other pilots found it very disconcerting. An improved propeller was designed that featured reversible blades to decrease landing roll and to slow the aircraft in flight. However, it was cancelled in March 1945 and was never built.

Douglas XB-42 no2 with canopy

Front view of the second prototype illustrates the aircraft’s revised canopy. The canopy on production aircraft would have been similar but more refined. Again, note the tail clearance and wing guns.

Some cooling issues were encountered, and modifications to the air intakes were made to improve airflow. The main gear was also modified a few times to improve its retraction and performance. Overall, the aircraft flew well, but the controls were not well harmonized. In addition, the XB-42 aircraft would encounter a slow dutch roll oscillation if not counteracted by the pilot. As previously mentioned, the tail of the aircraft was enlarged to resolve the issue, but it was never entirely solved. The XB-42 required a very long takeoff run of some 6,415 ft (1,955 m). Because there was only about 9 in (.23 m) of clearance between the ventral tail and the ground, the aircraft needed to build up a substantial amount of speed before it was carefully rotated for liftoff.

The second XB-42 prototype was the only aircraft to have revised wing inlets and to be fitted with its machine gun armament, although the guns were never tested. The second aircraft was flown around 70 hours before it was turned over to the AAF. On 8 December 1945, Lieutenant Colonel Henry E. Warden and Captain Glen W. Edwards flew the second XB-42 from Long Beach, California to Bolling Field in Washington, D.C. The record-setting, point-to-point flight covered 2,295 miles (3,693 km) in a time of 5:17:34—an average of 433.6 mph (697.8 km/h). The XB-42 had benefited from a favorable tailwind, and the aircraft’s average true airspeed was around 375 mph (604 km/h).

Douglas XB-42 wing guns

The guns in the left wing are seen aimed 30 degrees up and 25 degrees inboard. Only the second aircraft was fitted with the guns, and they were never tested. Note the snap-action doors that covered the guns. When open, the doors increased the XB-42’s directional stability, resulting in additional rudder force to give the desired yaw.

On 16 December 1945, the second XB-42 was lost during a test flight near Bolling Field. The aircraft was in a landing configuration when there was an issue with extending the landing gear. While the crew was troubleshooting the problem, the left engine began to overheat and then died. The right engine was taken to full power and began to overheat. The decision was made to bail out, and two of the crew safely jumped free before the pilot remembered to jettison the propellers. The propellers and their gearbox were successfully severed from the XB-42, and the pilot bailed out. All three crew members survived the ordeal without any injuries, but the aircraft was completely destroyed.

An exact cause of the crash was never determined, but it was speculated that the coolant doors were inadvertently left in their nearly-closed landing configuration while the crew investigated the gear issue. This resulted in the engines overheating. At the same time, a fuel tank switch was made a bit late and probably led to fuel starvation of the left engine. The second XB-42 had accumulated a little over 118 hours of flight time when it crashed.

The first XB-42 prototype had made 42 flights and accumulated over 34 flight hours by 30 September 1944. A year later, that number rose to around 150 flights, with the aircraft accumulating around 125 flight hours. Before the XB-42 had even flown, Douglas contemplated adding jet engines to the aircraft. An official proposal for the modification was submitted on 23 February 1945. The proposal was approved on 8 March 1946, and modifications to the aircraft began on 26 June 1946. At the time, the first XB-42 had made 168 flights and had flown around 144.5 hours. The two Westinghouse 19XB-2A (J30) jet engines were finally delivered in October 1946 and were installed on the aircraft.

Douglas XB-42A rear

Rear view of the XB-42A illustrates the notches in the new flaps to avoid the jet exhaust. The rest of the aircraft remained relatively unchanged from the XB-42 configuration. The cooling air exit can be seen on the right wing. Note the various Douglas aircraft in the background.

With the jet engines added to the first prototype, the aircraft was redesignated as the Douglas XB-42A. The 1,600 lbf (7.12 kN) thrust jet engines were mounted under the aircraft’s wings. New flaps were installed that were notched behind the jet engines. The notches allowed the flaps to avoid the jet exhaust when they were deployed. The fuel tanks in the wings were modified because of the jet engine mounts. Total wing tankage was decreased by 154 gallons (583 L), but two additional 74 gallon (280 L) tanks were installed in the fuselage. The jets themselves burned the same fuel as the piston engines. The aircraft’s instrumentation was also modified to accommodate the jet engines.

