Not every fighter flown in World War II looked like a Spitfire*. Some radical new shapes were tried, but reinventing the fighting aeroplane while your nation was fighting in the most destructive war in history was a risky expensive move, but one with potentialy huge rewards. More than sixty years before the Typhoon, Rafale and Gripen made the tail-first ‘canard’ warplane commonplace, two enemy nations looked to master this unordodox configuration. Jim Smith asks why and finds out which was the better machine.
(*or a Spitfire that had swallowed a barrel in the case of the radial-engined aircraft)
Curtiss XP-55 Ascender and Kyushu J7W Shinden
Two fighter designs, the Ascender from the USA, and the Shinden from Japan, featuring swept wings, a canard foreplane and a pusher engine installation. Before looking at the aircraft more closely, it is worth discussing why this layout might have appeared attractive.
Pusher-Canard Design Objectives
There are several possible advantages of using a canard foreplane and a pusher engine installation. A conventional design with a rear-mounted tailplane is normally trimmed and stabilised with a download on the tailplane, which reduces overall lift. A stable canard will have lift on both the canard and the wing, and the pitching moment to rotate for take-off will also be generated by increasing the lift on the foreplane.
If the aircraft is designed with a swept wing, as is both the Ascender and the Shinden, fuselage size, drag and weight can be reduced compared to a conventional design. The swept wing will allow fins and rudders to be positioned aft of the centre of gravity with sufficient moment arm for them to be effective, with the foreplane being used either as an elevator (Ascender), or to carry elevators (Shinden). Reducing the fuselage size will reduce wetted area and drag, and reduce pitch inertia, potentially increasing responsiveness to the controls.
In general, canard designs have benign stalling characteristics, since the foreplane will normally be designed to stall at a lower incidence than the wing, resulting in a pitch down at the stall. At high lift, downwash from the foreplane will reduce the incidence on the inboard wing, helping to ensure this desirable behaviour.
Selection of a pusher engine installation makes sense for a canard and swept wing configuration because the engine can be used to balance out the weight of the pilot and the armament, which can conveniently be located in the nose of the aircraft. Reduction in drag may also be claimed as the fuselage and wings will be free from propeller wash, offering the prospect of cleaner flow over the wings and fuselage. However, a rear-mounted engine may be more difficult to cool, and the efficiency of the propeller may be reduced as it will be operating in the wake of the aircraft. Rudder authority will also be reduced in the absence of the slipstream from the propeller, so directional stability and control may be an issue for some aircraft.
An outstanding example of a relatively current design with this configuration is the Rutan Vari-Eze, which can achieve a max cruising speed of 170kt on only 100hp.
Curtiss XP-55 Ascender
Designed to meet a 1939 specification for a well-armed high-performance fighter, the XP-55 Ascender was one of three unorthodox designs selected for development. The other two were the Vultee XP-54 Swoose Goose, and the Northrop XP-56 Black Bullet. All three aircraft were of pusher configuration; the Ascender having swept wings and a canard; the Swoose Goose having a straight wing and twin tail booms; and the Black Bullet being a tail-less flying wing.
All three aircraft were originally intended to be powered by the 2200 hp Pratt & Whitney X-1800 engine, which was cancelled, leaving an alternative engine to be selected. Curtiss fitted a 1275 hp Allison V1710-95 engine as a substitute in the Ascender, which would have ensured that the aircraft could in no way match the originally estimated maximum speed of 507 mph. Incidentally, the Northrop design had severe stability problems, and was eventually assessed as not airworthy, while the Vultee design substituted the X-1800 engine first with the Lycoming XH-2470 engine, and then proposed to use the Wright R-2160 Tornado, but both of these alternative powerplants were also cancelled.
The Ascender configuration design had been supported by the use of a full-scale, but light weight, demonstrator powered by a 275 hp Menasco engine, the CW-24B, which made no less than 169 test flights, and this helped to overcome initial AF doubts about the configuration. The XP-55 made its first flight on July 19, 1943, but was lost in an accident in November 1943. The aircraft became inverted following a stall, and could not be recovered by the pilot, who bailed out successfully.
The second and third prototypes continued the flight test program, flying in January and April 1944 with a range of modifications to improve directional stability and the effectiveness of the elevators. The third aircraft also featured additional wing and control modifications in response to the accident to the first aircraft. Even with these modifications, handling was poor at low speeds, the engine tended to over-heat, and the maximum speed of 390 mph was well below expectations.
By this time, it was apparent that the performance of in-service aircraft like the P-38 Lightning, P-47 Thunderbolt, and P-51 Mustang far exceeded anything that could be credibly expected from the Ascender. It was also clear to the Air Force that the future lay with jet propulsion, and the XP-55 Ascender joined the XP-54 Swoose Goose and XP-56 Black Bullet in being cancelled.
Kyushu J7W Shinden
The Kyushu J7W Shinden was a small and very neatly-packaged canard fighter concept that was originated by Captain Masaoki Tsurono of the Technical Staff of the Japanese Navy. Although the aircraft was fitted with a 2130 hp Mitsubishi MK9D radial engine, Captain Tsurono had always envisaged that this would be replaceable in the future by a jet engine.
The basic configuration was validated using an unpowered demonstrator, the Yokosuka MXY6, supplemented by some additional flights with a low powered 22 hp engine. With the assurance that the configuration was practical, the Navy instructed Kyushu to proceed with the design and construction of the J7W Shinden, with some technical assistance being provided by a Navy team led by Captain Tsurono.
The design which emerged was centred on a small, moderately swept wing of 36 ft span, carrying the engine on the wing centre section, with a shaft driven 6-blade propeller at the rear of the fuselage. Cooling intakes were fitted to the fuselage ahead of the wing, with the cockpit, armament and forward canard making up the forward fuselage. With its compact packaging, powerful engine, and relatively high power-to-weight ratio, the Shinden might have been expected to offer high speed and good manoeuvrability.
However, timing was against the Shinden. Despite being ordered into production even before its first flight, only two aircraft could be built before the end of WW II, and only 3 flights of the prototype aircraft were made.
What can we learn from those flights? The reported information was that they revealed a strong swing to starboard during take-off, and significant vibration in the propeller and its drive shaft.
The first of these would have been due to the torque of the powerful engine, but would also have been exacerbated by the short moment arm between the wing-mounted fins and the aircraft centre of gravity. A production aircraft might have required a central fin to supplement those on the wings, and perhaps also larger rudder controls.
The vibration in the propeller and its drive shaft has been stated to be due to propeller flutter, and a redesign of the propeller to increase its stiffness would perhaps have resolved this problem. Unexplored issues which would need to be examined in flight test would include handling at low speeds and at the stall, engine cooling, and detailed evaluation of aircraft performance and armament effectiveness.
Despite these concerns, which might well have been resolved in flight and operational testing, the Shinden was a well-executed, forward-looking design, particularly as consideration had been given to a future jet-powered variant, the J7W2.
Curtiss XP-55 Ascender and Kyushu J7W Shinden – Air Combat Comparison
Although design of the XP-55 started from a 1939 requirement, the aircraft did not fly until 1943, with the third and final aircraft not flying until April 1944. The J7W Shinden made its first flight in August 1945. The Shinden only made 3 flights; two of the three XP-55 aircraft were lost in accidents which reflected poorly on the controllability of the aircraft.
Unsurprisingly, there is limited information on which to judge their air combat performance, other than basic dimensional, power and weight data. What information there is suggests that the Shinden would have had substantial advantages over the XP-55 Ascender.
The Shinden had more power, and a greater power to weight ratio, and had a slightly lower wing loading than the Ascender. While the Ascender had a slightly higher aspect ratio, the advantage due to this in sustained turn rate could well have been negated by the higher power to weight ratio of the Shinden. The reported maximum speed data suggests a 70 mph speed advantage for the Shinden, but I would treat this estimate with some caution, as so little flight test of that aircraft was possible.
