Underside of Blackburn Roc

Underside of Blackburn Roc

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Underside of Blackburn Roc

A view of the undeside of a Blackburn Roc with the turret hidden behind the wing.

Blackburn Aircraft Company

The prototype Blackburn RT1 Kangaroo with unsprung undercarriage.

One of Blackburn's more strange designs was the Side Car Project of 1919

Before and during WWII, Blackburn Aircraft (Dumbarton) also produced 250 Shorts Sunderland Flying Boats as well as preparing and converting many American aircraft for use by the Fleet Air Arm.

Blackburn Aircraft Company merged with General Aircraft Limited (GAL) in 1949 and was renamed Blackburn and General Aircraft Limited. Despite seeing a reasonable success with their Blackburn Beverley (based on the GAL.60 Universal Freighter), by 1958 the company reverted back to being simply Blackburn Aircraft Limited.

Blackburn Buccaneer S.2 head on

The Buccaneer was the last Blackburn design and with the exception of a handful of project designs which were never built, it was the last aircraft to bear the proud name of Blackburn.

Finally in 1960, the company was absorbed into Hawker Siddeley Aviation as part of the nationalisation of the industry and with it the Blackburn name finally disappeared in 1963.

The Worst Specification Ever?

The specifications N.8/39 and N.9/39 must quite possibly rate as the most convoluted in the history of naval aviation. These two ‘sister’ requirements for naval fighters were first discussed in March 1939 and released to the industry in June of that year – but of the two designs that eventually resulted, one took nearly five years to get into service and the other missed the war altogether in terms of frontline service. Neither became operational in the originally intended role as fleet fighter, and both had switched to an emphasis on strike activities.

The two specifications were offered as direct replacements for the Blackburn Skua reconnaissance fighter (and its own stop-gap replacement, the Fairey Fulmar) and Blackburn Roc turret fighter. At the time the specifications were issued, the Skua and Roc had not seen combat, and the Fulmar was still a year and a half away from entering service. Crucially, none of the combat experience that was to have such a dramatic effect on naval fighter doctrine had yet been gained.

As a result, the Admiralty was still firmly wedded to the idea of a two-seat fighter. Both aircraft were expected to have a top speed of not less than 317mph (275 knots). The conventional two-seater was to be armed with eight 0.303in machine guns or four 20mm cannon, while the turret fighter must have a four-gun powered-turret as its main weaponry.

Westland, Hawker, Gloster, Blackburn, Supermarine and Fairey responded to the specifications. All offered designs to both requirements except Supermarine, which only tendered for the conventional two-seater – although Westland dropped out when its request for more time was refused. The deadline for submissions was the 15 September 1940, and the proposals were passed to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) for assessment.

All the submissions were low-wing monoplanes, but there were considerable differences within this layout.

First prototype Blackburn Firebrand DD804. The Firebrand emerged after a large scale redesign of Blackburn’s original, unconventional proposal

Fairey’s design for both specifications owed a great deal to the Fulmar, both types resembling a smaller, cleaned-up version of the earlier aircraft with simplified wing-fold and a variety of different engine installations.

This was unsurprising, as Marcelle Lobelle (designer of the Battle, P.4/34 light bomber and Fulmar) was also the lead designer on the N.8/39 and N.9/39 projects. The variety in engines proposed for a single design is surprising – these ranged from the small 1,302lb,1,050hp Bristol Taurus radial to the huge 2,360lb, 2,000+hp Napier Sabre.

The Supermarine design, the Type 333 showed Spitfire ancestry with its sophisticated streamlining, but with the wing planform considerably simplified from the iconic elliptical shape. Some of the characteristics of the elliptical wing were retained, but with a straight trailing edge and a cranked leading edge. Supermarine actually offered two differing types to the same specification, although essentially these were the same design but one was slightly bigger. The smaller was to be powered by a Rolls Royce Merlin with a similar installation to the Spitfire MkI, and the larger design was to be powered by a Rolls Royce Griffon.

The design team at Blackburn no doubt felt that there was more development potential to come from its previous designs. Therefore when the two requirements were issued, Blackburn submitted a design which owed much to the Skua/Roc. The two designs were structurally identical to the existing aircraft but incorporated some surprising innovations, and lessons learned from the Skua. Blackburn specified a 1,500 horsepower Bristol Hercules for the N.8/39 and N.9/39, countering the Skua’s greatest weakness – lack of power.

Of most surprise to the RAE was the ‘low-drag fixed undercarriage,’ which they felt was of ‘special interest’. The Dowty-lever type legs (themselves quite unproven at the time) were shrouded by aerodynamic covers and could be jettisoned in their entirety. Blackburn evidently wished to dispense with the reliability problems associated with retractable undercarriage and felt that the much simpler fixed units would help to keep serviceability high on long cruises in hostile conditions.

Most of the design submissions had unconventional tails. This was partly to get around the maximum folded width of 13’6” which caused difficulties for all the manufacturers, being 2’ narrower than the Skua which was already very compact when folded. Hawker, Gloster and Fairey tried various ways of folding the tail planes, while Supermarine tried to get away with a very small conventional tail within the width specified. Blackburn sought to get around the problem with a short-span, low aspect ratio tail plane with twin fins and rudders on the ends which increased the efficiency of the short tail plane and elevators through ‘end-plate’ effect.

The Blackburn N.8/39 gave particular attention to visibility for the observer (which the RAE noted was at the expense of performance) by pinching in the fuselage around the rear cockpit. A further area of emphasis was landing speed. The RAE noted that Blackburn had employed their own slotted flap ‘on which a considerable amount of wind tunnel work has already been done’. This was a development of the Skua flap which incorporated a much larger area of the lower surface of the wing and extended to the trailing edge, forming a slot as it deployed. Unfortunately, no drawings survive of the Blackburn design – it is fascinating to consider what it might have looked like.

Westland, Hawker and Gloster also submitted designs, but little is known of their tenders.

Ultimately the RAE preferred the aerodynamically uncompromising Supermarine despite concerns about its handling and safety – its small tail, designed to get around the specification’s tight width restriction, did not promise to offer the excellent low-speed control necessary for naval aircraft. Other designs had over-emphasised practicality over performance. The Supermarine, on the other hand, while potentially offering high performance, might not have sufficiently good control and the company had not offered enough detail in some areas to be sure that it was able to solve some of the significant practical problems associated with naval aviation.

