I Am Not The Blackburn Firebrand
Long derided as a scandalous pilot-killer, the true story of the Blackburn Firebrand is very different argues naval aviation historian Matthew Willis.
I am tired. Another day on Twitter, another bruising at the hands of the mob. ‘Abomination!’ they say. ‘A lemon.’ ‘A disaster’. ‘Should have been turned into catfood tins.’
OK, so those aren’t comments about me directly, although I’ve honestly had worse, and given the state of my mental health, it’s hard to conclude that they are unfair. (Not that I’d make a very good cat food tin, which is now added to the list of things to beat myself up over.)
No, they are talking about the Blackburn Firebrand. The early postwar naval strike-fighter from oop north (or ‘the hellpits of Yorkshire’ as one Twitterer had it) that equipped a mere two Fleet Air Arm squadrons from 1947 to 1953. A rubbish aircraft from a rubbish company, they say. Pathetic. Worthless. Would be better for everyone if it never existed.
We are still talking about the Firebrand, apparently. So why does it feel like a personal attack?
Partly this is my own messed-up brain and is nobody’s fault but my own. Sorry, therapist, nobody’s fault. Partly it is because This Is Not My First Rodeo and yet every time I get chucked off the same horse as if I didn’t have considerable experience, the crowd apparently wondering who this clueless noob is despite my having performed these antics many times already. Yes, I have spent more time than anyone should consider reasonable ‘well-actuallying’ about the Firebrand only for nobody to take the slightest bit of notice. After a while, it starts to get to you.
It’s true, I have somewhat tied myself professionally to the Blackburn Aircraft And Motor Company, not least in this parish. My first book was a monograph about the loathed Skua, a more recent one about the derided Shark, I’ve written in-depth features about the Baffin and Ripon, and other books about types that were manufactured in quantity by Blackburn, such as the Fairey Swordfish and Barracuda. My apologia for Blackburn – yes, they made more than one good aircraft, the Buccaneer really shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise – can be read here somewhere. I don’t see it as my role to defend these aircraft, exactly. But I do see it as my role to research them assiduously and then tell the truth about them. And in most cases that happens to involve defending them from the vast majority of assertions in print and online, because the truth is that Blackburn aircraft were a lot better than you think. Yes, even the Skua. Yes, even the Firebrand. Yes, even the Roc. Well, OK, probably not the Roc, but there are exceptions to everything.
Once I started researching these machines – properly researching them, including sifting through archives, interviewing veterans and reading everything I could get my hands on, published and unpublished, the true picture was unquestionably different to the standard version. It is a truth universally accepted that an aircraft developed by Blackburn must be in want of a kicking online. Well, it isn’t. It’s lazy, and you should stop it. If not for my sake, then for the sake of all the people who worked at Blackburn, and the people who worked on and flew their products in service, especially during the war years, doing their bit to help achieve victory over fascism.
It’s fun to have a go at the Skua because it looks clumsy and awkward and it was laughably meant to be a fighter despite having two seats. Never mind that it sank a seven-and-a-half thousand-ton cruiser, could cross the entire North Sea to attack shore targets with pinpoint accuracy and was actually successful as a fighter. It’s easy to have a go at the Firebrand because it took ages to get into service, was less manoeuvrable than a Seafire and ‘Winkle’ Brown said mean things about it. Never mind that it fulfilled a role that it had never originally been intended for, maintaining a carrier-based torpedo bomber function for Nato against the sudden and very real threat of Soviet cruisers attacking sea lines of communication. The Nato function was so important that the Firebrand squadrons were kept in European waters during the Korean War, training ceaselessly and taking part in several major naval exercises aimed at demonstrating the alliance’s naval strength in the face of the USSR’s blue-water ambitions. It was important to let the Soviet Union know that the RN’s carriers had the means of attacking its Kirovs, Chapayevs and even the first Sverdlovs – and that means was the Firebrand, so the type was repeatedly to be seen at sea in the early 50s aboard HMS Eagle, Implacable and Indomitable reinforcing this capability.