On sortie rate, there is little to go on. The air-cooled radial engine of the Shinden might have required less maintenance than the liquid-cooled engine of the Ascender, and there is some indication that there were cooling issues for that aircraft. Directional control and propeller flutter issues remained to be resolved for the Shinden.
Curtiss XP-55 Ascender and Kyushu J7W Shinden Assessment
The Curtiss XP-55 Ascender, like the XP-54 and XP-56 with which it competed, turned out to be disappointing, largely because the engine for which it had been designed turned out not to be available. But it also had difficult handling qualities, especially at low speed. Possibly not as dangerous as the XP-56, and perhaps with greater, if still inadequate, performance potential than the XP-54, the XP-55 Ascender could not be considered a success.
The J7W Shinden seems to be a particularly well executed pusher-canard fighter, but with a total of 45 minutes flying, cannot be said to be a proven entity. The limited test flying revealed two early issues, yaw control on take-off and vibration of the propeller and prop-shaft. It is likely that the Shinden could have been developed into a successful fighter, particularly if the planned jet engine installation had gone ahead. But this will never be known with certainty, because the War in the Pacific ended before any meaningful testing or production had been undertaken.
Which aircraft was better? The choice could be as simple as observing that the Curtiss design was a dud, whereas the Kyushu Shinden had not been tested sufficiently to establish whether or not it was also a dud. This approach would, I think, be a cop out, so I am prepared to rate the Kyushu Shinden as the ‘better loser’ on two grounds – its development potential as a jet-powered aircraft, and its aesthetic appearance.
I was a very happy 11-year old boy when I was bought a copy of Stealth Warplanes, by Doug Richardson. I had negotiated hard to make my mum buy me the book. I left WH Smith’s in the murky depths of Wood Green Shopping Centre thrilled by my new book.
The Lockheed F-117 ‘Stealth Fighter’ had only just been revealed to the public; In November 1988, an airbrushed photo was held aloft to an ecstatic press by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, J. Daniel Howard. The F-117, until then top secret, was a new weird shape. Slightly preceding this (in April 1988) the DoD had released an artist’s impression of the Northrop B-2, which had also emerged from the Black world of secret defence projects. The B-2 was a charcoal grey flying-wing, clearly designed by the same person who designed the Batmobile.
Stealth was big news, until then, aeroplanes had been tubes with wings. Overnight the aircraft that had previously looked sleek and high-tech, now appeared drab and prosaic. The F/A-18 Hornet, with its sophisticated curves, the F-15 Eagle with its invincible muscularity, were both now relegated to the position of has-beens.
I believed that this book, with its immensely exciting cover, was my secret pass to the cladestine world of Stealth.
I bought another copy today, and it was fascinating to see how well this book had stood the test of 32 years.
Back then the Eurofighter typhoon was known as the European Fighter Aircraft (EFA). EFA is included as an example of a “reduced RCS (radar cross-section) design”. The large artwork, of an RAF machine, is surprisingly accurate.
Sadly, the dummy canopy (Canadian CF-18 stylee), an example of deception camouflage, visible on the artwork, has not been applied to real operational aircraft.
The strakes (a 1989 design amendment) and the PIRATE IRST are not featured, but the text acknowledges, these design changes took place after the artwork was made.
Eurofighter price. What is staggering is the cost estimate, put at wonderfully dainty £10-12 million (1989 prices), a far cry from today’s figure of around £68 million. Even taking into account inflation, this is quite a jump.
“You should not be at all surprised if someday you see me fly from New York to Colorado Springs in a contrivance which will resemble a gas stove and weigh almost as much.” said charismatic but unlucky Serbian-born Nikola Tesla in 1913. The inventor of Alternating Current and precursive David Bowie impersonator is not such an an obscure figure these days in the world of science in general but his admittedly minor contribution to the field of aeronautics remains little-known.
In 1928 Tesla filed a patent (coincidentally his last) describing a vertical take-off machine with a tilt wing/rotor that was at once both astonishingly prescient and maddeningly naive. This V-22 Osprey precursor was to be powered by a turbine engine, which was well beyond the state of the art in the 1920s (Frank Whittle patented the gas turbine engine in 1930). However, although the aeroplane aspects of its design are fairly reasonable, the rotary wing aspects are less impressive. Torque is helpfully cancelled out by having the lift rotors/propellors rotate in opposite directions but it is unclear how the aircraft would be controlled in vertical flight and the rotors are clearly far too small to support the machine in the vertical plane. Nonetheless this is the first known iteration of the tilt-rotor concept to be patented and as such is the precursor of all those bizarre ‘fifties VTOL prototypes that never quite worked properly but looked amazing before they crashed somewhere.
‘Bizarre’ is also a word that could be reasonably applied to some of Tesla’s obsessions and habits. Clearly (to a modern audience) suffering from some form of OCD, Tesla’s eccentricities were not as horrific as Howard Hughes’s – no unsnipped fingernails or jars of urine for Nikola – but were sufficiently unusual to garner the attention of society at a time when mental illnesses were poorly understood at best. Passed off as eccentricities by his friends, these traits were used to ridicule poor Tesla by his enemies who insinuated he was totally insane. And there was a history of mental illness in his family – Tesla’s father was afflicted with multiple personality disorder and was known to engage in heated arguments with different versions of himself. His brother meanwhile suffered from violent hallucinations.
Like many who suffer from obsessive compulsive behaviours, Tesla was devoted to cleanliness. He would not consume anything that had not been sterilised or boiled. For this, at least, he had an explanation: after seeing bacteria in his drinking water through a microscope he said, “if you would only watch for a few minutes the horrible creatures, you would never again drink a drop of unboiled or unsterilized water.” In similar vein he would regularly refuse to shake hands and often wore gloves to avoid physical contact.
So far so obsessive compulsive, Tesla’s relationship with the number three is somewhat stranger. It is not known how or why he developed this strange obsession but he would often engage in rituals that involved the number three, including his practice of walking three times around a building before entering it. When dining he would fold 18 napkins before he started eating because 18 was divisible by three. When he stayed at a hotel, he would request that his room number was a multiple of three and specified that 18 fresh towels were to his room be delivered every morning. In addition to boiling all of his food, he would also determine the volume of the food on his plate, and then calculate the number of jaw movements required to consume it. Apparently he had a profound phobia of round objects, and refused to remain in the company of a woman who was wearing earrings. Curiously there is a widespread suggestion that Tesla designed a flying saucer aircraft, however given his problem with round items this would, one assumes, be the last shape he would consider unless through absolute necessity.
Unlike insanely wealthy OCD sufferer Howard Hughes, Tesla died penniless but not, at least, a filthy, morphine addicted recluse surrounded by jars of his own piss. At least Tesla is now being rediscovered as a scientific and cultural figure, not least through the efforts of Elon Musk. It is presumably not a coincidence that the modern Tesla car company’s only vehicle with a numeric model designation is, of course, the Model 3.
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The first working submarine appears to have been invented as long ago as 1620 by Cornelius Van Drebbel whose demonstration of his creation on the Thames was recorded by Constantijn Huygens (below). The first manned flight took place under a balloon of the Montgolfier brothers just outside Paris in 1783. Despite 133 years of opportunity though the history of airborne anti-submarine warfare doesn’t really get going until September of 1916 when two aircraft of the Austro-Hungarian Navy sunk a French submarine, not bad considering the Austro-Hungarian Naval Air Service had only formed that August.
Anti-submarine aircraft spend their time hunting something that might not be there. Those of you who’ve read your Clancy will be familiar with the basics of modern Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), dipping sonar, bistatic sonobuoys, caterpillar drives and what have you. All of which are mostly irrelevant to this article as bar about four exceptions every submarine sinking by an aircraft took place in WW2 before such things were invented. The contents of the list is also massively skewed by the efforts of the Kreigsmarine who managed to lose 287 U-Boats to aircraft, more than the total number of submarines lost by the Royal, US, and Imperial Japanese Navies combined. 
