The world’s worst air force

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The illustrator Edward Ward approached Hush-Kit complaining that life seemed pointless. As he sat in the park in the rain bemoaning the downfall of civilisation, I decided he needed something to distract him. With this in mind I gave Ed the enviable task of equipping a notional 1940s air force – with one proviso: he could only pick from the worst aeroplanes then flying. Over to Ed. 

“Picture the scene: It is the 1940s. The Republic of Hushkonia has been taken over by a benevolent dictatorship of disgruntled aviation enthusiasts. Somewhat ironically the air force (and national airline ‘Air Hush’) remains under the control of officers loyal to the old regime. Furious with their new ineffectual overlords, yet too timid to stage a coup, they decide instead to make the Hushkonian armed forces as bad as possible to attempt to encourage takeover by a foreign power and restoration of the old order. To add at least some credibility to their actions they decide to select aircraft that actually saw service in their specified roles with other nations. No crazy prototypes or mad schemes here, only tried and tested flops.

Here are the aircraft they have ordered, starting with at least 5000 of each.

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Fighter

Messerschmitt 163

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“Hello Messerschmitt? Luftwaffe here, we’d like a new fighter please.”

“Righto, what kind of thing would you like?”

“Well we were hoping for something that looks really cool and everything and is really really fast, mmm,  in fact would it be too much to ask for it to be fast enough that the closing speed between it and any potential target would be so high as to make it more or less impossible to aim and fire the guns at anything with any realistic chance of success? And could it have a cannon with a really low muzzle velocity to properly compound that problem? Also we were wondering if it might have no range at all, and it’d be good if we could have it land on a ski or something, preferably as a glider, and we want it to blow up all the time for no apparent reason so it’d be best if it was full of crazy volatile fuels. Oh and if possible we’d like the fuel to dissolve the pilot. Talking of the pilot we thought it might be nice to design in a terrifying aerodynamic flaw that will definitely kill him like maybe an unrecoverable dive if he lets the aircraft exceed Mach 0.84” 

“Would you like it to be pressurised?”

“No”

“Ejection seat?”

“No”

“Anything else?”

“Did we say we wanted it to look really cool?”

On the basis of this conversation, which actually really actually happened, the fighter arm of Hushkonia was equipped with its premier air superiority asset.

See the 10 best fighters of World War II here

 

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Long range escort fighter

Boeing YB-40 Flying Fortress

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This fighter is, as you have no doubt spotted, a B-17. Imagine ‘mixing it’ with the 109s in this. In 1942 the Eighth Air force thought they might create an effective escort by slinging a massive amount of guns into a bomb-free Flying Fortress. No aircraft has ever flown with such a formidable defensive armament. Unfortunately this made the aircraft so draggy and heavy that it couldn’t keep up with the bombers it was supposed to be protecting. In a totally irrelevant but oddly satisfying aside, the YB-40 is the only aircraft on this list to feature in an Oscar-winning film, two of them appear in the scrapyard scene at RFC Ontario towards the end of William Wyler’s ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ which won nine Academy awards in 1947. Its film career was notably more successful than its operational one but did not save it from the scrapman’s torch.

See the worst US airplanes here

Strategic Bomber

Heinkel He 177 Greif (Griffon)

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When it comes to long range strategic bombers there’s really only one choice, the Luftwaffenfeuerzeug, Heinkel’s flaming coffin, the dyslexically accurately named Greif. It is worth pointing out that when it worked properly the He 177 was a stupendous performer, powerful and fast, the trouble was that it didn’t work properly very often. Furthermore when things started to go wrong in a Greif, they tended to go wrong quickly, catastrophically and inflammably.

My time in a French superfighter: A pilot’s story here

The statistics are enlightening: for example of 13 missions flown on flak-suppression duties at Stalingrad, seven 177s were lost to fire, none of which were attributable to enemy action. The problem all stemmed from the He 177’s powerplant (consisting of a pair of Daimler Benz V-12 engines mounted on a common crankshaft in each wing) and their incredibly tight fit into their cowlings. Both engines shared a common central exhaust manifold serving a total of 12 cylinders, the two inner cylinder banks of the component engines.