Early production Firefly F.1 Z2030 at Ringway. The Firefly went into service after the idea of a two-seat fighter had been largely dismissed. Image RuthAS Wikicommons

The necessary folding wing raised some difficulties. Blackburn was one of the few British companies that had designed an aircraft with a folding wing, and their proposal for the N.8/39 and N.9/39 requirements were practical and sound. The submissions from some other companies, however, suggested they had not fully understood the problems associated with this design feature. Supermarine gave cause for concern and Hawker and Fairey providing insufficient detail. Several of the designs, such as the Gloster and Fairey, proposed to follow Blackburn practice.

The Admiralty and Air Ministry were unhappy with all the responses, and were beginning to turn their mind to higher performance single seat fighters. The first few months of war had shown that the performance of two-seat fighters might not be up to scratch, and some single-seaters would be required. The Roc had already proved itself largely useless. The full range of naval aviation problems still existed though. The Admiralty revised the specification and asked for higher performance single and two seat versions of N.8/39 while the turret fighter N.9/39 was shelved. A revised specification was issued in January 1940.

Somewhat optimistically, the Admiralty felt that asking for both two-seat and single-seat versions of the same basic design would speed development and ease production. In reality, it would compromise all the designs as to create the single-seater, it was necessary to design an aircraft that was large and bulky enough to be a two-seater, but with second cockpit simply deleted.

The specification was undoubtedly ambitious. It required an aircraft with greater top speed than any single-seater yet in British service, yet still requiring good deck landing capabilities and all the equipment and design features of naval aircraft, such as folding wings, catapult spools and arrester gear. The Admiralty wanted the single-seat version to be capable of 385mph (330 knots) and the two-seater to reach 350mph (300 knots) at 15,000ft.

The designers went back to the drawing board and came up with some markedly different solutions. Some threw out their previous designs and started from scratch. Supermarine, for example, simply offered a Griffon-powered naval development of the Spitfire.

The Fairey designs were also largely new, as Marcelle Lobelle had left the company and been replaced by Herbert ‘Charlie’ Chaplin. Chaplin had elected not to continue working with the design proposals developed so far, but to start again with the best design he could produce within the constraints of the requirement. The new design had elliptical wings, replacing the earlier straight-tapered planes, and was cleaner aerodynamically. Instead of a long glass-house canopy, the observer’s cockpit was recessed into the fuselage on the two-seater. The design was offered with either Sabre or Griffon, but Fairey pointed out that the take-off characteristics would be marginal with the Sabre.

Unlike most of the designs, Chaplin started with the single-seater and adapted it to incorporate a second cockpit, although in reality the aircraft was larger than a purely single-seat design would have needed to be.

Westland took advantage of the resubmission to join the tender process again, though as with the earlier design, little is known about Westland’s revised tender. The same is true of Gloster’s design, though it is known to be straightforward, with slotted flaps and ‘flaperons’ helping to maintain control during deck-landing.

Hawker’s new design used a Griffon, and was structurally similar to the Hurricane. (All the other designs were all-metal, stressed-skin structures). It used wing slots and slotted flaps to ensure good slow-flying characteristics.

Blackburn took the earlier criticism to heart and produced a much cleaner design with retractable undercarriage and a conventional tail. However, the wing flap arrangement was now even more radical, with full span slotted flaps and spoiler type ailerons which slid out of the wing’s upper surface. It was still powered by a Hercules.

The RAE was again very interested in this layout suggesting that it could potentially result in smaller, more efficient wings for high speed in flight but which could still give low landing speed and high controllability necessary for carrier landings. The Air Ministry was sufficiently impressed to order a small number of the Blackburn design to assess the wing layout, albeit in a less extreme form – partial span flaps and conventional ailerons. At this stage the design still had the Hercules engine. Although a single-seater, the design had evolved from a two-seater and as a consequence was larger than the ideal.

The RAE and Admiralty felt that the Fairey Griffon-powered offering was the best, and that 200 of the two-seat version would be ordered. The Norwegian Campaign had not yet taken place, and the Admiralty was beginning to feel that two-seat fighters might be sufficient for its needs after all, expecially with the Fairey’s projected top speed of 328mph.

However, the Admiralty was concerned that Fairey was taking on too great a proportion of the Fleet Air Arm’s aircraft design and production. It was felt that this could lead to a narrowing of the design talent focussing on naval aviation problems, and could also lead to other manufacturers losing interest in naval aircraft. In addition, the Blackburn design for full-span flaps and ‘spoilerons’ was attractive as a possible solution for combining good low-speed characteristics without a large, lightly-loaded but drag-inducing wing. Therefore 25 examples of the single-seat Blackburn design were ordered as an experiment.

Blackburn ‘Firecrest’ VF172 – another ill-fated Firebrand development

The Admiralty had already completely scrapped one set of designs and required another series of proposals, which were already compromised by the short turnaround time and the fact that the requirements were based on the earlier, flawed specifications. Their Lordships had changed their minds several times during the proposals, dropping the turret fighter and asking for a single seater. Now, they had dropped the idea of developing a single-seater from the same design.

Nevertheless, if matters had been left here, the outcome might not have been as disastrous as it was. Still, the meddling continued. The Admiralty had been disappointed not to have a really good Sabre-powered proposal, so the experimental Blackburn design was switched from the radial Hercules to the troublesome, liquid-cooled Sabre.

The idea of a small production run of experimental aircraft was then slowly evolved into a requirement for a combat aircraft. The most interesting aspects of the Blackburn design – its full-span flaps and spoiler ailerons – were shelved in favour of conventional ailerons and partial span slotted flaps.

The Fairey type was resubmitted to a new specification, N.5/40, which had been written around it. Its development was not especially tortuous. However, the build up into production was slow, partly because Fairey had understimated the number of machine tools it would need for its various production contracts, and rectifying this in wartime took time. The new aircraft, named Firefly, first flew in December 1941 and after 12 months only 20 aircraft had been produced. Its performance was slightly disappointing too in MkI form, with a top speed only just over 300mph. A considerably improved version with wing-root radiators and a more powerful Griffon missed the war.

