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THE 1917 P.B. 31E Nighthawk was Supermarine Aircraft’s first design, an utterly bizarre steam punk Zeppelin buster, from this English firm destined, two decades later, to produce the legendary Spitfire. In fact, Spitfire designer R.J. Mitchell had a hand in elements of the P.B. 31E.
Today in Part 1, we’ll look at the Nighthawk in its flawed World War I reality; tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll continue with WWI and then let the P.B. 31E perform, albeit only virtually, in today’s world of GMax and Microsoft Flight Simulator.
Noel Pemberton Billing. The Nighthawk’s P.B. designation comes from Noel Pemberton Billing, English eccentric who has already made appearances here at SimanaitisSays for a variety of reasons.
Pemberton Billing started his own aircraft company in 1914. His P.B. 7 was, literally, a flying boat: a cabin cruiser with detachable wings and tail. Though highly touted, with several on order, no P.B.7 ever flew. World War I intervened.
The Zeppelin Terror. On January 19, 1915, a German dirigible dropped bombs on the seaside towns of Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn. On the night of May 31, 1915, another Zeppelin bombed London. Seven people died and 35 were injured. The Zeppelin Terror had begun.
Eight years before, H.G. Wells’ book The War in the Air predicted New Yorkers being terrorized by Zeppelins. In 1915, Pemberton Billing attempted to devise a defense against this terror: a Zeppelin Buster, of sorts. The P.B. 29E was a bizarre aeroplane with a stacking of four wings, a quadruplane.
The P.B. 29E prototype proved cumbersome in flight, potentially useless in Zeppelin-busting, and crashed in early 1916. Its 1917 P.B. 31E successor was another quadruplane, even more bizarre than the P.B. 29E.
Why a Quadruplane? Predating the H.P.E.R. (Hollywood Producers’ Elephant Rule: “If one elephant is good, a thousand elephants must be a thousand times better….”), Pemberton Billing reasoned that if triplanes seemed to fly better than biplanes, then why not a four-wing craft?
Both of his quadruplane designs had modestly swept-back wings of different lengths. The P.B. 31E’s topmost wing was its largest, with a span of 60 ft. (By comparison, the nimble Sopwith Camel fighter plane’s span was 28 ft.) The P.B. 31E’s tail surfaces were multi-planed as well, both horizontally and vertically.
Impressive Firepower. The P.B. 31E’s mission as Zeppelin Buster was to cruise aloft in extended stints at night and attack any Zeppelin encountered. It carried Lewis machine guns, front and rear, the sort arming WWI fighters. These were manned by two gunners, one perched in the nose of the craft, the other covering the rear from a turret atop the cabin. The turret also had a Davis recoilless rifle with considerably more firepower than the Lewis armament. (The Lewis machine guns were .303s (7.7 mm); the David was a “one-and-a-half pounder” (about 37 mm).
Davis Recoilless Action. A 37-mm firearm generates considerable kick, quite enough to damage the fragile airframes of early aircraft. The Davis offered recoil-free operation through clever physics: It was essentially two rifles mounted opposite each other. When the business end fired its 37-mm shell, the opposing end simultaneously fired an equivalent mass of lead pellets.
The result was recoilless action, though I’ve got to wonder whether that hapless gunner up top was ever nearby. Or did he get to crawl forward and fire the Davis?
As we’ll see tomorrow in Part 2, the dual-firing Davis and the P.B. 31E’s four wings weren’t the Nighthawk’s only oddities. And a fat lot of good they all did the craft. It sure was an interesting GMax project, though. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020