The XB-42A is listed as having a 70 ft 7 in (21.51 m) wingspan and a length of 53 ft 10 in (16.4 m). In reality, the wingspan was probably the same as the XB-42, and the length was slightly longer due to a different spinner. The aircraft’s height was 20 ft 7 in (6.3 m). The XB-42A had a predicted maximum speed of 488 mph (785 km/h) but only achieved 473 mph (761 km/h) at 14,000 ft (4,267 m); cruising speed was 442 mph (711 km/h). The XB-42A had an empty weight of 24,775 lb (11,238 kg) and a maximum weight of 44,900 lb (20,366 kg). The aircraft’s service ceiling was 34,500 ft (10,516 m). The XB-42A had a normal range of around 1,200 miles (1,931 km), but a maximum range of 4,750 miles (7,644 km) could be achieved with additional fuel tanks in the bomb bay.

Douglas XB-42A

The XB-42A makes a low pass over Muroc Air Base during an early test flight. Note the exhaust stains above the wing and the oil stains below the wing. The aircraft was outclassed by other jet aircraft, including its XB-43 cousin.

The first flight of the XB-42A (still 43-50224) occurred on 27 May 1947 at Muroc (now Edwards) Air Base in California. The aircraft required a lot of maintenance and did not prove remarkable in any category to justify further development. Despite the increased performance, the XB-42A was perched on the awkward dividing line between piston-powered aircraft of the past and jet-powered aircraft of the future. There is no better indicator of this than the fact that Douglas had already moved forward with an all-jet XB-42 aircraft, designated XB-43. The Douglas XB-43 Jetmaster had its jet engines buried in the fuselage, near were the Allison engines were installed on the XB-42. The first XB-43 was built using the XB-42 static test airframe. The jet-powered XB-43 made its first flight on 17 May 1946—little more than a year before the jet/piston-powered XB-42A first flew. The XB-42A made only 23 flights, accounting for a little under 18.5 hours of flight time.

With technological progress outpacing the XB-42A, the aircraft was donated to the Air Force Museum on 30 June 1949. It was later moved to the National Air and Space Museum’s Paul Gerber Facility in Silver Hill, Maryland, where it was stored for a number of years. In 2010, the XB-42A was transferred to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. The aircraft, along with second XB-43 prototype, will eventually be restored for static display.

Douglas persisted with the pusher configuration and designed a number of other military and commercial aircraft. The most developed design was that of the Model 1004, which was actually designated DC-8. Known as the Skybus, the aircraft was similar to an XB-42, but with an extended fuselage for airline service. The aircraft could seat a maximum of 48 passengers, and the extension shafts from the Allison engines traveled under the passenger compartment. First proposed in October 1945, the Skybus was never built, and the DC-8 designation was reapplied to Douglas’s first jet airliner.

Douglas DC-8 Skybus

Although visually similar to the XB-42, the Douglas DC-8 Skybus was an entirely new design. The aircraft’s excellent performance and great single-engine handling was not enough to justify its expense over more conventional designs.

Sources:
American Bomber Development in World War 2 by Bill Norton (2012)
Vee’s for Victory! The Story of the Allison V-1710 Aircraft Engine 1929-1948 by Daniel D. Whitney (1998)
McDonnell Douglas Aircraft since 1920: Volume I by René J Francillon (1979/1988)
The Allison Engine Catalog 1915–2007 by John M. Leonard (2008)
“The First, The Last, and the Only” by Walt Boyne, Airpower Vol. 3 No. 5 (September 1973)
“The Douglas DC-8 Skybus” by R. E. Williams, Douglas Service Vol. 41 (second quarter 1984)
http://www.enginehistory.org/Propellers/Curtiss/XB-42Prop.shtml

Martin-Baker MB5 dH front

Martin-Baker MB5 Fighter

By William Pearce

On 12 September 1942, the Martin-Baker MB3 fighter crashed after its Napier Sabre engine seized. Company co-founder Captain Valentine H. Baker was killed during the attempted forced landing. James Martin, the aircraft’s designer, had already designed the MB3A, which was the production version of the MB3 that incorporated several changes to enhance the fighter’s performance. The second MB3 prototype was to be completed as a MB3A. After the MB3 was destroyed and Baker was killed, Martin wanted to further alter the aircraft’s design to improve its safety and performance. Perhaps the paramount change was to replace the Sabre engine with a Rolls-Royce Griffon.

