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Westland Whirlwind (fixed wing)

Westland Whirlwind
RoleHeavy fighter
Crewone, pilot
Length32.25 ft9.83 m
Wingspan45 ft13.72 m
Wing area250 sq ft23.23 m²
Empty8,310 lb3,768 kg
Maximum take-off11,410 lb5,175 kg
Engines2 Rolls-Royce Peregrine I
Power2x 885 hp2x 660 kW
Maximum speed360 mph580 km/h
Combat range150 mi240 km
Ferry range808 mi1,300 km
Service ceiling30,315 ft9,240 m
Guns4 20mm cannon
Bombs1,000 lb453 kg

The Whirlwind was an small twin-engine heavy fighter from the Westland Aircraft company. It was one of the fastest aircraft in the air when it flew in the late 1930s, and much more heavily armed than anything flying. Protracted development problems with the Rolls Royce Peregrine[?] engines it relied on ended up delaying the entire project, and only a relatively small number were built.

A serious problem for air planners of the 1930s was that you could build a nimble plane only if it was small. Such a plane had the problem of not having enough range to fight in anything other than defensive operations, and could not take the fight to the enemy. The only way that a plane could lift enough fuel to do so would be to mount two engines, but it seemed that any plane large enough would be too unwieldy to fight its single engine counterparts.

The Germans and US pressed ahead with such programs anyway, resulting in the Messerschmitt Me 110[?] and the Lockheed P-38. Soon the Luftwaffe was boasting that the 110 could beat any single engine fighter, and do so while operating at long ranges escorting their bombers. This piqued the interest of the Air Ministry who finally decided to try their hand at such a plane, and sent out a contract for designs. Gloster[?], Hawker[?] and Westland all responded, with the Gloster F.9/37 and Westland F.37/35 designs given the go-ahead (Hawker was busy with the Hurricane).

Westland's design team, under the new leadership of Teddy Petter (who later designed the English Electric Canberra and Lightning), returned a plane that looked far more modern than it's contemporaries like the Hurricane. The fuselage was a small tube with a t-tail at the end, built completely of stressed-skin monocoque duraluminum. The pilot sat high under one of the world's first full bubble canopies, and the low and forward location of the wing made for superb visibility (except directly over the nose). In the nose were four 20mm cannons, making it the most heavily armed plane of its era, and their clustering meant there were no aiming problems as there are with wing-mounted guns.

The plane was quite small, only slightly larger than the Hurricane in overall size, but smaller in terms of frontal area. All of the wheels fully retracted and the entire plane was very 'clean' with few openings or bumps. Its careful attention to streamlining and two 885hp Peregrine engines drove it to over 360mph, the same speed as the latest single-engine fighters mounting much larger engines. The speed quickly garnered it the nick-name Crikey, meaning "my god!".

The prototype flew in October 1938 and production started early the next year. It had excellent handling and it was considered to be very easy to fly at all speeds. The only exception was landing, which was all too fast. Fowler flaps were added to correct for this problem, which also required the horizontal stabilizer to be moved up, out of the way of the distrurbed air flow when the flaps were down. Hopes were so high for the design that it remained 'top secret' for much of its life, although it had already been mentioned in the French press.

But there were problems as well. The plane actually had quite short range, under 300 miles combat radius, which made it less than useful as an escort. But more worrysome was the continued failure of the Peregrine engines. Originally intended to be one of Rolls' main designs, the Merlin had since become much more important to the war effort and the Peregrine was ignored. Soon the engine was cancelled outright, and since much of the performance of the plane depended on the careful streamlining around that specific engine, there was little choice but to cancel the plane as well.

Westland argued for the creation of the Mk. II model using two Merlin engines, but by this time the role was becoming less important. As Bomber Commmand[?] turned to night bomber missions the need for an escort fighter became less important. Meanwhile by this time the Supermarine Spitfire was mounting four 20mm cannons, so the 'cannon armed' specification was also being handled. The main qualities the RAF were looking for in a twin was range and ordinance load (for radar), which the Bristol Beaufighter could do just as well as the Whirlwind.

In the end only 116 Whirlwinds were produced in total, arming two squadrons. At low altitudes no other plane could catch it, so they were used primarily as strike fighters where they were referred to as the Whirlybomber. However even this role was soon marginalized with the introduction of the Hawker Typhoon, the Whirlwind was removed from service in late 1943. Today none exist.

In 1941 the Luftwaffe started a number of extremely high-altitude bombing missions using specially modified Junkers Ju 86[?] bombers and Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters carrying bombs. These were met by modified Spitfires, but the pilots were extremely exhausted as a result of the forced-air breathing system. The Air Ministry then ordered a new purpose-built high-altitude fighter with a pressurized cockpit, and Westland responded with a modified Whirlwind known as the Welkin However the Germans called off the attacks, unaware of the British problems, and the Welkin was produced in an even more limited number, only 77.


Whirlwind was also the name of another Westland product, the post-war helicopter.

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