Landing at Baton Rouge on 8 October 14, a pilot of a vintage taildragger locked up his brakes and dropped his nose expensively into the tarmac of Runway 13. Hey, it happens. But this time, it wasn’t a Cub or Taylorcraft doing a nose stand, but a multi-million dollar Focke-Wulf 190, one of a handful of airworthy examples of the Germans’ second most numerous WWII fighter.
The nose stand in the ultra-rare, restored fighter plane was terrifying and perhaps embarrassing for the pilot (although we don’t know if it was pilot error or mechanical failure that caused it), and expensive for the owners, but no one was hurt, and it made for some spectacular photographs.
Nobody’s taken a snap like that since, what, May of 1945?
The damage to the aircraft is probably restricted to the engine, propeller, and cowlings. This particular example is powered by a Russian Shvetsov Ash-82T engine, which is common enough (that is why it is used instead of the rare original BMW 801. Both are twin-row 14-cylinder radials of just under 42 liters’ displacement; the Russian one is a downsized twin-row development of the single-row Wright Cyclone, which Russia built under license as the M-25). But the propeller was reportedly a one-off reproduction of the original, modified to fit the Russian radial. So the list of airworthy FW 190s is decremented by one for at least a year or two.
How Rare Is it?
We called it, “ultra-rare.” How rare is it? Perhaps one in a thousand of the original 20,000+ survives today, and most of them are under glass in museums, never to feel the force of lift again.
This is what the plane, N4190, looked like in a more conventional three-point attitude.
After a long restoration in France and the USA, the plane flew for the first time since WWII in 2011. Here’s a video of its first and second flights, by Karl Plausa who’s affiliated with Flug Werk (see below). The video includes some steep turns, and at about the 7 minute point he drops the gear and decelerates to a power-off stall. At about 9:20 he makes a low pass, and then brings it back for a landing. At about 13:40 a very satisfied Plausa passes on a debrief on the flight (“This is the best one I’ve flown! Nothing rattles…”) for owner Don Hansen, who shows up just about then, beaming with pride. (Technically, the plane is owned by an LLC, but it’s Hansen’s money that made this bird go).
It’s hard to say what the exact number of airworthy 190s is, because the number of museum and flying aircraft is growing, and in the 1990s a German company, Flug-Werk, committed to manufacturing 20 new FW-190s to airworthy status, with Russian engines. Flug-Werk’s Nachbau or reproduction aircraft are made insofar as possible on original tooling, and some stored original parts (notably tailwheel assemblies) have made it into their reproductions. They receive continuation serial numbers. Are they FW 190s, or not? But wait, having the original tooling, Flug Werk has supplied parts for many airworthy and museum FW 190s.
At least 5 original aircraft have emerged from restoration shops in the last five years; soon there might be 30 FW-190s loose in the world, not counting the Flug Werk repops.
Because of the conditions in the arctic, most of the surviving original FW-190s served with the Luftwaffe’s 5th Fighter Wing, JG5 Eismeer. They were recovered variously from the forests and lakes of Norway, Finland, and Russia. The Soviet Union’s economic backwardness had the silver lining of preventing the discovery of many Russian, Allied, and German aircraft on Russian territory until they had become worth restoring; most Russian recoveries happened after the fall of the USSR in 1992.
The FW 190 as a Weapon
The FW 190 was designed by a veteran of ground combat in World War I, Dr-Ing. Kurt Tank. Tank wanted to build an airplane that was biased towards combat service, at a time when most fighters were biased towards raw performance. “Nicht Rennpferd, sondern Dienstpferd,” was the way he put it to his engineers and draftsmen: “Not a race horse, but a service horse.” The airplane was designed overall to reduce the pilot’s workload, leaving his mind free to plan the fight. Dr Tank’s design philosophy meant the FW was disadvantaged at high altitudes (for example, in the defense of Germany from bomber raids), but lower down (for example, where most of the fighting on the Russian Front took place) it was a superior performer. When first introduced in 1941 it shook British complacency in the superiority of the Spitfire; the Spit, with its elegant elliptical wing, could out-turn the FW, but the FW 190 A was superior in every other performance measure.
The FW was also designed for production and maintenance — the Spitfire’s performance came from that beautiful elliptical wing, a planform dictated by optimizing aerodynamics, but fiendishly difficult to manufacture. Tank got most of the performance with a straight tapered wing, not 100% optimal from a best lift/drag to structural weight viewpoint, but close enough, and vastly easier to construct in the factory and repair in the field.
Tank’s philosophy, when it became known in the West after the war, informed the designers of the North American F-86 Sabre, as well as their own experience with the P-51 Mustang (also built to be a war horse, not a race horse).
Of course, the FW 190 wouldn’t have been a German machine if it hadn’t contained some revolutionary technology, and it did: in the form of a lever sticking up in the side of the cockpit where a small forest of levers grew in most contemporaries. Here’s a story from Aviation History on the restoration of the only one surviving with a BMW 801 and a working Kommandogerät single-lever controller. The K-gerät, or “control device,” deserves some discussion. The article mentions how special it was:
Most notably, the 801 had a remarkable single-lever power control system that automatically managed rpm, prop pitch, mixture, timing and supercharger setting according to throttle position and altitude—a system that Porsche, not surprisingly, reinvented for its PFM Mooney lightplane engine in the mid-1970s.
If you’re a pilot, you know what a big deal this is. Most high-performance piston planes of the period, and today, have at least three control levers: Throttle, which controls the flow of fuel-air mixture to the cylinders; Mixture, which controls the amount of fuel in that mixture and has to be changed as altitude and desired speed change to keep the mixture stoichiometric for the changing atmospheric conditions and performance demands; and a prop lever that controls the pitch of the prop, acting like a transmission does in a car. In addition there were various controls for various mechanical and turbochargers in the WWII era. Some pilots had to manage them on and off, some had to adjust a waste gate, some had more demands on them than that — plus, juggling the other three levers, and fighting the plane. With experience, a pilot develops the muscle memory to operate prop, power and mixture.
The single-control-lever drastically reduces pilot workload, especially in regimes of flight where power settings change a lot (like, say, combat). More recent attempts at a single-lever system have been impeded by regulatory and legal inertia — Porsche withdrew from the aviation market and recalled and scrapped every PFM after getting a taste of America’s ambulance-chasing legal culture. In the long run, the single-lever control, with the intricate clockworks of the K-gerät replaced by microprocessors and electronic fuel injection, is such a good idea that it will overcome the resistance of the FAA, which has been impeding it.
What will Happen to the Mishap Aircraft?
It will certainly be restored to flight. The damage is not superficial, but it’s not irreparable. You’d be amazed what some flying WWII aircraft looked like before their restorations began. Basically, as long as it’s just “crashed,” not “crashed and burned” or “fragmented,” these guys can rebuild it. That’s not as surprising as you might think: even in World War II, fighter-plane production was largely done by hand, and those skills are strongly maintained in the restorer community. Restoring World War II aircraft, or working on them, makes little economic sense, but there’s a seemingly bottomless pool of volunteers and below-market-rate workers who thrill to work on these pieces of living history.
We wish Don Hansen all the best in bringing Red 1 (Wk Nr 173 056) back to its flying glory.
One Side Note:
We heard someone claim that the mishap aircraft is the one owned by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, a collector of weapons like this, who wants to ban weapons for you. We want to make this clear: It is not. The Allen machine, operated by his Flying Heritage Collection, and recovered from Russia where it flew with JG54 and was downed, perhaps, by sabotage, is interesting as the sole survivor flying with a BMW 801 engine and the Kommandogerät, but according to our information it is safe in its Washington State home; this mishap plane is the Hansen aircraft.