Martin-Baker MB5 Rotol front

The Martin-Baker MB5 was one a few aircraft that sat at the pinnacle of piston-engine fighter development. Here, the aircraft is pictured at Harwell around the time of its first flight. The Rotol propeller is installed but the 20 mm cannons are not.

The British Air Ministry doubted the quick delivery of the two MB3 prototypes still on order and was agreeable to a contract change. They authorized the construction of a single prototype of the new aircraft design designated MB5. The MB5 was given serial number R2496, which was originally allocated to the second and never-built MB3 aircraft. The third MB3 prototype was cancelled.

The Martin-Baker MB5 was officially designed to the same Air Ministry Specification (F.18/39) as the MB3. Also, the aircraft’s construction closely followed the methods used on the MB3. The aircraft’s fuselage was made of a tubular steel frame with bolted joints. Attached to the frame were formers that gave the fuselage its shape. Aluminum skin panels were attached to the formers, and detachable panels were used wherever possible. A rubber seal attached to the formers ensured the tight fit of the detachable skin panels, which were secured by Dzus fasteners. The large and easily removed panels helped simplify the aircraft’s service and maintenance.

Martin-Baker MB5 Rotol org tail rear

Again, the MB5 is shown at Harwell. The original vertical stabilizer and rudder were very similar to those used on the MB3. The inner gear doors are not installed on the aircraft.

The MB5’s wings were very similar to those used on the MB3, except that each housed only two 20 mm cannons with 200 rpg. All control surfaces used spring servo tabs; the rudder was fabric-covered, but all other control surfaces were metal-covered. The aircraft’s brakes, split flaps, and fully retractable landing gear were pneumatically controlled, and the air system operated at 350 psi (24.13 bar). The main wheels had a wide track of 15 ft 2 in (4.62 m). Two fuel tanks were housed in the aircraft’s fuselage: an 84 gallon (318 L) tank was positioned in front of the cockpit, and a 156 gallon (591 L) tank was positioned behind the cockpit. The cockpit was positioned directly above the wings and was enclosed with a bubble canopy. The cockpit had very good visibility, and its design was praised for the excellent layout of gauges and controls. The three main gauge clusters hinged downward for access and maintenance.

The MB5 was powered by a Rolls-Royce Griffon 83 engine capable of 2,340 hp (1,745 kW) with 25 psi (1.72 bar) of boost and 130 PN fuel. The engine originally turned a six-blade Rotol contra-rotating propeller, but by late 1945, a 12 ft 6 in (3.81 m) de Havilland contra-rotating unit was installed. A small scoop under the spinner brought in air to the Griffon’s two-speed, two-stage supercharger. The intercooler, radiator, and oil cooler were arranged, in that order, in a scoop under the fuselage. This arrangement provided some heat to the oil cooler when the engine was first started and prevented the oil from congealing and restricting the flow through the cooler.

Martin-Baker MB5 2nd tail

An intermediate modification to the MB5’s tail involved a more vertical leading edge that increased the fin’s area. This version of the tail did not last long before the completely redesigned unit was installed. The aircraft still has the Rotol propeller.

The aircraft had a 35 ft (10.7 m) wingspan, was 37 ft 9 in (11.5 m) long, and was 14 ft 4 in (4.4 m) tall. The MB5 had a maximum speed of 395 mph (636 km/h) at sea level, 425 mph (684 km/h) at 6,000 ft (1,829 m), and 460 mph (740 km/h) at 20,000 ft (6,096 m). Normal cruising speed was 360 mph (578 km/h) at 20,000 ft (6,096 m). The aircraft stalled at 95 mph (153 km/h) clean and at 78 mph (126 km/h) with flaps and gear extended. The MB5 had an initial rate of climb of 3,800 fpm (19.3 m/s) and could reach 20,000 ft (6,096 m) in 6.5 minutes and 34,000 ft (10,363 m) in 15 minutes. The MB5’s service ceiling was 40,000 ft (12,192 m), and it had a range of around 1,100 miles (1,770 km). The aircraft had an empty weight of 9,233 lb (4,188 kg), a normal weight of 11,500 lb (5,216 kg), and an overload weight of 12,090 lb (5,484 kg).