Consequently, no German or Japanese aircraft appear, the former apparently only sinking two submarines from the air, both by Do-17. The Imperial Japanese Army do however deserve a special mention for equipping one of their Aircraft Carriers, the Akitsu Maru,with Kokusai Ki-76 observation aircraft to provide anti-submarine protection for their convoys. On November 15th, 1944, these may have spotted the USS Queenfish shortly before she fired the torpedoes which sank the carrier. This more or less finished the IJA’s involvement with anti-submarine warfare (ASW), despite some pioneering research into the use of auto gyros. The Imperial Japanese Navy in the meantime had commissioned the Kyushu Q1W1, probably the first aircraft in the world designed from the outset to find and attack submarines. Featuring either a magnetic anomaly detector or radar set, panoramic cockpit loosely based on that of the Ju-88, and an optional 20mm cannon fit, the 901st Kokutai claimed to have sunk seven enemy submarines while operating the Lorna. Post war records indicate this is probably over-claiming by at least seven.
It’s worth noting that all kill numbers listed here are at best provisional due to the difficulty of confirming a) if you’ve really sunk a submarine and b) which one it was. It was only as recently as May 2021 that the fate of HMS/M Urge was confirmed when her wreck was found just off Malta remarkably free of damage from Italian fighters, but with a big hole where the bow should be, just like you’d get if you hit a mine. 
Around 30 types have been involved in sinking submarines, the third of them in this run-down aren’t necessarily the top scorers but do have a certain je ne c’est pas that lifts them above the rest.
 79, 52, and 128 to all causes respectively.
Wessex/Lynx/Wasp – Joint placing for the only aircraft to sink a submarine post-WW2.
Only one submarine has been sunk by aircraft since the end of World War 2. This unfortunate vessel was the ARA Santa Fe, whose origin as the USS Catfish in 1944 means no post-war submarine has been sunk by enemy action. 
On the morning of 25 April 1982, the Santa Fe was departing Grytviken in South Georgia, having landed supplies for the Argentinian forces occupying the island. The captain planned to hide in deep water off the coast before returning that night to an isolated bay to fully recharge the vessel’s batteries for the journey back to the mainland. Unfortunately for the Santa Fe she was detected on radar by the Wessex HAS3 from HMS Antrim before she was in an area to submerge. Approaching from the stern the Wessex was almost overhead before the crew saw it, moments later two depth charges fell towards the submarine. The damage from this first strike was sufficient to prevent the Santa Fe diving, if only because it was unlikely she’d ever surface if she did.
A running battle would now ensue as the Argentinians attempted to return to Grytviken while the Lynx from HMS Brilliant made strafing runs and Wasps from HMS Endurance and Plymouth fired multiple AS.12 missiles. Although the Santa Fe managed to return to the dock her war was over, and she remained there until 1985 when she was towed out to sea and scuttled.
At a stroke the Argentine active submarine force had been reduced by half, which in percentage terms places the Wessex, Lynx, Wasp combination in first place for effect on an enemy force. Meanwhile the ARA’s other active submarine, the San Luis, spent most of the conflict loitering around East Falkland as the most advanced ASW force in NATO failed to pick it out from the myriad wrecks in the area. Which is why the Sea King isn’t on this list.
 The North Koreans appear to have lost a submarine to a fishing boat in 1998. It probably wasn’t deliberate.
Lohner L – First aircraft to sink a submarine
Someone has to be first, and despite what the RAF Museum’s website may say, in the case of airborne ASW it wasn’t the UK. Confusingly it was the Austro-Hungarian Navy. Despite now being two medium sized land-locked European countries in 1914 their combined empire included most of what is now
Yugoslavia Slovenia, Bosnia, and Croatia. Which gave them an extensive Adriatic coast. As such they had a substantial navy with 13 battleships, 18 destroyers, 6 submarines, an Air Service, and one Lt von Trapp who’d later gain fame for escaping Nazi Austria with a singing nun. 
On 15 September 1916 the French Navy’s Foucault was patrolling near the entrance to the naval base at Cattaro (now Kotor in Montenegro). Enter two Lohner L flying boats of the Austro-Hungarian Naval Air Service, which despite in many ways looking like what would happen if an engineer took the phrase ‘flying boat’ literally and just added a couple of wings to a rowing skiff, could carry a few hundred kg of bombs at ‘speeds’ of 57 knots. Although submerged the clear waters of the Adriatic allowed the crew of the two aircraft to spot the Foucault easily and, presumably after checking it wasn’t one of their submarines, attack it. Four bombs were dropped at least one hitting the submarine causing it to lose power and start sinking. Realising they’d broken the first rule of submarining,  and with a fire adding to their woes the French somehow managed to get to the surface. Facing an untenable situation, the Captain ordered the powerless submarine scuttled. To add insult to injury the crew were then rescued by their attackers who landed on the water to look after them until a torpedo boat could come to take them into captivity.
Almost definitely the slowest aircraft on this list the Lohner L does have the distinction of proving aircraft have a part to play in sinking submarines.
 Not totally relevant but he also married the granddaughter of the inventor of the torpedo.
 Don’t let water into the people tank.
Although a relatively obscure type the Potez-CAMS 141 has the highest ratio of submarines sunk per airframes built of all time. Admittedly this is because only one of them was built, but it did at least manage to sink U-105 on 2 June 1943.
The Potez-CAMS 141, also known as the Antarès, was designed and built to a 1935 French Admiralty specification for a long-range maritime reconnaissance flying boat. Essentially a gallic Sunderland, Saint-Nazaire if you will. Oddly for a French inter-war aircraft it was very nearly aesthetically pleasing. Really only marred by the placing of a conservatory on either side of the fuselage just aft of the cockpit, presumably so the crew had somewhere to smoke Gauloises and discuss Sartre during long sorties.
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With the prototype flying in 1938 the programme showed the kind of urgency that the Tempest project manager has nightmares about with orders for an additional 19 airframes being placed by September 1939. However, with the factory coming under new management in June of 1940 no further airframes were actually completed. The sole example led a somewhat nomadic existence initially operating out of Morocco, by September of 1940 it was patrolling from Dakar as part of the Vichy French forces. With the Allied landings in North Africa in late 1942 the Antares changed sides again, paving the way for its successful prosecution of the U-105 just south of Dakar seven months later.
Alas being from a production batch of one and with few spares available by the beginning of 1944 she was nearing the end of her operational life, having flown around 1800 hours. Disappointingly the airframe appears to have been scrapped in Africa meaning there are few if any remains of what by at least one measure was the most successful anti-submarine aircraft of all time.
Curtiss H-12 – Responsible for both U-boats sunk by the RNAS.
The Royal Navy tried a variety of tactics to counter U-Boats during the First World War, before grudgingly accepting that, despite not being particularly Nelsonian, escorting merchant ships in convoys might be a more effective way of stopping them being sunk than trying to find a submarine to sink. Which to be fair was still a World War quicker than the US Navy took to come round to the idea. Around the same time convoys were being introduced in early 1917 the Admiralty were also receiving the first examples of the aircraft that would allow it to attack U-Boats from the air. The Curtiss H-12. These started a long tradition of the UK buying an American aircraft and improving it by changing the engine, think Mustang with the Merlin, think Boeing 707 with Conways, think Phantom with err… Speys? In the case of the H-12 the original 160hp Curtiss VX were replaced with Rolls-Royce Eagles with 375hp, more than doubling the installed power. This at least made the H-12, also known as the Large America by the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), able to take-off from the water. Something the VX powered versions had difficulty with.
On 27 May 1917 Large America 8656 operating from the Isles of Scilly sighted UC-66 on the surface to the north of the archipelago. The pilot dropped the payload of 100lb bombs two of which seemed to have hit the U-Boat as it soon sank by the stern not to be seen again until 2009. Inconveniently in her dying moments UC-66 had managed to get a few rounds off at 8656, which then flew back to its base on Tresco with the Mechanic holding rags over a resultant leak in the starboard radiator.
