The Evolution Of World War II Fighter Aircraft

Japanese Invade Manchuria 1931

Japanese soldiers line-up for attack in China

Interwar Years

P-26 Peashooter, single-seat, single-engine, single-wing, fighter

(Boeing P-26 ) In the two decades between the end of World War I and the start of World War II, military aviation underwent a complete transformation. The typical combat aircraft of 1918 was a fabric-covered externally braced biplane with fixed landing gear and open cockpits. Few aero engines developed as much as 250 horsepower, and top speeds of 200 km (120 miles) per hour were exceptional. By 1939 the first-line combat aircraft of the major powers were all-metal monoplanes with retractable landing gear. America's Army Air Service's first foray into a single-wing fighter was the Boeing P-26 Peashooter Powered by engines that developed 1,000 horsepower or more and that were supercharged to permit flight at altitudes above 9,000 metres (30,000 feet), fighters were capable of exceeding 560 km (350 miles) per hour, and some bombers flew faster than 400 km (250 miles) per hour.

Gyroscopically driven flight instruments and electrical cockpit lighting permitted flying at night and in adverse weather. Crews were seated in enclosed cockpits, were provided with oxygen for breathing at high altitudes, and could converse with other aircraft and ground stations by voice radio. Parachutes, worn by a few German fighter pilots in the last days of World War I, were standard equipment. Most of these changes occurred after 1930. The end of World War I left the victorious Allies with huge inventories of military aircraft, and this combined with economic strictures and a lack of threat to retard the development of military aviation in the 1920s. Provisions of the Treaty of Versailles prohibiting developments in military aviation had the same effect in Germany. Nevertheless, advances in key technologies, notably high-performance aero engines, continued.

The U.S. government, for instance, sponsored a systematic program of aerodynamic research under the aegis of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which was to yield enormous dividends in aircraft performance through drag-reduction, engine-cooling, and airfoil technologies. Still, the most significant technical advance in the 1920s was the abandonment of wooden structures in favour of metal frames (still fabric-covered) to provide the strength needed to cope with increasingly powerful engines and to resist harsh climates around the world.

End Of A Era

F3F, single-seat, single-engine, Biplane, fighter

Grumman (F3F) In the years following the end of the First World War, it was clear to military planners that the aeroplane would play a significant role in any future conflict and aviation development continued apace. Britain was a world leader in the field of aviation technology and the period between the two world wars is regarded as something of a golden era, both for the British aviation industry and aircraft development in general. Large numbers of new and improved aircraft designs were developed by a multitude of aviation manufacturing companies, as there seemed to be an unquenchable desire for bigger, faster and more capable aeroplanes. At a time when style seemed to be all important, some of the aircraft produced during this period were arguably the most aesthetically pleasing machines that ever took to the skies.

Throughout the history of aviation development, there has been one attribute that has captivated designers and pilots alike more than any other – speed! Over the battlefields of Western Europe during the Great War, it soon became apparent that successful air operations in a combat zone would depend on your ability to muster an effective force of fighter aircraft that could defend your own airspace and contest that of the enemy. The strategic introduction of the aeroplane was to allow military planners to obtain an aerial view of the battlefield, so they could better understand the situation and make more effective decisions. As this was valuable information for all the combatant nations, the ability to deny your enemy this information became of vital importance and the sedate reconnaissance flying of the early war gave way to savage aerial duels above the trenches. When the United States Navy (USN) adopted the Grumman F3F series it took on its last biplane-arranged fighter before moving on to more modern monoplane forms. 147 of the type were produced by Grumman who was establishing itself as a regular USN contributor with a relationship that would last well into the Cold War years. Manufacture spanned from 1936 into 1939

A New King Of The Sea

USS Langley, Aircraft Carrier, USN Brewster Buffalo, single-seat, single-engine, single-wing, fighter

(USS Langley and F2 Brewster Buffalo) Aircraft carriers are warships that evolved from balloon-carrying wooden vessels into nuclear-powered vessels carrying scores of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. Since their introduction they have allowed naval forces to project air power great distances without having to depend on local bases for staging aircraft operations. Balloon carriers were the first ships to deploy manned aircraft, used during the 19th and early 20th century, mainly for observation purposes. The advent of fixed-wing aircraft in 1903 was followed in 1910 by the first flight from the deck of a US Navy cruiser. Seaplanes and seaplane tender support ships, such as HMS Engadine followed.

Most early aircraft carriers were conversions of ships that were laid down (or had even served) as different ship types: cargo ships, cruisers, battlecruisers, or battleships. During the 1920s, several navies started ordering and building aircraft carriers that were specifically designed as such. This allowed the design to be specialized to their future role, and resulted in superior ships. During the Second World War, these ships would become the backbone of the carrier forces of the US, British, and Japanese navies, known as fleet carriers.

As heavier-than-air aircraft developed in the early 20th century, various navies began to take an interest in their potential use as scouts for their big gun warships. In 1909 the French inventor Clément Ader published in his book L'Aviation Militaire the description of a ship to operate airplanes at sea, with a flat flight deck, an island superstructure, deck elevators and a hangar bay. That year the US Naval Attaché in Paris sent a report on his observations. A number of experimental flights were made to test the concept. Eugene Ely was the first pilot to launch from a stationary ship in November 1910. He took off from a structure fixed over the forecastle of the US armored cruiser USS Birmingham at Hampton Roads, Virginia and landed nearby on Willoughby Spit after some five minutes in the air.On 18 January 1911, he became the first pilot to land on a stationary ship. He took off from the Tanforan racetrack and landed on a similar temporary structure on the aft of USS Pennsylvania anchored at the San Francisco waterfront—the improvised braking system of sandbags and ropes led directly to the arrestor hook and wires described below. His aircraft was then turned around and he was able to take off again.