Construction of the MB5 started in 1943, and some components (possibly the wings and tail) of the second MB3 prototype were used in the MB5. The work on the aircraft was delayed because of other war work with which Martin-Baker was involved. In addition, Martin continued to refine and tinker with the MB5’s design, much to the frustration of the Air Ministry. However, the Air Ministry decided that Martin was going to do whatever he thought was right and that the best course of action was to leave him alone; the MB5 would be done when Martin decided it was done.

Martin-Baker MB5 dH front

The MB5 pictured close to its final form. The de Havilland propeller, inner gear doors, and taller vertical stabilizer and rudder have been installed. Note the smooth lines of the cowling. The position of the cockpit gave a good view over the aircraft’s nose and wings.

Captain Baker was Martin-Baker’s only test pilot and was never replaced. As the MB5 neared completion in the spring of 1944, Rotol test pilot (Leslie) Bryan Greensted was loaned to fly the aircraft. On 23 May 1944, the MB5 was disassembled and trucked from Martin-Baker’s works in Denham to the Royal Air Force (RAF) station in Harwell. The aircraft was reassembled and underwent some ground runs. Later that same day, Greensted took the MB5 aloft for its first test flight. To disassemble, transport, reassemble, and flight test an aircraft all in one day speaks to the MB5’s impressive design.

Greensted was not overly impressed with the aircraft’s first flight, because the MB5 exhibited directional instability; in fact, he said the aircraft “was an absolute swine to fly.” Martin listened intently to Greensted’s comments and immediately went to work on a solution. The increased blade area of the contra-rotating propellers had a destabilizing effect when coupled with the MB3 tail that was originally used on the MB5. To resolve the issue, Martin designed a taller vertical stabilizer and rudder, which were fitted to the MB5. The change took six months for Martin to implement, but when Greensted flew the aircraft, he was impressed by its performance and handling. In addition, a new horizontal stabilizer was fitted, but it is not known exactly when this was done. From its first flight until October 1945, the MB5 accumulated only about 40 flight hours. Martin-Baker had been informed around October 1944 that no MB5 production orders would be forthcoming, given that the war was winding down, and any production aircraft would most likely enter service after the war was over.

Martin-Baker MB5 dHf

The MB5 undergoing maintenance. A large panel has been removed from under the aircraft, and one of the inner gear doors has also been removed. Note the Dzus fasteners on the cowling and that the spinner is now painted black. The small scoop under the spinner delivered air to the engine’s supercharger.

Some sources state the MB5 was prepared for a speed run in the fall of 1945. The Griffon engine was boosted to produce 2,480 hp (1,849 kW), and the aircraft reached 484 mph (779 km/h) on a measured course near Gloucester. However, the speed record claim seems highly doubtful. On 29 October 1945, the MB5 was one of the aircraft exhibited at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) Farnborough. It was the only aircraft present that had contra-rotating propellers. While Greensted was demonstrating the aircraft before Winston Churchill and RAF officials, the Griffon engine failed. With his vision obscured by oil and some smoke in the cockpit, Greensted jettisoned the canopy. The canopy flew back and struck the tail, but Greensted was able to land the MB5 without further damage.

The MB5 had accumulated around 80 flight hours by the time it was handed over to the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) at Boscombe Down. In March, April, and May 1946, the MB5 was flown by various pilots, and the aircraft’s performance and handling characteristics were well praised, but it was noted that the MB5’s acceleration and its roll rate were not quite on par with contemporary fighters. Overall, the tests showed that the MB5 was an excellent aircraft and that it was greatly superior from an engineering and maintenance standpoint to any other similar type. The MB5 was back at RAE Farnborough for an exhibition in June 1946. During the show, Polish Squadron Leader Jan Zurakowski flew the aircraft in a most impressive display and later stated that the MB5 was the best airplane he had ever flown.

