Without making unwarranted claims about the type, it is possible to state that the Grumman F4F Wildcat made an outstanding record against the Japanese Imperial Navy air arm during the Solomon Island campaign. Other American fighter types went on to greater glory, but the lowly Wildcat – with notable assistance from the Vought Corsair and Army Lockheed P-38 – won the day over the South Pacific from the beginning of the war until it was supplanted in mid-1943.

Other examples of records exceeding the reputation of performance for various types include the P-51 in Europe. The redoubtable Mustang achieved nearly double credited aerial victories to those credited to other major American types. However, the lesser considered P-38 actually outgunned the Mustang by approximately one-hundred victories during the course of the Mediterranean campaign. During the battle of Britain the lesser regarded Hawker Hurricane accounted for about four-fifths of all confirmed aerial claims. In point of fact, the Hurricane outnumbered the superlative Supermarine Spitfire roughly two to one in the battle. When the total record for World War II is considered there is no question about the Spitfire’s dominance, but the Hurricane made its point.

Pre-Pearl Harbor marked F4F-3 Wildcats in loose formation circa autumn 1941
Pre-Pearl Harbor marked F4F-3 Wildcats in loose formation circa autumn 1941

The Wildcat was, in fact, a contemporary of the Hurricane and Spitfire, making its first flight as a biplane in 1936. Finding less than successful fare as the F4F-2, the Wildcat lost a production contract to the Brewster Buffalo. It took a strengthening of the wings and updating of engine installation to finally reach production as the F4F-3 in early 1940. The aircraft carrier, USS Ranger, was the first to accept the new Grumman fighter on board in December, 1940.

While the F4F was deficient in some ways it had the potential of standing toe to toe with current Japanese types. Its speed and maneuverability were below the standards of the A5m “Claude” and the new A6m Zero, but it possessed a robust frame and the installation of four or six heavy machine guns. Although it possessed some clumsiness on the ground with its knock-kneed landing gear, retracted by 38 ½ turns on a bicycle type chain via a hand crank on the left side of the cockpit.

Actually, the first blood drawn by the Wildcat was in its British form, known as the Martlet with the Royal Navy. A German bomber was claimed by a Martlet on Christmas day 1940. Relatively few claims were made, however, but an exception was a raiding Fw 200 four-engine anti-shipping bomber which fell to the guns of a Royal Navy Martlet in September 1941.

By the time of the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941 the Wildcat was the standard shipboard fighter in the U. S. Navy. All American carriers happened to be out to sea during the attack, so very little naval response was made to counter the audacious Japanese operation. No claims were made during the attack, but the Marine contingent was about to draw first blood at Wake Island.

F4Fs arranged on a carrier deck. Photo dated August 1942, a late date for such early markings.  This suggests that the scene is more likely VF-6 Wildcats aboard Enterprise earlier than August 1942
F4Fs arranged on a carrier deck. Photo dated August 1942, a late date for such early markings. This suggests that the scene is more likely VF-6 Wildcats aboard Enterprise earlier than August 1942

Eight Wildcats of VMF-211 were flown off the deck of the U. S. S. Enterprise on December 4, 1941 to form the air echelon of the Wake Island defense. One fortuitous fact is that Enterprise sailed back into Pearl Harbor on the afternoon of December 7, after the attack. Inadequate preparations such as incomplete radar with poorly trained operators failed to supply sufficient warning to prevent the loss of most VMF-211 Wildcats during the first Japanese attack on December 8. The next day another Japanese raid saw the first American Wildcat victory when Lieutenant David Kliewer and Tsgt William Hamilton shared credit for the shooting down of either a G3m Nell or G4m Betty bomber, according to various sources. Before Wake capitulated on December 22, another seven Japanese aircraft were claimed shot down, including two Zeros on the day the island fell.

Not long after the fall of Wake the American fleet struck back, including strikes at the recently lost island and the first fleet claims of Japanese aircraft shot down. The three aircraft carriers of the American force struck the Gilberts and the Marshalls plus a single attack at the new Japanese bastion of Rabaul during January and February 1942. On the first day of February, Enterprise Wildcat pilot Lt. (jg) Wilmer Rawie was trying to catch up with Lt. James Gray’s section when he encountered two Mitsubishi Type 96 Claude fighters a few thousand feet above him. The Japanese fighters had just taken off from the island of Taroa intercept the intruding Americans.

Rawie advanced his throttle, straining to reach the rear of the enemy pair from below. The lead Claude was being flown by Lieutenant Kurakane, who was unknowingly being stalked by a Wildcat approaching from out of the early morning darkness. Drawing up close from below, Rawie opened fire with a long burst that raked Kurakane’s fighter. The Japanese was rudely startled by the damage to his aircraft, and rolled the burning Claude over on its side to bail out. American sailors on ships below saw the speck of Japanese broken fighter falling toward the island suddenly burst into flame and disappear into the distance. It was the first American fleet victory for the Grumman F4F Wildcat in World War II.

Cdr. John Thach
Cdr. John Thach

February 20, 1942 was a great day of combat for Lexington’s VF-3. Lt. Commander Jimmy Thach opened the day’s scoring by sharing a Kawanishi H6k Mavis patrol bomber with his wingman, Ensign Edward Sellstrom, east of Rabaul. Thach also claimed a twin-engine, and shared yet another later in the day. He became known as the creator of the Thach weave, a tactic that emphasized coordination of a flight of fighters to maneuver into offensive position on formations of Japanese aircraft. Commander James Flatley simultaneously developed attack methods that made the best use of Wildcat strengths to attack Japanese fighters from the most advantageous positions to give the American fighter maximum chance to defeat the superior A6m Zero. These American tactics were highly successful in the imminent fighter struggles over the South Pacific.

Cdr. Jimmy Flatley
Cdr. Jimmy Flatley

The day proved quite successful for Lexington’s VF-3 with nearly twenty Japanese raiders claimed shot down. Undoubtedly the most impressive performance was that of Lt. (jg) Edward O’Hare who was credited with five Betty bombers destroyed and another probably destroyed. O’Hare’s division was held in reserve over the main battle while other Lexington formations claimed about fourteen Japanese bombers between 4:40 and 5:15 in the afternoon. Eight Betty bombers of the 1st Chutai, 4th Air Group were sighted coming in from the east by American spotters. The Japanese attackers were only a few miles from the Lexington when frantic calls went out to O’Hare and his wingman, which was the only force able to intercept the enemy.

VF-3 F4F-3 Wildcats of Thach and O'Hare
VF-3 F4F-3 Wildcats of Thach and O’Hare

O’Hare let the left vee of bombers slide beneath him while he made a high side attack on the right formation of three. Making an effective run on the right hand bomber, O’Hare started an engine smoking and burning and watched the Japanese fall inexorably toward the water below. Shifting his aim to the left hand bomber, he fired once again and forced the Betty flown by Po1 Mori to fall away, later to ditch. O’Hare zoomed back to the left, and noticed that his wingman was out of position in an effort to clear jammed guns. Taking the offensive once again, O’Hare fired at the bomber flown by Po1c Maeda on the left side of the center formation and set it ablaze to fall out of formation. Maeda’s crew managed to staunch the flames licking at the fuselage and probably made it back to Rabaul. Attacking the leading vee of three bombers, O’Hare set each one afire, and claimed two more bombers destroyed and another probably destroyed. Some of the Japanese bombers made an ineffective bomb run on the Lexington, but O’Hare ran in and out of the intense return fire to the enrapt attention of American witnesses below. His valiant single-handed feat over his aircraft carrier had endured only minor damage by return fire as well as American anti-aircraft fire, and eventually won the Congressional Medal of Honor for him.

Sea action subsided for the next two months while the American and Imperial Japanese fleets sparred with other during the Japanese march across the Pacific. The brash move of the Doolittle strike in April upset Japanese psychological equilibrium. Neutralization of Australia was paramount in the now hurried minds of enemy planners, and the supposed final engagement with Allied ships was anticipated in the Coral Sea off the coast of Australia itself.

That action took place in the second week of May when the Japanese fleet encountered the aircraft carriers Lexington and Yorktown. Furious action accounted for the loss of IJN light carrier Shoho and the abandoning of the Lexington, which later was sunk. More than twenty Japanese aircraft were claimed as downed or written off in crash landings. Jimmy Flatley accounted for either a Claude or Zero fighter before he ran into a host of enemy aircraft and was lucky to free himself to return home.

A more disastrous encounter came for the Japanese less than a month later when no fewer than four Japanese carriers were lost during the three-day battle of Midway. More than fifty Japanese aircraft were claimed in the air with an estimated two-hundred others going down with the sinking wreckage of Japanese ships. Lt. Cdr. Thach was credited with four Zeros during the air battles to justify his doctrine of slashing attacks by Wildcat formations. Beyond the tactical victory there was the momentous shift of power in the Pacific that put the Allies on the offensive in an instant.

Five Japanese carriers had been eliminated to two for the Americans. The next six months would see the initiative sway back and forth between the adversaries until American production and effective training methods won the struggle in the Solomon Islands. The training and tactics of the American Navy would take the day, even with a fighter like the F4F Wildcat, considered inferior to its main Japanese counterpart – the fabled Mitsubishi Zero.

Imperial discontent reached an even higher plain when the American invasion of the Solomon Islands became evident early in August. Reports of at least two American aircraft carriers covering a major landing force created near panic in the Japanese high command. Japanese forces had easily occupied the islands of Guadalcanal and Tulagi among others in what became known as the slot, or a sea passage through the area. The Solomon island position not only formed a forward outpost for the Japanese but also created an eastern threat toward Australia.

