Great Aviation Myths
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Great Aviation Myths

Here is a collection of famous myths and falsehoods in aviation history. If you can come up with any others, please let me know.

"RAF Battle of Britain fighter pilots were mostly upper-class former public schoolboys." - In fact, of the 2900 fighter pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain, ("The Few"), only 200 went to public (i.e. private) school. The bulk came from humble or grammar school backgrounds and 20 per cent were of foreign nationality - including Czechs, Poles, Americans and Canadians.
[The origins of this myth go back to the early days of the RAF. In the 1920s and 1930s it was widely believed that only public schoolboys provided the right material for military officers and the RAF recruited accordingly. When the Auxiliary Air Force was established in 1924 for reservist pilots, the only people who could afford to join where wealthy young men who didn't need to spend six days every week at work. Thus the Aux AF became a social club for a certain class of people. With the rapid expansion of the RAF in the 1930s, the formation of the Volunteer Reserve introduced a new social class of pilots - the non-commissioned officer, (NCO). The VR strongly attracted young working men who wanted to learn how to fly - for free. With the coming of war, the initial strength of the RAF was built around a core of experienced regular officers, supplemented by the members of the Auxiliary Air Force and large numbers of Volunteer Reserve 'Seargent Pilots'. The popular British wartime propaganda film 'The First of the Few', about the origins of the Spitfire and its role in the Battle of Britain, made with the help of Auxiliary and Regular Air Force pilots, was one of the first vehicles for the public schoolboy heroes myth.]

"The Battle of Britain was virtually unwinable for the Luftwaffe." - Recently is has become fashionable for revisionist historians to say that the RAF couldn't have lost the Battle of Britain, or that the Luftwaffe had almost no chance of winning. They argue that, overall, the Luftwaffe had fewer fighters than the RAF in the Battle, and therefore the RAF wasn't really outnumbered. Since Operation 'Sealion' (the German invasion of Britain) depended on the defeat of the RAF to succeed, they argue that the invasion threat was never serious. In fact, as RAF pilots were only too aware, the Luftwaffe could easily achieve local air superiority over their targets in southern England, and the RAF shortage was in pilots not aircraft. Had the Luftwaffe used better offensive tactics - as demanded by the aircrews themselves - such as allowing the escort fighters to roam more freely from the bombers, then German losses could have been lower and attacks more effective. Knocking out British RDF (radar) stations and systematically destroying RAF fighter bases would have severely limited RAF Fighter Command's ability to effectively defend Southern and Eastern England. If the sudden change in Luftwaffe tactics to area bombing of cities hadn't been made, (in reprisal for small scale RAF raids on Berlin), the RAF would have been forced to progressively retreat north and west, with an increasingly serious pilot shortage. In this case, peace talks with Germany would be highly likely, and Churchill wouldn't have remained Prime Minister for very long.

"Since the Luftwaffe didn't consider that a distinct 'Battle of Britain' took place, the battle had no effect on the overall course of the war - other than to give the Americans an unsinkable aircraft carrier." - "If Britain had given up the struggle in...1940, at least half of the German [army] divisions in the west, plus the crack Afrika Korps, (10 per cent of German Panzer strength), plus nearly all of the aircraft based in western Europe and the Mediterranean would have been used against Russia [in the summer of 1941]. To these should be added the German airborne forces which would not have been decimated in Crete in May 1941. The result would have been a crushing German victory in 1941 or 1942 and a Nazi dominated Europe..." - Christopher Dorne, BBC History Magazine, July 2000.

"The introduction of the Me 262 was delayed by Hitler's insistence on its use as a bomber." - It was of course technical difficulties with the engines that caused the delay.

"The Polish air force was wiped out in the first two days of World War Two." - The air force had secretly deployed to reserve airfields on 30th August 1939, and continued flying combat operations until the surrender.

"The Fairey Swordfish flew so slowly that naval anti-aircraft guns couldn't track it." - ALL the attacking Swordfishes in the 'Channel Dash' incident were shot down, mostly by AA fire.

"The Japanese nicknamed the Bristol Beaufighter, the 'Whispering Death'." - Invented by some over-imaginative journalist at a bar. In the middle of World War Two, the Japanese weren't likely to answering questions about aircraft nicknames. Similarly, the "Whistling Death" nickname allegedly given to the Chance Vought F4U Corsair by the Japanese is dubious.

