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Butcher Bird Hellcat & Corsair: A test pilot recalls

Butcher Bird  Hellcat & Corsair: A test pilot recalls

During WW II, we in the military were not allowed to save notes, keep diaries or take pictures, and being a Boy Scout type, I lived by the rules. Now, decades later, when I’m called to write about some of my flight experiences, I wish that I had bent the rules a little.

Thank goodness I have a copy of our Patuxent Naval Air Test Center “Report of Comparative Combat Evaluation of the Focke-Wulf 190A-4,” which was obtained by Corky Meyer from The Air and Space Museum under the Freedom of Information Act. Using that report for specific test data and as a memory jogger, I will relate some results and impressions from those tests. Keep in mind that this was before there was a test-pilot school in the U.S. We were long on flying experience and very short on technical flight-test experience.

Many Fw 190s were captured and evaluated by the U.S. and UK, including this A-5 model seen flying over Wright Test Field in 1946.

Just back from fleet carrier duty in early 1944, I was transferred to the Tactical Test Center at Patuxent River in Maryland. The skipper, Cdr. F.L. Palmer, greeted me with great enthusiasm and saying “I’m glad to see you! We are loaded with fighter projects, and our last fighter pilot has just been transferred. How many hours do you have in the F6F-3 Hellcat?” I replied, “None.” “How many hours in the F4U-1 Corsair?” “None.” With some dismay, he asked, “What the hell have you been flying?” I told him that although my squadron, the Red Rippers, had always been the first fighter unit to get every new Navy fighter, we were still flying the older F4F-4 Wildcat. I sheepishly told him that I had flown F4F-4s during my Navy fleet career. He looked out a window at a row of planes—all different—and told me to fly them and then come to see him. He must have been pleased by my action because in a few days, he sent for me and told me I was to go to Anacostia, Maryland, to get a German fighter, and I could take Jeanie, my new wife, with me. Having been at sea since our wedding and now having unlimited access to a row of planes as if they were my toys, this treat was too much. I wryly thought, “War really is hell, ain’t it?”

On site at Anacostia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., I tried to conceal my awe and acted as though I flew a captured foreign plane every day. There was no pilot’s handbook—no manuals of any kind. This was a real credit to the mechanics who made a flyable airplane out of several crates of pieces. I was given a German/English glossary of aviation terms and spent a few days familiarizing myself with the Fw 190 while it was being readied for flight. I convinced myself that if I pushed the stick forward, the nose would go down, and if I pulled the stick aft, the nose would go up. So, what the heck! I was checked out. Pax sent an escort plane, and we were off on the flight to the Test Center, with me at the controls of the Fw 190. I had reviewed my freshman physics notes so that I’d be able to convert some of those funny numbers in the Fw 190 cockpit to knots and feet. En route, having decided that flying in German was almost like flying in English, I stalled it a few times. Two things surprised me: it stalled at what my calculations indicated was more than twice the stall speed of the aircraft with which I was accustomed. At first, I suspected that I had made a mistake when converting those “funny” numbers to knots; the second surprise was the suddenness of the stall—sudden, but controllable. I got my nerve up to slow-roll it a couple of times, and we arrived at Pax. The moment had come to see whether I’d be able to land that mother. The landing was uneventful at what I remember to be 137 knots. This was more than twice the landing speeds of our carrier fighters. I had met a truly “hot” plane.

I decided that for the Fw 190, “fighter” was a misnomer. In my opinion, it was an interceptor—not what we in the Navy expected to fly on fighter missions. I also questioned the title of the project assigned to us. It was “Comparative Combat Evaluation of Focke-Wulf 190A-4 Airplane.” The comparison was with F6F-3 and F4U-1D fighters. As we got into the program, I remember telling project engineer Bill Holmes, “This plane is not a fighter.” I said this with a certain cockiness and meant it as a put-down of an enemy plane that didn’t stack up very well in fighter-to-fighter simulated combat. In our final analysis, the Fw 190 was about what you would expect for a lightweight plane: reasonably high powered, it had a high wing loading and poor stall characteristics.

