Icons of Aviation History: Focke-Wulf 190

Though overshadowed by its much more famous Me-109 contemporary, the Focke-Wulf 190 was arguably the better fighter, scoring a 60:1 kill ratio compared to 20:1 for the Messerschmitt.

FW-190 on exhibit at the USAF Museum

In 1931, the Albatros aircraft company, which had made some of the best German fighters of the First World War, went bankrupt and merged with the Focke-Wulf company. In the run-up to the Second World War, Focke-Wulf was best-known as the maker of the Fw-44 biplane trainer, and in 1937 began producing the Fw-200 Condor, a four-engine civilian trans-Atlantic airliner that was, when the war broke out, converted into a long-range marine patrol and anti-ship bomber.

So when Focke-Wulf submitted a design for a new fighter in 1937, the Nazis, knowing that the company had never made a production fighter before, were skeptical. But Focke-Wulf had inherited the design expertise of the Albatros team, and when they began flying the prototype for the Fw-190 fighter using the BMW 139 radial engine, it was a winner. A short time later, another prototype was fitted with the newer 1600-horsepower BMW 801, and the Nazis ordered it into production. They called it the Wurger (“Butcher Bird”).

The radial engine, Focke-Wulf’s designers thought, offered several advantages over the water-cooled inline used in the Me-109. Radial engines were more reliable and easier to repair in the field. The big chunk of metal in front of the cockpit offered protection to the pilot from enemy fire, and when the radial engine was shot up, it could absorb an impressive amount of damage and still bring the pilot home. Also, it would be easier to manufacture in large numbers than the more complex inline engines. The German Air Ministry, on the other hand, liked the radial engine design because it would not cut into the availability of inline engines for the Messerschmitt.

Radial engines did of course produce more drag than the slimmer inlines, but Focke-Wulf figured they could plan around that, and added a streamlined hub to the propeller and a tight-fitting aerodynamic cowl around the engine which pulled air inside and increased the air-cooling effect. The big engine also blocked the pilot’s forward view while on the ground, so pilots took to having a ground crewman sit on the wing and guide them while taxiing.

The Focke-Wulf’s wider and sturdier landing gear, however, gave better ground handling than the Me-109, which made takeoffs and landings easier for less-experienced pilots—especially on rough field airstrips. And with its two machine guns and two 20mm cannons (later upgraded to four 20mm cannons), the Focke-Wulf was better-armed. The Fw-190 design also had a bubbletop canopy which gave the pilot better visibility in combat than the Messerschmitt.

The first combat models entered service in September 1941, and quickly demonstrated that they outclassed the latest Mark V Spitfires. For the rest of the war, new versions of the Fw-190 were introduced that put it ahead of Allied fighters, leading to a game of “catch-up”. The basic Focke-Wulf airframe was fitted with a wide variety of engines and weaponry for different roles. The ground-attack version, with bomb racks, rockets, and a 30mm cannon in the propeller hub, replaced the Ju-87 dive bomber as the primary Luftwaffe close-combat support weapon, and heavily-gunned variants were used as bomber interceptors. Radar-equipped models were used as night fighters. As an air superiority fighter, the Fw-190 was fast and maneuverable. The final version, the Fw-190D “Dora”, dropped the radial engine in favor of the more powerful turbosupercharged inline Junkers Jumo 213, which gave a much better performance at high altitudes. This returned much of the speed and maneuverability advantages that the Luftwaffe had lost, but it was hampered by shortages and manufacturing difficulties.

When the German ace Adolf Galland flew the Fw-190, he considered it superior to the Messerschmitt, and recommended that the German aircraft industry focus solely on  producing Focke-Wulfs.  Allied pilots found the Fw-190 to be a formidable adversary, until the constant air attacks on Luftwaffe bases began to reduce the number of German fighter planes, and the loss of experienced pilots and abbreviated training regimen meant that the quality of Luftwaffe pilots declined steadily over time. By the end of 1944 the Allies had complete control of the sky, and the Luftwaffe was virtually spent as a significant force.

In June 1942, moreover, a German pilot accidentally landed his Focke-Wulf 190A at an Allied airfield, an enormous intelligence coup that gave the British and Americans their first good look at the aircraft. After testing and evaluation, the British specifically designed the Hawker Fury to defeat it, while also influencing American designs. The Allies began fielding planes like the P-51 and Mark XIV Spitfires that could deal with the German fighters.

The Germans produced about 20,000 Focke-Wulf fighters during the war, in at least 40 different designated versions. About two dozen planes still survive, some in private hands. Five of these are Fw-190A models that flew with the JG 5 fighter group at a base in Herdla, Norway

The Imperial War Museum in London has a Focke-Wulf 190A on exhibit. The early history of this plane is unknown, but at some time it was used as a test airplane for the German “Mistral” program, which attempted to attach an Fw-190 to a Junkers Ju-88 and use it as a radio-guided bomb. The War Museum’s 190 still has the rack which would have attached it to the bomber. It was captured in 1945 and brought back to England.

The RAF Museum also has a Focke-Wulf, built under license by the Arado factory and later converted to a two-seat trainer. It was captured in May 1945 in Schleswig-Holstein.

The Air and Space Museum in Washington DC exhibits a Focke-Wulf 190A that was manufactured in 1943, was damaged in combat and then remodeled into a ground-attack version. In 1944 it was based in Hungary and was captured in 1945. It was given to the Smithsonian in 1949 and underwent restoration in 1980, and is now on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center.

The US Air Force Museum in Dayton OH has a “Dora” model that flew with the JG3 unit before being captured and brought to the US for flight testing. It was given to the Smithsonian by the Pentagon, and is now displayed in the Air Force Museum under loan.

In 1997, a German company called FlugWerk began producing modern reproductions of the Fw-190, using Chinese copies of the Russian Shvetsov ASh-82 radial engine.

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