Hiding in Plane Sight

Posted on Wed, October 28, 2009
  • by: Brian Nicklas is a museum specialist, aeronautics in the National Air and Space Museum’s Archives Division.

At this time of year when apparitions and fanciful creatures stroll sidewalks in search of treats, it’s a good time to remember that not all aircraft are what they seem. In World War One, observation balloons were the bane of the battlefield.  Under their prying eyes, it was hard to surprise someone on the other side of the trenches with your plans when they saw your troops massing before an attack.  So balloons were a prime target for fighter aircraft.  But balloons were heavily guarded by anti-aircraft defenses.  In some cases the balloons themselves were a trap, the basket where observers would stand were filled instead with explosives and dummies, and wired to explode with such intensity that the attacking aircraft would be brought down, or at least to think twice before pressing home an attack on another balloon.

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk Decoy

A Curtiss P-40 Warhawk decoy under construction at a base somewhere in China Burma India theater.  This detailed decoy has been constructed of wood; two men can be seen working on the left side of the fuselage.  SI 90-13683, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Archives.

During World War Two, dummy aircraft were created to mislead the enemy.  For the Flying Tigers in China, their small numbers stretched thin by the distances they needed to cover, deceiving the Japanese as to their strength and operating locations was an important consideration.  Crews working at an airfield using the materials they found handy, built dummy wood-framed Curtiss P-40s.  These faux fighters could not move, much less fly, but in size and shape, covered in fabric and painted the right colors, would appear to be more of the shark-mouthed marauders parked about an airstrip waiting to respond to a Japanese attack.

Messerschmitt Bf 109 Decoy

View of a Messerschmitt Bf 109 decoy sitting on the ground. Two other Messerschmitts are visible in the background. SI A-50270, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Archives.

The airfields of Europe also resorted to military mimicry; German operated forward airstrips used dummy Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Junkers Ju 87 Stukas to inflate their apparent numbers during the build up to the Battle of Britain.  But if any scouts, spies or reconnaissance aircraft happened to catch sight of the fakes while under construction, the false flyers were revealed as phonies.  An apocryphal story is told of an airfield of wooden Messerschmitts being bombed by the Royal Air Force, using wooden bombs.  But then such a mission would still be dangerous in the face of anti-aircraft fire, and it would also tip the hand that the ruse had been spoilt.

Junkers Ju 87 Stuka Decoy

Several German airmen quickly work at assembling a Junkers Ju 87 Stuka decoy from pre-finished components. NASM 00058957, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Archives.

Dummies today are more difficult to pull off, many sensors are no longer just optical, but can detect heat from engines, or dissimilar materials and paints.  So the fakes must incorporate more, to the point that in some cases it is no longer economically viable to do such a ruse.