The Brewster Buffalo is an interesting anomaly among World War 2 fighters. It did poorly in the Pacific against the Japanese with American pilots but it performed well against the Russians in the hands of Finnish pilots. When historians assess the performance of the Brewster Buffalo, they have to wonder why there was such a disparity in the fighter’s performance. Was the Brewster Buffalo a good fighter or bad?
The differences in the Brewster Buffalo’s performance in the South Pacific and in Finland boil down to five factors: aircraft model, weight, tactics, weapons, and weather.
The Brewster Buffalo was the U.S. Navy’s first monoplane fighter. In the late 1930s, it was a modern warplane had all metal construction. In 1938, the prototype Brewster XF2A-1 beat out the Grumman XF4F-2 in the competition to replace the cute, but absolete Grumman F3F Biplane fighter. The aircraft went into production in 1939. The Navy ordered an initial batch of 54 F2A-1 Brewster Buffalo fighters. However, production was slow and Brewster had only delivered 10 to the Navy when Russia invaded Finland. The Finns needed modern fighters and convinced the U.S. Government to divert the initial batch of F2A-1 fighters to their cause. The remaining lot of 44 F2A-1 Brewster Buffalo fighters were demilitarized and delivered without guns or engines. According to The Sorry Saga of the Brewster Buffalo, an e-book by historian Daniel Ford, the Finns were able to buy commercial 1000 hp Wright R-1820-G5 radial engines that were intended to power commercial aircraft. The Finns designated their new plane the B-239. The Navy ordered a additional Brewster Buffalo fighters that would be improved to the F2A-2 and F2A-3 configurations.
BREWSTER BUFFALO AIRCRAFT MODEL
There were several variants of the Brewster Buffalo: the F2A-1, the F2A-2, the F2A-3. The F2A-1 lacked self-sealing fuel tanks or much armor protection for the pilot. It was powered by a 950 horsepower Wright Cyclone engine. The F2A-2 seemed to be a happy medium that retained much of the performance of the original design. But, according to historian Daniel Ford, “the U.S. Navy demanded improvements to the Brewster design: more armor, more ammunition, and – incredibly – more fuel, to a total of 240 gallons.” By the Battle of Midway, the U.S. Marines Corps pilots were flying the most bloated of Buffaloes, the F2A-3.
FINNISH B-239 SPECIFICATIONS
The Finns never knew the Brewster as the Buffalo. They have reindeer, elk, and moose, but no bison in Finland. They designated the Buffalo as the B-239. Their plane had the following specifications:
Powerplant: One 950 or 1000 horsepower Wright R-1000-G-5 Radial Engine
Armament: Three .50 caliber machine guns plus one .30 caliber machine gun
According to historian Joe Baugher, the maximum speed was 297 mph at 15,580 feet and service ceiling was 32,500 feet. Empty weight was 3900 pounds, and maximum weight was 5820 pounds.
US NAVY AND MARINES F2A-3 SPECIFICATIONS:
According to the U.S. Navy History & Heritage Command, the F2A-3 Brewster Buffalo that performed so poorly at the Battle of Midway had the following specifications:
Dimensions: Wing Span, 35 feet; Length, 26 feet, 4 inches; Wing Area, 209 square feet.
Weights: Empty, 4894 pounds; Gross, 7253 pounds.
Powerplant: One 1200 horsepower Wright R-1820-40 radial engine.
Armament: Four .50 caliber machine guns.
Performance (at gross weight): Maximum Speed, 320 m.p.h. (@ 14,500 feet).
The U.S. Navy Buffalo was weighed down with carrier landing gear, self-sealing fuel tanks, and other required gear without getting more power. Thus, an originally agile fighter morphed into heavy and underpowered warplane. But, the Finnish B-239 was lighter and more maneuverable. The increase in weight is striking. With all the additional requirements and little additional horsepower, Ford wrote the result was a “sports car transformed into a slug.”
In the South Pacific. Brewster Buffaloes were on the receiving end of an overwhelming Japanese offensive. In some cases, most of the fighters were destroyed on the ground and the survivors that got airborne were greatly outnumbered by faster, more agile, Japanese planes. Instead of working with a wingman, they were going toe-to-toe with the Japanese. At the Battle of Midway, in the biggest confrontation between U.S. Marine Corps Buffaloes and Japanese fighters, the Marines fought independently in dogfights. They were almost completely destroyed by Japanese Zero fighters.
In Finland, the story was different. While they received some Buffalo fighters in 1939, they didn’t deploy it in combat in their first war with Russia. The first war ended in an armistice. The Finns had a year to develop tactics that would use the aircraft’s strengths against the Russians. They got to use those skills in a second war against Russia called “The Continuation War.” The Finns would fly with two supporting aircraft at high altitude and two at lower altitude. The Russians would see the low altitude flyers and attack and the higher altitude fighters would pounce. Consequently, the Finns had 26 Buffalo victories per single aircraft lost. The Russian Air Force was not bold or creative tactically and was not initially well equipped. However, the Finns defeated plenty of Russian Spitfires and Hurricanes. According to Patrick Masell writing for Chuckhawks.com, “by the end of the Continuation War (as the Finns dubbed it) they had downed 496 aircraft, losing only 19 B-239s.”
Since the U.S. was officially neutral, the Buffaloes were sold to Finland as surplus aircraft. They were stripped of weapons and engines before leaving the U.S. and they were re-assembled and armed in Sweden. The Finns were supplied with commercial airplane engines that were slightly more powerful than the original engines. In addition, they equipped their aircraft with their own machine guns. They had the original Brewster configuration of 3 .50 caliber machine guns and 1 lighter .30 caliber machine gun per aircraft.
While the Buffalo was prone to overheating in the South Pacific, the Finns didn’t have that problem in their northern location. They also cured oil leaks that plagued the fighter by simply inverting a piston ring. They found their Brewster’s easy to maintain and loved them so much they were nicknamed the “Pearl of the Sky.” While it was eclipsed by higher performance German fighters that equipped Finland’s late war Air Force, it also helped the Finns drive the Germans out of their territory as a condition for peace with Russia.
There are many truths to the Brewster Buffalo story. While the B-239 Brewster Buffalo was an excellent fighter for the Finns, the F2A-3 Brewster Buffalo was a bad fighter for U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. However, it is too simple to say that the Brewster Buffalo was simply a bad aircraft. Perhaps the most essential truth about the Brewster Buffalo is that when too many requirements and too many compromises are made in the development of a weapon system, the essence of what was good about the system can be completely lost. The U.S. Navy turned what was initially considered a quick and agile fighter into a slow and cumbersome aircraft. When the bloated F2A-3 Buffalo was flown against well-trained adversaries flying one of the fastest and most agile fighters of early World War II, the result was a total disaster. But for Navy bureaucracy and overambitious requirements, the Brewster Buffalo might well have been America’s “Pearl of the Sky.”
“Annals of the Brewster Buffalo” Warbirdsforum.com
“Finnish Forces: Flying Beer Bottles.” WorldWar2incolor.com
Finnish Air Force: World War 2 – 1939 to 1945. Finnish Army Website
Ford, Daniel. The Sorry Saga of the Brewster Buffalo: A ‘Flying Coffin’ to the Marines, but a ‘Sky Pearl’ to the Finns. Warbird Books, 2013.
Masell, Patrick. “The Brewster F2A Buffalo: The little fighter that could . . . and did!” Chuckhawks.com, 2004 & 2012.
US Navy History and Heritage Command, “Brewster F2A ‘Buffalo’ Fighters”