The P-47 is not like other fighters. Pilots usually refer to their aircraft as if they were feminine and graceful. Listening to World War II’s top Thunderbolt aces describe their birds, words like “brick”, “truck”, and “tank” pervade their comparative descriptions. Since nine of the top ten T-bolt aces lived to tell their tales, such euphemisms would be appropriate even if the big airplane didn’t physically resemble those somewhat analogous objects. Which, of course, the P-47 does.
It’s ironic that the AP-10 project which gave birth to the Thunderbolt was intended to create a lightweight, inline-engined fighter-interceptor. Early events in faraway Europe changed the design goals completely.
Long before the Thunderbolt design was complete, combat experience details made it apparent that a faster, heavily-armed, rugged fighter would better serve the Army Air Forces.
Russian-born Alexander Kartveli initiated the P-47 in a somewhat unusual sequence, first concocting an envelope for the big radial engine’s turbo-supercharger and airflow system and then configuring everything else around that package.
Though sluggish in relative rate of climb, the Thunderbolt’s big radial imbued it with an excellent turn of speed, and its bulk and excellent detail streamlining made for fast, steady dives. A sturdy and stable machine, it was down among the trees and locomotives, dropping bombs, firing rockets, and generally harassing the Nazis that the P-47 became even more famous than in its early days as an air-to-air scrapper.
In air-to-air combat, the Thunderbolt gave a superb account of itself, and probably ran up high scores in the hands of so many aces because of the confidence they had that the airplane would hold together after damage and maneuvers other aircraft wouldn’t survive.
Even in the Pacific, where the long-legged “M” and “N” aircraft became common late in the war, the ground attack capability of the machine became legendary. Most combat aircraft’s histories contain stories of pilots nursing home damaged aircraft, but many from the P-47’s saga approach the legendary. Thunderbolts frequently came home missing major assemblies and hunks of engine and airframe that would have much earlier resulted in midair destruction of less durable aircraft.
In January 1943, the 56th Fighter Group was the first to enter European Theater combat with the big fighter, under operational command of the Eighth Air Force in England. The early equipment comprised P-47C’s and P-47B’s, replaced by about midyear predominantly by early “razorback” D’s. By the P-47D-25 production block, a series of changes was introduced, including a bubble canopy similar to that fitted to most late P-51D’s.
Curtiss-Wright produced a version of the early “D”, the P-47G, which apparently saw only stateside training duty. Later versions included the “sprint” lightweight, high speed P-47M and the extended-range, load-carrying champion of the series, the P-47N.
A total of 15,660 P-47’s were delivered to the USAAF, the largest quantity of any single-engined combat type. 5,222 were lost, but the attrition rate of .7% per combat sortie was exceptionally low, about half that of the P-38 and P-51.