Kurt Tank developed the Fw 187 Falke during the 1930s, a time when twin-engine fighters were in vogue. It’s unclear exactly how this concept emerged, as it didn’t seem to have roots in World War I designs.
One theory is their potential for extended range, contrasting with designs like the Westland Whirlwind fighter, which was ahead of its time.
However, as dedicated fighters, these designs generally didn’t meet expectations. The P-38 Lightning, for instance, excelled in the Pacific theater but was less effective in Europe, a point likely to stir debate among American enthusiasts.
In the 1930s, major powers like Germany, the UK, France, Italy, and Russia were all exploring twin-engine designs without the foresight of an impending conflict with Japan.
This makes Lockheed’s success with the P-38 even more notable, as it proved to be the right aircraft for its time and theater of operation.
There’s also a case for the Mosquito, initially designed as a fast medium bomber. Its transformation into an exceptional night fighter speaks volumes about De Havilland’s design capabilities.
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The quest for effective twin-engine designs didn’t cease, leading to noteworthy but late entries like the Tiger Cat and Hornet, which missed World War II.
Other attempts, like the Me 210 and 410, fell short of expectations. Ultimately, the effectiveness of these aircraft boiled down to the specific requirements and circumstances of the war.
Fw 187 a Private Venture
The Fw 187 was a self-funded project by Focke-Wulf, stemming from Kurt Tank’s original concept. This aircraft was a sleek, all-metal, low-wing monoplane with a remarkably narrow fuselage.
So narrow, in fact, that some instruments had to be mounted on the engine nacelles’ sides instead of the cockpit.
Initially designed to incorporate the 960hp Daimler Benz DB600 engine, which was in production at the time.
Focke-Wulf had to alter their plans when the German Air Ministry, upon awarding the contract for the first three prototypes, mandated the use of the less potent Junkers Jumo 210 engines.
It wasn’t until the sixth prototype that the intended Daimler Benz engines were employed.
Even with the comparatively weaker engines, the Fw 187 V1 impressively achieved a top speed of 326mph. It boasted an admirable turning radius, rapid climb rate, and strong dive capabilities. However, these qualities failed to sway the RLM (Reich Air Ministry).
A significant drawback was the aircraft’s armament: it was equipped with just two MG 17 machine guns, a setup considered insufficiently armed for the late 1930s’ standards.
Third Reich Officials
In 1936, the design was showcased at a new weapons, prototypes, and projects exhibition held at the Henschel factory in Berlin-Schönefeld. This event, attended by top Nazi officials, including Hitler, marked the public debut of the design.
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Despite this high-profile unveiling, the Reich Air Ministry (RLM) dismissed the design, favoring the single-engine Bf 109 for its similar performance but at a considerably lower cost.
At the time, there was a prevailing assumption that a long-range fighter wasn’t necessary, as it was believed that bombers could operate without escorts.
Fw 187 Design Prototypes
Kurt Tank presented his design to Wolfram von Richthofen, who led the development division of the Technischen Amt, the research and development branch of the RLM. Unlike others, Richthofen was not entirely convinced that bombers would indefinitely outperform fighters.
He approved the construction of three prototypes with one condition: the originally intended DB 600 engines, facing a severe shortage, had to be replaced with the less powerful 515 kW (700 PS) Junkers Jumo 210.
The detailed design was entrusted to R. Blaser. To surpass the Bf 110 in performance, the design featured an exceptionally compact fuselage.
This space constraint meant that not all engine instruments could fit on the cockpit’s instrument panel, necessitating some to be relocated to the interior faces of the engine nacelles. This arrangement was later seen in the Henschel Hs 129 and some Bf 110 versions.
Fw 187 Unique Mounting
The engine nacelles were standard, housing both the engines and the main landing gear. Uniquely, the front-mounted engine radiators could retract for high-speed operations, reducing frontal area, a concept also utilized in the French Morane-Saulnier M.S.406. The aircraft’s mainwheels were fully retractable.
Unlike some contemporaries such as the Bf 109, the Fw 187’s wing and tailplane needed no struts, and its two wing spars ran beneath the pilot’s seat.
The design integrated a seamless transition from the rear fuselage to the canopy, reducing drag but limiting rearward visibility.
To mitigate this, cutouts in the fuselage and canopy’s rear section, along with a small window panel near the pilot’s feet, were incorporated to aid landing visibility.
The first prototype, Fw 187 V1 (D-AANA), took flight in late spring 1937 under pilot Hans Sander.
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During tests, it achieved a remarkable speed of 523 km/h (325 mph) using the low-powered Jumo engines, outpacing the contemporary Jumo-powered Messerschmitt Bf 109B by 80 km/h (50 mph), despite being heavier and having double the range.
RLM officials initially doubted these results, attributing them to erroneous flight instruments, but further tests confirmed the performance. The Fw 187 also demonstrated competitive climb and dive capabilities.
Flutter Led Blaser
Several modifications followed from these tests. New DVL propellers replaced the original Junkers-Hamiltons, and experimental twin-wheel bogies were tested then discarded.
Concerns about high-speed rudder flutter led Blaser to install a dampening weight, but this caused severe flutter and was removed. The second prototype featured fixed radiators, a semi-retractable tailwheel, modified elevator, and a slimmed-down vertical stabilizer.