On what was probably my second flight, I made a steep dive to see how fast the plane would go. I don’t remember the numbers, but I experienced alarming vibrations. I later learned that I had foolishly and grossly exceeded the limits marked on the airspeed indicator. At that stage, if it wasn’t written in English, I wasn’t reading it. It was more fun to spend our time dogfighting and hot-dogging than doing serious flight tests, but Bill Holmes got us working seriously and provided long lists of data to be collected on each flight, and we did so—reluctantly but dutifully. Here are some test results and a few of my impressions:

Rate of climb

We compared climb rates from 140 knots to 200 knots at altitudes of 200 feet to 25,000 feet. The Fw 190’s best climb speed was 165 knots compared with 130 knots for the F6F-3 and 135 knots for the F4U-1. Its faster rate of climb gave it an important advantage: it could break off an engagement at will and re-engage head-on, if its pilot chose to.

Horizontal speed

This was measured in two-minute, level-flight runs that ranged in altitude from sea level to 25,000 feet. The Fw 190’s maximum true airspeeds varied from 290 knots at 200 feet to 356 knots at 25,000 feet. It had a speed advantage over the F6F-3 that varied from zero at 200 feet to 17 knots at 25,000 feet. Against the F4U-1, it had a 25-knot disadvantage at 200 feet, and that was reduced to even at 15,000 feet and increased to a 6-knot advantage at 25,000 feet.

We did our best to calibrate the instruments. Looking back, I realize that we probably didn’t have a very accurate comparison when tests were flown individually instead of side by side. When you test planes side by side, the comparison has a good chance of being reasonable, even if exact quantitative performance measurements may be doubted. Horizontal speed differences measured at a fixed altitude did not indicate much tactical advantage for any plane, but when the horizontal speed was combined with best climb speeds, the Fw 190’s 165-knot top climb speed gave it a considerable advantage when used properly to avoid a fighter-to-fighter engagement.

Horizontal accelerations

These tests were made by flying in line at predetermined initial speeds from 140 to 200 knots at altitudes of from 200 feet to 25,000 feet and applying full power simultaneously in all three planes. It was readily apparent that it was much easier to achieve full power in the Fw 190 with its unilever control; this required a simple throttle advance to control propeller pitch, manifold pressure, mixture, magneto timing and throttle setting. This made a difference during our evaluations, but I never felt that it meant much tactically because when the pucker factor is tight in combat, it doesn’t take long for a pilot to firewall everything in the cockpit.

Relative accelerations from all speeds of more than 160 knots showed the F4U-1 and the Fw 190 to be slightly superior to the F6F-3 and showed the F4U-1 to be slightly superior to the Fw 190 up to 15,000 feet, above which the Fw 190 had a slight advantage. At speeds of less than 160 knots, the Fw 190 and the F6F-3 were equals. None of these differences offered much of a tactical advantage or disadvantage.

