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Brewster Buffaloes for the
Militaire Luchtvaart KNIL (part 3)

continued from part 2

The quality of the Brewster Buffalo as a fighter

The Brewster Buffalo has a remarkable fascination with aviation historians and over the years many articles have been devoted to this aircraft. In general these stories do not rate the aircraft very high. But is that justified?

In the first place it must be established that the Brewster fighter was a product of the 1930s with the associated technologies. State-of-the-art 1936-37 did not include self sealing fuel tanks, armor plating, duplicated control, hydraulic and electrical system, reflector gun-sights and other aircraft niceties that after the start of the war became essential to survive in combat. The Brewster Corporation was too much a marginal supplier to be able to profit from government contracts that introduced these niceties. It is therefore not justified to compare the Brewster with the results that were achieved by – especially later – heavily modified version of the Spitfire, Mustang, Messerschmitt and Focke Wulf.

In addition, the pilots who in 1941-42 entered the battle against the Japanese, were mostly fresh from pilot training, certainly as far as the ML-KNIL was concerned, and had few hours on the Brewsters. Most of them had never fired at an aerial target, whereas neither their leaders could boast too much recent fighter experience. As such Lieutenant Bruinier, who as the sole survivor of three ML-KNIL fighter pilots had returned from a detachment with the RAF in England and had gained experience in modern fighter combat, was a source that was eagerly listened to. But this was all too late and there was no time to restructure the training programme on the basis of this information.

The negative judgment of the Brewster Buffalo is principally based on the certainly disastrous results of the RAF deployment of the fighter over Singapore and Malacca. As far as fighter pilot experience was concerned, the majority of the British pilots were not much better than their ML-KNIL colleagues, although their leaders usually had combat experience from the European theatre. But the British Brewsters were all fitted with the 1100 hp Cyclone G-105A – the majority of the ML-KNIL aircraft had 1200 hp – and they had also been fitted with the abovementioned additional equipment bringing the weight of the aircraft to 2955 kg, about 265 kg (10%) more than the NEI aircraft. Because of this the rate of climb (at sea level) was just 3000 ft/min, very poor compared to the 4700 ft/min of the NEI aircraft.

Harry Simons, who as a pilot for the Kon. Ned. Ind. Luchtvaart Mij. (KNILM) [the NEI civilian airline] was called up as a fighter pilot on the Buffalo, reported that he found the Buffalo a good aircraft provided it was fitted with the 1200 hp engine. He stated: “Although it may sound strange, I still remember the agile maneuverability of the Buffalo and in principle it was a very good aircraft as long as it had 1200 hp. The armament with two light and two heavy machineguns, was on the light side, no self sealing tanks, no armor plating for the pilot, a cumbersome radio installation and just a provisional installation for a reflector gun sight. The long and thin pipe structure for the gun sight was often used by mechanics to help themselves out of the cockpit and I have never flown an aircraft in which the gun sight was properly aligned and had well harmonized machine guns. This, coupled to the youthfulness of the pilots, would have made it impossible for any aircraft to perform better.”

War Trophy
One of the NEI Buffaloes captured by the Japanese on Java was put on display in Tokyo as a war trophy. In the background, difficult to see, is also a captured Boeing B-17C Flying Fortress. (Photo Sectie Luchtmacht Historie, Royal Neth. A.F.).

Microphone on a hook

The Buffalo also had a number of other qualities were it scored better than average. For instance the 200 gallon (750 liter) tank provided for an adequate range, viz four hours at cruise speed (550 hp, 163 mph), or 680 miles (1100 km). This easily allowed the aircraft to reach airfields on Borneo and southwest Celebes and fly standing patrols. Of course in a maximum combat mode the flying time was much shorter, viz one and a half hours. Furthermore the Brewster was built solidly. The construction was based on 7.9g and the reality has proven that a Buffalo with a lot of combat damage could still bring the pilot home safely. Combined with the ample availability of spare components – there were for instance eight complete spare wings – and much cannibalizing of wrecks, the TD [Technische Dienst = Technical Service] managed to reduce the number of aircraft that had to be written off considerably .

