“Consider these ‘flying cannons’ (listed in order of ascending firepower)”
AREAL WARFARE was still in its infancy when aviation innovators devised history’s first ‘gunship’.
In 1915, mechanics with the French air corps began outfitting the Voisin III with 37 mm cannons enabling the rickety single-engine biplane to attack targets both on the ground and in the air. The results were less than encouraging. The following year, France unveiled the Salmson-Moineau S.M.1, a three-man, long-range recon bird, armed with a pair of modified 37 mm field guns. In this case, the weapons were intended to fend off enemy fighter planes. Only 155 were ever built.
The following year, the Spad XII took to the skies — a dedicated dogfighter armed with a 12-shot, 1.46-inch cannon. The heavily gunned warplanes were distributed in ones and twos throughout the French air corps with a handful finding their way into U.S. and British squadrons on the Western Front. Although a mediocre aircraft at best, the Spad could easily shred anything unfortunate enough to get in its crosshairs. American ace Charles John Biddle of the 13th Aero Squadron downed seven opponents with his up-gunned XII.
The war ended before aircraft could be outfitted with even heavier weaponry. But by 1939, the concept of mounting artillery on aircraft would be revived, and with devastating results. Consider these ‘flying cannons’ (listed in order of ascending firepower):
The Shooting Komet
Nazi Germany’s legendary rocket-powered interceptor, the Me-163 Komet only carried enough fuel to make a couple of passes against Allied bomber formations — so every shot fired had to count. That’s why engineers at Messerschmitt outfitted the stubby warplane with a pair of Mk 108 30 mm cannons. Each of the weapons could fire 650 high-explosive, armour-piercing or incendiary rounds per minute. The shells were powerful enough to knock Allied planes from the skies with a single blast. Because of the guns’ distinctive sound, American bomber crews nicknamed it “the pneumatic hammer.” Later variants of the Focke Wulf Fw-190 were also armed with Mk 108s, which they used against both Allied bombers and ground targets.
The Blackburn Perth
Britain’s Blackburn Perth, which entered service with the Royal Navy in 1934, was armed with a COW 37 mm automatic cannon mounted in the nose turret. The weapon could fire 90 1.7-pound armour-piercing, anti-ship rounds in a minute. While some had high hopes for the Perth, only four of the flying boats were ever built. They were all retired in 1938.
The American Bell P-39 Airacobra was literally built around its centreline 37 mm cannon. The plane’s T9 anti-aircraft gun ran the length of the interior of the forward fuselage. In fact, the muzzle protruded from the propeller shaft. In order to make room for the six-and-a-half-foot-long weapon, the aircraft’s engine was positioned mid-way along the fuselage, behind the cockpit — a rare design feature. While the U.S. Army excepted the Airacobra to dominate the skies, it turned out to be a second-rate dogfighter. The plane was reassigned to the ground attack role, an area where it positively excelled — thanks in part to its outsized gun. Thousands were transferred to the Soviets under Lend-Lease.
The Stuka “Kanonenvogel”
For the first two years of the war, the Ju-87 Stuka was the lighting of Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. However by the time of the Battle of Britain, the gull winged dive-bomber proved to be a sitting duck for RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires. But in 1943, the obsolete Stuka got a new lease on life after engineers outfitted it with twin wing-mounted Bordkanone BK 37 mm gun pods. The heavy weapons, each of which weighed 650 pounds, transformed the aging aircraft into a formidable tank buster on the Eastern Front. Although the guns could only carry a dozen rounds apiece, with a skilled pilot at the controls the Stuka could pour a lethal volley of tungsten shells onto the the thinly armoured tops of Soviet tanks.
The Scourge of Korea
The MiG-15 gave American fliers over Korea a rude shock when it made its combat debut on Nov. 1, 1950. Not only was the jet fast and agile, its 37 mm Nudelman cannon was a game changer. Although each MiG only carried about 40 shots for the fuselage-mounted weapon, just a single high-explosive round was enough to bring down a heavy bomber. In one raid in early 1951, a formation of 30 MiG-15s attacked an escorted flight of three-dozen B-29s and destroyed a third of them in minutes. That was enough to force U.S. commanders to temporarily ground their bombers.
The Hurricane “Can Opener”
By 1941, the Hawker Hurricane was all but obsolete as a dogfighter. But once armed with a 40 mm Vickers S Gun on each wing, the IID variant served as a robust tank buster. Dubbed the “Can Opener” by crews in North Africa, the Hurricane could unleash up to 30 four-pound shells that made mincemeat of Afrika Korps panzers. More than 140 Axis armoured vehicles fell prey to the Hurricane’s artillery in 1942.
While most Messerschmitt Me-262 Schwalbes were armed with the notorious Mk 180, experimental A1-A/U4 variants packed a 50 mm BK5 automatic cannon — a derivative of the Panzer III’s main gun. The high-velocity standoff weapon enabled the jet to attack American B-17s and B-24s from beyond the range of the bombers’ own defensive gun turrets. Only a handful of the jets were ever built, but BK5s were also fitted to some variants of the Me-410 heavy fighter.
A quick-firing naval version of the British Army’s 57 mm QF 6-pounder, known as the Molins gun, found its way onto Coastal Command U-boat hunting de Havilland Mosquitoes in 1943. The up-gunned Mossies’ massive shells were powerful enough to penetrate ships’ hulls up to two feet below the waterline from a distance of more than 1,500 yards. A number of Axis subs fell prey to these hard hitting Mosquitoes. The pilots dubbed them “Tsetses.”
B-25 Tank Buster
The Allies could think of no better weapon to mount on a panzer-busting version of the B-25 bomber than the same gun used on the M4 Sherman tank. G and H model Mitchells both carried the single-shot 75 mm cannon in addition to a full suite of forward-facing .30 and .50 caliber machine guns. Although originally intended for use against surface ships, it was hoped the aircraft would proved itself a potent tank killer. The artillery aboard the gunship bombers needed to be loaded by hand before each shot (a task performed by the plane’s navigator). Hundreds of the heavy-hitting attack planes were built before the war’s end.
The twin-engine Henschel Hs-129 Panzerknacker or “tank cracker” was also outfitted with a 75-mm gun, although unlike Allied B-25Gs and Hs, it was a semi-automatic weapon. Based on the Wehrmacht’s Pak 40 anti-tank gun, the Hs-129’s cannon was fed by a rotating 12 round magazine. Spent shell casings were dropped from the under-slung gun pod immediately after each shot. Although deployed in limited numbers, the Panzerknacker could destroy any tank on the battlefield. One HS-129 ace, Rudolf-Heinz Ruffer, was responsible for 80 Soviet tank kills.
Later variants of the Luftwaffe’s ubiquitous Ju-88 fighter bomber were also outfitted with the same Bordkanone BK 7,5 gun as the HS-129, although one experimental model, the P-5, came with a pod-mounted 88 mm gun – the same caliber weapon found on a Tiger tank.
Battery in the Sky
Lockheed gets the final work in aircraft-mounted artillery. The AC-130 Specter, which first appeared during the Vietnam War, packed the firepower of a small battery. In addition to side-firing 20-mm Vulcan cannons and 40 mm Bofors guns, the massive four-engine converted transport plane boasts a M102 105mm howitzer – the largest weapon ever mounted on a combat aircraft. The single-shot field gun is manually loaded by the crew. The Specter has flown cover over U.S. military operations in Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Iraq, Somalia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.