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This central exhaust system would often became extremely hot, causing oil and grease which routinely accumulated in the bottom of each engine cowling to catch fire. this problem was compounded by the fact that there was a tendency for the fuel injection pump on each engine to lag in their response to the pilot throttling back in such situations, deliver more fuel than was required and thus fuel the fire, in addition the fuel injection pump connections often leaked. Furthermore, to reduce the aircraft’s weight no firewall was provided, and the back of each engine was fitted so close to the main spar, with two-thirds of each engine being placed behind the wing’s leading edge, that fuel and oil fluid lines and electrical harnesses were crammed in with insufficient space and the engines were often covered with fuel and oil from leaking fuel lines and connections.

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At high altitude the poorly designed lubrication pump led to the oil foaming, reducing its lubricating qualities. Insufficient lubrication ultimately resulted in connecting rod bearings failing (which also befell the Avro Manchester but that aircraft was quickly altered into the superlative Lancaster), resulting in the conrods sometimes bursting through the crankcases and puncturing the oil tanks, the contents of which would then empty onto the white hot central exhaust manifold. The tightly packed nacelles in which the engines were installed on the He 177A, with many of the engine’s components buried within the wing led to very poor ventilation as well as poor maintenance access. essentially the He 177 was a fire waiting to happen. Whilst the constant fires were by far the most serious issue affecting the Greif the big Heinkel also had to contend with an overly heavy undercarriage, a dangerous swing on take-off, due to the massive torque of the enormous propellors, an inadequate defensive armament, some unpleasant handling characteristics, famed test pilot Eric Brown suggested the elevator control was “dangerously light”, and lingering concerns about its structural strength, Brown noting that “it really was nailbiting to have to treat a giant like this immense Heinkel bomber as if it was made of glass.”

See the worst British military aircraft here

The French finished a version of the He 177 after the war with four separate engines and it served reliably for years on test programmes, proving that if Heinkel hadn’t inexplicably persisted with the coupled-engine concept they could have had an effective, reliable strategic bomber from 1942. An amazing 1169 of these terrible bombers were built, however, slightly sadly, none survive (except of course for thousands being built for Hushkonia).

Tactical Bomber

Fairey Battle

Fairey_Battle_ExCC.jpgAll the fighting powers of the Second world war really pulled out the stops to produce dreadful light and medium bombers apparently designed solely for killing aircrew but the Battle lowered the bar of uselessness to an effectively unassailable depth.

Despite being the first RAF aircraft to shoot down an enemy aircraft in the Second World War, and the first aircraft fitted with the superlative Merlin engine, the Battle was woeful. It was a kind of anti-Mosquito, being too slow to evade enemy fighters yet too badly armed to defend itself, too small to carry a decent bombload yet too large for a single-engined aircraft and lumbered with an extra crewman to no real purpose. The Battle was unable to survive against any modern fighter aircraft and loss rates during 1940 regularly exceeded 50% and achieved 100% on at least two occasions. It does not require a degree in mathematics to realise that losses at these levels are untenable.

The Empire’s Ironclad: Flying & Fighting in the B-52 here

Its shortcomings had been recognised before the war but the Battle had one overriding trump card: it was cheap. In late thirties Britain it was decided that to have lots of crappy bombers was better than having none at all, especially when announcing production totals to a hostile parliament and press. It is not a coincidence that more Battles were built than any other aircraft on this list.

10 Incredible Soviet Fighter Aircraft that never entered service here

To be fair to the Battle, its contemporaries the Blenheim, Hampden and Wellington were also cut to pieces by day and all suffered far fewer losses by night, yet with its weedy bombload the Battle was the most ineffectual of the lot, even if it managed to survive. In the end it found its niche as a training aircraft, being of a useful size, reliable, and free of vices and it remained in service until 1949, but in operational service it was a death trap put into service in large numbers for cynical reasons of economy and political disinformation. As such it is the ideal light bomber for the Hushkonian air force.