Maneuverability

The F4U-1’s and F6F-3’s turning characteristics were far superior to the Fw 190’s. From directly behind the Fw 190 holding its tightest turn, the F6F-3 and the F4U-1 could turn inside it and be directly behind it again in approximately three circles. This, of course, was not a tactical maneuver, but it was a good indication of the planes’ comparative turning abilities. Both could easily follow the Fw 190 in tight turns at any speed, but the Fw 190 pilot could not keep his gunsight pipper on either when they made tight turns. When in a tight turn to the left and near stalling speed, the Fw 190 exhibited a tendency to reverse aileron control and then stall without warning. When turning to the right and nearly at stalling speed, it tended to drop its right wing and nose and to dive as a result; this frequently put it in a good position to be attacked. When this happened, the fight was over. Its pilot would have to recover and would probably dive to try to break off the engagement. In our dogfighting, if a pilot escaped and wanted to re-engage, he would try to use his top climb speed to get away and come back for a one-pass, non-maneuvering attack. It was never advantageous to the Fw 190 to try to mix it up in close. It couldn’t fly any turning maneuver that the F4U-1 and the F6F-3 couldn’t follow. It required a much greater radius in a loop than the F4U-1 or the F6F-3 did and tended to stall when trying to follow in a loop. Looping was a very effective defensive maneuver for the F4U-1 and F6F-3 when the Fw 190 attacked from their rear. The Fw 190 stalled with very little warning but recovered easily. The F4U-1 and F6F-3 could take advantage of this propensity to stall when close in and in situations during which the Fw 190 was required to make tight turns to stay engaged. The difference in maneuverability was the greatest tactical disadvantage faced by the Fw 190 pilots in one-on-one encounters. In zooms after dives, the three aircraft were about equal. Close formation flying was extremely difficult for the Fw 190 because of the lack of fine power adjustments achievable with its unilever control.

Stability and control

In dives in the Fw 190, these features were satisfactory, but at excessively high diving speeds, the vibrations were alarming. Diving restrictions posted on the Fw 190 airspeed indicator were comparable to the limitations on the F6F-3 Hellcat and the F4U-1 Corsair: 405 knots at below 10,000 feet; 370 knots from 10,000 feet to 16,500 feet; 313 knots from 16,000 feet to 25,000 feet. I foolishly exceeded them by as much as 50 knots, and although the vibration was disturbing and uncomfortable, it didn’t apparently damage the plane or me.

The Fw 190’s control forces were generally very light; they increased when speed increased but were never excessive. Slight trim changes were required with changes in speed, and they needed to be increased when speed increased but, again, were not excessive. In flight, the only controllable trim was a movable horizontal stabilizer. The only reversing control force exhibited by the Fw 190 was aileron control in a tight turn.

Rate of roll

In roll rate, the Fw 190 was slightly superior to the F6F-3 and about equal to the F4U-1. It rolled very easily, didn’t require any excessive stick forces and didn’t show any tendency to drop its nose; it did, however, exhibit roll reversal at slow speeds and in turns. This forced the Fw 190 pilot to keep his speed up in tight turns, and that limited his slow-speed maneuvering.

Angles of vision

Forward vision was obstructed by the cowl because the cockpit greenhouse was only six inches above the cowl contour; The F6F-3 and the F4U-1 allowed superior forward vision, and this was especially evident during mock gun-firing operations. In the Fw 190, the pilot sat relatively low with respect to the wing, but downward side vision was not excessively restricted because the wing was relatively small. The one-piece molded canopy went from the windshield frame over the pilot’s head and back down to the fuselage contour, which was level with the cowl contour in front of the pilot. This afforded very good visibility aft and was superior to that enjoyed by F6F-3 and F4U-1 pilots.

The Fw 190 didn’t have a rearview mirror. I missed it in simulated combat and think it should have had one. Perhaps that six-inch rise of the canopy over the cowl would have been obscured by such a mirror. With our taller windshields, we had enough latitude of head movement to look over or below a mirror.

Stever Barber in the SoCal Wing of theCAF, flying near its base at Camarillo. (Photo by John Dibbs/PlanePicture.com)

General characteristics in mock combat

The Fw 190 was easy to fly in combat having been designed for pilot convenience. Its no-warning stall reduced its effectiveness in combat against planes that could force it to fly at near its stalling speed. But, after all, it was designed as an interceptor to attack bombers and was at a disadvantage in combat with a plane designed for aerial fights. In many situations, its best defense was to use its ability to climb at a relatively high speed and to break off the engagement. The Fw 190’s inferior maneuvering prevented it from being a close-in dogfighter.

