Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Innovations in Flight (and Fight)

Did you know that Paul Allen - co-founder of Microsoft, and one of the richest men on the planet - collects, restores, and flies World War II fighter planes? I was able to see his collection when I was in Washington last month. No, I can't say we got in because ol' Paul and I are pals. Too bad. But he's got them in a museum at Paine Field in Everett, and for $20 my dad and I had a guided tour of the collection. My idea.

Now, you may be surprised that I'd want to do this. I'm neither a pilot nor an engineer, so a lot of the specs were lost on me. But I can appreciate a beautiful piece of machinery, even if it's an instrument of destruction. Er, liberation. Whatever. Regardless, I'm interested in the behind-the-scenes view of military history, and how people behave and interact in significant times... such as when at war.

Each plane or artifact had a story and illustrated an interesting strategy or development in aircraft history, but a few of the machines stood out:

Soviet "Kukuruznik" Biplane: 

The Russians made 40,000 of these babies between 1928 and 1953. That's enough to make them the most populous biplane in aviation's history. Yet few examples survive. Allen, of course, has one.

Soviet Polikarpov Po-2 Biplane
In peacetime, they were good for crop-dusting; their nickname means "corn." When the nation was at war, they were used to carry supplies, evacuate the injured, etc. By 1942 they were armed with 50 kg bombs and sent out on night raids. Troops on the ground called these "sewing machines" for the startling rattle they made. Skilled pilots learned to turn off the engine when they got close and glide in silently just over the treetops. They didn't actually blow up that much but their flyovers kept the German troops stressed out, on edge, and unable to sleep. It was a form of psychological warfare.

The most interesting thing about these planes was their association with an unusual and soon notorious Soviet entity, the "588 Night Bomber Regiment," who flew these planes exclusively. Members were also known as the "Night Witches." The unit was made up entirely of female pilots, mechanics, and ground crews. Can you imagine? These daring women were among the most decorated soldiers in the war.

Our museum guide added that the Soviets didn't have any uniforms designed for women, so they issued them the standard fare including undergarments. Somewhere along the way the women discovered that a discarded silk parachute could be cut up and sewn into excellent undies, so they made their own. Nice...

German "Flying Bombs"

German Fieseler Fi 103 V-1 flying missile
What if you could build a bomb that flew on its own? Yeah.... that would save a lot of lives (on your side, anyway). These unmanned flying missiles were heavily used in World War II. I think these are the bombs the British called "Doodlebugs." Today's drones and cruise missiles are much more sophisticated, but this was a breakthrough: the first aircraft that were also weapons.

Even so, the Allies discovered they flew in such predictable arcs that all a skilled pilot had to do to send them hurtling downward long short of their target was to fly up next to one, slip a wingtip under its fin, and flip it over. The thing would spin to the ground. "Dangerous?!" I queried. "No, there was nothing to it," claimed our guide. Huh.

German Fieseler Fi 103R: missile + pilot 
So what could be done to get more of these missiles to their targets? An adapted version looks much the same but has a small cockpit and carries a pilot. He could fly the missile to its target, evading the enemy, then set it to dive, eject himself, and float happily to the ground knowing his job was well done.

Except - well, he'd be landing in enemy territory, wouldn't he? Even if every pilot survived, they'd become POWs and couldn't fly any more missions. And what army could afford to lose a pilot on every mission? The new missiles were never used in combat.

See more of my dad's pictures here, or visit The Flying Heritage Collection.

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