I Rode a MOSQUITO
Speed, thrills, drama, achievementl find them all in this story of the "flying blueberry crate" which became one of the world's fastest warplanes
RONALD A. KEITH
THE familiar terrain of Toronto stands on edge and gyrates like a spinning platter. A mighty weight presses on your head and shoulders like an invisible drop hammer. Then your vision clears and a cow barn tilts past the window in a blur of speed.
It could be a horrible dream, but it isn’t.
It is the exciting reality of flight with Geoffrey de Havilland, Jr., in the Canadian-built Mosquito, one of the swiftest warplanes in the world.
After secret preparations the event had been heralded by a cryptic telegram from the editor:
“CAN YOU BE AT AIRPORT NEAR
TORONTO TO GET INSECT STORY EARLY THURSDAY?” We could. For that “insect” would be one of those deadly “Mosquitoes” which are breeding in this country’s warplants and will be rising in swarms to sting the Nazis into frenzies. This bomber, now' being manufactured in Canadian plants, has been described by an R.A.F. Air Marshal as, “the weapon that wrill win the w'ar.” It has not always been so highly regarded, for in the beginning there W'ere powerful opponents of its radical all-wood construction. But the critics have been confounded by the plane’s performance.
Canadian manufacture has been undertaken by The de Havilland Aircraft of Canada Ltd. and some 120 large and small subcontractors. These
include farm implement companies, furniture manufacturers, piano makers, boat builders and even a large automobile manufacturer. Their co-operative output streams through the final assembly line in the de Havilland plant where American-built Rolls-Royce Merlin engines are installed. Canadian output is expected to outstrip British Mosquito production by a substantial margin.
As we arrived at the airfield, as if by appointment one of the silver W'arriors flashed into view, pivoting in a vertical bank low over the test hangar. The few seconds of its close proximity were thunderous with the deep symphony of the Merlins, which muted to a distant rumble as the plane retreated with astonishing rapidity and became a mere smudge in the sky.
There had been something very strange about that appearance. In the steep bank over the hangar, a long silver ribbon appeared to be trailing from each wing tip; then as the plane levelled out and
receded the trails had vanished. That, apparently, was part of the mystery which still shrouds man’s foremost advances toward supersonic speed. Present explanations are incomplete, they say, but according to one version, at terrific speeds and at high angles of attack, such as in a steep turn, the wing tips stir up vortices of “crazy” air. Sudden air compression and expansion produces ribbons of condensed water vapor which peel off the wing tips, then evaporate almost immediately.
Twenty Per Cent More Speed
AS OUR Mosquito stood on the tarmac its long L legs were like slender stilts propped under the long slim belly of the fuselage. The sun sparkled on the plexiglass dome of the cockpit and slanted through the transparent bomb-sighting snout. The plywood body and wings, sheathed in fabric and slicked with silver dope, gleamed like the surface of a hardwood floor, hinting at one of the secrets of the plane’s phenomenal speed. It has been claimed that freedom from the thousands of rivetheads, which mar the metal plane’s surface like a rash, adds up to twenty per cent more speed for the same power.
Black wounds slashed the wings’ leading edges on either side of the fuselage; these were the radiator vents, an interesting design feature. Evidently the air sluices through these two openings and filters over the hot fins of the engine radiators. This heated air then becomes a useful by-product for it is released through small apertures under the
wings, producing a jet propulsion effect which is reported to add about fifteen miles per hour to the top speed of the aircraft.
The Merlins were coughing discreetly as they idled; we mounted a ladder to find Geoffrey de Havilland seated at the controls, checking his instruments in the compact two-man cabin. In a chocolate-colored jacket, white shirt and correct tie he looked more like an alert young businessman in his office than a famous test pilot ready for take-off.
Buckling on his aerobatic shoulder harness, which would clamp him firmly to the seat in any position, de Havilland smiled.
“You may buckle yours up if you like, but you really won’t need it. She is very gentle in aerobatics,” he suggested. We were already busy buckling, also taking some care to check the parachute harness. Its two snap hooks in front were ready to grip corresponding rings on the parachute pack which lay in a compact bundle on the floor.
