Paul Allen’s Priceless BMW
The warbird of the moment seems to be the long-neglected Focke-Wulf Fw-190, with a number of impressive restoration and replica-building projects underway or, in several cases, complete and flying. What none of the few flying Focke-Wulfs have, however, is an original BMW 801 radial engine. Some are equipped with Chinese-built copies of a Russian ASh-82 power plant, and at least two Fw-190D-9 replicas have upright Allison V-12s in place of that version’s Junkers Jumo inverted V-12. Another Fw-190 replica has already crashed, ditching in the Mediterranean just off a French beach due to the catastrophic failure of its near-new Chinese engine. A number of static exhibit museum 190s have BMW 801s, but few have been fired up and none will ever fly.
Some dismiss the 801 as “just a copy of the Pratt & Whitney Hornet,” which is at best a vast oversimplification. BMW indeed license-built Hornets before World War II, particularly for use in the elderly Junkers Ju-52 trimotor, but the Focke-Wulf’s engine is a far more advanced twin-row 14-cylinder rather than an 18, and it differs in many other ways from the Pratt that preceded it. Most notably, the 801 had a remarkable single-lever power control system that automatically managed rpm, prop pitch, mixture, timing and supercharger setting according to throttle position and altitude—a system that Porsche, not surprisingly, reinvented for its PFM Mooney lightplane engine in the mid-1970s. The big Kommandogerät controller at the heart of this system, as complex as a Swiss chronometer, is hen’s-tooth rare.
Kommandogerät and all, the first BMW 801–engine Focke-Wulf to fly since some forgotten occasion in the 1950s is Paul Allen’s Fw-190A-5/U3, part of the ex-Microsoft billionaire’s Flying Heritage Collection in Everett, Wash. The airplane had force-landed in Russia in 1943, possibly thanks to sabotage when the engine was built, by French forced labor, that eventually clogged a crucial oil line. The wreck was discovered in 1989 (search YouTube for “Fw-190 in Russia” for a video of the find) and was retrieved by helicopter in 1991, taken to a buyer in England and acquired by Allen eight years later.
Much of the airframe restoration was done by the highly regarded English shop JME Aviation, which unfortunately closed earlier in 2010 and returned the ship to the U.S. for completion, currently in its final stages. The BMW engine was totally rebuilt by Mike Nixon in Tehachapi, Calif. Nixon is the country’s—and perhaps the world’s—preeminent restorer of WWII-era aircraft engines, at both his Vintage Radials and Vintage V12s divisions.
Many had feared that due to its rarity, Allen’s airplane would never be flown even after the restoration was complete. But the refurbished Fw-190 made its first flight on December 2, 2010, and the Flying Heritage Collection plans to display this unique Luftwaffe fighter in the air publicly for the first time this spring or summer.
P-47 Unearthed in France
On January 5, 1944, 2nd Lt. Kenneth Hindersinn was flying his P-47D Thunderbolt as tail-end Charlie on a B-17 escort mission over France when 20mm cannon rounds from a Focke-Wulf Fw-190 tore into his fighter from directly astern. It was the beginning of a lousy day for Hindersinn. He turned toward England with smoke in the cockpit, but losing altitude over the icy Channel, thought better of that plan and returned to France, where he tried to bail out over Normandy.
The canopy had been jammed by the German rounds, so his only option was to worm through the small escape panel in the greenhouse, parachute pack and all (his was a razorback D model, not one of the later bubble-canopied Ds). He inevitably got stuck. Fortunately, the Jug entered a spin, the centrifugal force tore Hinnersinn loose and he popped his chute.
Landing on a farmhouse roof amid German troops, he made a run for it…only to become entangled in a hedgerow’s barbed wire. Hindersinn spent the rest of the war in Stalag Luft I, on the Baltic Sea. Bad luck continued to dog him: In 1993, when Hindersinn was 73, his schizophrenic eldest son attacked him with an ax, badly injuring him. He died in 2003.
Last September a farmer near St.-Mère-Eglise, in Normandy, was backhoeing a drainage system for his field when he hit metal— first a landing-gear leg and wheel, then four machine guns, an engine, parts of a cockpit and a P-47’s big, tailcone-mounted turbosupercharger. When the engine’s serial number was checked out, it turned out to be Hindersinn’s airplane. One of the propeller blades had obviously taken a 20mm hit.
The wreck recovery was overseen by a French WWII historical society, Picauville se Souvient (Picauville Remembers). Another local commemoration organization, Association Normande pour le Souvenir Aérien (Normandy Aviation Memorial Association), estimates that Hindersinn’s airplane was one of the 10,000 Allied and German airplanes shot down over Normandy, 6,000 of them during the three months following D-Day.
Lend-Lease P-39 Returns to Western N.Y.
