THE REPUBLIC P-47 THUNDERBOLT
By Chuck Hawks and Rip Collins
My article "The Best Fighter Planes of World War II" has attracted more than its share of e-mail from readers. A significant part of that mail has suggested that I should have included the P-47 Thunderbolt instead of, or in addition to, the P-51 Mustang. One of those correspondents was Rip Collins, a WW II fighter pilot who flew both the Mustang and the Thunderbolt and made a strong case for the latter. Rip and I corresponded back and forth and the result is this article.
I (Chuck Hawks) volunteered to write the introduction, a brief history of the most significant P-47 variants and research the basic specifications. Rip will provide the insight only a pilot who actually flew this great fighter in combat can provide, as well as explain why he feels the "Jug" (short for "Juggernaut," which is what many pilots called the P-47) was the best American fighter plane of WW II.
The specifications quoted throughout this article for the various P-47 models are taken from two books. One is The Fighter Aircraft Pocketbook by Roy Cross, and the other is The Complete Book of Fighters by William Green and Gordon Swanborough. Both are listed in the Bibliography on my Naval & Military History Page. Please note that specifications from different sources are rarely identical, so cut me a little slack if your favorite reference quotes different numbers.
The Republic Aviation Corporation (previously Seversky Aircraft Corp.) had successfully designed and built the P-35 fighter for the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1937 and the EP-1 for the Swedish Air Force (known as the P-35A in the USAAC) in 1939. Chief engineer Alexander Kartveli followed these successes with the P-43 Lancer of 1940, which incorporated a turbo supercharger for its 1200 hp Pratt & Whitney radial engine, and the similar P-44, with a 1400 hp radial engine. The latter was overtaken by the advent of an entirely new fighter that became the P-47 and was never produced, but about 272 P-43's were built between September 1940 and April 1942. Fifty-one of these P-43's were supplied to China under the Lend-Lease program.
Although the P-43A was a high performance airplane for its day, with a top speed of 356 mph at 20,000 feet, it was to be overshadowed by Alexander Kartveli's subsequent classic, the great P-47 Thunderbolt. The P-47 became one of the premier fighters of its day.
The first "P-47" models were the XP-47 (AP-4) and the XP-47A (AP-10) of 1940. These were lightweight fighter projects contracted by the USAAC, bearing no real resemblance to the later Thunderbolt. Both were canceled after studying combat reports from Europe, where the war had already begun. Instead, a new heavy fighter was designed; this was designated the XP-47B.
The XP-47B was designed around the 2,000 hp Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp 18-cylinder radial with a very large turbo supercharger and a big three-bladed propeller. The armament was eight .50 caliber machine guns, four in each wing. The new fighter flew for the first time in May 1941. Because of its large radial engine and the turbo supercharger with its ducting, the P-47 was one of the largest single engine fighters built during WW II.
The U.S. government ordered 171 P-47B's, and 602 improved P-47C's. The first P-47B was completed in March 1942 and entered combat in April 1943 with the 78th Fighter Group of the 8th Air Force. From that time on, the Thunderbolt began to change the history of the war in the air in favor of the Americans.
Robert S. Johnson and Martin Caidin collaborated on Johnson's memoirs, which dealt intimately with the P-47. Their book is aptly titled Thunderbolt and tells the story of the famous 56th Fighter Group. Johnson was one of the top U.S. aces of the war, with 28 victories, all flying the P-47. He was sent to Europe to fly and fight in January 1943, and returned home in the middle of 1944 as the leading American ace. The 56th Fighter Group, which included legendary aces like Johnson, Zemke and Gabreski, shot down 1006 German aircraft against the loss of only 128 P-47's, a kill ratio of 8 to 1 against the stiffest competition in the world at that time.
The P-47B and C models were fine high altitude fighters. The P-47B had a top speed of 406 mph at 27,000 ft., an excellent rate of roll and could dive like a stone. The Thunderbolt had great survivability; it could absorb a lot of punishment and still get home. The best climb rate was unimpressive, however, at only 1,650 ft./min at SL
By early 1943 the P-47D was coming off the production lines. The P-47D was produced in higher quantity than any other model and in many variations. Early "D" models were similar to the previous "C" model, with only detail improvements, but as production progressed the "D" model continued to be improved. Republic built a total of 12,602 P-47D's. In addition, Curtis-Wright built 354 P-47D's under license as the P-47G.
P47D-6-RE to P-47D-11-RE models came with an under fuselage shackle for a 500 lb. bomb or a drop tank. Subsequent models, up to the P-47D-20-RE, had strengthened wings with under wing pylons and were able to carry a 1,000-pound bomb under each wing.
The "universal wing," which could carry a variety of stores, was introduced with the P-47D-20-RE. A large four-bladed "paddle" propeller was also fitted. This, along with the water-injection R-2800-21 engine that had a war emergency rating of 2,300 hp, markedly improved the maximum rate of climb, which increased to 2,750 ft./min. at 5,000 ft.
