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Digital Subscriptions > Scale Aircraft Modelling > January 2018 > Take Me All The Way

Take Me All The Way

USAAF Drop Tanks

DROP TANKS

That drop tanks were used by the USAAF during the second half of World War II is a widely known fact. So much so that few modellers build their Mustangs and Thunderbolts without these items under the wings. What is less known, however, is the difficulty with which these items were incorporated and implemented by the US Air Corps. As was the case with Hitler, the American leadership underestimated the significance of the need to extend the range of their fighters during the years of conflict, even before the US entered the war.

Germany had already gained some experience with jettisonable drop tanks on the He 51B-1, which could carry a fifty litre, and in some cases a 170 litre, tank under the fuselage, during the Spanish Civil War. Early versions of the Stuka, the Ju 87R, were long range versions that could carry 300 litre drop tanks, although the concept of the Blitzkrieg coupled with German overconidence greatly underestimated the importance of drop tanks for the Bf 109E. It was deemed common sense that ground units would advance so quickly that the need for extended range fighters would not materialize. This is a mistake that came back to haunt the German leadership during the Battle of Britain. During the initial phases of the battle, when the Luftwaffe was able to bring the RAF to its knees, the inability to escort bombers deeper over the British Isles became a factor. The Bf 109s could not linger after combat over London, or over the areas of Kent, Essex, Surrey or Hampshire, and needed to head back to their home fields.

The development of drop tanks and their associated modifications to the fuel system of the Bf 109 and other German aircraft is itself a very interesting chapter (for example, a plywood tank began to be developed for the Bf 109E even before the invasion of France, despite early aversions to the idea) and will be covered in greater detail in future articles.

The American view on such matters paralleled the German one in some respects, though was typically American. The predominant view in 1939 was that American four engined heavy bombers would not be in need of escort fighters. They would be able to get themselves in and out of enemy territory, and would be able to protect themselves against enemy fighters. At the time there was a very powerful movement in the USA that could, by today’s standard, be deemed a lobby group that came to be known as the Bomber Maia. This group’s main goal centred on the pushing through of bomber production, mostly due to economic reasons. This lobby used all resources possible to divert government funds to companies that were involved in the production of bomber aircraft. Its most effective resource was domestic propaganda, and was used to convince strategists and government leaders alike that the development of a strategic bomber capability, nondependent on fighters, was the way to go. The disappointment that the USAAF must have felt on awakening from this pipe dream after committing the B-17 to the war in the Pacific, and especially to Europe, is a chapter in and of itself.

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January 2018