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Robert Winston and the Finnish Brewsters, 1940 (part 1)

[Reposted here with the kind permission of Jarmo Lindberg at the Fighter Tactics Academy, where additional photos and links are available. — Dan Ford]


Robert A. Winston had just retired after serving on three US Navy carriers and as an air combat instructor at NAS Pensacola, FL. As an idle 32 year old bachelor in Indiana he noticed a small piece of news in the local newspaper: "US Navy has released Brewster fighters to be sold to Finland". Winston contacted his old squadron mate Wood Burke, who was now the chief test pilot of the Brewster Aeronautical Corporation. After a while he got a cable back from Burke: "The Finnish Brewsters will be sent via Sweden. Are you available immediately?"

The 44 F2A-1 series Brewsters bought by the Finnish Government had the 950 hp export version of the Wright Cyclone R-1820-G5 engine. The aircraft were packed into containers and they were shipped to Stavanger, Norway and from there by rail to Sweden. The final assembly was done at the Saab factory in Trollhättan.

Winston and Brewster Winston traveled to the Brewster factory at Long Island, NY and met the general manager Dayton T. Brown. On the next day he went to Roosevelt field with Burke to fly the Brewster. The new version had a 1000 hp Wright Cyclone engine and Finnish texts in the cockpit. The speed was in kilometers per hour and the altitude in meters. It had two .50 cal guns in the wings and one in the fuselage, where there also was a .30 cal gun for close range work. Best climb was at 130 kts, approach 80 kts and touchdown 72 kts.

Winston flew to Floyd Bennett field at 5.000 ft and took the gear and flaps down and did some stalls. He did half a dozen touch and go landings at Floyd Bennett and then flew back across the Long Island to Roosevelt field. There the engine suddenly died on him and he had to make a crosswind landing on the wrong runway. The reason for the malfunction was that he had used the left wing tank, but had forgotten to switch to the right tank.

The US Brewster team left for Sweden on the S.S. Bergensfjord on the 8th of February 1940. In the mean time Jorma Karhunen got orders to report to Finnish Air Force HQ on the 10th of February when he landed his Fokker D.XXI, FR-87 to the remote Littoinen "ice" base. He traveled to Stockholm Bromma airfield with MSgt. Virta on the Aero "Kaleva" DC-2 the next day. From Stockholm they traveled by rail to Trollhättan.

The American Brewster team arrived at Stockholm on the 19th of February and traveled to Trollhättan on the same day. Before their departure to Trollhättan they visited the Finnish embassy at Stockholm to hear the latest information. USDAO at Helsinki, USAAF Capt. Robert Losey told them that a Finnish ace, Jorma Karhunen, had belly-landed one of the Brewsters recently. The Finns had gotten restless immediately after the first aircraft had been assembled and they had sent two of their aces to fly the new fighters. The pilots were good shooters but they had only some 400 flight hours. The crazy Finns liked to fly low and fast and probably the engine burnt and there was no time to take the gear down.

Test flights at Trollhättan

The representative of the Finnish Government, Mr. Kurt Berger met the Brewster reps at Trollhättan on the 20th of February and told that Sweden had let the Finns use the Saab hangars to assemble the Brewsters. Also Swedish mechanics were helping in the assembly. 11 Norwegian volunteers arrived at Trollhättan to speed up the pruduction. Sweden's largest aircraft factory was at Trollhättan doing the license manufacture of German Junkers bombers and US Hamilton Standard propellers. When the Americans were a bit puzzled by the situation Mr. Berger told them: "No need to worry, the Swedish pilots in German aircraft with US propellers will make the Soviets think twice before attacking this Finnish base in Sweden with their American (lend-lease) bombers."

The manager of the Saab aircraft factory was Count Sparré, the nephew of the Finnish CINC, general Mannerheim. Finland was receiving at the same time also Italian Fiats that were assembled in Göteborg. One of them was at Trollhättan on the 20th.

Mr. Berger asked if Robert Winston could test fly the next Brewster from the assembly line on the same day even though there was a lot of snow on the airfield. Mr. Berger told Winston that several inexperienced Finnish pilots would arrive at Trollhättan on the same week and they would start to fly the aircraft to Finland as they came out from the assembly line. Therefore it would be important that the aircraft would be thoroughly tested before the ferry flights to Finland.

