Multi Engine Bombers
The first Standard Handley-Page was flown on July 1, 1918, christened the Langley, and successfully passed its tests with the performance listed on our table. Parts for 100 were shipped to England from July to October, and a second example was flown by Standard just before the war ended and production curtailed. Standard completed five more by January 1919, assembled by the Air Service itself. The aircraft parts shipped abroad were not assembled, but were returned to America and soon forgotten.
In the meantime, work on the Caproni was revived by the arrival on January 17, 1918, of an Italian engineering mission to organize design, manufacture, and testing of a Liberty-powered bomber. Count Caproni had insisted that his engineer have absolute control, “even in the slightest detail”, of the project. Standard Aircraft was chosen as the builder, although an order for the first prototype was not signed until April 9, and that was replaced by a contract for four on May 20.
The Standard-Caproni first flown on July 4, 1918, was powered by three Liberty engines; one at the rear of the center nacelle, and the others at the front of the twin booms leading back to the stabilizer and triple rudders. The engines used in both the Caproni and Handley-Page were the 350-hp, low-compression models thought more reliable for long distance work. One or two Lewis guns could be mounted in the bow cockpit, and another pair were operated by a gunner standing on a platform over the Caproni’s rear engine. Performance was better than that of the Handley-Page, but armament accommodation was awkward.
As it turned out, that first Standard-Caproni was the only one flown before the war’s end. The reasons for this have been analyzed by John Casari, but in the limited space here we can state the main facts of the program’s breakdown. Five hundred Capronis had been ordered from Curtiss on June 7, 1918, and 500 more from Fisher the next day.
But development at Standard had gone so slowly that prototype work was shifted to Fisher in Cleveland, who undertook to build three with entirely new drawings. The first Fisher airframe was forwarded to McCook Field for static tests on November 21, 1918. The production program had been canceled on Armistice Day, but a second Fisher prototype was flown on January 16, 1919, and in June the Air Service accepted both the last Fisher-built prototype and the second Standard prototype, which had been completed by Fisher.
Besides the five American-built Capronis, Air Service pilots also flew Italian-built imports; the original Ca 33 named after Julius Caesar, and a Ca 5 of 1918 that was also tested by the Navy on a sea sled. The latter was a device to tow bombers across the North Sea until they were near enough to the target to launch.
American pilots in Italy attached to the Italian Air Force also flew Capronis on 65 bombing missions, beginning on June 20, 1918. Navy pilots also trained in Italy on Capronis, which were chosen for the Night Wing, Northern Bomber Group, and were flown from Milan to fields in northern France. Nine Ca 5s were delivered in July, and nine in August, but there were 16 crashes with nine pilot fatalities on the way to the Calais area from Italy. In those days, flight delivery of aircraft was as dangerous as combat. Nevertheless, the first Navy raid by a single Caproni was made August 15, 1918, and 13 did arrive by the war’s end.
The Martin GMB (MB-l) was of similar layout to the Handley-Page, but smaller, with the popular RAF-15 airfoil. Two 400-hp Liberties were suspended between the wings, four wheels were aligned on a single axle, and the tail assembly of two rudders obstructed the rear gunner’s view less than the older type’s empennage. Five .30-caliber Lewis guns and 1,040 pounds of bombs comprised the armament. The original contract was enlarged to 50 on October 22, 1918, but then cut back in January 1919 to ten. The first 37-mm cannon on an Army plane was fitted in the ninth GMB’s nose, swinging 60 degrees down and 45 degrees to either side, and was tested in September 1919. The last Martin was completed as a GMT transport in February 1920.
An improved version of the Martin bomber, the MB-2, was ordered on June 9, 1920, and first flown December 12. This model had larger wings to carry a heavier load, with the Liberty engines lowered to the bottom wing and a simplified landing gear with two wheels. Five Lewis guns were mounted; paired in the front and rear cockpits, with one aimed downwards and to the rear through a trapdoor. Six 300 or 600-pound bombs could be carried inside the fuselage, or external racks could hold two 1,100 or one 2,000-pound bomb.
The larger bomb had been developed to give bombers a punch equal to that of the biggest guns of battleships and coastal forts. More extravagant was a 4,300-pound, 172-inch long bomb; too big for the Martins, it was first test dropped from a Standard Handley-Page on September 28, 1921.
Twenty Martin MB-2s were built in Cleveland and redesignated NBS-l (Night Bomber, Short distance), and the first was later fitted with General Electric turbosuperchargers which, on a December 8, 1921, test, enabled the NBS-l to climb past its normal 9,900-foot ceiling to 25,341 feet. The plan to use superchargers in service was premature, however, for reliable and serviceable applications would not be available on bombers until the B-17B of 1939.
Those 20 Martins were a modest force even for 1921, but with them the airmen were about to challenge the traditional champions of American defense, the battleship and the coastal fortification.