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Essentially, one of the central events in my work-in-progress novel is the sabotage of a Hawker Hurricane in Malta by a member of groundcrew. I originally had this as him loosening an aileron so that it falls away during the climb, with the pilot then experiencing loss of roll control and coming down to crash-land. I've been advised, though, that this would be picked up in pre-flight checks and that it might be more feasible if the control cables inside the wing or rear fuselage were damaged/cut. Do either of those scenarios sound plausible? And what kind of height would the pilot be able to climb to before realising something is wrong and having to come back down? The idea is that the pilot has to force-land and that he is badly burnt/injured but ultimately survives.

Any thoughts/guidance greatly appreciated. Aware it's a slightly niche/leftfield question to be asking but thankful for any response.

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    $\begingroup$ Pilots almost always verify that the flight controls respond correctly prior to takeoff, in which case, issues with the cables would become quickly evident. Even if the pilot couldn't see that the surface wasn't moving, he'd feel that the tension/pressure/resistance on the stick was lower than usual in one direction. $\endgroup$
    – MD88Fan
    Jan 13 at 19:05
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    $\begingroup$ I think a bit of clarification would be helpful. Are you looking to just cause the plane to not be able to fulfill its mission, but be able to return safely to base, or do you want a catastrophic failure that would cause a crash and likely pilot injury or death? Also, do you want it detectable, or "act of god" type of failure that can't be identified, even if the pilot/aircraft makes it back safely? $\endgroup$
    – Milwrdfan
    Jan 14 at 18:59
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The Achilles heel, a good single-point-of-failure source that will be hard to detect until it's too late, of a plane like a Hurricane would be coolant system.

If I was going to sabotage a Hurricane in a way that forces it to return to base while enroute, and that is unlikely to be detected until it's on its way to combat, is to loosen a coolant line fitting, running to the radiator in the belly, such that it holds together initially, but starts to leak when the heat and pressure build up during the climb to altitude.

So during the climb to intercept, the coolant temperature goes haywire as the coolant is lost, pilot is last one in the flight so no one spots the leak and it isn't discovered until it's too late, pilot is forced to descend back to base, engine overheats on the way and has to be shut down, pilot lands short of base in rough terrain and is injured in the crash landing.

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    $\begingroup$ Good answer. If the coolant line was near the engine, a leak could obscure the vision of the pilot. This would make even a landing back at the home base hazardous. $\endgroup$ Jan 13 at 18:21
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    $\begingroup$ I would imagine the pilot would rather run the engine till It died trying to make it back to base rather than shutting it down only to wreck the whole plane... That is unless he thought he had a good chance of landing it safely and accidently messed it up. $\endgroup$
    – Zock77
    Jan 14 at 15:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Zock77 Depends on terrain : Hurricanes often operated from grass strips so any convenient field would do at a pinch. But, Malta being an island, you'd at least have to make it to land (and it's rugged terrain, so not many choices when you did) so this works. $\endgroup$ Jan 14 at 21:42
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    $\begingroup$ What a foolish pilot to ride a broken aircraft into terrain instead of bailing out to protect the more valuable asset, himself, as he was trained. $\endgroup$
    – Jasen
    Jan 16 at 8:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Jasen, not necessarily - if you've reached parachute height, then attempt to make it back to land. Only bail out once the engine actually stops running and if insufficient glide range to put down. It's really worth getting over (or at least nearer to) land before parachuting out anyway, as that increases the chance of saving the aircrew. $\endgroup$ Jan 16 at 9:23
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You could also pour a cup of carborundum polishing grit into the induction air inlet. This will get sucked up into the engine and quickly ruin it. This trick was used by air racers in the 1930's to sabotage their competitors' airplanes.

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    $\begingroup$ That would likely occur during or shortly after engine start - so still save on the ground and unlikely to get the injuries the author needs for his story. $\endgroup$
    – tsg
    Jan 14 at 8:17
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    $\begingroup$ @tsg Yeah, `30's air racer saboteurs weren't trying to kill each other for the most part, just prevent their competitors from flying in the first place. $\endgroup$ Jan 14 at 14:45
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The hard part is circumventing the pre-flight checks.

