2 December 1937: First flight, Brewster Aeronautical Corporation XF2A-1 prototype, Bu. No. 0451. The XF2A-1 was designed as a replacement for the U.S. Navy’s biplane fighter, the Grumman F3F. It was an all-metal, single-place, single-engine mid-wing monoplane with an enclosed cockpit, retractable landing gear and an arresting hook for aircraft carrier operations.
The XF2A-1 was 25 feet, 6 inches (7.772 meters) long, with a wingspan of 35 feet, 0 inches (10.668 meters) and overall height of 11 feet, 9 inches (3.581 meters). The prototype had an empty weight of 3,711 pounds (1,683 kilograms) and gross weight of 5,017 pounds (2,276 kilograms).
The prototype Buffalo was powered by an air-cooled, supercharged, 1,823.129-cubic-inch-displacement (29.876 liter) Wright Aeronautical Division Cyclone 9 R-1820G5 (R-1820-22) nine cylinder radial engine with a compression ratio of 6.45:1. This was a direct-drive engine, and turned a three-bladed propeller. (Photographs show the prototype with both Curtiss Electric and Hamilton Standard propellers.) The R-1820-22 had a normal power rating of 850 horsepower at 2,100 r.p.m., and 950 horsepower at 2,200 r.p.m., for takeoff. The engine was 43.12 inches (1.095 meters) long, 54.25 inches (1.378 meters) in diameter, and weighed 1,105 pounds (501 kilograms).
The prototype had a maximum speed of 304 miles per hour (489 kilometers per hour) and a service ceiling of 30,900 feet (9,418 meters). The production F2A-2 fighter had a maximum speed of 322 miles per hour (518 kilometers per hour) at 14,500 feet (4,420 meters). It could climb from Sea Level to 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) in 9.0 minutes, and its service ceiling was 36,100 feet (11,003 meters). The F2A-2 had a maximum range of 1,085 miles (1,746. kilometers).
In a service test competition, the XF2A-1 outperformed Grumman’s prototype XF4F, which would later become the Wildcat. The U.S. Navy ordered it into production as the F2A-1. It was the first monoplane in fleet service.
In production, the new fighter was armed with one .50-caliber and one .30-caliber machine gun, synchronized to fire through the propeller arc.
The Brewster Model 399E (F2A-2) was ordered by the Royal Air Force and designated Buffalo Mk.I. “Buffalo” became the popular nickname for the fighter, although it was not officially adopted by the U.S. Navy.
Brewster Buffalos served during the early months of World War II, notably at Wake Island and the Battle of Midway. The airplane was outperformed by Japanese fighters and losses were heavy. It was quickly withdrawn from front line use.
The Brewster Buffalo served with several foreign countries, such as England, Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands East Indies. These airplanes were significantly lighter than the the U.S. Navy F2A-3 production variants, and the Buffalo’s cockpit visibility and maneuverability was favored by their pilots.
A total of 509 Buffalos were built between 1938 and 1941.
In May 1938, the prototype XF2A-1 was tested in the Full-Scale Wind Tunnel at the NACA Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. Recommended changes resulted in a 10% increase in the fighter’s speed.
4 November 1941: Lockheed test pilot Ralph Burwell Virden was conducting high speed dive tests in the first Lockheed YP-38 Lightning, Air Corps serial number 39-689 (Lockheed’s serial number 122-2202).
As the airplane’s speed increased, it approached what is now known as its Critical Mach Number. Air flowing across the wings accelerated to transonic speeds and began to form shock waves. This interrupted lift and caused a portion of the wing to stall. Air no longer flowed smoothly along the airplane and the tail surfaces became ineffective. The YP-38 pitched down into a steeper dive and its speed increased even more.
Designed by famed aeronautical engineer Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, the YP-38 had servo tabs on the elevator that were intended to help the pilot maintain or regain control under these conditions. But they increased the elevator’s effectiveness too well.
The Los Angeles Times described the accident:
Witnesses said the twin-engined, double-fuselaged ship was booming westward at near maximum speed (unofficially reported to be between 400 and 500 miles an hour) when the duralumin tail assembly “simply floated away.”
A moment afterward the seven-ton craft seemed to put on a burst of speed, the the high whine of its engines rising.
It then went into a downward glide to about 1500 feet, then into a flat spin, flipped over on its back and shot earthward.
Several persons said that they thought they had heard an explosion during the dive, but qualified observers doubted it. . .
