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Seversky P-35's

unexpected metamorphosis

by Luc Fournier

2: P-35's hectic genesis.

From the 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.

Aerostories 2000.

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The Seversky SEV- 2XP was a heavy two- seats fighter with trousered undercarriage which was to crash shortly after its maiden flight.
USAF Museum Archives.

Coming from the re-built of the 2XP, this is the SEV- 1XP, prototype of the first modern fighter of the Air Corps.
USAF Museum Archives.

A production model P 35 in flight. Note the backward retracted undercarriage that leaves the wheels apparent.
USAF Museum Archives.

By 1935, the P 35 was the symbol of US Air Corps revival.
USAF Museum Archives.