Ground attack

Breda Ba 88 Lince (Lynx)

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Do you like aircraft that can go round corners? Breda thought that was overrated.

Proof that the adage ‘if it looks right, it’ll fly right’ is a load of old cobblers, the Lince looked fast and purposeful yet was so overweight, draggy and underpowered that it frequently failed to fly. On the first day of the Italian offensive against British forces in Egypt for example, three Bredas were committed from Sicily, one failed to take off and another was found to be unable to turn and was therefore compelled to fly straight and level until it arrived at Sidi Rezegh airfield in Libya (which fairly evidently isn’t Egypt). Later, when sand filters were fitted to the engines the Lince could not exceed 155 mph and there were occasions when entire units failed to take off. Various items of equipment were left behind in an attempt to make the benighted craft viable including the rear machine gun, one of the crew (leaving the pilot all on his own), and half the fuel and bombload but it never worked and the Lince was adapted to a role it fulfilled admirably – being parked on airfields to draw enemy fire. A noble task.

A disrespectful history of Italian fighters here

Reconnaissance

Curtiss SO3C Seamew

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Proof that the adage ‘if it looks right, it’ll fly right’ is totally accurate, the Seamew looked awkward and just, somehow, wrong. From the unlovely lines of its engine cowling via its horrible rectangular winglets to the worryingly truncated rear fuselage the Seamew inspired a total lack of confidence. With good reason as it turned out for the poor little Curtiss was a dreadful aircraft. It didn’t even win the competition that selected it for service, a rival design by Vought was judged superior but Vought were busy with the F4U and Curtiss had spare capacity so into production it went, and in no small terms as 795 of these unpleasant little aircraft were released into the wild. If it had been merely slow and uninspiring it could be written off as a humdrum mediocrity but the Seamew was also dangerous. Its main tank could hold 300 gallons of fuel but it wouldn’t take off with more than 80 gallons on board.

Fiendishly Hard Aircraft Quiz 3 here

Even if the Ranger engine didn’t pack up (which it did – often, a bad start for a single engined aircraft intended to mainly operate over the sea) the Seamew had other tricks up its sleeve as, according to the improbably named Lettice Curtiss, ‘it was possible to take off in an attitude from which it was both impossible to recover and in which there was no aileron control’ which sounds like an enervating experience. Eventually the Seamew became one of that select band of aircraft which were replaced by the very aircraft they were supposed to succeed, the biplane Curtiss SOC being restored on the catapults of several USN capital ships. In an admirable gesture of inclusiveness Curtiss made the SO3C available with either wheels or floats so its unpleasant characteristics could be experienced equally by those on land or at sea.

See the worst Soviet aircraft here

Trainer

LWS-6 Żubr

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When it comes to ungulates, the Mustang probably got the best deal in terms of aeronautical namesakes. The Bison by contrast has lent its sturdy name to the Indian MiG-21 variant, a hilariously ungainly Avro biplane and this, the ‘Żubr’, which is Polish for Bison according to Wikipedia. Though Google Translate thinks it means Aurochs. Hmm.

Contemporary nomenclature translation ambiguity aside, the Żubr was probably the worst training aircraft ever, in fact it may have been the worst aircraft to enter service anywhere, at any time. Plus it was fantastically ugly, just look at its chin and that rictus grin of windows (proof that the adage if it looks right etc etc). It’s like a massive aerial Bruce Forsyth. Unlike Bruce Forsyth however the hideous Żubr had a terrifying propensity to fall apart at inopportune moments which was ironic as the Żubr, was intended as a ‘low risk’ alternative to the superlative PZL-37 Łoś (which means ‘Elk’ for all you ungulate translation fans), this after it had already been touted as an airliner but lost out to the DC-2. The problems started with the engines, the Żubr had been designed for the 420hp Wasp Junior but was re-engined with the 700hp Bristol Pegasus and the greater stresses imposed by the much more powerful engine were dealt with by ignoring them. A crash in 1936 led to a strengthening programme which added to the weight and reduced the bombload.

