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April 09, 2008

Brutal-Looking Airplanes

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Combat -- and most other types -- of aircraft move through air at speeds where the resistance of air needs to be countered by streamlining the airflow around them; one result is that most airplanes tend to look graceful. I wrote about planes that were downright sensuous here. And here I dealt with French aircraft in the era of the transition from boxy flying machines to streamlining that looked pretty awkward. By the late 1930s, most airplanes looked sleek.

But not all of them. Some warplanes, rather than being sleek as sabers were as brutal-looking as clubs or maces. Here are some examples.


Consolidated B-24 Liberator
The Liberator was basically a boxcar full of bombs. It sported a graceful Davis airfoil wing, but the rest of the aircraft was functional in an ugly sort of way. More B-24s were built than the earlier, sleeker B-17 Flying Fortress (which carried a smaller bomb-load). But the "Fort" was more famous and beloved. Several B-17s are still flying, but almost no B-24s remain, even in non-flying condition. I saw a flying example at Seattle's Boeing Field last summer and parts of another at the restoration shops of the Imperial War Museum facility at RAF Duxford a few years ago.

Republic P-47 Thunderbolt
One might expect fighters to look graceful, but American World War 2 fighters powered by 2,000-HP radial engines might charitably be termed "purposeful." The P-47 eventually served more as a fighter-bomber than a fighter.

Grumman F6F Hellcat
The Hellcat was the Navy's most successful fighter during the war. Note the high position of the cockpit; this was to provide better pilot visibility when making aircraft carrier landings.

Martin AM-1 Mauler
Too late for World War 2 and not quite as good as the rival Douglas Skyraider, not many Maulers were built. Some saw service in the Korean War. An attack plane, it looks more brutal than the fighters shown above.

Focke-Wulf FW-190
Big, flat-faced radial engines tend to make fighters look pugnacious. But not always. The FW-190 was not only fairly sleek, but gave the Royal Air Force a lot of trouble until a new series of Spitfires with more powerful Rolls-Royce Merlin motors re-tipped the performance scales.

Hawker Typhoon
Although it takes some doing, it's possible for fighters with in-line, water-cooled engines to look brutal. Though I should add that the Typhoon, like the Thunderbolt, was mostly used in the fighter-bomber role.

Fairchild-Republic A-10 Warthog (Thunderbolt II)
Maybe it has to do with that ground-support fighter-bomber role. The A-10 Warthog (officially, Thunderbolt II) is jet-propelled and brutal both visually and in capability. It served in the Kosovo and Gulf campaigns.



posted by Donald at April 9, 2008


Really appreciate the aircraft notes and images. This is the best eclectic blog I know of, and that's flat.

A small plug for two air museums out my way (Portland): the Vancouver, WA air museum across the river at Pearson Field is small but great. And the air museum over in Tillamook is located in one of the few remaining dirigible (sp) sheds and is really good. The timber work inside the vast quonset hut-like structure is awesome in the true sense of the word. Check Google images for the building and see for yourself - it's as if it were built to house leviathan or a home for King Kong's much bigger brother and several of his heftier pals. They have a Corsair by the way. However, only recently did I learn of the potency of the Hellcat.

Posted by: Larry on April 9, 2008 6:21 PM

Those are some seriously no-nonsense and pugnacious looking aircraft. Not a lot of effort spared there for the sake of elegance, that's for sure. Cool photo gallery.

Did the planes actually fly well? I've never known how important streamlining actually is. Presumably very important for a spacecraft, and not very important for a compact city car. But how about for planes like this? Did they lose much performance from not being more sleek?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 9, 2008 11:11 PM

The A-10 is my favorite modern airship. Saw one once at an airshow, but only after it snuck up on everybody. It's awesome in it's capabilities, I've since learned. Generalized bad-assed mayhem is a wonderful thing in the right hands.

Posted by: Scott on April 10, 2008 12:07 AM

Can't testify about all these birdies, but the OV-10/A-10 was the US Army's notion of what ground troops needed for support in the post-Viet Nam era. It wasn't supposed to be fast and sleek and a terrific aerial fighter -- it was supposed to be sturdy, dependable, rugged, reliable with a lot of ammo storage and a long loiter capability.

Needless to say, it was generally regarded as a useless waste of resources by Everyone Knowledgeable .... until the 1990 Gulf War showed it was a champion tank buster. The Hour and the Plane had finally met.