At the other end of the English Channel on 22 Sep 1917 H-12 8695, escorted by two Camel fighters, attacked a surfaced submarine in the vicinity of West Hinder Light Vessel, about 20 miles off Ostend. After also being hit by two bombs it was seen to heel over and sink, leaving wreckage and oil on the surface. Initially identified as UC-72, its having been sunk by mines a month earlier rules it out as the actual victim. It’s now thought 8695 sank UB-32.
As an indicator of the effectiveness of the RNAS’ patrols only five merchant ships were sunk when in convoys with a combined air sea escort. Despite the paucity of actual sinkings by aircraft their presence was sufficient to warn off the U-Boats. On top of probably being responsible for 2/3rds of submarines sunk by aircraft in the First World War, Curtiss H-12s were also responsible for shooting down several Zeppelins. Which given its top speed of 87kts must have made for some of the most slowing moving dog-fights in history.
Grumman’s stubby first fighter on a list of submarine killers? What next the Hellcat in the top 10 of mine hunting aircraft? 
Although the Wildcat doesn’t appear to be solely responsible for the sinking of any submarines it was involved in the destruction of 27 of them. It kicked this streak off while operating with 802 NAS from HMS Audacity, along with one Lt Winkle Brown. In this case aircraft patrolling from Audacity to intercept German reconnaissance aircraft spotted U-131 on the surface near Madeira and carried out strafing runs while a group of destroyers and sloops closed to deliver the coup de grace with gunfire and depth charges.
More typically, and because it’s not clear you could get enough 0.5” ammunition into a Martlet for it to sink a submarine on its own they were more normally paired with either a Swordfish or Avenger. The vast majority of their assisted kills being while operating from the decks of a USN Escort Carrier alongside its Grumman stable mate. The Wildcat carrying out strafing runs while the Avenger positioned for a depth charge or torpedo attack. The torpedoes in question being code named Fido, were the first homing torpedoes and sought out the noise from the submarine’s propellers. Although a technical marvel it suffered slightly from having a top speed of 15 knots, slightly slower than the surfaced speed of most U-boats. The continual harassment from the Wildcat playing no small part in slowing them down or causing them to dive at which point they struggled to make 8 knots and became easy prey for Fido.
The Wildcat then wasn’t an out and out submarine killer, but it would happily kick them in the gentleman’s parts before its bigger friends delivered the knock-out blow. Like Mini-Me to the Avenger’s Dr Evil.
 Yes, yes it is. Didn’t attack many submarines though.
Confusingly for the layperson the main aim of anti-submarine warfare isn’t necessarily sinking submarines. Although it’s always nice if you can. The primary goal is generally to stop the submarine sinking your ships. This is especially true if your ships are carrying supplies that are keeping the country alive. So during the Battle of the Atlantic escorts that managed to sink five U-boats while their convoy was decimated could be viewed less favourably than ones who managed to bring their charges across without loss to either side. This was an area where aircraft could excel merely by flying around and causing the submarine to remain submerged for fear of being spotted. Unlike modern nuclear-powered vessels, which are faster submerged than on the surface, the diesel-electric craft of the first half of the 20th century were much slower underwater. A typical U-boat could manage 17 knots surfaced but only around 7 knots submerged, and then only for a limited time 5 knots being more sustainable. With a typical convoy progressing at around 10 knots, it became impossible for the submarine to catch its prey while underwater unless it was inside an area in its path the extents of which are known as the Limiting Lines of Approach (LLA). These also apply to nuclear powered submarines although in their case the limit is defined by the speed above which the propellers start to cavitate and create enough noise for Evelyn Glennie to detect them while headlining Wembley.
With this in mind Fairey’s better contribution to the art of naval warfare deserves a special place on this list. In total the Swordfish is credited with 25 submarine kills, which places it 9th overall on pure numbers.  However, its ability to operate not just from Escort Carriers but the even smaller flight decks on Merchant Aircraft Carriers (MACs) enabled them to provide an almost continuous aerial escort across the Atlantic. MACs were as the name suggests merchant ships with a wooden flight deck just 410’ x 62’ built over the holds, as such they had a limited top speed of around 12kts and carried at most four Swordfish. Despite their limited capability their presence forced the opposition underwater keeping the LLA as favourable as possible. Which goes someway to explaining why in the 207 convoys escorted by Swordfish operating MACs only 9 ships were lost to U-boats despite none having been sunk by the embarked aircraft.
 22 U-boats, 1 Italian sub torpedoed off Libya, 1 Vichy French submarine off Madagascar, and an unfortunate incident with the Free French Submarine Perle.
At 7 knots U1 can’t intercept the merchant ship, after 1 hour she’s in the same position relative to it that U2 was at the beginning of the hour. U2 at 7 knots has meanwhile just fallen further behind the merchant ship.
Sunderland or Catalina
In a world where runways are everywhere it’s easy to forget that before the rapid increase in their numbers during the Second World War water was considered a suitable surface for large aircraft to take-off and land on. Thus, interwar long-distance travel saw the use of the Boeing Clipper and Shorts C-Class Empire flying boat. It’s not surprising then that long-range patrol aircraft would use the same format in the early stages of the war. For ASW the best of these was undoubtedly the Consolidated Catalina. Able to carry out a two-hour patrol at 800 miles from base, two hundred more than the Shorts Sunderland, taking the fight far out into the Atlantic. Despite only having half the engines of the Sunderland the Catalina could carry almost the same weapons load and had the advantage of also being able to use torpedoes, something it used in anger against Japanese shipping around Guadacanal.
In terms of anti-submarine activity, the Catalina sank 40 submarines, 14 more than the Sunderland and equal second overall with the Avenger.
On top of its exploits in the North Atlantic, a Catalina sank two IJN submarines in the Pacific, and for fans of long-range air travel instigated the Double Sunrise service from Ceylon to Western Australia, the usual stop offs in Rangoon and Singapore having issues with take-off and landing rights. The stripped-down aircraft on this service carried three passengers, 152lbs of essential mail, and 1988 gallons of fuel to give it a range of 3600nm for the 3500nm route. Taking between 27 and 33 hours to complete, and with no choice of in-flight movie, this was a test of endurance for both the aircrew and the passengers. Even Ryan Air’s worst flight presumably not having to contend with the threat of being intercepted by the Japanese Air Force over the dark waters of the Indian Ocean.
World War II saw the RAF sticking to their pre-war doctrine that strategic bombing would solve everything. If bombing land locked towns in Germany wasn’t stopping U-boats from attacking convoys, then the answer must be to bomb them harder. This plan didn’t prioritise aircraft for Coastal Command, the defence of merchant shipping apparently being incidental to ensuring the Air Force had the supplies and fuel it needed to wage war. Even by 1941 the best they could hope for were cast offs that Bomber Command didn’t want. Enter the Wellington.
Initially operating a handful of Wellington Mk1Cs with a limited anti-U-boat capability in 1942 the better equipped GR MkVIII became available. As well as the ASV II radar that some Mk1s had had fitted for detecting surfaced submarines it also featured the first use of the Leigh Light a powerful spotlight, and a radar altimeter to allow them to descend safely over the sea at night. After detecting a U-Boat using radar the Wellington would descend to 250’ to make its attack run, as the contact disappeared into the clutter at the bottom of the radar display the Leigh Light would be turned on illuminating the target and allowing the pilot to complete the attack visually. On 4 June 1942 the first such attack was made by a Wellington of 172 Squadron against the Italian submarine Luigi Torelli which was transiting the Bay of Biscay and suddenly found itself lit up like Elvis headlining Vegas. Shortly after that it found itself surrounded by four depth charges. Although the submarine survived the attack it was sufficiently damaged to force a return to port. More was to follow with another three boats forced back to base that June. From being relatively safe waters, the Bay of Biscay now had to be transited submerged, reducing the time that could be spent in the operational areas of the Mid-Atlantic by five days. In July worse was to come for the Kreigsmarine as the first U-boat was sunk by a Wellington as it was returning to France from the Caribbean.