Martin-Baker MB5 show

The MB5 was present at RAE Farnborough in October 1945. The display featured the latest British aircraft and several captured German aircraft. In the foreground is a Supermarine Spiteful and the MB5, with its 20 mm cannons installed. Other visible British aircraft include a Blackburn Firebrand, Bristol Brigand, Fairey Firefly, and Fairey Spearfish. Visible German aircraft include a Dornier Do 335, Fieseler Fi 103, Junker Ju 188, a pair of Focke-Wulf Fw 190s, and a Messerschmitt Bf 109. Many other British and German aircraft were present at the display.

The MB5 was flown sparingly until a number of flights were made toward the end of 1947. Wing Commander Maurice A. Smith flew the aircraft during this time and highly regarded the MB5’s layout and performance. From mid-November to the end of 1947, the MB5 was loaned to de Havilland at Hatfield for propeller testing. In 1948, the aircraft returned to RAE Farnborough, where it was flown by legendary pilot Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown. Although Brown was slightly critical of the aircraft’s lateral handling qualities, he said the MB5 was an outstanding aircraft and that he had never felt more comfortable in a new aircraft.

On 5 May 1948, the MB5 was sent to the Air Ministry Servicing Development Unit at RAF Wattisham. There, it served as a training airframe until it was moved to RAF Bircham Newton around 1950. Reportedly, the MB5 was used as a ground target until its battered remains were burned in 1963—an inglorious end for such a fine aircraft.

Martin-Baker MB5 takeoff

The MB5 taking off from Chalgrove in 1948 with Wing Commander Maurice A. Smith at the controls. The MB5’s flaps did not have any intermediate positions—they were either up or down. The 20 mm cannons have been removed. Note the belly scoop’s outward similarity to the scoop used on the P-51 Mustang.

The Martin-Baker MB5 is one of a handful of aircraft that demonstrated superlative performance and flight qualities yet never entered production due to the end of World War II and the emergence of jet aircraft. It is quite impressive that the MB5 was created by a small firm that produced a total of four outstanding aircraft—each being a completely different model. Despite the quality of Martin-Baker’s aircraft and their best efforts to enter the aircraft manufacturing business, the MB5 was the company’s last aircraft. Martin-Baker turned their attention to other aircraft systems and became a pioneer and world leader in ejection seat technology.

An MB5 replica has been under construction by John Marlin of Reno, Nevada for a number of years. Although not an exact copy, Marlin’s reproduction is a labor of love intended to commemorate one of the most impressive aircraft of all time and to honor all who created the original MB5.

Martin-Baker MB5 Martin

James Martin is pictured in front of his masterpiece, the MB5. Martin-Baker’s aircraft never found success; however, the company’s ejection seats have saved thousands of lives and are still in production.

Sources:
RAF Fighters Part 2 by William Green and Gordon Swanborough (1979)
British Experimental Combat Aircraft of World War II by Tony Buttler (2012)
Wings of the Weird & Wonderful by Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown (1983/2012)
Sir James Martin by Sarah Sharman (1996)
“The Martin-Baker M-B V” Flight (29 November 1945)
“M-B V in the Air” by Wing Commander Maurice A. Smith, Flight (18 December 1947)
“Martin-Baker Fighters,” by Bill Gunston, Wings of Fame Volume 9 (1997)
The British Fighter since 1912 by Francis K. Mason (1992)
http://johnmarlinsmb5replica.mysite.com/index_1.html

vought-xf5u-front

Vought XF5U Flying Flapjack

By William Pearce

Following the successful wind tunnel tests of the Vought V-173 low-aspect ratio, flying wing aircraft in late 1941, the US Navy asked Vought to propose a fighter built along similar lines. Charles H. Zimmerman had been working on such a design as early as 1940. He and his team at Vought quickly finalized their fighter design for the Navy as VS-315. On 17 September 1942, before the V-173 had flown, the Navy issued a letter of intent for two VS-315 fighters, designated XF5U-1. One aircraft was a static test airframe, and the other aircraft was a flight test article.

zimmerman-1940-patent

Charles Zimmerman’s fighter aircraft from a patent application submitted in 1940. Although the drawing shows fixed horizontal stabilizers (45/50) and skewed ailerons (34/36), the patent also covered the configuration used on the Vought XF5U. Note the prone position of the pilot, and the guns around the cockpit.