Armament

The Fw 190 we tested didn’t have guns, but in combat, it had rather formidable firepower: four 20mm cannon and two .30-caliber guns. The F6F-3 and the F4U-1 had six, .50-caliber machine guns. If an Fw 190 pilot was successful in positioning his aircraft for a high-speed, one-pass attack, his formidable firepower could present a problem to his adversary. The guns were set to fire through the propeller. Some contended that having the guns closer to the aircraft’s centerline gave a bore-sighting advantage. In theory, this was so, but although I was never an armament expert, I always contended that in combat, bore sighting just a few feet off the line of sight was not crucial when trying to assess the best point of convergence of line of gunsight, bullet trajectory, bullet dispersion and the proper gunsight lead with less than perfect directional control of the plane. I suspect that the Fw 190’s guns fired through the propeller was more because the wing thickness could not accommodate the guns than to improve the bore sighting.

Salient features

One throttle lever controlled propeller pitch, manifold pressure, mixture, magneto timing and throttle setting, so their operation was comparatively simple. Propeller pitch could also be controlled independently by a button on the throttle lever. This was probably used to reduce fuel consumption when returning to base and not when under fighter attack. The air/fuel mixture automatically varied between lean and rich at 2,100rpm. Most of us would have preferred more control when we wanted minimum fuel consumption.

Stabilizer trim, flaps and landing gear were controlled electrically by conveniently positioned pushbuttons. Those of us who had experienced hydraulic-system damage during combat always believed that electrical systems would have had advantages and would probably have been lighter.

The landing gear were set relatively far apart and contributed to very good directional stability and control during landing and takeoff. This was particularly appreciated by an old F4F driver who had spent years gallantly avoiding ground loops with the F4F’s narrow, mushy landing gear. We now know that a very high percentage of German Messerschmitt 109s were lost in landing and takeoff accidents. No doubt, the improved Fw 190 landing gear was the result of very costly lessons learned with the 109.

The pilot sat with his legs extended forward and high; this probably helped to delay pilot blackout by reducing the flow of blood to the legs during high-G maneuvers. We didn’t test this quantitatively, but I was much involved in the development and testing of anti-blackout systems, and I think that having the legs elevated was probably helpful. The cockpit was rather cramped in comparison with the F4U-1’s and the F6F-3’s. Apart from that, its layout was extremely simple and convenient.

The blower changed automatically at 10,000 feet. If you weren’t expecting it, this could be a little alarming at times, but it was probably the correct altitude for full-power operations in both climb and high-speed level flight.

When a pilot ejected, the Fw 190’s molded cockpit cover—one unobstructed piece from the windshield aft to the low contour of the fuselage—would have allowed an easy exit.

The Corsair, backed by its welltrained pilots, was so successful, that it soldiered on a decade later into the jet-age Korean War in the early 1950s. This aircraft has the VMF-214 Black Sheep livery, complete with the “WE” tail code and squadron insignia on the nose. (Photo by Ted Carlson/fotodynamics.com)

Pilot opinions of the Fw 190, F4U-1 and F6F-3

The opinion of the pilots who made the test comparisons was that the Fw 190 was extremely easy to fly in combat and that it was designed for pilot convenience; but it was not the F4U-1’s and the F6F-3’s equal in fighter-to-fighter combat.

In contrast with the cockpits of the F4U-1 and the F6F-3, the simplicity of the Fw 190’s cockpit was notable; although the Fw 190 had more automatic features, pilots had less direct control over variable settings and less actual control over engine performance. All the pilots agreed that they’d prefer to fly the F4U-1 and F6F-3 in combat.

Tactics to use against the Fw 190

Because the Fw 190 could outrun the F4U-1 and the F6F-3 in a 165-knot climb (or faster), their best offense was to get close to it and take advantage of their superior maneuverability—as long as they didn’t sacrifice any initial advantage merely for the sake of closing. When attacked from astern, the Fw 190 could be expected to roll and dive to keep his adversary off his tail. If attacked by the Fw 190, the F4U-1 and the F6F-3 would often evade it by flying a tight loop. If the Fw 190 attempted to follow in a tight loop, it would probably stall.

