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Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Norden Bombsight by Kent Ballard

The Norden Bomb Sights were top secret. After the middle of the war, every one of them were made at the Naval Avionics Facility at 16th and Ritter Street in Indianapolis. In the event that one of our bombers was shot down over enemy territory and made a "soft-crash-landing", in other words one that a few of the crew could walk away from, the crew were all ordered to pack explosive devices around it with long-burning fuses, just long enough for them to ignite them and get the hell out of the aircraft. Whoever survived the crash-landing did the job. They were all trained in the use of the pre-prepared explosive and ordered never to let an intact Norden bomb sight fall into the hands of the enemy. The Norden was invented by two brothers. One bought out the other, and held sole rights to the device. He, in turn, sold the the manufacturing rights and the entire patent to the United States Government for the sum of their development money, plus one dollar. I've read where this was not uncommon by inventors during the Second World War. The Norden bomb sight was last used to drop listening devices along the Ho Chi Minh trail during the Vietnam War. Which American fighter plane shot down the most enemy aircraft? If you'd asked me before I read the books, I'd have guessed the famed P-51 Mustang or the Navy Corsair fighter in the Pacific. Both guesses would have been wrong. It was the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Twin engined, twin tail booms, and the pilot was crammed into a third and separate compartment in the center of the wing. It was a fairly tight fit, as the whole rest of the compartment held four .50 caliber machine guns and a 20 mm cannon, later a 30 mm on some models. The Lightning had a high fuel consumption rate (two engines instead of one) but also had a lift capability that allowed it to take off with huge drop tanks, making the P-38 the first American fighter to give fairly long-range escort to our heavy bombers over Europe. They couldn't make it all the way to Germany and back, especially dogfighting all the way, but they swept the sky of Luftwaffe fighters over France and the Low Countries before the Mustangs came into service. They could carry a load almost as heavy as a B-17's bomb load, making it a great ground-attack plane too. And once their bombs were dropped, they instantly turned back into a very deadly fighter. They worked over airfields, marshaling yards, pinpoint hits on pillboxes, tanks, and fuel and ammo dumps. If no Luftwaffe fighters were in the area to mix it up with, they used their remaining fuel to strafe military convoys, trains, and troop concentrations. Their pilots loved them. The Germans or Japanese could score a hit and kill one of their engines, and the Lightning would still bring its pilot home on the remaining engine. The Republic Thunderbolt was the largest and heaviest single-engined fighter of either side in WW II. It was fast and nimble enough to mix it up with Me-109s over Europe but found its real home in ground-attack. Any time you see films taken from an American fighter shooting up convoys or blowing up trains, they were almost certainly taken from P-38 Lightnings or P-47 Thunderbolts, probably Lightnings since they had more film in their gun cameras. But the Thunderbolts rained hell on German troop movements once they got bases in France, bringing daylight Nazi convoys and trains to a standstill. Anything that moved and was not ours had a Thunderbolt on it within minutes. And the P-47 was one of those ridiculously lucky and strong designs where it could take massive battle damage and still return to base, shot all to pieces but saving the pilot. "The Desert Fox", General Erwin Rommel's staff car--with Rommel in it--was shot to shreds by a single Thunderbolt. He survived, but just barely. His driver and all other officers in the car were killed. Today's A-10 Thunderbolt II is named after that same aircraft, although it's become popularly known as the "Warthog" due to it's ungainly and old-fashioned looks. American ground troops today think the plane is worth its weight in gold when they call in close air support, although the Air Force tried to get rid of the things several times before Iraq and Afghanistan, preferring "sexier" aircraft and planes capable of supersonic speed. The Thunderbolt IIs, like their older brothers, can take fantastic battle damage and keep on flying--and fighting. The A-10s were literally designed around the 30 mm Hughes Chain Gun which takes up the entire front third of the aircraft, and on its wing hardpoints it can carry tons of ordinance to drop on the enemy. I suggest you watch any YouTube film of a Thunderbolt II in action, films often taken by our troops hiding in shattered buildings or behind rock formations. The pilots fly like madmen, twisting, jinking, banking one way and skidding