• The Blackburn Firebrand

    The Blackburn Firebrand

    By Martin La Grange

    After the First World War, naval aviation in the Fleet Air Arm had not advanced greatly in terms of technology. All the way through the inter-war period, development of existing biplanes had been the main order of business. All the way until, and then during hostilities from 1939 to 1945, one of the premier FAA biplanes remained the Fairey Swordfish, introduced in 1936, and itself novel only in terms of structure, which had at last fully replaced wood with aluminium tubing and steel. Aside from this, it would not have looked out of place on the flightlines of aircraft carrier deck in 1918.

    Other aircraft builders, keen to build a better mousetrap, and in response to a series of operational requirements issued by the FAA, produced a sequence of new designs, each intended to fill the frontline role of torpedo bomber taking over from the Swordfish. The main products tended to come from Fairey Aviation, makers of the Swordfish, in a series of types each progressively more marginal in performance and more terrifying in terms of on-the-edge flying characteristics - the Albacore, Barracuda and ultimately the underwhelming Spearfish, mercifully not destined to see production.


    Fairey did however produce a set of slightly better performing monoplane fighter-bombers in the form of the Fulmar and the crisp Firefly. These could, if pressed, be made to carry torpedoes, though this definitely was not their primary armament or design function.

    However, Fairey were not alone in attempting to modernise this particular requirement - Blackburn also made two stabs at monoplane dive and torpedo bombers, in the form of the ill-fated Roc and Skua. While undoubtedly modern in terms of construction and aerodynamic refinement, the poor choices available in terms of engines with decidedly insufficient power, and combined with a set of engineering choices with regard to landing gear, and armament (in particular with the Roc, which was equipped with a Boulton-Paul turret-fighter system shared with the equally ill-fated Boulton-Paul Defiant) resulted in a pair of types with decidedly lacklustre performance.

    The Skua, ultimately, was to have only one combat engagement during hostilities, with raid by 800 and 803 Squadrons RN against the Konigsberg in 1940, successfully sinking this vessel by dive bombing, and this is thought to be the first successful deployment of this technique in naval warfare.

    After 1940, however, the Skua's number was well and truly up, as it was easy prey to the Bf-109 and even Bf-110 Zerstorers being fielded by the Luftwaffe in Norway by 1940. The Skua's epithet had also, by this time, become "Too slow, too heavy, too vunerable...too late!" which essentially became its epitaph.

    As the war progressed, Lend-Lease examples of the Douglas SPD Dauntless, and in particular the Grumman TBF Avenger reshaped FAA thinking - these torpedo bombers had higher powered engines in comparison with previous British examples, which often made do with engines of lower power than those used in contemporary fighters.

    Also, the American types were considerably lighter where they could be, and better protected where it counted - around the aviators and cargo.


    As a result, in 1940, a new operational requirement - N.11/40 - for a type known as a strike fighter, whose primary role was as a sea attack type able to deliver ordinance for the interdiction of surface ships, as well as potentially dive-bomb or torpedo of surfaced submarines. If stripped down, the type should also, in extremis, be able to function as a second-line fleet defence platform for any attacking enemy planes not dealt with by interceptors on combat patrol.

    The successful contender for this requirement was Blackburn, who, intent on making good after the disappointment of the Skua/Roc family, now proposed their B-37, soon to become known as the Firebrand.

    1. allanj12's Avatar
      allanj12 -
      Thank you for the very interesting article reminding us of the fever pitch of aircraft design prior to and during WWII.
    1. cmdl1650's Avatar
      cmdl1650 -
      Nice to see this old bird getting some publicity.
      Chris Lampard (Model Designer/Builder)
    1. Sascha66's Avatar
      Sascha66 -
      Very interesting article, thank you! It's a really odd-looking plane, kind of like a F4-U Corsair with the bum of a Bristol Britannia.
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