No time was lost when the Japanese sent twenty-seven Betty bombers covered by thirty-nine Zeros from the distant base of Rabaul to disrupt the American landings on Guadalcanal. American strikes had already damaged Japanese installations, claiming at least thirteen seaplanes at their moorings. Among the Zero pilots descending on the transports off Guadalcanal and Tulagi were the highest scoring IJN aces of the war. The Zero unit known as the Lae Kokutai (Wing) sent its elite pilots to stop the American invasion. Wildcats from VF-5 (Saratoga) VF-6 (Enterprise) and VF-71(Wasp) would offer opposition to the coming whirlwind of action about to join off the disputed shores.

Among the Tainan Kokutai pilots on this escort to Guadalcanal were Saburo Sakai, already unofficially rated as the leading IJN fighter ace; Junichi Sasai, Sakai’s unit commander and Chutai (flight) leader on this operation; Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, who would eventually be rated the leading Japanese ace before he was killed in a transport over the Philippines in October 1944. Nishizawa would claim a remarkable six Wildcats during the day’s fighting, notwithstanding only about eight Grummans were actually lost, including one certainly claimed by Saburo Sakai and several other multiple claims by other Japanese Zero pilots.
The Japanese bomber formation appeared over the forthcoming battle area around one o’clock in the afternoon. They were almost over the American transports when Lieutenant James Southerland of Saratoga’s VF-5 noticed them slipping out of the clouds. He was in a bad position below the enemy formation when he noticed the bomb bay doors open and felt the urgent need to attack. Coming in from the right side, Southerland fired at one Betty and noticed flames streaming back from the doomed enemy machine. He tried to zoom away from the return fire from the other bombers, but his Wildcat was hit several times, striking the windscreen and leaving an acrid stench from hits behind his cockpit. Even so, he attacked another bomber which also caught fire around the right engine before Southerland realized that he was virtually out of ammunition.

Three Zeros of Saburo Sakai’s flight were in the area and immediately engaged Southerland and his three Wildcats. Two Grummans were shot down and the third was badly damaged before it could escape the whirling battle. That left Southerland facing the Zeros with nothing left in his guns. He made a wild fight of it, maneuvering with two Zeros in spite of the Japanese advantage in turning combat and the fact that Southerland was virtually without offensive clout.

Sakai was engaged with Saratoga’s Scarlet 8 when he joined up with Lai kokutai leader Junichi Sasai. Looking around to find his wingmen Sakai was startled to observe them below jousting with a single Wildcat, which seemed to be holding its own. Sakai signaled Sasai that he was diving to the aid of his men, and immediately engaged Southerland. The next few minutes saw Southerland giving the top Japanese ace as good as he was getting until Sakai gained the advantage, shooting up the Wildcat until Southerland took to his parachute and drifted toward the Guadalcanal shore, where he evaded until he was picked up later by friendly forces.

This first engagement over Guadalcanal airspace resulted in some notable results. Apparently, two Zeros of the Tainan Kokutai and about ten bombers were claimed for eight Wildcats lost, with four American pilots listed as recovered. Saburo Sakai was initially impressed with his first F4F Wildcat encounter, later commenting to writer Henry Sakaida, “Much better than the P-40 and P-39 in dogfight, but still inferior to the Zero. I felt the pilots were full of combative spirit.”

This first engagement of Navy Wildcats and Zero was perhaps a conditional success for the invading Americans, but the next day saw a definite victory for carrier-based F4Fs when six Japanese aircraft were claimed for no losses during a subsequent raid on the beachhead. However, the conditions of battle were decidedly untenable when commanders were understandably nervous about leaving three aircraft carriers in dangerous proximity while the airfield that was to become known as Henderson Field underwent completion to accept fighters and dive bombers.

Transport aircraft is about to land on Henderson Field on August 22, 1942
Transport aircraft is about to land on Henderson Field on August 22, 1942

Construction on the Guadalcanal airstrips proceeded furiously to be ready by August 20 for the arrival of the first nineteen brand new F4F-4 Wildcats of Captain John Smith’s VMF-223. Along with twelve new SBD-3 Dauntless dive bombers, the marine fighters were met with wild cheers from ground troops who had felt naked against Japanese air and sea raids since the withdrawal of aircraft carrier cover. A sea battle fought a few days previously around Savo Island had given the Japanese temporary domination in the area to torment American troops on Guadalcanal with air and sea bombardment and interdiction of resupply of the Henderson Field perimeter.

Marines extinguishing fire on Guadalcanal F4F after it was damaged in a Japanese air raid
Marines extinguishing fire on Guadalcanal F4F after it was damaged in a Japanese air raid

Little time was lost for the pilots of VMF-223 when they met an incoming raid west of Savo Island and claimed three Zeros shot down. Two of the claims were credited to young Second Lieutenant Charles Trowbridge, and one other to Captain John L. Smith. Both of these F4F pilots would become aces over the next few weeks. Indeed, Smith would win the Medal of Honor, being credited with downing nineteen Japanese aircraft between August 21 and October 10, 1942. Trowbridge would add a bomber on August 22 with another bomber and a Zero claimed two days later to become an F4F fighter ace.

Guadalcanal pilots Smith, Mangrim and Carl in flight jackets not normally required on Guadalcanal
Guadalcanal pilots Smith, Mangrim and Carl in flight jackets not normally required on Guadalcanal

By August 26, John Smith had been promoted to major to make his rank commensurate with his duties as leader of VMF-223. On that date around the noon hour, nine Wildcats of VMF-212 and VMF-223 met an estimated eighteen bombers covered by a number of Zeros from the Tainan kokutai over the Henderson Field area. The bombers were able to release their loads to destroy a field radio station, and damage some parked aircraft before the Wildcats exerted their fury. One F4F-4 was lost for claims of four bombers and four Zeros shot down.

John Smith in color photo of him in F4F cockpit
John Smith in color photo of him in F4F cockpit

Actual Japanese losses were three bombers and three Zeros, but one of the Zero losses was Junichi Sasai, a leader of the Tainan Kokutai who was known as “the Richtofen of Rabaul” for his ambition of surpassing the premier World War I air ace. His actual final score was established at around twenty-seven victories. It is speculated that Sasai’s victor was perhaps John Smith, who claimed two Zeros; Captain Marion Carl, who had one Zero to his credit during the Midway battle, and four other claims during the August 24 battle; and Lieutenants John King and Charles Trowbridge with three other Zeros claimed between them.

August and September were hellish months for the Americans who hung on tenuously to a small perimeter around Henderson Field. The effects of lost sea battles gave the Japanese the initiative in shelling American positions, and desperate air raids from the direction of Rabaul made life miserable for the harassed defenders of that perimeter. Two Wildcat squadrons fought valiantly but sometimes in exhausting overstressing conditions to counter the seemingly endless air attacks. Losses were heavy on both sides in September, the sixteen victory Japanese ace Toraichi Takatsuki being claimed shot down, probably by Wildcats of VMF-223. Major John Smith tallied his sixteenth victory when he downed a Zero over Sea lark Channel on that day. In turn, there were only eleven flyable Wildcats available for service on Guadalcanal with losses from all causes by the middle of September.

Captain Joe Foss of VMF-121 on Guadalcanal
Captain Joe Foss of VMF-121 on Guadalcanal

Morale was boosted on October 7 when nine Wildcats of VMF-121, led by Captain Joe Foss, who was to become leading marine ace on Guadalcanal, landed on the bomber strip. An exultant Major John Smith drove up in a Jeep to greet Foss and his welcome reinforcements. Foss was not long in getting into the fighting and scoring when he found a Zero that had overshot his own Wildcat on October 13. He was known as an indifferent pilot, but was also rated a great deflection shooter; he gave the Zero a brief gun burst and believed he saw it explode. No Zero losses were reported in Japanese records for this day, and Foss learned a great lesson when he evaded several angry Japanese fighters behind him to crash land his own damaged Wildcat.

W. C. Wethe, Tom Mann, Lowell Grow, Art Hehf, D. C. Owen and D. K. Allan were VMF-121 pilots on Guadalcanal
W. C. Wethe, Tom Mann, Lowell Grow, Art Hehf, D. C. Owen and D. K. Allan were VMF-121 pilots on Guadalcanal

VMF-223 and 224 were relieved when VMF-121 and several other units including VMF-212 replaced them during the month. Action was unabated during October and November during which time the Japanese made desperate lunges at Guadalcanal to retake the area. Joe Foss had sixteen confirmed victories by the end of October. On November 7, he claimed a Rufe – the Nakajima float version of the Zero currently used as a supplement for the IJN aircraft carrier Zeros no longer available to assault Guadalcanal – and two Mitsubishi biplane reconnaissance F1m Petes. However, he was shot down around the island of Malaita, to swim through salt water crocodile infested water to be rescued by a coast watcher with some friendly natives in the near pitch blackness of the night. One of the signal losses for the Tainan kokutai occurred on October 21 when thirty-four victory Warrant Officer Ota failed to return from a Guadalcanal sortie. Five Zeros were claimed by VMF-212 for the day, and Ota probably fell to one of that squadron’s pilots.