another. This is all to avoid heavy concentrations of ground fire. The gunners on the big Russian AA guns simply don't know where to aim--if they survive the initial attack. Aeronautical engineering genius, Clarence Kelly was the driving force behind Lockheed's P-38 Lightning. It was his baby, and it caused no end of grief for the Nazis and Imperial Japanese. P-38's shot down the transport plane carrying Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, who designed and orchestrated the attack on Pearl Harbor, killing him after we broke their radio codes and learned his schedule. Kelly would stay with Lockheed after the war, designing the first American jet fighter, the P-80 Shooting Star, which did not come in time to see service in WW II but was the early workhorse in Korea. And after that Clarence Kelly would lead the Lockheed design team to build the SR-71 Blackbird, still the fastest aircraft ever to fly (that we know of). North American Aviation built the P-51 Mustang, and later rush-designed and built the F-86 Saberjet to compete with the MIG-15s over Korea. If you look closely at photographs of the Mustang and the Saberjet, you'll eventually see the relationship between the two famed fighters. There IS a family resemblance The F-86 is a Mustang on steroids. America's 21st Century's air superiority fighter is so...different...than anything before it they agreed to give it a new name--The Raptor. Sure, it's just an airplane with engines and wings and a pilot--but after that, everything else about it is unlike anything ever flown before. Not only in the stealth characteristics, but in the maddeningly complex avionics that are said to be aboard the fighter. One of the design staff, when pressed for just a hint of what that aircraft is capable of, thought for a moment then said, "Let's just say there are 'magic things' in that bird." Rumors abound about the F-22 Raptor. It can become invisible to the naked eye. It has black boxes that show enemy radars 50 Raptors are approaching when there's only one--and it's coming in from a different direction and altitude. Or 50 Raptors can show up as nothing, nothing at all, on enemy air defense screens. It can send EMP bursts out to flatten enemy electronics within range. The Air Force is cheerfully allowing aviation writers to speculate all kinds of things about the F-22 Raptor--all while neither confirming nor denying any of them. One thing is certain, though. It has a gun, a rotary chain-driven Gatling cannon. We learned that lesson the hard way in Vietnam, and since those days no American fighter has been without a gun aboard. The Allied close-support and air defense fighter for THIS century, the F-35, to be flown by the USAF and many NATO countries, is stealthy, long ranged, fantastically nimble and maneuverable in the air, and is said to be the finest attack fighter flying today. It's now entering the U.S. Air Force in operational numbers. And it's more economical than many aircraft anywhere near its class. They're making THREE versions of it, one for the Air Force, one for Naval carrier operations, and a particularly unique one for the Marine Corps--which can fly both supersonic then land vertically like a Harrier on any clear spot on the ground--or on a smaller Navy vessel. For this aircraft--the only one since WW II--they took the name "Lightning" out of retirement and bestowed it on the F-35. It's that good. Both Lockheed and the Air Force have enough faith in this new aircraft that the F-35 Lightning will be our main tactical and ground-attack fighter for the next four decades or more. And yes, it can dogfight too. In our heavy bombers, during WW II we had the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress (nicknamed by a newspaper reporter who saw all the machine guns bristling out of it and said, "This thing is a flying fortress!"), the Consolidated-built B-24 Liberator, and the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. The '29s had the range and a hellacious bomb load, the Liberators were easier to fly and faster than the old B-17 and they too carried a heavier bomb load, but among pilots and air crew members the Flying Fortress was the most beloved of all. There are several photographs, taken from other bombers in a B-17 group, of hideously damaged B-17s still flying with the group, struggling to stay in formation, and yet more of B-17s which managed to make it back across the English Channel and either crash-land at their airbases or on some flat space in Great Britain. Among these were aircraft so damaged that aeronautical engineers from Boeing stated that they should not have been able to stay aloft. They'd suffered so much damage that, according to the slide rules, they should have simply fallen out of the sky. But they bought their crews home, and became legendary for doing it. Few, if any, other aircraft before or since were as respected and loved by their crews as the Boeing B-17.


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