Before Jets-The Last and Hottest Piston Engine Fighters

Outstanding Piston PLanes

by Wallace Wood
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P-51 Mustang
World War II was the time of the prop-driven planes. Some of the greatest piston engines ever built for aircraft were seen in the air toward the end of that terrible war. And they powered some of the greatest aircraft. Bar arguments (and fights) can start on which was "the greatest" of all. But we can probably agree many now-forgotten airplanes and engines were in the general category.

Macchi MC-72 Who remembers the Italian Macchi MC-72 , which set the official FIA (Federation International Aeronautic) record for fastest piston engine seaplane at 440.68 mph (709.21 km/h) in 1934 --(thanks to Mario Lecce--see correction) And still holds the record! See more from Aircraft Trivia at

Macchi MC200 Thanks to
(Corner of the Sky)

The Italians' Macchi MC200 fighter was no slouch, either. But its memory is lost next to other more famous planes.

F8F Bearcat Not so long ago, the American "Rare Bear" Grumman F8F Bearcat set the fastest piston aircraft record at 528 mph in 1989.

BearCat Flys again in 2003 and Kilroy Was There! click the star

Do-335 "Pfeil" Thanks to Venik's Aviation
Do-335 "Pfeil" But the German's twin engine (front and rear) Dornier Do-335 "Pfeil" (Arrow) set the "fastest" record back in 1945 at 472 mph in level flight. In 1945 the Bearcat's top speed was listed at 420 mph at 28,700 feet. A lot of Bearcats were built, but only 14 Pfeils.
Hawker Tempest It wasn't official, but the British claimed 477 mph for their prototype V-1 flying bomb chaser, the Hawker Tempest. Squadron Leader Roland Beamont calmly talked of 480 mph buzzing his airfield at 20 feet off the ground in the production version. One of the most powerful and advanced piston engines ever built, the 2,250 cubic inch Napier Sabre pulled the Tempest

Hawker Tempest Thanks to The Hawker Tempest Page

along with 2,250 horsepower to start with, eventually upped to over 3,000 hp. Its in-flight sound is closer to a wolverine's howl than a roar. The Napier Company made record-breaking speedboat and automobile engines before turning to aircraft.

The Tempest's problem was that it wasn't a high-altitude engine and was sensitive to dirt. Top performance was well under 25,000 feet. But lower down, it was a fearsome beast, which could and did shoot down the German jet fighter, the Messerschmitt Me-262 as well as the most V-1 'buzz bombs' of any British aircraft. German jet pilots said it was the only enemy plane they respected. Later Tempests got a 2,500 hp air-cooled radial engine, the Centaurus, and lost the big "chin" for the front radiator in the water-cooled Napier.

Hawker Typhoon Thanks to Probert Encyclopaedia
Hawker Typhoon Typhoon It was a family resemblance. The Tempest's "father" was a big-chin look-alike called the Typhoon. The 'Tiffy' had fat wings and a weak tail which tended to pull off from vibration in a dive. But the slower 'Tiffies' destroyed 135 tanks in the D-Day Invasion at Normandy in June of 1944 and were much beloved by the British.
Ta-152 The German Lufwaffe (air corps) "long-nosed Focke-Wulf 190", the Ta-152, was clocked at 463 mph. Like the "Arrow," only a few were manufactured.

Focke-Wulf 190 Thanks to Chicago Centennial of Flight Commision
The F-W 190 itself is in competition for best fighter of the war. Over 4,000 were made. It wasn't heavy, it was well armed with both cannon and machine guns, it was fast on the climb and dive and very maneuverable and tough. It could carry bombs and rockets. The '190 was a much-respected aircraft among American and British pilots. The "normal" '190 could top out about 420 mph with emergency engine boost.
P-51 Mustang Most famous of American WWII aircraft was the U.S.-built P-51 Mustang, a long-lived design used even in the Korean War and beyond. It would "only" do about 440 in its most extreme version with the British-designed Rolls-Royce "Merlin" engine. But it could fly nearly 1,000 miles from Britain to Berlin with the bombers, fight the German planes, and fly back. The only fighter that could do that. And a lot of Mustangs were built.

P-51 Mustang Thanks to Fly By Aviation Photography

North American Aviation built the Mustang for the Brit's in 117 days from drawing board to tarmac to beat a 120 day deadline. Without an engine. It was an omission with portent.
When the British replaced the U.S. Allison engine in the Mustang with the V-12 'Merlin', it was transformed from a fast medium-altitude performer to perhaps the greatest WWII fighting plane at high altitudes. Subject to argument, but the Mustang became the "Cadillac of the Air."

P-47 Thunderbolt Nearly as famous was the P-47 Thunderbolt, one of the heaviest single engine fighters ever built. Affectionately known as "The Jug" (for Juggernaut), it had the most powerful U.S. designed engine at the time, the Pratt & Whitney 2,000 hp air-cooled radial. The Jug's propellers covered 12 feet top to bottom. Its supercharger made sure the horsepower was there at high altitudes of 30,000 feet or more, something that could not be said of lesser aircraft. The Jug' took awhile to pick up speed climbing

P-47 Thunderbolt (Jug) Thanks to NASA History Division
or on the flat, but could reach 420. When it threw its weight into a dive, look out! Jug' pilots complained of a lot of buffeting and had trouble pulling out of a steep dive. Some weren't around to complain. They were on the edge of the speed of sound.

The Jug' had something else going for it: eight .50 caliber machine guns (compared to four for the first Mustangs). When those .50's let loose all at once, they could and did knock railroad engines off the track. Armed with rockets and bombs, the Jug' was even better at ground support than air combat-and it wasn't bad at air combat. It was tough as old shoe leather and hard for even German cannon shells to bring down.