Which maybe we ought to take in mind in considering the various aircraft which somehow got built but failed to prove themselves in convincing circumstances. The B-58 Hustler comes to mind.

Posted by: mike shupp on April 10, 2008 12:22 AM

I always thought the Lancaster won the stakes for "ugliest WWII airplane", myself. (Sorry about the image quality.)

Posted by: David Fleck on April 10, 2008 7:47 AM

I used to see a P-47 Thunderbolt that flew out of the small private Santa Monica airport. (I used to work nearby and was over there eating lunch or something.)

It was in no way graceful. The very powerful impression that it left was an airplane that looked -- and even more, sounded -- scarey. Once that P-47 was fired up, and took to the air, it was immediately clear that this was a war machine. It was just too powerful and purposeful for any other role. Subconsciouly you started looking around for cover in case it was going to start a strafing run.

Wasn't the P-47 a tank-killer? I seem to remember that tanks in WWII weren't armored beneath, and were quite vulnerable to heavy-machine gun fire riccocheting off the ground back up into the undercarriage. I know the U.S. Army, with total air superiority in the aftermath of the Normandy invasion, destroyed a lot of German tanks on the move in this way from the air.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 10, 2008 8:44 AM

Erich Rudorffer flew the FW-190. Ugly or not, it was a killer. Check out Rudorffer's story here...

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 10, 2008 9:39 AM

Larry -- Thanks for the compliment and the heads-up on the museums, which I drive past every so often. And what about the one in McMinnville -- the one with H. Hughes flying boat?; haven't been to that one either.

Michael -- I'm not a pilot, but I've never read that having a flat nose (radial, air-cooled motor) makes a plane harder to fly than a pointed-nose (water-cooled engine) aircraft. Both tend to be equally streamlined from there to the tail. As with all significant engineering, the must be compromise. US Navy fighters always (after the 1920s) were air-cooled because water-cooled engines were more easily put out of action; one bullet in the wrong place would cause cooling fluid to leak away, freezing the motor. You want to avoid that out in the ocean. Air-cooled engines in the P-47 and F6F were a lot more powerful than available water-cooled ones, and power is very important for almost any airplane.

Scott -- I remember seeing some Warthogs from the Connecticut Air Guard doing touch-and-gos at Bradley Field a couple of years before the first Gulf War. Assumed they were on the way to pasture.

Friedrich -- Lucky you!! I can't remember ever seeing a P-47 in flight. I saw F6Fs buzzing around through most of the time I was in elementary school. You see, the Sand Point Naval Air Station was a little more than a mile away from my house, over the hill. Also saw some F4F Wildcats, some PBM flying boast, lots of PBY flying boats and, for a few years, PB4Ys -- the single-tail Navy version of the B-24.

Now the NAS is a park, and pretty popular. Me? I miss those airplanes!

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 10, 2008 10:24 AM

How sharply these contrast to the elegant Lockheed P51, with twin fuselages (if memory serves me).

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on April 10, 2008 10:36 AM

What about scale, as distinct from shape? The first time I saw a B-52 on the ground, close up, I was just astonished at the size of the bloody thing. The prototype Concorde parked nearby seemed like a paper dart.

Posted by: dearieme on April 10, 2008 11:21 AM

The FW-190 is beautiful IMHO, radial engine or not. It looks like a predator should.

Following up on what dearieme says, seeing the old birds up close can surprise you. Even the B-29 seems pretty puny compared to the tall-standing jets we're so accustomed to travelling in nowadays. I can practically reach up and embrace the glassed-in nose. And the B-24 that accompanied B-29 "Fifi" when I tried, was even smaller.


Posted by: Narr on April 10, 2008 1:06 PM

Friedrich: The P-47 was indeed a fine tankbuster, but I've never heard of taking out a tank by counting on ricochets. I doubt it would work, especially since tanks are usually on unpaved ground. Tank top armor is thinner, and is what pilots of the day aimed for, I've read.

P-47s were famed for the level of damage they could sustain and still fly. On a Military Channel show one vet described having one entire cylinder shot off. The engine made a heck of a racket but got him home.

Richard S., you're thinking of the P-38.

