Category Archives: Aviation

Spin Recovery in the P-39

The first time I was in a spin it was in a sailplane with very docile handling characteristics, the Schweizer 2-33. Spin recovery is a necessary skill to master in a sailplane, since you spend a lot of time turning inside a thermal a few miles an hour above stall speed. Misjudge that, let your speed drop, tighten the turn a little bit too much, and you depart controlled flight.

But not to worry, not in the 2-33. Center the controls to break the rotation, stick a little forward to pick up airspeed, and the sailplane is flying again.

That’s two pretty simple, even instinctive moves. You can do it in a second or less.

The pilot’s manual for the P-39 Airacobra sets out a recovery technique that’s a little more complicated. There are two phases, pre-recovery and recovery. In the pre-recovery phase, the pilot has to close the throttle, set the propeller control to the low RPM position, and pull the control stick into your lap. Get it? The throttle is at your left hand, the propeller control is just behind the throttle, so that’s a one-two movement as you pull the stick back into your lap.

Now remember the airplane is not in a controlled maneuver. The manual describes the spin as being oscillatory in rate. Sometimes it spins fast, sometimes it spins slow. You don’t have any control over the rate. You have to decide when the airplane is slowing down or speeding up. You have to know that because, to effect recovery, you have to apply full opposite rudder when spin is at its slowest. All this time your surroundings — clouds, ground, horizon — are spinning around you. Imagine standing on one of those old playground merry-go-rounds, right in the center, as your friends push on it to make it go faster. That’s a start on what it would be like, except this spin happens in three dimensions, not two. So you wait for the rudder to take effect and push the stick full forward while applying ailerons against the spin. The actual language used in the manual is interesting: “The spin is usually oscillatory in rate, and it is mandatory that the opposite rudder be applied when the spin is at its slowest.” I particularly like that word “mandatory.” It’s the sort of emphasis you don’t often find in a pilot’s manual.

If you follow the procedure above, “…the airplane will recover in one-half turn. If the procedure is not followed closely, the airplane may not recover.” I think the implications of that last sentence deserve examination. You must follow the procedure closely, i.e., you do exactly what the manual says, or you’re going in.

No wonder the manual begins the section on spins with the statement “Deliberate spinning is not recommended.”

Just for a little context, follow the link below, which takes you to a War Department film on spin and tumble tests in the P-39. Bell Aircraft test pilots did these tests because pilots flying the P-39 insisted that the airplane would, in the right circumstances, literally tumble end over end.  You’ll probably also see why the manual included words like “mandatory” and “closely.”

 

 

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Looking Forward with the Past

As readers of my previous post on this blog know, Boxcar Red Leader is now available on Kindle as an ebook and via KENP. It’s also available via CreateSpace as a paperback. Sales are not in the NYTBS range…yet! Many thanks to those of you who purchased and read the book, and the other two in the series so far. Please, tell all your friends, and if you feel so inclined write a review of the books on Amazon. You have no idea how much it helps!

So that’s one piece of news, and the other is about the two subsequent books in the series:  Thanks for the Memories and The New Boys. Not going to give anything away, but the survivors of the first three books will continue in those two volumes.

So, a little historical context:

Thanks for the Memories takes place in the summer and fall of 1942 in New Guinea. The Japanese, having been turned back at the Battle of the Coral Sea, and having suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Midway, are still nowhere close to being defeated. Allied forces in the South and Southwest Pacific theaters still operate on the slimmest of shoestrings. Yet with the resources at their disposal they must find a way not only to hold their ground but begin rolling back the might of the Japanese Empire.

In some ways that sounds like alternate history, doesn’t it? “The might of the Japanese Empire.” But any student of history will assure you, there was nothing “alternate” about the Japanese Army and Navy — particularly their Navy! — in 1942. Allied victory at Midway turned on the slimmest of margins; in five minutes, Dauntless dive bombers turned three Japanese carriers into blazing wrecks and salvaged victory from what was shaping up as a major defeat. Those five minutes in many ways overshadowed the valor of American airmen, mostly Navy but also Air Corps, who gave their lives and their blood in attacks foiled by flak and Zeros.

