During World War II, Westland Lysander crews flew highly classified clandestine missions from England over Axis territory. Many of their operational missions remain tightly locked in official secrecy. The Lysander was designed to land and take off from places normally unrecognizable as airfields. The aircraft operated comfortably from pastures, fields, and even clearings in the forest and was effective at inserting secret agents deep into enemy territory.
The museum's Lysander was built in Canada in 1942. Little is known about its service history, but it likely flew as an aerial tow plane for target practice. This aircraft is painted in the colors of 138 Squadron RAF. During World War II, this squadron was based at RAF Tempsford Airfield. It was controlled by the Special Operations Executive and flew clandestine missions supplying resistance forces and transporting agents to and from occupied Europe.
Throughout World War II, Westland Lysanders looked and flew like odd ducks. Their strange appearance was matched only by their mysterious comings and goings at all hours, but usually in the dead of night. The Lysander pilots and crew, and their special cargo, are now free to talk about some of these missions more than fifty years after they occurred. However, most of the operational record on this amazing airplane remains tightly locked in official secrecy.
Its wooden, fabric-covered, wings tapered gracefully, but it alighted and took off at extremely slow speeds on great, bulbous, fixed landing gear. Many derided this apparent throwback as a "tin lizzie." It seemed to buck the aeronautical trend toward ever-higher speeds, straight, smooth, all-metal wings, and retractable landing gear. But the Lysander was designed from the ground up to land in, and take off from, places that no one would normally recognize as an airfield. The Lysander could operate comfortably from pastures, fields, and even clearings in the forest. Its survival, the safety of the crews that flew it, and the men and women it carried depended on this performance. The Lysander was used primarily to drop off and pick up secret agents deep in enemy territory.
In 1935 the Air Ministry issued Specification A.39/34 calling for a two-seat army cooperation aircraft to replace the Hawker Hector. The Royal Air Force manned and led these squadrons but they supported, or cooperated, directly with the British Army. The pilots of army cooperation airplanes performed numerous missions including reconnaissance, artillery spotting, communication, and tactical liaison between Royal Air Force ground attack aircraft squadrons and British Army troops at the front. One of the companies invited to submit a design proposal was Westland Aircraft Limited of Yeovil, Somerset, England. The company was engaged at the time in building the Hector under license from Hawker. Before World War I, Westland had established itself as a maker (under the name Petter) of small oil-burning engines used in agricultural and dairy applications. In 1915 the company approached the government and offered its services for the war effort. With no previous experience, the British Admiralty asked the firm to build airplanes. A tradition began that continues to this day.
Westland's design proposal for Spec A.39/34 was called the P.8. It was mainly the work of Arthur Davenport, under the technical direction of Edward (Teddy) Petter, grandson of the company's founder. According to rumor, an earlier design for a single-engine interceptor was rejected because no one had bothered to ask the Royal Air Force what kind of airplane the service needed. Determined not to repeat the mistake, Petter sought opinions from the Royal Army squadrons that would operate the new aircraft, and he even interviewed his own engineers and pilots. The consensus that emerged favored an airplane with good visibility from the cockpit, the special performance necessary to take-off and land from extremely small areas, and excellent handling at very slow flying speeds.
To see well from the cockpit, Davenport raised the wing to the top of the canopy and braced it with two pairs of sturdy struts. The wing shape was unusual for three reasons. To boost the low-speed characteristics of the airfoil, the wing was thickest at about mid-span but shrank by nearly half at the wing roots. Viewed head-on, the wing bends slightly like the wing of a seagull. The inboard, leading edges tapered toward the tail to allow the pilot to see through the top of the canopy during very steep turns, and the outboard trailing edges tapered forward to give the airplane a snappy roll rate, again to improve maneuvering at slow speeds. To make very slow speed flight possible, the P.8 was the first British service aircraft equipped with trailing edge flaps and leading edge slats. These devices operated automatically and no action by the pilot was required.
