Although the Curtiss O-52 Owl was obsolete before it entered combat, one managed to score an unlikely victory in Soviet service.
The Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company was for many years the greatest name in American aviation, the premier purveyor of fighters, bombers, trainers and transports. Its successor, the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, had a brief run at greatness before losing its grip on the industry after World War II. Today Curtiss-Wright is a highly diversified global corporation, though it no longer builds airplanes, instead providing technologically advanced products and services to a variety of industries.
During the years when it was creating the top American military aircraft, Curtiss, like other companies, survived by making the most of existing designs, extending them for as long as the market allowed. Thus we saw the evolution of the slick Schneider and Pulitzer racers into the Curtiss Hawk of 1923. This design persevered through successive modifications until the final Hawk IV of 1936. The Curtiss Falcon observation and attack biplanes had a similar long life, their production spanning from 1923 through 1932. Like the fighters, they were sold in both Army and Navy versions at home and abroad. Therefore it is no surprise that in 1939, when factory lines were already laden with P-36 and P-40 variants, Curtiss looked to the past when asked to deliver a new observation plane to the U.S. Army Air Corps.
Flush with funds for the first time in its history, the Air Corps ordered 203 Curtiss O-52 observation planes without ever testing a prototype. Curtiss turned to earlier models for inspiration, creating a high-wing monoplane very similar in appearance to its unsuccessful F13C fighter. In construction, however, the new airplane derived from the moderately more successful Model 77 Helldiver biplane and SO3C naval scout plane. Called the Owl, the O-52 first flew in February 1941. With a 40- foot-9-inch wingspan and 5,364-pound gross weight, it had a top speed of 220 mph and a 700-mile range. Powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-1340 radial engine, the Owl was lightly armed with one fixed forward-firing and one flexible .30-caliber machinegun. The rotund fuselage housed the typical Curtiss retractable landing gear of the period.
Unfortunately for Curtiss, the air war over Europe had already proved that traditional observation aircraft were unsuited to contemporary combat. The observation role was taken over by the L-series of “Grasshoppers” and by reconnaissance versions of more modern fighters and bombers. By this time, however, America’s war machine had such momentum that a little thing like an order for 203 aircraft was seen as inconsequential. Some O-52s were shipped to the Philippines, where they saw brief and inglorious combat, while most were retained in the United States for use as trainers and utility aircraft. But some would see conflict and long service on another, even more difficult front, serving the Soviet Union in its Great Patriotic War against Germany.
Even as the Philippine-based Owls were consumed in combat, the requirement to provide American aircraft to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease program became ever more urgent. Among the many hundreds of airplanes selected to be sent to a thoroughly ungrateful USSR were 30 Curtiss O-52s. Although obsolete, the Owls were relatively low time—and they were available.
The Alaska-Siberia Lend-Lease air route had not yet been established. Weapons were still being sent to Russia by the hazardous naval convoy system, and 26 O-52s were so dispatched, beginning in November 1941. Five of these arrived in December, and another 14 came in January 1942. Seven were lost in transit, victims of either German submarines, torpedo planes or vicious Arctic weather. The disposition of four of the designated 30 O-52s is unknown. They may have been damaged en route to the ports, or simply abandoned and later scrapped.
The Soviets were tough customers in the Lend-Lease business, always acting as if they had purchased the aircraft they received with hard rubles and demanding that all goods be delivered in first-class shape. However, they were also in desperate need of airplanes. The first O-52s were sent to the 22nd ZAP (Zapasnyi Aviatsionnyi Polk)— a replacement air regiment. The regiment was based at Ivanovo, an air base that trained crews on the Lend-Lease planes and organized new units to fly them.
Since the system had not yet been well organized, the first O-52s arrived without the necessary manuals and documentation, so the Russians did what they do well: improvise. The first Soviet O-52s— variously called Kertes, Oul or Sova (all Russian names for owl)—went to the front on February 7, 1942. Their debut was not exactly glorious.
Two aircraft were assigned to the 50th OKAE (Otdelnaya Korrektirovachnaya Aviationnaya Eskadrilya, or Independent Fire Correction Aviation Squadron), which was tasked with the job for which the O-52 was originally intended: observation work, correcting artillery fire. This squadron, commanded by Major N.A. Kochanovsky, had ancient Polikarpov R-5 and Po-2 biplanes in strength, so the O-52s must have seemed relatively modern. Later it also had a few Hawker Hurricanes, and one can imagine how eagerly the Owl was traded for the Hurricane.
The other O-52s were sent to five operational units in groups of twos and threes, flying observation missions against Finnish and German forces. The 13th, 42nd and 118th OKAE operated on the Karelian Front, while the 12th and 50th OKAE covered the Leningrad Front. Like Major Kochanovsky’s unit, these squadrons were equipped with a mixture of obsolete biplanes. During 1942 they acquired both Hurricanes and Curtiss Kittyhawks for fire-correction duties and to provide protection for the vulnerable O-52s. Later in the war they received modern equipment, including the Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik and Yakovlev Yak-7 and -9 fighters.
The second unit of O-52s to be dispatched to the front made Owl history, albeit largely unrecorded until now. This was the 12th OKAE, commanded by Junior Lt. P.K. Zhilinsky. Equipped with six O-52s, it was the largest user of Owls at the front. The 12th OKAE left for combat on the Leningrad Front on March 29, 1942.
Troubles started immediately, when an O-52 flown by Junior Lt. P.T. Afonichkin crashed on landing, flipping over on its back. Later that same day the almost defenseless O-52s were jumped by a flight of Messerschmitt Me-109s, whose pilots were no doubt puzzled as to the Owl’s identity. Fate and Russian courage almost turned the tide. The detachment commander, Zhilinsky, turned into the attacking Messerschmitts and rammed one. As both aircraft fell to the ground, the German pilot bailed out, to be taken prisoner. Zhilinsky was killed in the crash, but his observer had been thrown clear during the initial collision and parachuted to safety. Thus the rotund Curtiss Owl managed to score a highly improbable kill.
A third O-52 of the 12th OKAE was destroyed before the unit could begin regular operations. The remaining aircraft flew from Sosnovka airfield, doing exactly what the O-52 was designed to do, artillery spotting, photography and occasionally parachuting clandestine operators behind German lines.
It speaks well of the O-52s that given the Russian weather, rough airfields and normal attrition of the time, they were able to remain in service thousands of miles from Curtiss technicians or parts. By the late fall of 1944, the last seven were brought together and assigned to the 5th OFAE (Separate Photography Aviation Squadron), based at Klyazma, near Moscow, then far behind the front lines. Here their mission was aerial reconnaissance, in direct support of the high command. One of these aircraft was written off after a landing accident on May 31, 1945. At least two Owls survived the war and, with Soviet civilian registrations, flew geological survey missions for several years. One aircraft was still working in 1952, no doubt with many Russian parts grafted to the original airframe.
In contrast, by 1945 the O-52 had for the most part been forgotten among the 70,000 aircraft the U.S. Army Air Forces then had on strength. The remaining examples were viewed as antiques. A number managed to survive both the war and the salvage yard, with at least 10 going on the civil register. Three remain in museums today, where visitors can now see them in a new light—as “Messerschmitt killers.”
Contributing Editor Walter J. Boyne would like to thank George Mellinger for uncovering details about the Owl’s WWII service. Further reading: Red Phoenix Rising: The Soviet Air Force in World War II, by Von Hardesty and Ilya Grinberg.
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Aviation History Magazine. To subscribe, click here.