The P-47D-25-RE and subsequent models had a cut down rear fuselage and a teardrop canopy, adapted from the British Typhoon fighter. Internal fuel capacity was also increased. The R-2800-59 engine had a war emergency rating of 2,535 hp. Climb rate was now up to 3,120 ft./min., and top speed was 426 mph at 30,000 ft. The Thunderbolt had basically reached full flower.
The next variant to achieve series production was the P-47M. This was called the "sprint" model. It was a response to the jet powered German V-1 "Buzz Bomb" cruise missile and the German jet fighters. It had an up-rated R-2800-57(C) engine and CH-5 turbocharger system, which gave a top speed of 470 mph at 30,000 ft. Initial climb was 3,500 ft./min. Delivered beginning in December 1944, 130 were produced.
The last P-47 variant to achieve series production was the P-47N. This model was designed specifically for the pacific theatre, where very long range was a requirement. The "N" initially used the same engine as the "M"; late production models received the P-2800-77 engine. A new, stronger, wing with squared tips was designed, which incorporated eight internal fuel cells. The landing gear was strengthened to deal with the increased weight of the aircraft. From the P-47N-5-RE model on, zero length rocket launchers were added beneath the wings.
Habitability improvements included an automatic pilot, an armchair seat and folding rudder pedals to give the pilot increased leg room. These improvements were intended to increase the pilot's comfort on long escort missions.
Maximum speed was 467 mph at 32,500 ft. Initial climb was 2,770 ft./min. and the range on maximum internal fuel was 2,350 miles. The P-47N saw extensive use in the last months of the Pacific War, as it had the range to escort the B-29s all the way from Saipan to Japan. Between December 1944 and December 1945 a total of 1,816 P-47N's were manufactured.
A total of 15,683 P-47 Thunderbolts of all types were built before production ceased at the end of 1945. 9,087 were completed at the Farmingdale, New York plant and 6,242 at the Evansville, Indiana plant. The Curtiss plant at Buffalo, New York produced 354 Thunderbolts under license.
More Thunderbolts were produced than any other USAAF fighter. (The P-51 was second with 15,386 produced; the P-40 was third with an even 15,000 produced; the P-38 was fourth with 10,037 produced.) In addition to the USAAF, during WW II P-47's were sold or supplied to Brazil, Free France, Mexico, the UK and the USSR. After the war, surplus P-47's were operated by the Air Forces of Bolivia, Chile, China, Columbia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Honduras, Iran, Italy, Nicaragua, Peru, Portugal, Turkey, Venezuela and Yugoslavia.
Specifications for the P-47D-35-RA, taken from The Complete Book of Fighters, are as follows.
Max speed, 426 mph at 30,000 ft.
Max initial climb, 3,120 ft./min.
Range (with max internal fuel), 1,800 miles at 195 mph at 10,000 ft.
Armament, eight-.50 caliber machine guns, plus up to 1,500 lb. of bombs.
Empty weight, 10,000 lb.
Max loaded weight, 17,500 lb.
Wingspan, 40 ft. 9.75 in.
Length, 36 ft. 1.75 in.
Height, 14 ft. 1.75 in.
Wing area, 300-sq. ft.
It will never be possible to definitively settle the debate as to which of the top three USAAF fighters was the best. For one thing, it depends on what you mean by "best." The Lockheed P-38, Republic P-47 and North American P-51 were all very good fighters. All three were versatile, had good range and were deadly in air to air combat. The P-47 and P-38, in particular, had good survivability compared to most Axis fighters. The P-47 had a reputation for extreme ruggedness and the P-38 offered twin engine reliability for long flights. My father, an aeronautical engineer in the USAAF during the war, once told me that the United States had produced three great land-based fighters in WW II, any one of which was capable of winning the air war. He was referring to the P-38, the P-47 and the P-51.
Top scoring American aces flew all three aircraft. Pilots who were faithfully served by one or the other of these fine aircraft tend to regard their particular plane as the best, as is natural.
Now read Rip Collins' words. Rip (back then Lieutenant Collins) was a WW II fighter pilot from the class of 44-C, Aloe Field, Victoria, Texas. Rip was assigned to the 40th Fighter Squadron, a Squadron in the 35th Fighter Group, Fifth Air Force, FEAF (Far Easr Air Forces) in the Pacific.
Rip flew both the P-47 and P-51 in combat in the Pacific. He is a big fan of the P-47 and took me to task for choosing the P-51 over the P-47 in my article "Best Fighter Planes of WW II." In that he is not alone, but he was the only correspondent who actually flew both in combat, so his words carry a lot of weight.
At one point, Rip wrote that he could give me a dozen reasons why the P-47 was superior to the P-51. Naturally, I asked him to do just that. After reading his reasons, I asked him if I could use his material (with credit) in an article about the P-47 and he kindly consented. From now on you are reading Rip's words.
For sure, fighter pilots are a different cut of guys. I guess we got spoiled because we were considered the "cream of the crop." In most cases, not all, but most, if you were going into the USAAC, USAAF, USAF, or whatever name it was called at the time, the majority of us young bucks wanted fighters (1055) and not multiengine (bombers, transports, surveillance, rescue, etc.). I've seen the disappointment at "wash out" time, when the primary and basic flight instruction group was split up prior to advanced training. The men that couldn't cut it went on to multiengine advanced training bases, while the "cream" went on to single engine bases to fly the AT-6 Texan (advanced fighter trainer).
