The Brewster F2A (company Model 139) was an American fighter aircraft which saw limited service during World War II. In 1939, the F2A became the first monoplane fighter aircraft used by the US Navy. In December 1941, it suffered severe losses with both British Commonwealth and Dutch air forces in South East Asia while facing Zekes of the Japanese navy and the army's Oscars. It also saw action with US Marine Corps squadrons at the Battle of Midway. The F2A was derided by some American servicemen as a "flying coffin", due to poor construction and perceptions of its general performance. Despite this reputation, the F2A proved a potent weapon with the Finnish Air Force, against the Soviet Air Forces.
The Navy awarded Brewster the contract; the Model 139 was redesignated XF2A-1. The prototype first flew on 2 December 1937 and early test results showed it was far in advance of the Grumman entry. While the XF4F-1 would not enter production, it would later re-emerge as a monoplane, the Grumman Wildcat. The Brewster fighter looked "pugnacious" with a stubby fuselage, mid-set wings and a host of advanced features. It was all-metal, with flush-riveted, stressed aluminum construction, although flying surfaces were still fabric-covered. Split flaps, a hydraulically-operated retractable main undercarriage (and partially retractable tail wheel) and a streamlined framed canopy gave the XF2A-1 a modern look. Powered by an 850 hp Wright R1820-22 Cyclone, it had a top speed of 277.5 mph, later boosted to 304 mph at 16,000 ft after improvements were made to the cowling streamlining and carburetor/oil cooler intakes.
Service testing of the prototype began in January 1938 and, in June, the Navy ordered 54 of the production F2A-1. The initial armament mix of two machineguns, a .30 (7.62 mm) and .50 (12.7 mm) Browning mounted in the cowl and firing through the propeller arc, would later be augmented by the provision of an additional two .50s, one in each wing outboard of the landing gear.
A later variant, the F2A-2, of which 43 were ordered, included a more powerful engine, a better propeller, and integral flotation gear, and was followed by the F2A-3. Unfortunately, the improvements added weight that adversely affected the fighter's performance and caused perennial problems with its landing gear (collapse issues), especially in shipboard service.
Facing a shortage in combat aircraft in January 1940, the British government established the British Purchasing Commission to acquire U.S. aircraft that would help supplement domestic production. Among the fighters that caught the commission's attention was the F2A. The balance of the French order was passed to the UK. Appraisal by the British criticised it on numerous points including lack of armament, maintenance issues and cockpit controls while it was praised for handling, roomy cockpit and visibility. With a top speed of about 300 mph and poor performance over 15,000 ft it was considered unfit for duty in western Europe and they were supplied to British Commonwealth air forces in Asia; as well, the UK ordered 170 of the B-339E variant.
The B-339 was fitted with an export-approved 1,100 hp Wright Cyclone engine and modified for land use by removing navy equipment such as the life raft and arrestor hook. The RAF stipulated numerous upgrades to their order, including replacement of the standard ring and bead gunsight with a British Mk III reflector gun sight, and improving pilot protection, by adding reinforced armor plating and installing armored glass behind the canopy windshield.
Prior to December 1941, the Western Allied air forces seriously underestimated the numbers, pilots, leadership and capability of their Japanese opponents. Despite having initial successes against the Ki-43 Oscar and Ki-27 Nate, the five British Commonwealth squadrons flying Buffalos in the Malayan campaign suffered severe losses on the ground and in the air, especially during the first week of the campaign, resulting in the ongoing merger of squadrons and their gradual evacuation to the Dutch East Indies.
The two RAAF, two RAF, and one RNZAF squadrons, during December 1941-January 1942, were beset with numerous problems, including: poorly-built and ill-equipped aircraft; poor supplies of spare parts; inadequate numbers of support staff; airfields that were difficult to defend against air attack; lack of a clear and coherent command structure; antagonism between RAF and RAAF squadrons and personnel, and; inexperienced pilots lacking appropriate training.
The Fleet Air Arm used the Buffalo in the Mediterranean defending Crete in early 1941. Four British Commonwealth pilots (Geoff Fisken, Maurice Holder, Benjamin Clare and Richard Vanderfield) became aces in the Buffalo. Fisken, the top-scoring of them, later flew P-40s and became the highest-scoring Commonwealth pilot within the Pacific theatre.
As the Dutch Buffalos were lighter than the F2A-3 used by the U.S., they were able to successfully dogfight the Oscar, although it was still out-turned by the A6M Zero. Apart from their role as fighters, they were also used as dive bombers against Japanese troopships. Though reinforced by the Commonwealth Buffalos retreating from Malaya, the Dutch squadrons were unable to stem the superiority of Japanese forces at ground level, and they flew their last mission on 7 March. Altogether 17 Dutch pilots were killed, 30 Buffalos were shot down, 15 were destroyed on the ground, and several were lost to misadventure. In return, Dutch pilots claimed 55 enemy aircraft destroyed. In a major engagement above Semplak on 19 February 1942, eight Dutch Brewsters intercepted a formation of about 35 Japanese bombers, which had an escort of about 20 Zeros. The Dutch pilots destroyed 11 Japanese aircraft and lost four Buffalos, of which two of the pilots died.