Nearly 5,000 P-39 Airacobras, all produced at the Bell Aircraft plant in Wheatfield, N.Y., flew for the Soviet air force in WWII. The Soviets employed the sturdy, cannon-armed P-39 to great effect. But in November 1944, engine failure consigned one well-traveled P-39Q, no. 44-2911, to a watery grave.
Twenty-two-year-old Lieutenant Ivan Ivanovich Baranovsky was ferrying his supply-laden fighter to a forward air base near Norway when two engine connecting rods failed and punched through the crankcase, forcing him to bellyland on frozen Lake Mart-Yavr. Baranovsky either died on impact or was knocked unconscious and drowned when his plane sank to the bottom.
Sixty years later, in July 2004, a fisherman noticed the silhouette of a plane beneath Mart-Yavr’s crystal waters and alerted warbird recovery expert Jim Pearce (warbirdfinders. co.uk), then working to recover a German fighter from the very same lake. Pearce’s team pulled the Airacobra from its underwater tomb and discovered within the fuselage the remains of Lieutenant Baranovsky, two of his medals—the Glory Order III Degree and Military Order of the Red Banner—and a logbook. It revealed that Baranovsky had piloted the P-39, which the Soviets dubbed White 23, in operations against the Finnish air force in Karelia and the Luftwaffe in Norway. He flew a total of 90 missions and logged seven victories, earning a Hero of the Soviet Union burial.
The P-39, which the Americans called Miss Lend Lease, was completed at the Bell Aircraft plant on November 23, 1943, one of 3,291 Q models delivered to the Soviet Union. In 2009 Hugh Neeson, president of the Ira G. Ross Aerospace Museum in Buffalo, N.Y., traveled to England and purchased the plane from Pearce for $400,000. On April 1, 2009, the fighter returned to its birthplace at the Bell plant, now part of Niagara Falls International Airport.
The Ira G. Ross Museum is currently repairing corrosion and structural damage for an exhibit that will display the P-39 as it looked when it belly-landed on the frozen lake. The exhibit is slated to open in the fall of 2011 or spring of 2012. According to Ira G. Ross vice president Paul Faltyn, the museum has long-term plans for a full-scale restoration, which would require new instrument panels, wheels, brakes, propeller and engine.
Back in New York, Miss Lend Lease yielded one final surprise. On the instrument panel was the signature of Helen Rose, and on the relay box cover that of Eleanor Barbaritano, two of approximately 14,000 women who worked at the Bell plant in the early 1940s. “This gives an added human dimension to the story of the plane,” Neeson told The Buffalo News. “Here were these two young girls who knew these planes they were working on were going far and wide, and they signed their names to see what would happen.”
For more information, visit wnyaerospace.org.
SOFIA Begins Science Flights
NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), the world’s largest airborne observatory, began operations last November. SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP fitted with a German-built, 17-ton, 100- inch-diameter infrared telescope in the rear of the aircraft.
“Modifying SOFIA from a passenger-carrying airliner to a flying observatory was a major aeronautical engineering challenge,” explained NASA’s SOFIA pro gram manager Robert R. Meyer. “Moving the pressure bulkhead within the fuselage and preparing an aircraft of this size to operate with a telescope cavity opening that is more than 25 percent of the fu selage’s diameter in width were only two of the substantial tasks required in converting this aircraft into a worldclass observatory.”
Operated jointly by NASA and the German Aerospace Agency, the flying observatory is beginning its planned 20- year life of astronomical observations. SOFIA is based at NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif., and in full operations will fly, on average, three nights per week, eight to 10 hours per night for approximately 960 re – search hours per year.
SOFIA made its first test flight with the telescope cavity door fully open on December 18, 2009. The observatory’s “first light” flight, when the infrared telescope was used for the first time in flight, took place on the night of May 25-26, 2010. During that flight SOFIA demonstrated its versatility by im – aging the planet Jupiter and the M82 galaxy, plus a set of bright stars that are difficult or impossible to see from the surface of the earth.
-Nicholas A. Veronico
Mustang Crew Reunion
World War II pilot Jesse Frey and his crew chief, Pat Buzzeo, were reunited with a replica of their P-51D Mustang Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Indianapolis Executive Airport on October 23, 2010. The Indiana Wing of the Commemorative Air Force and Montgomery Aviation Inc. hosted the event. Flying bomber escort missions out of Leiston, England, with the 357th Fighter Group, Captain Frey scored two kills in Ain’t Misbehavin’. According to the 357th’s official history, To War With the Yoxford Boys, the airplane never had to abort a mission in 300 combat flying hours. Frey is still active as a trumpet player in the Commemo – rative Air Force’s band, the Star Lighters.
Originally published in the March 2011 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.