Yesterday, I asked what WWII plane you would have chosen to fly. I thought my answer was not so obvious — I expected to see a lot of Spitfires, Mustangs, ME-109s, Zeros, B-29s, etc. — but two other people have already mentioned it in the comments to that posting. Oh, well.
The plane I’d have chosen first is the de Havilland Mosquito.
Doing more with less
I like the Mosquito because it exemplifies the best of engineering practices — stripping away features instead of adding them. The Mosquito design started as a medium bomber with two engines, three gun turrets and a six-man crew. Performance sucked. Their first impulse was to add two more engines. Any techie reading this will instantly recognize the first step in a f**ked project: two more engines make the plane even heavier, and it will have to carry more fuel, so it will fly slower, so it will probably need more guns to defend it, etc. etc.
But then something went right. Some suggested removing one of the gun turrets. Hey! The bomber’s a bit faster. Let’s try removing another turret. Hey, it’s so fast, why have guns at all? Take out the weight of the guns and ammo, and the four crew members to fire the guns, and the Mosquito was flying like nobody’s business. But that wasn’t the end. If it’s that fast, why carry lots of heavy metal armour? In fact, why not build the airframe out of wood?
As usually happens with successful projects, unexpected benefits began to appear. England was full of furniture factories that couldn’t contribute much to the war effort. However, their high-quality, low-fault-tolerance woodworking skills were exactly what was needed to build the Mosquito. (The English were good at that kind of improvisation: they also trained workers in bicycle factories to repair heavily damaged Spitfires, freeing the Supermarine factory to concentrate on building new ones.)
The light bomber version of the Mosquito could fly at almost 350 knots, comparable to the fastest (pre-jet) fighters in World War II, and comparable even to some modern light jets. It was so fast that it also saw uses as a fighter-bomber, a pathfinder plane, and even as a pure night fighter with radar equipment installed. The Wikipedia article quotes Hermann Göring’s opinion of the Mosquito in 1943, after a Mosquito squadron attacked a Berlin radio station, knocking him off the air:
In 1940 I could at least fly as far as Glasgow in most of my aircraft, but not now! It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito. I turn green and yellow with envy.
The British, who can afford aluminium better than we can, knock together a beautiful wooden aircraft that every piano factory over there is building, and they give it a speed which they have now increased yet again. What do you make of that?
What, indeed? Less is more, worse is better, the simplest thing that can possibly work, KISS — whatever you call it, stripping away features and striving for simplicity is the heart of great engineering.
Note: the Mosquito also has great geek cred, since it’s the plane that was used to evacuate quantum physicist Niels Bohr out of Stockholm (in the bomb bay, no less).
My #2 choice was the Douglas Dakota, known as the C-47 to the Americans, or the DC-3 in civilian life. It was the workhorse of the allied transportation effort, and the from all accounts, a great plane to fly.
My #3 choice is a little more unusual: the L4 Grasshopper. I’m not providing a link for that, but those of you familiar with that plane can provide more info in comments, if you’d like.