second half of the thirties, with the international situation
growing worse and worse, the European nations began to modernize
their air forces. When the German Messerchmitt made its appearance,
Great Britain replied by producing the Hawker Hurricane, whereas
France chose the Morane-Saulnier MS 406.
All these planes were cantilever low wing monoplanes with enclosed
cockpit, retractable undercarriage, and powered by a V
type engine giving them a maximum speed close to 500 km/h (311
mph). These fighters were all fitted with guns or heavy machine-guns.
To protect their neutrality, the USA only had at their disposal
the Boeing P-26, a tiny fighter with externally braced wing, very
typical of the aeronautical industry of the early thirties, and
by the way, largely outclassed by the new generation of European
military planes. Its replacement was a matter of urgency, and
In order to select a new fighter, the Air Corps decided to set
up a competition on may 1935 in Wright Field.
The Seversky Aircraft Corporation was among the first to respond
by building the SEV-2XP, registered X-18 Y, a two seat fighter
monoplane with a fixed undercarriage enclosed in heavy failings,
and powered by a 850 HP radial engine which was the adaptation
of the former SEV-3. Shortly after its maiden flight, the plane
crashed and Seversky picked up the wreckage, not to rebuild it,
but to transform it. This attitude was justified by the appearance
on May 27th of the Curtiss prototype, registered X-17
Y at the Wright Field competition. Designed by Donovan Berlin,
this little airplane was a single seat fighter, showing clean
aerodynamic lines and a fully retractable undercarriage as typically
found on the most advanced European fighters, and according to
which military aircraft would be designed for a well defined type
of mission. If the confrontation had come, the Curtiss would have
easily overcome the heavy two-seated Seversky prototype, designed
from an erroneous concept, as World War Two would fully demonstrate.
For several months, Kartveli and his team worked very hard on
the X-18 Y which finally landed at Wright Field on August 15th
entirely transformed: the plane, re-registered SEV-1XP became
a single seat fighter with partially retracting undercarriage
which could compete on equal terms with the Curtiss X-17 Y.
The competition between the two aircraft took place in a tense
atmosphere, the Curtiss Company criticizing the federal administration
for giving Seversky an extra deadline for the modification of
his prototype. The Air Corps then declared the postponement of
its decision on April of 1936. Both rivals took advantage of this
situation for improving their machines. In fact, although the
Curtiss prototype had been the favorite of headquarter, it suffered
from various problems, particularly from its complex undercarriage.
The Seversky fighter was immediately available, and as the delivery
to the Air corps squadrons could no longer be postponed, a contract
for 77 aircraft called "P-35" was signed with Seversky
on June 16th 1936.
The P-35 had therefore the distinction of being the first "modern"
American fighter. The plane was, however, far from being perfect:
with its weak armament consisting of two machine guns mounted
on the cowling, its undercarriage retracting backward (only partially)
in bulky fairing, and with its top speed of 452 km/h (291 mph),
it made a poor impression when compared with the European fighters
of the same generation. Most seriously, the P-35 suffered from
mediocre lateral stability that made some flight maneuvers dangerous.
Charles Lindbergh, in his "Wartime Memories" established
a comparison between the P-35 and the P-36, which was to the advantage
of the latter. The pilots of US Air Corps considered their new
machine a reliable and sturdy one, and greatly appreciated the
roominess of the cockpit. To the average American people, this
plane symbolized the revival of the national air force in response
to the re-armament of the European countries, and formations of
P-35s were warmly acclaimed during various airpower displays and
patriotic celebrations. At the time USA got involved into the
second world war on December 7, 1941, surviving P-35s were already
removed from the first line units, replaced by Curtiss P-36s,
and above all, by P-40s. None of them was to participate in the
operations of the Pacific War.
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