From sinking no U-Boats in the first half of 1942 Coastal Command found itself responsible for 13 and a half in the period from August to December. At a time when ‘Bomber’ Harris was telling Churchill that Coastal Command was ‘merely an obstacle to victory’ this was fortunate indeed. Although the Wellington didn’t have the range to protect convoys in the mid-Atlantic gap, generally managing around 2 hours 500 miles from base, it made the waters around the U-boats’ French bases far more dangerous and pioneered tactics that would be used by Coastal Command to turn the tide in the Battle of the Atlantic from 1943 onwards.
While the Swordfish was a good carrier borne ASW aircraft it suffered in a few areas, mainly speed and crew comfort. And contrary to popular opinion it wasn’t as sturdy as you might want when landing on a deck that’s moving up and down by 20 or 30 feet, even if it was easy to repair. If you really wanted to kill submarines while operating off a ship the Grumman Avenger on the other hand suffered none of these issues.
The extra speed not only allowed it to cover a greater search area in a given time, but also meant that during an attack run it would be exposed to the U-boats gunfire for a shorter period. About half in fact. On top of this it made it much easier for other Avengers to make follow up attacks as they’d have a chance to get to the scene of the action before contact with the submarine was lost. Most U-boats being sunk due to a continued aggressive attack rather than a single killer blow. U-118 for instance being attacked with depth charges from 8 Avengers from the USS Bogue before submerging for the final time, which appears to be the record for attacks by a single aircraft type.
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The Grumman Ironworks approach to aircraft construction meanwhile meant the Avenger suffered far less damage during carrier operations. Analysis by the RN not only showed the American aircraft suffered 1/7th the rate of damage the Swordfish did, but that the lower risk of damage meant carriers were more likely to actually fly them.  Which is very much the first stage in detecting a submarine with an aircraft. Having done the analysis, the Fleet Air Arm prioritised its Avengers for anti-submarine warfare, until everyone realised it was better at most things than the Barracuda and they went to the Pacific to be used as bombers.
These advantages, together with being with the convoys the submarines were trying to find, place the Avenger at number two on the all-time list of submarine killing aircraft, with 35 U-boats and at least 5 IJN submarines falling to it.
 Directorate of Naval Operational Studies. ‘Achievements of British and US Escort Carriers’. Admiralty, 12 February 1944. ADM 219/95. The National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom.
The Kreigsmarine lost 287 U-Boats to aircraft, a quarter of these were lost to the Liberator. Which by all accounts makes it the most submarine killingest aircraft of all time.
The first Liberators delivered to the RAF were considered unsuitable for combat over Europe, Bomber Command therefore magnanimously gave them to Coastal Command who received 20 ex-USAAF B-24As in 1941. These gained the relatively basic ASV Mk II radar, and a less basic semi-retractable pack of four 20mm cannon in the forward bomb bay to attack ships and U-boats with. They could also make a more traditional attack with up to six depth charges while some would receive fittings to carry 60lb rocket projectiles either side of the forward fuselage.
The later Liberator GR Mk III was based on the B-24D as used by Air Forces various, however for the anti-submarine role certain changes were made. The self-sealing liners to the fuel tanks and most of the armour was removed. The turbo-superchargers for the engines that maintained performance at high altitude were deleted, relatively few U-Boats being found above 5,000’. The ventral gun turret was also removed ultimately providing a location for a more advanced centimetric radar. Having undergone the kind of diet that gets you a shot at being the face of Weight Watchers the spare capacity was taken up with over two thousand gallons of fuel and a payload of eight depth charges. As an example of what this allowed on 17 March 1943 a Liberator of 86 Squadron left Aldergrove for an eight-hour fifty-minute flight to join convoy SC122, attacking U-439 on the way causing it to remain submerged for the rest of the day. On reaching SC122 the aircraft came under the orders of the Escort Group Commander and proceeded to sweep the convoy’s route, during which she attacked U-338, again forcing it to submerge. After 11 hours airborne she then returned to base finally landing at Eglinton, short of fuel, 18 hours and 20 minutes after taking off.
In this later Very Long Range (VLR) configuration the Liberator, together with aircraft from Escort Carriers which came into their own around the same time, solved the Mid-Atlantic Gap where U-boats had previously operated without fear of attack from aircraft. The majority of kills were made by aircraft of Coastal Command, however the USAAF’s anti-submarine squadrons were responsible for at least 7 sinkings before they handed over responsibility to the USN’s PB4Y Liberator squadrons. To give some idea of the scale of the Battle of the Atlantic the Liberator was also the second most successful submarine killer in the Pacific. Where it appears to have sunk three IJN submarines.
With endurance, a range of armaments, and able to be modified as new sensors became available the Liberator is the most successful anti-submarine aircraft of all time. Its capabilities again beating housewives’ favourite the B-17 and its paltry 11 sinkings.
A Submariners’ War, The Indian Ocean 1939-45, Michael Wilson
Business in Great Waters, John Terraine
Japanese Anti-Submarine Aircraft in the Pacific War, Ishiguro and Januszewski
The Royal Navy’s Air Service in the Great War, David Hobbs
Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer and current Wildcat Air Safety Officer. If you want a Sea Vixen t-shirt he can fix you up.
Dear supporter/aviation obsessive/patient friend,
There’s big news at the end of this but first:
The final design for the cover is done and it looks gorgeous. Courtesy of the sleek design skills of Art Director Mark Ecob.
I can’t wait to have this beautiful badboy in my greedy hands (may need to work on phrasing here). If you have a friend who wishes to have their name featured in this book they better move fast as the design will be frozen quite soon, so do send them our way.
The release date for The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes, which we’ve long known, has now been declassified. It is Summer 2022 (we’re actually aiming for Father’s Day but keeping it slightly vague to allow for the usual unforeseen chaos of the universe). I know the wait is agonisingly long, I certainly find it so, but that’s how long these things take.
As we’ve got to a 180% funding-level we’ve unlocked a new pledge level. This is a very special and utterly bespoke treat: Hush-Kit creator Joe Coles (me, that is) will draw a unique (and possibly quite silly) hand-drawn sketch of an aircraft in the front of your book. Hopefully you won’t all go for this or I’ll get repetitive strain injury (that’s a joke as I already have RSI)!
The really freaking big-as-an-Antonov-225-massive news is we are VERY soon to Launch the fundraising stage for Volume 2 of the Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes. There is such a wealth of material to share (and a bunch of new unreleased stuff) we couldn’t fit it all in volume 1 so we’re planning a Mk II, which like most Mk IIs, will be faster – we’ve planned for a far faster turnaround time to completion. I’ve learned a great deal over during the creation of Volume 1, and Volume 2 is going to be an even deeper dive into the narcotically addictive world of military aviation. This endeavor would not be possible without the brilliant success you have already made of the forthcoming Volume 1. Volume 2 can only start by you pre-ordering it and it reaching 100% funding. FINGERS CROSSED.
Thank you so much for making this possible. The book is being made with love and care and I hope you enjoy it.
Yours in love and aeroplanes,
If you’ve ever fallen off a bicycle you’ll know that exactly the worst thing that could possibly happen would be if that bicycle were raised into the sky beforehand. Nonetheless, several hardy souls have decided that the generally earthbound state of “the most civilised conveyance known to man” is a ludicrous hindrance and have pedalled their way to the heavens with hugely differing levels of success: usually briefly and invariably slowly.
10. Gehrhardt Cycleplane
You’ve probably already seen the Gehrhardt Cycleplane, it appears in an oft-repeated montage of newsreel films of various ‘hilarious’ unsuccessful early aircraft which appears in ‘Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines’ and ‘And Now for Something Completely Different’. The seven-winged Cycleplane trundles along for a short distance before collapsing in a heap (ha ha) and the film cuts to the ‘Pitts Sky Car’ (a V-8 powered VTOL machine that succeeds only in bouncing violently on the spot). However if you were to find out that the Gehrhardt Cycleplane was the first human-powered heavier-than-air aircraft to take off under its own power, would it seem so funny then? Well perhaps it would, as it is clearly totally ludicrous. However the Cycleplane really did earn an obscure niche in history by flying, once, on human power alone during 1923.
