If you think you can
imagine, without having ever done so, what it would be like to be in the cockpit
of a fighter plane battling with an adversary for dear life, you are fooling
yourself. The same goes for going tanque to tanque or mano a mano on the battlefield
with opposing forces. The complex, synergistic combination of fear, adrenalin,
patriotism, self-preservation, revenge, egotism, hatred, rage, camaraderie, esprit de
corps, and other emotions can only be experienced in−person, and nobody knows
for certain how he will react to the circumstance - especially for the first
time. Intense training can help prepare you, but you just don't know until
you're there. Although nowhere as consequential, look at how people freeze with
stage fright when facing a large audience in a big venue for the first time.
Aerial combat fighters, aka dog fighters or pursuit fighters (which is where the
"P" comes from in P-51, P-40, etc.), are the cream of the crop of airmen,
going back to the first air-to-air conflicts of World War I. Yes, ground
fighting requires courage and wit, but adding that third dimension to the
equation does not add merely another 50% to the mix; it multiplies that
difficulty by a much larger factor. The June 1941 issue of Popular Science
magazine reports on the art of dog fighting at the onset of World War II. Half a
year later the Japanese would conduct a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. It's a
good thing we were preparing for such an inevitability. Are we ready today?
Dog Fighting - Is a Pursuit Pilot's Business
On our cover is one of the newest pursuit planes - the gull-winged
Vought-Sikorsky fighter XF4U−1 now being put through its paces by the U. S. Army
Air Corps. Painting by John T. McCoy, Jr.
Flying a Fighter Plane is Just the Beginning
of the Pursuit Pilot's Training ... Now He Must Learn Gunnery and Tactics
This is an article about dogfighting and pursuit gunnery, but there is no use
talking about fighter planes and their tactics without visualizing the kids who
fly them. A pursuit plane is nothing until it is fused with the personality of a
scrappy, cocky youngster whose skill is sharpened and kept to a razor edge. Rush
Howard Willard, from Bay City, Mich., is a good indication of what is involved when
America tries quickly to set up a strong air force.
Rush Willard is 22. He first had his hands on an airplane stick at the age of
six, when his legs were too short to reach the rudder controls. At 16 he was flying
solo, and about that same time he and a friend built themselves a plane, out of
salvage from several wrecks. The inspectors would not give them a license, but they
hopped it over a few fences, just to prove it would fly, then made it into an ice
Rush probably would be graduating this June from engineering school if he had
not, in the fall of 1939, attained his greatest ambition. He was appointed a flying
cadet in the U. S. Army Air Corps. Out of a batch of 20 applicants, he was the only
one to pass the physical exam. Out of a primary training class of 56, he was one
of 30 who made the grade and won their commissions at Kelly Field last September,
after nine months of intensive training.
Now that he had won his wings, Second Lieutenant Willard still had a great deal
to learn about flying. Assigned to the 33rd Pursuit Squadron, he spent the next
three months in the exciting process of mastering a tactical airplane, a fast, powerful,
single-seat Curtiss P-40.
By the time I met him, in late winter, he was a precision pilot, a good formation
flyer, and in the regular morning rat race he could throw his plane around with
the best of them. He was now ready to begin learning to be a fighter.
Pursuit pilots at Mitchel Field, wearing the oxygen masks they use in high-altitude
flying. Fighter-plane engines are designed to operate best in the rarefied upper
The Curtiss P-40, American counterpart of Britain's Spitfire
and Hurricane, Germany's Messerschmitt
"Sandwich fire," the breath-taking maneuver in which a whole
squadron of 18 planes concentrates all its guns on one target in, a curtain of machine-gun
This black panther is the insignia of the 35th Pursuit Squadron.
Each of the three flights in a squadron has a commander, whose plane is marked with
distinctive stripes to guide the other planes in taking their positions. Squadrons
have different colors for noses, stripes, and wheels, and each plane carries its
squadron insignia. A grim humor is often displayed in designing these symbols.
