27 February 2016

Hans von Seeckt and the Doctrinal Foundations of the Luftwaffe, Part One

With the defeat of Germany in the First World War, probably the harshest restrictions by the provisions of the Versailles Treaty dealt with Germany's military aviation, a reflection of the effectiveness of the Imperial German Air Force, the Luftstreitkräfte, during the latter half of the war. Four articles of the Treaty specifically addressed aviation in the postwar Germany. The Allies required the defeated Germans to surrender large quantities of aviation assets, including 17,000 aircraft and engines. Any sort of air force was strictly forbidden and the Germany aviation industry was shut down for a period of six months following the Treaty going into effect. No aircraft, engines or parts could be imported during that six month period and once that period had expired, Germany could only build aircraft that were of limited range, speed and engine power. Finally, the Germans had to surrender control of their airspace with the Allies having free overflight and landing rights throughout Germany. With the German government accepting the Versailles Treaty on 23 June 1919, the demobilization of the Luftstreitkräfte began with the official disbandment taking place on 8 May 1920. Along with effectively stripping Germany of an air force, the Treaty also placed strict limits on the size of the German Army and Navy, with only a lightly armed 100,000 man army with no tanks or heavy artillery and a 15,000 man Navy with obsolete ships and small patrol craft. The Navy was forbidden to have submarines or aircraft. To ensure compliance with the harsh measures of the Treaty, the Inter-Allied Control Commission was established with broad authority to inspect any military or industrial facility on short notice. 
General Hans von Seeckt
Leading this diminished military force was probably one of the most under-rated military theorists of the Twentieth Century, General Hans von Seeckt. Descended from a line of noble Prussian military officers, from an early age von Seeckt had shown promise, vitality and vision and he rapidly moved up the ranks into the German general staff (the leadership of the Imperial German Army). He led German forces in the 1915 Serbian campaign and then led a very innovative mobile campaign in 1916 that pushed Romania out of the war. As chief of staff of the Ottoman field armies in Turkey in 1918, he showed a remarkable grasp of the strategic picture of war as he commanded a coalition of armies of varying strengths and weakness, successfully able to use the diverse forces at his disposal to carry out a war of maneuver against the largely static mass armies of Russia. Unlike many German generals, von Seeckt was highly educated outside of military matters, was fluent in English and French and also knew Latin and Greek. Prior to his service in the First World War, he had traveled extensively in Europe and as far as India. As the commander in chief of the interwar Germany army, the Reichswehr, he was even fond of having breakfast with the publishers and editors of several Berlin newspapers. 

What made Hans von Seeckt unique in comparison to his peers in Britain, France and the United States, was his vision that the next war would be a war of mobility and maneuver with smaller, more highly trained agile forces than with large mass armies. Many military thinkers of the day framed future wars through the lens of their recent First World War experience while von Seeckt felt strongly that the paradigm of war would change with technology, transforming the waging of war. As early as 1919 he was already advocating an all-volunteer military, feeling conscription belonged to a past era of slow, lumbering mass armies on the field. Mass armies were only suitable for defense and von Seeckt saw the only use for conscription for a reserve militia force. As many military theorists in France began to think more defensively (hence the Maginot Line), von Seeckt saw a mobile offense as the key in any future conflict. 

Captain Helmuth Wilberg
Core to his ideas of maneuver warfare was the need for a fully independent air force that did more than just support the army- an idea that was pervasive in the United States at the time in particular given the apathy of the Army Air Corps towards long range bombing. As the head of the postwar Reichswehr in 1919, von Seeckt saw to it that what would be come the Luftwaffe got funding priority. As his air advisor, von Seeckt selected Captain Helmuth Wilberg, one of Germany's first aviators who had commanded over 700 aircraft in the field during the First World War. Wilberg was an unusual choice given that he didn't have the Prussian military background most in the Reichswehr expected. His father was an artist and his mother was Jewish- given that anti-Semitism in Germany had roots that went back well before the rise of the Nazi regime, Wilberg's family enjoyed a privileged status as his father had given art lessons to the daughter of the Kaiser. With the patronage of the Kaiser's family, Wilberg entered the military and began a successful career as a military officer. He even did a two year stint as the military tutor to some of the Kaiser's family members before joining the German general staff. In 1910, Wilberg became the 26th licensed pilot in Germany and became an ardent supporter of aviation development in prewar Germany. During the First World War, Wilberg gained renown as a unit commander for his analytical leadership style. 

With von Seeckt as the head of the Reichswehr (the term was used interchangeably for both the entire inter-war Germany military and for the Germany army of the time), he made Wilberg the senior officer in charge of all air matters- while Germany was forbidden by treaty to have an air force, in effect, Wilberg was the head of what would become the Luftwaffe. With Wilberg in charge of aviation, von Seeckt reorganized the German military with a particular emphasis on aviation. Since the Germany military was restricted in size, this gave von Seeckt a chance to pick the best and brightest of the war veterans who wished to continue serving in the military. The two men set about creating the plans for a future German air force that operated on von Seeckt's ideas on the employment of air power. 

