How much difference did the size of the pilot make to a WW2 Piston-Engined Fighter?

I’ve just finished reading Johnny Red: The Hurricane, a modern update of a classic British comic strip (and very good it is btw) and one aspect made me wonder.

The title character is a man of about average height and build, one of his colleagues is a very large and heavily built man and another is a fairly slightly built and petite woman. Given the same aircraft would its performance have been noticeably effected when flown by a large man or a small woman, or would it not really have much of an impact at all?

Thanks in advance :slight_smile:

btw in case anyone is interested: (comic strip) (all three mentioned characters appear in this one)

The Hurricane has a loaded weight of around 3500 kg. The difference between a big man and a light woman may be around 50kg, so around 1.5% of the weight. I would suspect that a difference of that magnitude would be lost amongst a heap of other variables but I don’t know.

Height might matter more. A tall pilot might be cramped in one of the tighter cockpits, like the Bf-109’s. On the other hand, IIRC, Eric Brown of the RAF was short, and found the F4U Corsair to be awful, as he could barely see out of it.

A friend, now deceased, flew the P-38 in WWII. He was a small guy, maybe about 5’6” and 125lbs soaking wet. But we never talked about small size being any advantage. But race car drivers are little guys too. Weight generally is a disadvantage.

And then there was Ted Williams, USMC, the baseball player — nicknamed “The Splendid Splinter”. He was 6’3” and over 200lbs.

Just a back of the envelope calculation shows that the weight of gas for a P-51 would be around 1,100 lbs.

That variation alone is much larger.

So we have, independent of pilot weight:

-weight of fuel, varying by flight duration, possible uneven loading, slight differences in engine burn

–variances in ammo load depending on armament, minus depletion for ammo delivered

–Normal variances in airworthiness, probably within greater tolerance ranges 70 years ago

I guess the answer is “it depends, but not worth thinking about much.”

There’s the interesting case of RAF pilot Douglas Bader. He crashed in 1931 which resulted in both his legs being amputated. He returned to the RAF, flew in the Battle of Britain, and was credited with 22 enemy planes shot down. It’s speculated that having no lower legs actually helped him in dogfights; he could sustain high-g manoeuvres better than other pilots because the blood could not be forced into his lower limbs.

Describing his fictional creation, Biggles, a pilot of WWI:

And here’s a description of real WWII ace ‘Ginger’ Lacey:

Like several other aces, both the fictional and the real ace had exceptionally good eyesight. That may have been more important than their weight, but there was probably a selection criteria.

That was well before modern fly by wire systems. Flight controls were manual. Under high G or when damage has parts rubbing together in ways they weren’t designed having more muscular strength and endurance could make a difference. That more about having enough than stronger always being better.

Right, but there were hydraulically boosted mechanical controls for a long time between strictly manual and fly by wire. The P-38 was mentioned earlier. The pilot was not only a significantly smaller % of the weight of that plane than light WWII fighters like say its mid war Japanese opponents (more than twice) but it required a lot of strength on the ailerons. The force required was enough that late model P-38’s had hydraulically boosted ailerons to make the roll rate more competitive with single engine fighters (which also had the advantage of lower moment of inertia without engines on the wings), a relatively early example. It was worth that extra weight, beyond the weight of stronger pilot.

I actually recall reading that there were quite a few WW1 and WW2 Aces who would never get a chance to fly a fighter in the modern era for various physical and mental reasons. One British pilot in particular had extremely poor eyesight and he only passed the sight-test by memorising the chart.

I had a vague recollection that in the original concept of the Starfox game series the characters had mechanical legs for this reason, having had their biological legs removed to improve G-Tolerance.

Though on checking it appears that was an explanation after the fact, and on the linked thread it states that it wouldn’t actually improve their fighting abilities. Possibly worth a thread in itself.

Thanks for the answers everyone!

I’ve been fortunate enough to sit in and fly in several WWII aircraft including the P51. You would be surprised how small the cockpits are. I really don’t think you’ll find much room for a large variation in pilot sizes.

Not an expert by any means, but based on the responses in this thread, it seems WW2-era planes (being largely metal construction) are not going to be affected. WW1-era planes, on the other hand, would be quite a different matter. I can definitely see a small, light pilot having a performance advantage over a heavier one in those.

Roald Dahl was 6’ 6" and he flew a hurricane during the war. He mentions in his book that it was uncomfortable but definitely doable.

I think it might have had a noticeable effect. There are many, many reports of fighter aircraft of the era having additional weight stripped out to improve performance. The Finnish Air Force famously stripped out armor and even some instrumentation from the Brewster Buffalo fighters they’d purchased from the Americans. The Buffaloes had shown lackluster, even poor, performance in American hands, but the Finns loved their lighter modified version, calling it the “pearl of the Northern sky” and racking up an impressive record:

The P-39 Airacobra had a stability problem for a while that was difficult to diagnose. It was eventually determined to be occur only after some of the ammunition had been fired, altering the plane’s center of gravity. Soviet crews recognized that properly ballasting their Lend-Lease Airacobras fixed the problem.

It’s generally accepted that airplanes of the period performed better as their fuel was consumed (and they became lighter). It’s also the case that pilots sought every edge, even tiny improvements in performance. It seems that significant differences in pilot weight might matter a little if all other considerations were equal.

But the only version of the Buffalo ever used in combat (one air combat, the disaster of VMF-221 in defense of Midway) by the US naval services was the F2A-3, which was a significantly heavier a/c to begin with than the F2A-1 on which the Finnish export model, Brewster Model 239, was based, before reductions from carrier equipment and before the Finns removed more stuff. Although it also had more horsepower.

All in all I think the Buffalo is a better example of how confusing it is to compare combat results when you’re not talking about the same opposition, or protagonist, than how minor weight reductions factor in. The Finnish numbers are claims against the Soviet air services, and with a large % of opponents being non-fighters. The real results of the British and Dutch (with yet other versions) are known, though the wikipedia article still quotes claims on that too which gives a quite misleadingly favorable picture for the Buffalo, in reality they spent too much of their time and effort in a limited success surviving against Japanese fighters to inflict much loss on non-fighters and did poorly against all three major opponents, Navy Zero, Army Type 1 aka ‘Oscar’ and even the Army Type 97 (‘Nate’, fixed undercarriage monoplane armed with a pair of rifle caliber mg’s, on paper not that formidable an opponent). The disastrous USMC combat v a carrier strike force escorted by Navy Zeroes has generally been spoken of in realistic terms of the actual results for longer.

And the Finnish fighter units might also simply have been more effective, that’s hard to judge either.

For what weight reduction was considered significant it might be better to look at a plane used by the same air arm against same opponents. The USN believed the empty weight reduction from the Grumman F4F-4 to the General Motors built FM-2 version of the Wildcat, empty weight cut from 5,895 to 5,448 lbs, was significant (6>4 machine guns the most visible). Although again hp was also increased from 1200 hp take off to 1360 war emergency (numbers from original BuAer documents for each). The FM-2 was hampered in the interception role in 1944-45 from escort carriers by its low speed especially against faster Japanese attack types introduced by then, and fighters acting as suicide planes. But it proved a match even for later Japanese fighters in combats documented on both sides, nimble and now exceeding some Japanese fighters in maneuverability whereas the F4F-4 was distinctly less maneuverable than its early model Navy Zero opponents. Then again Japanese pilot quality had diminished. Scientific comparisons in real combat results are rare.