The Blackburn type, now named Firebrand, flew in February 1942. It was reasonably fast, at 358mph, but was big, heavy and lacked agility – though it was able to out-dive a Spitfire during mock combat. It was modified to become a torpedo bomber and strike fighter, and was actually fully aerobatic even with a torpedo attached. Further design changes involved modified flaps and dive brakes on the wings. A second line squadron of Firebrands was established to explore tactical uses for the aircraft, and its various handling difficulties were slowly ironed out. There were more problems ahead though.

Problems with the Sabre and the ringfencing of the engine for Typhoons meant that the aircraft had to be redesigned to accept a Bristol Centaurus (ironically, an 18-cylinder development of the Hercules that the aircraft was originally designed for). This knocked back the testing and called for a major redesign of both the nose and the tail.

Eventually, by the fourth design mark, the Firebrand was felt to be fit for service. Even then, it was a difficult aircraft to fly and the two frontline squadrons were largely manned by qualified instructors. The Firebrand took part in several NATO exercises, though it missed out on combat action – the Royal Navy preferred to take Sea Furies to Korea in the strike-fighter role.

The Firefly did some useful work, as a strike fighter in the last two years of WW2 and later in Korea and the Malayan Emergency. It was able to carry out ground strikes, anti-shipping attacks and later anti-submarine work. Its long range and load-carrying was a boon compared with converted landplane designs (it could carry a full load of rocket projectiles and drop tanks). It even won some air-to-air plaudits, being able to out-turn Japanese Oscars and Zeroes and tear most enemy aircraft to shreds with its four 20mm cannon.

The Fleet Air Arm ended up with a large single-seater which had been developed from a two-seater design, and a smaller, lighter two-seater which had been developed from a single-seat design. Neither were suitable as a fleet defence and air-superiority fighter, and both took far too long to get into service in their definitive forms.

Fortunately, it seemed that the Admiralty was able to learn from its mistakes and by the end of the war was able to develop fighter specifications that led to capable aircraft such as the Hawker Sea Fury and later Sea Hawk. It was not all plain sailing – the programme that led to the Firebrand’s replacement, the Westland Wyvern, made that of the earlier aircaft look smooth. Blackburn had its own problems with the ‘Firecrest’, a strike fighter developed from the Firebrand which had as many difficulties as the Firebrand and died a natural death as a result of the end of hostilities and the jet age.

Still, the Firefly was an excellent fighter-bomber, and the Firebrand does not look like such a bizarre development when compared to several contemporary programmes in America. Numerous large, powerful naval strike aircraft were under development by the war’s end, including the Martin Mauler, Boeing XFB8 and Curtiss XBTC – all conceptually similar to the Firebrand. None of these had glittering service careers except the similar Douglas AD (later A-1) Skyraider. This became a popular, capable and long-lived attack aircraft that demonstrated what a well-sorted Firebrand might have been capable of.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Robert Short

On 22nd February 1932 near Suchow (now Suzhou 苏州) in China three Type 13 attack aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy from the carrier Hôshô were intercepted by a single biplane fighter purportedly wearing the insignia of the Chinese central government. One of the Japanese aircraft was attacked and damaged with the navigator killed and the observer wounded but before further attacks could be pressed home three escorting Japanese Type 3 carrier fighters had swooped in and one of them, piloted by Nokiji Ikuta, shot the interceptor down. The American pilot, Robert Short, was killed in his cockpit and his aircraft, a Boeing 218 demonstrator, plunged into a canal near the village of Gaodian. The victor flew low over the crash site with his two wingmen and they dipped their wings in turn, probably to get a better look at the downed aircraft, but Gao Jing-sheng, a Chinese farmer from the village who had watched the air combat, took that to be their salute to the fallen, a chivalrous gesture. In the 1930s the popular media was still wedded to the notion of chivalry in the air as a result of the proliferation of air combat stories from the Great War. This was the first recorded incident of air combat between an American volunteer pilot flying an American fighter aircraft on behalf of China and the fighter aircraft of the Empire of Japan and it was also the first Japanese air-to-air victory in war.

Although the incident and perhaps more importantly its context seem to get little attention it was significant in the history of Chinese and Japanese aviation in a number of important aspects. Short's combat and heroic death has unfortunately tended to obscure the role and exploits of other Chinese pilots at this time, as well as that of other Chinese operated aircraft. It remains a little known but fascinating preliminary episode to the great air war over China that was to erupt in 1937 and continue for eight years.

Tension between Chinese nationalists and Japanese interests in Shanghai had been rising since the Japanese intervention in Manchuria in 1931. But there was an underlying Chinese resentment against the Japanese presence in China for their part in the treaty-imposed trading port concessions enjoyed by Western colonial powers which had possibly been encouraged by the Central Government's nationalism. Since 1925 the Japanese had recorded 713 attacks against Japanese persons and property in China, ranging from vandalism to Japanese owned buildings and property to the abduction and murder of Japanese citizens. After exchanges of fire between Chinese police and a Japanese group from the Shanghai Seinen Doshikai which had attacked the Chinese San Yu bathtowel factory in retaliation for the factory workers assaulting two Japanese buddhist priests the tension came to a head. The 78th Division of the Chinese 19th Route Army commanded by General Tsai Ting-kai began digging in around the outskirts of the international settlements in Shanghai where the Japanese had a large concession of trading interests and factories. The previous year the Chinese had sought German assistance in improving and reinforcing with concrete their coastal battery forts at Woosung where the Whampoa river (now Huangpu 黃浦江) joined the Yangtse and at Lion Hill fort on the northern outskirts of Shanghai. The presence of these forts was a potential challenge to the Japanese naval vessels navigating the rivers to the city. After further incidents involving clashes between so-called "plainclothes soldiers" of the Chinese Army and Japanese civilians and police and the failure of attempts to secure an end to hostilities by the Japanese Consul-General, Rear Admiral Shiosawa the local Naval Force commander and General Tsai, Lt General Ueda the commander of the Japanese 9th Division issued an ultimatum for the Chinese forces to draw back behind a line 20km from the settlements. This was rejected and as a result the Japanese landed army and naval forces which began engaging and attempting to drive back the Chinese troops from the city environs.

