Happiness is the Pockety-Pock-Pock of a Merlin Engine

Fortress 03

Frontal View of the Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress “Memphis Belle”

It might well be that I have mentioned my fondness for aviation and for air shows previously at The Orthosphere.  If so, I apologize for the redundancy.  Mid-July is the occasion of the American Warplane Museum’s annual three-day vintage-aircraft gathering and display in Geneseo, New York, to which I have been a regular visitor for the past decade.  The organizers of the event emphasize the machines of the Second World War.  The event has waned a bit in recent years in terms of the number of flying and static displays, but the gathering on the grass airfield underneath the hilltop campus of SUNY Geneseo remains impressive.  The Museum itself maintains in its holdings a flight-capable Boeing B-17 G – the one used in the film Memphis Belle (1990) – and the Belle did indeed take to the air this weekend.  Also flying were two North American P-51 D Mustangs, with their American-built versions of the legendary Rolls Royce Merlin engine, the one that famously powered the Supermarine Spitfire.  The Mustang bears a lasting reputation as the supreme single-engine fighter of the war, but the Mustang did not begin as a fighter.  Originally, the Mustang was called the Apache, and her designers intended her for the ground attack role.  She was underpowered, but when the British acquired the airplane, they installed the Merlin – and likely changed the course of the conflict.

A restored Curtiss P-40 Warhawk accompanied the two Mustangs in the massed display that brought the program to its climax on Saturday afternoon.  The Belle went aloft accompanied by two B-25 Mitchells (like the Mustang, a product of North American), and the three fighters flew escort.

I have been to a number of air shows over the years.  Typically, the organizers regard the crowd with suspicion.  The staff cordon off the machines so that no one can get too close.  The supervision is over-obvious and patronizing.  Not so at Geneseo, where the prevailing humor seems to be to trust the crowd, to let them “get personal” with the aircraft as long as they do not touch them – a rule that the Geneseo crowd observes universally.  The American Warplane Museum staff is more intelligent than the organizers of similar events.  They know that a gathering of vintage aircraft from the 1930s and 40s is not a traveling carnival and that the crowd it attracts is likely to be a discriminating one and well-behaved. Not incidentally, many visitors exhibited a military bearing. There was a special tent for veterans.

The shared interest of the visitors makes the air show quite friendly.  People share knowledge of the various machines, just as they share a passion for the sleek lines of the wings and the fuselages.  Families who have brought their children are keen to educate their sons and daughters about the technical virtuosity of the svelte fighters and the massive bombers and to convey the historical significance of them as the surviving tokens of a history-changing civilizational ordeal.

In the past, I have recruited my friends among the regulars of Old City Hall, my favorite bar in Oswego, to accompany me.  This time around, I invited my son Joe, twenty-four, and his girlfriend Brittany.  They kindly consented to accompanying the eccentric oldster on his quirky holiday. Joe knows more than the average twenty-four-year old about World War Two and its fighter, bomber, and transport aircraft – and for obvious reasons.  I worried a bit whether the girlfriend might be bored, but nothing like that happened.  A big part of the interest of an air display resides in the sense-impressions made by the machines, especially when they rev up their engines and prepare for take-off.  The four Wright Cyclones of the Flying Fortress make a pleasant thunder in the weirdness of their synchronization.  Sublime, however, was the explosively loud pockety-pock-pock of the Allison twelve-cylinder inverted-V engines when the Mustangs did their thing.  There is a quality of reality in the gathering of eagles that never fails to refresh me.

I offer a gallery of images. —

Swamp Fox 01

Joe & Brittany in Front of “Swamp Fox”

Corsair 02

Vought’s F4U Corsair; Naval Fighter-Bomber

Mitchell 03

Yours Truly with One of the B-25 Mitchells in the Background
Tora Nate 01

Replica Aichi D3A Built around the Fuselage of a T-6 Trainer

Role-Players 02

Congenial Role-Players

The Reggiane 2005 Sagittario (Entered Service 1943)

Saggitario Planform

Sagittario Overview


12 thoughts on “Happiness is the Pockety-Pock-Pock of a Merlin Engine

  1. Nice article, Tom! I already like Joe and Brittany just by seeing them in that pic. I haven’t been to an airshow in many years. Indeed, the last one I was at was held at Elmendorf AFB in 1992 I think, when I was still in the AF. One of my strong extra-curricular interests has always, as far back as I can remember, been flying, which I inherited from my father. As such I pursued that course he was never able to pursue in the early 2000s, but ultimately gave it up since the hobby took too much time and consumed too much money on a limited budget. One of my nephews, Zach (20), is currently in pursuit of his IFR rating. He says that I was the inspiration for his interest in flying. One of my sons, Samuel (14), has an intense interest in flying. We (Sam and I) have already gone through the books preparing him to take up flying perhaps as a profession, inspired by his cousin Zachary who sends him flying videos now and again, if that is his calling. I expect he will likely take up flying as a hobby at least, but we shall see.

    • I flirted with flying in my twenties but gave it up for similar reasons. It might be, however, that my passion for airplanes was and is greater than my passion for flying. Since my childhood the aesthetics of flight has fascinated me. The peak aeronautical design coincided with the single-engine fighter aircraft of WWII — the Spitfire, the Messerschmitt, the Mustang, and the Sagittario. There is something sculptural in the ovoid, tapering longitude of a monocoque fuselage, and ditto for the shape of a thin wing. A Spitfire or Mustang is made to leap in the air and a function of its design is that it looks like it is made to leap in the air.

      The early post-war jet-fighters might conceivably compete with the late-war inline engine fighters, especially if we’re referencing the Hawker Hunter — and may also the North American Sabre Jet. The “Century Series” of American fighter planes strike me as ugly, but chacun a son gout.

      Thank you for commenting.

      PS. I will put up profiles of the Spitfire, the Mustang, the Gustav, and the Sagittario a little bit later in the evening.

  2. Pingback: Happiness is the Pockety-Pock-Pock of a Merlin Engine | Reaction Times

  3. Ah, vintage aircraft! Wish I could have accompanied you.

    Did they have a Skyraider? Yes, the Spad was a tad too late for WWII, but in my book it’s the baddest single-piston-engine warbird of all: The first aircraft capable of carrying a payload greater than its empty weight, one of only three piston aircraft crediting with shooting down a jet fighter (and the only non-fighter of the three), and the last plane to carry out an aerial torpedo attack (during the Korean War, and the target was the floodgate of a dam…)

    • Sorry Alan – no Skyraider. We did witness a flyby display by a Thunderbolt II. Fairchild’s tank-buster is a blunt instrument and I can appreciate its bluntness. A radial engine has certain tactical advantages in comparison with an inline engine, especially where it concerns ground attack. The Spad could lose a third of its cylinders to ground fire and still crawl back to its base. The disadvantage of the radial engine is its greater drag in comparison with an inline engine. And reduced drag means a higher power-to-weight ration — which means greater speed for the same horsepower.

      Thank you for commenting.

  4. For an interesting tale of an eccentric Englishman, a Merlin engine and Rolls-Royce, do a Google search on ‘John Dodd and the Beast’

  5. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 07/21/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores


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