The escape hatch too came in for some attention. A normal exit involves raising a hinged floor section, unfastening a down-swinging hatch, pulling a small tubular ladder from a hidden compartment, and climbing down. To abandon the aircraft while “upstairs,” however, it is permissible to forget the ladder, as long as you remember to snap on your parachute pack, otherwise it would be one long step to the ground. For bailing out, the belly hatch would seem to be ideal because it eliminates the danger of being struck by the rudder or tailplane. For quick action you simply lift the floor section
and step on a pedal which jettisons the outer door and away you go.
The air brakes hissed and sighed, the engines rumbled in slight acceleration and the black tarmac rolled under the transparent nose as we taxied out to the take-off position. The pilot was fanning his glance across the instrument panel in a final cockpit check, his left hand nursing two ivory cubes which crowned the throttle levers. Fuel levels; air, hydraulic and oil pressures; oil, carbureter and cylinder head temperatures; flying instruments, tachometers, fuel selector switches . . . everything checked. The engines were revved up and we were all set to go.
The propeller pitch levers went forward into “fine” for take-off, which meant that the blade angles were set to bite thin slices of air while swirling at maximum speed, thus developing full power, like a car in low gear. Then the ivory throttle handles went forward, the tail lifted, and there was a vivid catapulting impression as the plane surged forward. In an incredibly brief moment we were suddenly rocketing along at 130 miles an hour and the Mosquito leaped into the air. We shot upward in an asonishing mile-a-minute climb which simply snatched the airfield out of sight and left us floating in space 7,000 feet above the flat contours of the city.
Once aloft, operation of the aircraft appeared to be amazingly simple. There was the control column rising between the pilot’s knees and surmounted by a semiwheel, something like vertical handle bars. Turning the wheel banked the plane,
while pushing or pulling dived or climbed it. The pilot explained that in such a fast aircraft the rudder pedals were almost unnecessary, even in aerobatics, because when the plane banked it turned of its own accord. De Havilland proceeded to demonstrate.
World Goes “Haywire”
WITHOUT even diving for extra speed, as in slower planes, he simply eased back on the wheel . . . The nose came up sharply and the world seemed to be clinging to our tail; then the Mosquito arched over onto its back and, momentarily, there we were in the weirdest of attitudes. We seemed to be quite normal, but there was the city of Toronto fantastically hanging upside down. We could see it bypeeringwp through the plexiglass of the cockpit roof. Then, without the slightest stress or discomfort, we were around the invisible barrel hoop and flying level again.
“The roll is just as simple,” the pilot said. And even as he spoke, the nose came up slightly above the horizon and he turned the wheel sharply to the right. Suddenly we were following the contours of an imaginary corkscrew and once again the world was performing weirdly. There it was on edge, pivoting against the right wing tip, then it careened up over our heads and slid down the other side to flash by the left wing tip. Around it went, once, twice, three times. Then it settled down beneath us and stayed put for a few moments.
As our pilot had promised, there was none of the
unpleasant sensation of hanging upside down out of the seat and against the safety belt that would be taken for granted in slower planes. The centrifugal force of those high speed manoeuvres kept us pressed comfortably against the seat cushions regardless of the plane’s attitude.
Thus the aerobatics were simple. To the passenger it was just a case of sitting there in serene comfort while the world went “haywire.”
The only unpleasant gyrations were the tight vertical bank and the pull out from a steep dive. The tight vertical bank was something like the motorcycle “wall of death” in the midway but infinitely faster. In both instances there seemed to be an irresistible pressure seeking to shove you through the seat, draining the blood from your head and dimming your vision. Eventually this titanic squeeze play knocks you unconscious and you black out; but our manoeuvring was slightly less terrific than that.
We plummeted almost to deck level, skimming the waves along the waterfront. Coming out of that dive, a glance at the airspeed dial showed the needle quivering on 450 miles per hour! There was still no overpowering sensation of great speed until we flashed by docks and warehouses. Then it was not difficult to understand why they claim it takes two men on the ground to watch the Mosquito, one to see it coming, the other to see it going. It is reported that the first English farmer to see the original Mosquito unlimbering had only one word to describe his impression. “Crikey!!” he said.