General von Seeckt saw a fully independent air force as an offensive weapon in its own right- it's first task was air superiority- to control the air allowed for unhindered movement of his mobile army forces. Once control of the air was secured, then the air force would move in concert with mobile land forces to disrupt the enemy's ability to mobilize and supply its own forces. His own words still resonate in air power doctrines to this day: 

"The war will begin with a simultaneous attack of the air fleets- the weapon which is the most prepared and fastest means of attacking the enemy. Their enemy is, however, not the major cities or  industrial power, but the enemy air force. Only after its suppression can the offensive arm be directed against other targets."

This contrasts strongly with the strategic bombing doctrines of the same period that were being espoused with growing enthusiasm in Great Britain and the United States. Doctrinal theory that would later influence Allied strategic bombing plans in the Second World War saw the enemy's center of power as the cities and their industries whereas while von Seeckt did see that morale could be affected by attacking the enemy's cities, he saw the primary target of his air force the enemy's military, its air force in particular. Though he never ruled out bombing of enemy cities, he certainly foresaw that any future adversary would target German cities and he vigorously pushed the German government to establish a national system of civil defense. 

"Through aerial attack, one has the possibility of striking the centers of resistance of the enemy state Not a new target, but one more easily reached by air, are the key elements of military strength, whose disruption degrades the land army's powers of endurance. The only difference is that, when before the decision was sought on land and sea, now it is also sought in the air."

Within the newly formed Reichswehr, what was once the general staff (headquarters command) became the "Truppenamt" or "Troops Office", with von Seeckt as the chief of the Truppenamt. There were four sections in the Truppenamt- T-1 (Operations and Planning), T-2 (Army Organization), T-3 (Intelligence), and T-4 (Training). Only sixty officers were selected for the Truppenamt, giving an indication to the draconian restrictions on the Reichswehr. Acting as adjutants to the Truppenamt were what were called Inspectorates which were specialized staffs that established doctrine, training, and requirements for specific army units. These branch inspectorates focused on things like artillery, infantry, communications, medical corps, and so on. In addition, there was a mixed military and civilian staff group called the Waffenamt or Weapons Office. It was the Waffenamt's responsibility to develop, procure, and test weapons for the military. Many other military organizations in other nations had similar groups, but only in Germany were these functions centralized under one command- that of Hans von Seeckt. 

There was a fifth Truppenamt section that was in many ways the most important and it was designated TA(L). This was the air staff office with Helmuth Wilberg in charge. Wilbert made sure there were aviators in every section of the Truppenamt- of the sixty officers that made up the Truppenamt in 1920, six of them were aviators. Of the sixty officers assigned to the Waffenamt, six there as well were aviators. An even larger number former military aviators were employed as civilian staff to the different groups, insuring there was sufficient "air mindedness" in literally every corner of the Reichswehr. To foster an "air mindedness" throughout the rest of Germany within the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty, von Seeckt encouraged the sport of gliding throughout the Germany with the establishment of glider clubs which created a pool of potential pilots for the future Luftwaffe. Glider competitions were hosted by von Seeckt himself would award prizes for proficiency and skill in the air. 

Institutionalizing such "air mindedness" in the German military was unprecedented when compared with the military leadership structures of other nations. But simply having aviators on staff everywhere isn't enough. In the upcoming second part of this article, I'll talk more about what all those aviation staffers did in a systematic way that established the doctrinal foundations of the Second World War Luftwaffe that made it such an effective weapon in the first several years of the war. Stay tuned!

Further reading: 

Source: The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940 by James S. Corum. University of Kansas Press, 1997, pp 49-59.

22 February 2016

Operation Moked: The Premiere of the Anti-Runway Bomb

In the run up to the 1967 Six-Day War in the Middle East, the Israeli Air Force was significantly outnumbered by the Arab air forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan and Iraq as well. Egypt's air force alone had 50 percent more comparable combat aircraft than the Israelis. As early as 1953 it was clear that neutralization of the Arab air bases would be vital in any future conflict. By 1960 operational planning centered around executing a simultaneous strike on all the Arab bases in range of Israel. The operations branch commander of the IAF, Rafi Har-Lev, and the top navigator in the air force, Rafi Sivron, began work on Operation Moked- the simultaneous neutralization of the Arab air bases.

The MATRA BLU-107 Durandal on a USAF F-111
The basis of the planning was intelligence- not only were the dispositions and activity cycles of the Arab squadrons determined, but they also were able to secure information on the runway thickness and design of the bases. Planning began in earnest in 1963 and was continually updated by the flow on intelligence from reconnaissance and human sources.

