The J.V. Martin 'Kitten': An Airship Interceptor | HistoryNet

The J.V. Martin ‘Kitten’: An Airship Interceptor

6/12/2006 • Aviation History, Gear

Few aviation ‘firsts’ survive scrutiny without an earlier example turning up–often in a bizarre context. A case in point is the J.V. Martin ‘Kitten.’ A remarkable collection of innovative concepts were combined in an airplane that was fundamentally unsound for its avowed purpose.

When the United States entered World War I on April 8, 1917, the U.S. Army Air Service (USAAS) had a lot of technological catching up to do. Airplanes were scarce. Aircraft that could compete over the Western Front were nonexistent. A crash program commenced to mobilize an air arm, both by copying or modifying proven foreign designs and by creating original warplanes.

Amid the flurry of activity, a unique airplane emerged that proved to be in a class by itself. Late in 1918, former merchant marine officer Captain James V. Martin unveiled what he described as a ‘high-altitude fighter.’ Powered by an A.B.C. Gnat engine with two horizontally opposed cylinders generating a puny 45 hp, the little machine was designated the K.III by its creator. But it was also known as the Martin Kitten, a term that gives some insight into what might have inspired Martin to come up with such an unlikely contraption.

At the end of 1916, the British were trying a number of methods for combating the German zeppelins that had been bombing their cities. Hoping to intercept the enemy airships before they could reach England’s shores, the Admiralty set about designing a small fighter capable of taking off from flight platforms mounted on the gun turrets of battleships and cruisers, or even from warships as small as torpedo boats. Toward that end, two different aircraft emerged, from the Royal Naval Air Service Experimental Construction Depot (ECD) at Port Victoria and from the Experimental Flight at Eastchurch. Both were diminutive, lightweight planes, each powered by 35-hp A.B.C. Gnats and armed with a single Lewis machine gun.

The ECD’s design, the P.V.7, was also referred to as the Grain Kitten because of its diminutive size and the fact that it was test-flown from the Isle of Grain. The Experimental Flight’s P.V.8 Eastchurch Kitten was tested at Martlesham Heath. Both the P.V.7 and P.V.8 were flown in October 1917, and both were rejected. Zeppelins were no longer a serious threat by then, and heavier-than-air bombers such as the Gotha G.IV and Zeppelin-Staaken R.VI were taking their place in the skies over Britain.

On March 13, 1918, an official instruction arrived at the Isle of Grain. It called for the P.V.8 Eastchurch Kitten to be dismantled and shipped to the United States for evaluation. There is no confirmation that it was ever sent across the Atlantic, but evidently some Americans had taken an interest in the ultralight interceptor. James V. Martin was one of them.

Little is actually known about Martin’s background, other than that he served as a merchant ship’s captain for about two years prior to tinkering with flight. In 1916, he applied to the United States Patent Office for, among other things, a retractable landing gear mechanism and a K-shaped interplane strut. He talked his way into a job at McCook Airfield early in 1918, but he is alleged to have distinguished himself there mainly by his maliciousness and dishonesty.

The basic concept behind Martin’s Kitten was clearly the same as that of its British counterparts–a small, lightweight, low-powered airship interceptor. In contrast to the structurally conventional Grain and Eastchurch Kittens, however, Martin got somewhat more creative with the K.III–most notably by giving it semiretractable landing gear.

Retractable landing gear was by no means unheard of in World War I. In 1916, a German designer, Oskar Ursinus, designed an experimental seaplane fighter whose twin floats could be drawn up flush with the bottom of the fuselage. The U.S. Patent Office recorded its first application for a retracting mechanism on November 3, 1911, from one F. McCarroll. His patent, issued on November 7, 1915, was the first of a dozen such patents issued between 1911 and November 1918.

James Martin filed for his first retractable landing gear patent, No. 1,306,768, in June 1916, and it was issued three years later. He applied for a second patent, No. 1,418,008, on November 14, 1918, which was issued on May 30, 1922.

Through a simple system of cables and pulleys, the undercarriage retracted directly backward and up. It drew the upper half of the spoked wheels into semicircular fairings alongside the fuselage, with a pair of underwing fairings behind the exposed part of the wheels for additional streamlining. The lower half of the wheels protruded underneath the plane. The patent examiner noted that the plane ‘may land with gear only partly extended.’

