Why were most early WW2 fighters designed with limited rear visibility?

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PlasticHero

Senior Airman
425
863
Jul 31, 2019
Pennsylvania, USA
This is a question that I have been curious about for years. The open cockpit planes had no structure behind the pilot so why did designers build closed cockpits with a high back? I'm going to put up 5 fighters that we all know and see how their designs differ with the year of first flight.
BF109.jpg

spitfire.jpg

me-190.jpg

mustang b.jpg

zero a6m2.jpg

Of all of these, only the Zero had good visibility and as the designs were modified over the years, bubble canopies were added to the Allied planes. I think the Germans didn't have time or resources to develop a low back. Even without the ability to produce the large one piece canopies, the Allies could have gone with the greenhouse design that the Japanese used. I'm sure the pilots would have always preferred to have better visibility, but there must have been some other reason the designers put a higher priority on. The only things I can think of is aerodynamic considerations to get a little more speed or possibly ease of production and lower cost. Anyone with other ideas or information? Thanks for your consideration.
 
When you consider that the Bf109 was the highest scorer of the war, and even with the Galland hood it went to late war, still had limited rear visibility.
I think the USA's aircraft with the most air to air kills, was the Hellcat, it also had not the best rearward visibility too.
Some pilots had rearview mirrors, not that effective maybe, but even civilian pilots know to S-turn to check their rear.
Most of the aircraft pretty early in the war started getting ever increasing back armor, sometimes very thick glass, but usually armor, that they couldn't see thru straight to the rear anyway.
So just how important was this good rearward vision ? You're still blind as far as downward vision in any low wing aircraft anyway, you can't see thru the wings or fuselage. You're dead meat if you're dumb enough to fly straight and level in hostile skies.
 
Hi,
I believe that there were some additional early war aircraft out there that "at least seemed to have" made an attempt at good rearward visibility, such as the Seversky P-35, the Bell P-39, and the Brewster F2A.

Seversky_P-35A_USAF.jpg
P-39N_Airacobra_of_the_357th_Fighter_Group_at_Hamilton_Field_in_July_1943.jpg
BrewsterBuffalosMkIRAAFSingaporeOctober1941.jpg


[Images via Wikipedia]
 
When you consider that the Bf109 was the highest scorer of the war, and even with the Galland hood it went to late war, still had limited rear visibility.
I think the USA's aircraft with the most air to air kills, was the Hellcat, it also had not the best rearward visibility too.
Some pilots had rearview mirrors, not that effective maybe, but even civilian pilots know to S-turn to check their rear.
Most of the aircraft pretty early in the war started getting ever increasing back armor, sometimes very thick glass, but usually armor, that they couldn't see thru straight to the rear anyway.
So just how important was this good rearward vision ? You're still blind as far as downward vision in any low wing aircraft anyway, you can't see thru the wings or fuselage. You're dead meat if you're dumb enough to fly straight and level in hostile skies.

Kinda ignores the point, even if your final sentence is dead-on true.
 
With shoulder straps on, your ability to twist in the seat and look behind you is limited, even if you have them loose, plus every aircraft has a headrest, that you can't see thru, especially after they started putting armor back there.

I notice the OP but dates on each aircraft that was off by several years for the actual model aircraft he shows.
He shows 1936 for the Spitfire, while showing as it was probably equipped in about 1942, with a Malcolm hood, and rearview mirror,
1940 for the Mustang, also with the Malcolm hood, and rearview mirror.
I've seen it stated the Malcolm hood gave almost as good a rear vision as the full bubble canopy, The bulge gave you enough room for you to tilt your head to the side, and look back and around the headrest/armor.

If you look at the early attempts for full vision cockpit, with frameworks.
Have you ever noticed how much can be hidden by the A-pillar, or windshield post in your car ? It'd be the same with all the framework to look thru.
As to why the designers never seemed to put much importance on 360 degree vision for the pilot.
Maybe because most had never been fighter pilots, and they usually designed to specific specifications, if it wasn't asked for they just did what they were familiar with.
.
 
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I think the main reason for the razorbacks is to do with aerodynamics, as the air moves more smoothly over the cockpit.

As to the chosen planes, I think the Fw-190 at least sits between the extremes. While the advantages, from plane to plane and in general can surely be debated, I personally have no doubt canopies allowing rear view had a clear advantage, and the true bubbles of course the most.

Of the list abowe the Ki-27 and Ki-43 were early at it, the much maligned Ki-43 even coming close to a bubble. I believe I managed to find an example of the Ki-43 I. It's not that I consider the Ki-43 flawless, and having mentioned the Ki-27 it is notable that this had nearly the performance of the Ki-43.

To converge on another thread drift, there seem to be good evidence that both were very lightly built.

As most fighters shot down probably never saw their attacker, every little extra chanse of spotting the bandit diving on you from abowe and behind should be considered welcome.

To further argue the point about all round vision being usefull, I don't think they cut down the rear fuselage of the Spitfire, the Typhoon, the P-51, the P-47, the Yak1, the La-5 and the Ki-61 II just to make them look cooler. Even the late Fw-190's got a small improvement and the issue was to some extent adressed on the Bf-109. As the example with the Bf-109 posted by Greg abowe, many more attempts were made, and I may easily have overlook more that also entered production.

Nakajima_Ki-43-I.jpg
 
When you consider that the Bf109 was the highest scorer of the war, and even with the Galland hood it went to late war, still had limited rear visibility.
I think the USA's aircraft with the most air to air kills, was the Hellcat, it also had not the best rearward visibility too.
Some pilots had rearview mirrors, not that effective maybe, but even civilian pilots know to S-turn to check their rear.
Most of the aircraft pretty early in the war started getting ever increasing back armor, sometimes very thick glass, but usually armor, that they couldn't see thru straight to the rear anyway.
So just how important was this good rearward vision ? You're still blind as far as downward vision in any low wing aircraft anyway, you can't see thru the wings or fuselage. You're dead meat if you're dumb enough to fly straight and level in hostile skies.
You have better visibility towards the rear and abowe, that should be considered one of the most dangerous directions.

The Bf-109 was a good fighter plane, for much of the war one of the very best. But the shot down most aircraft part is in my eyes a flawed argument. It helps being around while you overwhelm partly obsolete airforces, and for the whole duratin of the war. It also helps being produced in more numbers than any other fighter in history.

I'm not sure how good statistics we have of what aircraft was shot down the most, but for some of the reasons abowe, that does not outside og context demonstrate these aircraft were bad. If the Bf-109 is high on that list (and i have a suspiscion it is), that could be a combination of large numbers built, long service and indeed bad visibility aft. And a lot of other factors, which make assigning precise percentages to one or the other becomes impossible.

The Hellcat was not shot down in drowes, but its context was an entirely different one.
 
No one has mentioned the Westland Whirlwind. First flight 11 Oct 1938. Service entry mid-1940.

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One of the problems AIUI at this time was the difficulty in manufacturing complex large moulded plexiglass shapes of sufficient thickness to be strong enough to resist airflow pressures while remaining thin enough to minimise distortion when a pilot looked out through it.
 
Strap yourself into a seat and see how far aft you can usefully see: on that basis alone a 360-degree view is pointless, so the 'issue' isn't necessarily an issue.
Actually just strapping in isn't enough. Use your hands and elbows to push off one side to see out of the other. Once you have done it a few times, particularly with a grade sheet attached, you will get remarkably better in a very short time.
 

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