Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Spitfire Bests Hurricane, Hunter Bests Swift

Life has its ups and downs. This was even the case in the aircraft industry back in the days when that industry had a lot of firms (as opposed to the comparative handful operating today). In some cases government ministries would try to balance contract awards amongst companies so as to keep a reasonable number in business should a war erupt and large production of aircraft be required.

In other cases fortunes of aircraft manufacturers rose and fell according to the quality of the airplanes they designed. That was to some degree the case for fighter plane builders Hawker and Supermarine in England.

By the mid-1930s, fighter production was dominated by Hawker with its Fury which competed mostly with Gloster with its Gladiator, Bristol with its Bulldog, and to a lesser degree Fairey and Blackburn. Supermarine formerly specialized in flying boats and high-speed racing floatplanes, but now was entering fighter design competitions.

In 1936 production was ordered for the Royal Air Force's first "modern" fighters -- the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire -- the latter based on the racing-craft knowledge gained by designer Reginald Mitchell who died the following year of cancer, age 42.

Mitchell was succeeded by Joe Smith who presided over as series of modifications that kept the Spitfire competitive and in production throughout World War 2. He also led Supermarine's jet age design teams that created several production fighters, including the Supermarine Swift of the 1950s.

The Hurricane's designer was Sydney Camm whose teams produced outstanding aircraft over a period of decades, including the Hawker Hunter jet fighter that was developed about the same time as the Swift.

I'm not an aeronautical engineer, so I can't offer a professional assessment of the three men. From what I read, the consensus is that Mitchell and Camm rank among the "great" designers and Smith does not.

Given this background, how did the Hurricane, Spitfire, Swift and Hunter stack up? In brief, Supermarine won the first round, Hawker the second. Let's take a look:

Hawker Hurricane Is, 111 Squadron - late 1930s

The Hurricane was "modern" in that it had the following features that characterized fighters designs that emerged in advanced industrial countries starting in the mid-1930s: It was a monoplane (as opposed to biplane or triplane styles of the Great War), its landing gear retracted, the cockpit was fully enclosed, and its construction was largely of metal. In the case of the latter feature, the Hurricane lagged its equivalents in that the part of the fuselage aft of the cockpit was fabric-covered and not aluminum-skinned. This might have been because in some respects the Hurricane was a monoplane evolutionary step beyond the Hawker Fury biplane which also had its fuselage clad in metal to the front and fabric to the rear.

The Hurricane had a thick wing (compared to the Spitfire), was chunkier and had other features that resulted in lower top speed and inferior maneuverability. It was also inferior to opposing German fighters such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109E and the later Focke-Wulf FW 190. Hurricanes represented the majority of the RAF's fighter strength during the Battle of Britain in the late summer of 1940, but the somewhat sad experience of British and Belgian Hurricanes against the Germans in the Battle of France in the late spring of that year resulted in the RAF opting to send Hurricanes against attacking bombers rather than the escort fighters -- where possible, Spitfires were to attend to the Messerschmitts. Hurricane production ended in 1944 (Spitfire variants were built as late as 1948), being succeeded by Typhoon and Tempest fighter-bombers.

Speaking of being slightly behind the times, note the formation shown in the photo above. The six Hurricanes are in V ("vic" in RAF-speak) formations of three aircraft each. This formation was intended for interceptors, the three fighters attacking a similar formation of bombers. It proved inferior in fighter-to-fighter combat, so the British and American eventually adopted the German schwarm or "finger-four" formation comprised of two two-plane elements, each with a lead plane and a protective "wing-man."

Early Supermarine Spitfire I

The Spitfire was Britain's outstanding World War 2 fighter. Thanks to its wing design, it was both fast and maneuverable. Rolls-Royce kept it competitive by providing ever more powerful motors. Joe Smith eventually replaced the original wing with one that reduced the plane's potential maximum speed (the new wing had a greater thicknes-chord ratio) but allowed additional armament.

The main defect of the Spitfire was that it was designed as an interceptor tasked with defending geographically-small England from bomber attack and therefore it traded range for limited fuel-weight. The result was that the Spitfire could not accompany bombers on missions to targets as distant as Germany; that role fell to the American P-51 Mustang.

Supermarine Swift F.1, (or possibly an F.2), 56 Squadron - 1954

Whereas the Spitfire glows in glory, the Swift was an expensive failure. Like the Hunter, it was ordered into "superpriority" production once the Korean War started. But it only briefly served in fighter service. Years later, a version was moderately successful in the reconnaissance role.

The Swift's nearly endless teething problems centered around handling characteristics and difficulties introduced by one of its engine manufacturers. Its portly shape stemmed from the original intent to power it with a chubby centrifugal-flow Nene engine. But the Nene was bypassed in favor of the slimmer axial-flow Avon; the fuselage bulk then became a useful place for extra fuel tanks.

Hawker Hunter in Swiss service: 25th anniversary commemoration paint-job

The Hunter had its initial problems too, the worst being engine-surge and flame-outs when the 30-mm Aden cannon were fired. Once teething was taken care of, the Hunter proved to be an excellent fighter; nearly 2,000 were built and it served in many air forces besides the RAF

Thus were the tables turned, Hawker emerging from second-fiddle to First Violin and Supermarine becoming an aviation footnote.

No comments: