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Westland Lysander

Even for aircraft, faster is not always better. Some aircraft have achieved fame because of their exceptional low-speed flight characteristics. Among these, the British Westland Lysander stands out as one of the great special mission planes of World War II.

In 1934 the Royal Air Force opened competition for a new “Army co-operation aircraft” to provide artillery spotting, message dropping and other essential support missions. Arthur Davenport and Teddy Petter, designers at Westland, asked RAF pilots what they needed. The critical requirements were excellent downward visibility, good low-speed handling, and short takeoff and landing performance.

On June 15, 1936, the prototype Westland Lysander made its maiden flight. It was an odd-looking bird, with a braced high wing, a separate rear cockpit for an observer/gunner, fixed landing gear with large, streamlined wheel fairings called “spats,” and a massive air-cooled radial engine driving a three-bladed propeller. The RAF named army cooperation types for ancient heroes; so Lysander carried the name of a Spartan general (died 395 BC) who defeated Athens’ fleet in the Peloponnesian War.

Lysanders of 16 Squadron RAF in the observation and cooperation role from which they were quickly withdrawn. The type found its niche in special operations. Photo courtesy of RAF.

Many features of the Lysander were advanced for its time. The forward airframe was built of aluminum alloy tubes; the rear framed in welded stainless steel tubing. Light wooden ribs defined the shape, covered partly in sheet metal, the rest in fabric. Custom aluminum alloy extrusions were used extensively for plates and brackets rather than welded and bolted sheet metal. Finally, the Lysander was one of the first aircraft fitted with automatic wing slots and slotted flaps, reducing pilot workload during takeoff and landing.

By the outbreak of war in September 1939, the Lysander Mark II equipped four RAF squadrons, but over France and Belgium, the Luftwaffe’s fighters slaughtered them. Of 175 sent into action, 88 were shot down; another 30 were destroyed on the ground. Lysanders were then withdrawn from front-line service, initially relegated to towing targets and dropping life rafts to downed aircrews. In August 1941 the Lysander found its ultimate mission, with the formation of 138 Squadron (Special Duties). Painted flat black for night operations and fitted with extra fuel tanks for extended range, the Mark III could land and take off from tiny improvised airstrips in Nazi-occupied Europe.

These missions included inserting clandestine agents, explosives, radios and critical supplies for the Resistance and retrieving downed airmen who had evaded capture. Machine guns were usually removed to save weight, and the planes relied on stealth to survive. Missions were limited to periods around the full moon, so that pilots would have enough light to navigate, using only a compass, watch and map. Up to three passengers could cram into the rear cockpit “in extreme discomfort.” The British SOE (Special Operations Executive) established secret facilities for 138 Squadron and later 161 at RAF Newmarket in Suffolk, along with 357 Squadron in Bengal, India.

Specifications, Lysander Mark IIIA (SD):

Lysander Mk. I and Mk. III (SD) courtesy by Emoscopes.

Length: 30 ft 6 in (9.29 m)

Wingspan: 50 ft (15.24 m)

Height: 14 ft 6 in (4.42 m)

Wing Area: 260 ft² (24.2 m²)

Empty Weight: 4,365 lb. (1,984 kg)

Maximum Takeoff Weight: 6,330 lb. (2,877 kg)

Engine: 1× Bristol Mercury XX 9-Cylinder Radial, 870 hp (649 kW)

Maximum Speed: 212 mph (184 knots, 341 km/h) at 5,000 ft (1,520 m)

Stall Speed: 56 mph (90.1 km/h)

Range: 600 Miles (522 nmi, 966 km) on Internal Fuel

Endurance: About 8 Hours.

Fuel Capacity: 106 Imperial Gallons (482 Liters) in fuselage tank.

External Drop Tank: 150 Imperial Gallons (682 Liters)

Ceiling: 21,500 ft (6,550 m)

Climb to 10,000 ft (3,050 m): 8 min

Take-Off Run to 50 ft (15 m): 305 Yards (279 m)

These missions were hazardous in the extreme, with 118 of the 418 SOE agents deployed being killed. One was 23-year old Violette Szabo, reputedly the best shot in SOE. In April 1944 she flew aboard a Lysander into a field near Rouen, France, evaluated the capability of the local Resistance to support the Normandy invasion, and was successfully extracted. On a later mission she was captured by SS troops and executed.

Amazingly only one Lysander was lost in France, along with its pilot, Flying Officer James Bathgate, RNZAF, of 161 Squadron, and French Army passenger, Capitaine Claudius Four. They were shot down by flak and crashed near La Ville-aux-Bois-les-Pontavert on December 11, 1943). Several Lysanders were also lost to crashes in fog while landing in England. About 25 Lysanders were transferred to the U.S. Army Air Corps. The type also operated with the Free French Air Force, Turkey, India, Egypt and other countries. Most were withdrawn from service in 1946, but Egyptian Lysanders flew against Israel in the 1948 war. A total of 1,786 Lysanders were built. Perhaps a dozen survive, with a restored example in the markings of RAF 138 Squadron hanging near the main entrance of the National Air and Space Museum, Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.