The British in particular demonstrated that carriers (and shipboard aircraft in general) had become a necessary part of fleets. They seemed so important that the Royal Navy chose to complete a new battleship, HMS Eagle as a carrier (her sister ship was the battleship HMS Canada). The “large light cruiser” Furious received first a flying-off deck forward (in place of one of her two 18-inch guns) and then a flying-on deck aft. She was the scene of the first British carrier landing, in 1917, but the air eddying around her superstructure caused serious problems, including the death of the first carrier-landing pilot. The British also laid down a cruiser-size carrier, HMS Hermes . The first ship to be designed as a carrier from the outset, she showed her importance to the Royal Navy in that the resources she consumed could alternatively have gone into a heavy cruiser. At the same time, all British capital ships were fitted with flying-off platforms for fighters.

Winds Of War

Polikarpov-1-16, single-wing, single-sear, single-engine, fighter

(Soviet Polikarpov 1-16) The widespread prosperity of the 1920s ended abruptly with the stock market crash in October 1929 and the great economic depression that followed. The depression threatened people's jobs, savings, and even their homes and farms. At the depths of the depression, over one-quarter of the American workforce was out of work. For many Americans, these were hard times. The economic troubles of the 1930s were worldwide in scope and effect. Economic instability led to political instability in many parts of the world. Political chaos, in turn, gave rise to dictatorial regimes such as Adolf Hitler's in Germany and the military's in Japan.

The number of persons killed in the Spanish Civil War can be only roughly estimated. Nationalist forces put the figure at 1,000,000, including not only those killed in battle but also the victims of bombardment, execution, and assassination. More recent estimates have been closer to 500,000 or less. This does not include all those who died from malnutrition, starvation, and war-engendered disease.

Totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union and Italy predated the depression. These regimes pushed the world ever-closer to war in the 1930s. When world war finally broke out in both Europe and Asia, the United States tried to avoid being drawn into the conflict. But so powerful and influential a nation as the United States could scarcely avoid involvement for long military revolt against the Republican government of Spain supported by conservative elements within the country. When an initial military coup failed to win control of the entire country, a bloody civil war ensued, fought with great ferocity on both sides. The Nationalists received aid from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The Republicans received aid from the Soviet Union as well as from the International Brigades, composed of volunteers from Europe and the United States.For Germany and Italy, Spain was a testing ground for new methods of tank and air warfare.

Trouble In The East

Japanese Kawanishi-N1K, single-seat, single-wiMarco Polo Bridge Incidentng, single-engine, fighter

(Japanese Kawanishi-N1K) The Second Sino-Japanese War began on 7 July 1937 with the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in the Republic of China. The war, by some seen as the start of World War II, ended when the Empire of Japan surrendered to the Allies in August 1945. By the end of July 1937, fighting had escalated into a full-scale war and both countries deployed their air forces, ground troops, and warships into combat. Japanese heavy bombers also extensively bombed Chinese factories, airfields and conducted the first major air-raids against civilian targets in the war. At the outset of war, China primarily relied on foreign countries for its military aircraft, but did produce about 100 Hawk II/III fighter-bombers at the Hangzhou-based CAMCO plant. 15 Chinese-American pilots formed the first unofficial volunteer group of pilots and joined front-line air units in China beginning as early as 1932 in anticipation of imminent war with Imperial Japan. These volunteers included future ace-fighter pilots, Arthur Chin, Xinrui "Buffalo" Huang and John Wong. Both the Soviet Union and the United States came to China's aid by supplying aircraft and providing training to Chinese pilots.

On 14 August 1937 the Chinese Air Force fighter squadrons sortied for the defense of Shanghai and Nanjing, capital of the Republic of China. In the afternoon of 14 August 1937, two groups of nine Japanese Mitsubishi G3M long-range bombers were launched from Japanese-occupied Taiwan on a mission to bomb Jianqiao Airfield in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, and Guangde Airfield in Anhui. The 21st and 23rd Squadrons, led by Kao Chih-hang , the Group Commander of the Chinese 4th Pursuit Group , took off from Jianqiao Airfield to intercept the Japanese bombers, despite the fact that some of the fighters had just flown in from Zhoukou and had not been refueled. Kao attacked a G3M bomber and scored a direct hit sending it plummeting to the ground in flames, and he also damaged another G3M bomber; it was the first air-to-air victory for the Chinese Air Force.

image of Arthur Chin, Chinese-American pilot who flew for the Chinese Air Force

(Arthur Chin) On Aug. 3, 1938 Arthur Chin led a group of seven Gladiator biplanes from the Chinese Nationalist air force’s 28th Pursuit Squadron against a formation of much more advanced Japanese A5M fighters In the sky over China’s Hubei province, Chin fought off several of the A5Ms. His own aircraft took fire from the rear. Luckily for him, one of his aircraft mechanics had salvaged a piece of armor plating from a wrecked I-15bis fighter and installed it behind his seat before the mission. The plate likely saved his life. Chin would later recall hearing shells ricocheting behind him. Sensing heavy damage to his mount, Chin concluded that his fighter was beyond saving. He decided to ram the closest enemy fighter. By a stroke of luck, he was able to both strike his target and bail out of the doomed plane. His actions that day would make him a legend to fellow pilots, but few Americans have heard of Chin—even though he’s now considered the first American fighter ace of World War II. Born in Portland, Oregon to a Chinese father and a Peruvian mother, Chin was part of group of oft-forgotten Chinese-Americans who volunteered for duty with the Chinese Nationalists to fight the Japanese Empire. Motivated by Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, in 1932 Chin and other 13 young Chinese-Americans enrolled in the Al Greenwood flying school in Portland with plans to fight for their ancestral homeland. Flight school was expensive, so the local Chinese community paid many of the young men’s tuition and fees.