Friday, August 16, 2013

Video Del Fuego, Part LXII

Being an island nation at war is a decidedly mixed bag. On the one hand, islands tend to be somewhat defensible. Invading an island is exactly no one's idea of a fun time. But on the other hand, doing that whole wartime thing requires a whole bunch of stuff that's not always easy to find on an island. Therefore, it has to come from somewhere else. If you enemy has even an ounce of sense, they're going to try to keep you from getting it. So, now what?

This was the question running through the mind of Geoffrey de Havilland in the spring of 1938. At that point, a blind man could see the storm clouds gathering. De Havilland realized that being able to build an airplane with non-strategic materials would be of considerable advantage, not just to him personally, but to Britain. When he did a more detailed study, he realized that while wood had poor torsional characteristics, its strength-to-weight ratio was just as good as steel or aluminum. That came as a bit of a surprise. The projected performance also came as something of a surprise. When he turned the crank again, the equation he came up with looked something like this:

(2 Rolls-Royce Merlin Engines) + (Lightweight wooden structure) = Bat Outta Hell.

This two-engine light bomber would be faster than anything the Germans had, either flying or on the drawing board, outside of anything sporting either a jet or rocket engine. It took two years to refine the design, but by early 1940, what de Havilland was offering was something the Royal Air Force was very interested in having. Thus, the first prototype of the de Havilland Mosquito flew for the first time on the 25th of November.

While the Mosquito was originally sold as a light bomber, it also found use as a photo recon bird, a day or night fighter, a pathfinder for heavier bombers, a torpedo bomber, and even as a transport. It had three defining characteristics. First, it was fast. It could do better than 400 miles per hour, a speed matched or surpassed among prop aircraft only by the P-38 Lightning, the F4U Corsair, and the F8F Bearcat; none of which were in the Luftwaffe inventory. Second, it had legs. It could fly 1,500 miles with a full weapons load. A single Mosquito could, and sometimes did, make a solo raid on Berlin, just to make the point that it could. The Luftwaffe chief was not amused:
"In 1940 I could at least fly as far as Glasgow in most of my aircraft, but not now! It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito. I turn green and yellow with envy. The British, who can afford aluminium better than we can, knock together a beautiful wooden aircraft that every piano factory over there is building, and they give it a speed which they have now increased yet again. What do you make of that?" -- Hermann Goering, c. 1943
The third thing ... It's often said that the Germans didn't have radar. That's not quite true. They knew all about it, and even used it themselves. But detecting a wooden plane with primitive radar? Yeah, good luck with that. At night, a well-flown Mosquito may as well have been invisible.

It was a beautiful, remarkable airplane, but the ravages of time are not kind to even well-tended wood. Not many are left today. But amazingly enough, one of them has been restored to flyable condition.

KA114 was built by de Havilland Canada in 1945, and was shipped to New Zealand for restoration in 2012. If you're alert, and lucky, you might be able to see it come to an airshow near you.

Man, there's nothing like the sound of a Merlin or two at full throttle. That symphony never gets old.

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