Since trapping the Arab combat aircraft on the ground was key, the Israelis and the French (before their abrupt change in foreign policy under Charles De Gaulle shifted away from Israel in 1967 after the Six-Day War) co-developed a new type of bomb specifically designed for destroying runways. After its release, a first rocket acted as a braking rocket to slow the munition to get it to the optimum penetration angle. A second rocket then fired that drove the bomb through the runway and within six seconds the explosives detonated, creating a larger crater than would have been possible with a conventional bomb. Israeli Military Industries (IMI or "Taas", it's Hebrew name) was the lead contractor for the new weapon.

Aircraft carrying the new bombs would target eighteen air bases in Egypt, six bases in Syria, and two bases in Jordan. Once the runways were knocked out, the rest of the strike force could pick off the grounded Arab aircraft with guns and rockets. On 5 June 1967 at 0700 hours, the command went out from the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv "Execute Moked". One-hundred sixty aircraft took off in the first wave. Jordanian radar detected the strike force but assumed that they were US Navy aircraft of the Sixth Fleet which were known to be in the region. At 0745 hours, Egyptian fighter aircraft were finishing up landing after their dawn patrols of the airspace adjoining Israel. Maintenance crews and pilots were in the process of heading to breakfast before the next patrol cycle began and that was when the Israelis struck. As each aircraft delivered the new runway bombs, they swung around and commenced strafing runs against the flight lines of trapped aircraft. While ten percent of the strike force was lost, within six hours the air forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan were neutralized. As Mordechai Hod, the commander of the Israeli Air Force said before the attacks "A jet aircraft is the deadliest weapon in existence- in the sky. On the ground, it is useless."

Operation Moked was a hugely successful gamble. The Israelis committed nearly all of its aircraft to the strikes, leaving only 12 fighters to protect Tel Aviv, something that the IDF commanders didn't fully reveal to the Israeli government.

Durandal test round dropped by a Mirage III
The runway cratering bomb was further developed starting in 1971 by the French weapons firm MATRA as the Durandal, named for a mythical French sword. The Durandal differed from the 1967 anti-runway munition in that after release, a braking parachute was used to stabilize the bomb instead of a braking rocket. There is a oft-repeated misconception that Durandal was used in Operation Moked, but that would have been nearly ten years before Durandal was available. Rather, the 1967 weapon was a distinct program that led to the current Durandal weapon. The Durandal was put into production for the French in 1977 and in 1982, it was evaluated by the United States Air Force for use by the General Dynamics F-111. It would subsequently be cleared as well for the McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle and received the designation BLU-107 and was used to great effect during Operation Desert Storm. The Durandal was designed for a shelf life of 11 years and if was carried on three sorties and not used, it was withdrawn from use. As such, the BLU-107 Durandal is no longer in use by the USAF.

Further reading:

Operation Drugstore: The 1982 Air Battles Over the Bekaa Valley
Foxbats Over the Sinai
Selling the Skyhawk to Israel and a Watershed Change in American Foreign Policy
Birth of the Lion: The Development of the IAI Kfir

Source: Air Combat Reader: Historic Feats and Aviation Legends, edited by Walter Boyne and Philip Handleman. Brassey's, 1999, p235-245.

17 February 2016

Extreme Punchout: The Ejection Seat of the X-15

The hypersonic speed and extreme altitude performance of the North American X-15 demanded one of the most complex ejection seats ever put into service. Earlier NASA research rocket aircraft like the Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket and the Bell X-2 featured ejectable nose sections that the pilot would then bail out of conventionally once it had separated from the aircraft and stabilized. However, the weight and volume restrictions on the X-15 made such a system impractical and North American in conjunction with engineer/test pilot A. Scott Crossfield, North American Aviation designer Jerry Madden and the David Clark Co. (who had long made pressure suits for the military and NASA) designed an integrated system that combined the pressure suit design along with an advanced ejection seat.
The X-15 ejection seat in the aircraft
(USAF Museum)
David Clark's MC-2 pressure suit was the key to making an open-faced ejection at high Mach and high altitudes possible. It not only protected the pilot from the extreme windblast of hitting the airstream at Mach 3+, it also functioned as a pressure suit to protect the X-15 pilot at altitudes in excess of 250,000 feet. Despite the advanced nature of the pressure suit, it was understood that kinetic heating during a high-Mach ejection would probably result in mild burns to the head, knees, and toes which in effect projected into the airstream.

Because the rocket motor of the X-15 ejection seat had to be powerful to propel the pilot clear of the X-15's hypersonic shockwave, a novel means was used to transfer loads from the pilot's rear end to the seat pan. Each X-15 program pilot sat on a weather balloon filled with plastic beads and wiggled into it like a bean bag. A vacuum was applied which held the shape of the balloon. Once the pilot stood up, plaster of Paris was poured into the depression, creating an exact copy of the pilot's rear end. A block of Balsa wood was then carved to precisely fit the mould and this became the seat cushion of the X-15's ejection seat- not only was it custom fit which allowed the optimum transfer of shock loads from the pilot's body to the seat pan, it also made for a very comfortable seat!

