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The Flight of the Storch

Germany's Fieseler Fi 156 Storch

by Randy Wilson

Copyright 1995 by the Confederate Air Force and Randy Wilson. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 20, Number 2, Summer, 1995 edition. If you are interested in subscribing to The Dispatch please write to The Commemorative Air Force, ATTN: Dispatch Editor, PO Box 62000, Midland, TX 79711-2000 or call (432) 563-1000. Reproduced with permission.

As the Fieseler Storch, pronounced "stork," approaches for a landing, the image of its awkward, big-winged, long-legged Bird name-sake comes to mind. Approaching the ground, the plane seems to be flying impossibly slow. Touching down, the Storch rolls less than twice its own length before stopping. Designed in 1935 By Fieseler, the Storch was the first successful production short takeoff and landing (STOL) aircraft in the world.

Gerhard Fieseler was credited with 22 aerial victories as a fighter pilot in World War I, and was one of Germany's greatest aerobatic pilots after the war. In 1934 he won the World Aerobatic Championship, flying a biplane designed and built by his own company, FieselerFlugzeugbau. In 1939 the company name was changed to Gerhard Fieseler Werke.

By 1935, Fieseler's plant was building Heinkel-designed trainers and fighters under license for the expanding Luftwaffe. That same year the Fi 156 was designed to meet a specification for an army cooperation and liaison aircraft, also capable of evacuating casualties. Metal slats were fixed onto the leading edge of the long wings, and the entire trailing edge, including the ailerons, was hinged and slotted, to further increase lift and allow controlled slow flight. The long legs of the landing gear contained oil and spring shock absorbers that compressed about 18 inches on landing.

The first Fi 156A prototype flew in the spring of 1936, powered by an Argus 10C air-cooled, inverted V-8 engine of 240 horsepower, giving a top speed of 109 mph. The Storch, as the design was quickly dubbed, could fly as slow as 32 mph, take off into a light wind in less than 150 feet and regularly land in 50 to 60 feet, less than twice its length. Its wings could be folded back along the fuselage, allowing it to be carried on a trailer or even tugged behind a vehicle. The Storch was ordered into production by the Luftwaffe, and the first Fi 156As entered service in mid-1937.

Fieseler had planned a second more advanced version of the design, the Fi 156B, which would have had movable wing slats and other aerodynamic improvements to increase the top speed to about 130 mph. But the military did not order this version, staying with fixed slats for all subsequent Storch models.

The military significance and utility of the Storch's STOL performance is best understood when compared to the development of the helicopter. Germany's first successful helicopter design, the Focke Achgelis Fa 61, did not make its first test flight until 1937, and a few larger, twin rotor Fa 223s saw service from 1942. But in 1937, the Storch was demonstrating landings in a moderate wind in less than half its own length - only 16 feet!

The improved Fi 156C series entered production in 1938, the C-1 model being a three-seat liaison aircraft and light staff-transport, while the C-2 was a reconnaissance version with a crew of two and a rearward firing MG 15 machine gun. Both versions were powered by the Argus 10C engine. About 227 Fi 156Cs were delivered to the Luftwaffe in 1939, and a few Storchs were sold to other countries, including the Soviet Union. During the German advance into France and Belgium in 1940, Storchs often acted as ambulance and rescue aircraft, picking up downed aircrews and badly injured troops, often under enemy fire close to the front lines. By 1941, the multi-role Fi 156C-3 was in production, capable of performing any of the Storch's missions. An improved Argus 10P engine of 270 horsepower was standard in both the C-3 and the C-5 version, which could carry a special external fuel tank or aerial camera housing.

The final major production version, the Fi 156D-1, entered production in late 1941, with modifications to allow two stretcher-borne casualties to be loaded quickly through drop-down windows and a larger upward-hinged side panel on the right side of the fuselage. Both C and D model Storchs continued to be delivered into 1944 and saw service with the Luftwaffe in every theater of war.

One of the aircraft's most notorious exploits occurred on Sept. 12,1943, when a Stotch landed on the only flat ground at a mountain-top hotel in the Italian Alps and rescued former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from his imprisonment by the new pro-Allied government. The mission had been planned for a Focke Achgelis 223 helicopter, but when the helicopter broke down, the faithful Storch was substituted and completed the mission.

A total of about 2,900 Fi 156s were produced during the nine years from 1937 to 1945. When the main Fieseler plant in Kassel, Germany, switched to building Focke WuIf 190 fighters in 1943, Storch production was shifted to a factory at Chocen, Czechoslovakia. A large number were also built after April 1942 at the captured Morane-Saulnier factory at Puteaux, France. French-built versions featured an upward hinged cabin door, instead of the original forward hinged.

It was at the Puteaux plant in 1943-44 that Gerhard Fieseler built two prototypes of a new five-seat design, the Fi 256. Although similar in appearance and concept to the Storch, the Fi 256 was a new design with a larger passenger cabin, retractable wing slats and much cleaner aerodynamics. Designed both for the military and civilian market, four persons could be seated in two rows of seats behind the pilot, and the engine was the same Argus 10P used in later Storchs.

The Fi 256 did not enter production, and even photographs of the two prototypes are not common. However, in 1989, a visitor to the Dallas/Ft. Worth Wing of the Confederate Air Force, offered to donate such photos, and other items to the American Airpower Heritage Museum. The visitor explained that he had been part of the American forces who captured Fieseler at the end of the war, and that he had swept a number of photos and sketches off of Fieseler's desk to keep as souvenirs.

The photos and sketches were accepted by the DFW Wing as a donation and were later determined to include photographs of the Fi 256 prototype, as well as pictures of Fieseler and his friends. Some of these previously unknown photos are included with this article.

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