The deployment of the Brewsters also revealed some annoying shortcomings. At a high altitude the machine guns tended to freeze. This was remedied with a special grease compound but, through the NPC, special kits with gun heating equipment were also ordered. These would have to be fitted in the NEI. Also the 1200 hp Brewster developed vapor lock in the fuel lines when they flew at high altitudes. To remedy this high pressure Pesco fuel pumps were ordered but in the interim the fuel caps had been modified with a ram-air pipe that created more input pressure in the fuel tanks. Also the machine guns would jam in high g flight. This problem could be prevented by limiting the amount of ammunition. And then there were these minor things that affected flying in combat situations. Like the radios in the Buffaloes, which were commercial transmitters-receivers for sports and business aircraft and were provided with a hand held microphone with a hook to hang it on the instrument panel. Not very convenient when, in the middle of an aerial combat, you want to warn your mate that he has a Japanese on his tail!

Armor plating order

The weakest point of the Buffalo, and in fact all combat aircraft used by the ML-KNIL, was the absence of armor plating and protection of the fuel tanks. The NPC tried to remedy this as a matter of urgency by ordering in June and July 1941 40 mm thick “Safetee Glass” armored glass cockpit front windows panels like those fitted on the RAF Buffaloes, 6 mm thick Jessop armor steel plate to be fitted around the fuel tanks and the pilot seat and a stock of Goodyear Linatex, a natural rubber that was applied to the fuel tanks to ensure that fuel leaks resulting from bullets, were sealed. One can imagine the effort required to modify the Buffaloes with this equipment. The correspondence related to this indicates that when the supply was approved by the JAC, on 13 September 1941, 51 Buffaloes had already been shipped out of the USA and that the 21 aircraft still at the plant, were to be modified there. To what extent it had been possible to modify all aircraft is not known. Obviously the modifications would have a strong negative impact on the performance of the Buffaloes, as the British had already observed.

The weight problem of the RAF Buffaloes had been recognized in Singapore and efforts were made to remedy it, although it was restricted to efforts; there was insufficient time to remedy a large number of aircraft. End December 1941 (the war had been going for three weeks) a modified Buffalo took to the air and amazed everybody. Two of the four Colt machine guns had been removed and the other two replaced by .303 Brownings and the quantity of ammunition was halved. That saved 400 kg. The external radio aerial was removed and replaced by an internal antenna. Flares, the Very signal pistol and cockpit heating had been removed and the radio equipment reduced to a minimum. Moreover, the quantity of fuel had been reduced from 130 to 80 gallons. The modified Buffalo flew 30 miles faster and was better maneuverable. The pilots referred to their hotted-up Brewster as the SSS--Super Sport Special.

Nine Buffaloes of 2-Vl.G.-V that had been sent to Singapore when hostilities broke out, were there fitted with armored glass panels from written off British Buffaloes. The British were, however, impressed by the NEI pilots and their aircraft: “The Dutch pilots are magnificent as both men and flyers. (....) Their planes are much faster than ours and have self-sealing fuel tanks”, reported a mechanic of the New Zealand 488 Squadron who was loaned to the NEI squadron. Another New Zealander, Pilot Officer Pettit, who, for a short time, was assigned to the NEI Buffalo squadron in Singapore as a liaison officer: “(....) I can’t remember anything specific, except discussing with them the relative performance of their aircraft and ours. Our Buffalo’s had 1100 hp, while they had 1200 hp motor (.....) Their aircraft were slightly better than ours (.....) and I think that they knew a lot more about Buffaloes than we did and they were more likely to shoot down a Jap than we were, because, first they had a superior aircraft, and secondly, they were more experienced.” Even so, of the 12 pilots of this Afdeling, seven had graduated from the flying school in 1941 and two in 1940. Only the commander, Captain van Helsdingen (MWO3, graduated in 1934), Lieutenant-pilot Piet Hoyer (graduated Dec. 1938) and Sergeant-pilot Ad Voorbij (graduated Nov. 1938) had more than 18 months flying experience.

continued in part 4