Scott Crossfield in the MC-2 pressure suit
(NASA/Dryden Flight Research Center)
To prevent the flailing of the arms and legs during a high-Mach ejection, special articulated restraints would protect the pilot's legs and feet (also acting as a windblast deflector to minimize heat burns on the feet) as well as to the arms and hands. The articulated arms deployed gauntlets to protect the pilot's hands from aerodynamic heating as well.

Once the articulated arms deployed into place, the emergency oxygen supply took over pressurization of the suit and a heating unit activated to keep the pilot's helmet visor clear of ice. Once the canopy was blown off and the seat traveled up the rails, special wings on the sides of the seat deployed to stabilize the seat in the high-Mach airstream. In a conventional ejection seat, a drogue chute would be deployed to slow the seat down but at the X-15's speeds, such a chute would have melted instantly, so the X-15's seat deployed a pair of telescopic booms that projected aft and outward from the bottom of the seat to provide aerodynamic braking and helped the wings stabilize the seat.

Rocket sled test of the X-15 seat- note the deployed booms
If ejection took place over 15,000 feet, a built-in barostat kept the pilot attached to the seat which allowed use of the seat's emergency oxygen supply. Once 15,000 feet was reached, the seat automatically released the pilot and activated his parachute. If ejection took place below 15,000 feet, a three second timer allowed the wings and drogue booms to deploy and stabilized the seat before separating from the pilot.

One little-known fact was that the X-15 cockpit was pressurized with nitrogen instead of oxygen as was used in the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft. The pilot breathed oxygen from the his suit which was only pressurized upon ejection. This meant the cockpit was fireproof, something that NASA tragically learned with the launch pad fire on Apollo 1.

The X-15s set an absolute speed record of Mach 6.7 and an absolute altitude record of 354,000 feet which qualified several of its program pilots for astronaut wings. Fortunately the ejection system was never needed and the one fatality, Michael Adams, occurred when his X-15 lost control and broke up on re-entry into the thicker levels of the atmosphere and the X-15's complex ejection system might not have saved him.

Interestingly, the David Clark MC-2 pressure suit served as the basis for the space suits for the Mercury and Gemini programs. The aluminized fabric exterior of the MC-2 suit carried over to the space programs and heavily influenced Hollywood cinematic depictions of space suits well into the 1970s.

Related reading: 

Lockheed's Contribution to the Space Shuttle Program
The Boeing 747 SCA Shuttle Carrier Aircraft
Flight Testing on the Cheap: The Groundbreaking M2F1 Lifting Body
How the Shuttle Orbiter Lost Its Jet Engines

Source: Eject!: The Complete History of U.S. Aircraft Escape Systems by Jim Tuttle. MBI Publishing, 2002, p136-143.

12 February 2016

The Flanders Air Campaign of 1917: The First Modern Air War

In 1917, the first modern air war took shape over the trenches of Flanders
In the First World War, The Deutsche Luftstreitkräfte proved itself to be a very able air arm over the Western Front despite often being numerically outnumbered by the British and French air arms. Initially part of the Imperial German Army, as the war progressed, the air arm became more and more autonomous, operating for all practical purposes as an independent branch of the German military after the 1916 re-organization of units that led to the formation of the Luftstreitkräfte. While the original intent of the Prussian general staff as well as the rest of the army supported a fully independent air arm, opposition from the Imperial German Navy left the Luftstreitkräfte just short of full independence from the army. Like most inter-service rivalries through military history, the Navy feared less of a voice in military affairs with an independent air arm. In fact, the Imperial Germany Navy refused to give up its air arm to the Luftstreitkräfte. Nonetheless, despite Navy obstacles, the Luftstreitkräfte developed quickly after 1916 with its own centralized control which laid down the infrastructure of what some historians consider the first modern air force- its own commander-in-chief and headquarters staff, staff sections in charge of a range of aviation tasks ranging from logistics, production, training, staffing, doctrine, communications, airfields and even medical units. While the commanders of the Luftstreitkräfte were subordinate to the Imperial German Army, experience had shown that the aviators were most effective when left to their own initiatives. Compared to the Allies, the Luftstreitkräfte general staff were very capable, willing to take advantage of technology, and most importantly, flexible and responsive to the imperatives of the war on the Western Front. The general staff routinely requested and evaluated reports from squadron commanders (a squadron was a Jagdstaffel, or Jasta, for short) who had shown themselves to be particularly successful leaders in battle. Manfred von Richthofen, the legendary "Red Baron", in particular as a commander in the field was a valued source of input for the Luftstreitkräfte general staff. The introduction of one of the best fighter aircraft of the First World War, the Fokker D-7, was attributed to Richthofen's advice to the general staff. 

