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Downed German Fighter Rises From Its Grave

This Luftwaffe Focke-Wulfe 190 Würger ("Shrike") fighter aircraft laid unknown and unmolested in a remote forest near Voibakala, Russia for forty-six years after coming down behind Soviet lines in WWII.  Somebody finally stumbled across it in 1989.  It was recovered from the forest in 1991.  I can't find a Voybakala on the Google satellite map but there is a Voybokala about forty miles east of St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad.  It's a few miles past the the southern tip of Lake Ladoga.

The Fw 190 belonged to Jagdgeschwader (figher wing) 54 (JG 54), called the Grünherz, or "Green Hearts," because the wing was formed in the state of Thuringia, known as the "Green Heart of Germany" for its forests. At the beginning of the war it had about 110 pilots probably flying around a hundred fighters. The number of pilots and planes were probably diminished by the fierce fighting on the Eastern Front.

JG 54 had a long lineup of super aces who had shot down over a hundred aircraft each.  That included guys like Erich Rudorffer who shot down 222 aircraft and was himself shot down sixteen times, bailing out nine of those times.   Emil "Bully" Lang holds the record for most kills in a single day:  Eighteen.  All in all, JG 54 shot down 9600 aircraft.  Just as a benchmark, the current US Air Force inventory totals around 5544 aircraft.  The Green Hearts brother wing, JG 52 shot down even more, 10,000.  The bulk of all these kills were Soviet Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik ground attack aircraft which the Luftwaffe shot down like clay pigeons. 

JG 54 suffered 783 combat casualties:  501 pilots killed in action, 242 pilots missing in action, and 40 aircrew taken prisoner.  In other words, the wing suffered nearly 800% casualties.  The tiny number taken prisoner tells you that the Russians usually did not take pilots prisoner. The wing lost 1817 aircraft, 1071 Bf 109s and 746 FW 190s, an attrition rate of about 1800%.  That's about one aircraft lost for every five shot down.  It was a huge air war of the likes we will never see again.

The Luftwaffe had been rotating its fighter wings between the Western and Eastern fronts.  JG 54 had just rotated back from France. In the summer of 1943, it had taken up support of the siege of Leningrad.

Feldwebel (Staff Sergeant) Paul Rätz had been a ground crew member before becoming a pilot in Gruppe (squadron) 1 of JG 54 (1./JG54) in 1942 and 1943. He flew ground attack missions but had shot several aircraft down, surviving three crash landings.  He sounds like a talented rookie.  Sergeant Rätz transferred to Gruppe 4 (4./JG54) on July 9, 1943. Ten days later, July 19, he flew an interdiction mission to stop supply trains from reaching starving Leningrad. 

Monday the 19th was a hot day at Rätz' base at Siwerskaja, a forward air base only fifteen minutes flying time from the front.  He had been assigned Fw190 A-5 W.Nr 1227 "White A," armed with a SC250 (550Ib) bomb.  He was flying in a rotte, a two ship.  He and his wingman flew almost line abreast, two hundred yards apart, as they crossed the Dvina River, which marked the front line.  From there, they headed east.

At Voibakala, they found an armored train and attacked it through a barrage of flak.  The Luftwaffe loss report claims that the "White A" took flak hits, but none are to be seen in the video above.  Nevertheless, its BMW801 engine failed catastrophically, forcing Rätz to glide to a landing in a field of poplar saplings, which have since grown tall around it.

Rätz' removed his leather flying helmet and left it in his seat, where it was found forty-six years later.  He opened the rear fuselage to retrieve a first aid kit.  Weirdly, he also snatched the aircraft clock as a souvenir before heading off the dozen miles back to the front lines.  He never made it.  The Luftwaffe loss report still lists him as "Vermißt," missing in action.

Sergeant Paul Rätz crashed about two years into the two and a half year siege of Leningrad, the mostly deadly siege in human history.  The Red Army lost a million killed, two million wounded in the defense of Leningrad.  A million civilians died.  Russians were vengeful when it came to captured German invaders.

