Dreams of what could have been
“Aviation, the twentieth century miracle, the giddiest of all of mankind’s gifts to itself, fixing the imagination to the possibility of the seemingly impossible, is something – unbelievably – we have come to take for granted. That the Wright Brothers (or whichever putative French rivals or steam-driven British claimants) slipped earth’s surly bonds within a mere six decades of man landing on the moon – less than an expected lifetime – should become routine business, as vast Airbuses slide through west London skies past my office window, remains objectively bonkers. But flight became commonplace in my imagination long ago, long before easyJet and Flybe offered the miracle on the cheap, back in the 1970s, the Golden Age of Airfix. Let’s be honest, if it weren’t for Airfix would we even be having this cosy chat?
For I am a child of the Airfix era – to the point where Airfix was the word for model making. And while my recently revived interest in model making has centred around the armoured fighting vehicles of the Second World War (not WW2, it isn’t a sequel) it was Airfix that started me off and that made me so darned familiar with the notion of flight that by the time I was ten I possessed opinions. Even though Airfix’s first kit was a tractor, the company’s name made it pretty clear where the action was: planes. War planes. Second World War planes: who else offered a 1:24 scale Spitfire? But the jewel in this model builder’s collection (though I have to stress pocket money restraints meant squadrons were impossible and even finger-fours of anything a stretch) was the Westland Whirlwind. Why?
Well, like the bacon double cheese-burger, the Whirlwind had two of everything yet somehow remained digestible. Compared to other twin-engine types? Well, the Me 110 by comparison looked like a stinker and the crew had to share the double helpings of engine power, and Airfix’s kit notes with the Zerstorer let you know it was a dog, at least when faced by The Few. If memory serves the box artwork for the dogfight doubles kits featured a 110 on its way down, an engine on fire, and that underlined the point you were building a doomed plane for an outclassed opponent. (This is not to say that the B-17 artwork, one of its engines burning ominously, ever put me off – the bristling armament of the Fortress seemed to promise its survival somehow). And – heresy though this may sound to some – the Whirlwind looked more nimble and high concept kit-car than the Mosquito; the Mosquito swanning into town saying I’m the Wooden Wonder don’t you know I can do anything with the joy-crushing swagger of the truly gifted all-rounder.
Furthermore, the Whirlwind seemed to offer things previous fighters couldn’t. Any Airfix fan who’d built a couple or more Spitfire Vb’s – with the Donald Duck 303 Sqn artwork – was familiar with how tricky it was to see over the nose of the plane on take off and how visibility, until the arrival of later drop canopy types, was pretty limited. And it only had a pair of cannon, too. The Whirlwind, oh my, it had four – if anything could, erm, spit fire round here it was the Whirlwind. The pilot’s view seemed far superior, the canopy afforded the pilot far more all round vision than any of the competition, and did I mention the firepower? Well, as a good friend of mine is wont to say: what’s not to like?
A fantasy hot rod fighter: the 1/72 kit would somehow seem smaller, skinnier than one might expect and the aircraft more ungainly than the artwork perhaps suggested, but the Whirlwind’s rangy lines felt right. It looked hungry, punchy. Most importantly it looked a lot like a fighter plane that a ten year old with strong opinions and a set of felt tips might design. In flight its slightly weird lines work well together, the oversize tail somehow adding to its urgent looks.
And then you’d read the notes that came with the kit. Bugger. Unreliable. Engine problems. Underpowered. Dangerous. Discontinued. To quote Anakin Skywalker: “Noooooooo!”