Ten incredible cancelled military aircraft here

Then there was the landing gear which required the crew to disconnect several of the aircraft’s other electrical systems to function, eventually it was just locked down and forgotten about with obvious effects on the already pedestrian performance of the aircraft. More serious was the Żubr’s tendency to come unstuck, the Żubr seems to have been made out of bits of whatever was lying around at the PZL works in 1936 and featured wood, steel tube, aluminium, and sheet steel at various points of the airframe. Whilst not in itself a problem, there were plenty of exceptional ‘mixed construction’ aircraft in the forties, it is as well to make sure the glue you’re using for the wooden bits is up to par. Sadly for the Żubr it was not, and after dazzling two Romanian officers who were evaluating the machine with its dizzying 100 mph performance, the Żubr in question simply fell apart, killing all aboard. The factory immediately went into damage limitation and scurrilously put out a story that one of the Romanians had opened a door during the flight, though quite why opening a door should cause the whole aircraft to disintegrate was never adequately answered.

Flying and fighting in the Lightning

An attempt to improve the aircraft by adding a twin tail failed when the added weight of the ‘improvements’ reduced the payload to zero. And thus the failed airliner turned failed bomber failed to get its export order and chugged along training Polish bomber crews to fly better aircraft. Amazingly those that survived the German invasion were pressed into Luftwaffe service as trainers. The last survivor of the 17 built was put into the Zeughaus museum in Berlin, presumably to scare the children, and it was there that it was destroyed by vastly better Allied bombers in 1944.

Transport

Bristol Buckingham C1

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5000 horsepower for four passengers. British aviation at its most economical. Plus it handled like a pig.

Airliner

Avro Tudor

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Knowing that the postwar aviation world would demand shit British aircraft to take the piss out of, Avro bravely sacrificed their credibility and chief designer in the name of Unassailable Mediocrity. Poor Roy Chadwick was killed when the prototype Tudor II crashed, through no fault of the aircraft (surprisingly), the aileron cables had been reversed. Chadwick had designed the Lancaster and was a great loss to British aviation but the Tudor should really have been put out of its misery long before. Despite being heavier and slower than either a Constellation or DC-4 (which were already in service) the Tudor was designed to carry a lousy 12 passengers. It had an outdated tailwheel undercarriage and the four Merlins it was fitted with were not ideal for civil use, mainly due to their being amongst the loudest piston engines ever developed. Aviation enthusiasts seem to fall into paroxysms of joy on hearing a Merlin but sitting next to four of them for twelve hours might make you think twice about calling it “the sweetest sound in the world” or “the sound of freedom”. Handling problems were never entirely fixed, and “The Tudor was built like a battleship. It was noisy, I had no confidence in its engines and its systems were hopeless. The Americans were fifty years ahead of us in systems engineering. All the hydraulics, the air conditioning equipment and the recircling [sic] fans were crammed together underneath the floor without any thought. There were fuel-burning heaters that would never work; we had the floorboards up in flight again and again.”

The 10 best-looking US Navy aircraft here

Although that last sentence sounds like a 1930s housewife bewailing her time in a terraced house in Bradford, this was in fact Gordon Store, the chief pilot and operations manager of British South American Airlines. The Tudor would be totally forgotten by history if it weren’t for the fact that two disappeared without trace in the spooky area known as the Bermuda Triangle. Right now, presumably, there are some disgruntled aliens with the floorboards up trying to get the heaters to work so they can resume their studies of primitive Earth culture.

