Kelly Johnson, Igor Sikorsky, Andrei Tupolev. These names are instantly recognizable to those who take an interest in aviation, particularly military aviation. But some of the most iconic American aircraft from the 1940s to today were designed by a man few have heard of.
Alexander Kartveli was born in 1896 in Tblisi, part of what was then the Russian Empire, and is now the Republic of Georgia. He graduated from the High School of Aviation in Paris in 1922, but after suffering serious injuries in a crash he gave up piloting. For a time he worked for the famous Louis Blériot. But after coming to the US in 1927, Kartveli met fellow Georgian Alexander de Seversky, and became his chief engineer. Seversky Aircraft Corporation would later become Republic Aviation Company.
The Seversky P-35 was the first great success for the company. Built at the same time as the Hawker Hurricane and the Messerschmitt Bf 109, it was America’s first all-metal fighter plane with an enclosed cockpit and retractable landing gear. Introduced in 1937, 196 were built. It won a direct competition against the Curtiss P-36, the predecessor to the famous P-40, but the US Army Air Corps ended up buying both planes, fearing that Seversky could not deliver the P-35 in adequate numbers.
In 1939, Seversky Aircraft Corporation became the Republic Aviation Company. As the war intensified, the US Army Air Corps needed faster and more powerful fighters. Republic worked to upgrade older designs, but they found them to be already obsolete. So Kartveli started with a clean sheet of paper and designed the P-47 Thunderbolt.
Kartveli sought to create a plane that would be fast, powerful, and tough, attributes that can be found in all of his designs. The Thunderbolt would use the extremely powerful 2,000 hp Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp XR-2800-21, eighteen cylinder, two-row radial engine, the same engine found in the Vought F-4U Corsair and the Grumman F4F Hellcat. Kartveli also planned on eight .50 caliber machine guns, extra armor for the pilot, and a supercharger in the tail. This unique arrangement worked quite well, and helped limit battle damage. In its varying models, a staggering 15,660 Thunderbolts were built, and it became one of the preeminent ground attack aircraft of its day.
After the war, Kartveli and Republic plunged headlong into the future of jet aviation, looking for turbojet replacements for the piston-powered warbirds of WWII. After unsuccessful attempts to modify the Thunderbolt to accept a jet engine, Republic once again started with a clean sheet of paper and produced the F-84 Thunderjet.
Introduced in 1947, and despite some initial teething problems that almost saw the entire program canceled, the F-84 would become the Air Force’s primary strike aircraft of the Korean War, flying over 86,000 missions. It was credited with 60% of all the ground targets destroyed during the war, and eight MiG kills along the way. 7,524 aircraft were produced, and the Thunderjet was the first aircraft to be used by the US Air Force Thunderbirds flight demonstration team. The Thunderjet would continue to serve the Strategic Air Command until 1957.
The swept-wing F-84F Thunderstreak, while sharing the same designation, looks to be an evolution of the Thunderjet, but it’s really an entirely new plane. 3,428 Thunderstreaks were produced. On March 9, 1955, an F-84F Thunderstreak piloted by Lt. Col. Robert R. Scott set a record for a flight from Los Angeles to New York: 3 hours, 44 minutes, 53 seconds. Like its straight-winged predecessor, the Thunderstreak also saw service with the USAF Thunderbirds from 1955-1956.
Further development of the Thunderstreak led to the RF-84F Thunderflash, a reconnaissance version, and the XF-84H, nicknamed the Thunderscreech. This variant included a supersonic propeller in the nose. The project was abandoned after unsolvable aerodynamic deficiencies.
Filling the nose of the plane with surveillance gear, or a turboprop engine, meant that the air intakes had to be moved to the wing roots. Kartveli and Republic took this concept and forged ahead. They decided that their next design would be an aircraft capable of low-altitude operations at very high speed in order to penetrate enemy defenses and deliver a nuclear weapon deep into the Soviet Union. Maneuverability would be sacrificed for speed. The F-105 Thunderchief, or “Thud” as it was known, was born.
The heritage of the Thunderstreak is clear in the Thud’s lines. But this was a much bigger beast. Introduced in 1958, the Thud flew the majority of bombing missions in the early part of the Vietnam war. However, high loss rates led the Air Force to withdraw it from those missions. At 50,000 pounds the Thud was the largest and heaviest single seat fighter in history. It could break the sound barrier at sea level, and push past Mach 2 at altitude. It could carry up to 14,000 pounds of bombs and missiles. Though replaced in battle by the F-4 and F-111, the Thud continued to serve in its EF-105F “Wild Weasel” air defense suppression variant until 1984.
Looking back at the P-47 Thunderbolt, Kartveli’s unorthodox approach was to decide on a feature and then build the plane around it. This approach to aircraft design is perhaps most evident in the last plane Kartveli worked on, one which could be considered his crowning achievement, the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II.
Like it’s P-47 namesake, the A-10 was designed for strength, survivability, and power. Introduced in 1977, the A-10 was built around the 30 mm GAU-8 Avenger rotary canon, the most powerful gun ever put into an aircraft. 1200 pounds of titanium armor protect the pilot. Engines mounted high on the fuselage help protect them from ground fire, and it can carry up to 16,000 pounds of external stores. If Congress doesn’t kill the A-10, upgrades could see it flying well into the future, perhaps until 2028.
And that would be an amazing testimonial to the legacy of Alexander Kartveli.