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Flight testing the Brewster Buffalo

As test pilot for the Royal Navy, Eric Brown flew scores of aircraft from many nations. He wrote short essays on 36 of them for Wings of the Weird and Wonderful, published by Airlife in Britain and Tab Books in the U.S. Thanks to Birgir Thorisson for bringing this delightful book to my attention.

Capt. Brown flew a Belgian-order Brewster 339 at Royal Naval Air Station, Yeovilton, early in 1941, along with a Grumman Martlet, as the British called the F4F Wildcat. "They were both tubby little single-seat fighters with a very purposeful air about them," he wrote. Brown noted that there were 40 of these planes, acquired when Belgium fell to the Germans, and shipped to Britain aboard HMS Furious. They were assembled at Burtonwood, later a huge American base--near Manchester, I think. He obviously had his notes in front of him as he wrote the Buffalo chapter:

"Once in the cockpit I found the view ahead rather poor because of the aft position of the pilot and the high position of the nose. In spite of this, the aircraft was very easy to taxi, as the brakes were smooth and very efficient.

"On take-off the throttle had to be opened carefully as there was no automatic boost control, and the stick [had to be] moved forward to get the tail up and improve acceleration. The rudder control was very good in keeping the aircraft straight on its short run.

"The climb was steep and initially at a rate of 2,000 ft./min. but soon began to fall off noticeably as altitude increased. The longitudinal stability was decidedly shaky and would make instrument flying very difficult. [Commenting on another a/c, Brown noted that longitudinal instability was a good feature in a fighter.] It was also apparent that there were [exhaust] fumes coming into the cockpit....

"In normal cruise at 160 mph the aircraft was longitudinally unstable, laterally neutral stable, and directionally positively stable. Maximum speed was 290 mph at 16,500 ft. and the service ceiling was only 25,000 ft. Not very impressive performance. However, it was a different story when it came to handling, for the ailerons were highly effective throughout the speed range, the elevators almost equally so, and the rudder very good too.

"The all-up stall occurred at 76 mph with a sudden but mild wing drop followed by the nose. The all-down stall was at 67 mph with similar but slightly more pronounced characteristics.

"For landing the undercarriage was lowered at 95 mph followed by the slow moving flaps at 90 mph. An approach speed of 80 mph gave a reasonable view, but needed almost full backward elevator trim. Touch down occurred at 75 mph with a good pull back on the stick to achieve a three-pointer as the power was cut. Once on the ground the aircraft could be kept nicely straight on rudder with a discreet touch of brake.

"My feeling after flying the Buffalo was one of elation tinged with disappointment. It was a true anomaly of an aeroplane with delightful manoeuvrability but poor fighter performance. Indeed above 10,000 ft. it was labouring badly."

Brown acknowledge the Brewster 239's success in Finland, and suggested that "the climate and the opposition" must have favored the plane in Finnish service.

`Could almost match the Zeke'

On 13 June 1996 Birgir Thorisson wrote as follows:

The description of the Buffalo that I sent you by Eric Brown comes from a highly condensed book [Duels in the Sky]. Although it is undoubtedly based on his original notes, the descriptions in the book are not always accurate.... This may be considered lapses by an old man, but still you may be interested in some of his speculation about the relative possibilities of certain aircraft.

On the Finnish Brewsters he comments: "This aircraft had a gross weight of only 5,820 lbs, which gave it a reasonably lively performance below 10,000 ft." p.44. On p.99, he gives his assessment of the Buffalo versus "Zeke 22" [Mitsubishi Zero A6M model 22]. "The little Buffalo could almost match the Zeke for maneauverability, but was badly outclassed in performance and inferior in firepower. Thus it had little hope of besting the Japanes fighter. In a dogfight, the initiative would rest entirely with the Zeke, which could mix it or break off at will."

I have seen detailed descriptions by Eric Brown of individual types in articles in the AIR INTERNATIONAL magazine. I do not know if he wrote such an article about the Buffalo, but if he did, and it were of the same quality as his articles about e.g. Swordfish or Dauntless, it would be most useful.

(Also see the British flight tests done for Eagle squadron and other RAF and Fleet Air Arm purposes.)