Duncan's Hot Rod

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2nd Lieutenant
May 30, 2011
Cape Canaveral
This is an excerpt from an article I wrote on the 9th PRS that was published in Air Classics.

It was on one of the recon missions over the Burma airfields in January 1943 that one F-4, S/N
1-2205, had to land at Agartala to refuel. The pilot, Lt. Phil Robertson, had the misfortune to arrive at the British airfield nearly simultaneously with a Japanese air attack. A force estimated at 26 Mitsubishi "Betty" bombers escorted by 40 Nakajima 'Oscar" fighters was inbound. The RAF hastily scrambled its available Curtiss Mohawk IV fighters to intercept the attack but they proved to be too little and too late. The ground crew quickly directed Robertson to a distant spot on the airfield and pushed the airplane under a large tree in an attempt to conceal it, but a string of Japanese fragmentation bombs came down, sending everyone running for the trenches. The nearby fuel truck exploded and the Lightning was peppered with shrapnel. Between attacks they managed to push the Lightning away from the conflagration just before the next string of bombs rained down. Everyone escaped relatively unhurt, but the F-4 was rendered completely unflyable.

Robertson caught a hop on a Lockheed Hudson back to Dum Dum and reported on the condition of his airplane. As badly as number 05 had been hit, the squadron was too short of airplanes to abandon the airplane. The squadron's engineering officer headed for Agartala, along with a couple of mechanics and a detailed set of instructions from Ward Duncan. They found 92 shrapnel holes in the airplane, including not only much of the structure, but the fuel, hydraulic, and cooling systems. They replaced a holed coolant radiator, and using sheet metal and rubber sheet made temporary repairs to the coolant tanks. The airplane made it into the air and limped, gear down, about 120 miles to a place where the damage could be repaired, the sub-depot Andal, about 30 miles up the Ganges River from Calcutta. There it would remain for the rest of the year.
The 9th PRS relocated to Barrackpore and not long after that they got a call from the sub-depot at Andal. The F-4 that had been damaged eleven months before was ready to be picked up. Ward Duncan and one of the more experienced 9th pilots both crammed into an F-4 and flew over to take a look.

The 9th maintenance chief was not pleased with what he found. The depot had indeed done a lot of work on the battered airplane but not all of it was of first quality. Holes had been patched, the outer wing panels and horizontal tail replaced with new P-38F spares, and new props and spinners installed. On the other hand, the original engines were still installed and neither had been preserved against corrosion nor even turned over periodically to keep them oiled during the eleven months the F-4 had sat in the depot. The metal work done on the aft booms was of poor quality, with putty applied in an attempt to cover over gaps around screw holes. The original laminated glass windshield had been removed to use as a replacement on a damaged P-38H fighter, its frame had been bent and the laminated windshield had been replaced with a simple sheet of Plexiglas.

Ward told the depot personnel that given the condition of the Lightning he could not accept it. Their response was "Take it! Please! It's nothing but a hangar queen. We're tired of working on the thing. It's already been taken off the books. You won't even have to sign for it. Maybe you can tear it down for spares. Anyway, just get it out of here!"

Now, Ward was not one to ever throw anything useful away. Not only that, he knew the P-38E and F-4's were essentially prewar aircraft, built before wartime urgency forced compromises in Lockheed's production lines. The fit and finish of the earlier Lightnings was actually better than the later models, with tighter tolerances and more extensive use of flush fasteners. Besides that, with an airplane that was off the books, he could try out some ideas borne of the 9th's experiences.

It was deal Ward could not pass up. The 9th pilot fired up the twin Allisons and headed for his home base. On the way he found more problems. The airspeed indicator was dead; it turned out that the pitot lines had not been hooked up. The bomb shrapnel had torn a hole in the right engine turbosupercharger manifold; it had not been repaired. The wounded Lightning limped into Barrackpur and Ward and his men started to work. And so was born Duncan's Hot Rod.

The badly patched aft booms were replaced with new ones. A proper windshield was installed, along with the other features of a P-38G canopy. When it came to the powerplants and their accessories, Ward had a treasure trove of parts to use to use as a result of an accident that had occurred at Barrackpore. A C-46 had been taking off and lost power on one engine. The Curtiss Commando careened into two brand new, just assembled P-38J fighters. All three airplanes were virtually wiped out, but Ward was able to salvage some of the undamaged parts for his special project.

They yanked the old "E" model engines and replaced them with new V-1710-89/91 models, the much more powerful 1425 hp powerplants the new P-38J's were equipped with. The engine change caused other modifications. New, late model turbosuperchargers were installed to match the engines. While the "F" model wings the depot had put on the old bird came equipped with the improved wing leading edge intercoolers, the more powerful engines would need better cooling. The P-38J's had a new cooling system design that brought the radiators further out into the air stream. Experiments with aircraft such as the P-51 had shown that by moving the air intake out away from the aircraft's surface, the fast moving and more useful air could be separated from the slower boundary layer and cooling effectiveness could be improved dramatically, even with the same size radiator. Ward Duncan put the salvaged P-38J airscoops and radiators on the F-4.

They didn't stop there. The crew yanked out the armor plate and most of the radio systems. The Hot Rod would need neither for how they planned to use it, and there were no radio navaids to speak of in Burma anyway. To replace the radios they installed only one of the new VHF radios. They stripped off the olive drab paint that had disguised the upper surfaces and the dull gray paint that had covered the bottom, leaving the airplane in a bare aluminum finish. They way the 9th planned to use the airplane, it wouldn't matter if the airplane wasn't camouflaged; more than likely the Japanese would never see it coming and would be unable to touch it if they did.

The P-38 was almost the perfect photo plane. It had speed, altitude capability, long range in the later models, and room to install large cameras, but it had one flaw for the reconnaissance role. The pilot couldn't see the target. Viewing the ground had not been a requirement for Lockheed's original design for a high altitude interceptor. The broad wings, long nose, and twin engines blocked the downward view so effectively that recon pilots had to approach the target at a 90 degree angle, roll out on a heading that would hopefully take them over the objective, and trigger the cameras using guess by golly estimation. The nose landing gear installation made it impossible to even put a window in the belly to help the pilot get lined up on the target. Ward had even experimented with adding a downward looking periscope to one airplane, but that approach had proved to be a marginal solution at best.

For the Hot Rod they installed a 40 inch focal length camera angled forward, down at a slight angle and along the flight path, so that it could be aimed more or less like a gun. The camera could be used to take long distance photos at a flat angle, the pilot flying the airplane directly at the target that he could observe over the nose in slight dive. Using this stand-off approach, a recon plane could avoid the target area entirely, so no armor plate was required. This would be particularly useful for one tough target in particular, Mandalay, Burma, where the antiaircraft fire had proved to be unusually intense and accurate. A camera sight taken from a hand-operated aerial camera was mounted above the F-4's instrument panel, rather like a gunsight, so that the pilot could line up on the target. As it turned out Lockheed adopted much the same camera idea in the last recon model Lightning built, the F-5G, which had a redesigned nose with a somewhat similar forward looking downward angled camera.

The result of all of their efforts was one screamer of an airplane, much lighter, more streamlined, and at least as powerful than any other Lightning in the sky: Duncan's Hot Rod. The Hot Rod was probably the oldest P-38 flying combat missions at the time, but it outran everything else around. It cruised faster, flew higher, and climbed like the proverbial bat out of hell. Nothing else in the theater – Allied or Japanese - could touch it, and on one mission a 9th pilot really proved it.

The RAF in India suffered through much of the war being supplied with leftovers and cast-offs. They used whatever they could get hold of. Initially they were given Curtiss Mohawk IV fighters originally ordered by the French – export models of the P-36 that even the USAAF had considered obsolete before the war began. They were forced to make do with other old airplanes that found their way to the theater after being worn out in Mediterranean battles. Hawker Hurricanes were the RAF's mainstay in India and Burma for both air defense and ground attack long after they were no longer considered to be first line aircraft in Europe. In September 1943, the British sent Mark V Spitfires to India, a model that had been obsolete for two years in Europe; they were still a vast improvement over the older machines.. Finally, in early 1944 the British units started getting some new, late model equipment, and they were proud of it.

On the way back from Burma, 41-2205 stopped to refuel at a British base. There the 9th pilot was challenged to an aerial drag race. The RAF unit there was newly equipped with late model Spitfires, Mark VIII's with better streamlining and two-stage supercharged Merlin engines. The RAF pilots were eager to show off their new equipment and knew they had an airplane that could beat anything else in the theater; they had proved that in their initial battles with the Japanese. The proud Spitfire pilot looked at the old Lightning and decided it was an easy mark.

"It'll be no contest." the 9th pilot replied. "That airplane is stripped, no guns, no armor, fewer cameras than normal and I'm not carrying any drop tanks on this mission."

The RAF pilot insisted. He knew what his new Spit could do. He just didn't know what Duncan's Hot Rod was capable of. He found out.

41-2205 had been built in 1941; by wartime standards it was positively ancient. More than simply old, '05 had experienced a particularly hard service life. It had been hacked apart by stevedores that knew nothing about airplanes, reassembled using parts that Lockheed never intended to fit in a Lightning, and had flown missions in some of the most rugged conditions to be found anywhere. It had been turned into a sieve by the Japanese, was stripped of parts to repair other fighters and absorbed countless depot man-hours in an attempt to get it flying again before the 9th finished the job on its own – and under field conditions, using parts from wrecks. True to the squadron insignia painted on its nose, Duncan's Hot Rod really did have nine lives, but in any other theater of war it would have long since been consigned to the scrap heap.

The Spitfire VIII was one hot airplane, fast, highly maneuverable, a brilliantly designed engine in a sleek beautiful airframe. Descended from the Mark VII, a special high altitude model that was designed to intercept the German Ju-86P at altitudes well over 40,000 ft, the Mark VIII could easily outclimb even the vaunted P-51D Mustang.

And that old F-4 ran away from the brand new Spitfire like the British airplane was standing still.

The Hot Rod was the highest performing airplane that the 9th ever flew, but unfortunately it was not the most successful of recon aircraft. The radical forward-looking camera required the replacement of the sleek, low drag original installation with a relatively blunt nose. That aerodynamic change set up buffeting that destroyed the airplane's effectiveness as a high speed photo plane, so the 9th and refitted a couple of conventional vertical cameras. But the situation in Burma was changing and so were the 9th's photo missions. Early in 1944 the USAAF's 5318 Air Force Unit, which became known as the Air Commandos, arrived in India. Led by Col Philip Cochran, the Air Commandos began supporting deep incursions by the Chindits into Burma to disrupt enemy communications and supply lines. In addition to the Chindit hit and run raids, Chinese and U.S. troops led by General Stilwell pushed into Burma. In response, the Japanese tried an invasion of India, but it failed. By May 1944 Allied forces had retaken enough of the country to enable new air supply routes to be opened to China, routes less hazardous and more efficient than the Hump. The 9th's reconnaissance efforts were needed to support all of the new action, and much of it was more tactical in nature, missions for which the Lightning was not particularly well suited, but carried out anyway.

Early in 1944 the 9th began to get more airplanes, F-5B models based on the new P-38J with revised chin-mounted intercoolers and more fuel capacity in the leading edges of the wings. The need for the Hot Rod was diminished, and eventually '05 was fitted with a second seat behind the cockpit to serve as a general purpose hack, trainer, and high speed transport, replacing one of the other more ragged old F-4's which had been used for that purpose.

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