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Curator’s Corner: Flying Dinosaur

Tarheel P-47

When the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt took to the skies for the first time on May 6. 1941 it was nothing like any other fighter aircraft that the United States had ever fielded before.  It was huge!  With a dry weight of 9,900 pounds, it was 65% heavier than the P-43 Lancer that it was designed to replace.  As its designer, Alexander Kartveli said of it, “It will be a dinosaur, but it will be a dinosaur with good proportions.”

At the time of the Thunderbolt’s first flight, most of the world’s fighters, like the German Messerschmitt Bf-109, the British Supermarine Spitfire and Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero were lightweight, slender, and agile aircraft designed for maneuverability in a dogfight.  By comparison, the P-47 was a monstrous brute, yet its many positive attributes more than made up for its weight.  Powered by the new Pratt & Whitney R2800 radial engine with a turbosupercharger the P-47 was fast and its eight .50 caliber machine guns mounted in the wings gave it tremendous firepower that few aircraft could match. 

When the Thunderbolt entered combat in World War II, it was used as a bomber escort as there were no other American fighters that had the high altitude performance to stay with the bombers.  However, as aircraft like the P-51 Mustang entered service, the Thunderbolts were released to do what they did best; ground attack.   In addition to its gun armament, the P-47 was also able to carry 2,500 pounds of bombs and rockets, which made it devastatingly effective against tanks, trains, ships and structures. 

In the end, 16,636 P-47s were built by Republic and Curtiss at factories in New York and Indiana.  They served in every combat theater of World War II and two P-47 pilots were awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery in combat.  Interestingly, both of those pilots were from Texas; Neel Kearby from Wichita Falls, and Raymond Knight from Houston.

The Lone Star Flight Museum is pleased to have a rare Thunderbolt in its collection for visitors to see in the air at airshows and close up on the ground.  Painted in the markings of “Tarheel Hal,” a P-47D of the 356th Fighter Squadron at Toul Air Base, France, in early 1945, LSFM’s Thunderbolt is one of only 13 flying in the world today.

By Stewart W. Bailey

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