Posted by: PapayaSF on April 11, 2008 1:12 AM

I agree that Richard S. is probably thinking of the P-38, a favorite of mine. But there was an experiment with two P-51-type fuselages hooked together very similarly with a single wing, the F-82. It just missed World War II, where it was being readied for long-range escort duty in support of the invasion of the Japanese home islands. (Obligatory shudder at the thought). It did fly in the early part of the Korean War, though. More here:

The P-47 was, by all accounts, a beast to taxi around in on the ground, but it sure did the job in the air. The most sawn-off looking military plane of that era I can think of is the Brewster Buffalo, a creature of the early days of WWII, much maligned and with good reason. In civilian use, you don't get much more brutal-looking than the Gee Bee racer, which was basically the largest engine available stuck onto the smallest airframe that would hold it. An unforgiving death trap to fly, though, from what I've read. Here it is:

Posted by: Derek Lowe on April 11, 2008 1:18 PM

My step-daughter's boyfriend was in the Army in Iraq in the early days of the second Gulf War — he love the A-10. As he put it, "You hear a Warthog coming and you know that whatever shit there is in front of you is gonna be gone."

Posted by: Mike Snider on April 11, 2008 6:42 PM

I met a Luftwaffe pilot who had flown the Fw-190, Me-109, and Me-262, as well as downed and fixed up P-51's and P-47's. He was mostly a ground attack sort and said he preferred the Fw-190 and P-47 because of their armor and emphasis on pilot protection.

Posted by: chuck on April 12, 2008 5:15 AM

Do you in the US have the wonderful old "The Fockers were all Messerschmitts" joke?

Posted by: dearieme on April 12, 2008 12:48 PM

I agree with Narr, the Fw 190 was pretty, especially the long-nose ones as pictured (water-cooled inline engine in those, I think, although the earlier versions had an air-cooled radial)

I saw B-52s practicing low flyng over the Utah desert a few years back - sinister-looking bastards. Whereas the B-1s that came after them are supe-elegant, look like giant fight planes. And speaking of fighter planes, was at an airport last week that is both a civil field and an Indian air force fighter base. Mig-29s close up are very pretty, surprisingly big, and *loud*

Posted by: Alan Little on April 12, 2008 1:51 PM

dearieme -- Yes. But the way I heard it, the narrator had to have a thick, possibly Scandinavian accent. And the punchline went, "Ya, and those fokkers ver flyin' Messerschmitts!"

...The key being the accent where "fokker" was an accented mispronunciation.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 13, 2008 12:28 AM

The "thunderbolt", the "hellcat", the "mauler". They have names that fit. What kind of war plane would be called "the pink balloon"?

Posted by: annette on April 14, 2008 11:21 AM

I have to nominate the Russian Mil MI-24 Hind attack helicopter for this category:

Compared to Western attack choppers, which tend to be snaky and thin so as to minimize exposure to ground fire, the Hind is bulky and armor-clad, and doubles as a light transport with room for eight soldiers in its swollen belly, made suggestively lumpy by the wells for its retractable landing gear. It is so grossly over-designed that it relies on those steeply anhedral stub-winglets for much of its lift and thus cannot hover. As a gunship-transport, winged helicopter, it can't really make up its mind about what it wants to be, so it just throws a hell of a lot of metal at all the possible roles in the hopes that will somehow accomplish all of them.

It is very much a brute force machine; all sorts of comparisons present themselves. The huge stub wings hang an arsenal of primarily unguided ordinance, including free-fall bombs which are yet another confirmation that the Hind secretly wants to be a fixed-wing aircraft. The fuselage abounds with strange, asymmetrical protrusions, including an offset 30mm cannon in one variant. Indeed, the rotor axis is slightly tilted to one side. The fuselage lines are essentially clean, but they are broken by all manner of offensive assymetricalities.

Perhaps most importantly, the Hind has a fearsome reputation. Like most Soviet hardware, it gets the job done. While not particularly maneuverable, the Hind is fast. Indeed, thanks to those stub wings that keep it aerodynamically viable in high speed flight regimes, it can outrun mos Western designs by a comfortable margin. Clad in titanium armor, it's also rather difficult to kill, and it definitely has guns to spare.

Posted by: R.A.W. on April 15, 2008 4:33 AM

The B24 was tough to fly without experience. I had a friend who worked at a training base in the US. One week, he said, they lost eighteen ships.

I had an uncle who flew them in the South Pacific. Every time they put something more on a Lib, the take off run stretched out and the landing speed increased. But, as he said, once you knew what you were doing and once you got the thing up in the air and going, you could get the job done. He strafed a Jap freighter, as a matter of fact.

If it looks good, it flies well. The opposite was true at least for the 24.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey on April 23, 2008 10:24 PM

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