The pilots of the Luftstreitkräfte were also much more highly trained than their Allied counterparts. In 1916, the year of the formation of the Luftstreitkräfte, a German pilot before flying their first combat mission had to demonstrate proficiency in short and long range navigation, night flying, as well as day and night landings. By the time a German pilot earned his wings, he had flown about 75-80 flight hours. Before getting posted to an operational squadron, pilots then had to go through a special training course that lasted a month in German-occupied France near Valenciennes. Intensive flying took place under the auspices of returning combat veterans. By contrast, the pilots of the British Royal Flying Corps, flew their first combat mission with less than twenty hours of training, surprisingly little of it solo! In the air battles of the spring of 1917, three RFC pilots would be lost for every Luftstreitkräfte lost. 

In May 1917, the British Army began its Flanders offensive, breaking out of its large salient at the Belgian town of Ypres. In the next six months would come some of the bloodiest fighting on the Western Front, but more importantly, the air war above the fields of the Flanders region had all the hallmarks of what would be considered a modern air war- the Germans had an integrated air defense system on their side of the lines, both British and German units carried out interdiction attacks on the each other's rear areas to disrupt supply lines, fighter sweeps were conducted to gain air superiority and attacks were made on opposing airfields to degrade the effectiveness of air support. In addition, close air support was used in a more organized fashion compared to the first half of the First World War. The Luftstreitkräfte in particular, led the way in 1917 with a number of doctrinal innovations in air warfare that even to this day are standard in many air forces. 

Manfred von Richtofen, head of JG 1
Despite massive reinforcement of the Flanders sector by the Luftstreitkräfte, the German pilots remained outnumbered with approximately 600 combat aircraft in the area compared to 850 Allied combat aircraft. Just in fighter aircraft, the Germans were similarly outnumbered with 200 fighter aircraft compared to 350 Allied fighter aircraft. While the superior training of the German pilots offset the numerical advantage of the Allied forces, the Luftstreitkräfte established the first fighter wing, or Jagdgeschwader (JG) to concentrate their forces in very focused attacks. JG 1 was established in June 1917 with four squadrons, or Jastas- Jastas 4, 6, 10, 11 formed the world's first fighter wing with Manfred von Richthofen as the commander. Each Jasta had twelve or more aircraft and approximately fifteen pilots, giving JG 1 fifty aircraft. The entire wing functioned as an operational unit and this allowed the Luftstreitkräfte to concentrate its aircraft on specific objectives, easily overwhelming Allied aircraft they encountered. This assured the Germans local air superiority over the battlefield as needed. For example, JG 1 might clear an area out of any reconnaissance aircraft to allow the German army to move unseen to Allied eyes. To improve air combat recognition, Richthofen had the Fokker triplanes of his fighter wing painted in bright colors, giving rise to JG 1's nickname, "The Flying Circus". Prior to 1917, the most aircraft that would participate in a given mission from either combatant side were ten or less.

The Flying Circus in action
(Antonio Karidis/ArtStation.com)
Fighter aircraft weren't the only ones to practice the massing of forces on specific objectives. Two seat observation aircraft were used as close air support and interdiction aircraft, the squadronsIt being organized into temporary two and three squadron Jagdgruppen as needed. While a Jagdgeschwader was a permanent unit, Jagdgruppen were temporary and based on a specific tactical objective. Though close air support had been performed by both sides prior to the Flanders campaign in 1917, it would be the Luftstreitkräfte would use close air support for the first time in concentrated mass attacks. Jagdgruppen were assigned to the operational control of an infantry division and would focus on targets in support of the division's objectives. The British approach was haphazard to say the least. While the attack aircraft of the Jagdgruppen were modified with armor plating and employed in organized tactical formations, the Royal Flying Corps sent unmodified single seat fighters and two-seaters singly and in small groups in search of target of opportunity. Like the British fighter pilots, there was no organized training system in place for ground attack pilots. Like the German fighter pilots who had their own tactical school before getting posted to an operational unit, so did the ground attack pilots. The Luftstreitkräfte trained its ground attack pilots with drills on simulated ground targets to hone their skills before being released for assignment on the front. The Germans felt that nuisance raids on targets of opportunity was a waste of resources and would often commit an entire Jagdgruppen in support of a counterattack or to break an enemy advance. Many British battalions were lost after getting pinned down by Jagdgruppen during a German infantry advance. 

To further degrade the effectiveness of the superior numbers of Allied aircraft, the Luftstreitkräfte also carried out highly organized day and night attacks on Allied airfields and aviation supply depots. Night time attacks used parachute flares to illuminate the target area. The Germans also conducted a comprehensive interdiction campaign against the supply lines of the British and French armies. British air assets began to get better organized by the summer of 1917 and conducted a reasonably effective campaign against German rail yards while the Luftstreitkräfte hit not just French rail yards but also the ports of Calais and Dunkirk where the majority of supplies for the British Expeditionary Force arrived from England. While neither side was fully able to cut each other's supply lines, it did serve to divert resources from the battles on the front line. Just as the fighters were organized into fighter wings or Jagdgeschwader, the bomber aircraft of the Luftstreitkräfte were organized into Kampfgeschwader (KG) or bomber wings. This is a recurring theme in the Luftstreitkräfte during the air battles of 1917- concentrate limited forces into larger units and conducted massed attacks against very specific targets, overwhelming the enemy, whether it was fighters, ground attack aircraft, or bombers. 

