By: Norm Goyer
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor they created one of the greatest tool up in aviation history. The United States was literally stuck with aircraft which were already obsolete with no new designs ready for production. America has always been able to recover in a very short time and the lack of new designs in 1941 only slowed down our country for about 12 months, then the whole world knew what we Americans are capable of when someone makes the dumb mistake of trying to trip us up. But, you’d think we would have learned from Pearl Harbor, not quite. When we sent our first jet fighter aircraft into Korea we found out the hard way that they were not capable of going one on one with the modern swept wing Russian supplied North Korean fighters.
The US Navy was hit the hardest in the after days of Pearl Harbor. Not only did the Navy lose much of the Pacific Fleet they also lost a large number of aircraft on the ground at Ford Island. Our Grumman F4F Wildcat was a sturdy weapon, but again, no match for the superior Zero. The Wildcat was another aircraft that was built in a hurry using elements from Grumman’s past Navy aircraft production. The Navy, before Pearl Harbor, was fixated on biplanes, with lots of bracing wire and struts. Then Brewster introduced the Buffalo, an all metal monoplane that was a dog, a real arf arf dog. Grumman seeing the possibility of their lucrative contracts going to rival Brewster, because their entry was a monoplane, quickly scrapped their new fighter on the boards which was, you guessed it another biplane. Not having the time for a ground up design, the Wildcat was pretty much a midwing monoplane with the belly and landing gear of their F3F biplane series, a real fine airplane, but, it belonged to another decade. So the latest Grumman F3F biplane was redesigned and became the Wildcat. Then Grumman built the next Navy fighter the right way. The F6F Hellcat was everything the Wildcat was not. Add the Vought Corsair F4U series and the Navy was ready to kick butt, and they did.
The Navy wasn’t as lucky with their new dive bomber designs. At that time the Navy had the very good Douglas SBD dive bomber, but it was slow and took just too long to launch and get to the site of the enemy who needed a little adjustment, like down the smokestacks in the guise of a 500 pound bomb. Curtiss was awarded a contract to redesign their current SBC-4 dive bomber biplane version into the new SBC2C monoplane. Curtiss, already behind deadline, used many elements of their dive bomber biplane when designing the new monoplane. It didn’t work, the new Helldiver seemed bent on self destruction. It literally took years to get the bugs out of the new aircraft, leaving the Navy stuck with their obsolete Douglas SBD dive bomber. It is fortunate that the pilots and crew of Dauntless did an outstanding job of destroying Japanese carriers, shipping and troop transports in the South Pacific. As the new Curtiss Helldivers began arriving in numbers, the war weary SBDs were retired to training squadrons.
Several of the Army Air Force front line fighters were also the result of redesigning an existing aircraft. For instance, the Curtiss P-40 series was a direct development of the Curtiss P-36 radial engine fighter, almost identical with the exception of an inline Allison replacing the round radial. One of the most potent fighters of the conflict was the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. Its climb to fame is the result of modifying and improving the 1935 Seversky P-35, then the Republic P-43 Lancer and finally the P-47. The North American P-51 was a clean-piece-of-paper design. It was designed as the Mustang with the only changes in the canopy and a switch from Allison to Packard Merlins. The Lockheed P-38 was another new design that seemed almost perfect from the start. Engineers did spend many hours attempting to improve an engine-out control problem by installing every combination of right and left hand turning engines. The potent Douglas A-26 started out as a much smaller Douglas Boston, which was enlarged to become the Invader then into the B-26 as used in Vietnam, basically the same airframe.
England used the deHavilland Comet racer as the basis for the all wood Mosquito bomber and embodied many of the design elements found in the Supermarine Schneider Cup winning aircraft into the famous Spitfire. Early Russian fighter designers are thought to have used the Gee Bee racer as their inspiration for their Spanish war Polikarov. Historians also tell us to compare the lines of the Zero with the Vultee fighter of the same era. Is this true? I don’t have the faintest idea, but it does make interesting comparisons.