The Blackburn Firebrand; Complete Dog or Critical Strategic Asset?

September 15, 2022

It is quite fashionable to deride the British aircraft manufacturer, Blackburn. Heck, I’ve done it myself. But though the company certainly did build some absolute howlers, not all the criticism aimed at them is necessarily fair. And it could be contended that this aircraft, the Blackburn Firebrand, is a good example of this.

 

Generally accused of being a poor performer, late into service and essentially obsolete when it got there, the Firebrand is often held up as an example of the sort of dogs Blackburn built. But the history of this aircraft is far more nuanced than is normally considered.

For starters, if there is one aircraft that typifies a design that was utterly messed about because of the customer not just changing specification, but the intended role, it is the Firebrand.

The roots of this aircraft go back to a requirement issued by the British Air Ministry in March 1939 for a new carrier-based two-seat turret fighter to replace the Blackburn Roc in service with the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm (FAA).

However, with the outbreak of the Second World War in September the FAA found that their prewar theories and planning for the conduct of modern aerial warfare were somewhat out of date and incorrect.

Firstly, the Royal Air Force had been expected to provide the interceptor defence for the Royal Navies fleet anchorages. But the RAF were to be pretty busy through 1940, what with the Battle of Britain and all, and this meant that often they were overstretched. This in turn meant that the FAA became responsible for the protection of the critical naval base in Northern Scotland, Scapa Flow, where their Rocs proved utterly useless.

All this led to an appreciation by the Fleet Air Arm that 1) the turret fighter was a waste of time and 2) they had to have their own interceptor. This led to a fresh specification being issued for a powerfully armed single-seat fighter that was to be carrier capable.

Blackburn switched their efforts to this new requirement, beginning development in July 1940. Even though the conflict was raging, and every available resource was being directed to the war effort, Blackburn actually managed to design, build and fly their first prototype in just over a year and half.

The aircraft was company designated as the B-37 and in July 1941 was given the official name of “Firebrand”.

 

This was a rather elegant aircraft that has a look similar to the Martin Baker MB.3, which flew a few months after the Firebrand. That probably shouldn’t be surprising as both were designed around the same engine; the Napier Sabre, a 24-cylinder, water-cooled H-block design.

In terms of the aircraft’s construction, the Firebrand used an interesting mixed method, with the front section of the fuselage being of circular cross section and being built with a tubular steel frame on which detachable metal skin panels were mounted. But behind the cockpit the fuselage thinned to an oval section and was constructed as a stressed-skin semi-monocoque.

To improve the view for the pilot when approaching for a carrier landing, the radiators were installed in the wing roots, with the wings themselves also being foldable for storage. The undercarriage was wide-based for best stability, the tail wheel retractable for stream lining and the speedometer mounted outside the cockpit and in the pilots eye view so they didn’t have to look down into the cockpit when on approach. All in all, the design seemed pretty well thought out for its role.

First flight of the prototype took place in February 1942 and initially the aircraft proved disappointing, not reaching the hoped-for high speeds that had been projected. But these initial flights were conducted with the Sabre Mk.II, and once the Mk.III was fitted, which had been designed for use in the Firebrand and which produced 2,305hp, the first service aircraft registered a top speed of 358mph (576 km/h).

 

For a naval interceptor in 1942 equipped with four 20mm cannon this was pretty respectable, especially considering how quickly Blackburn had turned the aircraft out, and the company was all set to begin building the new fighter, with the British Air Ministry ordering fifty.

Unfortunately, 1942 was going to be the year that things started to go awry for the Firebrand.

Firstly, though its design and development had been quick, it hadn’t been quick enough. The Royal Navy, really wanting that high performance capacity NOW, had pushed extremely hard for a navalized Spitfire to be produced for their needs. In January 1942, the first of the Seafire’s began to enter service, and while this aircraft could never be described as the ideal carrier aircraft, being somewhat delicate and tricky to operate at sea, it had comparable performance and armament.

 

But much more importantly, it was effectively in full scale production, with thousands of Spitfires in service and in production from which Seafire’s could be built.

On top this the Ministry of Aircraft dropped a whammy. As they didn’t need another carrier fighter/interceptor, what with the Seafire coming into service, what they really wanted was as many of the new Fairey Barracuda attack aircraft as could be built. In fact, Westland Aircraft had been expected to be a major producer but they, ironically, were flat out building Seafires, so Blackburn needed to take up the slack. This they did, and seven hundred Barracuda’s would be built be the company.

But it did put a crimp in their own production plans as regards to building their own types, and so only nine of the Firebrand Mk.Is would be built.

 

Obviously, this was not enough for service use, and the aircraft would all be used as testbeds at various research facilities.

