Though best known as a designer of airplanes, particularly the lethal Focke-Wulf Fw-190, Tank never lost sight of his pilot roots.
Along with the Griffon-engine Spitfire Mk. XVI, the Hawker Tempest V and the Dornier Do-335—not to mention the P-51H Mustang, F2G Corsair and F8F Bearcat, all of which were introduced too late to actually see combat—the long-wing Focke-Wulf Ta-152H-1 was a prominent digit on World War II’s handful of piston-engine superfighters. Nobody mistook the 152’s nickname, “the Tank,” as a sign of condescension, for it was the name of the most respected yet in some ways least well known of Germany’s aircraft designers. Willi Messerschmitt, Ernst Heinkel, Hugo Junkers and many others had their names memorialized in the two-letter prefixes to their various aircraft model numbers (Junkers even after the Nazis had kicked him out of his own company). But the Ta-152 variants marked the very first time the German air ministry allowed Kurt Tank’s own name to be attached to one of his designs.
Tank, who designed not only the Ta-152 but its predecessor, the fearsome Focke-Wulf Fw-190, was alone among major high-performance aircraft designers in being as skilled a test pilot as he was an engineer (to say nothing of his corporate talents, since he ended up as managing director of the entire Focke-Wulf company). Tank flew, tested, often did aerobatics in and even set records with nearly every airplane he ever designed, from biplane trainers to four-engine airliners, from WWII brutes to the jet fighter he designed that was a direct predecessor of the MiG-15.
“Until the late Thirties,” wrote aviation historian William Green in The Warplanes of the Third Reich, “the Focke-Wulf company was virtually unknown outside Germany; its unpretentious products were frequently confused with those of Fokker. This confusion was to be finally dispelled when such aircraft as the Fw-56 Stösser, the Fw-58 Weihe and the Fw 200 Condor, developed under the supervision of Kurt Tank, had acquired a measure of international acclaim. Indeed, it was almost solely due to this singularly gifted, forceful personality, and the infusion of design and engineering talent that followed his appointment as technical director, that the small, obscure Focke-Wulf Flugzeugbau rose to prominence among international aircraft manufacturers and preeminence in the aircraft industry of Germany’s Third Reich.”
Tank was only 33 when he joined Focke-Wulf in 1931, primarily as a test pilot, but he was already an experienced engineer, albeit in an unlikely aeronautical field for a man who would make his mark as a fighter designer. He had started his aviation career working for Rohrbach Metall-Flugzeugbau on flying boats. Most of them were large, slabby, sheet metal–hulled contraptions with sharp, shiplike prows, deckhouses for cockpits and gantries of engine-mongery towering above the wings.
It was an era when people who knew little about the challenges of actually flying seaplanes prophesied that boats with wings would be the transoceanic airliners of the future, using runways that covered two-thirds of the earth’s surface, with never a worry about emergency landings. Tank soon realized that flying boats were too dependent on sea conditions for landing and takeoff, and as he eventually put it, “In the international airline market, the flying boat no longer stands a chance.” Boeing, Sikorsky, Shorts and Martin did their best to prove him wrong, but in the end Tank was the prophet.
He got his first chance to work on fighter design while at Rohrbach, however, thanks to a contract from Turkey for two fighter prototypes and a possible 50 production airplanes. At the time the primitive “fighter community” agreed that future fighters would be high-wing, providing nearly unrestricted visibility for the pilot, which was held to be the key to survival. Tank designed a parasol-wing single-seater, the Ro IX Rofix. The prototype Rofix inexplicably spun in from a substantial altitude during an early flight, killing famous World War I fighter ace Paul Bäumer. Tank was severely criticized for having too casually designed the airplane, which, the old guard announced, should have been a biplane anyway.
Back at the drawing board, Tank next helped to develop the Ro VIIb Robbe II, a big twin-engine flying boat that was intended to set distance records. It had to be built in Denmark from parts secretly shipped from Rohrbach, because its 600-hp BMW engines exceeded the limits imposed on Germany by the Versailles Treaty. Ernst Udet, Germany’s favorite war hero pilot, aerobat and airshow dandy, wanted to use the Robbe to make the first east-to-west Atlantic crossing, with Tank as his copilot. But during a proving flight, a distance record attempt over a triangular course between Denmark and Sweden, the Robbe threw one of its props, which tore off the second prop, and the flying boat crash-landed into the Baltic and obscurity.