Captain Greg Loesch was a VMF-121 pilot with 8.5 credited victories, including a Zero and one half on October 23, 1942 and two Vals on January 5, 1943
Captain Greg Loesch was a VMF-121 pilot with 8.5 credited victories, including a Zero and one half on October 23, 1942 and two Vals on January 5, 1943

One of the last major actions in which Navy Wildcats participated was the Battle of Santa Cruz on October 26, 1942. Commander Jimmy Flatley took his brand new VF-10 aboard the Enterprise in October. The complement of the squadron included a stellar cast of pilots including Lt. (jg) John Leppla who had already claimed a Zero while flying an SBD Dauntless and Lt. James “Swede” Vejtasa who would score heavily during the battle.

The goal of the Japanese was to retake Guadalcanal by force, and the signal for sea action in the Santa Cruz Island area would be a message that the airfield known as Henderson field was in Japanese hands. As it happened, Henderson was heavily assaulted but remained in American hands until the Japanese fleet was short of fuel, requiring them to retire from the area in spite of the fact that the U. S. S. Hornet was sunk. No matter that the IJN carriers Shokaku and Zuiho were badly damaged, each losing about a dozen aircraft on the hangar decks. The worse loss to the Japanese was the more than sixty airborne aircraft and crews which were claimed by the Wildcats and American anti-aircraft fire. Swede Vejtasa was the star of the day when he was credited with five torpedo and two dive bombers. Ensign George Wrenn of VF- 72 also became an ace in a day when he claimed five more B5n Kate torpedo bombers as they approached the American aircraft carriers. Jimmy Flatey scored a single Zero for his third confirmed victory. The Japanese won a tactical victory with the Hornet sunk. However, the loss of more than sixty experienced aircrew meant the reduction of IJN carrier aviation to the point that very little chance existed for offensive Japanese carrier action during the rest of the war.

VMF-121 pilots on Guadalcanal
VMF-121 pilots on Guadalcanal

Grim air action still dominated between Wildcats on Guadalcanal and Japanese fighters coming down from the direction of New Britain. Joe Foss accounted for four more Japanese aircraft in November before he was stricken with malaria and dysentery, taking him out of action until January 1943 when he claimed three more Japanese aircraft before he was evacuated with his squadron. Lt. Col. Harold “Indian Joe” Bauer earned the Medal of Honor for air actions in September and October when he claimed five Zeros and five Zeros. His valor continued until he was observed to succumb in the sea off the coast of Guadalcanal in November. Major Robert Galer accounted for about fourteen Japanese aircraft in September and October 1942 including several close incidents that earned his medal.

F4F marine aces Smith, Frazier, Dobbin and Galer on Guadalcanal
F4F marine aces Smith, Frazier, Dobbin and Galer on Guadalcanal

The First Marine Division was relieved in December 1942, and the transport IJN destroyers known as the Tokyo Express started to take off all Japanese troops from Guadalcanal by February 1943. At about the same time the first squadron equipped with F4U Corsair fighters arrived on Guadalcanal to replace F4F Wildcats as primary fighter aviation for the Solomon Islands. Army P-38 fighters had begun operations from Henderson in November 1942 to give the American forces more formidable presence.

Publicity photo of General Holcomb being briefed on fighter tactics by Joe Foss
Publicity photo of General Holcomb being briefed on fighter tactics by Joe Foss

However, Japanese resistance did not flag immediately and continued throughout the end of 1942 and first months of 1943 with desperate fury. Admiral Yamamoto devised what became known as Operation I-Go, which threw heavy attacks into the Solomon Islands as well as the northeast coast of New Guinea until he was forced to relent in April 1943. During this period two Wildcat pilots earned the last of seven Medals of Honor for the Wildcat. On January 31, 1943 Lieutenant Jefferson J. DeBlanc of VMF-112 was on an escort mission for dive and torpedo bombers against Japanese shipping in Vella Gulf when he encountered a heavy Japanese interceptor force. Three floatplanes (Rufe Zeros?) and two standard Zeros were claimed by DeBlanc when he was forced to abandon his damaged Wildcat which was inconveniently running out of fuel. He landed on the island of Kolombangara where he and an enlisted marine who had also abandoned his stricken bomber were picked up by a coast watcher, and returned to Guadalcanal two weeks later. Another marine Wildcat pilot who won the medal was Lt. James Swett of VMF-221 who rashly attacked an assaulting force of D3y Val dive bombers on the way to implement an air raid of Operation I-Go on April 7, 1943. Lt. Swett succeeded in downing seven Japanese bombers, and was attacking yet another when his engine was hit by return fire, and he was forced to abandon his fighter. An American rescue boat identified him as friendly by his salty reply to their hail!

VNF-441 Wildcat on Nanumea Field, Ellice Isands in September 1943
VNF-441 Wildcat on Nanumea Field, Ellice Isands in September 1943

Wildcat operations diminished during the second half of 1943 when new Corsair and F6F units took over the burden of the campaign in the Solomon Islands. The F4U Corsair was considered the best carrier fighter of the war when it overcame difficulties to be assigned on carriers later in the Pacific war. The F6F Hellcat was dominant on carriers and land units, being credited with well over five thousand Japanese aircraft shot down to almost three thousand for the Corsair. The Wildcat probably claimed more than one thousand enemy aircraft before it was relegated to escort carrier duty as the General Motors FM-2 in the Pacific and South Atlantic, where it gave yeoman service in the anti-submarine role.

The little Wildcat was tractable, and a delight to fly according to the reports of its pilots. It was quite robust with an ability to absorb much battle damage. Most F4Fs were armed with four or six heavy .50 caliber machine guns (a feature of the Wildcat was the gun selector switch which offered the pilot an option of two, four or six guns – a luxury that most pilots ignored in favor of the overwhelming firepower of all guns blazing away at the target). It was a matter of fortune that allowed the Grumman to find a role in the crucial fight for Guadalcanal, similar to the Hawker Hurricane during the signal Battle of Britain.


Robert Sherrod USMC Aviation in World War II
John Lundstrom The First Team (and Volume 2, The Battle for Guadalcanal Aug–Nov 1942)
Foss and Simmons Joe Foss, Flying Marine
Frank Olynyk Stars and Bars
Miller, Thomas G. Cactus Air Force
Also indebted for photographic and background support from Jack Cook

A Russian was behind the stealth revolution

By Raul Colon

On a clear August morning in 1979, in the Nevada desert, a detachment of United States Marines armed with the newest generation ground to air missile system on the U.S. arsenal, the vaunted HAWK, tried to score a hit against a new bird. The new air defense system utilized by the Marines was so sophisticated that it could detect flak of incoming hawks with only their thermal imagery.

In order to make the exercise more intriguing, the people who designed and developed the new plane gave the detachment the exact incoming fly pattern of the airplane. Where it was coming and where it was headed. With this information, the Marines just needed to point the missile system toward the incoming direction of the plane, and the HAWK would arm itself and destroy the looming threat.

At precisely eight o’clock in the morning, the prototype of what was to become the world’s first true stealth plane, the F-117 Nighthawk Fighter-Bomber, appeared over the sunny skies of the Nevada desert. Completely undetected by the world’s most sophisticated anti-aircraft missile system. It was an amazing triumph of designing engineering.

The real truth about the journey from advanced conventional jet designed aircraft to complete stealth was one with many turns.

Big triumphs and even bigger failures that originated back in the mid 1930s and progressed in an obscure form for the next forty years. That’s until the U.S. Air Force considered the possibility of deploying bombers that were hard to see in radar to strike at the Soviet Union, a bombing platform that could penetrate the most densely designed anti-aircraft system in history.

After the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, and after seeing the casualties list of Israeli warplanes downed by Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles, the U.S. military started a crash course in the feasibility of a bomber design which would be invisible to the current and next generation radar systems. The military placed out a request for the design of a radical new plane. At the end of the summation process, the legendary Lockheed’s Skunk Works, the developers of the famous U-2 spy plane and the world’s first near stealthy airplane, the SR-71 Blackbird; was handed the assignment of designing, developing and producing a completely stealthy plane.

After years of top secret research in the design of the shape of the airplane, Skunk Works was at an impasse. The mathematics of stealth fuselage design did not matched with the reality on the field. They needed a new approach. This was delivered by a once obscure radar expert at Lockheed, Denys Overholser.

The reclusive Overholser put forward to the design team an even more obscure paper, wrote in the mid-to-late 1960s by a Russian mathematician. Pyotr Ufimtsev, who was a top scientist at the Moscow Institute of Radio Engineering. The paper he wrote: Method of Edge Waves in the Physical Theory of Diffraction was fully loaded with mathematics equations as well as scientist terms and phrases that its translation from Russian to English took well over seven years after it first surfaced in the West.

After carefully reading and deciphering the almost forty page document, the design team realized what they had in their hands: the breakthrough they needed. The most important section of the study was at the end of the paper. That part was a revisit of an early study produced by a Scottish physicist, Dr. James Maxwell and later remade with new data by the brilliant German electromagnetic expert, Arnold Somerfeld.

Their calculations almost completely predicted the way that a specific geometric configuration would reflect electromagnetic radiation. The paper raw information was primarily used in the design of computer software to be implemented in the collection of radar signature data from various wings and fuselage shapes.

This data was put to great use in the upcoming development of the airplane wings and main fuselage. The study opened a new door to understanding shapes and their importance in the development of a truly stealthy aircraft.

With the data obtained as a direct result of computer system experimentation and, of the Ufimtsev’s paper information, Skunk Works was able to accurately calculate the radar cross section of any surface. This gave the design team the final data needed to go forward with the ultimate design of this amazing aircraft, the F-117 fighter-bomber.

