Aircraft of ‘Fire Eye’ and ‘Web of Crimes’

Author's Note: Pictures of the aircraft mentioned below will be found in the Aviation section of my photographs.

Jed Mitchell believes that every lost aircraft involves human stories that deserve recognition. The plots of 'Fire Eye' and 'Web of Crimes' revolve around aircraft that have been lost in history. These aircraft were carrying people with personal stories of courage, endurance and sometimes survival when swept up in world changing events. Let's have a look at the aircraft involved in the novels involving Jed. The plot of ‘Fire Eye’ is based around discovering the location of a B-25 bomber that took part in the Royce Mission in 1942. The aircraft was flown by Alex's grandfather back in 1942 and she engages Jed to find it. The Royce Mission is a piece of Australian history deserving a separate article so for now let’s just focus on the aircraft itself. 

The North American B-25 Mitchell was a medium bomber introduced into service in 1941. It was named in honour of Major General William 'Billy' Mitchell, a pioneer of American military aviation. As a result of his out spoken views on air power, especially against naval ships, he was court-martialled in 1925. Within twenty years, like many people who see the flaws in ‘accepted wisdom’, he was proven correct. Used by many allied air forces, the B-25 served in every theatre of World War 11. Many remained in service after the war for up to four decades. Produced in many models, around 10,000 B-25’s were built.

The majority of B-25’s were used in the war against Japan in Asia and the Pacific. Campaigns covered the Aleutian Islands, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, New Britain, China, Burma and the island hopping campaign across the Central Pacific. The aircraft's potential as a ground attack aircraft was realised during the New Guinea campaign. The jungle environment reduced the effectiveness of medium level bombing, so low level attack was found to be more effective. Using mast height attacks with cannon, machine guns and skip bombing, the B-25 also proved a formidable anti-shipping weapon. With an ever increasing number of forward firing .50 calibre Browning machine guns being fitted, the B-25 became a formidable strafing aircraft for island hopping warfare. It was also fitted with a 75 mm cannon for extra bite against shipping. Two American Generals are commonly associated with the aircraft. General Doolittle, led 16 B-25B’s from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet in the historicTokyo raid on April 18, 1942. Under General Kenny’s command in the South West Pacific area,

B-25C/D’s were converted at RAAF Townsville for ground strafing. These field modifications culminated in the factory produced B-25J, the most effective version of this famous bomber. In 1942, the Royal Australian Air Force accepted a number of Mitchells ordered by the Dutch Government. These aircraft were desperately needed to upgradeAustralia’s neglected defences. They equipped No 18 (Dutch East Indies) Squadron based in theNorthern Territory. A total of 50 Mitchells were also operated by No 2 Squadron RAAF that helped evacuate and return many prisoners of war. By 1945, 150 Mitchells of various marks had been received.

Every aircraft has its own idiosyncrasies and the B-25 is no exception. With the pilot's seat positioned close to the propeller tips and the individual engine exhaust pipes, it was a noisy beast.However, positives, such as its flexibility in combat roles and structural integrity made up for any issues with cockpit noise. When mentioning flexibility, everyone knows that Doolittle's mission took off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. Few realise that the original mission plan called for a landing back on the same carrier - that's flexibility indeed!

In his living room, Jed has a candle holder made using an insulator from the old Cape York telegraph line. It’s mounted on the base of a kerosene lantern used by No. 18 squadron personal at McDonald Field, south ofDarwin, as a small reminder of his travels inNorthern Australia.

A major character in ‘Web of Crimes’ is the Dornier Do-24. This was a 1930’s German three engined flying boat designed by Dornier Flugzeugwerke for maritime patrol and search and rescue. A total of 279 were built among several factories from 1937 to 1945. It was designed to meet a Royal Netherlands Navy requirement for a replacement of the Dornier Wals being used in the Dutch East Indies. The Netherlands government signed a contract for six Dornier Do-24’s on August 3 1936. Two more prototypes were built for the German navy for evaluation against the Blohm & Voss BV 138.

The Do-24 was an all metal parasol monoplane with a broad beamed hull and stabilising sponsoons. Twin fins were mounted on the upswept rear of the hull and the aircraft was powered by three wing mounted tractor engines. Fuel was carried in tanks in the sponsoons and wing centre section. Up to 1,200 kg (2,600 lb) of bombs could be carried under the wings, while defensive armament consisted of three gun turrets in nose, dorsal and tail positions. In early aircraft the turrets were each fitted with a machine gun but later aircraft carried a 20 mm cannon in the dorsal turret.

The Dutch required that the flying boats use the same engines as the Martin 139 bombers already in use in the Dutch East Indies, so they were fitted with 661 kW (887 hp) Wright R-1820-F52 Cyclone radial engines. Flight test results were good, with the new flying boat able to operate from extremely rough open seas. The Dutch placed an order for a further 12 Do 24's on 22 July 1937.

The Netherlands was enthusiastic and planned to purchase as many as 90 aircraft. Of these, 30 were to be built by Dornier. The remaining aircraft were to be built under licence in the Netherlands. Following the German occupation, production was paused. The Dutch production line later resumed, providing aircraft for the poorly equipped Sea Emergency Service that was still operating Heinkel He 59 biplanes. An additional 159 Do-24’s were built in the Netherlands during the occupation, most under the designation Do 24T-1. Another production line for the Do-24 was established in France during the German occupation. This line was operated by SNCAN and produced 48 Do 24s during the war and another 40 after the liberation. These served with the French Navy until 1952.