William Gehrhardt of the Aeronautical school at Michigan University designed the Cycleplane in his spare time while working as an aeronautical engineer at McCook airfield in Dayton, Ohio. The aircraft was built by off-duty members of McCook’s Flight Test Section, initially in secret. Officials from the base’s Engineering Section later allowed the aircraft’s final assembly and storage to take place in a hangar on the field. First flight was achieved in July 1923 when the Cycleplane was towed aloft by a car and demonstrated to be adequately controllable over the course of several towed flights. Eventually a hop of about 20ft was made with the aircraft attaining the lofty altitude of 2 feet. Modest perhaps but this was the first attested flight by a human-powered heavier-than-air aircraft. Unfortunately however this would remain the only powered flight of the Cycleplane, soon after this momentous hop, its undignified collapse was caught on camera and as a result the stake it has claimed in comical history has proved more stubbornly lodged in the collective consciousness than its genuine (small) achievement in aviation history. Which is a shame, (although it is really quite funny).
9. HPA Toucan
If you have never ridden a tandem bicycle, you might be surprised to find out just how much faster they can go than a regular bicycle. A tandem weighs less than two solo bicycles, possesses roughly the same aerodynamic drag and yet boasts literally double the power. There’s a reason tandems have massive brakes. Thus it remains slightly surprising that more ‘twin-engine’ human powered aircraft have not been built. The only example known to have actually flown was the Toucan.
Developed by the Hertfordshire Pedal Aeronauts (who were mostly employees of Handley Page) the Toucan was intended to win the Kremer prize. There were actually a series of Kremer prizes, all sponsored by Latvian-born British industrialist Henry Kremer, but the most prestigious and the one invariably referred to as ‘the’ Kremer Prize was £50,000 to be awarded to the first human-powered aircraft to fly a figure eight around two markers one half mile apart, starting and ending the course at least 10 feet (3.0 m) above the ground. Despite doubling up the motive power, the Toucan failed to grasp the prize, managing a maximum flight length of 640m. Toucan? Tou-couldn’t as it turned out. Nevertheless with its completely transparent fuselage and two (count ’em!) crew, the Toucan wins enough extra points for aesthetics and novelty to justify its inclusion here.
Whether you regard the colossal effort both to build and to fly a human powered aircraft as either a massive waste of time or an incredible and noble endeavour, it is abundantly clear that making such a flying machine work is extremely difficult. Thus it seems the ultimate expression of masochism to make such an endeavour even more difficult by applying a form of propulsion singularly absent from the man-made aviation scene and get your chosen human to power your aircraft by flapping its wings like a bird. Who would take such an obviously self-defeating step?
Enter Canada: Snowbird is the world’s first fairly successful human-powered ornithopter. Fairly successful because it can’t take off under its own power, needing a tow from a car, but then able to maintain powered, controlled flight solely using human-muscle powered flapping wings for a considerable distance. Plus it looks cool. Built by the University of Toronto Institute for Aviation Studies, Snowbird flew for the first time on 31 July 2020 (and for the last time three days later) and many sources claim it to be the world’s first human powered ornithopter. This however is not true, Alexander Lippisch, who is most famous for designing the Messershmitt 163 ‘Komet’ rocket powered interceptor of the Second World War flew a human-powered ornithopter as early as 1929 (which also required a towed launch) but it is unclear whether it could truly sustain flight. Adalbert Schmid built a successful aircraft in Munich powered by flapping wings in 1942 but it had a pair of larger conventional wings ahead of the flapping ones which seems a little like cheating – then he went the whole hog and put a motorcycle engine in it. Frenchman Yves Rousseau’s human-powered ornithopter managed to fly 64 metres in 2006 (also with an initial tow) but horrifically crashed on its next flight, gravely injuring the pilot and rendering him paraplegic. With a flight of 145 metres Snowbird remains to date the most successful muscle powered ornithopter (with the exception of virtually all birds and literally billions of insects).
7. Aerovelo Atlas
Whether you persist in regarding the colossal effort both to build and to fly a human powered aircraft as either a massive waste of time or an incredible and noble endeavour, it is still abundantly clear that making such an aircraft work is extremely difficult. Thus it seems, if anything, even more masochistic to get your chosen human to power a massive helicopter and take off vertically. It took decades of painful development to get a helicopter to work properly with the obvious advantage of a powerful engine, who would be crazy enough to attempt to build a human-powered VTOL machine?
Enter Canada again. The very same University of Toronto team who developed the Snowbird also built the insanely huge quad-rotor Aerovelo Atlas which, with a tip-to-tip rotor span of 154 ft (47 m) is the second largest helicopter ever to fly, after the Mil V-12, though its empty weight of 55 kg (122 lb) makes it one of the world’s lightest helicopters – and a mere 69 tonnes and 45 kg lighter than the aforementioned Mil. It is also the first human-powered helicopter to attain an altitude of 3 metres and stay aloft for 60 seconds. As such it won the Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition and netted $250,000 in prize money. The record breaking 2013 flight represented the culmination of a tight battle with the University of Maryland’s Gamera II human-powered helicopter but the Canadians pipped them at the post thus making up for years of Canadian resentment at suspected US involvement in the cancellation of the Avro Arrow.
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6. Bossi-Bonomi Pedaliante
After the ludicrous self-collapsing Cycleplane, the first serious attempt at a human powered aircraft was the German HV-1 Mufli which was well-designed and flew well but could only take off with catapult assistance. Subsequently Europe’s other major fascist state decided that aviation development could best be advanced by pedal power and offered 100,000 lire for the first human powered aircraft to fly for one kilometre. Enter serial-overachiever Italian-American Enea Bossi who had, amongst other things, designed and constructed the first Italian-built aircraft in 1909 with his pal Guiseppe Bellanca, flown as a bomber pilot in WWI, designed the first aircraft wheel braking system, and licence built the Savoia Marchetti S.56 in New York.
Bossi became interested in the prospect of human-powered flight when he heard of an aircraft that had flown with an engine of less than one horsepower which seemed to imply that human-propelled flight might be possible. Bossi approached the problem with a scientific rigour, conducting experiments with gliders towed by bicycles (similar experiments would take place half a century later in the development of the Gossamer Condor) and eventually came up with the unusually elegant Pedaliante. Equipped with two counter rotating airscrews to cancel out the surprisingly high level of torque found to be generated by such large propellers, Pedaliante took shape in the workshop of glider manufacturer Vittorio Bonomi. Intended to weigh a featherweight (for its time) 73kg, Pedaliante suffered its first major setback when the Ministero dell’Aeronautica mandated that it be built to the same structural strength requirements as an engine-powered aircraft. As a result the completed aircraft weighed a somewhat gargantuan 100kg and the future looked less than rosy for Bossi’s overweight (though exceptionally strong and beautifully well-made) aircraft. Luckily Bossi managed to enlist the help, and more importantly the legs, of Major Emilio Casco of the Italian Army, a cycling enthusiast noted for his enormous strength.
In early 1936 Casco pedalled mightily and managed to haul Pedaliante into the air for a 91 metre flight. This achievement was apparently beyond the ability of a ‘typical person’, whatever that means, but the Pedaliante proved that it could take off and fly by human power alone, even if it required an exceptional human to supply that power. Many later flights were catapulted assisted and Pedaliante managed a flight of over 1 km following a launch to 9 metres. The possibility of what this undoubtedly advanced and well-though-out machine could have achieved had it been built to its original lighter specification remains one of the most tantalising ‘what-ifs’ of human powered flight.