The most successful Rohrbach design to which Tank contributed was a three-engine airliner for Lufthansa, the Ro VIII Roland I. (Throughout his life, he would insist that air transport, not air combat, was his mission.) Tank designed a fully enclosed cockpit canopy for the two-man crew—not for their comfort but because the glazing smoothed airflow over the wing center section and contributed to the Roland’s admirable performance. Lufthansa rejected the canopy, since this was still a time when pilots believed they needed to feel the airflow on their cheeks to know if they were yawing or flying coordinated turns. But when crews started flying chilly routes across the Alps, they insisted on having Tank’s “glass roof” returned.
In January 1930, Tank—fed up with flying boats—went to work for Willi Messerschmitt as director of the Projects Department at Bayerische Flugzeugwerke. It was a relationship that would last little more than a year and half, however, for like a racecar engineer intent on making a car just strong enough and no stronger, Messerschmitt worshipped at the altar of ultralightness. The pilot in Tank disagreed with this approach. He was increasingly interested in designing tough, all-metal aircraft with high wing loading—a path that at the end of 1931 took him to tiny Focke-Wulf as director of both the Design Department and flight testing.
Many sources claim that Tank came to Focke-Wulf from a job at Albatros, the German company of World War I fighter fame, but that’s not true. The confusion apparently stems from the fact that Focke-Wulf and Albatros merged soon after Tank’s arrival. His initial work at Focke-Wulf involved flight-testing a number of designs inherited from Albatros, some of which were then re-engineered and modified to attain Tank’s strict requirements for control lightness, stability and ease of flying, particularly during takeoff, landing and stalls.
Tank had his first serious crash while flying an Albatros L 102 trainer, which he coaxed into aileron flutter during a dive. Oddly, rather than cutting power and nosing up, which would have instantly stopped the flutter, he continued to dive for the runway, “keeping the speed from dropping off as much as possible,” as he later wrote. When the wing came apart a short distance above the runway, the 102 crashed heavily. Tank was somehow uninjured.
Focke-Wulf’s Fw-44 Stieglitz—the “German Stearman”—was the airplane that solidified the company’s reputation, for it became the Luftwaffe’s primary trainer and sold by the hundreds throughout the world. A two-seat, open-cockpit biplane with a 7-cylinder Siemens radial, it was very much in the Waco/Stearman mold. Tank was only peripherally involved in the engineering of the Fw-44, since the project was already underway when he arrived at Focke-Wulf, but he is sometimes credited with its design. (Like many famous aircraft designers, Tank often receives credit for types that he only supervised or perhaps roughed out for others to engineer and refine, though he’d have been the first to admit it. He would later say of the Fw-190 that it was a team effort, adding, “I daresay a really good designer could have produced such a fighter all by himself, but it would have taken about eight years, and at the end of that time, nobody would have been the least bit interested in it.”)
In 1933 Tank realized that with the Nazis solidifying their power and pushing Germany toward a modicum of prosperity, the time was ripe for moving Focke-Wulf away from its tradition of strutted, tube-and-fabric sport planes and toward sophisticated metal monoplanes, perhaps even the long-range airliner that he had envisioned. And fortuitously at this point Tank was named the company’s technical director.
Focke-Wulf’s first modern, all-metal airplane was the Fw-57, an early example of the Luftwaffe’s fascination with fast, powerful twins. (Tank again actually had little to do with its design, but he served as the primary test pilot.) Powered by two Daimler-Benz V12s, it was intended to be a multipurpose ground-attack bomber, fighter escort and reconnaissance plane, though at 15,000 pounds gross weight it was too heavy to perform or maneuver well. The next Focke-Wulf twin, the far lighter and more efficient Fw-58 Weihe, did far better. Looking a bit like a Teutonic de Havilland Comet, the Weihe stayed in production until the end of WWII as a trainer, air taxi and liaison aircraft.
Tank used a superbly equipped Weihe as his personal mount, a choice that almost got him killed. Flying D-ALEX from Paris back to Germany in November 1941, he was bounced by a pair of Spitfires that shot up the Fw-58 so thoroughly they broke off, apparently figuring that anything more was just a waste of ammo. With one entire aileron gone and no roll control, Tank managed to keep the Weihe in the air until he reached the nearest Luftwaffe base, where he landed with a cabinful of terrified engineers.
The Reichsluftfahrtministerium—the RLM, the government ministry in charge of aircraft manufacture—forbade Tank to ever again fly his Weihe in a combat area, but as recompense they gave him a Junkers Ju-88 to use as a personal transport. “It’s not a Focke-Wulf, but at least it’s faster,” he joked.
