In the fall of 1937, the Technical Department of the German Air Ministry decided to develop a replacement for the Messerschmitt 109. At the end of the year, after discussions with Focke-Wulf’s chief designer Kurt Tank, the Air Ministry awarded a contract to the company. The Ministry specified the need for a fighter whose performance would be significantly better than that of both the 109 and the British Spitfire.
Tank realized that he would require the most powerful engine available to him, and this requirement clearly pointed him toward the 18-cylinder, two-row radial BMW 139, which offered 325 more horsepower than its nearest rival, the 12-cylinder, in-line, liquid-cooled DB 601. This decision surprised
Luftwaffe officials but was accepted because of the uncertainty of the future supply of the Daimler-Benz engine (which had previously been projected as the powerplant for the 109 fighter, the twin-engine Me 110, Arado 240 fighter, and several other combat aircraft).
The Focke-Wulf design team began with certain definite ideas: They would need a strong, wide-track landing gear, both to with stand the vertical velocity required of the new fighter/bomber and also to avoid the severe directional control problems that plagued the 109 during takeoffs and landings. Tank also declared that when he was a soldier in WW I, he had learned that military equipment must be simple, robust, reliable, and easy to maintain. He was determined to apply those standards to the new aircraft—designation “FW 190.”
It is interesting that Tank, who was also a director of Focke-Wulf, was a famous test pilot of his aircraft during WW II. Throughout this article, you’ll notice where his understanding of the real-life requirements of hard-pressed combat pilots produced superior designs of cockpits, visibility from the cockpit, landing gear, control harmonies, and automatic systems—to name just a few areas in which he excelled. With all of his designs, his test-pilot experience allowed him to work toward the reduction of the combat pilot’s load as far as possible.
Powered by a fan-cooled 1,550hp BMW 139, the prototype’s first flight took place at Bremen airfield on June 1, 1939. It had a special ducted spinner to reduce drag, but its engine was soon found to be prone to overheating, so the ducted spinner was replaced by a new—and unique—snugly fitting NACA cowl with a cooling fan geared to the propeller in the front of the cowl. BMW was already test-running a new engine—the 14-cylinder BMW 801—that was some 20 inches (50cm) longer, and 180 pounds heavier, and produced 100hp more than the BMW 139. At this point, Focke- Wulf decided to concentrate on this newer engine.
The installation of the BMW 801 required some considerable modifications to the FW 190’s basic airframe. The cockpit had to be moved farther aft to compensate for the forward shift in the center of gravity. Although this shrank the cockpit, it provided more space up front for fuselage armament. The increase in weight also had to be compensated for by an increase in wingspan and wing area. This change cost only a 6mph (10km/h) loss in speed, but it improved the rate of climb and reduced the turning circle. After successful flights at Rechlin Test Center, the German Air Ministry ordered 100 production FW 190A-1s.
The FW 190A-1 was a small, low-wing monoplane powered by a 1,660hp BMW 801C-1 radial neatly faired into its slim fuselage, and its extensively glazed cockpit canopy afforded an excellent all-around view. The aircraft was built of metal, had a stressed Duralumin skin, and was armed with four .30-caliber (7.9mm) machine guns. It was introduced to full-squadron service in March 1941, and on September 27, it clashed with Spitfire Vs for the first time and showed its superiority in all respects except turning combat.
In January 1942, the FW 190A-2 became operational with the improved BMW 801C-2 engine, two .30-caliber (7.9mm) machine guns cowled above the engine, and two 20mm cannon in the wing roots. Two more .30-caliber (7.9mm) machine guns were often carried in the outboard wing panels.
The first major production variant was the A-3; it was powered by the 1,700hp BMW 801D-2, and the 20mm MG FF cannon that had been in the wing root was replaced by the much faster firing MG 151/20mm cannon, which was moved outboard of the propeller arc. The pilot had more armor protection, and the cockpit canopy could be jettisoned while in flight with the aid of explosive bolts. The A-3 was a multipurpose aircraft and was produced in fighter, fighter/ bomber, reconnaissance, torpedo/bomber, and ground-attack variants. It entered service in March 1942, by which time more than 250 FW 190s were being produced monthly. From October 1942 to March 1943, 72 A-3s were handed over to Turkey.
As the FW 190 consolidated its superiority over its Royal Air Force (RAF) contemporaries, the morale of Spitfire V squadron pilots was inevitably affected. The British Air Ministry’s concern about the situation soon bordered on desperation, and it planned a commando raid on a Luftwaffe fighter base in France to hijack a FW 190. Then fortune favored the Allies when, at 2035 hours on June 23, 1942, a Luftwaffe pilot—after a brief encounter with Spitfires over the English Channel—became disoriented and landed his FW 190A-3 at RAF Pembrey in South Wales and not on what he assumed was a German airfield on the Cherbourg peninsula. Owing to the RAF Air Traffic Control’s smart thinking, the pilot was left undisturbed to taxi in and stop his engine before a controller leapt onto the FW’s wing and held a flare pistol to his head. Unbelievably, an intact example of the enemy’s latest fighter was in RAF hands.
The A-3 was transported to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough, where both the airframe and the engine were dismantled and thoroughly analyzed before being reassembled for 10 days of flight testing, starting on July 3. The flight tests confirmed that the FW 190 was a truly outstanding combat aircraft with a very high rate of roll and impressive acceleration in the dive. Its Achilles’ heel was in its violent accelerated stall that could lead to a spin if it tried to outturn the Spitfire. The tests also revealed that, above 25,000 feet, the newer Spitfire IX could outperform the FW 190. This information was, of course, rapidly transmitted to all Allied operational fighter units; it was evident that the FW 190 pilots preferred to fight by climbing and diving while the Allied fighters were well advised to stick to level turning combat.
In late summer 1942, the FW 190A-4 appeared equipped with the MW-50 water/ methanol injection system that could boost the BMW 801D-2 engine to 2,100hp for short periods. This was two years before production U.S. fighters had water-injection systems. This variant also had better radio equipment, which necessitated the installation of a short radio mast on top of the fin.
My Flight Testing of the FW 190A-4 Begins
In the months of April, May, and June 1943, during night operations, three more FW 190A-4s landed at airfields in southeast England, and it was in one of these that I did most of the flight testing of this type at RAE Farnborough. I clearly recall the excitement with which I first examined Kurt Tank’s masterpiece, which he himself called the
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