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Me and the Gustav |
Me and the Gustav
Memories and impressions of an Italian Pilot
by Oddone Colonna, 150° Gruppo CT, 1°Gruppo Caccia
In the summer of 1943 at Vicenza airport I made my first acquaintance
with the "Gustavo", a Messerschmitt fighter of the G-6 version. I was
among pilots from 23° and 150° Gruppo Caccia to get first flights in
the German plane that had been entering service at the Regia
Aeronautica for few months. We had as instructor Ten. [Lieutenant. TNi]
Fausto Filippi who had extensive experience, including combat for
having flown the Gustav in combat over Sicily during the spring-summer
of the same year in the ranks of 150° gruppo "Gigi 3 Osei".
Filippi's role was limited to a few practical insights on how to fly
the plane, because we did not have a twin place G-12 from the flying
We had two main difficulties on test taxing at the Vicentine airport.
1) The gas throttle had an inverted movement compared
to Italian vehicles. [The Italians like the French used a reversed
throttle in their planes. TNi]
2) The Plane had hydraulic pedal brakes instead of
pneumatic ones with differential command like on other Italian vehicles.
Between one taxing run and the other, the overheating radiators had to
be cooled with a water hose because of insufficient ventilation.
The few available planes still sported Luftwaffe makings, and the one
in which I was having my approach was a veteran of many fights. It
sported a large tissue patch glued on the left wing to hide damage,
that was said to be caused by a hit form a Curtiss P-40.
On the fuselage was a stylized Wolf head with the writing
"Wander-Zirkus Ubben" coming form JG 77, which had that emblem for its
3° Gruppe together with Herzas, Geschwader insignia. [III/JG 77
"Wander-Zirkus Ubben" was named like that to honor their
Gruppenkommandeur Kurt Ubben, and because they were constantly on the
move like a traveling circus. TNi]
Because the plane was a G-6/R6 we were provided with a few specialists
to take off the two MG 151/20 gondolas to improve the acrobatic
abilities of the plane. Then we started flying.
Chance allowed me to fly first, and with the tail of the plane close to
the west end border of the airport I waited for the go-ahead from
Filippi, who was standing close to the opened canopy of the plane.
As I closed it, the thud caused by the closing mechanism of the
extremely heavy and squared canopy was rather unpleasant, I felt the
pressure on the eardrums and it gave me the impression of a coffin…!
The position inside the plane was on the contrary extremely
comfortable, although I had the legs slightly spread because of the
cannon breech which protruded inside the cockpit taking away a large
part of the floor. The typical smell of sun heated paint inside the
cockpit made the waiting for take off rather unpleasant.
At last, when I was ready to go, the mechanic made a sign that he
needed to talk to me, so I nervously opened the side windscreen and
heard him telling "Sior Tenente, gh'è forte spussa de recupero"
(Italian North East Dialect, meaning something like: "Lieutenant, Sir,
there is a strong smell of fuel"). I answered in a way I can't report
here, and slowly opened the throttle. I was waiting form the "Gustavo"
the usual "scoundrel reaction" which I was warned of in many occasions
by Filippi. What I mean is, when the plane got enough speed and the
tail lifted, the nose of the plane tried to abruptly change course with
a sudden turn to the left (the G6 lacked a tail trim), but since I was
warned of that, I kicked the right rudder keeping the plane on course.
I found myself airborne before I was able to give full throttle. The
hydraulic landing gear retracted correctly, but the red retract-button
kicking back suddenly caused me an acute pain in the left thumb.
Filippi had previously advised me to keep pressing on the button to be
sure of a complete retraction of the landing gear.
The Plane was climbing steadily and with great stability. At about 1500
meters I was already over Padova while flying above a dense bank of
clouds. Over this ideal and providential "carpet" I made two simulated
landings with great satisfaction. The manual operation of the Flaps
required quite a lot of muscular work and caused a strong, accentuated
and instinctive nose heavy attitude. The left hand was forced to
continually pass between the throttle, the tail trim, and the
horizontal trim wheels [The author probably meant the throttle, and the
elevator trim and flap wheels, as the G-6 didn't have a rudder trim, as
the author mentions a few sentences before. TNi]. In the gliding phase
while traveling at approximately 220 km/h, the high wing load and the
large engine made it tricky to make the usual, sudden, nose-up pull as
was common with the Italian planes, and there was a risk, if not
quickly corrected, of a sudden flip and then a spin, as already had
happened in several episodes with dreadful consequences.