Now we were low over downtown Toronto, looping, rolling, twisting and finally shooting skyward in a spectacular vertical roll. In all the confusion the writer sometimes lost track of the city and didn’t know whether to look up, down, sideways or back over the tail to see it. But otherwise it was an altogether comfortable ride.
Thus we sat in relative ease and safety, while throngs of people in the streets below craned their necks, muttered about “those crazy airmen,” and narrowly escaped death under the wheels of automobiles whose drivers were also gazing upward. According to subsequent newspaper reports, Geoffrey de Havilland’s aerobatics were tying up city traffic for blocks.
Sighting a fast Norwegian attack bomber as it wheeled over Island Airport, de Havilland proceeded to make its pilot feel pretty silly. We literally flew circles around the single-engined bomber, looping up over its nose and down behind
the tail, barrel rolling around it and finally twisting almost straight up in front of it.
Returning to the airport, we encountered a camouflaged Lockheed Ventura, one of the fastest of twin-engined bombers. It was winging eastward, probably destined for transatlantic ferrying to England. Our pilot calmly shut off one engine, advanced the throttle of the other Rolls, then proceeded to skim past the Ventura in an astounding demonstration of single-engined speed. To emphasize his point, he then put the Mosquito through several slow rolls, still on the single engine.
In a final flourish our Mosquito, now on both engines, swooped down over the telephone wires to flash across the airport at something more than seven miles a minute then careened gracefully up and over to execute a roll off the top of the loop. The engines blurped, backfired, then purred softly as the throttles came back and we sloped steeply to a “hot” three-point landing.
Child of a Comet
THE Mosquito is said to be a direct design descendant of the de Havilland Comet which won the McRobertson Air Race from England to Australia in 1934. Thus the Mosquito is simply a long-range racer in warpaint, with the ribbons of victory already fluttering in its slipstream.
The first publicized appearance of this plane, so recently off the supersecret list, was the Royal Air Force raid against Oslo on Sept. 26. Mosquitos skimmed over European treetops to deliver stinging blows on the Quisling headquarters then raced back again, scoring a clearcut victory of speed and manoeuvrability against the vaunted Focke-Wulf 190 fighters which gave chase.
The idea of an aircraft combining the herculean engine power of a bomber with the rapier-thrust speed and agility of a fighter was on the drawing boards of Capt. Geoffrey de Havilland away back in 1938, when the Hawker Hurricane was being conceived. But the original experimental model was buffeted in the vicious headwinds of ridicule and its progress was slow.
The very idea of building a modern combat plane of wood was simply hilarious, the wiseacres said. Who could be found to risk his existence in such a winged packing case, or who would even hazard his reputation by approving the idea, they asked. As it happened, Geoffrey de Havilland, son of the designer, and chief test pilot of the Company, was ready for anything. And there were a few strong
supporters of the design,although one of them, of the Aircraft Production Ministry, Sir Wilfred Freeman, found his name tagged to it on the critics’ label, “Freeman’s Folly.”
So the day came when the younger Geoffrey flew the English Mosquito and used the term he still applies to it—“wizard.” And now that deadly speed demon has proved itself in combat, apparently the only folly associated with the Mosquito is that of the Luftwaffe pilots who have tried to slap it down.
Mosquito Has Everything
WHEN Ralph Bell, Director-General of Aircraft Production in Canada, flew to England in May, 1941, for production conferences, he saw the Mosquito and was convinced that it was the ideal project for the Canadian aircraft industry. It had everything. The wood construction was “made to order” for this country of vast timberlands; Packard Motors in Detroit were tooling to build the Merlin, the engine powering the Mosquito as well as the Hurricane and the Spitfire.
Thus, the plane could be produced on the basis of North American self-sufficiency, independent of the tedious and uncertain sea communications which had so hampered the earlier efforts of the Canadian aircraft manufacturers to operate while geared to the English industry.
But a41 of Mr. Bell’s driving energy was required to “sell” the project against the forces of inertia on this side of the Atlantic. A typical attitude was that of an official in Ottawa who described the plane as “a flying blueberry crate” and ventured to predict that Bell would lose his job if he dared to have it built in Canada.