Jed’s figures on the number of Do-24’s available to the Dutch may be a bit rubbery and depend on timing. Thirty-seven Dutch and German built Do-24’s had been sent to the East Indies by the time of the German occupation of the Netherlands in June 1940. These aircraft first flew the tri-colour roundel. Later, to avoid confusion with British or French roundels, Dutch aircraft flew a black-bordered orange triangle insignia.

In action the Do-24 had some bite. A Dutch Do-24 is credited with sinking the Japanese destroyer ‘Shinonome’ on December 17, 1941 while escorting an invasion fleet to Borneo. After the Japanese invasion of the Netherlands East Indies, six surviving Do-24’s were transferred to the Royal Australian Air Force in February 1942. They served in the RAAF through most of 1944 as transports in New Guinea. One participated in flights supplying commando’s around the Indonesian islands.

Another major character in ‘Web of Crimes’ is the Antonov An-2. Jed would call it a beast of an aircraft. It’s a Soviet produced single engine biplane utility and agricultural aircraft designed and manufactured by the Antonov Design Bureau, starting in 1946. Its remarkable record of reliability; weight lifting and ability to take off and land from poor runways has resulted in a long service life. It was produced up to 2001 and remains in service with military and civilian operators around the world. Most versions  are powered by a 750 kW (1,010 hp) nine- cylinder Shvetsov ASh-62 radial engine, which as John Gardiner takes pride in noting, was developed from the Wright R-1820.

The An-2 is commonly used in the role of light utility transport, parachute drop aircraft, agricultural work and other tasks suited to a large slow biplane. Its slow flight and good short field performance make it suited for short, unimproved fields. In 2013, Antonov announced that it had successfully flown for the first time a new version, dubbed the An-2-100, fitted with a three-blade reversible propeller and a 1,100-kilowatt (1,500 shp) turboprop running on kerosene rather than Avgas. The same year, the company stated that it had received orders for upgrading hundreds of the An-2 planes still in operation in Azerbaijan, Cuba and Russia to the An-2-100 upgrade version.

The aircraft is deliberately fitted with a minimum of complex systems. The crucial wing leading edge slats that give the aircraft its slow flight ability are fully automatic, being held closed by the airflow over the wings. Once the airspeed drops below 35 knots, the slats will extend because they are on elastic rubber springs. Under typical conditions, the take-off is complete within 170 m (560 ft) while the landing run requires 215 m (705 ft), depending on take-off/landing weight, air temperature, airstrip surface and headwind.

The An-2 is equipped with various design features which make it suitable for operation in remote areas using unsurfaced airstrips. It has a pneumatic brake system similar to those used on heavy trucks to stop on short runways, along with an air line attached to the compressor so pressure in the tyres and shock absorbers can be adjusted without specialised equipment. The sizable batteries are relatively easy to remove, so the aircraft doesn't need a ground power unit to supply power for starting the engine. Likewise, there's no need for an external fuel pump to refuel the aircraft as it has an inbuilt pump to allow the tanks to be filled from drums.

The An-2 has no stall speed as such, a fact which is quoted in the operating handbook. As Alex noted, the pilot's handbook reads, ‘If the engine quits in instrument conditions or at night, the pilot should pull the control column full aft and keep the wings level. The leading-edge slats will snap out at about 35 knots and when the airplane slows to a forward speed of about 22 knots, the airplane will sink at about a parachute descent rate until the aircraft hits the ground.’ That sounds pretty exciting!

Pilots of the An-2 have stated that they are capable of flying the aircraft in full control at 26 knots, in contrast to a Cessna four seat light aircraft that has a stall speed of around 43 knots. The An-2’s slow stall speed makes it possible for the aircraft to fly backwards relative to the ground. When facing a headwind of about 30 knots, it will travel backwards at 4 knots under full control.

The An-2's ability, looks, flying characteristics and status as one of the world's biggest single engine production biplanes means it's prized by collectors of classic aircraft, making it an increasingly common sight at airshows. In ‘Web of Crimes’ the An-2 was going to be used for freight transport to support cattle stations and mining exploration. John and Alex use the aircraft to complete their own private mission.

Mention should also be made of the Cessna aircraft used by Jed. The Cessna 172 and 206 were both fitted with Robertson STOL modifications to enhance short take off and landing performance. The modifications are designed for pilots who need the best performance from their aircraft. A combination of wing stall fences, leading edge modifications, symmetrically drooped ailerons and automatic trim interconnect make a dramatic difference to aircraft performance. They allow the aircraft to get off the ground and land shorter, slower and safer.

Both Jed and I have flown Robinson equipped aircraft and the performance increase is outstanding. A pilot has to watch the turn onto final approach for a landing. Turning too steeply onto final after misjudging the approach can cause the aircraft to bite viciously. The resulting stall low to the ground will have serious consequences. That’s why Jed flew a check flight inCairnson the C206 he was planning to hire. Circumstances caused him to ditch it for a C172 that was also Robinson equipped.

Like Jed’s Winchester, the aircraft he used were simply tools to get a job done. He knows that guns, cars and aircraft don’t cause the problems that the media often focus on. These are caused by individuals and the choices they make.