"During World War 2 there was an agreement for the British to concentrate on building fighters and bombers, while the US would provide the transport aircraft." - No such agreement existed. Britain simply didn't have the spare production capacity to build transports.

"The bomber will always get through." - This seems to have originated from war games and air defence exercises conducted during the early 1930's. Without the benefit of radar to direct fighters, the chances of a fighter standing patrol catching a bombing raid on the way in was found to be very slim. Consequently, many countries invested heavily in AA guns and searchlights to defend cities. The radar-assisted integrated air defence network pioneered in Britain during the late 1930s was fully vindicated during the Battle of Britain, and broke the myth.

"The modifications required for carrier service make naval fighters inherently inferior to land-based fighters. We don't need naval aviation." - This myth was not disproved until the introduction of the F6F Hellcat in 1943.

"Parachutes will only make pilots abandon the fight too soon." - In fact parachutes were widely used in World War One by balloon observers. The static-line type parachutes then available were not suitable for abandoning out-of-control aircraft.

"Heavily armed twin-engined 'destroyer' fighters can easily match single-engined fighters." - In the period before World War Two, several designs of 'destroyer' fighter were flown. The most well known being the Messerschmitt Bf110, Westland Whirlwind, and Fokker G-I. These aircraft were usually intended as roving bomber escorts, designed to achieve air superiority over enemy territory. In the Battle of Britain, the Bf110 proved a complete failure, needing single-engined fighter escort itself! Only the P-38, in the vast Pacific Theatre, came close to the idea, and that was a very different type of aircraft.

"The air-to-air missile makes the close-in dogfight and the aircraft gun irrelevant." - The familiar sales pitch from the missile mafia. Rules of Engagement during the Vietnam War made positive identification of all targets neccessary, and this often brought the attacking fighter within the minimum missile launch range. If the target was hostile, a dogfight was inevitable. As a result, the gun-less F-4B and F-4D Phantoms were fitted with gun-pods, and a nose gun was introduced on the F-4E.

"The surface-to-air missile renders the manned fighter obsolete." - This myth was based on the improvement in missile technology achieved in the fifties, and projected into the future. Of course, it failed to take account of similar improvements in manned aircraft technology - especially defensive technology - and operational flexibility. Unfortunately, the British Government in 1957 took this myth too far, and cancelled all its future fighter aircraft programmes - except for the English Electric Lightning which was about to fly.

"ICBM's will replace manned bombers." - As with the above myth, this prediction still hasn't come about. The flexibility of manned weapons systems will ensure their existence for a good while yet.

"Air power alone can win wars." - This myth was propagated by US Army Air Corps General Billy Mitchell in the 1920s. He managed to convince many Americans and was instrumental in the development of long range bombers such as the B-17. However, a decisive conclusion to a war normally requires the occupation of the enemy's territory. The Gulf War, for example, required a ground campaign - however brief - to apply the decisive blow. Arguably, Operation Allied Force begins a new trend, whereby a successful air campaign forces the enemy to accept a negotiated, (and thus unopposed), occupation of his territory.

"Stable aircraft are safe aircraft." - A high priority was put on stability with early World War One aircraft, but it was eventually realised that such aircraft produced poor pilots who couldn't cope with extreme flying situations when they occurred.

"Carrier-borne fighters require an observer/navigator for safety." - It was assumed that a fighter pilot would be unable to find his way back to the aircraft carrier without a navigator in the back seat pointing the way. This inevitably led to large heavy slow naval fighters such as the Fairey Fulmar. Fortunately, the Sea Hurricane and Wildcat were available to plug the gap.

"The RAF will be able to provide air cover for any conceivable Royal Navy operation." - Apparently, the Falklands war wasn't a conceivable operation. Marathon long-range missions and multiple in-flight refuelling operations did little to close the gap in air support.

"Put enough guns on a bomber and it will fight its way to the target without escorts." - Unfortunately, the more guns and ammunition it carries, the smaller it's bomb load, hence more missions are required to destroy a given target, which gives the enemy more chances to attack the bomber, which requires more guns to defend itself....