The data also served as the bases for America’s newest generation of stealth aircraft, the F-22 Raptor.

Peacemaker’s Global Mission

By Raul Colon

Conceived during the waning moments of the Second World War as the world’s first true intercontinental bomber, the amazing Convair’s B-36 Peacemaker would go on to have a relative tumultuous short operational life span. Since its conception in late 1941 through its maiden flight on August 8th, 1946, the B-36 seemed to be always on the brink of cancellation. Six times between 1943 and 1945, the Pentagon and Congress tried to shut down the entire program.

At the heart of the discussion was the feasibility of mass produce a large piston-powered platform in light of the rapid development of the jet engine and the possibilities it offered. Clouding even more the issue was a bitter inter-service battle between the newest member of the Pentagon, the Air Force, and the most revered one, the Navy, for control of America’s nuclear deterrence arsenal. In the end, no amount of controversy or Congressional investigations (there were 5 officials ones between 1943 through 1946) managed to stop the program.

The B-36 went on to serve on the front lines but for only 10 years, four of them on active operational status. A pale figure when compared with its replacement, the venerable B-52, which still remains is the US main heavy bomber platform more than five decades since its development. But despite this apparently overwhelming argument against the operational capability of the Peacemaker, the plane did something few others managed. It pushed the limits of technology during its active run. In a nutshell, the Peacemaker became a technology test bed.

Several of these state-of-the-art activities performed by the B-36 are commonly know. Its role as America’s first and only nuclear powered aircraft has been well cover for the past two decades. But others aspects had not been that well covered. One of those was Project Global Flight.

In the spring of 1945, one full year before the bomber were to take to the air for the first time, Convair top officials were so impressed by the Peacemaker’s projected long range profile, that they decided to plan an around-the-world marketing flight. Two full years after the initial interest and after relative small investment on the project, the company abandoned the idea without much fan fare.

On a clear January 1947 (6th) morning and in front of small group of reporters and Air Force officials , Convair revealed the extent of Project Global Flight’s characteristics. The program called for a modified B-36, stripped of all its amour plating, armament, antenna and radomes. The sighting blister would also have been removed. The radio operator, bombardier and gunners would have stayed home for the adventure. Without the gunners there would haven’t a need for guns, so all firing systems were schedule to be decommissioned as would the instrument panels and forward compartment carpeting. The only parts of the interior expected to survive the stripping, albeit in a modified state, were the gallery and crew bunks.

All the modifications would have saved an estimated 5,000 pounds of overall take-off weight. On top of that, the ‘new’ Peacemaker was to be fitted with six new, experimental flexible fuel cells installed on the wing structure. Four adjacent bomb bay fuel tanks were to be installed on the lower air frame section. The last planned alteration propose was the housing on bomb bay door number 4 of four Aerojet (4,000 pounds of thrust) jet assisted take-off (JATO) bottles for fast takeoff operations.

The final plane profiled for this over modified B-36 stated an operational range of 15,075 nautical miles at an average cruising speed of 210 mph. Accordingly to Convair’s press release, Global Flight would have taken off from Idlewild Airport in New York. Following its departure, the massive bomber would proceed with a circle route over Scotland, Germany, the Black Sea, the Soviet Union, Japan, the Aleutian Island in the Pacific Ocean, until it reached Vancouver Island on the Canadian Pacific coast. From then, the aircraft was set to move southward until reaching Forth Worth, Texas, its final destination point.

In the end, this projected flight path, along with the substantial modifications planned for the B-36 in order to completed, were never performed. Reasons for the cancellation varies from account to account (budgetary issues, serviceable airframes at the time and the flight over Soviet Russia are the most commonly use excuses), but the fact that the project faced so many uncertainties in its developmental stages probably doomed the idea.@

Jane’s Aircraft Recognition Guide, Gunter Endres and Mike Gething, HarperCollins 2002

US Air Force: A complete History, Lieutenant Colonel Dik Alan Daso, Hugh Lauter Levin and Associates 2006

Concept Aircraft: prototypes, X-planes, and Experimental Aircraft, Jim Winchester, Thunder Bay Press 2005

Broken Arrows: The B-36 Log

By Raul Colon

The B-36 Peacemaker was one of the largest bombers ever to take to the air. Its story is unique in American aviation history. Conceived during the final days of the Second World War as the first true intercontinental bombing platform, the Convair Corporation biggest program endured a tumults short life span despite huge investments. Develop as a purely deterrence weapon, the massive plane barely booked on the United States Air Force’s active arsenal ten years. At a cost of just under 300 million dollars, the B-36 would go down in the record books as one the most expensive aviation program of all time.

Despite it, the B-36 achieved its mission profile with astonish success. During the four years the Pacemaker was assigned full operational status, no major incident erupted between East and West. But by 1955, the Pentagon decided that its ‘ultimate bomber’ could not longer be expected to penetrate the ever more sophisticated Russian air defense system, thus the decision to axe the entire program was made. Delays in the development of the B-52 project extended the life of several Pacemaker airframes well into the early 1960s.

Now, almost five decades since its conception, a downfall of details regarding this amazing piece of engineer is becoming available. From its traditional role as the ultimate heavy bomber platform, to its position as America’s first and only true nuclear powered plane, the B-36 has seen it all, including the active deployment of nuclear weapons.

The United States Department of Defense (DoD) has several terms to address a number of nuclear weapon incidents or mishaps. They are stated on the Nuclear Weapon Accident DoD Directive 5230.16. The incidents involving an un-sanctioned release of a nuclear ordinance includes the accidental or unauthorized launching of a weapon, an unauthorized nuclear detonation, the non-nuclear burning of an atomic warhead or one of its components, radioactive contamination and the jettison of a nuclear payload due to accidental causes.

DoD utilized several terms and definitions to classify an incident involving a peacetime atomic weapon deployment. They are as follow:

• Broken Arrow: Term that identify an accident involving a nuclear payload.
• Bent Spear: Term that identifies a significant incident involving a nuclear weapon.
• Empty Quiver: Term use to report the seizure or loss of a nuclear weapon.
• Faded Giant: Term involving a nuclear reactor or radiological incident.

On a cloudy April afternoon in 1981, the DoD and the US Department of Energy, released to a waiting world its once top-secret Narrative Summaries of Accidents Involving US Nuclear Weapons: 1950 to 1980. In a gripping and detailing matter, the report described thirty two (32) incidents involving an atomic warhead releases during those three decades. Of that number only two (2) involved B-36 operations.

The first one occurred over the Canadian Pacific Ocean coast, near British Columbia. On February 14th 1950, a B-36B (tail number 44-92075), member of the 7th Bomb Wing stationed out of Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, was on a routine, cross continent simulated combat flight pattern from Eielson to Carswell AFB, Texas when, six hours into its profile, the massive bomber began developed serious engine problems that forced the crew to shut down three of its power plant.

Flying at 12,000 feet with icing conditions forming on its wing structures and with half of its engines out of commission, 44-92075 commenced experimented problems maintain level flight. Under those strenuous conditions, the pilot decided to turn the big bomber away from land and towards the relative safeness of the ocean in order to drop its nuclear ordinance, an Mk 4, Fat Man-type of system, over open waters. Release of the weapon occurred from 8,000 feet. At around 3,800 feet, the altitude on which the weapon’s detonator was pre-set, the high explosive (HE) on the warhead detonated causing a bright flash followed by a robust sound and a shock wave. After release, the aircraft turned south east, towards Princess Royal Island where the crew of 17 bailed out, just one mile outside Island’s coastline. Two days later, the entire wreckage of the plane washed up on Vancouver Island.

Incident No. 2 occurred almost seven years later. Not as detailed as the previous deployment, the report did relates the story of a B-36A ferrying a Mk 17 nuclear bomb from Biggs, AFB in Texas, to Kirtland AFB, New Mexico. On May 22 1957, this particular Pacemaker (no tail number posted on the incident memo) took off from Biggs for its mission envelop. At exactly 11:50 am Mountain Standard Time and while on approach to Kirtland at an altitude of 1,700 feet, the aircraft’s bomb bay door began to gave way releasing the weapon, along with the entire bay structure two minutes later 4.6 miles south of Kirtland’s control tower. The weapon’s parachute mechanism open, but due to the low operational ceiling, it did not completely retarded.

The HE material inside the Mk 17 detonated on impact. The explosion completely destroyed the weapon and left a gapping crater of 12 feet deep and 25 in overall diameter. Such was the violence of the detonation that the Armed Forces Special Weapons Program, the assessment unit assigned the investigation of the accident, found debris fields as far as a mile outside the contact zone. The final incident report blamed the crewman who removed the weapon’s firing pin (a procedure use to secure the ordinance before final bomb run) with snagging a piece of his cloth against the bomb’s parachute release wire for its partial deployment.

German Airships at the outbreak of War 1914

By Raul Colon

“Nobody said it will be easy, but I think that this (bombing) campaign can shorter the ground war to a minimum. In fact, there’s a good enough chance that Britain’s public would rise and force its government to the negotiating table”, said a boastful Paul Behncke, Deputy Chief (Konteradmiral) of the German Imperial Navy Staff and one of the most ardent proponents for a saturated air attack on England’s capital, on a July 17th 1914 meting of the German Army High Command. The Konteradmiral’s remarks were based on his, and others high placed officers inside the armed forces, profound believe in the power of the airship.

Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin is considered by most to be the father of the dirigible. He was the first to take a powered machine to the air when Zeppelin I took off on July 2nd, 1900. Further development on lighter-than-air technology enabled the Count to built additional models, each more advance than the preceding one. Although design primarily as a commercial platform, it wasn’t long before the military began to realize the potential of the airship. In early 1909, the Army purchased two (Zeppelin I or Z.I and Z.II) units. Two additional samples were ordered in the fall. Not to be outdone, the Imperial Navy joined the fray and in 1912 ordered its first dirigible.

At the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, the Imperial German Army possessed 10 operational airships. Nine of them Zeppelins, three of them DELAG units militarized and one Schutte-Lanz. Johann Schutte and Karl Lanz entered the airship-building industry in 1909 and began selling its platforms to the armed forces, mainly the Navy, in 1911. Four of those Zeppelins were assigned to the Western Front while three others took station on Prussia’s eastern frontier. The Navy’s sole sample, L.3, was posted on western Germany (Duren).

The Army was slow at recognizing the true power projection of the Zeppelin. In the beginning of the war, Army’s airships were use more as a low-level platform supporting the infantry crossing into Holland and Belgium. Because of its relative low operational range, British and French troops deployed in the Belgium frontier were able to shoot them down with some ease. In the first five weeks of the conflict, the German army lost 3 dirigibles. Before August ended, one more airship was lost at the Battle of Tannenberg in the eastern front. That left just 4 (3 army, 1 navy) units, including one Schutte-Lanz, available for operations.

That number (4) began to increase steadily after August ended. The Navy was the first to augment its fleet two-fold. On September 1st, the service received the first of the M-class of dirigibles, the L.4. Next January, the L.10 joined the ranks. Not to be outdone on September 3rd, the army placed an order for the newer Zeppelin P-class ship. With a hull of 531 feet, a gas capacity of 1,126,00 cubic feet and the addition of a fourth engine which gave it a top operational speed of 62 mph, the P version was the most advance airship in the world. Twenty two (22) Ps were purchased. The first to be delivered was the LZ.38, which officially became operational on April 3rd 1915. The rest of the units were incorporated to the service between May and July.

With an increase fleet housing them became a top priority. Since early 1913, the navy and army began selecting locations where to build the huge sheds needed to service the airships. Places such as Nordholz and Cuxhaven, both located in northern Germany, were the first airship bases in Europe. Each of these locations was fitted to house four dirigibles. Other bases included Tondern, Hamburg, Duren and Wittmundhaven. Later on the war Namur (Belgium) and The Hague (Holland) were incorporated. The army bases were located at Düsseldorf and Spich (Germany). After August and following the invasion of the Lower Countries, the German army erected several strategically located facilities. Belgium became the center of operations for the army’s fleet. No less than five (Maubeuge, Eterbeek, Berchem Ste. Agathe, Gontrode and Evere) bases were developed with the sole purposes of attacking Britain.

With ships and bases ready to go, the process now shifted to the strategists inside Germany. With most of the airship commanders urging their superiors to unleash their platforms and bomb England, Germany Kaiser Wilhelm and his advisors, wanting to slip the Western Allies, decided to hold-off the decision until the following summer. Unfortunately for the Kaiser, events on the ground forced his hand.

Lead by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, the British struck first hitting several of the newly constructed sheds. On October 8th, the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) bombed the army complex at Düsseldorf destroying Z.IX. On the 21st of November, the RNAS attacked the main Zeppelin factory at Friedrichshafen causing server damage to the facility’s production line. A month later, on a clear Christmas Eve afternoon, the British attempted their most daring raid up to date. The target was the newly built Nordholz sheds. Although the attack failed to hit any structure, the German navy was very concern that if these types of attacks continued, England would eventually be able to destroy their nascent airship fleet before it could mount an offensive operation. Similar concerns were ushered by army officials. The pressure on the Kaiser was too much to bear and on January 15th 1915 he finally gave the go-ahead to bomb much of England. London would be spare for at leats s few more months as the Kaiser restricted attacks on the British capital.

Operacion Soberania

By Raul Colon

Just days after the American and British forces broke through the German defenses at Normandy, foreshadowing the end of Nazi rule over the European Continent, much of that country’s top technical personnel began to filter out of the in hopes of escaping the ever closing circle. Most were captured by the Western Allies (United States and Great Britain); others were ‘recruited’ by the Soviet Red Army, which was rapidly pushing from the East. While another group managed to slip pass the allied hands. Most of them made their way towards South American.

The Republic of Argentina was one of the most prosperous one in Latin America. It had a big German population, a vast land rural region and Perodian government with a slight Nazi flavor. It also possessed one of the strongest militaries in the Western Hemisphere. With the arrival of several German engineers and technicians, the Argentines began formulating several advance new military projects. Chief among them were the AM-1 and PT-1 missiles. The AM-1, an air-to-air system codenamed Tabano, had the distinction of being South America’s first indigenous developed missile. As does the PT-1 air-to-ground platform.

Spearheaded by a trio of legendary German engineers, Werner von Baumbach and Ernst and Emil Henrici, Argentina began the development of its own version of the famous Henschel Hs-293, the first operational guided air-to-ground missile in the world. Designed by Baumbach and the Henrici Bothers, and built by the Specialize Weapon Section (Seccion de Armas Especiales) of the Military Construction General Direction, a subdivision of the Gaucho Army; the Argentinean version of the 293, the PT-1, was basically a complete copy of the original.

The PT-1 or Guide Missile (Projectil Teledirigido) One consisted on a 441 pound bomb warhead fitted inside a V1-type structure of 11 feet, 7 inch with a wing span of 9’10”. Total weight was 2,205 pounds. With an initial speed of 195 knots and capable of reaching speeds of 513 kts, the ‘Projectil’ had an effective 18.64 miles range. The optimum launch altitude was estimated at 22,000 feet. Operation of the system was also similar to its 293 cousin’s profile.

Operation Sovereign or Operacion Soberania, the design and development of Argentina’s first air-to-surface missile system commenced in the summer of 1952, with an specially modified Douglas C-47 Dakota. The strong built transport was fitted with a ventral boom was placed through a series of high stress, aerodynamic tests. At the same time, the newly produced PT missile was extensively examined at the Fabrica Militar de Aviones (FMA) advance wind tunnel. Also at FMA, a surplus Gloster Meteor I-087 was altered to carry a ventral pod with the tail of the missile. But the most promising launching platform was the venerable Avro Lancaster B-036 heavy bomber.

The Lancaster provided the PT with a more stable deploying system. As configured by the German engineers, the B-036 consisted of a launching rack installed below the huge bomb bay doors. On April 22nd 1953, the Lancaster replaced the Dakota as the PT’s main deploying platform. Captain Federico Muhlenber was assigned to the initial test phase. Eventually, he will be replaced later by Captain Di Pardo in that task. It was Di Pardo who will have the honor of deploying the last PT missile nearly five years later.

The 036 was assigned to the 1st Air Brigade (I Brigada Aerea). The testing phase began at earnest in October 1953. Flying out of Monzon, the home base of the VII Air Brigade, Muhlenber took the Lancaster through his phases. First it was taxing and runway operations, which ran smoothly. Then, on the 6th, the aircraft took to the air for its initial flight with the PT attached to its belly. The bomber performed flawlessly that autumn morning turning and banking without much effort.

Several more flights were made until the afternoon of the 20th when, flying above the Rio Plata, one of the left engines failed forcing the aircraft to plunge near Quilmes, a suburb of Buenos Aires. Von Baumbach, Ernst Henrici and a mechanic die in the accident. The aircraft and the missile were also lost. After the tragedy, the Argentines when back at work on another altered Lancaster, tail sign B-037. As the same time work was done on preparing the new plane, the design team slightly altered the configuration of the original Projectil.

The improve platform was called PAT-1. The only variant from the original was a larger fuel tank which gave the missile a top operational range of up to 30km. The first recorded launch of the PAT system occurred in late November 1954 at the General Soler firing range. Flying at 15,000’, the 037 entered a dive, a few seconds later Latin America’s first air-to-surface missile was released.

Work on the system continued until September 17th 1955, when the government decided to introduce it as part of their efforts to stem the tide of the rebel forces in the country’s Revolucion Libertadora. The first target of the PAT-1 was to be the Pajas Blanco Airport at Cordoba. But before the Lancaster B-037 was able to take off, an incoming rebel Lincoln aircraft bombed the Monzon base destroying the sole aircraft capable of firing the PAT platform.

By 1956 the air force had modified another Lancaster, B-043 and testing resumed at El Palomar Air Force Base at the outskirts of the River Plate. The first launch took place in the morning of October 5th. A second test was performed on the 18th. Several other deployments took place between the 19th and 21st. On the 22nd, while on taking off, the 043 suffered a small fire forcing the pilot to abort the test mission.

The end of the Revolution in 1958 also signaled the end of the PAT-1 program. With the formation of a new and democratic government under the auspices of dovish President Frondizi, many military projects were closed down, including the much promising Operacion Soberania. Now, fifty years since its maiden flight, only one sample of the first Latin America guided missile exits. Its sits at the Military School Museum in Buenos Aires.@

Lancaster B-037

Germany’s U-boats air defense systems

Much as they did towards the end of the Great War, in the early years of World War II German’s U-Bootwaffes roamed, almost with impunity, the sea trade routes of the Western Allies, engaging and sinking their much vital shipping at an alarming rate. It wasn’t until the Allies began to implement a sophisticated system of long rage, air patrol over the Atlantic that the tide of the submarine war finally began to turn in their favor.

