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1/48 Monogram Bell AiraMamba

(Or: Frank Whittles' Holiday)

Gallery Article by Alvis 3.1 on July 1 2011

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As the ocean liner plowed through the choppy North Atlantic, a morose and dispirited Flight Lt. Frank Whittle lounged about on the deck, wondering how it had all gone wrong. He had come up with a brilliant design, surely, for aircraft propulsion, but why did nobody in the RAF or industry want to back him? He'd had some initial interest, but the money soon dried up and the RAF had demanded he return to a more lucrative field of endeavour, namely, being a flight officer. After losing most of his own money, and much of various partners, Frank Whittle was not looking forward to being posted as a line pilot, even though he'd been promised one of the new Hurricane squadrons everyone was so eager to join. But not Frank, in fact, he'd become totally obsessed with jet engines, and spent  much of his time doing drawings and trying to convince others he knew what he was talking about, and in the end, suffered a nervous breakdown and was placed on medical leave. Unable to face family in the UK, he made his way to the USA...which is how he wound up looking at the stormy North Atlantic in the fall of 1937....

His second cousin lived in upstate New York, far removed from the busy worlds of European military affairs, or so Frank thought. It turned out their neighbor was a designer at Bell Aviation, which in the fall of 1937 was desperately trying to break into the lucrative business of supplying new fighters to the USAAC. He too was frustrated by the lack of vision in the higher echelons: he wanted to supercharge the engine so it would operate at high altitude, but the upper management of the Air Corps failed to see the need for that capability. One blustery day, Frank was over at the neighbors playing Gin Rummy and was asked if he knew anything about airplane design, specifically, turbocharging; Frank not only knew, he'd been planning for years to replace the reciprocating engine with something more powerful, yet lighter: Jets!

Taken onto the Bell Design Group as an "associate designer", Whittle began to incorporate his knowledge with some serious American investment. Roosevelt had begun ramping up production for the military, and Bell dropped out of their attempt for a new fighter to privately fund a new, amazing plane: The P-52A AiraMamba.

Using the basic P-39 Airacobra fuselage and wing, instead of a mid mounted inline engine it now sported a mid mounted axial flow jet engine. Frank Whittle had realised early on that the axial flow engines were the best for low drag and smaller aircraft, and with the vast resources of Bell Aircraft behind him he could research at a level unheard of in the UK. With a crash program started in early 1938, by the summer of 1939 Bell was already producing aircraft for the USAAC and the RAF, who despite their initial skepticism, had been persuaded to buy several squadrons worth of these fast planes by Lord Beaverbrooke. Kept secret, their initial debut was to not happen until summer, 1940...over Kent.

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We of course are all familiar with the stories of how these little interceptors, along with Spitfires and Hurricanes, turned back the Nazi tide in the Battle of Britain, and how the utter destruction of the Luftwaffe bomber fleets, and their fighter escorts, so badly damaged Germany's ability to wage war that the Army overthrew Hitler in 1941 and sued for peace. What is little known is how close it came to never being built.

The AiraMamba ushered in jet engines into the RAF, and it also introduced the .50 caliber gun as an aircraft weapon in the RAF. Concerned with the high closing rates afforded by the jet fighter, Bell designers added 2 .50 caliber guns to the nose of the plane, allowing much higher damage per hit than the rifle calibre .303 guns preferred by the RAF. After a few initial combats, most of the experienced pilots had the outer .303s removed, and more ammo was carried for the .50s. They were amazingly lethal against the He-111s and the Do-17s, and soon were adopted as normal guns for Spitfires and Hurricanes. This was to be fortuituous, with events unfolding in Aisa...but that's another story.

Here we see an RAF AiraMamba about to take off on Sept 2, 1940, on one of its' first operational sorties. The extreme short duration of the plane, due to the thirsty nature of the Allison J-2 engine caused the AiraMambas to be based very close to the southern coast, and on 30 second alert for many weeks during 1940. Few were ever caught on the ground, as they "climbed like a scalded angel".

The Kit:
Classic era Monogram P-39 with some surgery. Lopped off the wingtips, added a exhaust nozzle from plastic tubing, intakes from a T-33 (Academy I think) and the nose was faired in using a large bomb from an F-84. The windscreen was from a P-51, and the canopy was made by carving a balsa master and heat forming a clear section. Decals are from Aviagraphics, very nice indeed, and slipper tanks are resin aftermarket from the spare bin.

The little people are from the Eduard 1940 RAF crew set.

Alvis 3.1

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Photos and text by Alvis 3.1

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