The Vought XF5U was comprised of a rigid aluminum airframe covered with Metalite. Metalite was light and strong and formed by a layer of balsa wood bonded between two thin layers of aluminum. The XF5U had the same basic configuration as the V-173 but was much heavier and more complex.

The XF5U’s entire disk-shaped fuselage provided lift. The aircraft had a short wingspan, and large counter-rotating propellers were placed at the wingtips. At the rear of the aircraft were two vertical tails, and between them were two stabilizing flaps. When the aircraft was near the ground, air loads acted on spring-loaded struts to automatically deflect the stabilizing flaps up and allow air to escape from under the aircraft. The stabilizing flaps enhanced aircraft control during landing. On the sides of the XF5U were hydraulically-boosted, all-moving ailavators (combination ailerons and elevators). The ailavators had a straight leading edge, rather than the swept leading edge used on the V-173’s ailavators. Two large balance weights projected forward of each ailavator’s leading edge.

vought-xf5u-mockup

The XF5U mockup was finished in June 1943. Note the gun ports by the cockpit. The mockup had three-blade propellers and single main gear doors, items that differed from what was ultimately used on the prototype. The acrylic panel under the nose was most likely to improve ground visibility, like the glazing on the V-173. However, test pilots reported that the glazing was not useful.

Zimmerman originally proposed a prone position for the pilot, but a conventional seating position was chosen. The pilot was situated just in front of the leading edge and enclosed in a bubble canopy. Some sources state that an ejection seat was to be used, but no mention of one has been found in Vought documents, and an ejection seat does not appear to have been installed in the XF5U-1 prototype. The cockpit was accessed via a series of recessed steps that led up the back of the aircraft. The acrylic nose of the XF5U housed the gun camera and had provisions for landing and approach lights.

The aircraft’s landing gear was fully retractable, including the double-wheeled tailwheel. The main gear had a track of 15 ft 11.5 in (4.9 m). A small hump in the outer gear doors covered the outboard double main gear wheel. The long gear gave the aircraft an 18.7 degree ground angle. A catapult bridle could be attached to the aircraft’s main gear to facilitate catapult-assisted launches from aircraft carriers. For carrier landings, an arresting hook deployed from the XF5U’s upper surface and hung over the rear of the aircraft. Armament for the XF5U consisted of six .50-cal machine guns—three guns stacked on each side of the cockpit—with 400 rpg. The lower four guns were interchangeable with 20 mm cannons, but the proposed rpg for the cannons has not been found. Two hardpoints under the aircraft could each accommodate a 1,000 lb (454 kg) bomb. No armament was installed on the prototype.

vought-xf5u-x-2

The two XF5Us under construction. The left airframe was used for static testing, and the right airframe was the test flight aircraft. The engine cooling fans and oil tanks can be seen on the right airframe.

Originally, the XF5U was to be powered by two 14-cylinder, 1,600 hp (1,193 kW) Pratt & Whitney (P&W) R-2000-2 engines. It appears P&W stopped development of the -2 engine, and the 1,350 hp (1,007 kW) R-2000-7 was substituted sometime in 1945. The engines were buried in the aircraft’s fuselage, and engine-driven cooling fans brought in air through intakes in the aircraft’s leading edge. Cooling air exit flaps were located on the engine nacelles on both the upper and lower fuselage. An exit flap for intercooler air was located farther back on the top side of each nacelle.