It is not unusual to favor your own aircraft. In fact, it is a bit common. We probably all look at this in a different way, and in a different light. And if you didn't get to fly both the Jug and the Mustang, you were at a decided disadvantage. Here are my dozen reasons why the T-bolt was the superior fighter of the two.
1. The Republic Thunderbolt had a radial engine that could take hits and keep on running. I know of an actual case where a Jug brought a pilot back from Borneo after 8 hours in the air. The pilot landed with the master cylinder and three other cylinders blown out of commission. But the Jug kept chugging along, running well enough to bring its pilot back safely to his base at Morotai. I was there.
2. The Jug's radial engine was air cooled, instead of liquid cooled with a radiator system, like the Mustang's V-12. This is significant because one small caliber hit on an aluminum cooling line in a Mustang would let the coolant leak out, and when the coolant was gone, the engine seized, and the show was over.
I took a small caliber hit in a coolant tube over Formosa (Taiwan). When I landed back at base, my crew chief said, "Lieutenant, did you know you got hit?" I replied, "No." He continued, "You took a small caliber shell in the coolant tube on the right side of the engine. I'd give you between 10 and 15 minutes flying time remaining." I had just flown from Formosa, over nothing but the Pacific Ocean, to our fighter strip on Okinawa.
3. The P-47 could fly higher than the P-51. With its huge turbocharger, it could climb to over 40,000 feet. You could just look down at your enemy in a stall and smile.
4. The Jug could out dive the Mustang. As a matter of fact, it could out dive any enemy fighter, and at 7.5 tons loaded, it dove fast! I have personally been in a dive at what we called the "state of compressibility," at nearly 700 mph indicated air speed. I was scared to death, but with a tiny bit of throttle, I pulled it out at about 2,000-foot altitude, literally screaming through the sky.
5. The Thunderbolt had eight .50's. The Mustang had six. That's 33 1/3% more firepower. This made a major difference.
6. The later model Thunderbolt's could carry and deliver 2,500 pounds of bombs. (One 1,000-lb. bomb on each wing, and one 500 lb. bomb under the belly.) This was a maximum load and you had to use water injection to get airborne. But it would do this with sufficient runway. I have done this myself.
In addition to being a first class fighter, it was also a superb fighter-bomber and ground level strafer. Jugs practically wiped out the German and Italian railroads. I have strafed Japanese trains, troops, ships, gunboats, warships, airfields, ammo dumps, hangers, antiaircraft installations, you name it. I felt secure in my P-47.
7. The P-47 was larger and much stronger, in case of a crash landing. The Jug was built like a machined tool. Mustangs had a lot of sheet metal stamped out parts, and were more lightweight in construction. One example was the throttle arm. You can see the difference. What does all this mean? The safety of the fighter pilot.
8. The Thunderbolt had no "scoop" under the bottom. You can imagine what happens during a crash landing if your wheels would not come down (due to damage or mechanical trouble). On landing, it could make the P-51 nose over in the dirt as the scoop drags into the earth. In water (and I flew over the Pacific Ocean most of my 92 combat missions), it could cause trouble in a crash landing because the air scoop would be the first part of the aircraft to hit the water. Instead of a smooth belly landing, anything might happen.
9. The Thunderbolt had a much larger, roomier cockpit. You were comfortable in the big Jug cockpit. In my Mustang, my shoulders almost scraped the sides on the right and left. I was cramped in with all my "gear." I could not move around like I could in the P-47. I found the ability to move a little bit very desirable, especially on seven and eight hour missions.
10. The Mustang went from 1,150-horse power Allison engines to the Packard built Rolls-Royce Merlin engine that had 1,590 hp. The Thunderbolt started out with a 2,000 hp Pratt & Whitney engine, and ended up with 2,800 war emergency hp with water injection. That's close to twice the power.
11. The Jug had a very wide landing gear. This made it easy to land just about anywhere, with no tendency to ground loop. Many times we had to land on rice paddies and irregular ground. When you set the Thunderbolt down, it was down. In the Far East, England, Africa, and Italy, this helped you get down and walk away from it. To me, that was very important for the safety of the pilot.
12. The Jug's record against all opposing aircraft is remarkable. The ratio of kills to losses was unmistakably a winner. Thunderbolt pilots destroyed a total of 11,874 enemy aircraft, over 9,000 trains, and 160,000 vehicles.
The big factor, above all else, it saved pilots in great numbers. Ask most fighter pilots who flew both in active combat and they will tell you that, given a choice to fly either one in combat, it would be the Juggernaut hands down.
Now, one last thing: the P-51 Mustang was a superb fighter. I am fully aware of that! However, considering that I flew about every kind of mission the Pentagon could dream up, and a few they didn't know about, I will rate that eight tons of destruction first as long as I live, and no one can change my mind. Simply walk up to one of them and see for yourself.
The dictionary defines "juggernaut" as: "any large, overpowering, destructive force or object." That was the P-47 of World War II.
Copyright 2000, 2018 by Chuck Hawks and Rip Collins. All rights reserved.