Air Operations Over Shanghai

Air operations began on 29 January when Type 14 E1Y and Type 90-3 E41Y floatplanes from the tender Notoro which had arrived on 24 January conducted very low-level bombing attacks against Chinese army positions in the Chapei district of Shanghai. Wet and misty weather conditions obscured visibility and despite the dropping of flares and directional signals from the ground there were heavy civilian casualties and damage to buildings as a result of the attacks. Japanese airpower over the city was reinforced by the arrival of the aircraft carriers Kaga and Hôshô a few days later. The main complement of these vessels were the Mitsubishi B1M Type 13 carrier attack aircraft, a three seat biplane capable of carrying torpedos or bombs and the Nakajima A1N2 Type 3 carrier fighter, a developed version of the British Gloster Gamecock design from 1925.

It was reported that the Chinese had about 70 aircraft on airfields in the vicinity of Nanking and at Suchow. At this time the Central Government air force was still in its infancy and its fighter assets were limited to the Boeing 218 demonstrator, two Blackburn Lincock IIIs and eight Junkers K47 two seat fighters whilst the remaining aircraft were about twenty Corsair, Douglas O-2MC and Waco two seaters. On 5th February a formation of Type 3 fighters from Hôshô commanded by Lt Tokoro Mohachiro and Type 13 from Kaga commanded by Lt Hirayabashi Nagamoto encountered over Kunshan an assortment of Chinese aircraft from the Central Government's 6th and 7th Squadrons, commanded by the 6th's deputy leader Wang Yu-chuan (Huang Yuquan) a Chinese-American who had returned to China in 1926. The Chinese aircraft were in transit from Nanking to Zhenru in preparation for an attack against Japanese warships lying off Woosung.

This encounter battle was inconclusive but Chinese ground forces reported the shooting down of one of the Type 13 aircraft, another was damaged and two Chinese pilots were wounded. During the fight Chu Da-shan (actually J D Singh, a naturalised Chinese of Indian origin) had engaged the formation of Type 13's in a Blackburn Lincock III fighter, but his guns had jammed and he had been injured by return fire. This aircraft or the second Lincock was subsequently destroyed at Chenju airfield when it malfunctioned as Wang Yu-chuan was attempting to take off in it. Some sources assert that the aircraft was destroyed on the ground by Japanese aircraft but the fate of the two aircraft may have been confused.

On 19th February after the Boeing 218 had been prepared for operations at Hongqiao airfield, Shanghai, Short took off in it to fly it to Nanking. During this flight he encountered and was attacked by three Type 3's from Hôshô under the command of Lt Kidokoro. A brief dogfight ensued during which Short managed to scatter the Japanese formation and damage Kidokoro's A1N2. Several sources mistakenly assert that Kidokoro was shot down during this encounter but there is little doubt that the 218's sparkling performance came as a surprise to the Japanese flyers.

On the 22nd February the Central Government ordered all its aircraft to move from Nanking to Hangzhou. Because of the speed of the Boeing 218 Short was flying alone rather than with the main Chinese formation when over Suchow he encountered the flight of Type 13 attack aircraft. Some sources assert that this was an accidental encounter, others that Short had taken off from Suchow in defence of the airfield after landing there. At the time both sides resorted to propaganda to assert moral superiority over the incident. Although the Japanese formation was characterised as attacking the Suchow railway station crowded with civilian refugees, the Japanese asserted that it was following the railway line to the airfield at Suchow in search of the Chinese aircraft that had recently been encountered in the air. Chinese sources confirm that the airfield at Suchow was attacked by Japanese aircraft that day. According to Nokiji Ikuta it was just a routine patrol with the Type 3s flying in stepped down formation above and behind the Type 13 formation when Short's lone fighter suddenly appeared beneath the leading Japanese bomber and fired up at it from less than 100 yards range. Some sources state that Short made three consecutive climbing and diving attacks before firing a burst that wounded the wireless operator/gunner and killed the navigator 1/Lt Susumu Kotani, an Eta Jima classmate of Ikuta who was also the formation commander. Although the Type 13 Short attacked was damaged by his fire the pilot was unhurt and was able to return to Shanghai.

As the Boeing fighter dived away to gain speed then turned and climbed up for another firing pass Ikuta and his wingmen Toshio Kuroiwa and Kazuo Takeo peeled off and cut across its path in a steep dive, firing from 150 up to 50 yards. Ikuta saw his rounds hit the cockpit as the Boeing veered to evade his attack and it immediately dropped away awkwardly in an inverted spin. Ikuta recognised at once that he had either wounded or killed the pilot, and saw it continue to fall haphazardly until it crashed into the canal. The brief combat had lasted less than three minutes. "I was very moved by both the bravery of this man and his skill" Ikuta told a reporter many years later. Ikuta was later told that Short had attacked Japanese aircraft on two previous occasions. There may have been a perception that the 218 had also been in action on the 5th February. According to Minoru Genda the performance of the Boeing 218 fighter had come as a shock to the Japanese pilots and the 19th and 22nd February encounters with it were instrumental in contributing to the development of the Nakajima A2N1 Type 90 fighter to replace the Type 3.

Short was posthumously awarded the honorary rank of Colonel in the Chinese Army by the Central Government and given an official funeral which his mother was invited to attend. Chinese newspapers carried the story of his air battle and loss as front page features.

Ikuta was deeply affected by this experience and afterwards to much opprobrium from his comrades and senior officers he resigned his commission and left the Navy. "I lost my spirit" he recounted, "I could no longer feel the things that made me fight. I hated anything military and renounced my place as a fighter pilot." In 1976 the Japanese wife of a retired US Air Force Colonel contacted Robert Short's brother Ed to ask him if he would like to meet Ikuta. Ellis told Ed that since the incident Ikuta had prayed every day for the repose of Robert's soul. The two men subsequently met and with reconciliation remained in touch. At a visit to Yasakuni Shrine Ed thought of his brother and the Japanese officer who had been killed in the air combat.

