FORGOTTEN FIGHTERS: PART TWO, THE

FORGOTTEN FIGHTERS: PART TWO, THE

Wainwright, Marshall

THIS SERIES OF FAILED FIGHTERS CAUSED A GREAT DEAL OF CONTROVERSY DURING AND AFTER WORLD WAR TWO

After initial testing with the Curtiss, Seversky, and Vought designs, the Air Corps turned them all The Hawk originally had a Wright R-1670 of but later went to the P&W R-1830-13, while the Seversky had a Wright R-1820-G5 but changed to the P&W R-1830-9 of 950-hp. The Vought had a P&W Wasp Junior of just 700-hp.

In the final competition, the Seversky design won – it guaranteed a top speed of 320-mph while Vought could only guarantee 280-mph. Seversky, in 1938, would sell 20 two-seat variants of the P-35 to Japan but would not initially gain the unfavorable publicity that Vought would garner.

Vought was now stuck with an aircraft it could not sell. With a longer fuselage and revised tail, the V-141 became the V-143. Powered by a P&W R-1535-A5G of 750-hp, the aircraft made its first flight on 18 June 1937. The V-143 carried two .30-cal machine guns with 1000-rounds and could carry up to 300-lbs of bombs under the wings. In those days, manufacturers could apply for export licenses on planes the American military did not want. The V-143 was disassembled and shipped to Argentina. Vought hired Edmund T. (“Eddie”) Alien to demonstrate the plane in Argentina as he was going down south anyway to fly Northrop’s entry in an attack plane competition – the export version of the A-17.

“We were still not satisfied with the spin characteristics of the V-143,” recalled McCarthy. “We made provisions for installation of a spin chute attached to the rear end of the fuselage. As luck would have it, our competitor in Argentina, Curtiss, spotted the spin chute attachment fittings and raised a great hue and cry.

“Eddie Alien had to admit that a spin chute had been provided. We counter-attacked by presenting letters from Hap Arnold of the Air Corps and a senior Navy officer stating that the use of spin chutes on experimental airplanes was a routine procedure in the USA, but the customer would not accept the idea.

“Eddie phoned from Argentina and offered to demonstrate the plane with the chute removed because he had spun it and recovered without having to use the chute. Wilson ordered him to box up the plane and ship it home. He had too much regard for Eddie to permit him to take the risk.” The Curtiss Hawk with its excellent spinning characteristics won the Argentine competition over the V-143. Alien went on to win a 50-plane contract for Northrop’s export attack bomber.

Vought was again back on the market with the V-143. Wilson, in Europe on a trip recuperating from a car accident, sounded out the Norwegians. No sale. Then two Turkish representatives (Capt. Envre Akoglu and Ahmet Hikmet) came to Vought to inspect the V-143.

“Captain Akoglu was a husky man and barely able to squeeze himself into the cockpit,” recalled a Vought employee. “He flew the 143 and put on a spectacular aerohatic show on his first and only flight.” The Turks didn’t buy the plane either. Similar unsuccessful demonstrations were made to Sweden and Yugoslavia that spring.

Subsequently, Vought engineers once again lengthened the fuselage and added an SB2U type tail surface. The tail wheel was made retractable. Spin, performance was greatly improved. The next customers to examine the V-143 were the Japanese.

The Japanese government purchased the aircraft in 1937 for $175,000 and Vought breathed a sigh of relief. That was the last Vought thought about the plane until Pearl Harbor and hot heads began tossing accusations at aircraft companies that had sold planes to the now-enemy, particularly Vought and its V-143.

The Japanese designation for the V-143 was AXVI. Tests showed the plane generally inferior to the Mitsubishi Type 96 fighter monoplane.

One of the nation’s hetter-known “finger pointers” was Drew Pearson, who wrote in his syndicated column in 1946: “The mystery of how the Japs developed the Zero is now in government files, seized from the Japs, and proves no great mystery. The Japs bought the original Zero from an American company, Chance Vought, a division of United Aircraft. They modified it, and Chance Vought people claim it is not their plane; but aviation experts say it gave the Japs a big lift toward developing the Zero.

“At the time of purchase, there was no embargo, moral or otherwise, against selling planes to Japan. Chance Vought violated no law. Secretary Hull evoked his moral embargo later.”

According to Pearson, a report to Tokyo in the Japanese files translated from Japanese text, written by enemy agents in New York stated: “Re Negotiations Chance Vought V-143 Purchase Aircraft by Navy Capt. Wata.” Dated 4 May 1938, it reportedly said: “The recent developing of the European plane is remarkable, but American make is best… it is the best single-seat fighter in the works, especially if both wings are furnished with Aerlikan [Oerlikon] wing cannon. In his judgment, even this machine can’t win in the Army competition, but it is not inferior to the winner.

“Following up Capt. Wata’s request,” the report continued. “We asked Chance Vought for a demonstration of V-143 machine when the Wata party came out to Hartford on 26 April The company had Mr. Alien, first-class US pilot, demonstrate the machine. Our party contacted the company president, Mr. Wilson [Eugene E. Wilson, an Annapolis graduate and ex-commander USN] and the engineering director, Mr. McCarthy [C.J. McCarthy]. They explained: ‘This plane should be furnished with Aerlikan wing cannon. It will he simple for Aerlikan to mount them, as they are skillful. The intensity of the wings will not change because of this’… United Aircraft export manager Mr. Hamilton, would like to arrange for us a price reduction if Japan actually wants to buy the machine. We told him we will confer with Capt. Wata.”