Torpedo Squadron Eight, for example, was nearly wiped out at Midway. Their commanding officer, John Waldron, was one of the first to go. Despite the death of their commanding officer, VT-8 pressed home their attack against odds that were literally, obviously, suicidal. Only a single man, Ensign George Gay, survived. His survival and rescue were flukes of pure luck.

The Japanese who witnessed the attack said that Torpedo Eight came on like samurai.

This type of courage was seen again and again in the Pacific.

That’s the war of Everything We Had, A Snowball’s Chance, Boxcar Red Leader, and Thanks for the Memories. Well, OK, so it’s a land war a long way to the south of Midway. The spirit was, is, the same.

But with The New Boys we’ll start looking across the Atlantic, to the war in Europe. That, of course, will be new ground entirely. Other books are in the research and planning stages.

While I get busy writing those two, everyone enjoy Boxcar Red Leader! Don’t feel shy about dropping me a line here to tell me what you think.

Thanks again!

— Tom Burkhalter

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Airplanes in My Novels: the Much-Maligned Bell P-39

Bell_P-39_Airacobra_in_flight_firing_all_weapons_at_night

Bell P-39 night-firing. Note engine exhausts and air scoop behind the cockpit. Wing guns are .30-cal., the two guns firing through the propeller are .50-cal., and the 37-mm cannon is firing through the prop spinner.

Before I started writing Boxcar Red Leader, I knew there was an airplane called the P-39, that it was built by Bell Aircraft, and was fairly unique among fighter designs of the era in having tricycle landing gear and the engine mounted in the fuselage behind the pilot, to leave room in the nose of the airplane for a 37-mm cannon. The propeller driveshaft passed from the engine behind the cockpit, under the pilot’s seat, and connected to a gearbox that drove the propeller. The P-39 was a contemporary of the far-better-known Curtiss P-40. I also knew the airplane was called the “Iron Dog” and there seemed to be a sizable contingent of former P-39 pilots who actively disliked the airplane. There’s even a verse about it, in the old Air Corps folk song “Give Me Operations:”

Oh, don’t give me a P-39
The engine is mounted behind
She’ll stall and she’ll spin
And she’ll auger you in
Don’t give me a P-39!

Evidently the center of gravity and the center of lift in the P-39 were in a very sensitive relationship, far more so than in other, more conventional airplanes. This resulted in an airplane very sensitive to pitch inputs, such that only very small increments of elevator control were needed to effect pitch change. This goes directly to the “she’ll stall and she’ll spin” verse above. When pulling gee in a tight turn one pulls back on the stick; if not done with skill, the turn will tighten to the point where the g-load exceeds the lift generated by the wings, causing what is known as an “accelerated stall.” Entering a stall from a turn will lead to a spin, and evidently the P-39 had interesting spin characteristics, to the point where many pilots were convinced the airplane would actually tumble end over end.

On the other hand, there were pilots who absolutely loved the Airacobra. Chuck Yeager flew the airplane in training, loved it, and relates in his autobiography a conversation he once had with a Russian pilot who flew the P-39 – successfully! – against the Luftwaffe. Edwards Park flew the P-39 in New Guinea, and his account of that time is written in his book, Nanette: Her Pilot’s Love Story, a narrative I recommend as one of the best books about flying I’ve ever read.

My perception is that much of the dislike directed at the P-39 resulted from the pilots who were thrown into the airplane straight out of flight school and then expected to fly the P-39 against the experienced Zero pilots of the Imperial Japanese Navy in the skies over New Guinea. Most of these pilots had never flown an airplane more powerful or faster than an AT-6 trainer. Later in the war pilots like this would be sent to an OTU, or Operational Training Unit, to encounter the P-39 or P-40 under the relatively benign conditions of a stateside training base. In the Pacific, in 1942, kids fresh out of flying school were put in P-39s and P-40s and sent out against the Japanese. The loss rate, from accidents and combat, was horrendous.

