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December 09, 2007

The 'Cuda That Couldn't

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

This time the picket ships did what they were supposed to, spotting the incoming bomber fleet and reporting position, vector and velocity -- unlike the sequence of errors two weeks previously that left the east side of Providence, Rhode Island in flames.

Within minutes, the squadron of long-range FM-1 interceptors was airborne from its Otis Field, Massachusetts base, slowly climbing and aimed for a point over the Atlantic that would be reached in two hours, placing them in position to attack the German bomber stream. If all went well, they would seriously thin the attackers who then would be largely finished off by shorter-range P-38s over Long Island a hundred miles short of their target, New York City.

. . . . .

Success! There were the Germans, about two miles to the south and 1,500 feet below, well away from any sheltering clouds. The FM-1 Airacudas banked right and assumed four "vics" of three attackers each -- but spread out more than the similar Hurricane formations that failed to successfully defend England two years earlier. The 'Cuda vics would attack in sequence and each aircraft would focus on its own target.

The squadron commander swiveled his head from side to side, making a final check of the 37-millimeter cannons and their loaders positioned in the front part of the engine nacelles mounted over each wing. Then he refined his course slightly before handing control over to the gunnery officer seated behind him. He also involuntary tried to make himself a smaller target for defensive machine-gun fire from the bombers even though there was an armor plate just ahead of the instrument panel and the center cockpit glazing panel was inch-thick armored glass.

The plane shuddered from the recoil of the cannons as each fired off ten rounds. A second later, the left wing of the target seemed to hinge upwards and then the aircraft rapidly dropped, the wings closing on one another like scissor blades. One of the cannon shells must have hit a wing spar.

The second bomber they attacked showed no sign of damage. Better luck with the third target: this time, the central part of the fuselage seemed to vaporize into flame. The commander instantly wrested control back and tried to maneuver the heavy interceptor away from the cloud of airborne debris the German bomber was rapidly becoming. Close call, but safely through. And also through the bomber formation. Now it was time to climb a few hundred feet and slow a little to let the bombers pass below. Then another attack could be made. Firing ten rounds each per target, the cannons had enough ammunition for 15 attacks. Provided, of course, that the Airacuda didn't get shot down by the defenders.

Well, that's the way I imagine how the Bell YFM-1 Airacuda was intended to perform.

Gallery

Bell%20Airacuda%20in%20flight.jpg

Bell%20Airacuda.jpg
Bell YFM-1 Airacuda
The aircraft in the upper photo is one of the last ones built. It lacks the "blister" machine-gun positions seen on the early version of the YFM-1, below. Other visible changes include the nose and cockpit glazing and the engine nacelle detailing. A major difference not visible in these photos is that the later Airacuda had tricycle landing gear -- the first ones were "tail-draggers." More photos can be found here

As it happened, the Germans never bombed the United States during World War 2. But they considered doing so, as this book indicates.

The Airacuda was the first effort of the new Bell Aircraft Corporation, an offshoot of Consolidated, a flying boats builder which moved from Buffalo and frozen Lake Erie to San Diego and its year-round warm waters. Bell's early products were flashy and radical for their time.

The Airacuda was huge for a fighter, being about the size of contemporary medium bombers. It had five crew members, two of whom were 37-millimeter cannon loaders stationed in glazed compartments in the nose of each nacelle containing a motor driving pusher-propellers. Every feature noted in the last sentence was unconventional.

This article is getting long, so I won't go into any more detail. Details and test-pilot observations can be found here (scroll down). But the aircraft can be described as underpowered, too slow for interceptor work, difficult to control and trouble-prone. Only about a dozen test-series planes were built.

Why was the ill-fated Airacuda project ever launched? I don't know for certain, though I suppose some sort of justification was presented for the Army to allocate funding. And even though there might be documents cached in a government archive, it's likely that written justification was only part of the picture. I wouldn't be surprised if a number of informal conversations amongst relevant officers dealt with concepts that shaped the place's specification. That said, here's my speculation:

In the mid-1930s there was no bomber, operational or prototype, that could carry out transatlantic bombing missions except, perhaps, as a one-way suicide sortie carrying a tiny bomb-load. Even ten years later, at the end of the war, no bombers capable of two-way missions were available, the U.S. intercontinental B-36 prototype not yet having left the factory. On the other hand, the Army had already commissioned Boeing to build the experimental long-range XB-15, so the Airacuda might have been regarded as a potential counter to possible similar projects by potential enemies. About the time the Airacuda first flew, a Russian aircraft completed a flight from Siberia to Vancouver, Washington -- a distance of more than 5,000 miles.

So a potential danger existed. Furthermore, there were fears that Germany might leverage its influence in South America to the point where bases would be acquired. A German push from, say, Brazil into the Caribbean would place potential bomber bases within striking range of Florida and the southeast.

The Airacuda would have been hopelessly vulnerable to escort fighters, even though the initial version featured "blisters" on the sides of the fuselage containing small-calibre defensive machine guns such as those found on PBY navy patrol bombers and early B-17 Army bombers. On the other hand, unless the Germans (or perhaps the Japanese) were able to establish bases very close to the USA -- in Cuba or Mexico, say -- no escort fighters at the time had the range to accompany the bombers. For this reason, the Airacuda's size and sluggishness was not a serious survivability problem.

The 37-millimeter cannons were extremely heavy armament for the 1930s, but could be justified because even one lucky hit could bring down a bomber. Having two gun loaders added a lot of weight, and made less sense. The large size of the aircraft was needed if a goal was to intercept an enemy as far as possible from American shores.

On the other hand, long-range interception requires long-range detection. Radar was in its early experimental phase and, in any case, it cannot ordinarily "see" over the horizon. So the only realistic alternative would be a system of picket vessels such as I included in the story above, perhaps supplemented by long-range aerial patrolling. All of this seems pretty chancy.

A better means of defense for those days would have been a fast-climbing interceptor with moderately-long range that could be used in conjunction with radar and other close-in detection systems. The Army had such an aircraft in the XP-38 which first flew in 1939.

Later,

Donald

posted by Donald at December 9, 2007




Comments

"Underpowered" was the first thing that sprang to mind when I saw those photos. (So much of WWII airplane development seems to have been trying to wring as much performance as possible out of the available engines). I then wondered if was about the size of an A-26, but your mention of five crew members confirmed the size of this thing.

The closest thing I can think of to this beast is maybe the P-61 Black Widow, always a favorite of mine. But that had only three crew members and wasn't supposed to have the range needed for the Aircuda. (And it was a night fighter, to boot, and so could presumably give up some maneuverability).

Posted by: Derek Lowe on December 10, 2007 1:00 PM



Is there an advantage to the propellers placement at the rear of the wings instead of the front?

Posted by: ricpic on December 10, 2007 8:54 PM



ricpic -- pusher propellers supposedly mean cleaner airflow. That's because propeller wash is a spiral shape that interferes to some degree with normal airflow over a streamlined fuselage or engine nacelle. So I suppose the feature might mean slightly greater speed.

Pusher propellers have always been rare. Some examples you might be familiar with are the B-36 intercontinental bomber of the 1950s and the XB-35 flying wing bomber of the late '40s, a B-36 competitor.

In the case of the Airacuda, an important disadvantage was that the spinning props made bailing out a risky or even (for the two cannon-loaders in the nacelle front sections) suicidal. The solution would have been to feather the props -- not an ideal solution due to the time it would take.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 11, 2007 12:48 AM






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