Single lever power? Butcher birds had it first

May 13, 2008 by Paul Richfield, Senior Editor

Ever wonder why your piston single doesn’t have just one knob to control the throttle, prop and mixture, instead of three? For many years the engine manufacturers have thought the same thing, and finally, with the advent of full-authority digital engine control (FADEC) for the general aviation market, the ultimate switch to single-lever power seems virtually assured.

Too bad they’re only about 60 years too late. Dare I say the Germans—er Nazis—built it first? Consider the Focke-Wulf 190 fighter, the devastating “Butcher Bird” of World War II fame. More than 20,000 of these rolled off the assembly line equipped with the BMW 801D-2, a 1,730-horsepower, supercharged, twin-row radial engine with water-methanol injection.

A standard feature of the BMW 801D-2 was the Kommandogerat, a hydro-mechanical computer that controlled fuel flow, mixture, propeller pitch setting—even ignition timing and supercharger boost. All of this happened automatically, every time the pilot manipulated the throttle. Equipped as such, FW-190 pilots spent less time fiddling with cockpit controls, and more time scanning the sky for the enemy.

It wasn’t a perfect system. American pilots flying captured FW-190’s thought the brain box lacked sensitivity, and didn’t permit the kind of precise RPM control needed for tight formation flying. This was no big deal, to the Luftwaffe. They had long since switched to the fairly loose, “finger-four” formation, whose tactical advantages more than compensated for any technical shortcomings.

Few original FW-190s survive, but strangely enough, production has resumed of an airplane that British test pilot Captain Eric Brown once called, “the quintessence of aeronautical pulchritude.” Flugwerk GmbH in Gammelsdorf is building replica FW-190A-8s to order, powered by a Chinese knockoff of a Russian copy of a Pratt & Whitney radial not unlike the BMW 801. They’re also working on an FW-190D-9 “long nose,” powered by an Allison V-12.

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