Two Swedish mechanics were turning the inertial starter as the engine was primed. The engine started on the first try. Robert Winston climbed to the cockpit for the first test flight on the 20th of February 1940 at Trollhättan. He taxied in the deep snow and managed to get to the other end of the runway. "If this is typical for winter operations I'll already take my hat off for the Finns", he thought. The aircraft almost nosed over during the takeoff run, but Winston managed to get it airborne. He climbed to 1.000 m (3.300 ft) and checked the instruments. He continued to climb to 2.000 m (7.000 ft). He checked the field during the climbing turn and couldn't see it! Everywhere he looked he could see just snow. The whole damn scenery looked the same. Winston hadn't taken a map so he was in trouble. He knew the airfield was to the north of Trollhättan, but he could see at least half a dozen suitable towns from his altitude. He started to circle one of the towns and noticed a peculiar question mark shaped track on the field and realized that it was his taxi track. Now he knew where he was and he went on with the standard US Navy post-maintenance test flight procedures from NAS Pensacola.

Captain Bremer takes command

On the 21st of February Robert Winston flies another test flight. This time the Swedes had cleared a 15 m (50 ft) wide runway in the snow. The takeoff and flight were uneventful, but the landing proved to be a bit tricky since there was still a tendency to nose over on the snow-covered runway. Three days of poor weather with rain followed and no test flights were flown. Several new aircraft came out of the assembly line. Three new pilots arrived from Finland. Of the Finnish pilots Jääskeläinen was more experienced than Lehtonen (125 hrs) and Savonen (150 hrs).

Cold weather froze the runway at Trollhättan so the next three Brewsters could be tested on the 25th of February. When the aircraft were ready, Karhunen, Virta and Jääskeläinen took off. Both young aces flew wild. They retracted the gear immediately after the aircraft rotated and flew loops and slow rolls over Trollhättan. Jääskeläinen was more experienced and took off carefully, let the gear stay down until safe altitude and stayed within gliding distance from the field.

On the same day (25th) Italian test pilot Carlo Cugnasca brought one more Fiat from Göteborg to Trollhättan and gave a good demo over the field. The next day Lehtonen and Cugnasca flew two more Fiats from Göteborg to Trollhättan.

On the 27th of February 15 more Finnish pilots arrived at Trollhättan for Brewster training. Their commander was Capt. Wäinö Bremer, who was 42 years old and a very stable person. He spoke fluent Swedish and German and could get along with his English.

One of the new pilots was a Swedish volunteer and one was a Lapp from northern Finland. On the average the pilots only had some 150 flight hours total time. Of the pilots Eero Davidson spoke fluent English and was an experienced pilot. He translated parts of the flight manual. The other Finnish pilots and their warplane experience were: Pellinen (4 hrs), Lakio (7), Elfving (1,5), Povari (2,5), Inkilä (8), Heikinaro (5) and so on.. The most experienced pilot had only eleven hours with a single-seat aircraft. Robert Winston was very cautious about letting these young inexperienced pilots to fly a fully-fledged Brewster fighter. During his time at Trollhättan he trained 27 Finnish fighter pilots to fly the Brewster.

Winston asked Bremer how many hours he they would give the pilots. Bremer answered: "One hour before ferrying the aircraft to Finland." Winston was shocked. He insisted of giving each pilot at least half a dozen flights before flying to Finland. Bremer said that there was a war going on and they didn't have the time. Finally Bremer said that two hours would do.

Four British maintainers came with the new Finnish pilot group. The maintainers came from a different base, where they had been waiting for the Gloster Gladiator fighters that the British Government had released to Finland. Berger hired them to help in the assembly of the Brewsters.

The first four Brewsters were ready for the ferry flight on the 27th of February, but poor weather prevented the flight until the 1st of March. On that day the first four Brewsters took off for the ferry flight to Finland. The pilots were Virta, Jääskeläinen, Savonen and Lehtonen. Karhunen had to stay at Trollhättan to instruct the new pilots. The aircraft were fully loaded with ammo, fuel, chocolate bars, cigarettes, oranges etc. goodies that the war-stricken Finland didn't have. The four aircraft took of and joined formation over the field and then headed for Finland.

On the same day the Italian test pilot Cugnasca had brought one more Fiat from Göteborg. On the next day two more Fiats came from Göteborg. During the same day Winston flew a practice air combat against Karhunen in Brewsters. Later on the same day he flew against Cugnasca and in the fight the Brewster proved to be a little slower but more agile in the close combat.

continued in part 2