The P-39, like the P-40, was equipped with the Allison V-1710 engine. The V-1710 was a fairly good engine, but in the P-39 and the P-40 it had only a single-stage supercharger, and, as a result, the performance of both airplanes fell off sharply above 17,000 feet. If what you have to defend Port Moresby and Seven-Mile Drome from Jap bombers flying at 23,000 feet is a P-39, you face a difficult tactical problem, one not helped by the fact that the defenders of Seven-Mile rarely had enough warning to climb high enough to intercept Japanese bombers with any hope of success.

Between the high loss rate and the poor performance, compared to the A6M2 Zero fighter the P-39 found itself matched against, it’s no wonder the pilots disliked the airplane.

Still, I kind of like the P-39. I’ll never have a chance to fly one, to see for myself just how sensitive and well-balanced those controls are, or if she really will tumble, but there’s something about the way the airplane looks.

Over and above any of that, the P-39 was one of the two pursuit airplanes the Army Air Forces had at the beginning of World War Two available in significant numbers. It didn’t matter, from that perspective, how the pilots felt about the airplanes. It was what they had.

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Airplanes In My Novels: the Curtiss P-40

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Curtiss P-40E pursuits peel off after a target below. USAF photo in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Jack Davis flies the Curtiss P-40E in both Everything We Had and the second novel in the series, A Snowball’s Chance, under production as I write this post.

The Curtiss P-40 was America’s front-line pursuit airplane in 1941. It wasn’t as fast or glamorous as the RAF’s Supermarine Spitfire or the Luftwaffe’s Bf-109E. Development of those two airplanes kept them operationally viable through 1945, but the P-40’s performance remained more or less the same from the P-40B through the P-40N. Even changing the Allison V-1710 engine for the Rolls-Royce Merlin in the P-40F didn’t improve that performance. A nearly complete redesign of the P-40, the P-40Q, resulted in an airplane with a top speed of 400 mph, but by then the war was nearly over and the other pursuit types in USAAF service – the P-38, P-47 and P-51, not to mention the first generation of jet fighters like the Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star – were superior in almost every way.

20th_Pursuit_Squadron_Curtiss_P-40B_Warhawks_Nichols_Field,_Luzon,_Philippines (1)

Curtiss P-40B pursuits of the 20th Pursuit Squadron at Nichols Field in the Philippines before the beginning of the war. USAF photo in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The P-40 had two major virtues for a pursuit airplane in 1941 and 1942: first, it was competitive with the Japanese Zero, and second, maybe more important, it was what we had in quantity to equip our own pursuit groups and send overseas to our Allies. In North Africa, the P-40 was used extensively and successfully as a fighter-bomber. In China, the record of the American Volunteer Group (better known as the Flying Tigers) was compiled using a handful of obsolescent P-40B models, the same airplane that equipped the 20th Pursuit Squadron in the Philippines.

The P-40E equipped most of the USAAF pursuit squadrons sent to the Southwest Pacific in 1941 and 1942. For fighting Zeros it was adequate, being as fast as the Zero in level flight and able to break off combat with the Zero by diving away. The Zero wasn’t known for being sturdy, and would come apart under punishment that the P-40, or any other American combat airplane, would simply shrug off.

At the time of Everything We Had, the P-38 was only beginning to become available, and was still overcoming problems associated with compressibility issues at high speeds. The P-38 was the first airplane to encounter Mach buffet, a phenomenon poorly understood in 1941 or for some years afterward. The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt was in development but wouldn’t be available in any numbers until 1943. The P-51 Mustang was originally designed for the RAF as a substitute for the P-40, and was also still in development.

So the P-40 was the only pursuit, other than the Bell P-39 Airacobra, available in any numbers to equip the USAAF. As for the P-39, stay tuned. I’ll talk about that airplane sometime before Christmas, when Boxcar Red Leader, the third book in the series, comes out.

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East to the Dawn — A Review

Usually I don’t read biographies. I made an exception for Susan Butler’s East to the Dawn – the Life of Amelia Earhart because of, well, Amelia Earhart.

Amelia has always been a favorite of mine. I remember reading her chapter in a book by Robert S. Owen, They Flew to Fame, when I was nine or ten years old. It was the chapter just after Lindbergh’s which, in retrospect, seems fitting.