In general, whenever the F4U-1 and the F6F-3 could not use the hit-and-run technique, it was best for them to close with the Fw 190 in offense and defense to prevent it from getting in a position to make a high-speed, one-pass attack that would allow its pilot to take advantage of his fire power.

Extenuating facts to be considered

On three attempts with the Fw 190 to reach its service ceiling, it abruptly lost all power at 33,000 feet. At the time, we didn’t know what caused this, but we now know that it was probably the result of its not having a pressured ignition harness. Our plane developers experienced this with certain U.S. planes.

The 190 ran roughly on occasion apparently because of spark plugs that were fouled when it was run at low rpm. A good German Luftwaffe mechanic might have been able to eliminate this problem.

I can’t say that our maintenance of the Fw 190 adversely affected it, but there is a possibility that we didn’t get the Fw 190’s true peak performance because we weren’t as familiar with it as we were with the F6F-3 and the F4U-1. This raises a number of “What ifs?” What if our assignment had been to make an interceptor comparison? What if we had tested it with German pilots who were as well trained in it as we were in our planes?

Final thoughts

We took delivery of the plane in the middle of a heated debate about whether it was better for the pilot to have individual control of manifold pressure, propeller pitch, blower, mixture, etc., or to have a unilever control of the type used in the Fw 190. We might have had an inflated estimate of our ability, but we supported the pilots’ having individual control. Those who were responsible for training thousands of new pilots for new planes favored the unilever control. I remember its being discussed at a fighter meet. The pilots all felt that they were experts and wanted individual control. Some of the company engineers, who were being pressured by customers to make things simple for the pilot, seemed prepared to overlook our expertise and pushed for unilever control. Looking back, we know that the Germans faced many circumstances that favored the simpler control. They had reached the bottom of the barrel for pilot replacements, and they were so short of fuel that they didn’t have enough to train pilots adequately. We now know of German pilots going into combat against the bombers having only minimal checkout time in the Fw 190 and no operational training. They clearly had every incentive to simplify.

The Fw 190 had an interesting canopy-ejection system: a “gun-barrel” fastened to the canopy fore and aft and a breach with a shotgun-like shell shot the canopy aft very surely and very fast. On an earlier captured Fw 190, this resulted in an interesting event. A desk-bound explosives expert was sent out to inspect it for booby traps; his approach was to move everything that would move. While in the cockpit, he moved the red handle that fired the shell. The canopy was ejected and took the vertical fin with it. Fortunately, no one was injured, but the booby-trap expert had to be helped out of the plane. His pants were sent to the cleaners and he was sent back to his desk.

There was much about the Fw 190 to respect, but I ended my test experience with my confidence in our fighters reinforced and feeling that if I had to meet an adversary in a fighter-to-fighter engagement, I would be able to cope with an Fw 190. Later, after extensively flying the Japanese Zero and nearly every WW II U.S. Army fighter and the RAF’s Spitfire, I still felt that way.

Former mount of Luftwaffe Maj. von Komatski, this Fw 190G was captured in St. Trond, Belgium, after he bellied it in because of a prop strike. His misfortune took place while he was attacking an Allied airfield on January 1, 1945. The 404th commander, Col. Leo C. Moon, had it painted hotrod red after the mechanics got it going and was going to fly it around, but the command brass forbade it.

The number-six production F6F-3 Hellcat displays its camouflage paint job in early 1943. It was a very plain but effective scheme that gave the pilot his greatest protection from enemy detection (Grumman History Center photo).

Even with the raised tailwheel and cockpit enclosure, visibility over the nose was very bad when the airplane was in the threepoint landing position. The airplane’s trim lines are very apparent here. It looked fast even on the ground (Grumman photo).

By Rear Adm. C.C. “Andy” Andrews, U.S. Navy (Ret.)

Updated: February 10, 2021 — 11:31 AM

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