Gloster Gladiator Mk I and II

Fitted with a Bristol Mercury MKIIA radial engine, and flown by test pilot Howard Saint, the prototype, J9125, made its maiden flight in January 1929. Disappointingly for Gloster, however, the engine failed to deliver its promised 500hp output, and so after some deliberation, the decision was taken early that summer to substitute a 490hp Bristol Jupiter unit. The prototype simultaneously received a new designation: SS.18A. In fact, in the quest for maximum flight performance, this would turn out to be only the first of multiple engine changes the design received over the next few years, each of which led to its re-designation. Thus, when fitted with a 560hp Armstrong-Siddeley Panther MKIII fourteen-cylinder, two-row radial, J9125 received the designation SS.18B. When, in the middle of 1930, another sub-variant of the Jupiter VII was substituted, it was again re-designated, this time becoming the SS.19. And following the incorporation of various airframe refinements, J9125 became the SS.19A. Later still, after being fitted with the 536hp Bristol Mercury VIS in January 1933, it was again re-designated, this time as the SS.19B. What the various engine trials had revealed by then was that while the Armstrong-Siddeley Panther produced the fastest top speed – around 205mph at 10,000ft – its considerable weight had a somewhat detrimental effect on the aircraft's all-important rate-of-climb. The Bristol Mercury VIS, on the other hand, was apparently the most reliable of all the engines tested.
Nonetheless, Folland remained determined to continue refining his design, and further engine changes and re-designations continued for several more months. Eventually, in September 1933, Air Ministry officialdom stepped in with an initial order for 24 aircraft (covered by the official production specification F.24/33), to be based on the SS.18B and powered by the 645hp Bristol Mercury VIS. The new plane was to be called the Gauntlet MKI.

gladiator zd 7

In choosing that name, Gloster was abandoning its long-established tradition of allocating avian names to its fighter designs. In instead choosing to name the aircraft after a medieval knight's glove fashioned from plate armour, it was starting a new tradition of eponymous branding that brought to mind the ancient warrior and his combat accoutrements. It was a sound piece of marketing. Gerry Sayer, seconded from Hawker to become the chief test pilot of Gloster by this time, doubtless had little interest in the firm's naming policy as he took the first production Gauntlet MKI, K4081, aloft from Hucclecote on 17th December 1934. Subsequently, some early production examples were sent to the Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE), Martlesham Heath, for evaluation by RAF test pilots, as well to its first intended operational recipients, 19 Squadron at RAF Duxford, in Cambridgeshire. To these pilots, viewing their new fighters for the very first time in May 1935, there seemed something about the type that was as outdated as the ancient apparel whose name it bore, specifically its two-bay wing design. The rationale offered by Folland was merely that he was still very mindful of the wing flutter problems that had dogged his earlier Grebe and Gamecock and had led to a number of fatalities and, even though the Gauntlet's metal construction ensured greater structural integrity, he believed that a two-bay design was the only guaranteed way of preventing it in his new fighter. In spite of this, the open cockpit, and the encumbrance of the fixed undercarriage, the Gauntlet's superb flight performance was testament to Folland's dedication to the incorporation of drag reducing features in its construction wherever possible. As a result, with a top speed in level flight of 230mph, it boasted a 56mph speed advantage over the Bristol Bulldog that had earlier beaten it to win the F.20/27 contract and even outpaced the Hawker Fury8 by around 30mph. Similarly, its ability to climb to 33,000ft meant it had the highest ceiling of any RAF fighter. It was also, much to its pilots' delight, a superb aerobatic machine!

gladiator zd 8

For all this, however, it was still the last link in a chain of designs dating back to the First World War. Its armament comprised only a pair of rifle calibre Vickers machine guns, and its open cockpit was the last that would appear on any RAF fighter. Its introduction into service, therefore, marked the end of a lengthy, and technologically rather un-progressive, era. Thinking around fighter design was swiftly evolving, and Gloster, as embodied by the personage of its chief designer, Folland, was evolving with it.
One of the significant turns in the company's fortunes about this time was its purchase by Hawker Aircraft Limited in June 1934. This meant that, henceforth, it would have to adopt the latter's methods of airframe construction. Thus the second batch of 204 Gauntlets ordered, designated the MKII, were built using a different technique. Hawker's manufacturing methods differed from those of Gloster primarily in its use of rear fuselage Warren Girder side panels, which were made from steel and aluminium tubing bolted together with fish plates. As a result, the new Gauntlet's fuselage required fewer internal bracing wires. In a move to add strength and increase aerodynamic efficiency, the wing spar was also re-modelled, utilising steel strips rolled to form an octagonal structure, which was then connected with steel webbing. The advantage was a structure that was far easier to build and repair than it would have been using Gloster's welded method. In addition, a Fairey-Reed fixed-pitch, three-blade metal propeller superseded the earlier Watts wooden two-blade unit.


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