In 1943, the Allies struggle to get a foothold in Europe. Fighter pilot Benjamin Cassiday, Jr. flies his Republic P-47 Thunderbolt against deadly German planes. The P-47's mighty engine, the 18-cylinder Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp, helps provide Cassiday with the power he needs to defeat the enemy in the skies. "Chronicles of Courage: Stories of Wartime and Innovation" is a co-production of Vulcan Productions and NBC Learn.
Chronicles of Courage -- P-47 and the Double Wasp Engine
KATE SNOW, reporting:
The United States and its allies defeat German and Italian forces in North Africa, and are now trying to gain a foothold in Europe.
Before they can invade by land, the Allies take to the skies with a daring air campaign.
West Point graduate Benjamin Cassiday Jr., a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Forces' 79th Fighter Group, takes off from a base on the French island of Corsica. It is the 21-year old pilot's first combat mission of World War II.
BENJAMIN CASSIDAY JUNIOR (Pilot, U.S. Army Air Forces): Well I remember it very well because what we did is we broke through the overcast, and it was a sheet of clouds, and there were the Germans, German Me 109s, so they came down on us.
SNOW: At this point in the war, the German Airforce, known as the Luftwaffe, still dominates the skies over Europe. They fly innovative aircraft like the one Cassiday is confronting- the Messerschmitt Bf 109, also known as the Me 109-- with its sleek aerodynamic design, powerful 12-cylinder engine, and deadly 20mm canon.
CASSIDAY: The Me109 was a German. Best fighter at that time of the war.
SNOW: Cassiday is well equipped for his first dogfight with these Me 109s. His plane, the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt is new and innovative. It’s designed specifically to take on Germany's best aircraft.
Dr. REBECCA GRANT (Military Aviation Expert): If you looked at the P-47 on the runway, it was a monster, and a powerful, capable monster. Weighting in at 9,000 pounds empty, it had a 40 foot wingspan and stood many feet higher than other fighters.
SNOW: The American's P-47 is a powerhouse. It has four machine guns in each wing, and carries up to 3,000 pounds of weaponry and bombs, making it one of the heaviest fighter planes in the war.
Its rugged aluminum and steel frame conceals one of its greatest technological advantages --the R-2800 Double Wasp, an 18-cylinder engine that produces a stunning 2,800 horsepower, almost double the horsepower of the German Me 109-- and more than enough force to keep the hulking P-47 in flight.
Dr. GRANT: This 18-cylinder engine was one of the most powerful engines the world had ever seen.
SNOW: Built by Pratt and Whitney, the R-2800 is a product of rigorous engineering and mechanics, and the first 18-cylinder engine made in the U.S.
It has a double row of nine power-producing cylinders arranged in a circle. As in all internal combustion engines, a mixture of fuel and air is compressed inside the cylinders, and ignited by spark plugs. This ignition creates an explosion inside the cylinders, which rapidly turns the P-47's propeller 2,700 revolutions per minute.
At full throttle, the big engine's horsepower gives the heavy P-47 speed and versatility unmatched by most other fighters.
Dr. GRANT: This was an enormous technology improvement. And it made the Double Wasp unique in the power that it could produce.
SNOW: Cassiday uses every bit of that power as he battles with the Germans over the skies of Europe. The R-2800’s superior abilities help him fly higher, and out of sight of the Germans. This advantage helps Cassiday score his first aerial victory over an Me 109.
CASSIDAY: I saw the one get on my leader’s tail, so I was able to shoot him down.
SNOW: Cassiday and his airplane are a success. The Double Wasp engine is more than powerful, it's incredibly tough, and able to withstand a beating, especially during ground attacks on enemy targets, called "strafing."
CASSIDAY: Strafing is when you see a train particularly or a convoy of trucks that you can come down on them and just shoot them up with your wing guns.
SNOW: In a later mission, Cassiday's plane is hit as he attacks a German airfield, also known as an aerodrome.
CASSIDAY: We were up strafing an aerodrome. Well, I got hit badly. And I was able to get out of the range of the machine gun that hit me. I got hit in the engine. We got to the Mediterranean Sea. It got to be pretty antsy that I would even get back.
SNOW: The plane's power and durability allows Cassiday to fly out of range, and limp back to base.
The R-2800 Double Wasp engine is such a technological success, the U.S. military uses it to power other planes including - the Grumman F6F Hellcat and the Vought F4U Corsair - helping the Allies gain air superiority.
For pilots like Cassiday, who goes on to fly 117 combat missions over Europe, the P-47's toughness gives them the security they need to complete their missions. Many brave pilots made the ultimate sacrifice, but many more, like Cassiday, were able to make it back.
CASSIDAY: I was always able to get home. I never had to bail out in combat. It was an aircraft that would get you home.
The tanks, artillery, ships and trucks churned out by the arsenal of democracy would be useful only if brave men could be found to take them into harm’s way. In this respect, the United States proved to be exceptionally fruitful.
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