You could locate the ammunition belt for the 4x 20mm Hispano cannons and cram in a dodgy round that will just plain explode when the firing mechanism hits that round.

The Hurricane would climb to intercept and once lined up would fire its cannons and start a fire as the false round explodes, detonating a few around it as well.

One could say its wing members would assume some defensive weapons on the bombers / other fighters achieved a critical hit.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hispano cannons were fed from a drum magazine. I don't think there's anything flammable near by, the pilot has a parachute, why not use it? $\endgroup$
    – Jasen
    Jan 16 at 9:03
  • $\begingroup$ Drum is even better for sabotage if you are part of the ammo handling ground crew. Place a dodgy round in the ammo (belt) and feed the drum magazine. Now the dodgy round is hidden within the drum. Any subsequent inspection will only see a drum magazine that has been correctly installed into its space. $\endgroup$
    – Dohn Joe
    Jan 17 at 10:04
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A cup of sugar in the fuel is a fairly traditional way to go, and was recommended by contemporary sabotage manuals.

As @Milwrdfan pointed out in comments though, "sabotage" covers a range of outcomes.

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Maim but not kill, that's a fine line to walk

So, you're forcing him to land an unflyable plane. You need some sort of sabotage that takes effect before the plane reaches parachute height.

A bomb or mechanical control-wire cutter activated by raising the the landing gear perhaps.

the aileron wire however seems to be is quite far aft of the wheel bay and you'd probably need to loose both and possibly the rudder also to render the aircraft unable to climb or land safely.

Some sort of engine or fuel sabotage seems better, but again timing is an issue

the fuel tanks are in the cockpit but are self-sealing so it'll quite a lot to make a large enough hole to leak (possibly some sort of hollow lance would work?) the landing geat closes near the forward tank which is convenient for a trigger, but this all seems very complicated

A small explosive wited to one of the indicators on the control panel could burst the forward fuel tank filling the cockpit with fire

With the bomb triggered before takeoff and the pilot suffers burns, if immediartly after takeoff . burns and a crash-landing, or during flight. burns and a possibly bad parachute landing.

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I would think probably the best way to sabotage an airplane to virtually guarantee the aircrew is killed if they cannot bail out would be to damage the control cables or bellcranks for elevator and elevator trim, causing a nose down trim condition with no means to effectively recover. This would be difficult to conceal, and once discovered, would quickly be tracked down to the individual(s) last working on the aircraft, but a savy mechanic might be able to do this in a remote section of the fuselage not likely to be seen or inspected during a preflight.

Another possible method is to put diesel fuel in the fuel tanks as opposed to aviation gasoline. The engine won’t be able to burn it and the pilot will lose power very quickly. This still leaves a possibility for force landing as opposed to the answer above.

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    $\begingroup$ Part of the standard preflight procedure is to check the controls and control surfaces to make sure they move properly; part of the takeoff procedure is to lift the nose. If the airplane is permanently trimmed nose-down, this will be obvious during preflight, or if preflight is skipped, it will be obvious when the airplane refuses to take off. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Jan 14 at 0:21
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    $\begingroup$ You may be able to damage the system enough that a preflight check is possible, but it will fail once its subject to aerodynamic loads. $\endgroup$ Jan 14 at 0:46
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    $\begingroup$ Who downvoted this answer? Really? C'mon... $\endgroup$ Jan 18 at 18:18
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Perhaps one could subtly trim, or add weight to a propeller blade in a way that wouldn't be easily seen by eye.

The original Hawker Hurricane propeller was made of wood (perhaps later ones were as well I don't know), and tools such as wood drills and fillers existed and were available to good quality.

So let's say you get access to the hanger, or a spare prop. You drill a hole in a blade, insert a lead rod, and seal with some nice filler, then tint and coat it, so it doesn't show to the eye. Its not something you really look for or test anyway. Or you shave some thickness away, and coat it.

