Britain’s Bizarre ‘Fleet Shadower’ Showed Up at the Wrong Time
Slow-flying battleship spotters were obsolete by 1940
The Royal Navy was still heavily a gun and battleship-centric force in the years just before World War II. So to help spot targets for its battleships, the Royal Navy in 1938 summoned manufacturers General Aircraft and Airspeed to develop two very similar prototype planes — which would become some of the most awkward-looking aircraft of the period.
Curiously, as milblogger Tony Wilkins noticed, the resulting Fleet Shadowers with their perched cockpits resembled the later 1950s-era Westland Wessex helicopter, better recognized in the United States in its modified version, the Sikorsky H-34.
General Aircraft’s G.A.L.38 and Airspeed’s A.S.39 looked similar, and each featured a single wing, mounted high, and four radial engines. The design called for a quiet, night-flying, carrier-launched plane with long endurance and low minimum speeds, allowing the aircraft to loiter and track enemy surface ships for hours at a time.
The aircraft had a crew of three, with the spotter sitting in a lower forward observation deck, with access to a radio operator in the rear — and both located beneath the pilot sitting conveniently above and out of the way.
Naval expert Norman Polmar described the two Fleet Shadowers in his 2006 carrier aviation history as “among the most bizarre carrier aircraft ever attempted.”
Each variant — there was only one of each ever produced — featured four low-powered engines. General Aircraft’s G.A.L.38 and its 130-horsepower Pobjoy Niagara III engines had the advantage of greater endurance of 11 hours compared to the Airspeed A.S.39’s six, but the latter with its 140-horsepower Niagara V engines had a lower stall speed of 33 miles per hour compared to the G.A.L.38’s 39 miles per hour.
All in all, the greater endurance was probably an advantage for General Aircraft version. The wings set high on the fuselage allowed both planes to maintain lift even at low speeds.
The Fleet Shadower wasn’t a terrible idea, in theory. Just obsolete by the time of the G.A.L.38’s first flight on May 13, 1940, and the A.S.39’s first flight on Oct. 17 the same year.
Had the aircraft come a decade earlier, the Royal Navy might have put them into service. But the realities of the Battle of the Atlantic — where the primary threat to British shipping came from submarines — meant different requirements than a slow-moving scout designed for a clash between surface fleets.
In any case, land-based bombers equipped with newly-invented radar and configured for maritime patrol duties vastly exceeded the Fleet Shadowers’ range and spotting abilities. As a result, the ungainly aircraft turned into a historical footnote.