This is particularly the case with the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. If the P-51 Mustang was the devilishly handsome American hero, the Thunderbolt was the ugly big muscle of the United States Air Force during World War II. The Thunderbolt is well documented and well celebrated. The same cannot be said of some of the planes from the same manufacturer that came before it, including the early ancestor of the Thunderbolt. Say hello to the Seversky P-35, otherwise known as the “Babybolt,” in some circles.
The typical aviation fan may not be familiar with the P-47, or the company that built it, its existence before its introduction. You see, Republic Aviation had a notable habit of radically restructuring every two decades from the mid-1930s until the brand’s merger with Fairchild decades after WWII. The business began as the idea of the eponymous name of Russian immigrant Alexander de Seversky.
Seversky served in the Tsar’s Russian army during World War I. His immigration to the United States ensured that it was the Americans who benefited from his vast engineering skills, not the Soviets. He created a brilliant strategy early in this period, simplifying and adding armor. It was the formula the P-47 would one day use to become the toughest fighters in the war.
But before the Thunderbolt and before Republic, there was the P-35. An aircraft that was itself an updated design of the first single-engine SEV-3 seaplane. The P-35 was powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp radial engine also found on the Douglas DC-3, Grumman F4F Wildcat and Vickers Wellington bomber in some applications. The American specification P-35s were armed with two Browing 50. cal machine guns in the nose and two M1919 30 caliber guns distributed between the wings.
Even by contemporary standards, the P-35 was nothing special in terms of performance. Think more of the US Army Air Corp’s version of a basic economy car rather than the muscle car with wings that Thunderbolt would ultimately become. The Americans never aligned Alexander de Seversky’s original original idea. But the Philippine and Swedish Air Force were more than happy to bolster their repertoire with brilliant American planes the Yanks didn’t care about.
Unfortunately, the P-35 was totally out of its depths when tasked with fighting an enemy as agile and powerful as the Japanese A6M Zero. Yes, the Seversky was more rugged and rugged than many contemporary hunters. Even so, the P-35 was not a Thunderbolt. Only one P-35 airframe survived service in the Far East Air Force. Ironically, the Japanese Air Force ordered 20 two-seat variants of the P-35 18 months before the war.
Shortly after the destruction of almost all Seversky P-35s, the company changed to the nickname Republic Aviation. First, produce the nimble little P-43 Lancer before clinching gold with the iconic P-47 Thunderbolt. Little Seversky might have been comically outclassed in wartime, but the Thunderbolt just wouldn’t exist at all without him.
The Swedes used the J-9 variant as a training and liaison aircraft until 1952. Other variants served with countries such as Colombia and Ecuador.
Today, only a single-seater P-35 is known to survive, kept at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. The aircraft served with the 94th Pursuit Squadron, 1st Pursuit Group. The P-35 can be found alongside many of the planes it serves with, including the Curtis P-36 Hawk, the predecessor of the P-40 Warhawk, the Boeing P-26 Peashooter and the Hawker Hurricane in the museum display hangar. on WWII.
In person, there is an even more striking similarity between the Thunderbolt and its ancestor Seversky. It feels like the Thunderbolt started with the heart and soul of the P-35. On which the frame was stretched, a gargantuan Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp engine was installed and armored enough to repel more enemy fire than any fighter of the time.
It’s a shame that the P-35 was not more respected at the time. Not like it’s easy to appreciate something when almost every example has exploded, of course. So we better go make up for lost time and pay a visit to Dayton, Ohio, to see the P-35 in the flesh. Check back for more of our trip here on self-evolution.