On 23rd February Japanese aircraft attacked Suchow and Hongqiao and on the 25th the Central Government directed that all aircraft should be concentrated at Jianqiao airfield at Hangzhou, the site of the aviation school, to prepare for another attack against the Japanese warships. The following day the Japanese attacked Jianqiao as the Chinese aircraft, warned of the impending raid, prepared to move to Bengbu airfield in Anhui Province. The aircraft had been moved overnight from the airfield to a strip of land alongside the Qiantangjiang River and at the approach of the Japanese aircraft, Shi Bangfan the 2nd Sqn commander and Zhao Puming took off in a Junkers K-47 and Corsair V92-C to attack as the rest of the aircraft were being hastily prepared for flight. Shi was wounded in the arm during his attack and had to force land in a rice paddy, his gunner Shen Yanshi pulling the pilot from the wreckage as Japanese aircraft strafed them. Shi lost his arm but survived to become known as the "one arm general". Zhao was hit in the chest and neck as he attempted to take off under fire in the Corsair but managed to get the damaged aircraft down at Qiaosi, succumbing to his wounds three weeks later. The airport at Qiaosi was later named after him. The Japanese destroyed six aircraft on the ground and the aviation school buildings in the raid but lost one aircraft which made an emergency landing in the river and was deliberately sunk to avoid capture.

The fighting at Shanghai continued until 3rd March, although there appears to have been no further air to air combat, and following the League of Nations intervention on 5th March General Shirakawa, the Japanese expeditionary force commander, issued an order for his units to cease hostilities. Japanese casualties in the incident amounted to 718 killed and 1,788 wounded. Chinese casualties are variously cited as approximately 12,000 with the Japanese claiming 40,000 killed, wounded or missing with untold civilian casualties.

The Boeing 218 originated as a private venture initiative to adapt the P-12 to test prove a metal-skinned semi-monocoque fuselage. It effectively became the feasibility prototype for the P-12E (with the Army designation XP-925) and the F4B-3. The Boeing aircraft record shown here suggests that several changes were made to the airframe and engine, as well as reconditioning and repairs on at least two occasions. The prototype XP-12E was completed and rolled out on 1st October 1931 whereupon the 218 became surplus to requirements. It was sent to L E Gale, the Boeing representatives in China, on 28th October 1931, crated aboard an American Mail Line ship. This was presumably to garner interest in export orders for the P-12E although the actual reasons are obscure. The only known photographs show the aircraft at the time it was being tested in the USA, although these are sometimes presented as showing the aircraft in China. The Boeing aircraft record sheet suggests that it was probably not displaying the US government serial X66W at the time of its operations in China as that section has notably been left blank for the China movement details. See the modelling section below for additional comments regarding its likely colour and markings at the time of the incident.

The Nakajima 'G' (for Gloster) was developed from the Gloster Gamecock as a joint venture between Nakajima and Gloster with designer Takao Yoshida working with the British manufacturer to produce a carrier fighter able to meet an April 1926 IJN requirement for a fighter to replace the Mitsubishi Type 10. The design was closely related to the Gambit, a Gloster private venture adaptation of the Gamecock intended for carrier operations and equipped with an arrestor hook and floatation bags. In April 1929 the Nakajima 'G' was accepted by the IJN as the Type 3 Carrier Fighter A1N1. The A1N1 was originally powered by a Nakajima licence-built version of the Bristol Jupiter VI 9-cylinder air-cooled radial engine of 420hp but in 1930 the design was improved by the installation of a Nakajima Kotobuki 2 engine of 450hp and accepted into service as the Type 3-2 Carrier Fighter, A1N2.

The only 1/72nd scale Blackburn Lincock kit I'm aware of is the very rare "The New Types Park" mixed media kit (shown above) and issued only in a limited run of 500 in about 1992. For any brave soul contemplating a scratch build there are 1/32nd plans of the type available from MyHobbyStore. The delivery scheme of the Blackburn Lincock to China was overall plain silver dope but photographs of the aircraft in service reveal that the rear fuselage and tail were painted a dark colour, probably dark green but possibly dark blue, with white ID numbers and a broad white (or possibly light blue and white) stripe aft of the cockpit. The aircraft has also been depicted with a red rear fuselage and blue tail. One aircraft had a large number 609 and the other a smaller number 610 painted on the fuselage. The undersurface of the wings at least was marked with the 'white sun in blue sky' insignia of the Central Government air force but the rays of the sun did not extend to the outer circumference of the blue roundel as seen in later presentations.

It's a little ironic that whilst details of the Lincock colour scheme and markings are better documented there is no readily available kit for that type whereas although the Boeing 218 is available in the form of an easy adaptation of existing P-12 kits the colour scheme and markings remain uncertain!

The Matchbox Boeing P-12E is probably the best contender as a sound basis for building the 218 in 1/72nd scale. The fairing behind the cockpit must be modified to the correct shape. The main issues with this kit are the incorrect dihedral of the upper wing and a very poor engine. Starfighter Decals make a replacement wing in resin and a replacement engine. Alternatively a Monogram F4B-4 kit could be cannibalised for its wings and engine (the Starfighter pieces are based on the Monogram pieces). The flotation gear panels have to be removed from the underside of the Monogram upper wing and the corrugated skin representation is better on the Matchbox kit so fitting the Matchbox ailerons to the Monogram wing is also worth doing. For those who enjoy working in larger scales there was a Classic Airframes kit in 1/48th scale and the classic 1/32nd Hasegawa kit which is still obtainable. The painting shown below depicts the aircraft in action in its olive drab and yellow demonstrator scheme as X66W, and this has been repeated for the recent Hobbymaster 1/48th die-cast model, although it appears to have had a red or orange fuselage flash at some time.


The origin of Blackburn is with Robert Blackburn who built his first aircraft in 1908.

The Blackburn Aeroplane & Motor Company was created in 1914, established in a new factory built at Brough, East Riding of Yorkshire in 1916, where Robert's brother Norman Blackburn was later Managing Director. By acquiring the Cirrus-Hermes company in 1937, Blackburn started producing aircraft engines - the Blackburn Cirrus range. The company's name was changed to Blackburn Aircraft Limited in 1939, and the company amalgamated with General Aircraft Limited in 1949 as Blackburn and General Aircraft Limited, reverting to Blackburn Aircraft Limited by 1958.

Aircraft production operations were absorbed into Hawker Siddeley and its engine operations into Bristol Siddeley, as part of the rationalisation of British aircraft manufacturers, and the Blackburn name was dropped completely in 1963.

A United States of America (USA) company, Blackburn Aircraft Corp., was incorporated in Detroit on 20 May 1929 to acquire design and patent rights of the aircraft of Blackburn Airplane & Motor Co., Ltd. in the USA, Owned 90% by Detroit Aircraft Corp. and 10% by Blackburn Airplane & Motor Co., Ltd.. agreements covered such rights in North and South America, excepting Brazil and certain rights in Canada and provided that all special tools and patterns were to be supplied by the UK company at cost.

