The Stork: The Art of Flying Low and Slow

With such masters of the air as the Spitfire, Mustang, Fw 190 and with the birth of jet-powered combat aircraft such as the Me 262, you might be surprised to know that the last two aircraft engaged in aerial combat of World War II (European theatre) was none of these, in fact it was two of the slowest moving aircraft of the time.

Jamie Chalkley  |  26th September 2023
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    Jamie Chalkley
    Jamie Chalkley

    Jamie Chalkley literally grew up around Warbirds... and crop spraying! Quite the contrast! Not content...

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    Low flying historic aircraft


    On 12th April, 1945, a low-flying US Piper L-4 Grasshopper spotted an even lower German Fieseler Storch. US pilot Duane Francis and observer Lt. William Martin, using their Colt 45 sidearms and firing out their open door, downed the Storch. The German crew made a forced landing and the US crew landed nearby to capture their foreign counterparts and in doing so also provided first aid for them. Not only was this the last recorded air combat in Europe as World War II came to a close, but it was also the only aerial combat recorded throughout the war that used air to air pistols! 

    Whilst neither aircraft had the prowess of certain other aircraft of the time, in fact the L-4 and Storch had less than a tenth of the horsepower ‘combined’ compared to some of the bigger engined fighters, but they were both still two extremely capable, very versatile aircraft that provided more than their fair share of service to their respective sides. In fact, the STOL (Short Take-Off & Landing) performance of the Storch was so impressive, that several high-ranking officials used them on both sides (the allied forces using several captured aircraft). In a stiff breeze, the Storch was almost a helicopter! Using small, unprepared but ‘just big enough’ landing sites, in came the Storch time and time again, including landing in the centre of Berlin to discuss urgent messages with Hitler in his final days and extracting Mussolini from a mountain top in 1943. The Storch flew everywhere it seems, but what led to its first flight and… what’s with those long legs!? 

    At the request of the German Air Ministry in 1935, a contract was put to industry for a small liaison/reconnaissance aircraft. A company by the name of Fieseler (named after its founder and World War I flying ace: Gerhard Fieseler), took the contract for their Fi 156 "Storch". This was undoubtedly largely due to its superior short field (STOL) performance and its impressive ability to fold back its wings which provided a huge advantage for ground transport and storage. But of course, it's most distinctive feature, certainly to the eye of the observer outside, was its mighty long legs! It's from these that the aircraft captured its nickname; “der Storch” (The Stork). 

    Those long legs boasted an incredible ability to deal with short, rough, unprepared surfaces, but not on their own of course; full-length leading-edge wing slots were incorporated into its design. These help to reduce the stalling speed by increasing the stalling angle of the wing (critical angle of attack). Airflow from underneath the leading edge of the wing moves up to the upper surface, delaying the separation of the boundary layer as the stall approaches. This is great in terms of reducing stalling speed but does come at the cost of increased aerodynamic drag, so performance in the higher range of speed is the penalty. The cruise speed of the Storch for example is only around 80 mph. But, give yourself a 25 mph headwind and you’re touching down with a ground speed of 5 mph and stopping in about 20 meters! find yourself another 5 mph on the nose, and you’re touching down in helicopter mode! Many observed the Storch being able to take-off and return to land using a strip of less than twice its own wingspan! Remarkable. 

    ''...the L-4 and Storch had less than a tenth of the horsepower ‘combined’ compared to some of the bigger engined fighters, but they were both still two extremely capable, very versatile aircraft that provided more than their fair share of service to their respective sides.''

    From inside the cockpit, the pilot wound down 40 degrees of flaps with the help of its bicycle chain design. As the flaps pass the 20-degree mark, the ailerons join the task as they start winding down too, this gives an entire trailing edge form of flap. Drooping ailerons do require some additional consideration during slow speed handling, indeed the stall in the Storch is reported as being a challenging manoeuvre to recover from if the wings drops beyond a certain point, so either save that last 20 degrees of flap until you’re lined up and straight or add a little margin for slow speed maneuvering. The stall speed is a remarkable 32 mph!

    But in the hands of the experienced and sufficiently skilled aviator, the aircraft could simply astound its crew, and observers on the ground. On a fairly average day and on a fairly average landing strip, the Storch could operating in and out of forest clearings or urban areas using a strip of only 60 meters in length. That was enough to get the aircraft off the ground mission ready, and easily accommodate it back down again. 

    World-renowned test pilot Captain Eric “Winkle” Brown spot landed a [previously] captured Storch on the deck lift of a British aircraft carrier! The crew then folded its wings back and lowered it straight down into the below deck hangar… with its engine still running! 

    And it was a Storch that extracted Italian dictator Mussolini (Operation Eiche) on 12th September 1943. The mission included a STOL landing and departure from a remote hotel atop a 5,500 ft mountain peak to the northeast of Rome. And less than a year later, during the final days of the war in Europe, famous German female test-pilot Hanna Reitsch landed a Storch close to the Brandenburg Gate in the heart of Berlin to reach Hitler and receive orders. 

    Talking of extractions, it was a Storch that picked up and rescued German pilot Lothar Mothes who crashed landed his wounded Focke Wulf Fw 189 in the dense arctic forests of Northern Russia. The aircraft spotted the downed pilot and landed in a forest clearing to rescue him. See GA Buyer article February 2022: The Owl Left in the Woods

    In total just under 3,000 aircraft were built between May 1936 (4th May 1936 being its first flight) and the end of the war in 1945, with a boost to those numbers have coming via the French production facility of Morane-Saulnier in German-occupied France (who went on to build another 1,000 after the war). And whilst one of the stranger looking aircraft around at the time, it was highly effective and could perform some almost unnatural feats of aviation with it’s incredible STOL performance. Truly a remarkable aircraft! 

     

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