Maritime Patrol

Saro Lerwick

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Alliot Verdon Roe, who founded Avro, and later Saro, was a fully paid up member of the Fascist party. This may serve to explain the horrible Lerwick and its effect on the RAF. You could be forgiven for thinking that designing an aircraft to fly around slowly for ages in the hope that someone might see a submarine and then drop something on it might be a relatively simple task but the Saro Lerwick serves to prove that, apparently, it is not. 21 were built, 11 were lost (10 in accidents, one disappeared). Its main problems were simple lack of power coupled with an inexplicable lack of stability. The Lerwick could not be flown hands-off, which is rubbish for a long range patrol aircraft nor could it maintain height on one engine. It was prone to porpoising on landing and take off and possessed a vicious stall. Added to this structural headaches (the floats regularly broke off) and a woefully unreliable hydraulic system and it becomes obvious that the Lerwick should be ordered in massive numbers at once for Hushkonia.

AND FOR THE FLEET:

Carrier Fighter

Blackburn Roc

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The wrong concept applied to the wrong airframe at the wrong time, the Roc was the answer to a question that should never been asked, namely “Where’s the Navy’s Boulton & Paul Defiant?”.

Boulton & Paul had gone to great lengths to make their turret armed fighter as fast and handy as possible. Despite carrying around a turret and a gunner which added about a ton to the loaded weight of the aircraft, the performance wasn’t much worse than a contemporary Hurricane and although the concept was flawed, the aircraft was excellent. Imagine what they must have thought when the Navy asked them to mount the same turret in the less-than-stellar Blackburn Skua to produce an aircraft 85 mph slower and infinitely less able to survive, let alone fight, in the skies over Europe. Exactly how an aircraft, derived from a dive bomber, barely able to reach 200 mph and with no forward firing armament was supposed to combat a Messerschmitt 109 was apparently not a major concern for the powers that be.

Luckily for all concerned (except the Luftwaffe) the Roc was little used but amazingly it did score one confirmed kill against a Ju 88 over Belgium, an aircraft nearly 100 mph faster than the unlovely Roc. Despite this unlikely success the Roc remains the worst operational carrier fighter ever to grace a flightdeck and as such is the shoe-in for the noble Hushkonian fleet.

Carrier Torpedo bomber

Douglas TBD Devastator

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The Devastator’s chronic vulnerability has become infamous. It was required to fly straight and level at a stately 115 mph to deliver its torpedo, a speed that meant it could be easily intercepted by an SE5a of 1917 vintage, which is somewhat unfortunate for an aircraft touted as the most advanced naval aircraft in the world on its debut. By contrast the contemporary Japanese Nakajima B5N could launch its superlative Type 91 torpedo at over 200 mph. Furthermore the poor old TBD had a woeful defensive armament and lacked manoeuvrability. Its problems did not stop there as its main armament, the Mark 13 torpedo, was a dreadful weapon plagued with reliability issues and frequently observed to score a hit but fail to explode. Considered as a weapons system, the TBD/Mk 13 torpedo combination was probably the least satisfactory of the entire air war. Instead of the torpedo, the TBD could also carry 1200 lbs of bombs thus extending the scope of its inadequacy into two roles. At least it could go a bit faster and higher when dropping its bombs. If it had never been required to enter combat the TBD would have been nothing more than another forgettable mid-thirties design, Dick Best, who flew an SBD dive bomber at the Battle of Midway remembered the Devastator as a “nice-flying airplane” but, like the Fairey Battle, it was committed to combat in a world that had overtaken it. Only 130 were ever built. a pathetic amount for a US aircraft of this vintage and weirdly only six fewer than the equally dismal Blackburn Roc above. A match made in mediocre naval aviation heaven.”

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6 comments

  1. Christopher J Sparks

    You’re underselling the Komet.

    The fuel, effectively 80% hydrogen peroxide rocket fuel was so unstable a Komet could light up on the ground surrounded by aircrew.

    Also the skid landing gear had a habit of breaking the backs of 163 pilots.

  2. Pingback: Les liens de la semaine – Édition #212 | French Coding

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