Flyers receive assignments for duty in this busy operations office.
The skill of a fighter pilot is acquired only by constant practice, and it takes
more of the same thing to keep it.
Dogfighting and rat-racing are not the only subjects in the curriculum.
Here some of the boys are brushing up on dots and dashes for radio work.
Ready to take off. Note radio headphones and jack cords.
It isn't all work, however. A pilot shows pictures of his early
flying days - or the girl back home.
To most of us, the mere flying of a plane is an accomplishment far beyond our
expectations. Young Willard was already an aviator before he enlisted as a cadet,
and that gave him about as much head start over his classmates as a child has who
learns to read before he goes to school. Only by a few flying hours, for instance,
did he have any advantage over the other 99 percent of cadets - like his roommate,
Lieutenant Max McNeil, from Raymond, Wash., who had been in a plane only once before
he became a cadet.
Willard was one of the youngsters breaking in as a pursuit flyer at Mitchel Field,
Long Island, under the tutelage of Lieutenant Phil Cochran, of whom I told last
month. While I waited for a chance to talk more with Cochran, I sat around getting
acquainted with the kids.
"You know, it was Popular Science that got me started in this," said Max, when
I told why I was asking so many questions. "I read an article on Army flying, which
got me all excited. I was a sophomore at Washington State College in 1939 when the
flying board came around giving exams, and I remembered that article and joined
"That's funny," said Rush. "I read that same article, and after that there wasn't
anything I cared about but getting in the Air Corps. I took a physical exam every
six months to be sure I'd be able to pass." Rush went two years to Bay City Junior
College, to qualify for the Air Corps mental standards. He earned his way by leading
a 12-piece dance band.
* * *
Phil Cochran looked out of his cockpit at Rush Willard, who was close beside
him in echelon right. Phil held up his right fist, shook it beside the glass pane
of the canopy. Rush held up his left fist and shook it back. A challenge had been
The pair cut out of formation and swung off where there was plenty of room. They
separated, then drove at each other head on, at top speed, passing close. At the
instant of passing, the fight was on. Now it was a question which could turn the
quickest, without losing speed.
Back in the World War days, flyers lived in an age of invention. The man who
could discover a new trick became an ace, because he took his opponents by surprise.
Nowadays it is about as easy to invent some new way of throwing a plane around as
it would be for Joe Louis to produce a blow brand-new to boxing. The pursuit flyer
has to learn all the tricks, as part of his elementary knowledge. But he depends
on his turn, as a fighter depends on his left.
A pursuit plane fires only in the direction in which it flies. The flyer does
not aim his guns, he aims his plane. Also, it is virtually impossible to shoot down
a fighter plane from the side, because it is moving too fast. Therefore the dogfighter
has two objectives: to get on the tail of his opponent, and to keep the opponent
off his own tail. Only from the tail can he get a good shot. The quick turn is the
means of accomplishing both these ends. That is what they mean by maneuverability.
A plane built primarily for speed has small wings, a high wing load. In turning,
ban ked vertically against centrifugal force, such a plane will "mush," as an automobile
skids; and this slows up its turns. That is one reason the British planes, with
lower wing load, have done so well against the fast Messerschmitts. In a close turn,
a Messerschmitt stalls.
There has been some controversy about the relative qualities of American and
European fighter planes; it has been said that the Messerschmitts can run away from
anything America produces. I didn't discuss this with Phil Cochran, and certainly
he wouldn't want to get mixed up in any controversy. But it is interesting to consider
his fighting philosophy, which he is imparting to the youngsters.
Phil doesn't figure he is going to want to run away, or that his opponent will
want to, either. He will be trying to get at a bomber, while his opponent will be
trying to protect the bomber, and the two of them will stay right there and fight
it out. In such a finish fight he wants to be able to excel in the turns.