Fabric covered the fuselage behind the pilot's cockpit and sheet aluminum covered the nose section. Provisions were made for a flexible .30 cal. machine gun behind the pilot in the observer's cockpit. The distinctive landing gear was the result of some conceptual back and forth between Davenport and Petter. Davenport's original design called for retractable landing gear, but Petter overruled him and insisted on fixed landing gear streamlined with enormous rounded fairings. A landing light and provisions for a machine gun were built into each fairing. The outboard side of each fairing carried fittings and when the need arose, short, stub wings were attached. These held either light bombs, supply containers, or other stores.
In September 1936, after modifications to the horizontal stabilizer, the Air Ministry chose the Westland design and ordered 169 aircraft. It was then the British Army's custom to name cooperation aircraft after classical warriors. Lysander was chosen for the P.8, after a Spartan admiral who defeated the Athenian fleet in 405 BC Westland started production and began delivering finished airplanes in 1938. By the time war broke out in September 1939, seven British Army Lysander squadrons were ready to fly. When the Germans invade France in May 1940, Britain threw as many airplanes as it could spare at the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) including the slow and poorly armed Lysanders. They were decimated. The Lysander excelled in the role for which it was designed but it stood no chance against overwhelming numbers of German fighter aircraft. Lysanders were also not at all suited for ground attack. They were too slow and carried a pitiful load of bombs.
After France capitulated, many Lysanders were reassigned to new roles. Some remained army cooperation aircraft, but modified fighter airplanes increasingly flew this mission. As aerial combat moved over the English Channel and British Isles during Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, a critical need arose for air-sea rescue aircraft. The Lysander could locate airmen downed at sea and drop them life rafts and supplies. Because an amphibious invasion by German forces could come at anytime, a number of modifications for the Lysander were also proposed. Most involved increasing the armament to make the airplane effective at repelling invaders that managed to land on Britain's shores. One proposal sought to add a 20mm canon to each undercarriage leg. Other ideas included adding a ventral gun position (a version nicknamed the "pregnant perch"), or turrets behind the wings or near the tail. The tail turret also necessitated a revised stabilizer with two vertical fins and rudders. Late in 1940, the threat of invasion eased and none of these modifications was adopted.
As the war entered its third year, the ultimate Lysander mission began to take shape. The Special Operations Executive formed three squadrons of these slow-flying aircraft, 138, 161 and 357 Special Duties squadrons, and began to fly the Lysander to aid the various resistance movements in occupied Europe. They dropped ammunition, explosives, radios and other equipment and transported agents to and from the continent. Westland equipped the Lysander IIIA (SD) specifically for this role, removing the rear guns and adding a ladder near the rear cockpit so that agents could quickly board or exit the airplane. An external fuel tank was also added to increase range. Many times, Lysanders operated from small, unlit fields. These missions were possible only because the airplane had outstanding STOL (short takeoff and landing) performance.
Lysanders flew in other theaters of the war, including the Middle and Far East. Turkey, Ireland, Portugal, South Africa, and France flew the aircraft and the United States used 25 Lysanders to two aerial gunnery targets. The Canadians flew more Lysanders than anyone outside England. They also built 225 aircraft and were tooling-up to supply more airframes to ship to England for final assembly when the war ended.
The museum's Lysander was one of the 225 Mk. IIIs built in Canada during 1942. Little is known about its wartime service, but most of the Canadian Lysanders remained in the country to fly as target tugs and communication aircraft. A relatively large number survived in Canada after the war. Some were converted into cropdusters and farmers bought many at auction for their engine parts. Dwight Brooks of Los Angeles searched for two years before locating a Lysander in a farmer's field in Edmonton, Alberta, during the early 1970s. Brooks spent another year restoring the airplane, a job that required finding several other Canadian Lysanders to obtain parts. He received help from the Bristol Engine Division of Rolls Royce when carburetor problems foiled his attempts to run the Bristol Mercury engine. The Royal Air Force Museum provided the paint scheme and markings data for 138 Squadron RAF. During World War II, this squadron was based at RAF Tempsford Airfield. It was controlled by the Special Operations Executive and flew clandestine missions supplying resistance forces and transporting agents to and from occupied Europe.
Brooks flew the restored Lysander at airshows for several years, but in 1977 he decided to donate the aircraft to the National Air & Space Museum. The Museum acquired title to the aircraft but immediately lent it to the U. S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. NASM recalled the artifact in the late 1980s and it is now on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.