Unbreakable- page 3 | History | Air & Space Magazine

Unbreakable

World War II aircraft that were shot to hell—and came back.

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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.

In the Pacific, the Hellcat’s legend continued to grow. While Lieutenant Bruce Williams was strafing an ammunition barge, his Hellcat was blown upward 250 feet and showered with debris. The shredded fighter came back to the carrier with stove bolts and pieces of planking embedded in its wings and underbelly. After the deck crew examined the damage and determined the Hellcat was beyond repair, it was pushed overboard.

The Thunderbolt

While often used as a high-altitude bomber escort, the Republic P-47 also showed amazing ability as an attack aircraft—going down on the deck to hunt down and ruthlessly blast trucks, tanks, and trains. The Thunderbolt’s sawed-off snout and heavy, all-business airframe caused some P-47 flyers to give it a name that stuck: the Jug.

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