"The guy that can turn inside the other will win," he tells the kids. So they
practice turns, drawing them tighter and tighter, fighting against each other. If
the turn is too tight, then the plane stalls - that is, it loses speed and starts
to fall. The idea is to pull the turn up just to the point of maximum effectiveness.
And of course, in any turn worthy of the name, the flyer blacks out; centrifugal
force drives the blood from his head and he goes unconscious for an instant. He
has to go on flying his turn precisely, while semiconscious. It takes not only skill,
but constant practice.
Chasing tails this way, one plane often wants to duck away. A dive is bad, for
though speedy it loses altitude, the fighter's great advantage. One helpful trick
is to dodge into a cloud. The unwary pursuer will follow, but the wise one will
climb above the cloud and wait for his quarry to reappear, then dive on him. Another
trick is to climb straight into the blinding sun, and thus to lose the plane behind.
Working in all three dimensions, planes do not merely make horizontal turns.
A pull back on the stick brings the plane up sharp into the start of a loop, which
is a vertical turn. But Phil Cochran tells the kids that the loop is a silly maneuver.
Speed is lost. There is a good chance the following plane can turn inside, and in
any case he can probably draw the loop just as tight, so there is nothing to be
There is another turn, though, used when a pursuer is close behind. The pilot
draws himself up close and tense, then shoves the stick hard forward. The plane
noses down and under. With a terrific jolt, the wing load reverses. The sudden reverse
strain, of seven or eight gravities, would tear anything but the best plane apart.
The flyer's safety belt is strained to the utmost. He'd better have his neck pulled
in, or he will crack his head on the canopy above it. No blackout this time, for
the blood all rushes to the head. It is very uncomfortable.
It is especially uncomfortable for the flyer following, for he hasn't been expecting
it and hasn't had a chance to get set. It is embarrassing too, for in doubling under
the leading plane goes into the blind spot underneath its pursuer, and for the time
being cannot be seen.
After Phil Cochran told me about this violent maneuver, I was talking about it
to another flying officer.
"Oh, yes," he said. "That's one they say the Messerschmitts use to get away from
Spitfires. The German planes have fuel injectors, which are not affected by the
reversal of gravity. But the Spitfire has a carburetor. When it reverses, the carburetor
float control pulls up, and the engine dies for a moment."
Thus the fighter pilot feels for, and uses, the weaknesses of his adversary.
* * *
Fighter planes move so fast that, when a plane does manage to get on the enemy's
tail, the pilot must fire on the split second. And he must aim, with microscopic
accuracy, at a plane which may be traveling more than 300 miles per hour. There
is no use for a pilot even to start gunnery practice until he can fly with the utmost
Rush Willard and his contemporaries were ready, this spring, to take the ground
gunnery course - known, from its Army regulations number, as "Four-forty dash forty."
For this course the pilot goes to a gunnery camp and spends three weeks.
Stretched across the range is a row of six targets, enough for one flight to
use at a time. Each target is ten feet wide, six feet high, and is set at an angle
of 60 degrees on the ground. The bull's-eye is three feet in diameter, and there
are two rings around it.
After a certain amount of preliminary work, the gunner starts making his runs
for score. One of his four guns is loaded with 50 rounds. Diving on his target,
his eye glued to his sight, he must not fire until he has passed the marker for
a range of 500 feet. Then a light touch on the trigger, which is on the handle of
his stick. There is time for no more than four or five shots before he has to pull
out of his dive. He has ten dives in which to fire a run of 50 rounds. Then he lands
to reload and the score is counted up. A hit on the bull's-eye counts 5, the next
circle 4, the next 3, and a hit on the target outside the circles is worth two.
The possible score is 250. If a man is really good he will shoot around 230.
To make an official score in "440-40," the flyer makes two runs at 500 feet,
two runs at 700 feet, and two runs at 1,000 feet, from right and left-hand approaches.
