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The Sorry Saga of the Brewster Buffalo

I created the Annals of the Brewster Buffalo in 1993, using the Unix operating system and a primitive web browser called Lynx (a pun on "links"). A bunch of you guys piled on, including from Finland, and the Annals soon took on a life of their own. One of the things they led to was an article for Air & Space magazine, "The Sorry Saga of the Brewster Buffalo," published in 1996. I've now updated and expanded the original article to include the recovery of a Finnish Brewster in Russia and last year's discovery of a Buffalo wreck at Midway Atoll. It's available in a digital edition for Amazon's Kindle reader-- buy it here--and also from the Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Kobo websites. Here's the opening section of the book. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

Brewster: A Piece of Work

A group of Internet aviation fans once debated the subject of the worst fighter of World War II. Their hands-down favorite: the Brewster Buffalo.

Two books are titled The World’s Worst Aircraft. The Buffalo is the only fighter from any era to have a chapter in both of them.

The Royal Air Force fobbed the Brewster fighter onto the Fleet Air Arm and British Commonwealth squadrons; the U.S. Navy gave it to the Marines. Pilots thought it was a sweet plane to fly, but noticed that the wheel struts sometimes broke, that the engine leaked oil, and that the guns sometimes didn’t fire. And when they flew it against the nimble fighters of Japan, too often they didn’t come back.

Yet all the while, the Finns tore great holes through the Russian air force with essentially the same plane.

The Buffalo’s problems began with its manufacturer. In 1932, an aeronautical engineer named James Work paid $30,000 for the aircraft division of Brewster & Co., a firm that over the years had built horse-drawn buggies, auto bodies, and aircraft assemblies, but now did little more than represent Rolls-Royce in the United States. Jimmy Work was a balding man with soulful eyes, a gentle smile, and a good suit. You might have picked him to manage your retirement account – probably not the best idea you’d ever have. Serving as president of Brewster Aeronautical, he hired himself as a consultant and leased a factory from himself. Double-dipping in this fashion, he landed contracts for seaplane floats and wing panels, mostly for the Grumman company, the preeminent builder of warplanes for the U.S. Navy. But what Jimmy Work really wanted to do was build planes on his own account.

Enter Dayton Brown. In a photo taken a few years later, when the Navy visited Brewster in an attempt to straighten out the mess Jimmy Work had made of it, the aircraft designer towers over the men around him. Brown’s arms are folded, he wears a double-breasted suit and a skeptical expression, and he has little more hair than the man who hired him.

As Brewster’s first product, Brown drew a slender, mid-wing dive bomber with retractable wheels and an enclosed bomb-bay. This was wonderful stuff for 1934, and the U.S. Navy bought the rights to build the bomber (in the Navy’s own factory) as its first carrier-based monoplane. That was a nice compliment to Brewster Aeronautical, but didn’t advance Jimmy Work’s hopes of becoming a player in the airframe industry.

Brown therefore redrew his plane as a two-seat fighter, then as a one-seater. Among other innovations, it had a semi-bubble canopy, giving the pilot a clear view to the rear. The Navy liked the sketch enough to start a development project for the F2A: fighter plane, second design from this company, oddly designated with the letter A.

Grumman was more conventional. Its F4F had a “turtleback” design, with the canopy faired into the rear fuselage, the better to protect the pilot if the plane flipped over. (Dayton Brown had provided a roll bar behind the seat for this purpose.) And the F4F-1 was a biplane. Two wings meant shorter wings, so the Navy could stow more planes on a carrier deck.

But this was 1936, the trend was toward the sleeker and faster monoplane, and Brewster got the nod. Grumman promptly took one wing off its fighter and created what history would know as the “Wildcat.” Apart from its turtleback, the F4F-2 actually looked rather like the Brewster fighter. Each carried one wing at midpoint on the fuselage, each had a short nose (so the pilot could see the carrier deck in front of him), and each was distinctly plump. This was especially true of the Brewster fighter, whose engine was larger around than the Wildcat’s.