I confess I found the story of Amelia’s early life a little slow. That’s not Ms. Butler’s fault; a person’s life moves at its own pace, and even Amelia’s was no exception. There were still interesting things to be found in the first half of the book; I knew Amelia had been a social worker, but I had no idea at ten what a “social worker” was (except for the reference in a song from “West Side Story”) or the fact that in the mid-20s it was considered a cutting-edge career for women. I also didn’t know about the misfortunes of Amelia’s early family life, which I won’t go in to — read the book yourself.

I’m also not quite sure at what point I became enthralled with the book. It was probably when Ms. Butler pointed out that once Amelia made a success of herself as a social worker at the Denison House she could have had a brilliant career in that field, possibly living to a respected and accomplished old age. I simply hadn’t thought of that, and that point, the idea that an historical figure actually had choices, is not something that one sees brought out in biographies very often, because they are nearly always about people who are famous for doing something we already know about. For that reason choices made often seem the only ones possible; set in stone, or predestined, if you will. Ms. Butler avoids that, and her work is all the better for it.

From that point on the biography, already well done, became in my opinion inspired, and I began to consider what Ms. Butler had to put in to the writing.

I asked myself what caused the author to undertake the task of this book? Writing a fresh biography of a figure like Amelia Earhart, famous and well-known in her own time, the subject of many other biographies, is surely a daunting undertaking. Ms. Butler seems to have approached the task with a will. The level of effort employed is to be appreciated only by looking at the extensive notes and bibliography.

That level of effort involved many interviews with people still living who knew Amelia; a search through previously unpublished contemporary records, such as diaries, journals and letters, the mere ferreting out of which in itself had to be a monumental task; searching through records official and unofficial. Merely compiling the data alone is a task involving years of focus, discipline and purpose.

One might say such an effort has elements of obsession, but I see obsession as a negative quality, and there is nothing of the negative in the quality of Ms. Butler’s work. It is rather a work of love, undertaken in the spirit of a duty one sometimes finds oneself selected to bear, the duty of bringing witness to greatness.

No one can write words that put us inside the skin of another, and if they could that still might not be the greatest artistry. The great writer, in whatever form, through words creates a platform of the imagination which strikes in the mind and soul of the reader sparks of sympathy, empathy and compassion, a light in that darkness surrounding our souls that permits us a glimpse, a trembling glimpse across an awful void, to where the soul of another may be discerned.

So it is with this biography.

Quite aside from anything else, as an aviation enthusiast I found Ms. Butler’s anecdotes of the aviation community of the 1920s and 1930s to be fascinating and informative. Her account of Amelia’s last flight, particularly the last legs from Java and New Guinea to remote Howland Island, was poignant, the last line of that chapter heart-wrenching for anyone who has ever flown.

Need I add that I thoroughly recommend this work?

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Women: Tough as Hell

Recently the writers group I belong to discussed the issue of creating strong female characters in atypical female roles.  I have a character, a female police officer, that’s been giving me fits for years.  She just feels like cardboard to me, and I know I’m missing something in the way I write about her.  And of course that night our female members were not in attendance.  Alas.  Men talking about women can be a one-dimensional experience.

As a coincidence, though, this last week I came across a blog by Carey Lohrenz.  Ms. Lohrenz was the second female naval aviator “accepted” into the F-14 fighter community.  Here’s a chance to look into the issue, I thought, and for those of you who are interested, here’s the URL for the blog:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carey-d-lohrenz/military-women-pilots-veterans_b_1516021.html#es_share_ended.

Thinking about Lt. Lohrenz’s career problems made me remember another excellent female pilot community, the WASPs of World War II.  The RAF had a similar outfit that did the same job: ferrying aircraft from the factory to embarkation points or airbases, maintenance test flights, all the aviation drudge work that would free up male pilots for the “stress of combat” that supposedly women just can’t handle.  Women, in both the US and England, were forbidden to go into combat; it was simply too tough for them, and they’d never stand up to it.  In fact, in the US, male civilian pilots lobbied successfully to have the WASPs disbanded even before the end of World War II.  Too much (successful) competition, I guess.

