DAYTON, Ohio -- Mark VIII Reflector Gunsight on display in the World War II Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. Originally developed by the U.S. Navy, the Mark VIII reflector gunsight was used in the P-47D Thunderbolt. Reflector gunsights worked by projecting a "reticle" (also called a "pipper") onto a slanted piece of glass through which the pilot aimed. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Renowned for its ruggedness, firepower and speed, the massive Republic P-47 was one of the most famous and important USAAF fighters during World War II. Produced in larger numbers than any other U.S. fighter, the Thunderbolt -- affectionately nicknamed the "Jug" -- served as a bomber escort and as a very effective ground attack fighter.
The Thunderbolt was the end result of a series of radial-engine fighters developed in the 1930s by Russian émigrés Alexander de Seversky and Alexander Kartveli. Although the P-47 design originated as a small, inline-engine lightweight interceptor, changing requirements drastically altered the project. The considerably larger prototype XP-47B weighed over twice as much as the original concept.
The first production version, the P-47B, entered service in the spring of 1942. Production and development problems limited the 171 built to training use only. The follow-on P-47C corrected some of the vices of the P-47B, and it started coming off the production line in September 1942.
Hitting Its Stride -- The P-47D
With over 12,500 built, the P-47D became the most-produced and widely-used model of the Thunderbolt. The early P-47Ds were similar to the P-47C, with the most important change being additional armor around the pilot. Although they were fast and had an excellent roll rate, early P-47s suffered from poor climbing performance and short range.
Over the course of its production, the P-47D was greatly improved. A more efficient propeller significantly increased the climb rate. Internal fuel tank capacity became larger and new wing mounts carried droppable fuel tanks or bombs in addition to those on the underside fuselage mount. Late-model P-47Ds received more wing mounts to carry a total of 10 air-to-ground rockets. The Thunderbolt became even faster with engine water injection, which allowed higher emergency horsepower. The most visible change during the P-47D production run was the new "bubble-top" canopy, which provided much better all-around vision for the pilot.
The Thunderbolt in Combat
The USAAF and several Allied nations used the P-47 in nearly every combat theater. Through 1943 in Europe, the P-47C and P-47D equipped the majority of 8th Air Force fighter groups in England (and one in the 15th Air Force in Italy) as a long-range escort fighter. But since they couldn't escort USAAF heavy bombers all the way to some targets, longer-ranged P-51 Mustangs gradually replaced them in the escort role (with the sole exception of the 56th Fighter Group). The rugged and heavily-armed P-47D proved to be ideal for ground attack, though, and it became the backbone of the fighter-bomber force in the 9th Air Force in western Europe and the 12th Air Force in southern Europe.
In the Pacific, several 5th Air Force fighter groups flew the P-47D against Japanese air and ground forces in New Guinea and the Philippines in 1943-1944. Later, five groups in the 7th Air Force (and, in the closing weeks of the war, the 20th Air Force) flew the much longer-ranged P-47N as an escort fighter for B-29s against the Japanese homeland.
The P-47D did not arrive in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater until late spring 1944, but it flew as an effective fighter-bomber in several units there, including the famous 1st Air Commando Group.
Many Allied countries also flew the P-47D in combat in WWII, including Brazil, Free France, Great Britain, Mexico and the Soviet Union.
The Long-Legged P-47N
Range continued to be a problem for the Thunderbolt until the introduction of the P-47N, which breathed new life into the P-47 design. The P-47N had a more powerful engine and introduced a new wing which, unlike the P-47D's, carried two 96-gallon internal fuel tanks. The P-47N was 40 mph faster and could fly over 800 miles farther than the P-47D. The first production models appeared in September 1944, and over 1,800 were built. During the war, the P-47N was only used in the Pacific Theater.
P-47Ds and P-47Ns continued to serve in the USAAF (after 1947, the U.S. Air Force) as initial equipment for SAC, TAC and ADC squadrons. In 1948 the Thunderbolt was redesignated the F-47. As more jet fighters came into the inventory, the USAF phased out the F-47 in 1949, but the Air National Guard continued to use it into the mid-1950s.
During the Korean War, the USAF theater commander, Lt. Gen. George Stratemeyer, requested that F-47s be sent. But, due to the shortage of spare parts and logistical complications, his request was denied. Many countries in Latin America, along with Iran, Italy, Nationalist China, Turkey and Yugoslavia continued to operate the Thunderbolt, some into the 1960s.
Of the grand total of 15,683 P-47s built, approximately two-thirds reached operational commands overseas and 5,222 were lost in action, including 1,722 non-combat losses. In 1.35 million combat hours flown, the combat loss was less than 0.7 percent, an exceptionally low figure attesting to the strength of the aircraft.
The Museum's Aircraft
The aircraft on display is a P-47D-40 (S/N 45-49167), and it was built at the Republic plant in Evansville, Ind. In the late 1940s, it was transferred to the Peruvian air force. The aircraft later came to the museum in 1981. It is painted as the P-47D-30 Five by Five flown by Col. Joseph Laughlin, commander of the 362nd Fighter Group, 9th Air Force, in early 1945.
TECHNICAL NOTES: Armament: Eight .50-cal machine guns and 2,500 lbs. of bombs or rockets Engine: One Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radial of 2,430 hp
Maximum speed: 433 mph Cruising speed: 350 mph Range: Approx. 1,100 miles with drop tanks Ceiling: 42,000 ft. Span: 40 ft. 9 in. Length: 36 ft. 2 in. Height: 14 ft. 8 in. Weight: 17,500 lbs. maximum