Tank laid out the basic configuration of Focke-Wulf’s next major project, the 1935 Fw-159—a parasol high-wing, retractable-gear fighter prototype with a fully canopied, single-seat cockpit. It looked strangely like the wingless fuselage of a modern airplane hung awkwardly from the strutted span of a 1920s design. Oddest of all, however, was its landing gear, which torqued, twisted and folded rearward and up into the Fw-159’s aft belly, like a duck tucking away its feet in flight. “Too clever by half,” a Brit might have said, and certainly questions about the complex gear’s field maintainability—and the fact that it jammed halfway down on the prototype’s first flight, resulting in a wrecked airplane—figured in the RLM’s decision to instead award that fighter contract to Messerschmitt’s substantially faster Bf-109.
Returning to his multiengine fighter concept for the Fw-187 Falke, Tank’s team designed a single-seat twin with two big Daimler-Benz 600 V12 engines and a fuselage so narrow that there wasn’t room on the instrument panel for some engine gauges, which had to be mounted on the inboard sides of the nacelles, Ford Tri-Motor–fashion. The Falke was undeniably fast—400 mph at sea level, which was more than 20 mph faster than the Bf-109—and Tank argued that a twin on one engine could make it home with battle damage, which was an advantage for an air force that had to fight over enemy turf. But the RLM figured that its factories could never produce enough complex, liquid-cooled V12s to allow for a fighter that used twice as many of them as necessary.
Only three Falkes were built, and they served in Focke-Wulf’s own factory-defense force. Tank flew frequently with that unit. Some sources say that such participation was forbidden after an important Focke-Wulf test pilot was killed during a bomber-interception mission in October 1943. However, the biography Design for Flight: The Kurt Tank Story, by a close associate of Tank’s, says that in 1945, “as commander of the factory squadron…he was now flying every day.”
It could be said that Tank’s most innovative and precedential project, at least until he began working with sweptwing jets, was the Fw-200 Condor, the world’s first modern, four-engine, all-metal landplane airliner, which debuted on July 27, 1937. Tank sold the concept to Lufthansa as a transatlantic transport and said he would have the prototype flying in no more than 12 months, which was pretty sporty, considering that Focke-Wulf had never before built so large an airplane. In fact it took him 12 months and 11 days—and Tank made the first flight—but Lufthansa said, “Close enough.”
The war of course interfered with Lufthansa’s plans to initiate air transport between Berlin and New York, but the Condor nevertheless set a variety of long-distance records. Meanwhile, the Japanese ordered a maritime-reconnaissance version of the Fw-200, which got the RLM thinking maybe that was a good idea, and Focke-Wulf was asked to develop the patrol bomber that Winston Churchill would famously dub “the scourge of the Atlantic.” It was actually tough duty for the Condor; designed as a long-distance airliner, it now had to slog along in low-altitude turbulence over the North Atlantic looking for convoys.
In 1938 Tank was asked to come up with a successor to Messerschmitt’s Bf-109, a result of the dictum that the instant a combat type goes into service, engineers should start work on the airplane that will make it obsolete. Still, there was substantial feeling among the more myopic Luftwaffe planners that the 109 was so advanced that no successor would be needed, at least not before Germany won the war. Such arrogance was ultimately ignored, since the British came up with improved Spitfire variants more rapidly than the Germans had expected.
Tank’s Fw-190 proposal surprised many, since he intended to use a BMW radial engine. Conventional wisdom held that fighters required low-frontal-area liquid-cooled engines and that radials were “bomber engines,” but Tank wrote that “because we chose a radial engine that would not conflict with the short supply of the liquid-cooled power plants earmarked for the aircraft then in production, we persuaded the technical bureau to give our proposal a chance.”
Since the BMW was tightly cowled for minimum drag, cooling the engine would remain a concern throughout the Fw-190’s service life. The first prototype flew with a huge ducted spinner and no prop-driven airflow through the nacelle, giving it almost the look of a liquid-cooled airplane, but this arrangement proved to be insufficient for cooling. Then the engine was given a large, multiblade cooling fan at the front of the nacelle opening that turned at three times prop speed. One Focke-Wulf test pilot doubted that the fan did any good and had it removed as an experiment. He quickly returned from his one fan-less flight because the oil temperature soared.