Another advance of the Luftstreitkräfte in 1917 not used by any other air arm extensively was the use of airborne radio. Use of radio was near non-existent by the Royal Flying Corps or any other Allied air arm at this time. It was most valuable in the hands of two seat observation aircraft performing the role of artillery spotting. A special system using Morse code was developed that allowed observers to radio two and three letter messages quickly to artillery units to assist them in adjusting their fire. Other codes allowed observation aircraft to identify new targets for the artillery units to hit. Some ground attack units also carried airborne radios as well which allowed them to radio strike assessments to commanders as well as receive changes in orders and tasking while enroute. 

Much of why the Luftstreitkräfte had to be so effective in the spring and summer of 1917 was to offset its numerical disadvantage, but there was a broader goal as well of trying to use all that air power had to offer to knock the British out of the war. Many in the German high command saw the the eventual entry of the United States in the First World War and, much like the Second World War, the Germans had no way of matching the American's prodigious production capacity. It was a strategic imperative of the Germany to conclude the war on its own terms before the Americans got involved. 

The German strategic bombing campaign as well as the 1918 air battles will be the subject of future articles here at Tails Through Time, so stay tuned! 

Related reading: 

Source: The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940 by James S. Corum. University of Kansas Press, 1997, pp 29-34.

07 February 2016

The End of the Line for Curtiss Aircraft

XP-87 Blackhawk prototype
(USAF Museum)
In the summer of 1945 the US Army Air Force was in the process of outlining its combat aircraft needs in the post-war world. For fighter aircraft, there were three classes of aircraft that the USAAF wanted- an all-weather offensive fighter, a point-defense interceptor, and a long-range penetration fighter. It was expected that because of the state of the technology of the day that the all-weather offensive fighter would be the biggest of the three. On 28 August 1945 the USAAF issued its RfP (Request for Proposals) for the all-weather offensive fighter- a speed of 525 mph at 35,000 feet, 12 minutes to reach 35,000 feet and a 600-mile combat radius. It was thought at the time that piston engines would be necessary, but a refinement of the USAAF requirements a few months later laid out the service's desire for an aircraft that could seek out and destroy both enemy aircraft and ground targets in all weather conditions, day or night. Bell, Consolidated (Convair), Curtiss, Douglas, Goodyear, and Northrop submitted entries; Bell, Convair, and Goodyear were eliminated quickly due to performance deficiencies. Curtiss submitted a large four jet design based on the XA-43 attack jet design they had been working on for a different ground attack specification. Douglas submitted a land-based version of their F3D Skyknight, and Northrop submitted three designs- a refined version of the P-61 Black Widow, one based on the XP-79 flying wing fighter, and an all-new twinjet design. 

The political winds of change meant that the USAAF favored Curtiss heavily for the reasons that the previously dominant aircraft manufacturer had no contracts to sustain it in the postwar period and no civilian designs readily available for the growing passenger market. What was left of the funding for the XA-43 project was used to contract with Curtiss for prototypes of their design to be designated the XP-87. But the USAAF was sufficiently interested in Northrop's all-new twinjet design to contract for prototypes of that design as well to be designated XP-89. The USAAF also contracted with Martin Aircraft for a nose mounted turret that would allow the cannons to be swiveled to off-center targets that was to be fitted to both the XP-87 and XP-89. 

The XA-43. Note the differences from the XP-87 design.
(The Unwanted Blog at up-ship.com)
The designation XA-43 is often and mistakenly used interchangeably with the XP-87 designation- they were in fact two different aircraft that only resembled each other in basic layout. The XA-43 had a tandem cockpit, oval cross-section nacelles that were mounted inline with the wing, and was 65% larger than the XP-87 which had a side-by-side cockpit, rectangular nacelles under the wing. The XA-43's horizontal tail was low set and the design also featured a tail gun. The fact that the first XP-87 prototype was contracted with XA-43 funding led to the confusion that still is seen to this day. The XA-43 was ordered in November 1944 for a jet-powered ground attack bomber but it soon outgrew its proposed powerplants. By the time of the all-weather fighter RfP, the USAAF had lost interest in the XA-43 and allowed Curtiss to redirect its XA-43 efforts to the XP-87. But since policy of the time dictated two prototype aircraft in case of the loss of one, the original XA-43 contract was amended to allow for the construction of a second XP-87 prototype. In August 1946 Curtiss requested to name the XP-87 the Bat, but as there was already a US Navy glide bomb called the Bat, the request was turned down and a month later the XP-87 was given the name Blackhawk. 

