Remembering the P-47 Thunderbolt

Where to start? Perhaps with what most people thought when they first saw it: It's Big! Bigger than any fighter plane in the war flown by Allied or Axis air forces. The British looked at it and thought it was a beast compared to the petit Spitfire and were reluctant to take possession of this "gift" from across the pond. American pilots who had volunteered for the RAF felt the same way. The Germans had the Spitfire sized Messerschmitt, the Japanese the nimble Zero. Even in the judgment of those who designed the P-47, Russian immigrants Alexander De Seversky and Alexander Kartveli, it was "too big".

It was fast. Faster than anything at the time of its introduction and long thereafter — rated on a level course at 430 mph. The P-47 was especially fast when in a dive (remember, it was "big") flying well into the 500 mph range, sometimes encountering severe handling problems. This advantage of speed resulted in the dog fight tactic of "bouncing" an opponent by flying at altitude in order to be able to dive down very quickly when attacking… and then get out in a hurry. Then again, "bouncing" may have been a good idea if your plane, because it was... well... big, didn't want to dance through the skies like those of the smaller opponents. Maybe it was both reasons! Never the less, it was fast.

It was rugged. It could take a pounding and still get back to the base with an alive pilot in the cockpit. A member of the 406th reported that he had once counted 60 plus holes in a P-47 just returned from a mission. Its size and strength were meant to help withstand the abuses of flack, flying objects from targets and the harsh conditions of ruffed-out airfields. The Pratt and Whitney radial engine especially was a rugged customer that could take a hit, lose a few moving parts and get the pilot home without fear of losing coolant. A good plane to belly land in if you had to.

They called it the "Jug" because that's what it looked like — albeit a very large jug. It was designed for high altitude flying-and did well when used in that way. Often we forget that the Thunderbolt is credited with shooting down more enemy aircraft than any other Allied fighter plane during World War II.

But it is as a ground support fighter that finds the P-47 carving its name in to history. In many respects it paved the way for the success that tactical air power enjoyed as the war evolved. Few had figured on the Thunderbolt becoming a platform for various weapons with good hauling capacity to boot. The notion of a "platform" was just then being figured out and the Thunderbolt was the best example the Americans had.

Why? First, as noted it was big, strong and rugged. Next, it was a good handling plane that could fly fast even at low altitudes and in general was user friendly. Unlike many of its contempories, it carried not six but eight, not 30 but 50 caliber machineguns that seemed to be laid out just right. It's been said that for those on the ground, you unfortunately could tell the difference that the eight guns firing-verse six- bought to bear.

It was also an ideal rocket launching platform-steadily flying where the pilot aimed it. The 406th's 513th Fighter Squadron was the first American unit to use rockets during the war. Finally, it could carry an array of bombs including two 500 pounders. It also made effective use of napalm when it came along.

The Republic Aircraft Company made, or had licensed others to make, over 15,000 P-47 Thunderbolts. There were many variations but most of us, when we remember the Thunderbolt, are thinking of the P-47D as it was the model most highly produced. Interestingly, the "D" was made both in a "Razorback" and later "Bubbletop" configuration. The Bubbletop was preferred by pilots because of the excellent visibility, but the older designed Razorback might have been just a tad faster.

Like automobiles, refrigerators, toasters and most consumer products of the era, the P-47 Thunderbolt exhibited Streamline Design styling-as opposed to the Art Deco (Spirit of St Louis) that came before it or Modern (P-51 Mustang) that came after it. Military airplane designers don't sit down at what was then a drafting table and purposely interpose a styling motif to an aircraft. But commercial styling seems to find its way on to the drawings anyway. There is no denying the Teardrop/Streamline look of the Thunderbolt... from its fat oblong cowl to the sleek tip of its tail!

It wasn't perfect. Resting on its tail wheel while taxiing meant that the pilot could not see where he was going. The cockpit, unlike British, German or Japanese fighter planes, was full of instrumentation and tasks to perform. Just under the seat was located a fuel tank…a good reason not to catch on fire. Mostly criticized was its relatively short operational range. This was due to its size and use of a large radial engine as opposed to a less powerful and fuel consuming inline water-cooled engine such as the Merlin. And some thought it wasn't very pretty — though this complaint is not usually considered a factor during a time of war!

When that war ended, thousands of P-47's abruptly disappeared…destroyed rather than being shipped home. Photographs show several 406th planes being pushed into a German gully to be disabled and then plowed over. From heavyweight champ to the trash heap in just months. Some survived to serve in the National Guard while many others found their way to South and Central America and were on active duty into the 60's. Many of the few Thunderbolts seen today are repatriated gate guardians from the Southern Hemisphere.

The pilots of the 406th Fighter Group who flew the P-47 swear by them. Why not: They helped them win the war and then brought them home safely. The 406th Fighter Group mechanics, crew chiefs and ground personnel who actually made the Thunderbolts fly held the machine and its engineering standards in the highest regard as it was eminently fixable. It was, after all, a most marvelous airplane.