AN ALTERNATIVE HISTORY OF PRE-WAR AIRCRAFT DEVELOPMENT
Or, to paraphrase Ursula le Guin, the story of aircraft that might have been going to be built…
A browse through one of the excellent magazines for modellers who work in plastic shows a great deal of interest in “Luftwaffe 1946”; a fantasy era when the pre-eminent designers like Kurt Tank could perhaps have developed their sketches and prototypes into successful aircraft. The Pulqui jets that Tank designed for Argentina just after the war were a fascinating glimpse of his fertile mind at work, so what could he have achieved in his own country, given the pressure of war on the design, development and production process? But turn the pages back 20 years from the end of WWII and we have elegant silver biplanes, .303 machine guns, 20 lb bombs and Hendon air displays. Germany was stumbling towards a nasty little war in Spain, where the fighting qualities of Heinkel, Junkers and Messerschmitt could be tested in the Condor Legion. Aircraft development in Britain was stifled by three pressures: political (there wouldn’t be a war), financial (we were just emerging from recession) and human (the air ministry couldn’t resist dictating the parameters of aircraft design). This article, by a Westland Aircraft addict and an inveterate alterer of other peoples’ plans, shows how history could have been different if just the last of those pressures had been relaxed..
For my alternative history of the British aircraft industry at this critical period, I take as my starting point Specification F20/26, which resulted in the Hawker Fury, which led directly to the Hurricane (the “Monoplane Fury”), the Typhoon and Tempest, then the jets; the Hunter and eventually the Harrier. What if, at the trials in 1927, the competing Westland Wizard had been selected and successfully developed into a fighting aircraft as good as the Fury? Success breeds confidence and further success; the Wizard, pretty as it was, wasn’t selected because the Mk 1, with its central cabane and restricted view was not a practical solution to the interceptor problem - how, for instance, could the pilot have aimed his guns through a 12” thick strut?. I agree that Westland was not a mature company like Hawker or the other competitors, Bristol and de Havilland, but it had a lot of bad luck - the prototype Wizard crashed into a ditch after engine failure and had to be completely rebuilt from the cockpit forwards. At least this gave Westland the opportunity to change to a duralumin tubing structure and to redesign the fuselage. But if from the outset the company had made a practical and above all a fighting aircraft, just how different would our aviation history be today?
Let’s start at the beginning of the 30s. The Wizard has won the trials and has been in Squadron service for a year, both in limited Mk I and later Mk II guise. It has the 490 hp RR Falcon engine but its top speed of 190 mph has caused some adverse comments from the RAF as their Hawker Hart bomber is only slightly slower! The Mk III Wizard is fitted with the 640 hp RR Kestrel and achieves a top speed of 240 mph in tests and immediately replaces the earlier Marks. The success of this conversion and the rugged, popular airframe leads to export orders from the Scandinavian countries, Romania, Spain and many others. Westland expand their works at Yeovil and increasing company confidence allows further development and export orders for the Mk IV, which incorporates aerodynamic and structural improvements (Fig 2), as well as a number of different engine installations. Westland is gaining confidence as an aircraft manufacturer and appoints Petter as chief designer. He immediately takes over the Wizard design team and initiates a crucial change in direction.
THE MK V
The Mk IV is just a stop-gap - in 1933 Westland takes a more radical line and with the active support of “Stuffy” Dowding (a monoplane advocate and then a member of the Air Council) Petter dismantles J9252, the original prototype, and puts the wing back on in the low-wing position as the Mk V. He persuades Rolls Royce to install the only Merlin B in existence in place of the Kestrel and fits a simple semi-enclosed cockpit. These changes give the Wizard a top speed of 265 mph and it enters Squadron service late in 1934, eventually equipping 17 fighter units. Despite still having a braced wing and tail, this Mark is further developed as the P27 (the fastest Wizard, clocked at 284 mph at Daytona) for the USAAC, with a crude but effective tricycle undercarriage, low bounce wheels, a 3-blade VP propeller and an enclosed cockpit. The latter features are quickly adopted by the RAF as simple field modifications, but the nosewheel is rejected due to its vulnerability on grass airfields.
The Spanish V “El Brujo - The Magician” fights in the Civil War in ‘36 (as did the Spanish Fury, incidentally, in 1936-39) and the hammering it takes there forces the Yeovil boys back to the drawing board in a quest for speed and firepower. The flying qualities were already excellent; all they had to do was translate the braced monoplane (a sort of Gladiator equivalent) into a stressed-skin 4-cannon 350 mph fighter. The fuselage was lengthened slightly and took the new 990 hp Merlin C, married to a completely new all-metal wing and tail (still with fabric-covered control surfaces), a fully retracting undercarriage and either 4 20 mm cannon or 12 machine guns. A sleek canopy and a larger fin and rudder resulted in the Westland Warlock (Fig 5), which although not an inspired design in the mould of the Spitfire, did much to win the fighter part of the Battle of Britain in 1940. Its successor, the Warspite, was a larger and far more powerful aircraft, powered by the Bristol Centaurus and later the Rolls Royce Clyde turboprop.
