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Flying Battlewagons
May 1943 Popular Mechanics

May 1968 Popular Mechanics
May 1968 Popular Mechanics - RF Cafe[Table of Contents]

Wax nostalgic over early technology. See articles from Popular Mechanics, published 1902 - 2021. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.


Flying Battlewagons

The P-38 fighter pilots were getting their instructions at an African field.

"Remember, fellows," their leader cautioned, "German plots always turn to the right in coming out of a dive. They have to, because of engine torque. o head them off instead of chasing them, and don't waste shells. Wait till you get the cockpit or engine in your sights."

The pilots hardly needed this reminder. They knew a few stray bullets rarely knock out a modern plane. Some had already returned from flights with patches of wing ripped off and splatter marks of bullets on their cockpit armor.

The bombardier of a Flying Fortress, left, sights his second. threat, an auxiliary machine gun. Below, the heavily gunned Lockheed "Lightning" interceptor

In some respects, American fighting planes were behind the times when war began. Our fighters had only a few guns of small caliber, and no armor. Now American designers have taken the lead, and the airplanes we are building today are literally flying battleships, bristling with long-range guns and heavily protected by armor plate in vital spots.

More and more, military airplanes are being designed primarily as battle planes and secondarily for special duties in battle. Thus some of our fighter planes are now equipped to carry bombs, and some of our bombers have been called "four-engined fighters" by the Japs. Unable to get close with-out being shot out of the sky, the Japs have even tried to bomb big "Flying Fortresses" from above.

For a look at one new type of battle plane, let's consider the P-38, the Lockheed Lightning that was kept under wraps until enough of them could be flown abroad to take the enemy by surprise. About its only resemblance to pursuit planes of the past is that it is a single seater.

America leads the world in design and production of interceptor and pursuit fighters like the P-38 "Lightnings," flying in formation above. Below, the bombardier poised over canvas-shrouded bombsight in the greenhouse of a Flying Fortress

Side gunners of Boeing bombers dispense death with these .50-caliber machine guns projecting from windows

The P-38 is a big (52-foot wingspread) and heavy (several tons) twin-boomed, twin-engined (2,300 horsepower) fighter that can climb half again as fast as a Jap Zero. Its top level speed (400 miles plus) is so fast the pilot has to lower his flaps to slow down for a dogfight. Otherwise he would become unconscious from the centrifugal pull in tight turns. The plane can dive so fast a special way had to be devised to measure its speed. The ordinary air speed indicator falters when it encounters the "shock wave" that is below the P-38's full diving speed. The plane can hedgehop so close to the ground that its slipstream tears at the treetops like a hurricane, and it can fight well in air so thin the pilot as well as the engines must be supercharged.

This description sounds like an engineer's dream of what a fighter plane should be, and in effect that is just about what the Lightning is. Part of the secret of its performance is in its complete streamlining. In the air the big plane has less drag than would be set up by an ordinary 27-inch square card table.

Few Jap pilots live to remember this view of the "stinger" in the tail of a Fortress

In the past, fighter planes had short range because not much weight could be spared for extra fuel. The P-38 overcomes this handicap by carrying reserve fuel. With this, the plane can be ferried under its own power to any part of the world. As a bomber, the plane is able to lift thousands of pounds. P-38's have returned to their bases on one engine, with holes in the wings, booms and tail group. The pilot's cockpit and vital parts of the engine nacelles are protected by heavy armor plating. It was built to take punishment, but principally to give punishment. Four big machine guns and, cannon project from the nose. The fire power is so effective that during a "preview" engagement in the Aleutians, a flight of P-38s shot down five Jap Zeros and one Jap flying boat during a single dive. In Europe, German pilots stayed away from-the P-38s until they could install heavier guns or figure out maneuvers that would give them a more nearly equal chance in combat.

Our big bombers are now in the real battle-wagon class, Flying Fortresses and Liberators have been bombing Europe night and day, their gunners knocking down 20 German fighters for every bomber lost. Nazi pilots used to like to come in close for the kill but now they hang on half a mile away and try to duck in for hurried attacks.

This is the upper gun turret of a 4-motored British "Lancaster" Douglas Aircraft Co. photo

Beautiful and peaceful as it looks, the Boeing B-17 bristles with over a dozen machine guns. Notice transparent nose

The invulnerability of the bombers to fighter attack lies in their fire power. As many as a dozen machine guns are mounted on a Flying Fortress. All the guns are maneuverable, some by hand and some by hydraulic controls. The machine gun nests of bombers are marvels of complex machinery fitted into small spaces. The tail gunner of a British Lancaster bomber, for instance, slides into his position feet first, then sits up and closes the sliding doors behind him. His seat turns in unison with the machine guns that he points by turning handles that also carry the gun triggers. The "belly" gunner on this same plane sits inside the ship and fires his guns by remote control, aiming through an upside-down periscope. To avoid delays in reloading, many yards of belted ammunition feed into each gun, and this ammunition lies on long slides like miniature railway trackage inside the fuselage.

A Douglas engineer tests the controls of a "Lancaster's" belly guns, his left hand on trigger. He is leaning past periscope used for sighting guns

Battle planes of all types are still in a state of flux. Boeing has announced that even after seven years of manufacture, more people are working on the design of its Flying Fortresses than ever before. No more than five Flying Fortresses in a row have been built to identical plans. One slight change may be merely to alter a control so that the man using it won't skin his knuckles. Another may radically increase the bomber's fire power. Recent improvements include a longer Plexiglas nose for the bombardier compartment, wide-blade propellers for a better bite at high altitudes, a hydraulic system independent of the four power plants, dust filters for desert operations, and special cold-weather fixtures for the Aleutians. Super-charger improvements gave the B-17 its present high ceiling, which in turn led to redesigning the rudder and fin to their present large sizes to provide bombing and gunnery stability at altitudes even above 35,000 feet. Heavier guns are anticipated.

A .30-caliber cartridge is shown against rear of 3/4-inch armor plate pierced by high-velocity bullets

Recoil of heavy guns is a present problem, as is the weight of the large shells. One proposed solution to recoil is a low-velocity bullet that uses the rocket principle, a shell that increases its speed and flies straight after it leaves the gun. More probable is better use of the high velocity principle.

Ralph Waldo Miller, nationally known gunsmith, has designed special loads that have muzzle velocities of around 5,000 feet per second. Miller's new MVF .30-caliber bullet, an armor-piercing and explosive projectile, can burst through the heaviest tank or destroyer hull. Bullets of this type might be superior to anything now used in the air.

"Flying tanks" are being talked about for the future, heavily armored craft that would act as protective escorts for convoys of transports or bombers of many times the weight-carrying capacity that we know today. Reports have been published of 10-ton bomb loads or better for 1943, so the day of the aerial dreadnaughts that would accompany bombers may not be so far in the future as one might suppose.



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