The good marksman does not merely aim at the target, he aims for 5, 6, or 7 o'clock
on the bulls-eye. In a cross wind he has to allow for "crab," a sideways motion
of his plane. He has to have his wings precisely level when on the target. The several
guns on the plane are set, of course, to converge on a small pattern at a selected
range. But when the plane is tilted a variable factor enters. A bullet does not
fly straight; its trajectory is an arc, vertical to the earth. The trajectory does
not tilt with the plane. Lift a wing and your guns are out.
After making his score on the ground targets, the pilot must shoot at a moving
target. This is a tow target which is attached to the end of a cable that extends
several hundred feet behind the bomber that is flying it. The pilot has four runs
of 50 bullets, and each hole in the sock counts one point. Several gunners fire
on the same sock, but each has his bullets painted on the tip with a distinctive
color. The bullet which hits leaves a telltale trace of paint around its hole.
There are three ratings for men who have taken this gunnery course: Expert, Sharpshooter,
and Marksman. To remain a pursuit pilot, a flyer must rate as Expert.
Ground gunnery, of course, is only an introduction to aviation marksmanship.
The pursuit pilot must fire at moving objects, and providing a counterpart for actual
combat shooting has always been a problem. For a while the Army used camera guns,
but these proved to be inaccurate, for light travels to a camera faster than a bullet
goes to its objective. Like a duck hunter, the pursuit pilot always has to take
a lead. Today the British are using cameras in their planes to record the effect
of combat marksmanship on strips of motion-picture film. But for practice something
else had to be found.
One method the Air Corps now uses is to fly a plane over water in bright sunlight.
The shadow on the water then becomes the target. Diving on the moving shadow, the
gunner can determine just how accurate his fire is, by watching the splashes.
A pursuit squadron is supposed to have 25 planes, with three extra pilots. But
in the air its strength is 18 planes in three flights of six, unless the squadron
commander chooses to fly separately as a nineteenth. Each flight commander's plane
has a stripe marking; each squadron has a distinctive color for the nose, stripes,
and wheels of its planes, as well as a distinctive insignia painted on the planes.
All the while he is perfecting himself in dogfighting and gunnery, the young
pilot must also be developing as a formation flyer. He is now able to fly in complicated
tactical maneuvers with his whole squadron.
There is one maneuver which the pursuit flyers perform to impress foreign dignitaries,
and it demonstrates as well as any-thing the skill that these squadrons attain.
"Sandwich fire," as this maneuver is called, is the concentration of all a squadron's
guns on a single ground target.
The 18 planes are flying in three flights of six, each in flight front, one above
another. The squadron commander is at the left of the top flight. The two flights
below trail a little behind, like steps.
Now the squadron commander tilts his formation into a dive toward a three-foot
bull's-eye, far below. The steps straighten out into a solid curtain of gun muzzles
speeding toward the target. As the planes dive, they are all converging toward a
single point, drawing closer together.
At 2,000 feet they open fire, with all machine guns blazing away. At 1,000 feet,
still firing, everyone still holding true to the bull's-eye, their wing tips are
nearly touching; the planes of Flight B, the "meat" of the sandwich, have planes
scarcely more than two feet above them and two feet below. The pilot in Flight B
cannot see the plane below him, can judge its position only by the planes on either
side. In a split second more, all converging toward a single point, they would come
together in a tangled mass of wreckage.
At this instant the flight commander swoops his plane upward, in a left turn;
and simultaneously his flight makes a similar turn, swinging into string formation.
Immediately behind them, but at a lower level, Flight B makes the same upward turn,
clearing the way for Flight C to pull out of its dive. In less time than it takes
to breathe, they are flying off to the left in normal string formation - echeloned
right just enough to keep out of each other's prop streams.
Such a living curtain of machine-gun fire is a horrible thing to contemplate,
when you stop to think about its ultimate purpose. But with kids like Phil Cochran
and Rush Willard you don't think about things like that. It is fast, thrilling sport.
A pursuit squadron is like a football team, only more so. -Hickman Powell.
Posted September 29, 2024