Because most of Germany’s U-boat force was incapable of prolonged, submerge patrol time, they became easy targets for praying allied medium and heavy bombers covering the North Atlantic.

Engaging and hitting allied patrol airplanes became the sub’s main objective from late 1943 to the end of the war in May ’45. In an attempt to achieve this task, each boat was fitted with a vast array of defensive weapon systems.

The submarine’s main anti-aircraft weapon was the 2CM Flak Gun. Two basic designs of this uninspired looking, but tremendously effective flak system were employed. The first operating 2CM was the No. 30. The thirty was a single barrel weapon with a 360 degree traverse and capable of a two degree depression and 90 degree elevation. It fired a 0.32kg shell capable of reaching distances of up to 12,350 meters. What made this weapon so effective was it impressive cycle rate of 480 rounds per minute.

The second, improved version of the 2CM was Flak 38th. Similar to the 30th, but capable of reaching a cycle rate of 960 rounds per minute, the 38th was arguably the best German, light attack weapon of World War II.

Another light weapon use by U-Boats to fend-off attackers was the 3.7CM M/42 Flak Gun. In the bottom half of the war, most German submarines were fitted with the 42nd platform. It fired a .73Kg shell up to a distance of 15,350m. Maximum firing cycle was 50 rounds per minute.

Those two weapon systems accounted for almost 85 percentage of all hit allied aircraft. Official numbers regarding hit aircrafts varies from source to source, but the most reliable figure (coming from British-generated documents released in the mid 1950s) puts the amount at 247 from the spring of 1944 to April 1945. 

Although it was not a intended as a primary anit-aircraft weapon, the vaunted 8.8CM Schiffskanone Deck Gun was also use in that role, especially towards the end. This remarkable 8.8 gun employed by the German navy was not directly related to the more famous, 8.8 Acht-Acht flack gun utilized by the army as an anti-tank weapon. The CM was purely a naval gun develop in the waning days of World War One.

The gun was mounted on a low box forward of the conning tower. It could traverse through a field of 360 degrees. Its -4 degrees depressed parameter and 30 degree elevation capacity were two of the most impressive features of this remarkable weapon. The gun fired a 13.7kg high explosive shell at a 700m/sec muzzle velocity. It had a solid impact range of up to 12,350m.

Manned by a three men crew, the CM was a powerful, horizontal weapon that when use against sea-based platforms, it caused heavy damage. As the U-Boats began to sustain alarming losses to Allies praying bombers, German crews commenced utilizing their main armament on incoming enemy aircrafts. Although their use on that type of environment wasn’t tested before the war, the gun performed well.

Data on the numbers of downed allied aircraft hit by the 8.8CM is not reliable. But unofficial accounts put the numbers in the low 50s. Much of that amount was accounted for between the autumn of 1944 and the spring of 1945.

Aside from those three defensive weapons, German submarines carried a limited amount of small caliber fire arms including 9mm and 7.62mm hand guns. Nine mili-miters machine guns and some 7.92mm rapid fire rifles. No data on hit aircraft by these weapons are available.

Of course, no weapon can be effective if the enemy isn’t spotted. For long range detection, the U-boats employed the Funkmessorungsgerat (Fu) MO-29 Radar. The MO-29 was use primarily on Type IV boats as well as some Type VIIs. The 29 was simple to utilize thanks to its twin horizontal rows of eight dipoles on the upper front part of the conning tower.

On the top row laid the transmitters and in the lower one, the receivers. An improved version of the 29 was introduced in the summer of 1942. In that version, known as No. 30, the diploes were replaced by a retractable antenna which was housed in a slot in the tower.

Although relative powerful for the times, this system barely was able to detect surface vessels because of the low position of it’s mounting in respect to the horizon.

A more complex system, FuMB1 or the ‘Metox’ was introduced in the fall of 1942. This system was utilized in conjunction with a raw, wooden cross antenna strung with copper wire know as the ‘Biscay Cross’. But as with the early Fus platforms, this unit wasn’t that reliable. In fact, a case could be mad that their use was highly detrimental to the sub’s survival thanks to the Metox’s volatile emissions which were easy detectable by Allied radars.

By November 1943, the Germans had finally develop what would become the world’s first true, all around naval radar. Born out of desperation, FuMB7 combined Metox and Naxos emissions to give U-boat commanders a first rate, long range detection system. Further enhancements were performed (the FuMB24 and 25) to the base MB7 giving it an extended operational radius. 

Aside the radar, maybe the most ingenious defensive measure used by German submarines was the Focke-Achgelis. The ‘Focke’ was basically a manned rotary glider with a triple blade rotor. It was as simple to operate as it was to assemble. Housed in a storage cylinder on the afterdeck, the Focke was quickly armed and launched. It remained connected to the U-boat by an umbilical cord. From its advantageous position high above the sub (10-12,000 feet), the pilot could spot any target approaching the boat. Unfortunately for the Focke, if the U-boat came under direct attack, there was no time to reel it in, thus the sub cut the cord and left the pilot to defend himself until all was cleared to surface back again.

 More effective than the Focke-Achgelis was the Aphrodite. It was a basic devise consisting of a large (one meter diameter) hydrogen-filled balloon from which dangled small strips of metal foil. It was attached to the sub by way of an anchor weight. Its main purpose was to confuse allied aircraft utilizing radar navigational systems.

Patriot’s Heart: The MPQ-53 Radar

No one who saw the First Gulf War in 1991 was glued to the television set looking at the majestic sight of the United States Army’s newest Theater Anti-Missile System, the now famous MIM-104 Patriot. Night after night, the vaunted weapon was launched in an attempt to intercept Iraq’s unsophisticated and terrible inaccurate Scud mid range missile. The image of America’s missile intercepting an incoming object captured the attention of almost anyone. As new and sensational as the Patriot looked in that conflict, the system was actually in its third decade of life.

Born during the height of the Cold War (1963) in an attempt by the US to overlap their complex HAWK air defense platform, the Army decided to develop the Air Defense System (AADS). More than thirty summers has passed since the first blue print for the MIM-104 was submitted for initial review. Baptized under fire in the gulf and in many other theaters, the Patriot has become America’s top defensive weapon. Multiples upgrades were performed since that summer. Changes that had improved dramatically the capability of the system.

One of the most significant modifications came in the spring of 2005 when the Patriot was fitted with the most advance targeting array in the world, the now famous MPQ-53V. The 53V is a phased array radar and associated processor that control the missile’s trajectory from its launch. The radar is a multifunctional, electronically scanned array mounted on the M-860 trailer which is towed by an M Engagement Control Center. For target identification, the 53V used the powerful Hazeltine (TPX-46-7) Target Identification Friend or Foe (IFF). A self-contain data link is use to communicate with the rest of the missile package.

The Patriot was designed to operate in all weather conditions without losing operational effectiveness. It can destroy aircraft and missiles at all altitudes. It can direct several missiles to engage multiple targets simultaneously even in the toughest electronic jamming environment. For this, the MPQ utilized a top tier lens array which operated an free optical feed. Sum and difference patterns are individually optimized with a monopulse feed optimizing its efficiency. The aperture is round and utilized around 5000 ferrite phase shifter. A four bit, flux driven, non-reciprocal ferrite phase shifter and waveguide radiators are located at both temperatures. A separate, redundant array for missile guidance and IFF is also part of the overall platform’ profile.

The most recognizable feature of radar is its face. A huge, phased array face dominates the upper part of the antenna unit. The ‘face’ performs as both, surveillance and tracking mechanism. Below the face lays an almost circular, 5000 element phase shifter which has two smaller units (each with 50 elements a piece). A row of 18 rectangular boxes divided the antenna almost in half, with access boxes. Two slight larger planar arrays are for the command-guidance and it’s receiving its links directly for the missile.

Before an engagement is achieved, the radar array has to be aligned to cover the much of expected direction of attack. During the engagement, the radio beam is steered electronically in azimuth and elevation. The system was designed in such a mater than it can prioritize a single target from several locations.

The radar utilized a Track-via-Missile (TVM) System in order to suppress its overall cost. In semi-active systems, the radar illuminates the target and a seeker in the missile’s head tracks the reflecting energy. Then the missile computes the interception pattern based on its bearing to the engaging object. The TVM allows the missile to relay the same bearing data to the engagement control station via the radar. The platform’s powerful processors comb through the information with the absolute position of the target, the missile and the profile (velocity, altitude, bearings) of the engaging object and generate tracking commands to guide the warhead to the optimums interception point. In the terminal phase, the missile’s acquisition system acquires the target and relays the data to the phase array where the final intercepting calculations are performed.

The main advantage the TVM system has over its competitors is that the powerful ground based processors are use mostly for guidance thus allowing more data interpretation time. This processing technique make it’s difficult for countermeasures to jam the Patriot’s targeting trajectory. Even when the Patriot’s targeting radar is receiving jamming strobe, its missile can still maintain missile-to-target bearing data from the TVM system. On top of this, the ground based processors have sufficient computing power to resolve troubling jamming issues such as blinking jamming, where two aircrafts in formation jam alternatively to frustrate home-on-jam modes.

Raytheon, the Patriot’s primary contractor (its have all the Defense Department contracts for the system that surpassed the $ 5 million mark) had produced a reported 128 MPQ-53V units for the US Army and an estimated 26 for Japan’s Self Defense Force (2007 totals). Price for each unit is around $ 2.5 million.