. . . Fellow pilots at Lockheed said, “Ralph was the best we had, especially in power dives.”
Robert E. Gross, president of Lockheed, said, “Ralph Virden was a great pilot but an even greater man. If anyone ever had national defense at heart it was he, who every day was carrying the science of aviation into new and higher fields.”
Various witnesses said the ill-fated ship’s tail assembly could be followed easily as its bright surfaces glinted in the sun during its drop to earth. It landed several blocks from the scene of the crash.
Mrs. Jack Davenport of 1334 Elm Ave., left her ironing board when she heard the unfamiliar roar of the plunging plane’s engines.
“I ran out and saw it passing over us, very low. It disappeared among the trees and then zoomed back into sight just before crashing in the next block,” she said. “It looked just like a toy airplane. I knew the pilot didn’t have a chance, as the ship was too low and going too fast.”
—Los Angeles Times, Vol. LX, Wednesday, 5 November 1941, Page 1, Column 6, and Page 2, Column 5.
The YP-38 crashed into the kitchen of Jack Jensen’s home at 1147 Elm Street, Glendale, California. Fire erupted. Ralph Virden was killed. The airplane’s tail section was located several blocks away.
39-689 was the first of thirteen YP-38 service test aircraft that had been ordered by the U.S. Army Air Corps shortly after the XP-38 prototype, 37-457, had crashed on a transcontinental speed record attempt, 11 February 1939. 39-689 made its first flight 16 September 1940 with test pilot Marshall Headle at the controls. With hundreds of production P-38s being built, Lockheed continued to use the YP-38 for testing.
The YP-38s were service test prototypes of a single-place, twin engine long range fighter with a unique configuration. There was not a fuselage in the normal sense. The cockpit, nose landing gear, and armament were contained in a central nacelle mounted to the wing. Two engines and their turbochargers, cooling systems and main landing gear were in two parallel booms. The booms end with vertical fins and rudders, with the horizontal stabilizer and elevator between them. The P-38 was 37 feet, 9–15/16 inches (11.530 meters) long, with a wingspan of 52 feet, 0 inches (15.850 meters) and height of 12 feet, 10 inches (3.952 meters).
The P-38’s wings had a total area of 327.50 square feet (30.43 square meters). Their angle of incidence was 2° and there was 5° 40′ dihedral. The leading edges were swept aft 5° 10′.
The YP-38 had an empty weight 11,171 pounds (5,067 kilograms). The gross weight was 13,500 pounds (6,123 kilograms) and the maximum takeoff weight 14,348 pounds (6,508 kilograms).
The YP-38 was powered by two counter-rotating, liquid-cooled, turbosupercharged 1,710.597-cubic-inch displacement (28.032 liter) Allison V-1710-27 right-hand tractor and V-1710-29 left-hand tractor, single overhead cam (SOHC) 60° V-12 engines (Allison Engineering Co. Models F2R and F2L) with a Normal Power rating of 1,000 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m., and 1,150 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m. for takeoff. They drove three-bladed Curtiss Electric constant-speed propellers with a diameter of 11 feet, 6 inches (3.505 meters) through a 2.00:1 gear reduction. In a change from the XP-38, the propellers rotated outboard at the top of their arc. The V-1710-27/-29 engines were 7 feet, 1-5/8 inches (2.175 meters) long, 2 feet, 5-9/32 inches (0.744 meters) wide and 3 feet, 0-17/32 inches (0.928 meters) high. The V-1710-27/-29 weighed 1,305 pounds (592 kilograms)
The YP-38 had a maximum speed of 405 miles per hour (651.8 kilometers per hour) at 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) and it could climb from the surface to 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) in six minutes. Normal range 650 miles (1,046 kilometers).
Lockheed built one XP-38, thirteen YP-38s, and more than 10,000 production fighter and reconnaissance airplanes. At the end of World War II, orders for nearly 2,000 more P-38 Lightnings were cancelled.
Ralph Burwell Virden was born 11 June 1898, at Audobon Township, Illinois. He was the second child of Hiram R. Virden, a farmer, and Nancy Carrie Ivy Virden.
Virden attended Bradley Polytechnic Institute at Peoria, Illinois. At the age of 17, 15 October 1918, Ralph Virden enlisted in the U.S. Army. With the end of World War I less than one month later, he was quickly discharged, 7 December 1918.
In 1919, Ralph Virden married Miss Florence I. McCullers. They would have two children, Kathryn and Ralph, Jr. Kathryn died in 1930 at the age of ten years.