Martin’s was one of the few–if not the only–aircraft to feature retractable landing gear during World War I. One reason that retractable undercarriages were not more widespread at that time–or in the 1920s and 1930s, for that matter–was because the added weight of the retracting mechanism cancelled out the benefits of drag reduction. The K.III’s wing structure was comprised of one set of Martin’s novel K-shaped interplane struts plus two cabane struts attached to the front wing spar. A third cabane strut was fixed to the middle of the upper wing’s rear spar; it slanted downward and backward into the small headrest behind the cockpit. Ailerons were externally pivoted in the middle of the upper wings, which (excluding the ailerons) were shorter in span than the lower wings. Even with the protruding ailerons, the wingspan was only 20 feet 3 inches. The K.III’s fuselage, at 13 feet 4 inches, was even shorter than that of the Grain Kitten.

Retractable landing gear was not the only innovation that Martin saw fit to install in his Kitten. In anticipation of high-altitude combat, he fitted it with an oxygen cylinder and an electrical outlet into which the pilot could plug a special heated flying suit. Curiously, though, Martin never got around to installing any armament.

The airplane had a gross weight of 582 pounds, which was hauled around by a 45-hp engine. Martin’s performance expectations for his Kitten were singularly optimistic. He projected a top speed of 135 mph at ground level, 112 mph at 10,000 feet, and 97 mph at 25,000 feet. He also expected to upgrade the plane later with a 60-hp engine that would endow it with a speed of 145 mph at 10,000 feet.

It was not until December 1918, after the armistice had been signed and World War I concluded, that the K.III arrived at McCook Field for testing. The U.S. Army promptly rejected it as structurally unsound and refused to test-fly it until it was strengthened. When Martin flatly refused to allow any changes to be made on his original design, the Army dropped the K.III from consideration.

In January 1919, about a month after the K.III’s appearance at McCook Field, Martin delivered another design–a three-seat biplane bomber with a wingspan of 96 feet 3 inches, a length of 49 feet and a gross weight of 12,000 pounds. The bomber, which used the same K-shaped interplane struts as the Kitten, was ground tested with 400-hp Liberty engines, but it was never test-flown for the same reason the K.III wasn’t–the Army considered it structurally too weak to trust in the air.

Martin reacted by taking his case to Congress. Touting the exaggerated virtues of his fighter and bomber designs, he insisted that he had been unfairly treated by the Army. He managed to spark a congressional investigation in the 1920s, but it ultimately moved him no closer to having his strange planes test-flown, let alone accepted.

The Army soon lost its affection for the Kittens, but Martin subsequently went to the Navy to propose another of his designs–the K.IV, a less fragile-looking version of his original K.III. The K.IV’s fuselage looked similar to that of the K.III, but was longer (17 feet) and deeper, allowing the upper wing to be fixed to it directly, without cabane struts. The wings themselves had an equal span of 24 feet 2 inches, with conventional ailerons plus two sets of K-shaped interplane struts each. Empty weight was 686 pounds, and gross weight was 980 pounds. The plane had the advantage of more power, courtesy of a 60-hp, three-cylinder Lawrence L-3 engine.

The Navy ended up purchasing three of Martin’s K.IVs in 1921–the closest he ever came to successfully marketing one of his designs–and gave them serial numbers A-5840 through A-5842.

Whether or not the K.IVs were to have used Martin’s semiretractable landing gear is a moot point, for the Navy operated them as seaplanes. They each were fitted with a large central float and two smaller ones mounted underneath the outer set of interplane struts. Redesignated KF-1s (for Kitten floatplanes), they had a top speed of 98 mph, could climb to 5,000 feet in 12 minutes and had a service ceiling of 11,400 feet–hardly enough to intimidate a zeppelin, but adequate for leisurely scouting duties in a peacetime Navy.

Incredibly–considering the less than amiable circumstances of its rejection–the original K.III somehow survived the decades. It can currently be seen hanging from a hangar ceiling at the Paul E. Garber facility in Silver Spring, Md.

Few people besides hard-core aviation aficionados remember James V. Martin. It could have been otherwise, and his name might have been associated with several features that were ahead of their time…if only he had come up with a better vehicle on which to install them.

This article was written by Jon Guttman and originally published in the March 1996 issue of Aviation History. For more great articles subscribe to Aviation History magazine today!

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