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Naval Air Supremacy and the Development of the Brewster Buffalo

Malcolm LeCompte makes the following comments on the Brewster fighter in the Winter 1996 issue of the Journal of the American Aviation Historic Society:

"[T]here were a small number of pilots who achieved notable success with the Buffalo and who might argue that the Buffalo was, in reality, a revolutionary aircraft which narrowly missed an opportunity for greatness."

"Predating the Zero and the Hellcat, the U.S. Navy's Brewster Buffalo was a Naval fighter noteworthy for both its revolutionary nature and its relative obscurity. In fact, the Buffalo was the first modern, carrier-based fighter and the first fighter of any type whose range, speed, firepower, and agility made it a truly potent offensive weapon system."

"[T]here was a brief moment in time, at the beginning of World War II, when its appearance as a carrier-based fighter might have been decisive. It is even possible that the Buffalo, properly employed at the correct time and place, might have forestalled the conflagration that eventually engulfed the world."

"While such features were becoming standard on many modern fighter designs, they represented a quantum leap in capability and performance for carrier-based machines. What's more, the range of the production model F2A-1 was almost doubt that of its land-based contemporaries. With 160 gallons of fuel this muscular bantamweight had a range of over a thousand miles."

"It is ironic that the first Buffaloes were arriving in Finland at a time and only a few hundred miles removed from a place [Norway] where, as carrier-based fighters, they might have rewritten history."

"Throughout April and May [1940], Royal Navy carriers tried in vain to provide air support to Allied forces [in Norway]. The virtually unchallenged Luftwaffe forced the Allies to abandon plans to capture Trondheim in the north, sank the ships carrying their artillery and slowed the advance on Narvik in the south. . . . Royal Navy carrier based, Skua fighter-bombers made valiant but largely futile attempts to support retreating Allied ground forces. Virtually all the Skuas were lost, many due to fuel starvation while searching for their shis in the horrible Norwegian weather."

"During the evacuation, the carrier Glorious was sunk by German warships after a desperate recovery of the land-based RAF fighters she had recently ferried to Norway. These aircraft did not have adequate range to make the long flight back to Great Britain. (In contrast, winds permitting, Buffalos could have flown directly to northern Scotland from the same Norwegian bases.)"

"During the spring of 1940, the 'high ground' was over Norway. The Brewster F2A-1 was the only aircraft in the world that might have controlled Norwegian airspace while flying from British carriers cruising off the Norwegian coast." (Malcolm carries out this analysis in some detail.) "[C]ontrol of the air might have given Allied leaders the time they needed to understand, plan, and execute bold coordinated operations. Instead, they were forced to learn, by example, from the Germans."

The article is accompanied by three charts. Comparing the F2A-1 with its contemporaries toward the end of 1939, Malcolm shows the Buff as superior in most performance measures to the Misubishi Zero and the Grumman F3F-3 biplane fighter. (The F3F-3 had a higher ceiling; the Zero had two 20 mm cannon.) By late 1941, the F2A-3 Buffalo is shown as slower than the Zero in top speed and especially in climb, though roughly equal to the F4F-3 Wildcat, while its ceiling was much lower than the Wildcat's. (What doesn't show in the table is the sluggish performance of this last and heaviest of the Buffalo models.)

Throughout, the Buff had longer legs than any other carrier fighter. Malcolm shows the F2A-3 with a range of 1,680 miles as against 1,010 for the Zero on internal fuel and 770 miles for the Wildcat. (Equipped with an 88-gallon drop tank, the Zero had a range of 1,675 miles.)

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