During the mid-1920s, Virden flew as a contract mail pilot. He held Airline Transport Pilot Certificate No. 628, and was employed by Gilmore Aviation and Pacific Air Transport. For thirteen years, Virden was a pilot for United Air Lines. He joined Lockheed Aircraft Company as a test pilot in 1939. He had flown more than 15,000 hours.
Virden lived at 4511 Ben Ave., North Hollywood, California, with his family. Ralph, Jr., now 19 years of age, was also employed at Lockheed. (Following his father’s death, the younger Virden enlisted in the United States Navy.)
After the accident, Lockheed, the Air Corps and the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) undertook an extensive test program of the P-38.
15 October 1937: Test pilot Edmund Turney (“Eddie”) Allen, a consulting engineer to Boeing, and Major John D. Korkille, Air Corps, United States Army, made the first flight of the prototype Boeing XB-15, 35-277, at Boeing Field, Seattle, Washington. Major Corkille reported that the airplane “handled easily and maneuvered readily.”
The Boeing Model 294, designated XB-15 by the Air Corps, was an experimental airplane designed to determine if a bomber with a 5,000 mile (8,047 kilometers) range was possible. It was designed at the same time as the Model 299 (XB-17), which had the advantage of lessons learned by the XB-15 design team. The XB-15 was larger and more complex than the XB-17 and took longer to complete. It first flew more than two years after the prototype B-17.
Designers had planned to use an experimental 3,421.19-cubic-inch-displacement (56.063 liter) liquid-cooled, supercharged and turbosupercharged Allison V-3420 twenty-four cylinder, four-bank “double V” engine which produced a maximum of 2,885 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m. The engine was not available in time, however, and four air-cooled Pratt & Whitney R-1830 (Twin Wasp) engines were used instead. With one-third the horsepower, this substitution left the experimental bomber hopelessly underpowered as a combat aircraft.
The XB-15 was a very large four-engine mid-wing monoplane with retractable landing gear. It was of aluminum monocoque construction with fabric-covered flight control surfaces. The XB-15 had a ten-man crew which worked in shifts on long duration flights.
The prototype bomber was 87 feet, 7 inches (26.695 meters) long with a wingspan of 149 feet (45.415 meters) and overall height of 18 feet, 1 inch (5.512 meters). The airplane had an empty weight of 37,709 pounds (17,105 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 70,706 pounds (32,072 kilograms)—later increased to 92,000 pounds (41,730 kilograms).
As built, the XB-15 was powered by four air-cooled, supercharged, 1,829.39-cubic-inch-displacement (29.978 liter) Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp S1B3-G (R-1830-11) two-row 14-cylinder radial engines, rated at 850 horsepower at 2,450 r.p.m. at 5,000 feet (1,524 meters), and 1,000 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. for take off. The engines turned three-bladed controllable-pitch propellers through a 3:2 gear reduction. The R-1830-11 was 4 feet, 8.66 inches (1.439 meters) long with a diameter of 4 feet, 0.00 inches (1.219 meters), and weighed 1,320 pounds (599 kilograms).
These gave the experimental airplane a maximum speed of 197 miles per hour (317 kilometers per hour) at 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) and a cruise speed of 152 miles per hour (245 kilometers per hour) at 6,000 feet (1,829 meters). The service ceiling was 18,900 feet (5,761 meters) and maximum range was 5,130 miles (8,256 kilometers).
The bomber could carry a maximum of 12,000 pounds (5,443 kilograms) of bombs in its internal bomb bay, and was armed with three .30-caliber and three .50-caliber machine guns for defense.
Only one XB-15 was built. During World War II it was converted to a transport and redesignated XC-105. In 1945 it was stripped and abandoned at Albrook Field, Territory of the Canal Zone, Panama.
The XB-15 set several Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world records: On 30 July 1939, the XB-15 carried 14,135 kilograms (31,162 pounds) to an altitude of 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) over Fairfield, Ohio.¹ The same flight set a second record by carrying 10,000 kilograms (22,046 pounds) to an altitude of 8,228 feet (2,508 meters).² On 2 August 1939, the XB-15 set a World Record for Speed Over a Closed Circuit of 5000 Kilometers With 2000 Kilogram Payload, at an average speed of 267.67 kilometers per hour (166.32 miles per hour).³
6 April 1938:¹ After being shipped by truck from the Bell Aircraft Company factory at Buffalo, New York, the XP-39 prototype, 38-326, made its first flight at Wright Field, Ohio, with test pilot James Taylor ² in the cockpit. During the test flight, Taylor flew the XP-39 to 390 miles per hour (628 kilometers per hour) at 20,000 feet (6,096 meters). The service ceiling was 32,000 feet (9,754 meters).