Ah, that engine! Airframe manufacture was nearly a cottage industry in the 1930s, with machinists hand-crafting parts and seamstresses sewing fabric onto control surfaces. The cost of entry was so small that the United States had twenty companies turning out a dozen or so warplanes each year, but only two providers of air-cooled engines powerful enough for combat. Seen from the front, such a powerplant resembled a wagon wheel, with an odd number of cylinders arranged around the crankshaft. It was simple, durable, and robust.

Grumman designed its Wildcat around the Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp, which essentially consisted of two seven-cylinder engines mounted one behind the other, with a two-stage supercharger to ram the fuel-air mixture into them. It was a happy choice, for the Twin Wasp and its later enchancements would power every important, air-cooled American fighter plane of World War II.

Brewster opted for the Wright Cyclone, an older and simpler design with a single row of nine cylinders, each somewhat larger than those on the Twin Wasp. Thus the displacement (total volume) of the cylinders was roughly the same: 1820 cubic inches for the Cyclone, 1830 for the Twin Wasp. And the Wright engine had a grander history: Charles Lindbergh had chosen an earlier version of the same design to power his Spirit of St. Louis on their world-changing flight from New York to Paris. Like the Twin Wasp, the Cyclone would go on to equip some of America's best aircraft of the 1940s, but they would all be transports or bombers, for which reliability was more of an issue than maneuverability. (A Wildcat variant, built by General Motors under the designation FM-2, would be Cyclone powered, but it served most on escort carriers, at comparatively low altitudes, hunting German submarines.) For a fighter – diving and climbing, jinking and rolling – an engine had to work as well upside down as rightside up.

With only a one-stage supercharger, the engine fitted to the F2A-1 developed 950 takeoff horsepower, which fell off to 750 hp at 15,000 feet, a typical combat altitude. Worse yet, those early Cyclones also proved to have lubrication problems.

There was also a significant design flaw in the Brewster airframe. If the pilot set it down hard – and hard landings are the norm on an aircraft carrier – the main wheel strut sometimes buckled, two inches below its pivot point on the wing. U.S. Navy fighter pilot Gordon Firebaugh explained the failure this way: “The struts had a tendency to move forward. When you retracted the gear on the next flight, the box strut scraped on the wheel well [preventing it from closing fully]. You couldn't have that happen, the gear not retracting, so the mechanics would file some [metal] off and get closer to the rivets.” Finally, on an especially hard landing, the gear would collapse.

These problems weren’t apparent in 1938, when the Navy tested the two prototypes. The Brewster fighter handled like a sports car – “a real dinger,” in Captain Firebaugh's opinion. By comparison, the Grumman Wildcat seemed to fly like a pickup truck. Furthermore, the old reliable Cyclone seemed to the Navy a safer bet than the complicated Twin Wasp. So Jimmy Work got the Navy’s first contract for a monoplane fighter, totaling fifty-four aircraft. Brewster Aeronautical delivered the first of them in May 1939, the second in July, and the third in October, which ought to have warned the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics that something was seriously amiss at the Brewster plant.

The pace picked up after that, but at year end the Navy still had taken delivery on just eleven F2A-1s, not enough to equip its first designated monoplane squadron, Fighting Three on the carrier Saratoga.

The factory was a major bottleneck – an old Pierce Arrow automobile plant in urban Queens, across the East River from Manhattan. In the understated words of Brewster historian Jim Maas, “its production facilities were ill-suited to the mass production of modern aircraft.” Indeed. Parts were manufactured on four different floors, brought together by freight elevator, and then put together to ensure that they fit. Then they had to be taken apart again, so the plane could be trucked fifty-five miles out to central Long Island and there reassembled for flight testing. The test site was Roosevelt Field, the same airport from which Lindberg had set out for Paris in 1927, and which has since become New York’s largest shopping mall.