It had the body of a fighter and a bomber’s soul.
- By William E. Burrows
- Air & Space magazine, September 2013
National Museum of the USAF
A novelist who savors irony could turn the story into a bestseller: A gravely wounded Russian military pilot emigrates to the United States, founds an aircraft company, and hires a brilliant Russian engineer who becomes the firm’s chief designer and creates an array of warplanes for use against...the Russians.
The novel would be based on fact, namely the life of Alexander P. de Seversky, a wealthy Russian who lost a leg as a naval pilot in World War I and in 1918 emigrated to the United States, where he developed a synchronized, automatic bombsight for the Sperry Gyroscope Company. When the U.S. government bought the patent rights to the bombsight for $50,000, Seversky settled in New York and, in 1922, used the money to establish the Seversky Aero Corporation on Long Island. (Seversky Aero later became Seversky Aircraft Corporation.) But by 1939 the firm had lost $550,000, and in a twist of fate the board of directors forced Seversky out and eradicated his name from the company, which they renamed the Republic Aviation Corporation.
Among de Seversky’s stable of designers was a young Alexander Kartveli—thought by many to have been in the same league as the legendary Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, the head of Lockheed’s Skunk Works and the mastermind behind the U-2 and SR-71 reconnaissance airplanes. Kartveli, generally known for his rugged designs, actually had an artist’s eye. “He liked streamlining—he wanted his designs to be beautiful,” says Joshua Stoff, curator of the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island, New York. In 1939, Kartveli drew an airplane designated the XP-47 that showed his fondness for clean lines. He designed it to be powered by the latest Allison water-cooled engine, which, in the late 1930s, enticed engineers with its inline arrangement of cylinders because it presented to the oncoming air a much smaller area than the big radial engines of the time. But after early European combat reports showed that lightweight fighters (such as the Royal Air Force Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes in action at the time) were too easily eliminated from the battle by gunfire, the U.S. Army Air Corps asked for a much heavier fighter–bomber escort in a single airframe.
“The [XP-47] morphed into the P-47 around a big radial engine and its supercharger,” says Stoff. “The Air Corps requested a big, heavy airplane to carry a lot of ordnance, but it was a much bigger, heavier plane than [Kartveli] would have liked.”
But in the end, Kartveli was a pragmatist—if the Air Corps wanted a juggernaut, that’s what it would get. The potential of the powerful new Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engine couldn’t be denied—the engine ruined the XP-47’s lines, but resulted in the barrel-chested, multi-role P-47 Thunderbolt, one of the best ground attack aircraft in World War II.
As early as 1944, Republic began work on designs for a jet fighter, writes Stoff in Thunder Factory, a history of Republic Aviation Corporation. Following the Luftwaffe’s introduction of the Messerschmitt Me 262 in mid-1944, the U.S. Army Air Forces “asked Republic to redesign the P-47 around an axial-flow turbojet,” says Stoff. “The engine would have been installed in the roomy center fuselage, exhausting under the tail.” After preliminary sketches showed the idea to be impractical, Kartveli scrapped the concept and came up with an all-new design, the P-84. Two years later, the XP-84 made its first flight.
At this point, Republic began experiencing financial troubles, and by October 1946 the company had cash to continue operations for only three weeks. “Republic pleaded with the U.S. Army Air Forces to begin payments on the P-84 contract,” writes Stoff, “although the first production aircraft would not be delivered for another eight months.” The Air Forces advanced payment, and that, combined with a $6 million tax refund, allowed the company—and the now-redesignated F-84 Thunderjet—to survive.
In December 1950, the 27th Fighter-Escort Wing became the first Thunderjet unit in Korea, flying F-84Es. Originally meant to escort B-29s on bombing runs, the F-84s were no match for lightning-quick MiG-15s in the Korean War. After ceding air-to-air combat to the North American F-86 Sabre, the Thunderjet built an honorable record pounding North Korean positions.
Republic F-84s flew 86,408 missions, and were the Air Force’s primary strike aircraft. They were credited with destroying or damaging 105 MiG-15s; 173 Thunderjets were lost or damaged in combat.
The Thunderjet’s performance in North Korea ensured that Republic’s reputation for ruggedness, enshrined in the Thunderbolt, continued into the Jet Age. Besides creating an aircraft that would satisfy basic requirements and hang tough under fire, Kartveli’s team paid attention to subsystems and the demands of field work, which would come to be appreciated by the shivering wrench turners on the Taegu Air Base flightline.
“Republic made a hell of an airplane. They knew what to do for the people who flew them and the people who worked on them, and with what tools,” says Douglas Danforth, who was an F-84 crew chief with the 27th Fighter-Escort Wing during the Korean War. “You could change an engine on an F-84 in under a half-hour and have the aircraft ready to fly.” Danforth also worked on the F-86 Sabre and found that legendary fighter much more difficult to maintain. “Republic had it all over the F-86 as far as maintainability. The F-86 was a royal pain in the ass.” A well-thought-out system of engine mounts, quick-disconnect couplings, and rolling stands made the F-84 a mechanic’s friend.