Wartime Oddities: Luftwaffe's Last Stand

Engineering history is made to be forgotten.

Technicalities Bundesarchiv BV 141

Technicalities Bundesarchiv BV 141

** The fertile brain of Richard Vogt produced many oddities. The BV 141 was the oddest of all.**

The inverted gull wing, bent downward to keep the gear legs short and the huge prop clear of the ground, made the F4U Corsair instantly recognizable. Other airplanes, however, had used this feature before the Corsair, particularly during the era of fixed gears enveloped in voluminous fairings or "pants." An early example was the Ha 137. Ha stands for Hamburger Flugzeugbau — Hamburg Airplane Factory — a subsidiary of the great German shipbuilding firm of Blohm & Voss. A dark horse in a Luftwaffe dive bomber competition, the sleek 137 lost out to the famous Junkers Stuka, which also had an inverted gull wing as well as its own built-in air-raid siren and the ability to dive perfectly vertically.

The designer of the Ha 137 was named Richard Vogt. A protégé of Claudius Dornier, whose designs were manufactured under license by Kawasaki, Vogt worked in Japan in the 1920s, then returned to Germany in 1933 to become head of aircraft design for Blohm & Voss. He remained there until the end of the war.

Vogt’s name is little known today, but he was a designer of great originality whose work spanned eras from the biplane to the cruise missile. An unusual design of his that still pops up from time to time is the BV 141; in fact, it popped up in this column a few months ago. A proposed reconnaissance plane, the 141 was dramatically asymmetrical, with a single-engine fuselage offset to the left of center and a glass-enclosed gondola to the right. The horizontal tail projected entirely to the left of the fin to give the gunner in the rear of the gondola a wider field of fire. The oddity of the design caused much merriment at the time but also made the airplane unforgettable.

Many of Vogt's designs were floatplanes or flying boats. One of these, the three-engine Ha (later BV) 138, started life with another gull wing, right side up this time, intended to get the propellers as high as possible above the water. Twin booms emerged at the dihedral breaks to support the empennage, and the third 600 hp Jumo engine sat atop a pylon in the V formed by the slanted inner panels of the wings. This arrangement turned out to have bad stalling qualities, and a second version of the design used a straight wing, a deeper hull and a central nacelle towering above the rest. I find the result rather rakish looking, but the British magazine Aeroplane scoffed:

Richard Vogt, that original man,

Turns out aeroplanes uglier than

’Most any other designer can.

This design was followed by a four-engine, long-range mail plane, the Ha 139, which returned to the inverted gull wing, this time on floats. Three were built. Catapult-launched from ships and cruising at 130 knots, they crisscrossed the South Atlantic in the prewar years carrying mail and cargo for Lufthansa. They were followed by the BV 222 Viking, a six-engine flying boat of 150-foot span and 4,000-mile range intended as a transatlantic passenger carrier, also for Lufthansa.

A structural peculiarity common to most Vogt designs was a tubular wing spar welded of rolled steel sheet. He brought the idea with him from Japan and applied it to larger and larger airplanes; by the time it got to the Viking, the tube was almost 6 feet in diameter. A tube is not quite so efficient at handling bending stresses as the more usual I- or box-beam, but tubular spars carried twisting loads very well, doubled as fuel tanks, and they lent themselves to simple, standardized fittings for attaching engines, fuselages and so on.

In the 1930s, the flying boat was widely considered the logical type for transoceanic travel, not only for safety but also because there existed few runways suitable for such heavy airplanes. A still larger model, the BV 238, succeeded the Viking. It was the heaviest airplane in the world, with a gross weight of over 200,000 pounds, a wingspan of almost 200 feet and six liquid-cooled 12-cylinder engines of 2,000 takeoff horsepower each. The 238, like the Viking, had a straight wing and relied on a very tall, narrow fuselage to keep the propellers away from the water.

These airplanes were conceived in a Germany confident of victory. With postwar civilian travel in mind, Vogt sketched an even larger flying boat similar in scale to the Hughes "Spruce Goose": the P 200 — P stood for Projekt — with eight 4,000 hp engines, a 280-foot wingspan, a three-story fuselage resembling a miniature ocean liner and a takeoff weight of 450,000 pounds. Hermann Pohlmann, the designer of the Stuka, who later wrote a history of the aeronautical activities of Blohm & Voss in the Vogt years, noted that the P 200, with its emphasis on spaciousness, comfort and elegance, reflected a mistaken conception of the postwar travel market. As the pragmatic American manufacturers of what would become the DC-6 and Constellation had already perceived, "speed makes comfort superfluous." We continue to suffer the consequences of that insight today.

In March 1944, with the factory a likely target for enemy bombers, the BV 238 prototype flew to a lake near Lübeck for testing. By then, flotillas of Allied night bombers were reducing cities to ashes while, by day, fighters roamed the countryside strafing targets of opportunity. Inevitably, but rather sadly, the giant flying boat, moored in the Schaalsee under heavy camouflage, was spotted, strafed and sunk.

When Germany found itself on the defensive on both western and eastern fronts, increasingly bizarre and inventive designs flowed from Vogt’s pen. There were slender-winged glider bombs that resembled sailplanes packed with high explosive and a weird machine, the P 163, whose crew of four occupied two gondolas at the tips of the wing. The P 170 was a “fast bomber” with three big radial engines, two of them way out at the wingtips. The crew sat at the extreme tail of the central fuselage where, despite the asymmetric-thrust issues raised by the wingtip engines, there was no vertical fin at all.

Vogt designed a small engineless interceptor whose prone pilots, towed into the stratosphere by Me 109 fighters, were supposed to dive into bomber formations, ramming their tails — a suicidal style of combat that to Stuka designer Pohlmann seemed more appropriate to Japanese culture than to German. There was a series of tailless flying wings, mostly single and twin jets, with stabilizing surfaces offset aft from the wingtips on small pylons. Time was running out for the Third Reich, but Hitler’s appetite for novel “reprisal weapons” was undiminished.

After the war, Vogt, along with many other German scientists and technicians, was brought to the U.S., where he enjoyed a career with American aerospace firms, including Boeing. In the vast American aerospace establishment, he worked in comparative anonymity. In Germany, he had been more of a figure, and in old photographs one sees him, short in stature but lean and good-looking, laughing with the test pilot Hanna Reitsch or showing der Führer around the Blohm & Voss plant. Richard Vogt died in 1979 in Santa Barbara, California, at the age of 84. Most of what he produced is forgotten today. It is the curse of engineering, unlike the other creative arts, that the constant evolution of technology leads us not only to discard obsolete productions but also to wipe them from our memory.

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