But Blackburn were left with an aircraft essentially fully developed and in low-rate production, but which now had no role. So, the Air Ministry had a think about this and suggested that Blackburn take their single-seat high-performance interceptor and instead convert it into a torpedo attack aircraft, with the remaining surplus on their order being built to this new standard.

Now, there is a reason why so many torpedo aircraft in that era were large, multicrew aircraft; these types had to carry heavy loads over long distances of featureless water, which required plenty of fuel and really a dedicated navigator. Ironically, it was this factor that was the reason that the Fleet Air Arm had generally relied on two-seat fighters in the pre-war era…you know, three years before.

And now the idea was to use a sleek short-range, high-performance single-seat interceptor for the job. Well, Blackburn evidently thought “Why not?” and got on with converting one of the prototypes. This involved rebuilding the centreline of the aircraft by widening and strengthening it to accommodate a standard 18” aerial torpedo. This, designated as the Firebrand Torpedo-Fighter (TF) Mk.II, first flew at the end of March 1943.

And it seemed pretty good. Performance wasn’t impacted greatly, and the Mk.II proved capable of both lugging around the 1,850lb torpedo and of dropping it. They also had the option of having wing racks installed for the carriage of two 500lb bombs.

On paper at least, the aircraft looked like a pretty solid fighter bomber. With performance still appearing good enough to hold its own against contemporary fighters, plus a respectable load carrying ability, there was a fair bit going for the Firebrand TF Mk.II.

But again, circumstance conspired against it. Twelve of these aircraft were completed but that would be the total number of the Mk.II produced, because again, the priorities of the Air Ministry changed.

The Sabre engine was proving problematic both in development and in getting into production, and that in turn was threatening a new aircraft that was considered critical for requirements – the Hawker Typhoon.

 

This was needed to replace the aging Hurricane and having, along with its powerplant, several teething problems. As a result, the Air Ministry told Blackburn that the Sabre engine was no longer an option as all were being allocated to the Typhoon. Instead of the sleek Sabre they’d have to use the Bristol Centaurus radial.

Now, there are cases were fitting a radial engine to an aircraft designed for a streamlined inline does work very well. But those cases are so notable because this is generally not the case. And, I’m afraid, it certainly impacted the Firebrand negatively, which shouldn’t be all that surprising, really.

That had, after all, been designed to be as streamlined as possible expressly around the Sabre engine and fitting the bulky Centaurus would require a major redesign not just of the engine fittings but also of the cooling systems.

But with a specification issued for just that in October 1943, Blackburn set to work on what would become the Firebrand TF Mk.III, which because of its much-changed nature over the original specification and design, was company designated as the B-45.

 

The Air Ministry had 27 aircraft remaining on the original order – which to remind you was first issued in 1941 – and so decided to use up this on Mk. III’s. By converting two of the MK. Is, the prototypes of this type were able to be flown in a comparatively short time, getting airborne in late December 1943.

But issues with testing and the complications of fitting the new engine (initially the Centaurus Mk.VII that produced 2,400hp) all meant that the first production aircraft were not flown until November 1944.

The results were not great. Top speed dropped from the Mk.II’s 355mph (571km/h) to 319mph (513km/h) in the Mk.III. Visibility for the pilot on landing was also very poor, though the cutting down of the rear fuselage and fitting of a bubble canopy gave him better views when flying.

But worse, the new engine produced much more torque than the original Sabre, which greatly complicated take off from an aircraft carrier and gave the TF Mk.III a rather vicious stalling character. Two test pilots were killed trialing the new aircraft, and all this meant that the new design needed constant reworks to try and actually make it viable.

But it never was, and the twenty-seven production aircraft were basically retained for experimentation and trials work so that Blackburn could get the design right.

This culminated in the first version of the aircraft to actually get into frontline service, the Firebrand TF. Mk. IV, which first flew in May 1945 – a mere five years after Blackburn had started working on the original design. To draw a line under the whole Mk. III affair, Blackburn designated the aircraft as the B-46.

 

The Mk. IV had a range of improvements to offset the engine torque, mainly improvements to flaps and much-enlarged tail fin and stabilizers. The engine was now the Centaurus IX, which produced 2,520hp. This improved performance, and the Mk.IV and follow on Mk.V had top speeds of around 340mph (547km/h).

These aircraft had their capacity as strike aircraft increased, with the ability to dive-bomb being added with the inclusion of dive-brakes, and payload increased. The Firebrand Mk.IV and -V’s could carry a torpedo, or else two 2,000-lb bombs under the wings, or 16 RP-3 air-to-ground rockets, in addition to the four 20mm cannon. The aircraft also had the ability to carry drop tanks under the wings and fuselage for increased range.

 

Now seeming to be ready for use and a role foreseen in the upcoming expected invasion of Japan, the Air Ministry ordered 250 Firebrand TF MK. IV’s. The first of these entered service with 813 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm, on the 1st of September, 1945… just one day before the surrender of Japan.