5. SUMPAC (and Puffin)
The first human-powered flight to be officially witnessed and accredited (and filmed for a Pathé news reel just to really hammer the point home) was achieved by SUMPAC (Southampton University Man Powered Aircraft), which had been built by students between 1960 and 1961 to make a bid for the Kremer prize. To pilot the craft, a professional cyclist was to be trained how to fly a glider by the exceptionally talented pilot Derek Piggott. As it turned out, the cyclist turned out to be untrainable and Piggott ended up gamely pedalling SUMPAC into the air, and the history books, himself.
SUMPAC flew around 40 times, achieving a maximum flight distance of 594 metres and making turns up to 80 degrees before a crash in 1963 caused sufficient damage that the decision was made to retire the aircraft. Although it was unable to capture the Kremer prize SUMPAC officially proved that controlled, sustained human powered flight was possible. SUMPAC’s achievement was almost immediately overshadowed somewhat though by the HMPAC Puffin (Hatfield Man Powered Aircraft Club – a group of de Havilland employees), which flew shortly after SUMPAC and set a distance record of 910 metres, a world record that would stand for a decade, but the Kremer prize remained just out of reach.
4. Musculair I and II
The world’s fastest human powered aircraft and the only such aircraft to have taken aloft a human passenger, the unpleasantly named Musculair 1 was developed by German engineer Günther Rochelt in 1984 with the aim of snaring two of the remaining Kremer prizes still up for grabs. Displaying an unusual hiring policy, Rochelt enlisted his own ‘not particularly athletic’ 17 year old son Holger as pilot and remarkably, shortly after the aircraft’s first flight, young Holger achieved the first of the two goals by winning the Kremer prize for the first non-US human powered aircraft to achieve a figure of eight flight over a mile-long course in June 1984. Later the same year he also attained a second Kremer prize for maximum speed by pedalling Musculair 1 to a giddy 35.7 km/h. Holger also took his younger sister Katrina up for a short trip but sadly Kremer had been remiss in sponsoring a prize for the first human powered aircraft to carry siblings.
Sadly, in February 1985 the original Musculair was damaged beyond airworthy repair in a road accident whilst in its trailer. Undeterred, the Rochelts built an improved Musculair II with the aim of exceeding the record set by Musculair 1 and winning a third Kremer prize for the fastest human powered aircraft flight. And yes, the aircraft mixed Roman and Arabic numerals, being named Musculair 1 and Musculair II, thus scaring away any OCD sufferers who might have been interested in the project. The rules stated that to win the prize, the maximum speed had to be raised by at least 5% over the previous best, which was widely believed to be unbeatable.
Nonetheless, Holger Rochelt proved once more how not particularly athletic he was by piloting and propelling Musculair II to the world record speed of 44.26 km/h, nearly 30 mph, in 1985. This was fast enough that the Royal Aeronautical Society, which oversees the awards of the Kremer prizes, decided that a further increase of 5% was impossible and withdrew the speed prize from further attempts. Musculair II thus remains the fastest pedal powered aircraft yet flown and survives to the present day on display in the Deutsches Museum Flugwerft Schleissheim in Oberschleißheim near Munich. Musculair 1 meanwhile is part of the collection of the Deutsches Museum, Munich.
3. Myers Sky-Cycle
One of the earliest human powered aircraft was also by far the most successful commercially and in terms of longevity. A decade before the Wright Brothers used an internal combustion engine (ie cheated) to shove their rickety Flyer into the air, Carl and Mary Myers were gamely pedalling about the heavens with their ‘Sky-Cycle’. However, unlike the secretive Wrights, the Myers demonstrated their aircraft in front of thousands of people, on one spectacular occasion in 1895 they allowed a reporter to pilot the Sky-Cycle across New York City. As a result there is not a hint of doubt that the Myers actually achieved what they claimed but this is largely irrelevant today as the question ‘Who was the first person to successfully fly a pedal-powered airship?’ is one seldom asked: a sorry reflection on the tediously predictable predilections of modern aviation enthusiasts.
The Sky-Cycle started life as a spherical hydrogen balloon to which Mary, a highly experienced balloonist (who made hundreds of demonstration flights as ‘Carlotta, the Lady Aeronaut’), added a rudder and hand driven airscrew to better allow her to navigate air currents, thus creating the first balloon which could be steered and propelled, albeit in a limited fashion. Carl improved this further by elongating the balloon envelope into a more aerodynamic shape and having the airscrew powered, bicycle style, by the pilot’s legs. In this form the aircraft was variously dubbed the ‘Air Bicycle’, ‘Gas Kite’, ‘Aerial Velocipede’, and the ‘Aerial Bicycle’, before ultimately settling on the pleasingly punnish ‘Sky-Cycle’. Test flights of the Sky-Cycle were made from the Myers’ ‘Balloon Farm’ in New York state in 1885 before Carl started to demonstrate the aircraft at various shows and fairs, eventually making hundreds of flights in thirteen states over the course of ten years.
The Sky-Cycle was apparently easy to fly, the pilot simply leaning fore and aft for control in the vertical plane and to either side to make turns. Initially fitted with handlebars controlling a rudder, Myers had discovered these were unnecessary and added hand cranks to supplement the pedals in powering the airscrew. It’s ease of control undoubtedly encouraged Myers’ surprising willingness to let others fly the Sky-Cycle: a reporter named WP Pond flew a Sky-Cycle in formation with Carl pedalling a second machine as early as 1890 (thus achieving the first recorded powered formation flight in history). Pond wrote an excellent account of his adventure in Frank Leslie’s Pictorial Magazine in September of that year concluding “These machines are everything that the inventor claims for them, and will one day in all probability be placed upon the market for sale…The boys of the future have a great treat in store”.
Five years later an anonymous journalist from ‘The New York World’ took an improved Sky-Cycle, now with a cylindrical envelope and fitted with wings for added lift, on its sensational flight over New York city. Starting at the Rockwell Leather Works factory at the corner of Flushing and Classon avenues, Brooklyn, this indomitable reporter flew across the East River, receiving the toots and whistles of steamships on the river in salute, before turning and travelling the length of Manhattan island and crossing the Bronx to land without incident in Yonkers. This was the first dirigible flight over New York and The World delightedly reported of the “First Trial in New York of a Device By Which Man May Really Soar”.
Myers further developed the Sky-Cycle and it became one of vey few human powered aircraft to become a motor driven vehicle when he fitted it with a Curtiss engine. As his balloon and airship business took off (pun intended), Myers effectively abandoned the pilot as powerplant and developed a swathe of advanced airship concepts whilst maintaining his career as a manufacturer of balloons and exhibition balloonist until his retirement in 1909.
2. Daedalus 88
Blessed with the name most likely to be shared with a 1980s animated TV series, Daedalus 88 totally smashed the flight distance record for human-powered aircraft and remains the world record holder, having flown an incredible 115 km from Crete to Santorini in April 1988. A conventional aircraft by the whimsical standards of human-powered flight Daedalus was developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Aeronautics and Astronautics Department and two Daedalus aircraft were built. The first, Daedulus 87 was thoroughly tested at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California, eventually suffering a crash caused by insufficient rudder authority but the second, Daedalus 88 was destined for greater things.
Both Daedalus aircraft made great use of carbon fibre and kevlar in their airframes for lightness and strength though much of the structure consisted of the somewhat less exotic expanded polystyrene, the whole lot being covered with Mylar film. Despite possessing a wingspan of over 34 metres, the aircraft weighed a teensy 39kg, that’s less than half the mass of John Travolta (at the time of writing the most famous person with a pilot’s licence for whom I could find a vaguely reliable weight figure).
Like SUMPAC nearly thirty years earlier, Daedalus 88 was intended to be flown by someone proven to be good at cycling. The MIT team sensibly recruited five serious cyclists and taught them how to fly (one was already a qualified glider pilot). Three of them were keen amateur cyclists, one was a former US professional cyclist and the fifth was a former Olympian and fourteen time Greek National road racing champion, Kanellos Kanellopoulos. That the massively more successful Kanellopoulos subsequently flew Daedalus 88 on its momentous journey doesn’t feel entirely surprising but apparently it was merely his turn when conditions became perfect. Hmmm. Anyway, there’s a pleasing symmetry in the fact that a modern Greek flyer should recreate the legendary journey of the second most famous Ancient Greek flyer.