But the Mosquito is now in production, and Bell is still in on the job.
The Canadian factories where Mosquito fuselages and wings are built offer a subdued contrast to the usual metal-working aircraft plant. Instead of the ear-splitting cadenza of drop hammers, punch presses and rivet guns, there is a modulated symphony.
As you pass along the production lines, the pleasant aroma of fresh sawdust prevails; sun filters and diffuses through the vast windows; from overhead there is the constant hiss of steam jets spitting their quota of controlled humidity into the atmosphere. You hear only the resounding slap of board against board, the crescendo of power saws whining through timber, the rhythmic rasp of planes, the occasional snarl of abrasive wheels and the montonous thumping of hammers.
At the head of the production line are the raw materials: stacks of timber, sheets of plywood, vats of glue. You realize that the story of Mosquito production really begins deep in the backwoods where axe blades bite into tall timber. The sequel continues through the lumber mills and through the plywood plants where logs are shaved into vast paper-thin sheets which in turn are bonded with resin glue under heat and pressure into the birch blankets which will wrap the Mosquito’s body and wings.
A fuselage bay could be mistaken for some weird museum with great petrified whales stretching their inert proportions from wall to wall. These are the heavy wooden molds over which the Mosquito’s plywood and balsa skin is spread. Broad steel bands wrap around the layers of wood and glue. As screw clamps tighten the banks, glue oozes into the wood itself and sweats out through pin-sized holes which relieve the internal pressure. Tiny fingers of glue reach into the microscopic pores of the wood, then hook and harden with a vicelike grip as strong as the wood itself.
Then the clamps are released and the half-shell fuselages are “done.” No heat is applied; the whole process is what is called a “cold set.” It’s about a3 simple as making cupcakes, especially when compared with the average aluminum bomber which requires some 450,000 rivets, like so many collar buttons, to keep its metal shirt on. Each of these rivets has to be power-hammered into place by men who swarm all over the plane like overgrowm bees in a hive. Continued on page 32
I Rode a Mosquito
Continued from page 12—Starts on page 10
In Mosquito production the battalions of rivet gunners are replaced by a handful of men with paintbrushes swabbing glue onto wood.
THIS does not mean that wooden plane production is a casual proposition, however. The strips of plywood have to be scarfed or bevelled with such accuracy that they fit together exactly. The slightest error would weaken the structure.
To an even greater extent accuracy is the watchword in the vast plant where a farm* implement manufacturer is building the fifty-four-foot Mosquito wings, and in the bays and subcontracting shops where small parts and fittings are made. In fact, seme of the woodworking implements, such as molders and shapers, used by cabinet, furniture and piano manufacturers, have had to be rebuilt with precision bearings for greater accuracy.
In ordinary woodworking, a variation the thickness of a ruler can sometimes be overlooked, but aircraft woodworking deals in tolerances the width of a human hair.
The wood for some of the more important load-bearing members is selected with extreme care. Then, when it arrives in the plant, samples from each lot are pounded to the breaking point in impact tests and are studied as to qualities of grain, cut, moisture content and specific gravity. Then each lot is given a serial number which is entered in the
records opposite its case history and is also stamped on every piece of wood issuing from the lot. Thus, in an important structure consisting of a number of wooden laminations, the inspectors can obtain the intimate case history of each component piece of wood.
The keymen in the Mosquito plants were drawn from furniture factories, piano plants, and from the ranks of skilled carpenters. They have been supplemented by increasing numbers of enthusiastic new trainees, many of them learning difficult hand skills right in the plants. It is estimated that it takes two years to train a thoroughly skilled worker, although there are intermediate stages of skill which are used to advantage.
In the wing plant I visited one third of the workers were women and this proportion is likely to increase. The majority of the women are young wives of soldiers, sailors and airmen who are overseas. They know what the war is all about. According to the personnel manager of the plant there’s no stopping them, even on the difficult precision jobs.
Indeed, it is apparent in visiting the Mosquito factories that the men and women working on that supremely important job realize that they are helping to fashion the most formidable warplane in the world. They are obviously sold on the idea that swarms of these wooden combat planes will speed the victory, and they are certainly making the chips fly!