Britain’s Martin-Baker MB 5 fighter could have been in service in time to fight in the skies over Germany.
But history never works out according to plan. Today, the Martin-Baker Aircraft Co. Ltd is famous as a manufacturer of ejection seats but almost forgotten as a planemaker, having assembled exactly four airframes in its history.
The MB 5, which would have been one of the best-performing propeller-driven warplanes of all time, is instead a “might have been” – an aircraft that excited onlookers and performed well, but never became operational.
Looking something like a P-51D Mustang on steroids, the MB 5 was a low-wing, tail-wheel aircraft with a 2,340-horsepower Rolls-Royce Griffon 83 engine driving a pair of three-bladed contra-rotating propellers. It “was an aircraft of sleek and pleasing lines,” the Martin-Baker firm’s own website reminds us. James “Jimmy” Martin (later, Sir James), often described as loud and flamboyant, and his partner and chief pilot, the very businesslike Royal Air Force Capt. Valentine Henry “Val” Baker, produced two aircraft designs before coming up in the early 1940s with a fighter called the MB 3.
Also an attractive design, the MB 3 used a 2,000-hp, 24-cylinder Napier Sabre engine and was armed with no fewer than six 20 mm cannon in the wings. First flown on Aug. 31, 1942, and seemingly headed for production with a speed of 415 miles per hour, it appeared to be a world-beater. But less than two weeks after its first flight on Sept. 12, 1942, a dead-stick landing went awry. Making a dead-stick touchdown in a field after an aborted takeoff, the MB 3 slammed into a tree stump. The aircraft was demolished.
Baker lost his life.
Baker’s death prompted Martin’s decision to focus on pilot safety and reorganize his company to develop ejection seats. In the meantime, however, a modified aircraft based on the ill-fated MB 3 was taking shape. Following cancellation of an unbuilt design called the MB 4, the new aircraft became the MB 5.
Air Ministry specification F.18/39 for a potential successor to the Hurricane and Spitfire had led to the MB 3, but Martin had wanted to use the Griffon. After much haggling, the Griffon was selected for what began as the second MB 3 but was redesignated MB 5. The MB 3 had been designed to enable a mechanic with only a little training to service it, and this remained a goal with the MB 5. Martin decided on a bubble canopy and improved the pilot’s visibility by moving the cockpit forward five feet.
Martin, now the sole figure responsible for the aircraft, was a perfectionist, and the MB 5’s construction began to take longer than planned. The delivery slipped repeatedly. The MB 5 was once scheduled for a Jan. 1, 1943 delivery, but a first-flight on May 23, 1944, which could have taken place more than a year earlier, was followed by months on the ground during redesign. The aircraft resumed flying near the end of the war in Europe and went to the RAF’s Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down for official trials in February 1946. By the time a serious flight-test program was under way, the war had already ended.
With a wingspan of exactly 35 feet, the MB 5 had a gross weight of 12,090 pounds. Armament was reduced to four 20 mm Hispano cannon mounted in the wings outboard of the wide-track main landing gear.
Bryan Greensted, chief test pilot for propeller manufacturer Rotol, made the first flight of the MB 5 and flew the aircraft again after further modifications. After one of the subsequent flights, Greensted said the MB 5 was “a super ship to fly” and “earns the respect of everyone associated with it.” It was considered extremely stable as a gun platform yet highly maneuverable for dogfighting, qualities that are difficult to combine. The MB 5’s top speed was 460 mph at 20,000 feet, with an initial climb rate of 3,800 feet per minute and a service ceiling of 40,000 feet. Its range was calculated to be in excess of 1,000 miles.
Royal Navy Capt. Eric “Winkle” Brown called the MB 5 “most magnificent” and said it should have been placed into production.
Although the MB 5 is reported to have performed poorly during a demonstration for Winston Churchill, it enjoyed its grandest moment at the 1946 Farnborough trade show, where Polish aerobatic and display pilot Squadron Leader Jan Zurakowski put the plane through its paces before an enthralled audience. Zurakowski, as quoted in a Rolls-Royce publication, said the MB 5 was “the best airplane I have ever flown.” Another pilot said it offered “steady flight behavior, good control and an excellent view.” Maintenance accessibility of the fuselage was excellent, thanks to a system of easy-to-use detachable panels.
The MB 5 was one of several top-performing, propeller-driven fighters that came along at the end of World War II. Others included the Boeing XF8B-1 and Republic XP-72, both heavyweights with air-cooled engines, the Supermarine Spiteful, a tweaked-up offspring of the Spitfire, and the Focke-Wulf Ta 152, a next-generation take on the Fw 190. There was a simple reason none of them went into production. As Don Berliner wrote in American Aircraft Modeler (May 1971), “the hot blast of the turbo jet swept the skies of piston engines at the close of World War II [and] left in its wake some airplanes that might have become great, had the times been a little different.” The times were jet engine times and the fighters that foretold the future were the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, Gloster Meteor and Messerschmitt Me 262 – all with jet engines.
Ironically, when the Korean War began the standard U.S. fighter in the region, by now re-named the F-80, proved too fast to maneuver against North Korean propeller-driven fighters, and 145 Mustangs, now called F-51s, had to be rushed across the Pacific to join the fight. Propeller aircraft excelled in Korea, and the MB 5 would have been perfect for conditions there.
But by then not even the sole example built was still in existence. After its flying was finished and its engine removed, the sole MB 5 was used for training at RAF Wattisham, Suffolk, in the late 1940s. The aircraft, which would have made a superb museum display, was scrapped and then burned.
John Marlin of Reno, Nev., began working on a replica of the MB 5 in about 2001 and was putting it through taxi tests in July 2006. The aircraft used a P-51 Mustang wing and had other design changes to improve handling. The replica apparently never flew, and the project appears to have been in abeyance for the past several years.
This story was originally published on June 8, 2012