At 7.06am on 23 April 1988, Kanellopoulos, wearing nothing but cycling shorts (into which he had cut holes to save weight), lifted off from an airstrip in Crete. Enjoying a light tail wind and escorted by boats, Daedalus 88 headed out over the Aegean. Every turn and a half of the propeller required a complete turn of the pedals and any slackening of the pace resulted in the aircraft noticeably dipping towards the surface of the sea. After 2 hours and 49 minutes Kanellopoulos and Daedalus broke the previous endurance record for a human powered aircraft. Unlike an earlier human powered Greek pilot, Kanellopoulos did not fly sufficiently close to the sun to melt the aircraft, as he prudently maintained a constant altitude of around 15 metres.
After nearly four hours Kanellopoulos approached the island of Santorini. By this time the sun had sufficiently warmed the black sand of the beach to create an updraft and headwind that was beyond the power of Kanellopoulos’s fatigued legs to overcome. Turning parallel to the beach to attempt a landing a gust of wind caught the aircraft’s wing, the sudden stress caused first the tail boom to fail with an audible crack, then the wing folded and Daedalus 88 plunged into the sea. The exhausted Kanellopoulos was helped ashore and various crew members jumped into the waves to salvage the broken but triumphant Daedalus. Hal Youngren, the project’s Chief Engineer, was interviewed in the water, grasping one end of the crumpled wing he was salvaging. ‘This is easily the coolest airplane crash I’ve ever seen!’ he exclaimed from the waves.
Kanellos Kanellopoulos had expended the same amount of energy as if he had just run two marathons back to back or, perhaps more relevantly, cycled a conventional bicycle at a constant 37 km/h (23 mph) for six hours. In doing so he and Daedalus 88 had set two world records for human powered aircraft, one for flight distance at 115.11 km and the other for flight duration at 3 hours and 54 minutes. Both still stand 33 years later.
- Gossamer Condor and Gossamer Albatros
What else could it be? Human powered flight had been in the doldrums for a while and a Japanese aircraft called Stork looked likely to nudge the distance record up a bit when Paul MacCready burst onto the scene and took the Kremer prize with the remarkable Gossamer Condor before following it up in fairly short order with a flight across the English channel.
Surprisingly, MacCready came up with the idea of winning the Kremer prize primarily as a money making scheme, because he was $100,000 in debt. In the mid 1970s the exchange rate hovered around $2 to the pound so winning the £50,000 prize would essentially solve his monetary problems in one fell human-powered swoop. Obviously fixating on the prospect of pedalling an aeroplane around a difficult course, a feat no one had achieved before despite the best attempts of several highly professional individuals and organisations, would not necessarily be the best course of action for the average debt-ridden engineer but MacCready was far from being an average debt-ridden engineer. Trained as a naval aviator at the tail end of the Second World War, MacCready was a three time national glider champion who gained his PhD in aeronautics in 1953. He invented a device that informed the pilot of the best speed to fly a glider, depending on conditions and based on the glider’s sink rate at different speeds. Glider pilots still use the “MacCready ring” (no sniggering at the back) and adjust the “MacCready Number”, to optimise their flying speed.
Inspired by their knowledge and experience of hang glider design, Macready and his associate Peter B. S. Lissaman built the Gossamer Condor with an unusually low aspect ratio wing compared to previous human powered aircraft, though still a very high aspect ratio wing in conventional terms. After a short flight with a proof-of-concept vehicle, the Gossamer Condor in its initial form, lacking the enclosed cockpit and some other features, was first flown by MacCready’s son on 26 December 1976 at Mojave airport.
With nacelle fitted and the design tweaked to its final configuration, the Gossamer Condor was ready for an attempt on the Kremer Prize by mid 1977. For pilot MacCready had enlisted Bryan Allen, an amateur cyclist and self-taught hang glider pilot who thus combined the two most important requirements for a Human powered aeronaut: good low speed piloting experience and proven leg power. On 23 August 1977 at Minter Field in Shafter, California, observed by the Royal Aeronautical Society, Allen piloted (and powered) the Gossamer Condor off the ground, over a 10ft height marker before flying (slowly) a mile long figure of eight before clearing the same height marker and descending to a safe landing. The Kremer prize was won, MacCready was £50,000 richer and the Gossamer Condor had booked its display space at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Everyone was delighted.
But MacCready was still in debt. The costs required to develop and build the Gossamer Condor had been substantial and MacCready had only managed to knock off around a third of what he owed. Then, as if by magic, the munificence of Henry Kremer smiled on MacCready once more: a new prize was offered for the first human powered aircraft to cross the English Channel. And this time the money was doubled to £100,000 which would easily cover MacCready’s remaining liability and more. The aircraft that MacCready produced was essentially an improved version of the Gossamer Condor, with a higher aspect wing of slightly greater span and the pilot now seated atop a saddle in a more conventional fashion than the recumbent set up of Gossamer Condor. Named the Gossamer Albatross, the pilot was once again to be Bryan Allen but this time the distance required to remain aloft was daunting: the Channel flight would require the aircraft to traverse 22 miles of open sea. The attempt was made on a dead calm 12 June 1979, Allen took off (slowly) slightly before 6 am from Folkestone and headed eastwards out to sea. Things began to go badly, the weather deteriorated and Allen had to battle headwinds as he edged towards France. The crossing was estimated beforehand at two hours and Allen was provided with a two hour water supply. But two hours in and Allen was dehydrated, suffering cramps, the water had run out and the French coast was still not in sight.
Allen signalled to the escorting boats that he was going to give up and climbed slightly so that he could drop a line and be taken in tow. However, this minor change of altitude revealed calmer conditions at this slightly higher altitude so Allen decided instead to press on. 49 minutes later, after sometimes dropping within centimetres of the surface and at times able to pedal with just one leg, Allen and the Gossamer Condor triumphantly crossed the shoreline at Cap Gris-Nez and landed (slowly) on the beach.
MacCready’s money woes were erased and pleasingly he ploughed the prize money back into his company Aerovironment which went from strength to strength, developing solar propulsion technology that culminated in the remarkable Helios UAV (via, amongst others, the Gossamer Penguin, the world’s first solar powered aircraft, the Solar Challenger which flew 262km from just north of Paris to Manston airfield in Kent, and the amazing Sunraycer solar car that won the first Solar road race from Darwin to Adelaide). MacCready won a slew of engineering and environmental awards and honours. Today Aerovironment is the primary supplier of small drones to the Pentagon and valued at $508 million. None of this would have been possible without the Gossamer Condor and Albatross, proving that in this case at least, developing a human powered aircraft was not just the whim of an eccentric engineer chasing an amusing but pointless dream. As well as directly financing the company, the extreme lightweight structural technology utilised in the Gossamer Condor and Albatross directly informed the solar powered aircraft that would cement MacCready and Aerovironment’s reputation. A fitting legacy to a pair of spectacular, delicate, and very slow aircraft.
But there’s more! If you want to see some of these aircraft in action here are some useful links:
- The Gehrhardt cycleplane collapses
- Pedaliante maintains altitude after a cable launch
- SUMPAC flies for Pathe news
- Daedalus II crashes into the sea, the rest of this documentary is worth watching too
- 50 minute long, Emmy award winning 1979 documentary on the Gossamer Albatross (totally worth it if you have time)
- 1978 documentary on the Gossamer Condor
- Prize-winning flight of the Aerovelo Atlas
- The surprisingly elegant Snowbird ornithopter
- Poor quality but quite exciting film of Musculair II flying the figure of eight Kremer course demonstrating high speed and remarkable manoeuvrability for a human powered aircraft, with German commentary
Enjoy, fellow potential aircraft powerplants!
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