Here is a Soviet film documenting flight tests of a captured Fw 190 A4 from JG 54, the same wing as this downed Fw 190:

The Fw 190 was brought back to England, where the first of several efforts at restoration were made.  Then it was brought to America.  A technician from Vintage Wings took apart the engine to find a dirt clod in an oil line, which had pinched off the lubrication.  Consequently, an internal shaft overheated and failed, disabling the fuel and oil pumps, which led the engine to fail.

How did that dirt clod get in there?  It was a new engine, just installed.  BMW did not do major engine maintenance in the field.  When an engine needed repair they removed the entire "power egg," the engine on its mount, and shipped it back to the factory in Germany.  Some of the work was performed by slave labor.  One theory is that a slave laborer sabotaged the engine, stuffing some dirt downstream from the oil filter, so that the engine only worked for a few minutes.

Paul Rätz made it only a few miles before he was captured and not shot on the spot.  He was instead taken prisoner where he remained for sixteen years, released by the Soviets in 1959.  Only ten percent of the German prisoners taken captive by the Soviets survived, so Rätz was double lucky.  His opinion may differ.  Unfortunately, Rätz died in 1989, having never learned his airplane had been found.  Perhaps it was better for him never to know he spent sixteen years in a Soviet prison because his plane had been sabotaged, that a tiny little dirt clod had determined his fate.  However, his family learned that his fighter had been recovered.  They have the clock.

A consortium of airline pilots in the Pacific Northwest bought the FW 190 and delivered it to WestPac Restorations in Rialto, California. In reality, the consortium was a front group for Paul Allen, the Microsoft billionaire, whose hobby is creating museums. He began secretly collecting WWII fighters which had flown in combat for his Flying Heritage Collection, housed at Paine Field in Everett, WA. There aren't many of those airplanes left and if the world knew Paul Allen wanted to buy them, it would have inflated their price to the moon. To make the task that much harder, Allen wanted his artifacts to fly.  It probably costs a milion or two bucks apiece to make that happen.

There's a difference between preservation and restoration. Preservation seeks to keep an artifact in its original form so that all the information in it remains intact for future study.  Restoration seeks to return an artifact to its original condition.  The two are mutally exclusive.  Many artifacts that are merely preserved look like something that cat threw up because few materials stand the test of time.  But on the other hand, restoring them distorts them into some alternate vision of what they once were.

The problem with aircraft restoration is that derelict aircraft are rarely intact.  They have damaged parts, have been cannibalized, or have been looted by souvenir seekers.  The manufacturing base for the aircraft have long since dried up or moved on to new production, so you can't order new parts.  If you're lucky, you can strip parts from wrecks or dig them out of ancient stockpiles, preserved by accident. If you're unlucky, you have to fabricate them, often without the design drawings.

The problem with this approach, if perfectly executed, is that it produces a perfect aircraft, the way it looked the day the plane rolled out the factory door. Only the test and delivery pilots saw them like this. An operating fighter is dirty, dented, smelly, and leaking oil. You don't see that in museums. If you are restoring an aircraft to fly, the natural temptation is to substitute modern parts made of improved materials. Who wants to fly an aircraft with vacuum tube radios when you can install a modern transistor radio? How about some better brakes and a more reliable engine? Who wants to fly with an obsolete instrument panel? In this case, you are actually improving on the aircraft design to create something that never existed before.

Allen wants to restore his aircraft to their original condition, which introduces other problems. Factories didn't make fighter aircraft to last in WWII. Here in America, they expected them to last about two years, so they didn't bother with the extra flourishes.  This particular Fw 190 was delivered in April and crashed in July, three months later.  So, Allen is spending a lot of money to restore a disposable aircraft. Even aircraft built in peacetime to last are only designed to have a twenty year lifespan. This FW 190 has been sitting in the forest for more than forty years. Granted, it has not been flexed by flying all those years, but then sitting exposed in a swamp can not have done it any favors. My old wing commander, who knew something about maintaining fighters, said he'd never fly an old WWII fighter. Too dangerous.

Allen finished the restoration 2010 and sent it aloft on its first flight in December 2010.  Here's a video of its engine test, which was free of dirt clods this time, in Tehachapi, California:

   

The Flying Heritage Collection plans to fly the Fw 190 at Paine Field on “Luftwaffe Day” during the 2011 May-September flying season.  More than 20,000 of them were built and this is the last of its kind to take wing.

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