The most important guy in military aviation history you’ve never heard of
The scramble to attain the top of the opposite hill is a familiar cinematic theme that binds American’s filmmaking tradition with our military history. Famous battles do indeed make for great filmmaking, but the story of Allen Touring’s epic code cracking of Germany’s enigma machine as told in the recent film “The Imitation Game” illustrates a whole other facet of warfare that has been neglected for years. As the film shows, there are important people who remain unrecognized for their contributions to America’s winning military history. One such figure is Alexander Kartveli, perhaps the greatest among the early pioneers in military aviation.
Kartveli emigrated from his home country of Georgia to pursue a dream to design aircraft. In the 1920s and 1930s, aviation captured the imagination of entrepreneurs and financiers looking for glory and riches – not unlike today’s Internet boom. Fleeing the Bolsheviks, Kartveli moved to Paris, studied aviation and, in his early 20s, designed an aircraft for Louis Bleriot that established a world speed record.
As a result of early success in the Paris aviation scene, Kartveli met and eventually moved to the United States to work with entrepreneur Charles Levine. When Levine’s aviation company failed, Kartveli joined forces again as chief engineer for Alexander de Seversky, another early aviation pioneer who also happened to be born in Tbilisi, Georgia. Seversky Aircraft eventually became Republic Aviation, a major force in aircraft manufacturing through World War II and the conflicts that followed shortly thereafter.
At Republic Aviation, Kartveli oversaw the design of some of the era’s most important fighter planes including the A-10 Thunderbolt II (nicknamed the “Warthog”), the P-47 Thunderbolt (nicknamed the “Jug”), the F-84 Thunderjet (nicknamed the “Hog”) and the F-105 Thunderchief. In fact, the A-10 remains in service today, nearly five decades after it was introduced, despite quantum leaps in aviation technology.
Kartveli’s P-47 Thunderbolt shows the power of design genius at work long before the A-10 was conceived. It was the largest, heaviest and most expensive fighter aircraft in history to be powered by a single piston engine. Its design encompassed advances in both edges of a sword – it was simultaneously one of the most lethal planes in the air and was also the safest for pilots. The P-47 could carry half the payload of a B-17 on long-range missions, yet it was effective in ground attack roles when armed with five-inch rockets.
Kartveli’s contributions were not limited to Republic Aviation. His capacity to translate ideas into reality led to his role as an advisor to the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, the predecessor to NASA, where he contributed designs that proved to be the seed concepts for the space shuttle. Here is a reference to Kartveli’s work on ramjet technology as described by NASA’s History Office in “The Space Shuttle Decision” published in 1999. Kartveli and Antonio Ferri collaborated on some notable early ramjet designs.
The heads down, thinking man stereotype associated with engineers partly explains why Kartveli remains obscured from history. What’s also an important factor is the alienation imposed on Kartveli due to unfounded fears of espionage. Despite these strictures, publications such as Time Magazine, the Washington Post and Think Magazine captured Kartveli’s immutable sense of imagination in articles where he expounded on the future of aviation and space flight.
A breed of people with new ideas and a determination to succeed proved that it takes all kinds to win a modern war. Starting with World War II, the power of innovation and advances in early computers opened up a whole new front of warfare that put scalable technology to work in the hands of individuals like Kartveli. What emerged was a group of people whose contributions formed an essential pillar of military supremacy and who ushered in foundational technologies that today impacts every military and civilian industry.
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