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10. Blackburn Beverley

A Beverley gives birth to a cub. Initially born with six wheels, the wings only develop after sexual maturity.

In defence of the Beverley it performed well in austere conditions and could be procured without spending foreign currency reserves. (Thanks to Jon Lake)

9. Supermarine Scimitar

Take an aircraft so dangerous that is statistically more likely than not to crash over a twelve year period- and arm it with a nuclear bomb. Prior to this, ensure one example crashes and kills its first Commanding Officer, in front of the press. There you have the Scimitar. Extremely maintenance heavy, an inferior fighter to the Sea Vixen and a worse bomber than the Buccaneer the Scimitar was certainly not Joe Smith’s finest moment. It was the last FAA aircraft designed with an obsolete requirement to be able to make an unaccelerated carrier take-off, and as a result had to have a thicker and larger wing than would otherwise be required. Only once did a Scimitar ever make an unassisted take-off, with a very light fuel load and no stores, and then just to prove that it could be done

“Don’t worry sir, I hear the Flankers are not too agile with full tanks”

The story of the Firebrand torpedo fighter is a rotten one. The specification for the type was issued in 1939, but it was not until the closing weeks of the war that it began to enter service. Despite a luxuriously long development, it was an utter pig, with stability issues in all axes and a tendency to lethal stalls. There was a litany of restrictions to try and reduce the risks, including the banning of external tanks, but it still remained ineffective and dangerous to fly. Worse still, instead of trying to rectify the problems the FAA started a witch hunt of those pilots who dared to speak the truth about the abysmal Firebrand. O nly two Firebrand squadrons formed, of which the flying complement was heavily, if not entirely made up of qualified flying instructors, suggesting only the most experienced pilots could be trusted with this unforgiving monster.

The observer sat below and to the right of the pilot in what London estate agents would refer to as a spacious luxury living area he sat in a cramped space in virtual darkness in a ‘coal hole’ notoriously difficult to escape from.

The Royal Navy’s Sea Vixen fighters were death traps. 145 Sea Vixens were built, of these 37.93%.were lost over the type’s twelve-year operational life. More than half of the incidents were fatal. The Sea Vixen entered service in 1959 (despite a first flight eight years earlier), two years later than the US Navy’s Vought F-8 Crusader. The F-8 was more than twice as fast as the Sea Vixen, despite having 3,000Ibs less thrust. The development of the Sea Vixen had been glacial. The specification was issued in 1947, initially for an aircraft to serve both the FAA and the RAF. The DH.110 prototype first flew in 1951, and one crashed at the Farnborough the following year. This slowed down the project, which was then put on hold as the DH and the RN focused on the alternative DH.116 ‘Super Venom’. Once the project became prioritised again, it was substantially redesigned to fully navalise it. Then when the Royal Navy gave a firm commitment, it requested a radar with a bigger scanner and several other time-consuming modifications. All of which meant it arrived way too late- its peer, the F-8 remained in frontline service until 2000, its other contemporary, the F-4, remains in service today- the Sea Vixen retired in 1972. Fifty-one Royal Navy aircrew were killed flying the Sea Vixen.

Apparently named after a disease, the TB was a bad aircraft that could not perform the one task it was designed for and thus set a precedent for many Blackburn designs to come. The Twin Blackburn nevertheless saw service for a year or so before it was finally put out of its misery and all nine examples were scrapped. Intended to destroy Zeppelins, the floatplane TB was supposed to climb above them and drop explosive Ranken darts on any insolent dirigibles foolish enough to approach its precious airspace. Unfortunately, the poor underpowered Twin Blackburn was unable to drag itself to airship operating altitude, even after its deadly cargo of explosive darts had been cut by two thirds. Furthermore the structure, which consisted of nothing more complicated than a couple of B.E.2 fuselages lashed together with a new set of wings and a vast amount of hope triumphing over experience, was not very rigid and the action of warping the wings flexed the poor TB so much it could end up turning in the opposite direction. The observer sat in one fuselage, the pilot in the other and communication was impossible except through waving, presumably to prevent either expressing to the other their true opinions of the designer of this radical machine. As if that were not enough, the wooden floats were mounted directly below the rotary engines. Rotaries drip out a lot of oil and as a result the TB’s floats would often catch fire. It would be nice to say that despite all this the TB inspired the fantastic Twin-Mustang but of course it didn’t.

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Following the first run in Oklahoma Territory in 1889, John Skinner, an Osage Indian Agent and Licensed Trader, obtained survey rights for a town on the south side of the Arkansas River. This plot of land was located two miles north and eleven and one half miles east of Pawnee (County seat), and seven miles west of Cleveland. There was no doubt in his mind that his new settlement would prosper and grow, and eventually be an important shipping point for the Kansas, Oklahoma, Central and South Western Railroad on its proposed route from St. Louis to Guthrie. Being located in the curve of the river, its bottom land could grow almost anything. In addition, the woods and streams were full of wildlife from ducks and geese in the winter to quail, rabbit, squirrel, and other fur-bearing trade animals.

The pioneers of this run were mostly from the north and northeast as contrasted to migrants in the 1889 run who originated from areas of the old south. They came by foot, horseback, and almost every conceivable conveyance known at that time, and raced to their selected plot, hoping to be the first stake. In the 1870’s and 1880’s Texas cattle were driven along both sides of the Arkansas River. The East Shawnee Trail tracked the Osage side of the river, while the West Shawnee Trail was located on the Blackburn side, and with terminated in Cowley County, Kansas.

The Post office was officially opened on Dec. 15, 1839 and the new town was on the map. Popular opinion among the new residents and businessmen ran strong for the new town to be called “Skinnerstown”, but the Agent and Trader was not of the same mind. He told the citizens of the area that if he were to choose a name, it would be in honer of his good friend, Senator Joseph Schyler Blackburn of Kentucky. In 1896 Joe Fisher arrived in town to help operate the first saw mill and cotton gin while M.C. Burge homesteaded in 1899 and helped in the formation of the town’s government. The town was plotted on a high knoll overlooking the river on the north side, with hills and a half bend of the river to the east, gentle plains on the south and west. Main Street ran east and west, extending for about two blocks, with buildings on both sides. A road headed north toward the river and had a few buildings near main street but was mostly lined with houses and barns. The nearest road heading south became known as Cemetery Road since this was located about one and one half miles south east of the cemetery. A road at the southern edge of town intersecting cemetery road was the East Bend Road which follows the curve of the river after moving beyond Lankard Hill. This area is still referred to as the East Bend.