But that is to jump ahead of the “alternative” Westland fighter chronology and the influence of the true genius of fighter design, Teddy Petter. In the latter half of the 30s, and encouraged by the outstanding success of the Wizard and the promise of the early Warlock prototypes, Westland set Petter the task of designing a high-speed twin-engined 4-cannon fighter, the Whirlwind. Instead of being fobbed off with the RR Peregrine (a dead-end development of the Kestrel) Westland were immediately allocated priority supplies of the 1030 HP Merlin II. The reliability and development potential of both the engine and the airframe led to an aircraft that was simply “right” from the first prototype. Squadron service in July 1940 saw troubles with the armament swiftly resolved and the devastating firepower, speed and agility of the “Merligig” (the immediate RAF nickname) as it scythed through German bomber formations during and after the Battle of Britain was inspirational. In an unbelievable month, Whirlwinds destroyed 184 bombers, 75 fighters and numerous ground installations without a single pilot lost and was instrumental in gaining unchallenged air superiority over the Channel and the Low Countries. The airframe seemed capable of unlimited development, in parallel with the engines. By the end of the war in 1942, 2000 hp Merlins pulled the fighter version round the sky at 475 mph, and the 2-seat bomber and reconnaissance versions were almost as quick. Petter amplified the basic design a number of times, enlarging the wing slightly, to give a lower landing speed and better load-carrying capacity (vital when lifting a 4000 lb bomb!) and rocket, radar, 40 mm cannon and tail-hook versions were flooding from shadow factories around Britain. And the RR Griffon missile-armed version served in the post-war RAF and was exported to air forces all over the world.
THE PETTER ENVELOPE
Petter was not easily satisfied. He arranged a meeting with Whittle late in 1936 and offered the full support of Westland (and its new subsidiary, Gloster) for jet engine trials and airframe development. Although Gloster carried out most of the early work, it was his twin-jet Welkin (sketched after that initial meeting on the back of an envelope borrowed from his wife - hence the company nickname for the aircraft “Mrs Petter’s Jet”) which set the seal on Westland’s post-war development. The Welkin was a logical development from the Whirlwind and retained its 4 cannon armament and thin wing, but slight sweepback on all surfaces and (in post-war versions) full pressurisation for high altitude flight, set the standard by which other fighters were judged, up to and including the Korean War . The subsonic Welkin led to the supersonic fully swept Canberra fighter/bomber/reconnaissance post-war export earner, still in operational service 50 years later. So, just as the Warlock led to the Hunter and Harrier, the stealth fighter and the sub-orbital missile carrier, Britain now leads the world in fighter and medium bomber development thanks to the Welkin.
Enough of this fantasy. Engineering excellence comes as the result of hard work, but all companies need a bit of luck. Westland had little of this, probably because they were a small company playing in a big pool full of well-established sharks. However, anyone who doubts the potential of the Whirlwind might like to compare its dimensions and specifications with those of the DH Hornet and ponder the extraordinary sequence of events that in real life did give us a workable Air Force in 1938/39. Perhaps Westland was too small and inexperienced in the late ‘20s even to consider volume production of the sort I have imagined. Government contracts almost always take the route of least risk and Westland was a high-risk company compared with Hawker, Supermarine and the rest. But huge risks were taken - Hawker produced 300 Hurricanes “on spec” in 1938 and de Havilland took a similar leap of faith with the Mosquito. I think the Merligig would have been a war-winner in 1940, but Merlin production was all spoken for. How different might the past have been if the Wizard had been just that!
Mike Roach, March 2000
1. I am indebted to Chris Golds, who beat me to the punch with his DH77, for his interest and support. But if de Havilland had won and got stuck into single-engined fighters, who would have developed the Mosquito? Westland?
2. The 1/13th model Wizard in the photos was designed in 1984, built of balsa and tissue in 1996 and modified for this article, to represent a Wizard Mk V of 43 Squadron RAF in 1938. Its details are span 35”, weight 470 g, 3 functions and speed controller on a 6V SP 400 and 7 AE 600 cells, with the usual folding propeller. As you would expect, it flies like a dream!
Photo captions (numbers on reverse)
1. J9252 immediately before Petter dismantled it, stripped of covering and without its engine.
2. The same aircraft 10 days later, with a new centre section and ailerons, a larger tailplane, revised fin and rudder, new rear fuselage and windscreen as well as faired-over gun troughs (the guns were moved to a new fairing in front of the cockpit).
3. J9252 in early 1938, fresh from the paint shop and waiting to be re-engined.