Engine upgrades to the Jumo 210G, with direct fuel injection, significantly boosted power, while new ejector-type exhaust stacks improved speed by channeling exhaust rearward.
Testing of the Fw 187 V2 began in summer 1937, but a landing gear malfunction caused a crash. The first prototype, V1, was destroyed on 14 May 1938 when pilot Paul Bauer overstressed the aircraft during a high-speed flyover at Bremen, resulting in a fatal stall and crash.
In 1936, Ernst Udet replaced Wolfram von Richthofen. A strong advocate for high-speed monoplane fighters, Udet still harbored reservations about the maneuverability of twin-engine fighters compared to their single-engine counterparts.
However, he recognized the impressive performance of the Fw 187 and considered its potential as a replacement for the Bf 110 in the bomber destroyer role.
Even before the first prototype took to the skies, Udet directed Tank to modify the design for a two-seater configuration for this purpose, although the necessity of a second crew member in such a role was somewhat debatable.
Since the first two prototypes were already well into construction, the adaptation for a two-seater began with the third prototype, which was in the early stages of construction.
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Blaser undertook the modifications, slightly elongating the fuselage to accommodate the second crew member. This addition shifted the aircraft’s center of gravity, necessitating alterations to the engine nacelles to maintain handling characteristics.
It Got Complicated
A new, longer canopy was installed for the cockpit, but the high fuselage design complicated the inclusion of rear-facing defensive armament.
As a result, the second crew member was primarily tasked with radio operations. The plan was to upgrade the offensive armament from two 7.92 mm (.312 in) MG 17 machine guns to 20 mm MG FF cannons, although these were never actually installed.
The third prototype, Fw 187 V3 (D-ORHP), took flight in spring 1938. However, it encountered a starboard engine fire during initial tests, causing damage to its main landing gear in a forced landing. Repairs were swiftly made, and the aircraft was returned to service.
Following V3, two additional two-seater prototypes, V4 (D-OSNP) and V5 (D-OTGN), were completed in the summer and autumn of 1938, respectively. Powered by the Jumo 210 engines, their performance was underwhelming, leading to the conclusion that their advantages did not justify replacing the existing Bf 110.
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The final prototype, Fw 187 V6 (D-CINY), underwent significant modifications, finally receiving the initially intended 736 kW (1,000 PS) DB 600 engines and a novel surface evaporative cooling system to reduce drag.
First flown in early 1939, it encountered severe cooling issues, a problem shared by other aircraft using this system, such as the Heinkel He 100. The aircraft also experienced skin buckling and distortion.
Nonetheless, in a series of carefully controlled tests in October 1939, the Fw 187 V6 achieved a top speed of 634 km/h (395 mph) in level flight, making it the fastest fighter in Germany at that time.
Limited Production Run
In the summer of 1939, a limited production run of three Fw 187 A-0 units was initiated, based on the V3 prototype and equipped with Jumo 210G engines.
However, the Luftwaffe deemed the aircraft unsuitable for the Zerstörer (destroyer) role due to its lack of defensive armament, leading to a lack of interest in the design. These two-seater prototypes were eventually returned to Focke-Wulf after undergoing tests at Rechlin.
During the winter of 1942/43, there was a fleeting consideration of the Fw 187 as a night fighter, but this idea was quickly dismissed due to the cockpit’s insufficient space for radar equipment.
Subsequently, the RLM repurposed the 8-187 airframe designation for Junkers’ Ju 187 dive bomber prototype.
Despite these setbacks, Kurt Tank continued to explore new iterations of the Fw 187 design for various roles, including dive bomber, night fighter, fighter-bomber, and high-altitude interceptor, featuring an expanded wingspan and elongated rear fuselage.
These conceptual designs considered a range of engines, such as the Daimler-Benz DB 601, DB 605, and even the BMW 801 radial engine.
Off the Drawing Board
Eventually, the Focke-Wulf Ta 154 Moskito emerged, aligning with the Luftwaffe’s need for a twin-engine heavy fighter akin to the Fw 187. However, unlike the Fw 187, the Ta 154 was built primarily from wood rather than light alloys.
Due to these fundamental differences in materials and construction techniques, Tank did not leverage the Fw 187 designs in the Ta 154’s development, necessitating the creation of an entirely new aircraft to fulfill this specific requirement.
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Interestingly, during the summer of 1940, the three pre-production Fw 187 A-0 models served in a defensive role for the Focke-Wulf factory in Bremen, where they reportedly achieved several unconfirmed victories. In the winter of 1940-41, these aircraft were deployed to the 13th (Zerstörer) Squadron of JG 77 in Norway, where they were received with considerable enthusiasm.
However, once the RLM became aware of their active deployment, they ordered the aircraft to return to Bremen. There, they were repurposed as development platforms for the Ta 154 project.
If the Fw 187 had been fully developed and deployed, it might have significantly altered the course of events, particularly considering the underwhelming performance of the Bf 110s during the Battle of Britain. Moreover, considering the later disappointments with aircraft like the Me-210, Me-410, Ar-240, Ta-154, and the adaptation of bombers as night-fighters, the Fw 187 could have continued to play a pivotal role in the air war.