The main street of town runs east and west. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s the commercial area, which ran from the second block west, had a general store, a butcher shop and a hotel on the north side. On the south side of the same block were a newsprint building, a machine shop and a blacksmith and livery stable. The second block east contained another livery stable, The German-American Bank, Hotel de Hoss and the Blackburn Nursery. Across the same block heading west was a livery stable, a harness and hardware store, a grocery store, drug store, the Blackburn Bank building, a mercantile store and general store. The schools were eventually located two blocks west and two blocks south of the center of town.

In 1896, the town had grown, and the local Assessor reported a population of 2,272 citizens. A new bridge and the coming of the railroad let to a greatly expanded community spirit. Banners and ads told of the many advantages of locating and living Blackburn, but this was not to be.

The bridge over the Arkansas River became the first major problem both with its environment and opposition by an Osage Indian agent, Col. H. H. Freeman. The Cleveland Bee of May 10, 1895 made reference to the first bridge as being a toll structure built by Frank Purdon, an Osage Indian. Col. Freeman, speaking on behalf of the Osage Nation, had evidence that Purdom had used unauthorized lumber from the Indian reservation and many other supplies had come from this same source. In retaliation, Mr. Purdom appealed to Judge Bierer of the Supreme Court and obtained an injunction and restraining order against Col. Freeman. Work was then completed and the bridge was opened in June 1895. The bridge was then lost to high water. In 1896 a new bridge was started with such men a Charles Fox, a California’ 49er and supplies from A.F. Myers and his lumberyard. Col. Freeman again objected to the construction claiming that such a passage would only make whiskey more accessible to his people in the Indian reservation. Fights and loss of life had been experienced in Ralston, and other towns above and below Blackburn that had built bridges into the Osage country. Freeman went so far as to build a fence on the northern approach to the bridge, but was eventually compelled under court order to remove this obstacle. The 1,200 foot bridge was opened for traffic in August, 1896. It also was later lost to high water and, for an extended period, there was only a foot bridge while vehicles were ferried from each side by boats. In the early 1930’s the town fathers, led by John Carter, Bob Gilliland, Ruben Upshaw, Joe Fisher, Bert Warner and others, began making requests of the Pawnee county Commissioners to build a steel and concrete all-weather bridge across the river. The community was being cut off from neighbors on the Osage side of the river and travel to other towns such as Fairfax, Hominy and Pawhuska had to be extended through Ralston or Cleveland which more that doubled the distance to these areas. The request was finally honored and a bridge was completed in 1935, but with funds running short, had to be covered with a rough plank roadway. Perhaps the lack of a railroad let to the low priority for a first class road with a durable roadbed.

The high expectation of the coming of the railroad was on the minds of all the businessmen of the community and was noted repeatedly in the local paper. It was conjectured that, if and when the railroad came through Blackburn, then it would surely provide the town competition with Tulsa and Oklahoma City. The town fathers, in their attempts to encourage the installation of rail traffic, offered 213 lots as future sites for a depot, machine shop and switching yards. In addition, they offered an adjoining 350 acres and right-of-way from the river’s edge to Black Bear Creek. The arrival of the Santa Fe in Skedee in 1903 and later the MKT depot in Hallett, just 10 miles south, finally made myth of a rail stop in Blackburn. The business boom, which failed to materialize, was replaced by a healthy farm economy. Corn was king in the area, and cotton was so plentiful that a gin had to be built. It was also envisioned that produce and fruit would be in marketable proportion in due time. Also, in 1905, oil was discovered in the East Bend on the Lowe farm. Bessie Brocaw christened the well and citizens explained that Blackburn was now in the “Oil Belt”. The severe drought of 1901 caused many of the committed people of the area to leave but many of these same citizens returned under more favorable circumstances. The annual “Old Timers Picnic", which now occurs in the second Sunday of each June is, in a sense, a memorial to these hardy pioneers.

Soon after the turn of the century, bonds were sold to finance an elementary school building. The site is located about three blocks west and one block south of the center of town. One of the stone masons working this structure had told friends and relatives that he placed a frog in the rear footings, which should be a future archaeological puzzle to a future investigator. The stone mason was Henry Carter. The two story stone was completed in 1905 and remains standing today. The downstairs is now the town hall and the upstairs is still pretty much like it was as can be seen in the photos in the link on this page. A rectangular brick building, the high school, was completed in late 1924 and accepted the first class in the fall of 1925. It was torn down and the land is now used as the schoolyard pavilion next to the original school.

Utilities finally come to Blackburn. The telephone exchange was the type that notified its members by a series of long and short rings, especially the rural members. It was well known the most of the neighbors were aware of each others ringing combinations and if you wanted to listen in to the conversation, well, that was all right too. Blackburn was electrified in the middle 1930’s. A gas line was laid to the community in 1968 and a water line was completed in 1973. The post office was closed in 1960 and now mail is delivered from Pawnee to rural box numbers.


Blackburn Buccaneer

A robust carrier-borne strike aircraft which served with distinction with the Royal Navy and subsequently with the RAF.

Blackburn Beverley

Blackburn's heavy-lift freighter, serving with the RAF for over 10 years

Blackburn B-54 and B-88

Blackburn's unsuccessful competitors against the Fairey Gannet.

Blackburn B-48 Firecrest

A powerful carrier-based strike aircraft based on an improved Blackburn Firebrand.

Blackburn B37 Firebrand

A powerful carrier-based strike aircraft that served from 1945 to 1953.

Blackburn B20

An innovative twin-engine reconnaissance flying boat with a retractable planing hull.

Blackburn B-26 Botha

A twin-engine general reconnaissance and torpedo bomber that had a short operational service life.