The Japanese apparently liked what they saw. They bought the V-143, disassembled it, and shipped it to Japan in July 1937.

As was mentioned earlier, the V-143 was not the only plane bought hy Japan to advance the state of its aviation art before WWII. Captain Wata explained in his report: “The main reason for the Japanese Navy spending from two to three million dollars yearly in America is to promote the continuous technical cooperation between American manufacturers and Japanese companies.”

Two Zeros became available to the Navy shortly after Pearl Harbor. Its first close look at the sleek plane came when one of the attack Zeros was shot down by gunners and crashed near a highway going out of Honolulu. It was not in good condition. A stoke of luck favored the Navy. In the spring of 1942, enemy bombers and Zeros took off to hammer an American outpost in the Aleutians. One of the Zeros was hit and the pilot tried to make a landing in the soft muskeg with his gear down. The plane flipped over and the pilot’s neck was broken.

Five weeks later an American search party found the Zero. So great was the find, that the Navy dispatched a cruiser from San Diego to pick up the plane and return it to the United States where it was rebuilt and made flyable.

A long series of tests and combat evaluations was held against American aircraft to determine its weaknesses and good points. It came as a shock to find out that the Japanese had such an excellent high-performance aircraft. The Zero that had been shot down during the Pearl Harbor attack was placed in a guarded hangar in Hawaii. Representatives from American aircraft builders were invited to examine the plane, among them E.E. Wilson. So secret was the Zero, that Adm. Chester W. Nimitz had to show his identification to get past the sentry so Wilson could inspect the plane.

Nimitz asked Wilson if he had ever seen anything like the Zero before. Wilson replied: “Yes, that’s a Vought-Northrop fighter I tried to sell the Navy, but they’d have none of it.

“When the admiral looked at me for an explanation, all I could say was ‘They’re better men than we are Gunga Din.’ ”

Wilson later stated, “They had started in from the ground to build a much larger aircraft designed around a new and much more powerful engine. Nor had the Japanese copied the Wright or Pratt & Whitney engines. They had actually created a new design incorporating the best features of American and European powerplants along with some innovations of their own and the workmanship was superior.”

Another company official viewed the captured Zero at San Diego in October 1942. He commented that it had not used the SB2U-1 tail surface arrangement Vought had put on the V-143. “The airplane was much larger and its general arrangement was typical of other American low-wing monoplane fighters of that era,” he said. “No doubt the Japanese learned something from their study of the V-143, but they drew ideas from other sources as well and designed a completely new airplane and engine. The V-143’s wing and fuselage construction was not unique, but was representative of the state of the art of ‘all-metal’ airplane construction of the time the V-141 was designed.”

Agreement among Vought officials of WWII days was not unanimous as to whether the V-143 was a close ancestor of the Zero. Fred N. Dickerman, later Vought’s chief engineer, recalled, “As far as I am concerned, the Zero was just a copy of an airplane that Northrop originally designed and built. That company sold the rights to Vought, which built the V-141 based on that design… When Vought did not get the Army contract, the rights and prototype were sold to Japan. Some may dispute this and take different points of view but, as far as I am concerned, the Zero was made rrom that airplane.”

The V-143 wing was built in three components – a center section attached to the fuselage and two outer wing panels. The Zero wing was a single piece unit. The V-143’s flaps continued across the fuselage bottom. The Zero flaps were smaller and stopped at the fuselage. About the only similarities were in the landing gear and powerplant installation. The Zero had a similar retractable land’ ing gear mechanism as the V-143, with the gear folding inward. The V-143’s wheels fitted into the wells in the wing leading edge whereas the Zero had wheel covers that enclosed the gear in flight.

Probably the best way to settle the V-143/Zero comparison would be to quote Jiro Horikoshi, head of Mitsubishi’s Zero design team: “I admit that the landing gear retraction mechanism on the Zero was inspired by the Vought 143 or a Northrop, and that the system of fastening engine cowls and inspections panels, and the method of mounting the engine were learned by my staff from other foreign planes. But as I remember, nothing else came directly from foreign planes so far as the design of the airframe proper was concerned.”

Horikoshi worked several months at Curtiss in Garden City, Long Island, as an inspector on P-6 pursuits that had been purchased by Mitsubishi. The Japanese Navy was not deluded into believing the best fighters could be bought from any foreign country and pushed development of the new fighter.

“All component airplane designers will hold with me,” Horikoshi said after the war. “The business of creating any new airplane is a process of adapting the existing art and science to the problem at hand. It is no exaggeration to say that we did not look upon the general design or basic configuration of foreign airplanes with any great respect. Any designer who fails, out of vanity, to accept the best techniques available to him, fails at his job.”

Out of all the years of condemnations, analyses and prideful claims that surrounded the V-143/Zero controversy, one fact seems to stand out: If the V-143 had been even in the same ball park with the fantastic Japanese fighter, Vought would not have had any trouble whatever in selling it to Argentina, Norway and Turkey before the Japanese came around with checkbook in hand!

Copyright Challenge Publications Inc. Apr 2006

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