It’s true that once the Firebrand is invoked online, rather than the devil turning up, it’s never long before a certain diminutive test pilot makes a posthumous appearance. Yes, the incomparable Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown made no bones about his poor opinion of the Firebrand, and that’s where many of those aforementioned insults come from. Winkle’s article on the Firebrand in Air International (later reworked for the book Wings of the Navy) is most people’s go-to source on the aircraft, and for many, his word is law. ‘Eric Brown’s assessment of it was scathing – that is, for me, the final word about the monstrosity,’ said one enthusiast.
I’m a huge fan of Winkle. I love everything he did, from flying a Rata for the Reds in Spain to making a Mosquito into a carrier aircraft to putting himself through the exact scenario that had just killed Geoffrey de Havilland to find out exactly what had killed Geoffrey de Havilland. But the problem with Winkle is that his achievements were so immense that people are apt to take his every word as gospel fact, when even he didn’t necessarily intend them to.
Much of what Winkle wrote in that Wings of the Navy chapter is opinion, and is far from unchallengeable. Some of it is based on entirely false premises – for example, he judges the Firebrand’s handling and manoeuvrability as if it were a fighter, a full five years after its role had changed to pure strike. The reason he gives for this is that the Air Ministry had maintained the ‘TF’ or ‘Torpedo Fighter’ prefix, but the reality is that this designation was largely meaningless by the late 1940s. Consider that another aircraft to bear the ‘TF’ stamp was the Bristol Brigand, a 25,000lb twin that nobody ever intended to go toe-to-toe with a Fw 190 in the air combat role, as Winkle seemed to suggest the Firebrand should. In some areas he was evidently unaware of all the facts – for example, one reason the aircraft took so long to bring into service was that in 1942 the entire programme was suspended for over a year, just as production was about to start, as Blackburn had to take over Barracuda production from Westland. This is rarely if ever noted in published accounts.
Moreover, while everyone always leaps to quote the same two of Captain Brown’s comments – that the Firebrand was “short of performance, sadly lacking in manoeuvrability, especially in rate of roll” and most devastatingly, “a disaster as a deck-landing aircraft” – they always ignore where Winkle is actually complimentary, or at least neutral, in his opinion. For example, that the aircraft was “Shaping up into a strike aircraft with a useful performance, and light and effective controls,” or that it “Now offered quite acceptable characteristics,” or that it was “A competent enough aeroplane,” or that it “Earned full marks in its rocket-assisted take-off trials,” or that “The arrested landing proving trials with the Firebrand Mk IV progressed well and the catapulting trials equally so, with all sorts of stores hung from the aircraft up to an all-up weight of 16,700lb.” It’s hard to square the assessment that landing trials had gone so well with the unfortunate slur that the Firebrand was “a disaster as a deck-landing aircraft,” but that comment more than any other seems to have condemned it. This is despite the two FAA squadrons, 813 and 827 operating the type successfully from carriers during numerous embarkations, and arguably having fewer problems with it as a carrier aircraft than types such as the Seafire and Corsair during their tortured developments.
I should work on taking it personally when people are scathing about the Firebrand or other Blackburn types online, although I do wish that my pretty extensive work to re-evaluate these aircraft had had more of an impact. The trouble is, it’s hard to ignore when people just lazily write off not just the aircraft but everything that was done with them. The Skua crews keeping the Luftwaffe off the backs of the Allied soldiers don’t need you to ignore their contribution just so your sharply worded quip makes sense. The Firebrand pilots training relentlessly to fling themselves against Soviet cruisers if the Cold War had suddenly turned hot were well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their aircraft, they don’t need you to erase them just because they were never called upon to prove themselves in combat – possibly even because their capabilities were a sufficient deterrent.
Blackburn needs love too. Next time you feel the need to lay into the Firebrand, ask yourself what it’s ever done to you.
Matthew Willis is a writer of naval and aviation history.
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