Learning the Legends – Flying the P-47 “by the book” – WW2 Pilots Notes Review

Something a little different that I wanted to include over this winter was a series of posts on some iconic warbirds featuring excerpts from the training manuals and videos of the period. The idea is to give both myself and readers and insight into what it was like to learn to fly these impressive machines and how they were viewed at the time.


An undoubted star of the 2018 season has been the return of P-47D Thunderbolt G-THUN, now finished as “Nellie”. With that in mind I felt that a look back at the wartime material for the Thunderbolt might be a good place to start.


The P-47 first flew in 1941 before entering service the following year. Even today this machine stands tall in the company of its contemporaries.


Any flight in the P-47 would be briefed to start like any other aircraft, with a full pre-flight inspection. Following this the pilot would begin the climb up into the cockpit, making use of the hand and foot holds on the left hand side of the fuselage. The Thunderbolt had a conventional cockpit and the usual checks would be made prior to start-up, ensuring the correct trim settings were set for take off.


Once ready to start a couple of pumps of the priming handle should be sufficient. The starter in the Thunderbolt has two stages, “energize” and “engage”. The energize function is used to build up inertia in the starter over a 20 second period, before the engage function turns the prop over. Once running the starter can be switched off and mixture should be set to AUTO. Being a radial engine, it is important that time is taken for the engine to warm up, typically over a three-minute period. Taxiing is carried out in the typical side to side fashion of tailwheel aeroplanes with the engine set at around 800rpm.


As many airshow attendees will be familiar with, the final stage before any flight is to carry out power checks. This is done by turning the aeroplane into wind, setting the brakes and setting the throttle to 2,000rpm. A check for each magneto is carried out to ensure both are working properly (manuals suggest that anything up to 60rpm between the magnetos is normal, while anything over 100rpm would cause concern). The electric contestant speed propeller is also exercised during this process.


Unsurprisingly, with such a heavy airframe, the pilots notes include a caution regarding take off length, ensuring that new trainees do not try to rush the take off process. Take off power of 54″ Manifold Pressure at 2,000rpm is set at the start of the take off role. While the aircraft could fly off at 100mph the manual encourages pilots to hold until 110mph before climbing through to climb speed of 140mph. The Thunderbolt is noted as being “sluggish” below 150mph.


Once in the cruise max continuous power is set of around 43″, with reduced propeller speed of 2,600rpm. This same power setting would also be used for aerobatics. These power settings could be less with a lighter aircraft. Basic aerobatics maneuvers were included in training manuals for the type, though excessive use was not encouraged and only a limited range of figures were permitted, with a strict altitude minimum of 8,000ft (10,000ft for later variants). One key message in all of the writing regarding aerobatics in the P-47 centres on momentum and the risks of having too much speed at the top of vertical manoeuvres, as the heavy airframe picks up speed at an “alarming rate”. A Split-S for example (rolling inverted and pulling through as if flying one half of a loop) would easily use up 4,000ft even with a starting speed of 200mph.


Barrel rolls could be flown with an entry speed between 200 and 300mph with a loop requiring about 350mph. At the top of the loop care needed to be taken to stop the aeroplane stalling and with any speed below 150mph students were encouraged to ease off pressure on the stick until speed increased, before throttling back in anticipation of the immense speed increase in the dive.


At the end of a flight, once in the circuit speed is reduced below 200mph, with the canopy open and gear lowered. Turns shouldn’t be attempted, the records state, below 150mph and flaps should not be introduced until the final turn, initially to 50% with full flap following if required. A three point landing is preferable, with a touchdown speed of around 110mph being ideal. Longer landing roll would result in a wheeler landing.


These posts are designed to offer a condensed insight into what the pilots of the era would have had to go through as part of a typical training flight at the time. It also offers a fascinating pilots eye view of operating these warbirds, as many operators today will make use of original documents as part of their flight operations.

I’d love to hear what you think of these features, so please let me know. I’d also encourage you to take a look online at some of the full pilots notes that are available from the period. They offer a truly impressive insight into operating these machines. 

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