P-38 Lightning Thanks to Richard Seaman's web site
P-38 Lightning Another famous U.S. aircraft was the P-38 "Lightning" made by Lockheed. This unusual plane had cannon of its own as well as four .50 caliber guns, twin Allison engines, and could carry bombs and rockets. Bigger than even the Jug', the Lightning was surprisingly nimble and pilots had a few special tricks during 'turning contests' with the Messerschmitts and Japanese Zeroes. One was called the "hammerhead" and describing it is beyond my skill.
Lightning pilots could reach 414 mph and high altitudes-40,000 ft.
Used throughout the Second World War, the P-38 is remembered for shooting down the Japanese plane carrying the brilliant Admiral Yamamoto, the man who planned Pearl Harbor but lost the
Battle of Midway. Later in the war the Lightning was overshadowed by more advanced aircraft, but the record of the "fork-tailed devil" as the Germans called it was sparkling, especially in the Pacific theatre. U.S. aces of aces Richard Bong flew a P-38, with 40 victories. See The Glacier Girl Flies again! Pulled from below tons of ice, she was restored and flies!

Zero As a general rule, Lightning pilots and all Allied pilots were better off not trying to dogfight the very nimble and capable Zero. Better to "boom and zoom" through any formation of Zeroes, and not hang around to see who could outturn who. The Zero's top speed was only 356 mph, but deserves to be on the "best" list of WWII aircraft. It saw great service in every role for Japan in that war, including carrier aircraft. The Zero's weakness was lack of armor and self-sealing fuel tanks. The planes tended to burn and blow up very easily when hit with cannon or tracer bullets.

Zero Thanks to BT Yahoo! Internet

Ki-84 Hayate Thanks to Rod's WarBirds

Ki-84 Japan's other outstanding aircraft is seldom mentioned. The U.S. code designation for it was the "Frank". It was the Nakajima-engined Ki-84, and its name, Hayate, means "hurricane." The Frank fought against Claire Chennault's Flying Tigers in China before the U.S. officially entered the war, and his P-40's did everything they could to avoid contact. The 18-cylinder air-cooled

engine peaked at 1,800 hp or over 1,900 hp depending on who you read, and the Frank could do 388 mph., a very high speed that early in the war. It had .20mm and later .30 mm cannon. Such shells are over an inch thick. Some 3,500 Ki-84's were built. Luckily for the Allies, their capture or destruction of strategic materials isolated Japanese industry. The special metals required for the Ki-84 were in short supply, and Ki-84 pilots found many things that didn't work after they took off, including the landing gear.

British readers will be annoyed at the long delay in mentioning their favorites, but we've saved some of the best for last.

Spitfire. The name itself is synonymous with the Battle of Britain. Graceful elliptical wings let it turn like a Zero; well, almost as good. The same Merlin engine that powered the P-51 Mustang powered the Spitfire. It was quick and it was fast. Developed from a racing plane design by Supermarine Company, the Spitfire was dismissed as a "sport plane" by German engineers. But the Spit' was the equal of the Germans' main fighter, the battle-tested Messerschmitt

Spitfire Thanks to Aeroplane Art Company
Me-109. Differences between the two was a matter of tactics and pilot skill.
At first, the Spitfire was slightly under-gunned with eight .303 calibre weapons against the .20mm cannon and machine guns of the '109. Cannon were added later to the Spit's growing list of tools.

If the Spit pilot chased an Me-109 in a dive, the "negative gravity" starved the carburetor and the engine would cut out. Like astronauts training for zero "g" in the "Vomit Comet", the gasoline would float up and away. Engineers thought the carb' gave more horsepower than fuel injection. Maybe. But this was not a popular side effect with British pilots. Germans thought it was a fine idea as they raced away from a sputting Spit'. The Spitfire pilots learned to flip over and start their dive upside-down.

Enter the inventive Miss Tilly Shilling, a racing motorcyclist and engineer at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. She had a metal plate with a small hole put in the carb' so all the gasoline couldn't float away at once in a dive. Of course this was known as "Miss Shilling's orifice", and allowed negative 'g' flying for a while. Intake port fuel injection (like most cars have today) was added later.

Hawker Hurricane Thanks to Post-war Military Aviation, Vic Flintham

Hawker Hurricane Two other aircraft beloved of the British had Rolls-Royce Merlins. One was the part wood, part metal Hawker Hurricane, made by the same company that built the Typhoon and the Tempest. It was the first English fighter to top 300 mph. Hurricanes got less powerful engines and couldn't match the 357 mph of the first Spit's in the Battle of Britain. Both got stronger engines later. Hurricanes had two advantages: being half wood and fabric like the old biplanes, they absorbed a lot of damage and were easy to repair. And they could out-turn even the graceful Spitfire.

While the faster Spitfires tangled with the Me-109's, the Hurricanes went after the German bombers. There were only 620 Spits' and Hurricanes facing what some say were over 2,500 and others say 3.500 German aircraft in the Battle of Britain. Hurricanes accounted for more "kills" than any other British aircraft. By war's end, 14,500 Hurricanes were built and used in every conceivable way-as fighter-bombers, tank busters, and so on. These were called "Hurribombers".

Wallace Wood (no relation to the famed Mad Magazine cartoonist) is a San Jose State University journalism graduate. He worked for the San Jose Mercury/News as a stringer, then briefly for the Sunnyvale Standard/Mt.View Register-Leader (now defunct) before spending years at the Santa Cruz Sentinel. All California papers. He is now "retired".

A series of his on paper subdivisions won third place in Associated Press competition for the tiny Sentinel statewide behind two L.A. Times writers. But another series on the business of death at funeral homes had greater impact, leading to many self-imposed reforms in the industry.

Wallace Wood
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