As the 'Phoney War' escalated during the late 1930s, the British Air Ministry concluded that Fighter Command was without an aircraft that could perform long-range escort or night-fighter duties. From a specification drawn up in 1937, the Westland Aircraft Company produced a single-seat, twin-engined monoplane: the Whirlwind escort fighter.
Designed by Teddy Petter1, the prototype flew on 11 October, 1938 and Whirlwind production started early the next year. The aircraft used quite advanced technologies for its time: the fuselage was a small tube with a 'T'-tail at the end and the entire plane was built of stressed-skin duraluminium2. The pilot was encased in one of the first 'bubble' canopies, giving him an almost 360 degree view, and the very low and forward positioning of the wing made for superb visibility. The nose-cone held four 20mm cannons, making it the most heavily armed plane at the time. The armament being in the nose meant aiming problems were reduced, as all the pilot had to do to hit his target was point the Whirlwind in the right direction. The small airframe was surprisingly strong too, as it could carry up to 1,000lbs of bombs on two underwing racks.
However, it was the aircraft's speed that interested the Air Ministry. Powered by a pair of Rolls Royce 'Peregrine' engines, the Whirlwind also had fully retractable undercarriage, giving the plane a very 'clean', streamlined look. It was able to reach a top speed of 360mph. It certainly lived up to its name by being particularly fast 'close to the deck'3, gaining it the nickname 'Crikey'4.
But the Whirlwind had its fair share of problems, too. It had a very short range for an escort fighter, due to its small compact frame leaving little room for fuel. And while the Peregrine engines provided the Whirlwind with its uncompromising speed, they also became the bane of its existence. Continual problems with the Peregrine led to its eventual cancellation, with Rolls Royce concentrating on the 'Merlin' engine. Westland pushed for the Whirlwind Mk II, fitted with the Merlin engines, but the plea went unanswered and only 112 Whirlwind Mk Is were produced for the RAF.
Only two squadrons received the Whirlwind: 263 Squadron in July, 1940 and 137 Squadron in November, 1941. After initial use as an escort fighter, it was relegated to shipping convoy patrols and eventually became known as the 'Whirlybomber'. The pilots of the Whirlwind took to flying low-level 'rhubarbs', or missions that had no real operational or tactical advantage. Just a bit of a fly-around-and-shoot-what-you-can 'sortie'. By late 1943, though, the Whirlwind was removed from active service as increasingly better aircraft like the Mosquito and Beaufighter were outclassing its initial outstanding performance.
Gone But Not Forgotten
Unfortunately, there are no Whirlwinds left in the world today. With only 112 manufactured, any surviving the Second World War were put to use as spare parts or scrap. The name lives on in the Westland Whirlwind helicopter, however, and there are model kit forms available to remember the short-lived but fine career of the aircraft.