What Might Have Been: The Polish PZL P.50 Jaszdrab (Hawk)

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Salamander’s encore FbF today was a tribute to the suicidally brave pilots of the Polish Air Force, who rose in small numbers and outmoded machines to contest the modern and lethal Luftwaffe of the Third Reich, seventy-four years ago this week.

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The aircraft that the Polish pursuit (fighter) pilots took to the skies in on that first September morning of 1939 were thoroughly obsolete vestiges of another era.  The PZL P.11 featured on Sal’s porch was a parasol-wing monoplane with fixed landing gear that was a derivative of a design dating back to the late ‘Twenties.  With a top speed of barely 235 mph, it was no match for the German Bf 109D and E models, which were some 120 mph faster and much more heavily armed.

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The Poles watched the once cutting edge P.11 fade into complete obsolescence with the rapid advances in aircraft and engine technology of the mid 1930s (Bf 109, Spitfire, Hurricane, Curtiss Hawk 75), and in 1936 proposed their own all-metal low-wing monoplane fighter with retractable landing gear.  This was the PZL P.50 Jaszdrab (Hawk).   Design work included the mounting of a 870 hp Gnome-Rhone radial, giving the aircraft a designed top speed of around 270 mph.  A more powerful engine, of British design, would have increased performance considerably.  Unfortunate delays in acquiring retractable landing gear and in engine delivery (the 1,350 hp Bristol Hercules radial) slowed development to a crawl.  The first prototype flew only weeks before the German invasion, and the only other airframe never flew.

Plans were to build more than three hundred of the P.50B with the more powerful British engine to replace the outmoded P.11.  The Hercules would have given the Hawk a top speed of around 340 mph.  With a higher power/weight ratio and considerably lower wing loading (26 lb/sqft vs 40 lb/sqft) than the Bf 109E, the Hawk would likely have had excellent maneuverability, climb rate, and acceleration.  The sturdy construction of the P.11 would certainly have been carried over to the P.50.

While the P.50 Jaszdrab most probably would have still been somewhat outclassed by the German fighter, the brave Polish pilots would have been at least in a modern aircraft much more equal to their foes.   Three hundred P.50s in the hands of the brave and skilled Polish pilots, fourteen squadrons instead of ten, may have given the Luftwaffe pause.  The toll they might have taken on the cream of the German fighter strength may have given the equally brave and equally outmatched Polish ground forces some respite from the onslaught.

Perhaps, perhaps not.  But the P.50 in the hands of the Polish Air Force is one of those “what if?” scenarios one cannot help but ponder.