Technical Data

Weight 79,008lb
Length 56.08ft
Height 11.83ft
Width 29.42ft
Frequency 4-6 GHz
Range 68km
Detection Sector 120deg
Engagement Sector 90deg
Target Capacity 50 simulations
Missile Control Capacity 9 in final engagement

The ‘Ejercito Del Aire’

I. Early History

The Spanish Air Force has been around in Spain since the first operational balloons began to appear over the Iberian Peninsula back in 1895. But it was not until April 10th, 1910, that the country formally introduced the nascent military air service as part of its overall armed force structure. On the afternoon for November 5th, 1913, a rudimentary fitted Spanish squadron had the distinction of being the first true organize force to stage an offensive operation. On that tragic day, Spanish airplanes dropped a few simple shrapnel-type bombs on a number of rebellious Moroccan villages.

After almost two decades of mitigating action, Spain military air force was completely unprepared when the country’s Civil War erupted on July 18th 1936. During the war, two distinct air arms existed within the integrated structure of the force. The Spanish Republic Air Force was developed by the Republican forces fighting with the established government. At the beginning, the Republican AF was understaffed and more importantly, poorly equipped to influence events in the ground. They were fitted with obsolete Nieuport-Delage NiD-52 fighters, Breguet 19 reconnaissance bombers, a small fleet of Vickers Vildebeest torpedo-bombers and other old foreign aircraft.

The other air force unit derive from the base force was the National Aviation. The ‘Aviacion Nacional’ was created by the Army formations that revolted against what they believed was a repressive government The Nationalist, as this group was called, were lead by the charismatic, albeit, ruthless general Francisco Franco. If the Republican AF was undermanned, then the Nationalist’s was a hollow shell.

Nazi Germany promptly figured out a theater of war where they can test their new equipment and tactics: the Spanish skies. By late July, scores of German-built Junkers Ju 52/3m bomber -transport planes were ferrying Nationalist troops from Spain Morocco to the mainland. By mid August, Italian-made Savoia Marchetti SM-81, Fiat CR.32 and German Heinkel He 51 were filling the Iberian sky.
The Republican AF also got a boost from foreign countries. Sixty French Dewoitine (D.372, 372, 501 and 510) as well as twenty Potez 54s and a squadron of Bleriot-Spad S.510s; joined the force.

Before the war ended on March 28th 1939, Dorniers, Messerschmitt and other top of the line aircraft tilted the balance of power in favor of the rebels. Franco himself secured the victory when his forces entered Madrid on March 27th.

II. World War II

After the war ended, Franco and his staff, clearly impressed by the role air power played in their ascension to power, established the modern Spanish air force; the ‘Ejercito del Aire’ (EDA). Formed on October 7th, 1939, the ‘Ejercito’ would play a relative small, but significant part in World War II.

When news of the German invasion of Red Russia reached the Spanish government, the new Fascist government’s Foreign Ministry, Ramon Serrano Suñer; offered military assistance to the Nazis by way of the German Ambassador, Eberhard von Stohrer. Adolph Hitler wanted a full pledge declaration of war against the Allies, but Franco and Serrano were kindly aware that any such move will place the country’s struggling economy at the mercy of Great Britain’s oil embargo.

If they could not assist Germany directly, then, Franco though, an all volunteer force, similar to the German-deployed Condor Legion during the Civil War, could be muster. On July 1941, 18,000 men from all walks of life joined in what would be called the Blue Division; a ground force unit that would see heavy action in the Eastern Front. Attach to the division was a limited air expeditionary force known as the Blue Squadron or ‘Escuadrilla Azul’.

The Blue Squadron was part of the overall Army Group Center assets from 1941 until 1944. A total of five Spanish Squadrons flying Bf 109 and later Fw 190, flew a total of 1,918 sorties as part of Jagdgeschwader 51, also known as “Molders”. The squadrons worked in succession beginning with the first arriving on early June 1941 until the last official one on February of 1944. They had the distinction of being the only Spanish unit to have fought in the Battle of Kursk. Its combat record consisted of 277 air kills and 74 aircraft destroyed, with a total combine loss of seven Spanish pilots.

III. Post War Organization

Following the end of the War, the Spanish government allied themselves with the Western Allies in their struggles against the Soviet Union. On March 18th 1946, Spain’s first dedicated paratroop unit was formed. The establishment of a mobile force and key changes in the Ejercito mid level structure made it possible for the country to received, on continuing bases, top flight aircraft form the United States.

Between the fall of 1950 and the spring of 1959, the Ejercito incorporated its first jet powered platforms; US-built F-86 Sabre fighters, Lockheed T-33 trainers and DC-3s and 4s transports were delivered the Spanish government. Most of those first generation jet systems were replaced in the mid-to-late 1960s. It was in the spring of 1968 that the Spanish government initiated an aggressive re-armament effort that culminated with the incorporation of top shelf F-4Cs Phantoms and F-5s Freedom Fighters.

The 1970s brought in another refurbishing phase with the assimilation into the Ejercito of French-developed Mirage III and F-1s. Dassault’s deltas, as the III was commonly refer to, formed the backbone of the Spanish AF for much of the 1970s and early 80s. The Mirage III was one of the biggest success stories in the field of post-WW II combat aircraft design. The vaunted Mirage III first flew on November 17th, 1956 which made the system more than a decade old when it joined the Ejercito.

The other major platform utilized by the AF was the Mirage F-1. The F-1 is a single seat strike fighter which made its maiden flight on December 23rd, 1966. It became operational with the French Air Force in the spring of 1974. The F-1 was one of Dassault’s biggest export success stories.

In the middle of the 80s, the Ejercito received its most advance air weapon up to date, the US-supplied F/A-18 Hornet. Since its operational deployment in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Hornet became the cornerstone of Spain’s air deterrence and offensive strike capability. A fact that became apparently during NATO’s air war over Kosovo.
Spain made its movement into full pledge membership on NATO in 1982.

IV. Current Structure and base location

The Ejercito del Aire is divided into five operational commands. The first is the Battle Air Command (BAC) based at Torrejon Air Base, Madrid. General Air Command (GAC) has its headquarters in Madrid. Personnel (PC) and Logistic Commands (LC) are also located in the Spanish capital. The only other active command posted outside the Madrid region is the Canary Island Air Command, which reside at Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Canary Islands.

The Ejercito utilized 15 operational Air Bases:

1.     Alcanatarilla
2.     Armilla
3.     Four Winds
4.     Gando
5.     Getafe (built in 1911 and widely considered the cradle of Spanish aviation)
6.     Los Llanos
7.     Matacan
8.     Moron Air Base*
9.     San Javier
10.   Santiago
11.   Son San Joan
12.   Talavera
13.   Torrejon Air Base**
14.   Villanubla
15.   Zaragoza

* Moron Air Base is located in southern Spain, roughly 35 miles southeast of the city of Seville. Negotiations for US bases in Spain were conducted between June 1951 and September 1953 under the direction of a Joint United States Military Group, commanded by Major General A. W. Kissner.

In 1957 Sixteenth Air Force was realigned under the Strategic Air Command. Main operating bases in Spain were used for SAC B-47 rotational alert aircraft until April 1965. 16th AF also operated SAC bases in Morocco from 1958 through 1963. In 1966, a year after SAC withdrew its B-47 alert force from Spain, 16th AF was reassigned to US Air Forces in Europe. On 13 May 1958, the first flight of B-47s were assigned to Morón Air Base to conduct Reflex operations, and 6 weeks later the first rotational fighter squadron, F-100s from George AFB, CA, arrived for temporary duty to conduct air defense alert.

In April 1960, Morón was placed under the command of Colonel Henry C. Godman. Morón kept operated primarily as a “Reflex” base until 29 April 1962, when the first Chrome Dome KC-135 aircraft arrived.

On November 1971, Morón was relegated to a “modified caretaker status. Torrejon Air Base was designated as the Primary Support Base (PSB) with support services to start in April 1972. Military personnel were reduced to a staff of approximately 100 members of the 7473 CSS. All flying activity was halted except for occasional exercises.

On May 14th 1983 US Spanish bilateral Agreement of Friendship, Defense and Cooperation authorized the United States to station up to 15 tanker aircraft at Morón Air Base. A manpower change request was developed to increase blue-suit manning, based on the tanker task force and the increased War Reserve Materiel (WRM) requirements. The Morón Air Base work force, including all military, civilian, contractor and tenant personnel, was approximately 300 personnel.

In 1984, Morón became NASA’s Space Shuttle Transoceanic Abort Landing Site. Since that time, Morón and NASA have developed a lasting partnership in service to Shuttle ventures. In March 1984, Morón Air Base was selected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a Transoceanic Abort Landing (TAL) site for the space shuttle program. Special navigation and landing aids are in place, and personnel are highly trained to recover landing of the orbiter vehicle. Major enhancements were completed in 1986, and included the permanent installation of a Microwave Landing System. Morón Air Base is the only TAL site in the world situated to support high, mid, and low inclination launches. For this reason, Morón Air Base activates for almost all space shuttle launches.