The poor performance of the Buffalo in the aerial battle sparked Finnish Ace Hans Wind to write his combat manual on Brewster; he analyzed the air combat and the tactical errors the Americans made, and proposed tactics which Finnish Brewster pilots used, with remarkable success, in 1942–43. Meanwhile, the Battle of Midway marked the end of F2A-3's American combat career. The surviving airframes were transported to the U.S. mainland as advanced trainers.
The Brewster was regarded as being very easy to fly and many Finnish pilots called it was a "gentleman's plane", while the Messerschmitt Bf 109 (also used by the FAF) was "a killing machine." Brewsters were also popular within the FAF because of their long range and endurance, and their good maintenance record. This was due in part to FAF mechanics, who solved a problem plaguing the Wright Cyclone engine by inverting one of the piston rings in each cylinder, thus enhancing engine reliability. The Finnish aircraft also dispensed with most of the U.S. Navy gear, such as a life raft, resulting in a considerably lighter aircraft.
In the end, the Brewster gained a reputation as one of the most successful combat aircraft ever flown by the Finnish Air Force. In service during 1941-1945, Brewsters of Lentolaivue 24 (Fighter Squadron 24) were credited with 477 Soviet aircraft destroyed, against the loss of 19 Brewsters: a victory ratio of 26:1. However, the substantiation of this claim on German and Soviet records is so far incomplete, and all claims have not been managed to be connected on actual losses (as of 2007).
During the Continuation War, Lentolaivue 24 (Fighter Squadron 24) was equipped with the B-239s until May 1944, when the Brewsters were transferred to Hävittäjälentolaivue 26 (Fighter Squadron 26). Most of the pilots of Lentolaivue 24 were Winter War combat veterans and the squadron achieved total of 459 kills with B-239s, while losing 15 Brewsters in combat. For example, between 25 June 1941 and 31 December 1941, LeLv 24 scored 135 kills with Brewsters at a cost of two pilots and two Brewster Buffalos.
The top-scoring Buffalo pilot was Hans Wind, with 39 kills in B-239s. Wind scored 26 of his kills while flying BW-393, while Eino Luukkanen scored seven more in the same aircraft. After evaluation of claims against Soviet actual losses, BW-364 is credited with 42½ kills in total, possibly making it the fighter aircraft with the greatest number of victories in the history of air warfare. BW-393 is credited with 40 victories.
The top scoring Finnish ace, Ilmari Juutilainen, scored 34 of his 94½ kills in B-239s, including 28 in BW-364.
Although the Buffalo was clearly obsolete in 1944, barely holding its own against Soviet fighters, with most airframes worn out, LeLv 26 pilots still scored some 35 victories against the Soviets in the summer of 1944. The last aerial victory by a Brewster against the Soviet Union was scored over the Karelian Isthmus on 17 June 1944. After Finland agreed to a truce, it was obliged to turn against its former ally, Germany, and a Brewster pilot, Lt Erik Teromaa (11 kills), claimed a Luftwaffe Stuka on 3 October 1944, during the Lapland War.
There were many other modifications to the B-239 made locally in Finland during its career. Some of these were the installation of pilot seat armor and replacing the single 0.30 in (7.62 mm) machine gun with a 0.50 in (12.7 mm). By 1943, all except one Finnish B-239 had four 0.50s. The wing guns had 400 rounds and fuselage guns 200 rounds each, the 0.30s 600 rounds. In spring 1941, before reflector sights, the Finnish Väisälä T.h.m.40 sight, based on the Revi 3c—were installed; metric instruments were also installed.
During the war, Finnish designers devised a new aircraft, the Humu, based on the Brewster Buffalo, domestically produced from cheaper materials such as plywood. Only a single prototype was built, as the aircraft was clearly obsolete in 1943 and deliveries of Messerschmitt Bf 109s filled the needs of fighter squadrons.
The last flight made by a Buffalo in Finnish service was on 14 September 1948. Besides the Humu prototype, the hood and fin (with 41 kills) of BW-393 survive in a museum, and BW-372 is on display at the Keski-Suomen Ilmailumuseo (Aviation Museum of Central Finland).
On 25 June 1942, BW-372, piloted by Lieutenant Lauri Pekuri, was in a formation of eight Brewsters that encountered a mixed squadron of Soviet Hurricanes and MiG-3s. In the clash, seven Soviet aircraft were damaged. Lieutenant Pekuri shot down two Hurricane fighters (he had to his credit 18 kills, including seven Hurricanes) but his fighter was hit by heavy cannon fire from a MiG-3 and he was forced to ditch the burning Brewster in Big Kolejärvi lake. Pekuri survived with minor injuries and managed to walk 20 km to the Finnish lines.
The aircraft was recovered from the lake in 1998, and after negotiations with Russian officials it was transported to the United States. The Brewster fighter reached the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, on 18 August 2004. The original plan to restore and display it as an F2A from the Battle of Midway was soon discarded. The museum decided to reassemble the Brewster and display it as it came from the lake in Russia. However, hurricane damage to the museum put this project on hold, and in early 2008 the aircraft was loaned to Finland for the 90th anniversary of the Finnish Air Force. Visible through a view window at the Aviation Museum of Central Finland, BW-372 is being assembled, cleaned, and brought back as near as possible to the condition in which she was found ten years ago. Damage caused by enemy fire and subsequent crash landing will not be disturbed. As near as possible, it will be fully authentic and original and instantly recognizable as a Finnish Air Force B-239 on the day it made its last flight in hostile skies and settled to the bottom of the lake.