On June 20th, 1926, the Curtiss A-18 Shrike was test flown by Glenn Martin, a wealthy businessman. The prototype of the A-18 was a biplane, powered by a Curtiss V-8 liquid cooled engine. The A-18 was built to be able to drop bombs from the air, and larger bombs were later added to the design. After the tests, the A-18 was taken back to the factory to be replaced with a more conventional aircraft, but it was soon followed by the Curtiss XP-38. The XP-38 was the first American fighter to fly without a ceiling. The XP-38 was also the first American fighter to use a liquid-cooled engine.

The Curtiss A-18 Shrike was a three-seat biplane designed by Glenn H. Curtiss in 1933. It was the first aircraft to use a long-span, welded steel-tube fuselage instead of fabric covering. The first prototype A-18 (the first aircraft designed by Curtiss in years) flew in March 1934. Unfortunately, the A-18 was a major disappointment, as it was very difficult to fly. The second prototype used a new, more powerful engine, but was still fatally flawed in flight tests in early 1935. The third prototype, the A-18-3, had a new wingspan, which was longer than that of the A-18-2, and the wingspan was reduced in

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The A-18 proved that a six-ton twin-engine attack plane could do the job, albeit being less successful than Messerschmitt’s Bf-110.

During the mid-1920s, all-metal construction, enclosed cockpits, retractable landing gear, flaps, and other aids to improved speed, range, and altitude were generally discarded in favor of all-metal construction, enclosed cockpits, retractable landing gear, flaps, and other aids to improved speed, range, and altitude. Fighter prototypes for four significant foreign aircraft, including the Messerschmitt Bf-109, Hawker Hurricane, Supermarine Spitfire, and Mitsubishi A5M, flew for the first time in the years 1935 and 1936.

With the development of more powerful engines, it appeared that adaptable twin-engine aircraft might compete with fighters in terms of speed and maneuverability while also outperforming them in terms of range and load-carrying capability. On May 12, 1936, Germany first flew the Messerschmitt Bf-110, which was designed to serve as a long-range escort fighter, while France developed the Potez 63. The Messerschmitt did not fare well as an escort fighter, but it excelled as a night fighter workhorse. When it came to combat, however, the beautiful Potez proved to be nothing more than a gorgeous face.

Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company in the United States had concluded that its all-metal attack planes, the A-8 and A-12 Shrikes, were barking up the wrong tree. Curtiss made a 180-degree shift by hiring Donavan R. Berlin as its chief engineer to turn things around. Berlin, whose credo was “design for producibility,” had previously worked for Northrop Corporation as head engineer. He had pioneered metal construction on the Alpha, Beta, and Gamma models, as well as contributed to the design of nifty-looking but ultimately failed fighters like the XFT-1, working closely with Jack Northrop. Berlin, a burly, affable man, arrived to Curtiss with a mission to return the corporation to first place in the fighter and attack markets.

 

By the fall of 1935, the Model 75, which evolved into the P-36 and eventually into the P-40, and the Model 76, a twin-engine cantilever-wing monoplane that became the Curtiss A-18, had flown for the first time in Berlin. It appeared to be a winner, but it was not destined to be as successful as the Model 75 for a variety of reasons.

Both planes were cantilever monoplanes made entirely of metal, using the same robust techniques that Berlin had pioneered at Northrop. Both aircraft had enclosed cockpits, retractable landing gear, and contemporary engines. The small shape of the Model 75 offered maneuverability if not blinding speed. The twin-engine Model 76 was the American version of the Potez 63, and it was unquestionably Curtiss’ best-looking plane since the P-6E. While the 76 was not as successful as the Bf-110 or the Potez 63, it had a considerable impact on the development of American twin-engine light bombers. Part of the Model 76’s failure can be attributed to internal Curtiss issues.

The Curtiss-Wright Corporation was created in 1929 when the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company and the Wright Aeronautical Corporation merged to become the Curtiss-Wright Corporation. The Curtiss aircraft line, which began in 1907, featured the Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny”trainer of WWI as well as Pulitzer and Schneider Cup racers. Wright was most recognized for its radial engines, whereas Curtiss was best known for its radial engines. Curtiss tended to accommodate the Army and Navy’s demands for new aircraft by expanding old designs. As a result, the Falcon biplane line spanned from the first XO-1 in 1924 to the ten O-1Es manufactured under license in Chile in 1932. In a similar vein, the Hawk fighter line, which began in 1923 and terminated in 1936, included good-looking Curtiss biplanes. Hawks and Falcons operated in a variety of foreign air forces as well. They were workhorse planes with a mix of construction that was common at the time, such as fixed landing gear and open cockpits. With a lively, resourceful sales force, Curtiss attempted to maintain a leading position in the aviation business, but it faced stiff competition from Douglas observation planes and Boeing fighters.

Curtiss’ design style was conservative due to two factors: limited military resources, which precluded experimenting with new types, and Curtiss’ management’s underlying commercial attitude. Clement Melville Keys, an investment banker who had been president of Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company in 1920 and supervised the company’s philosophy of acquisition expansion, led the firm. The original Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, Curtiss-Caproni Corporation, Curtiss-Robertson Airplane Manufacturing Company, Keystone Aircraft Corporation, Moth Aircraft Corporation, Travel Air Manufacturing Company, Wright Aeronautical Corporation, Curtiss-Wright Flying Service’s Sales Corporation, and Curtiss-Wright Export Corporation were all part of Keys’ new Curtiss Wright Corporation by 1929. It was simply too much to handle in a logical manner. Many of the businesses were vying for the same market, and there was a noticeable lack of research effort among them. As a result, the stock market crash of 1929 wreaked havoc on the company, which was only saved from extinction by an order from Colombia in the early 1930s, which purchased 26 Hawk fighters and 100 Falcon observation planes. When Keys left Curtiss Wright in 1932, he left the company with a number of plants that needed to be closed and an ailing product line that needed to be revived.

To Keys’ credit, the business began experimenting with all-metal construction in 1930, when the Curtiss XF9C-1 Sparrowhawk was delivered to the Navy. The Sparrowhawk, which was designed to be carried by the massive Akron and Macon dirigibles, performed admirably in a job that was doomed to fail when the two airships collided.

Curtiss A-18 Shrike Like this A-12, the initial Curtiss Shrikes were heavy, clumsy, and underpowered. (Photo courtesy of the National Museum of the United States Air Force)

The Stukalike Model 59, which was developed into the A-8, A-10, and A-12 Shrikes, was the next Curtiss all-metal endeavor. The Shrikes were all-metal, with trailing edge flaps and full-span leading edge slats. They also had enclosed cockpits and a faired but hefty undercarriage. The Shrikes were adorned with struts and wires, but their modernity did not extend to a fully cantilever wing. They were also large, with an empty weight of 3,898 pounds for the production A-12 versus 2,902 pounds for the A-3 Falcon. They were 40 miles per hour quicker than the Falcon, with a top speed of 176 mph, and could carry 100 pounds heavier bombs, but had a range of 150 miles.

In September 1935, the Model 76 took to the air for the first time at Wright Field, Ohio. Before being accepted as the XA-14, it was returned to Curtiss for improvements. The XA-14 had a top speed of 243 mph, which was significantly quicker than Boeing’s P-26 fighter and roughly 30 mph slower than the Model 75 single-seater. It was powered by two Wright R-1670 engines with 775 horsepower each.

Curtiss A-18 Shrike The XA-14 was fitted with a 37mm cannon for secret test flights, which was considered heavy armament at the time. (Photo by Walter J. Boyne)

The XA-14 was armed with four.30 caliber machine guns in the nose, as well as a similar flexible gun in the rear cockpit. The XA-14 underwent covert tests with a 37mm gun fitted later in its 178-hour flying lifetime. The aircraft’s internal bomb bay could hold 20 30-pound bombs and it was fairly agile. The Army was so impressed that it ordered 13 service test Y1A-18s for $104,640 each, a price that made procurement officers cringe because the last batch of A-12 Shrikes had cost $19,483 each. It made me wonder if A-18s were five times as good as A-12s.

The A-18s were much improved over the prototype, equipped with 850-hp Pratt & Whitney R-1820 engines and three-blade Curtiss electric constant speed full-feathering propellers—a great advance for the time. Fully loaded, the A-18 could sustain a 185-mph cruise speed with one engine shut down. Curtiss faired in the landing gear doors in an effort to reduce drag, but still allowed the wheels to peek through in anticipation of a possible wheels-up landing. The aircraft was stiletto clean; in company brochures its frontal appearance was likened to “three beads on a string.”Yet to the modern eye, the A-18 has a disproportionate look. The wings are too thick, the aft fuselage too fat, the nose too short.

Curtiss A-18 Shrike The A-18’s retractable landing gear, while effective as an attack aircraft, proved to be a concern, resulting in a number of mishaps. (Photo courtesy of the National Museum of the United States Air Force)

The weight of the empty vehicle increased by roughly 1,000 pounds, and the top speed dropped to 239 mph. The A-18s were assigned to the 8th Attack Squadron of the 3rd Attack Group at Barksdale Army Air Field in Louisiana after a brief testing phase. During the A-18’s first year of service, the 8th confirmed the A-18’s efficiency in exercises, earning the Harmon Trophy for gunnery and bombing accuracy. The retractable landing gear, on the other hand, was flimsy: eight of the thirteen A-18s were damaged when their gear collapsed during landing or rollout.

It’s fascinating to wonder what could have happened if Berlin had been permitted to use Alison engines on the A-18 as he did on the P-36. Curtiss may have been able to compete with the Douglas A-20 for orders with the resulting aircraft. Instead, the A-18’s ultimate usefulness was in demonstrating to the Army that a 6-ton twin-engine assault aircraft could be effective. It effectively allowed the Army to specify the requirements that led to the development of the A-20 and A-26.

The P-40, SB2C, C-46, and other planes received massive production orders during WWII. But it didn’t fix Don Berlin’s underlying management problem, which he left behind when he moved to General Motors in 1942, disillusioned with Curtiss, to create the unforgettable (unforgivable?) Fisher XP-75. Curtiss just lacked the potential to create competitive aircraft due to a lack of research and development resources. As a result, a long line of prototypes—the XBTC-2, XP-55, XF-14C-1, XP-60, XP-62, XF-15C-1, XP-87, and finally the X-19—became landmarks on a once-proud company’s route to obscurity.

 

This article first appeared in the March 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, go to this link. 

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