Then if you did this at home, you sneak in and swap propeller blades either at night or by faking being authorised to be there.

Now let's think what happens if you do this. The prop behaves perfectly on the ground. It spins when pushed, works just fine. The engine starts up and its probably still just fine. A bit noisy maybe, not a problem.

But at takeoff and flying speed, its now no longer balanced. Every turn it makes, its off balance weightwise and shaking the prop shaft and engine, its mounts, and putting great mechanical strain on it - and think how fast those props turned in heavy use. The propeller pivot is wood too, and not that robust against such excessive vibration and strains either - and has a hole in one blade which isn't great either. The pilot won't hear anything, because headset and cockpit, and will at most feel the plane is shaking or a bit odd. I'm not sure what they'd notice.

After a little while of high speed rotating, dependent on how off balance it became, the mounts or the prop itself will suffer from fatigue, loosened fixings, or unexpected strain, and fail midair during some climb or dive, or perhaps even straight flight.

(The Americans and Israelis got the Iranian uranium centrifuges the same kind of way, with Stuxnet, so "making it shake itself until it breaks" is a proven time delayed sabotage technique, in a way.)

The one place this won't happen, is during pre flight testing......

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    $\begingroup$ Not really. When the plane is in the air, a pilot will throttle back to save fuel, at least until they get into a dogfight. But the one time every plane runs at 100% thrust is at takeoff - and takeoff starts on the ground. :) The pilot is guaranteed to feel that kind of vibration. You can virtually guarantee the pilot would abort their takeoff run with their wheels barely leaving the ground. At the very most, they would circle back round and land immediately, seconds after taking off. There is no chance at all they'd leave the airfield. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Jan 14 at 12:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Graham An experienced pilot would notice this immediately, but a fresh, recently and hastily trained pilot might miss it? We're talking WWII, when lots of pilots were being very quickly trained, so there's a good chance you have a new pilot who doesn't recognize the signs yet... $\endgroup$ Jan 14 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ The Hurricane's Merlin engine was designed to handle a huge prop imbalance, and still keep running for a few minutes. A bullethole in the prop did not even prevent combat flying. A larger hole or gash would incapacitate the pilot by vibration, before it stopped the engine system from working. And the moment the pilot feels bad vibration, he would throttle down. 1/2 the RPM would deliver 1/8th the vibration energy, and still allow a return to base. $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Jan 16 at 18:56
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Cross-rig the trim controls. So when trying to correct say, nose-down, the 'correction' has the opposite effect. Not a guaranteed fail but quite possibly cause a pilot to conclude the plane is uncontrollable and bail out.

(RAF bases on Malta were very pressurised both physically and psychologically. When writing, make sure there is nothing casual about your ne'er-do-well.)

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You need the plane to crashland, but not crash fully. So crippling not destroying the plane.

It is launching from Malta, but you want a land landing, not water landing? Thus a failure in the air, within 5 minutes of takeoff (better 2 minutes), as Malta is tiny and surrounded by much ocean.

Sabotage the coolant system

Just put a glass vial of nitric acid in the coolant air intake(closing the radiator intake flap again).
The actual amount of time needed with the plane is less than 2 minutes, and no suspicious hacksawing away at the plane, just one entry into cockpit, open the vent, put in the vial, close the vent again. Routine maintenance. (It does require careful prep, of course, but the materiel is not scarce or even suspicious, it's used in the repair bay)

Cycling the radiator flap is not part of the takeoff prep. The flap is kept closed until the coolant temp is up to the correct levels, which requires about 2 minutes of flying power. When the flap is opened, air rush will smash the vial, spilling nitric acid over the radiator grid. About 30 seconds later, the radiator fails catastrophically. The plane is still low and climbing, and about 5 minutes from the airstrip.

You now have a plane with a faltering, soon dead engine. Smoke pouring into the cockpit from glycol spilling everywhere. Poor visibility, but enough for the pilot to think he can make it back to the airfield. He doesn't, of course. At least not gracefully. Post-crash fire easily hides the evidence of sabotage.

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