Engine power was delivered to the propellers via a complex set of shafts and right angle gear drives. A two-speed gear reduction provided a .403 speed reduction for takeoff and a .177 reduction for cruising and high-speed flight. With the engines operating at 2,700 rpm (1,350 hp / 1,077 kW) at maximum takeoff power, the propellers turned at 1,088 rpm. At maximum cruise with the engines at 2,350 rpm (735 hp / 548 kW), the propellers turned at 416 rpm.

vought-xf5u-powerplant

The complex power drive of the XF5U was the aircraft’s downfall. The system was unlikely to work flawlessly, and the Navy chose to use its post-war budget on jet aircraft rather than testing the XF5U. The inset drawing is from Zimmerman’s patent outlining the propeller drive.

A power cross shaft was mounted between the gearboxes on the front of the engines. In the event of an engine failure, the dead engine would be automatically declutched, and the cross shaft would distribute power from the functioning engine to both propellers. The two engines were declutched from the propeller drive at startup. The clutches were hydraulically engaged, and a loss of fluid pressure caused the clutch to disengage. The engines were controlled by a single throttle lever and could not be operated independently (except at startup).

By November 1943, the ongoing flight tests of the V-173 indicated that special articulating (or flapping) propellers would be needed on the XF5U. Propeller articulation was incorporated into the hub by positioning one two-blade pair of propellers in front of the second two-blade pair. The extra room provided the space needed for the 10 degrees of articulation and the linkages for propeller control. As one blade of a pair articulated forward, the opposite blade of the pair moved aft. To relieve the load and minimize vibrations, the propeller hub mechanism caused the blade pitch to decrease as the blade articulated forward and to increase as the blade moved aft. The XF5U’s wide-cord propellers were 16 ft (4.9 m) in diameter, made from Pregwood (plastic-impregnated wood), and built by Vought. The propellers were finished with a black cuff, a woodgrain blade, and a yellow tip. The pitch of the propellers was controlled by a single lever and could not be independently controlled; the set pitch of all blades changed simultaneously. If both engines failed, the propellers would feather automatically. Construction of the special propellers was delayed, and propellers from a F4U-4 Corsair were temporarily fitted to enable ground testing to begin.

vought-xf5u-with-f4u-4-props

The completed XF5U ready for primary engine runs with F4U-4 propellers. The aircraft was completed over a year before the articulating propellers were finished. Had the propellers been ready sooner, it is likely the XF5U would have been transported to Edwards Air Force Base for testing in late 1945.

The XF5U had a wingspan of 23 ft 4 in (7.1 m) but was 32 ft 6 in (9.9 m) wide from ailavator to ailavator and 36 ft 5 in (8.1 m) from propeller tip to propeller tip. Each ailavator had a span of about 8 ft 4 in (2.5 m). The aircraft was 28 ft 7.5 in (8.7 m) long and 14 ft 9 in (4.5 m) tall. The XF5U could take off in 710 ft (216 m) with no headwind and in 300 ft (91 m) with a 35 mph (56 km/h) headwind. The aircraft had a top speed of 425 mph (684 km/h) and a slow flight speed of 40 mph (64 km/h). Initial rate of climb was 3,000 fpm (15.2 m/s) at 175 mph (282 km/h), and the XF5U had a ceiling of 32,000 ft (9,754 m). A single tank located in the middle of the aircraft carried 261 gallons (988 L) of fuel. The internal fuel gave the XF5U a range of 597 miles (961 km), but with two 150-gallon (568-L) drop tanks added to the aircraft’s hardpoints, range increased to 1,152 miles (1,854 km). The XF5U had an empty weight of 14,550 lb (6,600), a normal weight of 16,802 lb (7,621 kg), and a maximum weight of 18,917 lb (8,581 kg).

vought-xf5u-front

The XF5U with its special, wide-cord, articulating propellers installed. Note the winged Vought logo on the propellers. The purpose of the bottles under the fuselage is not clear. The aircraft used compressed air for emergency extension of the landing gear and tail hook. Perhaps that system was being tested. Note that the inner main gear doors have been removed.

A wooden mockup of the XF5U was inspected by the Navy in June 1943. At this time, the mockup had narrow, three-blade propellers that were very similar to those used on the V-173. The XF5U’s complex systems and unconventional layout delayed its construction, which was further stagnated by higher priority work during World War II. The aircraft was rolled out on 20 August 1945 with the F4U-4 propellers installed. Some ground runs were undertaken, but more serious tests had to wait until Vought finished the special articulating propellers in late 1946.