Thus it was that the Firebrand is an aircraft that basically started its development at the beginning of the war, and yet managed to miss the whole show. Orders for the Firebrand were cut to just 170 aircraft, being comprised of 103 Mk. IV’s and 67 of the improved Mk.Vs and VA’s, with 63 of Mk.IV’s also converted to these types.

With the end of war pressure was off to deploy the aircraft into squadron service, and testing continued.

But even before this, the legacy of the Firebrand had been established. Because one of the pilots who flew the Firebrand’s in their early trials was Eric “Winkle” Brown. If you are unfamiliar with the name, well, he holds the record for the most carrier landings and take offs…and the most types of aircraft flown…and a whole bunch of other records. Seriously, just look him up.

But Brown was, essentially, one of the most experienced pilots to have ever flown, especially when it came to carrier aircraft. And he slated the Firebrand.

In his words the aircraft was “a disaster as a deck-landing aircraft” and “…short of performance, [and] lacking in manoeuvrability, especially in rate of roll”. It is Brown’s opinion that has largely coloured the perceptions of this aircraft.

The Firebrand finally went to sea in 1947 aboard HMS Illustrious with 813 Squadron. They would serve in European waters until 1953, when they would be replaced by the Westland Wyvern – a service life of only six years.

So, there we have the Firebrand – late into service and then only for a short time, and with a poor reputation due to the criticism of one of the most famous pilots in history. Blackburn, it seemed, had pulled a Blackburn.

And this leads to a question that confuses many people. Why, if the aircraft was such a dog, did the Royal Navy bother with it at all?

Well, maybe because it ultimately wasn’t as bad as is now portrayed and performed a critical role for the Royal Navy that is generally no longer appreciated.

The Firebrand has a bad reputation largely because of the losses experienced during development and its service life and because of the opinion of Winkle Brown. But in reality these were on par with carrier aircraft generally, and in fact the Firebrand suffered less than either the Seafire, which was always acknowledged as an iffy aircraft on a carrier, but also the Vought F4U Corsair.

 

That too suffered a comparatively heavy loss rate in accidents but is now considered one of the most famous examples of a carrier fighter-bomber.

Additionally, the Firebrand’s reputation in service was far more nuanced. As said, Winkle Brown’s widely quoted critiques are scathing. But as naval historian Matthew Willis points out in his article in Hush Kit, Brown’s assessment doesn’t square with other statements that he wrote about the Firebrand, which now are often overlooked.

For example, Brown also wrote that the Firebrand was “A competent enough aeroplane” and that it was “…shaping up into a strike aircraft with a useful performance, and light and effective controls”.

Willis states that it seems that much of Browns’ criticism of the Firebrand was based around his perception of it as a strike-fighter, with emphasis on the latter component. And that, by the Mk.IV and -V, that wasn’t the important thing. What the Royal Navy wanted was a high-performance anti-ship aircraft for potential use against the powerful surface fleet that the Soviet Navy was apparently planning.

With the end of the Second World War the Soviets acquired numbers of capital ships as war reparations and began to develop ideas for fielding their own blue water fleets. These were projected to contain powerful ships such as the Stalingrad battlecruiser, aircraft carriers and large numbers of cruisers that could act as commerce raiders.

The construction of the Sverdlov-class, powerful light cruisers that could outgun or outrun their Western contemporaries bought back the Royal Navy’s nightmares that they had had over German warships built before both the First-and-Second World Wars. To demonstrate the influence the Sverdlov had on the Royal Navy, these ships would lead to the building of the Tiger-class cruisers and the famous Blackburn Buccaneer strike aircraft.

But in the late-1940s and early 1950s, it was the Firebrand that performed this job as Britain’s front line of naval defence. It was for this reason that the Firebrand did not see use in Korea, that conflict being left to aircraft like the Seafire and the Hawker Fury – because the Firebrand was needed for home defence and to counter the growing Soviet naval strength.

 

Because what the Firebrand could do, was carry a torpedo faster than any existing aircraft at low level, where it was also capable of surprising agility, as was demonstrated at the Radlett air show in 1946 when one gave a demonstration of low-level acrobatics whilst carrying a torpedo.

Pilots who flew the Firebrand also show a more balanced view of the aircraft, and while it was acknowledged to have poor deck-landing abilities it also was a tremendously strong aircraft that could do the job expected of it.

As for its short service life, well, its successor, the Wyvern only lasted five years and I’d argue that the short life spans of both aircraft are another demonstration of how fast aero technology was moving in the post-WW2 world.

To conclude, perhaps it is time for a more thorough re-examination of the Firebrand’s history and reputation.

Sources/Related:

Despite what you’ve heard, the Blackburn Firebrand was NOT terrible, here’s why…

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackburn_Firebrand

https://www.baesystems.com/en/heritage/blackburn-b37-firebrand

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