The Royal Navy's WWII Do-Everything Fighter bomber
When we think of fighters, we invariably think of nimble little buggers in which a single man pits himself against another pilot in a similar machine. It is the classic winner-take-all contest in which the dusty street of a gunfighter facedown is replaced by the hard blue of a high altitude sky. But it hasn’t always been that way. At least not in 1940 England.
There was a period of time, right at the end of the 1930’s, where a faction within England’s government was arguing for a two-place fighter concept in which the armament was to be concentrated in a turret in the back seat. The pinnacle of this concept was the infamous Boulton-Paul Defiant, an airplane, which appeared as if a bomber turret had been stuffed into the fuselage behind the pilot of a Hurricane clone. The airplane was so heavy, however, that it couldn’t get out of its own way in a dogfight, so it was dead meat against anything the Germans threw against it. It was quickly withdrawn from combat to save the crews.
The Fairey Firefly was born at the same time and conformed to the same thought processes and government specifications so it was foreordained that it would be a two-place machine. Fairey Aviation Company, however, reasoned that it made no sense to build a fighter that couldn’t fight. For that reason, their Firefly, which evolved out of the much lower powered Fulmar, was designed to be a he-man machine from the git-go.
As the Firefly was taking form on the drawing board, war was knocking on Britain’s front door and Royal Navy brass hats saw that they’d need more than just another fighter. They needed something thoroughly modern that had long range and packed a massive punch. So, while still in the design state, the Firefly began to take on the form of a multi-use weapon. It would be the ultimate do-everything bird for the fleet and would be designed for both long-range reconnaissance and hard-core fighter-bomber duty. In fact, its four 20 mm cannons and bomb load made it a serious player in combat actions from sinking the Tirpitz in the ETO to bombing Sumatran oil refineries in the Pacific. Eventually the RNAF used it for everything they could think of. It became one of the most useful, multi-role airplanes of the war.
Pilots loved the airplane because its light controls and quick roll rate gave it the pugilistic personality of a fighter. When loaded it weighed twice as much as a Spitfire but it was powered by the much larger Rolls-Royce Griffon engine with as much as 2100 horsepower: it may have been big but it could really boogie and those cannons made hash out of anything that got in its sights.
When not carrying bombs or rockets, pilots said you couldn’t tell you weren’t flying a fighter. In fact, with its Fairey-Youngman slotted flaps run out a few degrees (they slide back and then down, like Fowlers), it could actually hold its own in a dogfight. In fact, pilots loved the way it did aerobatics—big and smooth and always under control.
When “landing on”, the Brit phrase for carrier landings, the traditional curving approach was flown, but the airplane’s response to power and controls was such that, combined with its weight, pilots said it easily settled into the groove and was a pleasure to bring on board.
The seriously flawed concept of the two-man fighter died early in WWII, but out of it came one of the most utilitarian Allied aircraft ever designed, the Fairey Firefly.
Our thanks to Jim Newman, who crewed what was possibly the only Firefly operated by the Royal Air Force (not Royal Navy), for his personal observations of flying the airplane.
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