Mm.  Wonder what a pioneer wife in the Arizona territory, say about 1870 during an Apache raid, would have said to women not being tough?

Thinking about the WASPs called up another memory.  General Charles “Chuck” Yeager was a fighter pilot in World War II and had twelve kills.  There were not that many male pilots who flew fighters that achieved even a single kill, much less the coveted five kills that made you an ace in the USAAF or the RAF.  (The Luftwaffe required ten kills.)  The tradition of five kills making an ace goes back to World War I, but that’s another story.

There was another pilot in World War II with twelve kills who deserves mention: Senior Lieutenant Lilya Litvyak of the V-VS, the Soviet Air Force.  Litvyak was first a member of the all-female 73rd Guards Fighter Regiment and was later transferred to a male unit.  She was wounded three times in the service of her country.  She received numerous awards for valor, including the Order of the Red Banner.  I’m no expert on Soviet military awards, but Wikipedia says it was the “highest award given by…the Soviet Union.”  That makes it at least the equivalent of the Distinguished Service Cross in this country; our Medal of Honor seems more the equivalent of the accolade “Hero of the Soviet Union,” which Litvyak received posthumously, like so many of our own Medal of Honor winners.  In Litvyak’s final fight, jumped by eight ME-109s, she was finally shot down and killed.

Litvyak’s best friend, Katya Budanova, was also an ace, with eleven kills, and like Litvyak was killed in action.

The Soviets had a number of female combat pilots.  One, Olga Yamshchikova, was credited with 17 kills.  Others flew the famed Il-2 Sturmovik attack aircraft.  The Sturmovik was essentially a piston-engined A-10 and flew the same sort of incredibly dangerous mission, low-level ground support.  One Soviet female pilot, Anna Yegorova, flew these missions in the Sturmovik throughout the war and was decorated three times for valor.

In World War II, the USAAF and the RAF decided that the effectiveness of aircrew decreased if they were required to simply keep going until the war ended or they were killed.  That was the reason for limiting the number of missions or combat hours a pilot was required to fly.  It was based on lessons learned by both air forces in World War One.  In the US Eighth Air Force, when losses were heavy at the beginning of the war, crews were required to fly 25 missions, and the survivors were often in bad shape.  Later, as the effective opposition of the Luftwaffe decreased, that mission total was increased to 35.  I’ve spoken with some of the survivors of these missions.  In their 80s, that experience is just as vivid and emotionally wrenching as it was in their 20s for many of them.

In the Soviet Air Force there wasn’t any such thing as a tour of duty.  You were there for the duration.  Surviving pilots, male and female, could have as many as 1000 missions in their logbooks.  There were plenty of women in the Soviet Air Force who could claim that distinction.  Those ladies must have been tough as hell.

What was it like, then, for those that were required to just keep flying?  What kept them going?  Because it would seem that we aren’t talking about male or female qualities here, but simply human qualities.  Why, then, should it be so important to deny that women have those qualities?

Nothing here should be construed as saying that the Russians are tougher than the Americans, or that women are necessarily tougher than men, but it amazes me that easily available history like this is ignored.  Facts, it would seem, are far less important than ideology.  Lt. Lohrenz’s career came to an end due to political chicanery by those whose agenda required women to be “kept in their place.”

The point is that we have no cultural referents that aid us, as writers, when we depict strong female characters in non-traditional roles.  Women who try to create such roles in real life and are too visible, like Lt. Lohrenz, become targets in no-holds-barred political dominance games.

History shows that our cultural stereotypes have nothing to do with truth or facts.  This being said, why do those stereotypes continue to exist?

Are men actually afraid of women?  That might be a question for all of us, male and female alike, to ponder.

As the title of this essay suggests, I believe women, potentially and often in fact, really are tough as hell.  That’s the first thing to remember, but darned if I can figure out what the second thing should be, or the third, to come up with a better idea for female characters.

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The Aviation Story in Fiction and Nonfiction

The Aviation Story in Fiction and Nonfiction.

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