The Whirlwind fits into the category of dumped types from the period of the war when there was time neither to get things wrong nor for them to eventually go right. Like the secret of so many things, it was all about timing. The Spitfire’s torturous development from conception to mass production (it’s figuring out how you churn the bloody things out and how long you can do it for that matters when you’re going to toe-to-toe in an industrial war, and the Spitfire had a two year head start on the Whirlwind). Its origins, the Air Ministry Specification F5/34, lay in the realisation that maybe equipping interceptors with .303 rifle ammunition, no matter how many converging guns you crammed into the wings of your fighter planes, might not be as optimally lethal as required; certainly this came grimly true when the Battle of Britain began – RAF fighters couldn’t as inflict a killer blow as easily as their cannon equipped adversaries. Explosive shells were far more effective, especially as aircraft had become increasingly complex. The thinking was a twin engine plane would be needed as a gun platform for the harder hitting cannon.” – AL MURRAY
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All the leading manufacturers pitched in – with Hawker and Supermarine offering up-gunned adaptations of their already successful types the Hurricane and Spitfire, which were knocked back for fear of interrupting production of the existing machine gun armed types. Westland got the Whirlwind airborne in late 1938. And then it stalled. Not literally. Trials showed it offered great promise: it was quicker than the competition. However, problems there simply wasn’t time for lurked.
The thing about Hush Kit of course is that is the celebration of flight, planes, their lines, quirks, foibles. And that’s why we love it. We wouldn’t love it anything like as much if it was just about the engines, because all too often it IS just about the engines, but the Whirlwind is a case in point. The Rolls Royce Peregrine was a dud. How could this be? Rolls Royce were the engine makers supreme! The mighty moan of the Merlin! The sound of freedom! Of course, the ten year old me would say well surely you stick a pair of Merlins on it then? Aside from whether that was even possible, whether they’d have been suitable, that pair of Merlins was probably about to be stuck on the AVRO Manchester. Rolls Royce had tried to drop the Peregrine and other types to concentrate on the Merlin and Griffon but the Air Ministry demurred – after all the Whirlwind needed the engines. The Peregrines arrived with Westland late, teething problems and prioritising delaying them.
But time really had run out – time that had been kind to other types. By the time Westland was able to get the Whirlwind into production, the Spitfire had been adapted to carry cannon – those blisters on the wings of that Donald Duck Vb. And for twin engine heavy punch the Bristol Beaufighter was ready, tried and tested, and had more range than the Westland plane. The Whirlwind was set to fail and fall between the cracks. Only 141 were built – with circular logic Rolls Royce dropped the Peregrine as soon as the Whirlwind was cancelled, and focused on Merlins and Griffons.
While Eric Winkle Brown didn’t rate the Whirlwind, the men that flew it on sorties did – the three squadrons that operated it did so with mixed results – doing well in the ground attack role that suited the Peregrine’s idiosyncrasies, but not so well in the Channel Dash tangling with 109s. The Peregrines didn’t do well at altitude and were pretty thirsty: so brassing up airfields in France, during the RAF’s ‘Rhubarb’ phase of operations – if rhubarbs weren’t named after theatrical background hubbub they so plainly resemble, the appearance of action but nothing actually happening, then what were they named after? – with Spitfires overhead as escort, became one of the Whirlwind’s default roles. And what kind of heavy hitting hotrod needs an escort? Unfortunately, for a plane now settled on a low-level role the cockpit would get too hot… precisely the kind of problems that a little more time finding solutions might have mitigated. Waiting eagerly in the wings was the Typhoon; Hawker had the kind of clout needed to develop a new type come-what-may that maybe Westland didn’t. As well as a properly invested aero engine manufacturer.
There’s Pathe news footage called Whirlwind Fighter Squadron, from 1943, the year the Whirlwind was shut down. As the camera pans down a long line of Whirlwinds, the crews grinning at the camera the planes look simply shit hot, their gnarly four cannon noses look completely up for it. It’s very much a film of its type, bombs chalked with cheery messages, you know the sort of thing. But the footage of the Whirlwinds tooling around the airfield at low level, and then dropping bombs in formation. At the end of the film they roar over in ‘finger four’, and they look exactly like what a ten-year-old with felt tips would have drawn to take the war to Jerry. Achtung, Whirlwind! We shall never see your like again. Apart from the helicopter that pinched your name.
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