In August 1990, SAC deployed 22 KC-135 and KC-10 tankers to support Operation DESERT SHIELD. In January 1991, SAC changed Morón Air Base from refueling to bomber operations for DESERT STORM. The 801st Bomb Wing (Provisional) at Morón Air Base consisted of 24 B-52s, 3 KC-135s and over 2,800 personnel. This was the largest deployed bomber wing during the war.
Since January 2000, Morón is a critical link in supporting the rotation of Aerospace Expeditionary Forces (AEF) — deployed in EUCOM and CENTCOM Areas of Responsibilities. Tanker Task Forces (KC-135 and KC-10), Fighter Units from the Air Force and Marine Corps, and airlifters (C-141, C-17 and C-5s) use Morón as a staging base for AEF operations. The base also frequently welcomes rotating US Army personnel.

Moron currently housed F-18 Hornet fighters and P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft – was once one of three bases the US used in Spain and home to about 2,000 active-duty people and their families. The Defense Department closed Torrejon and Zaragoza Air Bases, and trimmed Moron to little more than a handful of people keeping an eye on the runway and buildings in case the Air Force needed to return to the Iberian Peninsula.

** Torrejon Air Base was a major military airport in Spain. During the hey days of the Cold War, Torrejon was headquarters of the United States Air Forces in Europe Sixteenth Air Force as well as the 401st Tactical Fighter Wing. Aircraft stationed at Torrejon were usually rotated to other USAFE airbases located in Italy and Turkey.

The Air Base was originally the home of the Spanish National Institute of Aeronautics, but after the U.S.-Spanish Defense Agreement of 1953, the US funded the construction at Torrejon of a brand new 13,400′ concrete runway in order to replace the 4,266-ft grass airstrip. A massive concrete apron and other necessary maintenance and shelter facilities were erected to accommodate the biggest of the United States Air Force Strategic Air Command’s bombers which mainly supported the Command’s strategic Reflex missions.
Today, among other things, the base houses the Torrejon-Madrid Airport.

V. Operational Activity

The main Spanish air formation is the Wing or ‘Ala’. Each Wing is composed of up to three squadrons (escuadrones). Between 19 and 24 aircraft are housed in an escuadron or air unit. The Ejercito also operates a number of Groups and special operation squadrons.
Total aircraft inventory is estimated to be around 660 operational airframes. Here’s a list of current air activity platforms and base units.

a. Fighter Attack Planes

  • Dassault Mirage F-1M
  • (36 units) Wing 14th
  • Dassault Mirage F-1BM
  • (3) Wing 14th
  • McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18 Hornet F-18M
  • (68) Wing 12th & 15th
  • McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18 Hornet F-18A
  • (17) Wing 46th
  • Eurofighter Typhoon EF2000
  • (36) Wing 11th
  • Eurofighter Typhoon EF2000T
  • (14) Wing 11th

b. Maritime Reconnaissance Systems

  • Fokker F-27
  • (3) 802nd Squadron
  • Lockheed Orion P-3A
  • (2) Wing 11th
  • Lockheed Orion P-3B
  • (2) Wing 11th
  • Lockheed Orion P-3M
  • (3) Wing 11th

c. Transport Aircraft

  • Airbus A310
  • (2) 45th Group
  • Beechcraft C-90
  • (4) 42nd Group
  • CASA C-212 T.12
  • (74) Distributed on various commands such as Wing 37th, 801st Group, 47th Group, Wing 48th, and 721st Squadron.
  • CASA C-212 T.12B
  • (10)
  • CASA C-212 T.12B modified
  • (6)
  • CASA CN-235
  • (20) Wing 25th
  • CASA C-295M
  • (13) Wing 35th
  • Dassault Falcon 900
  • (2) 45th Group
  • Dassault Falcon 900B
  • (3) 45th Group
  • Lockheed C-130H
  • (6) Wing 31st
  • Lockheed C-130H-30
  • (1) Wing 31st
  • Lockheed KC-130H
  • (5) Wing 31st

d. Aerial Refueling Airplanes

  • Boeing 707-300KC
  • (3) 47th Group

e. Trainers

  • Beechcraft Bonanza F-33C
  • (23) 42nd Group
  • CASA C-101EB-01
  • (73) General Air Academy
  • Northrop F-5BM
  • (20) Wing 23rd
  • LET L.13
  • (5) Wing 79th
  • PZL Bielsko SZD-30
  • (4) Wing 79th
  • Schiebe SF-28A
  • (1) Wing 79th
  • ENAER T-35C
  • (37) General Air Academy

f. Helicopters

  • Aerospatiale SA 330J
  • (4) 801st Squadron
  • Eurocopter EC 120B
  • (15) Wing 78th
  • Eurocopter AS 532UL
  • (2) Wing 46th & 48th
  • Eurocopter Super Puma AS 332
  • (9) Wing 46th & 48th
  • Sikorsky S-76C
  • (8) Wing 78th

Other aircraft included (6) CASA 127 VIP transports, (2) Cessna Citation V C-560 recon platforms, (4) Dassault Falcons 20D and E naval survey aircrafts, (12) Canadair CL-215 fire attack planes. Ten additional Canadair, version CL-415 aircraft as firefighting systems. The Ejercito operates one IAI B-707 351C Intelligence gathering aircraft.

On standby orders, the Spanish AF have 71 single-seat Typhoon fighter/attack aircraft. Sixteen two-seat dedicated attack Typhoons are also expected to join the Ejercito within a ten year radius. Between 25 and 28 Airbus A400Ms are also ordered.

VI. Current Deployments and Future Operational Profile

The Ejercito del Aire has been very active since the end of the Kosovo War. Spain’s F-1s has employed in the skies over Iraq and more recently, Afghanistan. It’s believed the some of Spain’s powerful Typhoon aircraft will soon see action in the Afghan theater of operations. Based on Herat Air Force Base, Ejercito’s F/A-18s and transport airplanes had been operating since the early 2005.
Spain also has a small detachment in the former Soviet republic of Kirgizstan. Elements of the 35th Wing are stationed there for logistic and medevac support operations.

As for the immediate future, the Spanish Air Force is fast becoming one of the better equip unit in the European Continent. It ranks 9th in total combat power, just below Poland and on top of countries such as the Ukraine and Finland. The country’s rank will likely remain the same as other European nations incorporate new type of air platforms to its active inventory.

– Raul Colon

More information:
How to Make War: A Comprehensive Guide to Modern Warfare in the 21st Century, James F. Dunnigan, HarperCollins Books 2003
Air Power: The men, machines and ideas that revolutionized war, from Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II; Stephene Budiansky, Penguin Books 2004
Modern Military Aircraft in Combat, Editor Robert Jackson, Amber Books 2008

The Forgotten ‘London’

Only thirty one units of the Saunders Roe A.27 ‘London’ biplane flying boat were built for the Royal Air Force Costal Command (RAFCC) who operated the type from 1936 to the fall of 1941. The ‘London’ is another sample of an aircraft which was obsolete before it reached front line units.

The Saro A.27 was conceived in response of Great Britain’s Air Ministry Specification order R-24/31 that called for “a general purpose open sea patrol flying boat”. Based on Saunders’ questionable Severn A.7 model, the London was destined to become one of England’s last operational flying boats platforms.

The first flight of an A.27 took place in 1934. The unit was fitted with two powerful Bristol Pegasus II radial engines mounted on the center upper top part of the wing structure.

The first ten units delivered to the RAF were designated Mk Is and were powered by a larger set of engines, the Bristol Pegasus III. They were easy to recognize by their polygonal cowlings and two-bladed propellers. The next generation of the ‘London’, the Mk II, carried the Pegasus X engines which had a circular cowling look with a four blade configuration. The Mk II would become the aircraft’s most produce (20 units) model. Construction of the II ran until the summer of 1938. The remaining Is were converted to model II specifications from May of that same year.

The Saro London prototype, K3560. (photo, via author)

The first operational A.27s was assigned to the No. 201 Squadron at Calshot where they replaced the venerable Supermarine Southampton. No. 204 squadron at Mount Batten also received deployments of the London. In 1937, five A.27s of the No. 201’s were selected to represent the RAF on the 150th anniversary of the founding of the State of New South Wales.

Between the spring of 1937 and the autumn of 1938, the 204 Squadron utilized five, specially modified Londons for long distance training missions. The converted A.27, carrying external auxiliary fuel tanks, flew from the British capital to Australia demonstrating the type’s long range operational capability. The round trip covered 48,280km in distance.

The London was still on active, frontline service when World War II broke in 1939. The A.27s assigned to 201 Squadron were stationed at Sullom Voe in Shetland, the ones of 204 were deployed to the main RAF base at Invergordon. Another squadron, No. 202, received several Londons at its operational base on Gibraltar.

All A.27s were primarily use as maritime reconnaissance platforms. Operating mainly on the North Sea and in the western Mediterranean Sea, they scanned the vast sea lanes in search for signs of the dreaded U-boats.
Aircraft based at Gibraltar served until April 1941, when they were replaced by the more modern Consolidated Catalina flying boats.

Beside the RAF, the Royal Canadian Air Force utilized the aircraft during the mid stages of the Second World War.

Powerplant: Two Bristol 1,055ho Pegasus X radial piston engine
Armament: Three 0.303in heavy machine guns located on the bow and an amidships. Total bomb load was up to 907kg.
Length: 17.31m
Height: 5.72m
Wingspan: 24.38m
Total wing area: 132.38m square
Maximum takeoff weight: 8,346kg
Top operational speed: 249kph
Service ceiling: 6,065m
Operational range: 2,800km
Climb rate: 360m per minute
Crew complement: Five

– Raul Colon

More information:
wikipedia: Saro London
Aeroplane Photographic Archive
Saro A.27 London I K3560
Flight Archive
Saro A.27 London