"Malta was defended by three Gladiators named Faith, Hope and Charity." - Actually four Sea Gladiators (named Faith, Hope, Charity and Desperation), of 261 Squadron RAF, were involved in the early air-defence of Malta. Later supplemented by a few Hurricanes. The basis of much exaggeration.

"The Japanese Zero fighter was a copy of a Western design." Quite the contrary, as it had many technical innovations and was a completely original design.

"Early in the war, the US fighters were vastly inferior to the Japanese planes." In fact it was American tactics and pilot skill levels which were vastly inferior, as shown by the achievements of the AVG with similar equipment. After all, the Japanese had been fighting in China since the early 1930's. By using the vertical plane (ie dive and climb tactics), rather than mixing-it in turning fights with the more maneouvreable Japanese planes, the Americans were able to use their superior firepower to advantage.

"Adolf Galland rated the Spitfire so highly he told Goering 'Give me a squadron of Spitfires'." - Here's a quote from his book The First And The Last:

"The theme of fighter protection was chewed over again and again. Goering clearly represented the point of view of the bombers and demanded close and rigid protection. The bomber, he said, was more important than record bag figures. I tried to point out that the Me109 was superior in the attack and not so suitable for purely defensive purposes as the Spitfire, which, although a little slower, was much more manoeuvrable. He rejected my objection. We received many more harsh words. Finally, as his time ran short, he grew more amiable and asked what were the requirements for our squadrons. Moelders asked for a series of Me109's with more powerful engines. The request was granted. 'And you ?' Goering turned to me. I did not hesitate long. 'I should like an outfit of Spitfires for my group.' After blurting this out, I had rather a shock, for it was not really meant that way. Of course, fundamentally I preferred our Me109 to the Spitfire, but I was unbelievably vexed at the lack of understanding and the stubbornness with which the command gave us orders we could not execute - or only incompletely - as a result of many shortcomings for which we were not to blame. Such brazen-faced impudence made even Goering speechless. He stamped off, growling as he went."

"The Norden bombsight could put a bomb in a pickle barrel from 10,000 feet." - An obvious exaggeration, but an indication of the improvement in accuracy possible in skilled hands. Unfortunately, the sight required a clear view of the target from a considerable distance away, a long straight run to the target and accurate knowledge of ground wind conditions. A situation taken for granted in the clear air of California, but sadly not possible in cloudy European skies. Add a nineteen year old bomb-aimer, and the 8th Air Force's move to daylight area bombing was inevitable.

"The Miles M.52 supersonic research aircraft was 90% complete when cancelled in 1946." - In fact construction had barely started. The authoritative book 'Project Cancelled' says that "...90 per cent of the detail design had been completed, assembly jigs were finished, the component assembly programme was well advanced and the augmentor fan had been built." Which is not the same thing as 90% complete.

"A lightweight and simple fighter can be as effective as heavier and more complex ones." - This belief led in the '50s and early '60s to aircraft like the Aeritalia Fiat G-91 and F-5 Freedom Fighter. Both of which started off as cheap 'lightweight' fighters. Neither could challenge the F-4, Mirage III or MiG-21 which dominated those years. The F-16, of course, started out as a 'lightweight' fighter, but after considerable re-design emerged as anything but 'simple'.

"The RAF lost six Tornado's in the Gulf War while using the JP 233 airfield denial weapon." - In fact only one of the JP 233 missions were shot down, and that was three minutes after the attack had been completed. The other Tornado losses were incurred when lofting 'dumb' bombs on Iraqi air defence installations.

"Every Iraqi fixed-wing aircraft destroyed in air-to-air combat, including five Soviet-made MiG-29 Fulcrums, were downed by F-15C's. No coalition aircraft were lost to Iraqi fighters. " (Source: The US Air Force Fact sheet, Airpower in Operation Desert Storm) - In fact, the US Navy shot down two MiG-21s with F/A-18s. Credits were given to Lt. Cmdr Mark Irby Fox and Lt. Nicholas Mongillo. It is generally accepted the Iraqi Air Force did shoot down an F/A-18 with one of their fighters. It was the first coalition loss of the war, (17 January 1991).

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First Created: 5 September 1996 - Last Revised: 9 August 2000
Copyright © 1996 John Hayles.     e-mail: