Thursday, August 25, 2016

What The Heck Is That?

It started with this comment from Robert Grindrod on Juvat's "Audacity" post -
Thank you for this (and all of your) post(s). The Syracuse NY Post Standard (PS) had an article about a some ww2 pilots that received Congressional Gold Medals. One of them, Henry Miklajcyk, ace, who was killed in combat over Germany. 7.5 kills. Some of his story is here: The PS story is here: 
I have a question, however. The PS print version had the photo you can see in the acesofww2 site of the dashing young fighter ace (I wish I had that hair) standing in front of what they labeled as a P47. Only that is not a P47. I think it's a glider. Note the small prop to his left. Is that a "windmill" type appliance? The fuselage is too small. (I remember reading when I was a kid that some pilot said that if he got in trouble he could dodge bullets by running around in the fuselage.) Anyway, can you shed light on the aircraft? Thanks again.
Off went an e-mail to Joe over at Aces Of WW2, perhaps he had the original kicking around. Well, Joe just got back to me, no idea. Didn't have the full version of the photo and there was nothing with the photo to indicate just what sort of aircraft Captain Miklajcyk is standing in front of.

I put the photo on Facebook, thinking perhaps that the legion of aviation enthusiasts I'm acquainted with might have a clue. So far? Nada. About the only thing everyone agrees on is that it's not a P-47 of any make or model. So what can we discern from the aircraft?

Well, it's an early war design, perhaps even 1930s-vintage. I mean, all those rivets! Second of all, it has to be a tail dragger from the angle of the fuselage, also the aircraft is in American service based on the roundel behind Captain Miklajcyk, which (from what I can discern) is this roundel -
US Army Air Forces insignia used until 15 May 1942 (Source)

Now according to Aces of WW2, Captain Miklajcyk received his wings in November of 1942 while assigned to Craig Field in Alabama. So that tells me that this picture was taken in early 1942 while Captain Miklajcyk was still in training. It's possible that this could be later in 1942 or even in 1943 as the next roundel to be used, the following, was adopted in May of 1942 and was used until June of 1943. As this photo was probably (almost certainly) taken at a training base in the United States, during the biggest military build up in our history, I'm quite sure that they might have waited awhile to paint over that red circle in the preceding image.
US Army Air Forces insignia used from May 1942 to June of 1943. (Modified from Source)

Still and all, I'm fairly confident that this picture was taken early in the good captain's career, before he became an ace. Though not new to the flying business, he was new to the military flying business. As a young man preparing to go off to war, having one's picture taken in front of a military aircraft, regardless of type, would be the cool thing to do.

Which leads us back to the original question, just what type of aircraft is that?

I looked at the following elements when making my attempt to ID the aircraft type:
  1. The angle of the fuselage with the ground,
  2. The alignment of the rear windows with the spine of the aircraft,
  3. The odd venturi-looking thing at the right edge of the photo,
  4. The propellor looking thing which seems to extend from the center of the roundel, and
  5. The antennae protruding from the underside of the aircraft.
As I noted above, the way the fuselage angles downwards tells me it's a tail-dragger, not a big thing as many WWII aircraft were tail draggers. But it does eliminate all of the USAAF light and medium bombers which had tricycle landing gear.

The rear windows seem to be flush with the fuselage spine, which led me to discard the BT-15 Vultee as a possibility, (which this source indicates Captain Miklajcyk flew).

BT-15 Vultee (Source)

Right angle, windows look wrong.

As to the venturi-looking "thing" - aircraft have venturi tubes used to provide airflow for air-driven gyroscopic instruments. I've seen extent examples on other aircraft of the period but Google seems to want to find only "venturi tubes" or "World War II aircraft" separately but not together. I'm sure that's what that is the photo, but it does nothing to help me find the bird, only rule some out. (Which right now rules out "most World War II aircraft." Perhaps some silly bugger off camera was holding something there to confuse future aircraft enthusiasts. Well done. It's worked so far!)

Arrow points to the Venturi tube near the cockpit of a D.H.-82 Tiger Moth. (Source)

As all of the examples (damned few) seem to be located near where the instruments would need this air flow, I suspect that there's something in that rear section of fuselage which needs air speed. Which leads me to the propellor-looking thing.

On Facebook I heard suggestions that this was an early Ram Air Turbine (see below) used for emergency power in case of engine failure. It does have the look of an early forties RAT. (Which I'm not sure even existed back then.)

RAT (Source)

Another suggestion was that it was some sort of HF radio antenna. I looked about and could find nothing to support that theory. Digging a little further reinforced the "it's a RAT" theory. Based on this -

Type B Target Towing Winch (Source)

Hey, that looks like our propellor thing, doesn't it?

Now the Type B Target Towing Winch was used in training to learn aerial gunnery. So it makes sense that Craig Field might have a target tug or two for the airmen to learn aerial gunnery. These target tugs would tow a sleeve behind the aircraft (usually well behind the aircraft) for the troops to shoot at.

Sleeve Target (Source)

The winch would be used to stream and then recover the target sleeve. The propellor thing provided power to operate the winch. I'm betting that those back windows are where the sleeve operator sat. The venturi may be to show that operator what the airspeed was. After all, those sleeves produced a lot of drag and could actually stall the aircraft if the crew weren't careful. While that is a surmise on my part, it seems logical.

The antennae on the bottom of the aircraft were no help at all in identifying the bird. Most aircraft had antennae scattered all over (well, they were designed to be in certain places, they weren't simply scattered about) and each model of aircraft might have more (or fewer) antennae than other aircraft of the same make. I could find no extent aircraft of the type I'm interested in with antennae in that particular location.

But do you know how few hits one gets on "World War II aerial target tugs"? Not as many as you'd like. You do find entries on target tugs but those will be along the lines of "Aircraft such-and-such was modified to do that job." Hello! Pictures would be nice. Perhaps it's a subset of WWII aircraft which no one has much interest in. I don't know.

So we're down to target tugs. I found one reference to what the USAAF used. The "source of all knowledge" says "The USAAF used older aircraft such as the TBD Devastator as target tugs. S" Here's what a Devastator looks like -

Three U.S. Navy Douglas TBD-1 Devastators of Torpedo Squadron 2 (VT-2). (S0urce)

While those windows don't look quite like the aircraft in the Captain Miklajcyk photo, they're not that far off. Bear in mind the winch and the venturi tube aren't on these aircraft because they're still being used as torpedo bombers. Still, I suppose it's possible, add the target towing kit, paint 'em up in USAAF livery and we're close, damned close.

The only other candidate I could find was used as a target tug and just about everything about the bird seems to match the Captain Miklajcyk photo. But it's an RAF bird and I could find no reference to the USAAF using these. But what the heck, here's what I'm talking about, the Fairey Firefly.


I mean those windows are nearly a perfect match. Now this extent example is actually a post-war modification to make it a target tug. The other thing about this aircraft is that is wasn't introduced until 1943, so it's foreign, it's brand new in the 1942-1943 time frame which makes it unlikely to be a candidate for the aircraft behind Captain Miklajcyk.

We may not know the type of aircraft behind the man, but we do know who he was. A warrior.

Note the Polish Eagle badge just above the center of his goggles. A man proud of his roots. From all accounts, he was a Hell of a pilot. Thanks for letting us know about him Robert! (And yes, someday we'll nail down the aircraft type in that photo!)


Odds are awfully good that the aircraft behind Captain Miklajcyk is a modified (probably locally) version of the Douglas O-46A. Gotta give it to Joe over at Aces of WW2, I asked if he knew, he didn't, he searched and offered this bird. It matches. Thanks Joe. (A number of readers also tagged this bird as a possibility. I knew I could count on this crowd to ferret out the answer. Well done!)

Douglas O-46A, NMUSAF (Source)


  1. First glance it looks like he is standing next to where something exited that side of the fuselage. Semper Fi

    1. At first it does look like the sheet metal shop needs to do some repairs, it's the second and third glances which make ya say, "What the heck is that?"


  2. Maybe something from Seversky (Republic)? P-35?

    1. Close, back windows aren't quite right, but close. Not sure if they used the P-35 as a target tug. It is an intriguing possibility.

  3. My guess was a variant of the P40, but I can't find any photos of one kitted out for target towing duties.

    1. Pretty much the same comment I had above on the P-35. The P-40 had a rounded end to the rear glass. The one we're searching for is squared off.

      Still, I haven't looked at every P-40 variant.

    2. I don't know how to upload photos to s comment, but I did see one P40 with a squared off window.

    3. Dang, never seen one of those before. Of course, there are many variants of that bird.

      Heard from Joe over at Aces of WW2, the Douglas O-46 looks like a good match in many details. Add the towing gear and I think that's our bird.

  4. I think this is a locally modified aircraft and most probably an O-46. If you were converting an observation aircraft to a navigation trainer you would need a second instrument panel and radios which requires more electrical power and more vacuum. There's not a lot of room on the accessory gearbox of those old round engines so adding more electrical generating capacity for com and nav radios is very difficult. An air driven generator would be a much easier mod and adding the instrument air venturi on the side would take a couple of hours. The antennas on the bottom are most likely ADF (Automatic Direction Finding) rather than HF which were quite long, 16-20ft or more.

    The reason I think it is an O-46 is the canopy rail below the fixed rear window and that between the rear windows the top is skinned over. Compare to this pic


    1. I agree with Al on the HF antennas. I don't know if the TBDs had HF radios, but if you look closely at the VT-2 photo, you can see a wire extending from the mount point at the top of the vertical stabilizer to the "stick" at the back end of the engine cowling. That wire would be the HF antenna.

      Bruce Jones

    2. Bruce, did you chase the link Al provided. I think the aircraft in the opening photo is indeed an O-46. Whether it's a navigation trainer or target tug, all the big pieces seem to fit.

      Douglas O-46 it is.

    3. It also looks to be the right size, in pictures with ground crew present.

    4. That photo is great. You're right about the size.

    5. I did not chase the link; I am too unfamiliar with WWII-era aircraft to hold an informed opinion, so I defer to those who do.

      I was simply confused as to the device mounted to the fuselage at the center of the roundel in the first picture. I understood someone thought it had something to do with HF equipment, which did not make sense to me. My reference to the TBD was to illustrate what I understood HF antennae to be. In short, I shot off on a tangent to the discussion.

      Guess I'm just another engineer you have to herd with whip, chair, and revolver . . . ;-)

      Bruce Jones

    6. Engineers are good Bruce. Yes, someone on Facebook thought it was an HF antenna (I may have got the HF part wrong), didn't make sense to me either.

      Tangents are good as well, I did not know that that radio wire you can see on (most?) WWII aircraft was an HF antenna. My Mom was always breaking those off on my model airplanes.

      Tangents are ALWAYS welcome here. I do them myself, often.


  5. Now there's some great detective work.

    Great post about great stuff.

  6. Another clue, and I don't think it's an O-46 due to size relationship between the pilot and the fuselage. No other picture I've seen shows a RAT in the same position on the Douglas. The suit he's wearing is typical of civilian instructor pilots in the early 40's.

  7. I couldn't let it go, so I kept looking. Didn't see anything painted the same way, with the roundel in the correct spot. But then I found this page (in Russian):

    Check out this photo, in specific (crunch!):

    So we have an O-46 with paint that matches the photo, a roundel that matches the photo, an antenna that matches the photo, and a venturi that matches the photo. Just missing that pesky target-towing rig, if that's what it is.

    Heck, even the RIVET PATTERN matches the photo, as you can see in this high-rez from the Air Force Museum restoration:

    I can't find anything useful about the target towing rig that might have been used, and what it may have looked like, but I was able to find out that at least one target towing squadron used them for SOMETHING. Because they crashed a couple of them.

    That doesn't prove anything, but it's interesting. And we don't actually know where and when the photo was taken - but we DO know he got his P47 training in Westover, Massachusetts. Which just so happens to be about FIFTEEN MILES AWAY from there 2 Tow Target operated.

    You want my opinion? Here's the hotshot P47 pilot fresh off a training run - posing with his "kill"!

    1. Brilliant work! All that's missing is a photo of the tow rig but we now have conclusive evidence that the USAAF did use the O-46 as a target tug.

      Thanks for the effort, well done!

      And that last sentence is a great caption for the original photo!


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