It seems to be universally accepted that Focke-Wulf named the 190 Butcherbird, but that may not be true. The company had a long tradition of naming its airplanes after birds—Falcon, Owl, Albatross, Condor—and the name it gave the 190 was Würger, or Shrike, a not-uncommon airplane appellation. Some shrikes, hawk-like African birds, are indeed known as butcherbirds for their habit of impaling their prey on thorn bushes, but it was probably Fw-190 service pilots who came up with this play on Würger, just as U.S. Air Force pilots rejected the silly PR name for the F-16, Fighting Falcon, and renamed it Viper.
In his lavishly illustrated book Focke-Wulf Fw 190, Robert Grinsell writes that the 190 is “considered by many aviation experts and enthusiasts to be the most beautifully proportioned and aerodynamically designed aircraft of World War II,” and it’s an opinion that’s hard to fault, particularly when the Würger is on the ground. Its tough, tall and wide landing gear gives it the look of a powerlifter ready to clean-and-jerk, especially when compared to the ballerina-on-pointe stance of a Spitfire or Me-109. The sliding canopy, though it seems at first glance to be a bubble, is actually flat-sided, nearly straight and faired perfectly into the aft fuselage. It’s also surprisingly narrow; videos of a pilot wearing a crash helmet flying one of the modern Fw-190A-8 replicas being built in Germany show him absolutely filling the cockpit. They also reveal that though the 190 seemingly has the bulk of a Republic P-47, it’s a surprisingly small airplane.
Fortunately for the RAF, the Fw-190 entered combat days after the Battle of Britain had already been lost by the Germans. At that time, the newest Spitfires were marginally better than the best Me-109Es and Fs, but the Fw-190A was, upon its introduction, unquestionably the finest fighter in the world. In 1942 the two Luftwaffe wings that received most of the production 190s—JG.2 and JG.26—shot down 300 aircraft, at least 272 of which were Spitfires.
The Würger’s forte was its maneuverability, with outstanding roll rate and control at least in part because it had direct, pushrod-operated flight controls, with none of the slight slop and indelicacy of floppy cables running over and around pulleys. Nor did the airplane have to be retrimmed for various power settings and flight modes. This remarkable quality is a big help to a fighter pilot who needs to concentrate on energy management and situational awareness rather than constant cranking of a trim wheel. The 190 was also easy to fly, particularly on landing, at a time when the Luftwaffe was losing 20 to 30 Me-109s a month to serious ground-loop accidents.
Fw-190s became fearsome fighter-bombers as well, beating up British targets almost at will once they’d snuck across the Channel under the radar. In fact the Hawker Tempest, designed around its enormous 2,400-hp, 24-cylinder Napier Sabre sleeve-valve engine, was initially created to counter these very-low-altitude Fw-190 Jagdbomber, or “Jabo,” attacks.
The ultimate Fw-190 was the long-nose D-for-Dora model, which, although it retained the radial-type cowling, in fact had a Junkers Jumo 213 V12 engine. The round cowl held a ring of radiators for the liquid-cooled engine. The Fw-190D led to the classic day-late-and-dollar-short airplane: the Ta-152, Kurt Tank’s WWII swan song. Per – haps a dozen of the phenomenal Ta-152Hs made it into combat, only weeks before the war ended, and their first adversaries were a gaggle of “friendly” Me-109s that mistook the 152’s unfamiliar long-wing silhouette for a new Allied fighter. Their last of several victories was over a Soviet Yakovlev Yak-9, shot down above Berlin on April 30, 1945, eight days before the war in Europe ended. It is of some note that all the Ta-152 victories were scored at relatively low altitudes; the Tanks never performed their design mission, high-altitude bomber interception.
Kurt Tank flew the 152 as often as he could, and in one famous incident was flying an early Ta-152H from Focke-Wulf’s headquarters to the factory in Cottbus when, soon after takeoff, Langenhagen Tower called and told him that enemy aircraft were behind him. Sure enough, four P-51Ds appeared in his canopy mirror, closing rapidly. Tank firewalled the throttle, activating the Jumo engine’s water/methanol injection system for a substantial horsepower boost, and left the Mustangs standing. The incident was of course reported by the baffled P-51 pilots—the first hint the Allies had that the Luftwaffe had developed a prop-driven superfighter.
The Ta-152 was far more than a re-engined Fw-190, for the fuselage was extensively changed and lengthened, and the H model’s wingspan was stretched to near-sailplane span. The greatly increased aspect ratio, plus the engine’s combination of water/methanol as well as nitrous oxide injection, permitted stunning altitude performance: The highest recorded Ta-152H flight was to 44,375 feet, and the test pilot quit before the airplane did. He couldn’t get the cockpit pressurization to work properly, and as a result lost all control of his right arm and suffered severe tunnel vision before he backed off and descended. Focke-Wulf wasn’t able to solve the 152’s pressurization problems before the war ended, so ultimately the long wings only hindered the airplane’s maneuverability at normal altitudes.
