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    205: World War II Aviation

World War II Aviation (Gallery 205)

World War II produced some of the most well-known airplanes in history. In fact, it produced so many famous and significant aircraft that it’d be close to impossible for the Smithsonian to display all of them in this museum. For that reason, Gallery 205 is dedicated to land-based fighter aircraft from the European and Pacific theaters. (See below for where to find more aircraft from this era.)

Five aircraft are on display here: Britain’s Spitfire; America’s P-51D; Germany’s Bf 109; Japan’s Zero; and Italy’s Folgore. Generations of children, including at least one of this book’s authors, grew up building balsa models of these planes, and they’ll be familiar to almost everyone with an interest in aviation.

Supermarine Spitfire Mk. VIIc: The Spitfire was the best fighter aircraft produced by England during World War II. It was designed by Supermarine’s R.J. Mitchell. Prior to World War II, Mitchell had designed the S.6B, a racing aircraft that won the Schneider Trophy (shown in Gallery 105) in 1931 and broke the world speed record.

Mitchell started designing the Spitfire in 1934. Like the S.6B, the Spitfire has elliptical wings, which lower drag and improve speed. Through a series of design upgrades before and during the war, the Spitfire got a powerful Rolls Royce engine (the Merlin, shown at the entrance to this gallery), and eight machine guns in its wings.

The combination of speed, agility, and armament helped lead the Spitfire to its finest hour – defeating the attacking German Luftwaffe in the decisive Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. The Spitfire became famous after that, and with its proven performance, remained in production past the end of World War II. The aircraft on display here was sent to the United States near the end of the war, and never saw combat.

North American P-51D Mustang: Arguably the United States’ best fighter aircraft during World War II, the Mustang was fast, maneuverable, well-armed, and had a 1,600-mile range. That range would change the course of the war.

Initial versions of the P-51 were unremarkable. The first two models, the P-51 and P-51A, introduced in 1941, had an Allison V-1710 engine that didn’t perform well at high altitudes. When paired with versions of the Rolls Royce Merlin engine, however, for the P-51B, the Allies knew they had a special fighter. The model shown here, the P-51D, has the Mustang’s distinctive “bubble” canopy, allowing for better pilot visibility during dogfights.

Prior to the P-51, the Allies had no fighter aircraft with the range to accompany its bomber groups on missions over Germany. Early attempts at flying “self-defending” bombers over Germany proved disastrous, and the Allies were forced to switch to nighttime bombing, which wasn’t as effective, or simply accept the losses.

Things changed dramatically when the P-51s started flying with the 8th Air Force in the spring of 1944. The P-51s were markedly superior to the Germans’ Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter, and could hold its own against the Messerschmitt Me 109. In combat, the P-51 shot down 11 enemy planes for every loss it suffered.

In addition, the Allies’ factories could make P-51s faster than the Germans could make replacement planes. The combination of better performance and numerical advantage broke the German air defenses in a matter of months, allowing daytime bombing missions over all of Germany. The head of the German Luftwaffe, Herman Goering, was reported to have said “When I saw Mustangs over Berlin, I knew the jig was up.”

After the war, the Mustang served in the air forces of dozens of countries, including (briefly) the United States in Korea, until the introduction of jet aircraft. So many P-51s were built during the war that a thriving community of fliers continue to use them to this day. At least 200 P-51s are flying around the world, many in air races, where the P-51’s speed makes it a perennial contender.

Messerschmitt Bf 109: The Bf 109 was Germany’s best fighter aircraft of World War II. Designed in the mid-1930’s, the Germans had already used the plane in combat in Spain in the late 1930’s. That gave the 109’s engineers and pilots valuable experience, even before England joined the war.

The Bf 109 was the primary Germany attack fighter for the Battle of Britain in 1940, and the primary defensive fighter for the Allied bombing campaign over Germany in 1944. More than 20,000 of these planes were built, with various upgrades in engines and armament. The plane on display here at the Smithsonian was flown during the war, by a German pilot who defected with the plane to Italy.

Mitsubishi A6M Reisen “Zero”: This was Japan’s best fighter of World War II. It was designed in 1937 to be deployed from navy carriers, and so had to be lightweight and fast. As a result, the Zero could out-turn and out-climb most American planes. It also had a tremendous range – 1,600 miles, about that of a P-51D – and could stay in a dogfight for a very long time. Those characteristics were a huge advantage over early American naval aircraft at the start of the war, and forced the Allies to develop new tactics and planes. Still, like the P-51 Mustang, the Zero shot down around 11 airplanes for every one lost.

The Zero was the primary fighter used by Japan at Pearl Harbor and throughout the war, making it something of a rarity in World War II aircraft; more than 11,000 were made.

However, the defeat at the Battle of Midway in 1942 cost Japan four of its aircraft carriers, limiting how many Zeroes could be deployed, and was the turning point in the Pacific theater. For the rest of the war, Japan couldn’t produce planes or pilots fast enough to cover their losses. The airplane shown here was captured on Saipan Island in 1944.

Aeronautica Macchi C.202 Folgore: Let’s be honest here. This was Italy’s best fighter aircraft of World War II, but the Folgore’s performance didn’t match that of England’s and U.S. fighters. The Folgore’s top speed of 372 m.p.h. was 65 slower than the Mustang; the Folgore’s range of 475 miles was almost 1,200 less; and its service ceiling almost a mile lower. It was also heavier than the Messerschmitt. Besides their physical limitations, it took Italy’s manufacturing sector around 22,000 staff-hours to build one Folgore, as compared to around 4,000 for a Messerschmitt, further limiting their impact.

That said, the Folgore does have one interesting feature: the left wing is about 9 inches longer than the right wing. The longer left wing is there to provide a bit of extra uplift on the left side, counteracting the torque developed by the engine and spinning propeller that wants to push the airplane down to the left. It’s an interesting solution.

Besides the airplanes, the gallery includes displays of aircraft engines, armament, and uniforms worn by the pilots of different nations during the war. Also on display is a good display recounting the first Allied raid on Tokyo, led by Jimmy Doolittle in 1942. On the wall at the far end of the gallery is a mural showing a B-17 bomber in flight.

Touring Tips

If you want to see more World War II aircraft, two American carrier-based planes are across the hall in the Sea-Air Operations gallery: the Grumman F4F Wildcat and the Douglas SBD Dauntless. For even more fighters and bombers, including the F4U Corsair, P-40 Warhawk, Focke-Wulf Fw 190, B-29, and more, head to the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, about 30-40 minutes outside D.C.

Other Lands at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum