Retired engineer reflects on his innovations that helped win WWII

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Pacific Historian
Jun 4, 2005
Orange County, CA
From todays OC Register.
Article - News - Plane and simple

Theres a video clip of the P38 at Chino on the webpage for this story.

Plane and simple
Retired engineer reflects on his innovations that helped win WWII
The Orange County Register
Bruce Bauer has gotten over Howard Hughes stealing his girlfriend, but he can't shake another passion from 70 years ago.

A retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, age 94, Bauer still has a gleam in his eye when he sees a P-38 Lightning fighter plane, which he helped design at age 24.

Most recently, he gets that look during a date with two of the World War II aircraft at the Planes of Fame air museum in Chino. The P-38 named "23 Skidoo" is there with the P-38 "Glacier Girl," which is visiting before it heads to England.

The sight of their 52-foot wingspans side-by-side on the tarmac takes Bauer back to 1937, when his engineering skills earned him a job at Lockheed Aircraft in Burbank. There, for five years, he worked with Lockheed colleagues as the team turned the P-38 into a 400-mph fighter with a 1,300-mile-plus range. In 1943, that made the P-38 the plane of choice for a mission to shoot down Japan's top admiral.

Bauer's job also let him hang out with eccentric billionaire aviator Howard Hughes, who would visit him at Lockheed to chat about engines and, yes, would steal his girl.

These days, when Bauer needs a ride he gets it from his 66-year-old buddy, Don Zweifel of Placentia, whom he met 40 years ago when they both worked at Hughes Aircraft in Newport Beach.

For a March 31 fundraising dinner at the Planes of Fame museum, Zweifel picks him up at his home in Santa Ana, where the living room is filled with models of P-38s, paintings of P-38s, books about World War II aircraft, and a video of Leonardo DiCaprio playing Howard Hughes in the movie "The Aviator."

Before the festivities begin in Chino, Bauer uses his walker to inch his way over to the odd-looking planes. Each P-38 has a pair of engines and a pair of tails, connected by two tubes, called booms. That design, he explains, streamlines air flow from the engines, along the booms, and past the twin tails.

"It makes a more formidable airplane," Bauer says. "If you stuck the engines under the wings, it wouldn't perform worth a hoot or a holler."

The design made the P-38s formidable enough to shoot down 1,800 Japanese aircraft, provide air support during D-Day, and protect Allied bombers over Germany. It's not a feat that brought fame to Bauer, although he helped make it possible.


He had moved to California in the midst of the Depression with a talent for math, a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Colorado, and self-confidence gained from building and flying his first plane – a glider – when he was still a student

He won his Lockheed job in 1937 by placing third-highest on an engineering test. From there, he moved up to become senior liaison engineer in 1940. Among Lockheed's 200 engineers, 19 reported to him, coordinating airplane designers and the P-38 assembly line.

Sixty-seven years later, he sits on a folding chair under the wing of Glacier Girl, looking around at changes he made that helped transform the P-38 into a long-range, high-speed fighter.

One redesign increased the plane's speed and range by making more room for fuel tanks and by compressing the air flowing into the engines, which fed them more oxygen.

"The other engineers didn't understand the thermodynamics," he says, "so I had to reverse the flow of the air." That change improved the performance of newly installed turbosuperchargers, a system that raised the speed of the plane from 304 mph to more than 400 mph.

He also helped design a combat power system that gave the plane a 300-horsepower boost by injecting methanol and water into the engine.

"You could only use it for about 15 minutes, or you'd blow the engine up," Bauer says.

Because of Bauer and his team, Glacier Girl is lighter and nimbler than Lockheed's first version.

"It was supposed to be a 10,000-pound airplane, but the first one weighed more than 14,000 pounds. It was over-designed," he says. So Bauer replaced steel with aluminum and bored hundreds of holes in wing spars and ribs.

Zweifel – Bauer's No. 1 fan – jumps in: "Let's tell him what you really did: You raised the horsepower from 900 up to 1,325 horsepower. You knocked more than 2,000 pounds off the airframe. You turned an aircraft that was only suitable for low-level close-air support into a high-altitude strategic fighter with a range up to 3,000 miles with drop tanks."

Is Bauer proud of that?

"That's part of it," he says. "I just wanted to do something others couldn't … and I did."

In early 1943, Bauer left Lockheed to help with the Allied war effort in India. After the war, he worked at Douglas Aircraft, Northrop, Hughes Aircraft and North American Aviation.


But the Lockheed job is what linked him to history in the making. Through it, Bauer was connected to two imposing characters in aviation – Hughes, who used his wealth to build record-setting airplanes, and Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the air attack on Pearl Harbor.

"Hughes would come and sit on Bruce's desk and talk about fast cars, fast planes and fast women – not necessarily in that order," Zweifel says.

Bauer restored five World War I-era Nieuport fighters and built a race-car engine for Hughes.

At the time, Bauer's girlfriend Margie Slausen was a showgirl – and Hughes loved showgirls. Hughes won her away from Bauer, but soon dumped her. Later, Bauer helped her find a job, then washed his hands of her.

"She thought maybe we would get married," Bauer recalls, "but I said, 'I don't think so.' I introduced her to a buddy of mine, a Navy pilot. They got married and had a little girl. I said, 'Bye-bye.' "

In contrast to Hughes, Yamamoto was a man Bauer knew only from a distance. But their lives were fatally connected on April 18, 1943.

On that day, Yamamoto planned a morale-boosting visit to a base in the Solomon Islands. After American forces decoded a message revealing his flight plan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved a mission to shoot him down.

Only the P-38 had the range for a 1,000-mile round-trip between the American base on Guadalcanal and Yamamoto's flight. Sixteen P-38s intercepted him, sending the Japanese admiral's plane crashing into the jungle.

Because Yamamoto was chief strategist for the Japanese navy, Zweifel calls that attack "the most spectacular success the P-38 ever had. After that raid, the Japanese never won another major battle." Because Bauer helped give the P-38 its range, Zweifel declares, "Bruce, through the P-38, helped shorten the war."

Bauer puts it less dramatically. After all, he's an engineer.

"My designs made a superior airplane," he says. "I just felt good that it did what I said that it could do."

Then he grips his walker and shuffles into the airplane museum, ready for dinner.


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Great article! An amazing plane he helped to build.

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