Landing did not present any unusual difficulties as I learned while
doing my first approach in the Gustavo to the Vicentine airport. It was
a classic "on the Vaseline" landing as we used to say, and after
touching down I opened the gas again with less trepidation than before
and climbed back obliquely up to 1500m, where I started, now more
confident, what every Italian pilot used to do riding a new fighter
plane: a perfect barrel roll on the horizontal axis which was extremely
natural. I was starting to appreciate the qualities of the Gustav and I
kept on with the acrobatic program. The subsequent looping was instead
a surprise because it was quite laborious in the execution even if the
outcome was equally good as the vapor trails confirmed. In fact as soon
as the plane is upside down the pilot tries to check the ground as fast
as possible to correct any deviations in the maneuver, but with the
"Gustavo" the usual performance difficulties were increased by the
nasty optic distortion caused by the curved windshield joint between
the canopy and the armored glass, and it was then necessary to ignore
the optical deformation. In a dive the nose tried to naturally lift up,
a typical aspect of normally stable planes, while in a climb it reacted
on the contrary. Summing up, the horizontal maneuvers were easy and
pleasant, while the vertical ones were tiring and complex because they
required a lot of muscular work form the pilot.
Another important aspect of the German plane was the Handley-Page slats
which allowed very tight turns. But because there was no mechanical or
hydraulic command, as the slats opened automatically in any stall
condition, we had reasonable concern about their effective performance
while landing. What could have possibly happened, should the left one
get stuck for any reason or open late in respect to the right one?
Those slats caused a lot of incidents. If the plane had such technical
failures, it could suddenly spin aside in the delicate landing
procedure with deadly outcomes, as happened to Capitano Bertozzi, or
cause severe injuries as in the case of Capitano Bariolgio .
The plane maintenance was instead quite easy and functional: the engine
was opened with two cowlings easily detached removing the central rod.
The oil radiator was easy to reach and check. An electric motor was
used for the retraction of the lading gear and for arming the guns. The
tail wheel was fixed as was the pilot seat. Overall the Messerschmitt
is to be considered as an extremely efficient fighting machine, quite
cheap, being easy to build and maintain.
On a personal point of view I have to add that the extremely smooth and
pleasant flying of the Mc-205, prone to forgive any error of the pilot
had made me used to a splendid machine to fly in the sky. In comparison
the Gustav felt rude and unpleasant. In the Messerschmitt, though, the
better pilot seat prevented some of the back pains caused by the dorsal
The useful 300 liter external tank which was dropped before a dogfight,
and sported a red writing "Keine Bombe", allowed for an increased
range. Flight performance was not appreciably reduced by this large
ventral package. At take of and landing the glycol radiators were
opened by an automatic device. The armored windshield was equipped with
a washing device which sprayed fuel to clean oil spots. A very fine
wire mesh was included in the armor glass allowing an efficient
de-fogging/de-icing, but while usually almost invisible, it flashed
disturbingly at certain angles of the sunlight causing sudden blindness.
The Radio on board was a Telefunken G16 [FuG16. TNi] and had two quartz
synchronizers with geometrical figures indicating different radio
channels. It had two positions: Fern/Nah with knobs indicating long and
short distance conversations. A self-destruct mechanism of the FuG was
provided in case of the plane had to be abandoned…
<snip> The ReVi Zeiss [Reflector gun sight. TNi] was mostly
equal to our San Giorgio but had the advantage of padding at the base
which protected the pilot in case of a crash landing, and it was
...Weighing 3300kg the Gustav had a rather low [structural] strength
coefficient (some said 3.5g) and an "a la Italian" maneuver could cause
tail assembly failure (as happened to S.M.Sansons) or the failure of
the wing fuselage joint.
For this reason the instruments showed in red the max safe speed for
each altitude. On the side glass panels on the canopy there was a red
line with the max safe dive angle compared to the horizon.
After that I flew the G-10 and K versions of the Messerschmitt, but
flying was not much different than in the G-6 even if these planes were
a bit more docile, faster and with larger guns.
My last combat flight was on a Bf-109 G-10 at the end of the war.
Shooting down a B-24 on the Lombardy sky at the command of a Pattuglia
of the 1° Gruppo Caccia.
(Officier Pilot 150° Gruppo CT and 1°Gruppo Caccia)