World War II aircraft that were shot to hell—and came back.
- By Cory Graff
- Air & Space magazine, November 2001
(Page 3 of 5)
Smith radioed that he was bailing out and jettisoned his canopy—an action he would regret in the cold hours that followed. As soon as he let go of the control yoke and took his feet from the left rudder pedal, the P-38 rolled violently into the dead engine. It would be nearly impossible for the aircraft to stay stable long enough for Smith to jump.
Smith made it back by flying a series of climbing orbits followed by a short dash toward home base. When he stumbled over the enemy-occupied town of Trieste, Italy, every flak burst sounded horrifyingly close as he flew with no canopy. Incredibly, Smith made a wheels-up landing. Besides being exhausted and half-frozen, he suffered his only injury upon landing—a lump on his head from hitting the gunsight.
Corsair and Hellcat
Flying and fighting over the vast Pacific Ocean, a Navy or Marine Corps pilot with a crippled aircraft usually had only two options—bail out into the sea or limp back to shore or to the carrier. Built to survive the controlled violence of repeated carrier arrested landings, many Naval aircraft could withstand extensive battle damage with the brawn of a battleship.
One Vought F4U Corsair chased down a Japanese “Nick” fighter near Okinawa. At a range of 50 feet, Marine Lieutenant Robert Klingman found his guns frozen by the cold at 38,000 feet. Unwilling to let his quarry go, Klingman pushed on, ramming the aircraft’s tail and rear cockpit and downing the Nick. The Corsair’s engine coughed and protested, and it seemed unlikely Klingman could coax his airplane back to Okinawa—150 miles away—but the engine continued to run until the fighter was within gliding distance of the island’s runway.
But perhaps the king of the rock-solid World War II Navy fighters was Grumman’s F6F Hellcat. If it can be said that the Japanese designed the Zero to reflect the best characteristics of a samurai warrior—swift, nimble, and lethal—then the Long Island-based Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation built the Hellcat to emulate a burly Brooklyn bouncer.
Built around the powerful and reliable Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radial engine, the Hellcat began as a concept for an improved F4F Wildcat, but what emerged was a fighter that shared little with its predecessor except ruggedness. Unlike its Japanese counterparts, the Hellcat’s vital areas, such as the cockpit and engine oil tank, were protected by thick armor plate.
When a new facility was needed to build Hellcats at Grumman’s Bethpage plant, some of the steel for the project came from the remains of New York’s old Second Avenue elevated railway. As tough as the aircraft were, the recycled steel inspired an oft-repeated joke that became part of Hellcat lore. As the new fighters thumped down on carrier decks around the fleet, crewmen would say, “Here comes another piece of the Second Avenue El!”
The stories of the Hellcat’s ruggedness perhaps started with Lieutenant Casey Childers, whose F6F experienced engine problems during a delivery flight. Descending toward a forest 30 miles north of Cape May, New Jersey, Childers dead-sticked his aircraft through the trees, and when the remains of his Hellcat stopped cutting wood, he emerged from the cockpit uninjured.