By 1947 a review was underway to determine which of the fighters under development at the time might be suitable as a tactical reconnaissance aircraft- due to the size and carrying capacity of the XP-87, it was decided that it would also be developed into a reconnaissance version designated the RP-87. In order to not slow down the development, Curtiss was to complete both prototypes as all-weather fighters and then convert the second aircraft into the reconnaissance configuration at the completion of the prototype flight tests. In June 1947 Curtiss raised concerns with the USAAF on the power output of using four Westinghouse J34 engines in the paired nacelles and suggested changing to the Allison J33 as a single J33 engine had the power of two J34s not to mention the simplification of maintenance having only two engines instead of four. The change was approved for the production model but the prototypes would be completed with the four J34 engines. 

Only the XP-87 prototypes were to have four paired engines
(USAF Museum)
The first prototype was built at Curtiss' production facility in Columbus, Ohio, that once housed wartime production of the SB2C Helldiver. Taxi testing and ground tests took place at Columbus, but the USAAF wanted all flight testing to occur at Muroc AAF (later renamed Edwards AFB) in California. The first XP-87 was partially disassembled and loaded onto a trailer for transport to California- on going under the first highway overpass near the Columbus plant, the height was misjudged and the vertical fin hit the overpass, resulting in significant damage. With the damaged fin removed, he convoy headed out again and outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma got into an accident that damaged the nacelle for the left two engines. It was felt repairs could be made at Muroc and after month, the convoy reached the base where a new vertical fin and a team of  engineers were waiting to repair the prototype. The first flight was finally made on 1 March 1948 on a reasonably uneventful 58-minute maiden flight. The next several flights discovered buffeting in the tail due to it having a lower critical Mach number than the rest of the aircraft. Curtiss proposed a redesigned swept empennage for the production aircraft that was also duly approved by the USAAF. A total of 55 contractor test flights were made with the Blackhawk prototype and the flights confirmed the need to change to the Allison J33 on the production fighter- the Westinghouse J34s were unreliable and needed constant repair and replacement. By the time of the next series of flights with service test pilots, the USAAF was now the US Air Force and the first USAF flights were made on 3 June 1948. A week later the USAF placed a preliminary order for 57 P-87B Blackhawks (J33 engines and swept empennage were features of the production "B" version) and 30 RP-87B photo-recon aircraft. The following day the USAF switched from P-for-pursuit to F-for-fighter, the Blackhawk becoming the XF-87.

The now-designated XF-87 from the rear
(USAF Museum)
After 19 USAF test flights, a recommendation was made to Curtiss for a slightly larger wing to help reduce the stall speed and it was agreed that the second prototype XF-87 under construction would have the larger wing, the J33 engines, the swept empennage and reconnaissance modifications and would be designated XF-87C. In October 1948 the USAF held a fly-off evaluation with the XF-87 Blackhawk prototype, the Northrop XF-89 which got the name Scorpion, and a borrowed Navy F3D Skyknight to represent the Douglas submission as it was felt the Douglas design was close enough to the production Skyknight that it could act as a stand-in. With pilots of the Air Defense Command participating, while the XF-87 Blackhawk and F3D Skyknight had their strong points (side-by-side seating being one of the strongest suits of both designs in the opinion of the ADC pilots), the Northrop XF-89 Scorpion came out overall ahead in the evaluation and it was selected for production as having the best development potential. 

It was a crushing blow for Curtiss-Wright as the XF-87 was its only postwar jet design to take to the air. The Navy had canceled the XF15C mixed-propulsion fighter a few years earlier after only three examples were built. The company, in effect, was betting its future as an aircraft manufacturer on the XF-87 Blackhawk. The first prototype was  ferried to Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio in December 1948 and was eventually scrapped by 1950. The second unfinished prototype was never completed and what was done got parted out for other projects that the company was attempting. With no other designs in advanced development, Curtiss-Wright was forced to shut down its Airplane Division and its assets were sold to North American Aircraft and the Columbus plant would be used for the manufacture of the F-86 Sabre. Curtiss-Wright's propeller division remained active into the 1960s and was responsible for the X-19 radial lift test aircraft. Some feel the X-19 was Curtiss' last aircraft design, but in reality it was the XF-87 Blackhawk that represented the end of the line for Curtiss-Wright Aircraft, a company that just ten years earlier was one of the dominant aircraft manufacturers of the United States. 
Source: Experimental & Prototype U.S.Air Force Jet Fightersby Dennis R. Jenkins and Tony R. Landis. Specialty Press, 2008, p95-101. 

02 February 2016

Amidst Internal Turmoil, TWA Orders the Boeing 727

Trans World Airlines' first Boeing 727-100 and 727-200
(The Chicken Works: The Aviation Art of JP Santiago)
TWA launched its first jet services on 25 January 1959 between New York Idlewild-San Francisco with the Boeing 707 in competition with American Airlines' launch of 707 services between New York Idlewild and Los Angeles. Howard Hughes pushed TWA's finances to the limit to get into jets and while the arrival of the Jet Age to TWA marked the beginning of its zenith, it also laid the groundwork for Howard Hughes' eventual exit from TWA despite the near-limitless capital that he could access from his own parent company, Hughes Toolco. In February 1956 he ordered eight Boeing 707-120s, then followed in June 1956 with an order for 30 Convair 880s, and then 25 more Boeing 707s in May 1957. The value of these three orders was $300 million for the 63 jets, quite a large sum for those days. TWA raised additional funds with a one-to-one stock offering underwritten by Hughes Toolco that also gave Hughes 77% control of the airline. But the money raised from the stock offer wasn't enough and it looked like TWA couldn't meet its payroll obligations for the first quarter of 1958- Hughes borrowed $12 million from the banks, but at this point, one of TWA's original 1945 backers, Equitable Life, wanted a long term financing plan for the 63-jet order as it was getting nervous about Hughes' borrowing to meet basic costs like payroll. 

To ease the creditors, Hughes had Toolco accept the obligations for the jet order who in turn would lease the aircraft to TWA. Aircraft orders were swapped with Pan American (something that pained Hughes to have to approach his rival Juan Trippe to help TWA out) and the Convair order was cut to 20 aircraft. It still wasn't enough and some of Hughes' banks cut off his credit in March 1960. With the other creditors, a short term financing plan was arranged to allow TWA to keep operating provided Toolco assumed all financial liabilities for the airline as long as there was a change in management at TWA. To further put the brakes on Hughes, his shares in TWA were put into a voting trust which essentially (and controversially for the day) locked out Hughes from the airline. While a financing plan agreeable to all the parties was eventually settled upon at the end of 1960, Hughes still found himself shut out of TWA and for six years lawsuit and countersuit after another were filed as he tried to regain control of TWA. He would finally give up in 1966 when in May of that year Hughes Toolco sold off its entire share of TWA stock and he was out of the airline business for the time being - four years later he bought Air West, but that's a topic for a future article!

Despite the legal battle over leadership and control over TWA, the airline still held gravitas in the airline market and with the traveling public, managing to overtake Pan Am in 1969 in numbers of passengers flown across the Atlantic. Despite Hughes' virtual ouster in 1960, TWA's managers realized they had something that rival Pan Am didn't- a domestic route network and it was high time on the heels of the launch of 707 services to bring short haul jet service to TWA's network. In 1961 TWA had ordered 10 Sud-Aviation Caravelles that would have been powered by GE aft fan CJ805 engines, but that order was canceled in May 1962 when Boeing's 727-100 offered greater promise; in fact, TWA had already ordered the Boeing 727-100 (10 aircraft) in March 1962 while it still had the Caravelle order in place. The airline's first two Boeing 727-100s were delivered on the same day, N850TW and N851TW which were delivered on 29 April 1964 with the first 727-100 services started on 1 June 1964 with two daily round trips between New York JFK and Indianapolis with services expanding to Boston, St. Louis, and Kansas City on 5 June. On 1 July 1964, TWA returned to New York La Guardia with four 727 flights per day. By the end of 1964, the 100th jet aircraft in TWA's fleet was in fact a Boeing 727-100 which the airline dubbed the "Jetennial" plane. By the end of 1964, TWA already had sixteen 727-100s in service. 

TWA's 100th Jet was a Boeing 727-100
(TWA Skyliners Collection)
N850TW along with N851TW were TWA's first 727 jets
(The Chicken Works: The Aviation Art of JP Santiago)
The delivery of the Boeing 727-100s allowed TWA to finally retire its last passenger Lockheed Constellations on 6 April 1967 and become the first all-pure jet major airline in the United States. The last cargo Constellations were retired in the following month (12 May) with the introduction of six examples of "quick change" 727-100QC variant in the airline's fleet. The -100QCs were ordered in 1965. 
N12301 was TWA's first Boeing 727-200
(The Chicken Works: The Aviation Art of JP Santiago)
With the 727-100 and the new Douglas DC-9 now flying short/medium jet services, in March 1968 TWA added the larger Boeing 727-200 to its fleet, the first -200 being N12301, delivered on 6 March 1968. Over its history, TWA's 727s were a vital backbone of its fleet with a total of 36 727-100s and 78 727-200s operated total- in fact, the 727 served longer with TWA than any other aircraft type used on a continuous basis by the airline. The Lockheed Constellation family, from the short body L-749 to the L-1649 Starliner, served for about 20 years. The Boeing 707s nearly served 25 years. The 727 at TWA outlasted the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar by nine years and the Boeing 747 by about seven years. The last 727 service at TWA took place on 30 September 2000, a remarkable 36-year history with the venerable trijet with the airline. 

Related reading: 

The TWA Starstream 727 print can be seen in more detail here. Contact me at thechickenworks@gmail.com for details. 

Sources: TWA Skyliner Collection, The State Historical Society of Missouri. TWA: An Airline and Its Aircraft 75 Years of Pioneering Progress by R.E.G. Davies. Palawdr Press, 2000, p75-81.