After the war, Tank lived like a refugee for several years but never stopped looking for aviation work. It was by this time no secret that he had been working on a sweptwing jet fighter, the Ta-183. The Soviets, the British, China, France, Sweden, Mexico and Brazil all looked into the possibility of Tank emigrating to help develop their aircraft industries, though there’s no record of any U.S. interest. The British were perhaps the strongest contenders, but ultimately they realized that a superstar of Tank’s stature, and a former bitter enemy at that, could never be integrated into any of their jet programs. And Tank didn’t like what he was hearing from the Russians, who never made it clear how much—if any—freedom he would have.
But then Argentina’s President Juan Perón called, through various intermediaries, and as had so many former Nazis, Kurt Tank headed for Buenos Aires. Since the British still wanted to keep their hands on Tank, who was in a sense under house arrest by them, he traveled in disguise, carrying a forged passport in the name of Pedro Matties. Some 60 of Tank’s former colleagues followed him, and in Argentina they set up “Focke-Wulf Lite” to continue development of the Ta-183, a sweptwing, T-tail flying barrel that was a direct precursor of the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15, which the Soviets built with the help of two nearly complete Ta-183A prototypes they had seized.
The Argentines desperately wanted a home-grown jet fighter, and they initially imported the famous French designer Émile Dewoitine, a Nazi collaborator, to build it for them. Dewoitine’s FMA IAe-27 Pulqui (Arrow), built by the Fábrica Militar de Aviones, was an ugly straight-wing design with a vertical fin like something from a World War I biplane and a Rolls-Royce Derwent engine with a garbage-chute tailpipe. Dewoitine was sent packing when his Pulqui proved to be slow and cumbersome, and Tank took over the project.
With a Rolls-Royce Nene engine, Tank’s IAe-33 Pulqui II in 1950 gave the Argentines, albeit briefly, one of the most advanced jet fighters in the world, equivalent in some ways to the North American F-86 and, of course, the MiG-15. Tank himself joined in the test flying; he had already built a wooden proof-of-concept glider version of the airplane and had logged many unpowered flights.
Some reports say that in 1955 Tank demanded that Perón double his salary and was turned down, spurring him to look elsewhere for work. Whatever the case, Perón fell from grace later that year, and Tank accepted a fortuitous offer of employment from India, another nation eager to establish its aviation independence from first-world countries.
India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. had designed and built a small prop-driven, single-engine trainer, little more than a weekend sport plane, and had license-built de Havilland Vampire jets for the Indian Air Force, which was also equipped with Hawker Hunters and various MiGs. Tank and his team— down to some 16 German engineers who had followed him across the globe—designed and built for the Indians the HAL HF-24 Marut, a sharp-looking, high-nosed, area-ruled, two-engine jet as sleek as any Dassault Mirage. Some have called it the aerodynamically cleanest fighter airframe of its time.
The Marut was fully intended to be capable of Mach 2 and looked it, but the British Bristol Olympus afterburning engines around which it was designed never materialized, so it was fitted with far less powerful turbojets that barely allowed it to go supersonic in level flight. It was only a minimal improvement over the IAF’s Hunters, and many pilots called it the “Hunter Mark II.” Tank’s final act was something of a disappointment, and he wasn’t even allowed to fly it: The Indian government, knowing how crucial he was to their industry, wouldn’t allow him in the cockpit.
During the 1971 India-Pakistan war, a Marut downed a Pakistani F-86—its sole air-to-air combat kill—but it acquired a sterling record for rugged reliability as a fighter-bomber. The HF-24 first flew in 1961; 147 were manufactured, and the last were retired in 1990, replaced by MiG-23s.
Kurt Tank died in Munich, Germany, on June 5, 1983, at the age of 85. He could only have been pleased that by that time trans-oceanic airline travel in widebody jets had become a matter of routine.
Frequent contributor Stephan Wilkinson is a former executive editor of Flying magazine. For further reading, he recommends: Kurt Tank: Focke-Wulf’s Designer and Test Pilot, by Wolfgang Wagner; Focke-Wulf Fw 190, by Robert Grinsell, with illustrations by Rikyu Watanabe; and Focke-Wulf Ta 152, by Dietmar Harmann.
Originally published in the March 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.