The Bell XP-39 Airacobra was a single-place, single-engine prototype fighter with a low wing and retractable tricycle landing gears. The airplane was primarily built of aluminum, though control surfaces were fabric covered.
As originally built, the XP-39 was 28 feet, 8 inches (8.738 meters) long with a wingspan of 35 feet, 10 inches (10.922 meters). The prototype had an empty weight of 3,995 pounds (1,812 kilograms) and gross weight of 5,550 pounds (2,517 kilograms).
The XP-39 was unarmed, but it had been designed around the American Armament Corporation T9 37 mm autocannon, later designated Gun, Automatic, 37 mm, M4 (Aircraft).³ The cannon and ammunition were in the forward fuselage, above the engine driveshaft. The gun fired through the reduction gear box and propeller hub.
The XP-39 was originally powered by a liquid-cooled, turbosupercharged and supercharged 1,710.597-cubic-inch-displacement (28.032 liter) Allison Engineering Co. V-1710-E2 (V-1710-17), a single overhead cam (SOHC) 60° V-12 engine with a compression ratio of 6.65:1. The V-1710-17 had a Maximum Continuous Power rating of 1,000 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. at 25,000 feet (7,620 meters), and Takeoff/Military Power rating of 1,150 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m. at 25,000 feet, burning 91 octane gasoline.
The engine was installed in an unusual configuration behind the cockpit, with a two-piece drive shaft passing under the cockpit and turning the three-bladed Curtiss Electric constant-speed propeller through a remotely-mounted 1.8:1 gear reduction gear box. The V-1710-17 was 16 feet, 1.79 inches (4.922 meters) long, including the drive shaft and remote gear box. It was 2 feet, 11.45 inches (0.900 meters) high, 2 feet, 5.28 inches (0.744 meters) wide and weighed 1,350 pounds (612 kilograms).
After initial flight testing, the XP-39 was sent to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) Langley memorial Aeronautical Laboratory at Hampton, Virginia. The prototype was tested in the Full-Scale Wind Tunnel. Improvements in aerodynamics were recommended and Bell rebuilt the airplane as the XP-39B with an Allison V-1710-E5 (V-1710-37) engine.
The turbosupercharger had been removed, which reduced the airplane’s power at altitudes above 15,000 feet (4,572 meters). The V-1710-37 had a maximum power of 1,090 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m. at 13,300 feet (4,054 meters). This resulted in the P-39 being used primarily as a ground-attack weapon.
The XP-39B, with test pilot George Price in the cockpit, was damaged when when its landing gear did not fully extend, 6 January 1940. It was repaired and test flights resumed. On 6 August 1940, Captain Ernest K. Warburton stalled the prototype on landing. The impact resulted in significant structural damage, beyond economic repair. The airplane was later scrapped.
9,584 Bell P-39 Airacobras were built during World War II. More than half were sent to the Soviet Union.
¹ Reliable sources indicate the date of the first flight as both 1938 and 1939. The Bell Helicopter Company web site, “The History of Bell Helicopter: 1935–1949” states 1938.
² James Taylor may have been Lieutenant Commander James Blackstone Taylor, Jr., (1897–1942), Naval Aviator No. 437, a well-known U.S. Navy test pilot.
³ The 37-mm Aircraft Gun Matériel M4 is a recoil-operated aircraft weapon designed by John M. Browning. It has an overall length of 7 feet, 5 inches (2.26 meters). The barrel, or “tube,” is 5 feet, 5 inches (1.65 meters) long with a caliber of 1.457 inches (37.0 millimeters) and weighs 55 pounds (25 kilograms). The barrel is part of the recoiling section of the gun and moves rearward 9-5/8 inches (245 millimeters). The weight of the gun with a loaded 30-round magazine is 306.4 pounds (138.98 kilograms). The M4 fires a high-explosive tracer round with a muzzle velocity of 2,000 feet per second (607 meters per second). Each M54 shell is 9.75 inches (248 millimeters) long and weighs 1.93 pounds, of which the projectile makes up 1.34 pounds (0.608 kilograms). The cannon has a cyclic rate of fire of 125–150 rounds per minute.