The concept of the general-purpose fighter—a long-range, heavily armed airplane capable of achieving air superiority while at the same time shouldering other tasks such as bombing and reconnaissance—came into vogue with the development of the twin-engine Polish PZL P.38 Wilk (wolf) in 1934. Over the next few years, that design would inspire a variety of twin-engine fighter designs in other countries, such as the French Potez 63 series, the German Messerschmitt Bf-110, the British Westland Whirlwind, the Dutch Fokker G.I, the American Bell FM-1 and Lockheed P-38 Lightning, and the Japanese Kawasaki Ki.45 Toryu (dragon slayer). The Italians also produced a single-engine, single-seat combination fighter and attack plane—the Breda Ba.64 and Ba.65—although it was soon relegated to ground attack only, and did poorly even in that role.
If the versatility of a multirole fighter was attractive to the major powers, it was even more so to small or intermediate powers such as the Netherlands and Belgium, offering the prospect of wringing more usefulness per airplane from their limited defense budgets. Presumably that was the rationale behind the Belgian LACAB GR.8, which was intended to combine roles that few other countries would have considered reconcilable: those of long-range bomber, long-range reconnaissance plane and heavy fighter.
Built by Les Ateliers de Constructions Aéronautiques Belges, the LACAB GR.8 owed less in concept to the PZL P.38 Wilk of 1934 than it did to the twin-engine, three-seat French Caudron R.11.A3 reconnaissance plane of 1917, a flying fortress of its day that carried as many as five machine guns and was regularly—and successfully—used as an escort fighter to accompany bombers. Although its fuselage had a welded steel tube frame covered with plywood and fabric, and the crew sat within glazed canopies, the GR.8 otherwise differed little from the World War I design: a biplane that had wooden two-spar wings of unequal span and with a slight forward stagger. To achieve the speed necessary to perform its tasks, the GR.8 relied on two 780-hp 14-cylinder Gnôme-Rhône Mistral 14Kdrs radial engines, mounted on sturdy streamlined struts between the wings, which extended directly to the spatted landing gear. Wingspan was 59 feet 2⁄3 inch, wing area was 699.66 square feet, the fuselage was 44 feet 11⁄2 inches long and height was 13 feet 71⁄3 inches.
Six 7.62mm Browning machine guns were distributed, two each, in manually operated nose and rear dorsal turrets, as well as in an electrically operated rear ventral position. The plane had an empty weight of 7,496 pounds, and it could carry a maximum bombload of 1,764 pounds, with a fully loaded weight of 11,464 pounds.
In addition to the turrets, French influence of the late 1920s to mid-1930s could be seen in the GR.8’s nose glazing, which had two panels for forward observation and for a bombardier, as well as extra side panels ahead of the pilot’s cockpit canopy. Jutting out before and above all of that was the front gun turret, set at a slightly forward slant to allow its occupant to add his guns to the rear gunner’s against an assailant coming from above and behind. The resulting overall arrangement may have been functional enough, but it was far from aerodynamic, and like its French bomber contemporaries, the GR.8 was a rather ugly contraption.
Upon completion, the GR.8 prototype first flew on February 22, 1936, and after seeing a demonstration flight on May 14, the Aéronautique Militaire Belge accepted it for official flight-testing and evaluation on June 2. During those test flights, the aircraft demonstrated a maximum speed of 180 mph at sea level and 224 mph at 13,125 feet. The GR.8 took seven minutes to climb to 13,125 feet; its absolute ceiling was 28,870 feet, and its range was 621 miles. Unofficially dubbed the Doryphore by its crews in reference to a species of beetle, the aircraft was manifestly obsolescent by the time it first flew, but test flights proceeded at a leisurely pace until April 4, 1938, when it suffered a landing accident that wrecked the undercarriage and both starboard wings, and also damaged the rear fuselage.
That should have been the end of the story, but the Aéronautique Militaire contracted with the Société Anonyme Belge de Constructions Aéronautiques to repair the GR.8, although it does not seem to have resumed testing once the plane was restored to airworthiness. The Doryphore’s reprieve can apparently be attributed to the Spanish Civil War, during which the Republican government, desperate for anything that could fly and fight, offered to buy the plane. The deal fell through, however, when the Republic was finally lost to the Nationalist forces under General Francisco Franco y Bahamonde in April 1939. That left Belgium once more in possession of its obsolescent aerial jack-of-all-trades—and still uncertain what to do with it.
By 1940, the GR.8 was sitting in a hangar at Evère, while the Belgian air arm was either considering the possibility of adapting it to another useful role or forgetting about it entirely. The issue became moot on May 10, 1940, when Belgium’s rearmament program ran out of time. On that day the Germans, who had violated Belgian neutrality in 1914, repeated history with a vengeance as the Luftwaffe caught and destroyed most of Belgium’s aircraft—few of which could be called up-to-date—on the ground. Among the targets of devastating German airstrikes was Evère. When they occupied Evère shortly afterward, German soldiers found the Doryphore, standing forlorn inside its hangar, recognizable but unflyable. The Germans took a photograph or two of the curious monstrosity for posterity and then did what the Belgians had not seen fit to do—they scrapped it.
Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.