The aircraft started taxi tests on 3 February 1947, but concerns over the XF5U’s propeller drive quickly surfaced. Vought’s chief test pilot Boone T. Guyton made at least one small hop into the air, but no serious test flights were attempted. The test pilots and Vought felt that the only suitable place for test flying the radical aircraft with its unproven gearboxes and propellers was at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Given the XF5U’s construction, the aircraft could not be disassembled, and it was too large to be transported over roads. The only option was to ship the XF5U to California via the Panama Canal. Faced with the expensive transportation request, no urgent need for the XF5U, questions about propeller drive reliability, and the emergence of jet aircraft, the Navy cancelled all further XF5U project activity on 17 March 1947.

vought-xf5u-side

This side view of the XF5U shows how the propeller blades were staggered. Note the balance weights on the ailavator, the hump on the gear door, and the slightly open engine cooling air exit flap on the upper fuselage. Strangely, the tail markings appear to have been removed from the photo.

With the original 1,600 hp (1,193 kW) P&W R-2000-2 engines, the XF5U had a forecasted top speed of 460 mph (740 km/h) and a slow speed of 20 mph (32 km/h). The aircraft had a 3,590 fpm (18.2 m/s) initial rate of climb and a service ceiling of 34,500 ft (10,516 m). With a fuel load listed at 300 gallons (1,136 L), the aircraft would have a 710-mile (1,143-km) range. To increase the XF5U’s performance and try to keep the program alive, Vought proposed a turbine-powered model to the Navy, designated VS-341 (or V-341). While it is not entirely clear which engine was selected, the engine depicted in a technical drawing closely resembles the 2,200 hp (1,641 kW) General Electric T31 (TG-100) turboprop. The estimated performance of the VS-341 was a top speed of 550 mph (885 km/h) and a slow speed of 0 mph (0 km/h)—figures that would allow the VS-341 to achieve Zimmerman’s dream of a high-speed, vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft.

vought-xf5u-rear

Rear view of the XF5U shows padding taped to the aircraft to protect its Metalite surface. The engine cooling air exit flaps are open. The intercooler doors have been removed, which aided engine cooling during ground runs. Note the tail markings on the aircraft.

The XF5U intended for flight testing (BuNo 33958) was smashed by a wrecking ball shortly after the program was cancelled. The XF5U’s rigid airframe withstood the initial blows, but there was no saving the aircraft; its remains were sold for scrap. At the time, the second XF5U (BuNo 33959) had already been destroyed during static tests.

Zimmerman’s aircraft were given several nicknames during their development: Zimmer’s-Skimmer, Flying Flapjack, and Flying Pancake. It is unfortunate that a radical aircraft so close to flight testing was not actually flown. Zimmerman continued to work on VTOL aircraft for the rest of his career.

xf5u-jet-engine-v-341

To bring the XF5U into the jet age, Vought designed the turbine-powered VS-341. The aircraft had the same basic layout as the XF5U. Note the power cross shaft extending from the gearbox toward the other engine.

Sources:
Chance Vought V-173 and XF5U-1 Flying Pancakes by Art Schoeni and Steve Ginter (1992)
Aeroplanes Vought 1917–1977 by Gerard P. Morgan (1978)
XF5U-1 Preliminary Pilot’s Handbook by Chance Vought Aircraft (30 September 1946)
XF5U-1 Illustrated Assembly Breakdown by Chance Vought Aircraft (1 January 1945)
Langley Full-Scale Tunnel Investigation of a 1/3-scale Model of the Chance Vought XF5U-1 Airplane by Roy H. Lange, Bennie W. Cocke Jr., and Anthony J. Proterra (1946)
“Airplane of Low Aspect Ratio” US patent 2,431,293 by Charles H. Zimmerman (applied 18 December 1940)
“Single or Multiengined Drive for Plural Airscrews” US patent 2,462,824 by Charles H. Zimmerman (applied 3 November 1944)
“The Flying Flapjack” by Gilbert Paust Mechanix Illustrated (May 1947)
http://www.vought.org/special/html/sxf5u.html
http://www.vought.org/products/html/xf5u-1spec.html