May 2012

The FW-190 was one of the deadliest German fighter planes of WWII. Designed by the legendary Kurt Tank, the FW-190 was the only radial-engine fighter deployed by the Luftwaffe. Fast and agile, this aircraft harassed Allied bomber fleets relentlessly. Armed with machine guns and 20mm cannons, it was able to duke it out with the bombers and their escorts over the skies of Germany.

Over 20,000 FW-190’s were produced including ground attack and night fighter variants.

Pictured above is the “A” model fighter bomber configuration on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Pictured below is the FW-190 “D” variant that features an elongated nose to accomodate the Jumo 213 inline engine on display at the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.

Focke-Wulf FW-190

Speed: 408 mph
Ceiling: 37,430 ft
Armament: 2 × .51 in machine guns and 4 × 20 mm cannons
Crew: 1

The M2-F3 lifting body experimental aircraft was used by NASA to explore the characteristics of a craft that could re-enter the atmosphere and then glide like a plane in for landing. This valuable data contributed to the design of the Space Shuttle.

The M2-F3 was a rebuilt version of the M2-F2 which added a central fin to increase the stability. Perhaps the most well-known exposure most people have to this craft is the opening sequence of the popular 70’s TV show, the Six Million Dollar Man, in which the M2-F3’s predecessor, the M2-F2 is seen crashing and tumbling into a dry lake bed at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. Incredibly, pilot Bruce Peterson survived the crash, which occurred on this day in 1967.

The M2-F3 pictured above is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Northrop M2-F3

Speed: 1065 mph
Ceiling: 71,500 ft
Armament: none
Crew: 1

Click on the image for a larger version.

The Vought Kingfisher is one of the most recognizable planes from WWII, sporting its large, long canopy and prominent center pontoon. First flying in 1938, the Kingfisher was floatplane capable of being launched off of battleships and cruisers via catapult and retrieved via a crane. The Kingfisher was especially important for the U.S. Navy in the Pacific, but also served with the British and Australian air forces. In one of its more memorable missions, a Kingfisher managed to rescue WWI ace Eddie Rickenbacker when he was adrift at sea for 24 days after the B-17 carrying him was forced to ditch near Japanese held islands.

The example pictured above is from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum at the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center. It served as the floatplane for the battleship the U.S.S. Indiana and its pilot, Lt. Rollin M. Batten, Jr., was awarded the Navy Cross for bravery in rescuing downed airmen near Guam in 1944.

Vought OS2U-3 Kingfisher

Speed: 164 mph
Ceiling: 13,000 ft
Armament: 2 .30 in machine guns. 650 lb of bombs
Crew: 2

Today marks the 51st anniversary of Alan Shepard’s Mercury flight making him the first American in space. Perched atop a Redstone rocket, Shepard rode his Mercury capsule, nicknamed “Freedom 7”, 303 miles downrange from Cape Canaveral and splashed down in the Bahamas. While not as spectacular as the Soviet Vostok I mission in which Yuri Gagarin actually orbited the earth before returning, the mission was critical for NASA to keep pace in the space race. Had the cautious Americans not sent up the chimpanzee Ham first to ensure the safety of their spacecraft on January 31st, they might have beaten the Russians into space. The question lingers: had they done so, would there have been a race for the moon?

The version of the Mercury spacecraft piloted by Shepard had a small porthole for viewing and a periscope that allowed the astronaut to take some pictures of earth, Later versions would have a larger viewing window and more ability for the pilot to maneuver the spacecraft. Shepard’s capsule is on display at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

Below is an advanced version of the Mercury capsule that Shepard would have flown as the last of the Mercury missions. Dubbed “Freedom 7 II”, it is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center. It was decided that the mission was unnecessary and NASA moved on to the Gemini program. Gordon Cooper became the last American to fly into space alone.

Below is Shepard’s spacesuit from his pioneering flight, on display at the Smithsonian National History Museum in Washington, D.C.

The NASA “meatball” patch is barely visible under the suit’s straps.

Here is a detail of the helmet and gloves.

Shepard would contract an inner ear disorder (Ménière’s disease) robbing him of the chance to command the first Gemini mission and removing him from flight status for many years. Eventually, experimental surgery cured him of this affliction and he commanded Apollo 14, becoming the only one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts to walk on the moon.

Click on the image for a larger version.

The Bell P-59 Airacomet holds a special place in aviation history as the first jet aircraft operated by the USA. The experimental variant, the XP-59A, first flew in 1942 at what is now Edwards Air Force Base. Unfortunately, the performance characteristics of the P-59 were underwhelming, in some cases not even matching the abilities of the piston-engine P-51 Mustang. The United States Army Air Force decided to concentrate on piston-engine fighters for the duration of the war.

The P-59 never saw combat and by 1950, none of the 50 Airacomets produced were in service. However, the P-59 will always be remembered for ushering in the jet age for the USAAF. The P-59 was also the first jet design to house the engines entirely in the fuselage.

Above is a P-59B Airacomet displayed at the United States Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.

The XP-59A Airacomet pictured here is from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and was the first Airacomet built.

Bell P-59 Airacomet

Speed: 412 mph
Ceiling: 46,200 ft
Armament: 1 37 mm cannon, 3 .50in machine guns, 8 60 lb rockets, 2,000 lbs of bombs
Crew: 1

Click on the image for a larger version.

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