Naval aircraft, through their creators’ eyes

The magazine adverts of the 1930s-40s provide a fascinating view of how naval aircraft manufacturers saw themselves, and wished others to see them. During this period, artwork in the aviation press was commonly employed to advertise products, raise public awareness and maintain or improve what would today be called ‘brand reputation’. Aircraft built by the Blackburn Aircraft Company in the pre-war and wartime periods tend today to be thought of as at best solid and workaday, and at worst clumsy failures. However, during the inter-war and wartime periods, artwork commissioned by the Blackburn company and its suppliers built an image of the company’s products that showed them off as both glamorous and effective.

Bristol Pegasus advertisement from 1933, featuring the Blackburn Baffin torpedo bomber

Earlier advertisements focussed on the capabilities of the aircraft in their offensive roles. During the long period of peace, the advertisements were sometimes surprisingly action-packed. A 1933 advert for the Bristol Pegasus engine as fitted to the Blackburn Baffin torpedo bomber shows the aircraft in a steep dive, releasing under-wing mounted bombs while a torpedo remains attached. The rear gunner has swung his Lewis gun towards an enemy fighter that is making a beam attack.

The advertisement claims that ‘for maximum efficiency, the “Baffins” are fitted with Bristol Pegasus air-cooled radial engines’. This was no idle boast – the Baffin was basically an updated Ripon with its Napier Lion liquid-cooled engine replaced with a Pegasus. The change was intended to increase both range and load-carrying ability, which it achieved, though the performance of the ‘new’ aircraft was only marginally better than its predecessor’s. The artist has certainly worked hard to convey the increased load-bearing abilities, by showing no fewer than four bombs and a torpedo carried into action by the Baffin – a load the aircraft was unlikely to have borne. (The Baffin was cleared to carry a single 2,000 lb bomb or MkVIII/IX torpedo, or three 530 lb bombs, or six 250 lb bombs).

An advert for the Blackburn Skua dive bomber from a programme for a late-1930s Hendon air display

Interestingly, as war drew closer, the advertisements for Blackburn aircraft appear to become less warlike. As Blackburn developed more modern aircraft, such as the Skua fighter/dive-bomber and the Roc turret fighter, a series of paintings by naval artist Charles E. Turner were used to show the aircraft off. These tended to depict the types in a romanticised fashion, with a great deal of attention paid to the flow of light across all-metal structures, and often solitary aircraft flying above sweeping seascapes. This approach was also carried across to illustrations used by suppliers. The use of essentially peaceful scenes could be interpreted as focussing on the role of the aircraft in protecting peace. Even an advert showing Skuas in a steep dive (as in a dive-bombing run), used in a programme for a pre-war Hendon air display, emphasised beauty of line, speed and modernity rather than offensive capability.

Blackburn Skua advert from February 1940, artwork by Charles E. Turner

Another shows a Skua in pre-war colours flying above HMS Ark Royal and her escorts. It appears Turner may have been working from at least some images of the prototype Skuas, as this rendering shows blisters on the cowling which were only present in the two pre-production aircraft. Turner also tended to depict the Skua with a larger spinner than the aircraft actually used, making it appear sleeker than in reality.

An advert for KLG Spark Plugs featuring the Blackburn Roc turret fighter

An advert for KLG sparking plugs, used in the Roc fighter, takes a similar approach to several of Blackburn’s in-house artworks. Though the advert was still being used in December 1940, the image shows a Roc in the pre-war silver doped scheme, flying above a sunset seascape empty of all but a distant and unescorted aircraft carrier (which is clearly based on the American Navy’s Saratoga-class ships rather than any British carrier of the time).

Though these adverts carried over into the early part of the war, they were soon replaced by a very different style of artwork. Images appearing from the second half of 1940 return to the action-packed content of the early 1930s. Instead of hypothetical combat, however, the new artworks aimed to capitalise on the Skua’s brief but sometimes spectacular active service.

One of several adverts showing the Skua’s successful combat record, here the sinking of the cruiser Königsberg

At least two paintings were commissioned showing the sinking of the cruiser Königsberg by Skuas in April 1940. This was the first sinking of a major warship by dive-bombing, and the Blackburn company was justifiably proud of the achievement of its aircraft. In one of these images we see a rather foreshortened but generally accurate depiction of the cruiser, with a dramatic explosion on its quarterdeck while the Skua that successfully dropped the bomb pulls out of its dive. (Compare this photograph of the cruiser). A second Skua is seen in the dive, about to drop its own bomb. In reality, most of the armour-piercing 500 lbers that struck home pierced the cruiser’s light deck armour and exploded deep in the hull. The caption indicates that three direct hits were made – in fact it was probably more, while several near-misses did serious damage to the hull through water-hammer effect.

A second in-house artwork from the same period depicts the efforts of Skuas of 801 and 806 Squadron operating from Orkney to harass German communications in Norway. In the second half of 1940, the Skuas attacked coastal convoys, fuel tanks and other shore installations with some success. The latter advert was in use as late as December 1943, more than two years since the Skua had been withdrawn from frontline service.

Blackburn Skuas shown during their successful campaign of harassing German communications off Norway in 1940

The style of these wartime adverts is somewhat rougher than their predecessors – it may be that they were completed quickly to take advantage of success stories. Far less attention seems to have been paid to capturing the aircraft themselves, compared to showing the destruction they are wreaking upon the enemy. The images tell a story, complete with flak-bursts, explosions and sinking ships. The aircraft are placed to show their role in the story rather than in necessarily realistic positions.

Late-war adverts like this April 1945 example for the Blackburn Firebrand appears to revert to an earlier style

Interestingly, as the war progressed, the advertisements reverted to a style more reminiscent of earlier days. An April 1945 advertisement for the Blackburn Firebrand torpedo strike fighter shows three aircraft in a similar pose to the Baffin of 1933, diving into the attack with torpedoes attached. The image also brings to mind the late-1930s image of Skuas diving with no enemy actually in view – focussing on speed, sleekness and grace. Not terms that were often associated with the huge, troubled Firebrand.

This could have been a result of necessity. No Blackburn design had made it into active service since the Skua, and although aircraft built by Blackburn to other company’s designs had formed the backbone of the Fleet Air Arm throughout the war, this was apparently not something the company was as keen to promote. The Firebrand was crawling towards a period of frontline employment with the Fleet Air Arm but by April 1945, it had not yet entered squadron service.

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Watch the video: The Blackburn Roc; A Terrible Fighter but a Good Idea?