Have you ever heard of a self-sealing fuel tank? It is one of the amazing technical devices used by Americans to stay alive in the dangerous business of flying, particularly when someone is shooting at you! Above is pictured a burning Japanese bomber, official American name of Betty. Japanese aviators had another name with the standard aviator’s humor for this ship…roughly translated they called it the Type I Zippo Lighter aka Flying Cigarette Lighter. Japanese aircraft did not use self-sealing fuel tanks and the results were disastrous! The deadly Zero aircraft was also nicknamed “Zippo” by Allied fighters as their propensity to explode into flames upon being shot was well-known and seen on gun camera footage, almost always! Veteran Zero pilot Takao Tanimuzu explained after the war, “you could always tell if it was a Zero or enemy plane that had crashed in the sea. The Zero left a fire on the surface, but the American plane just left an oil slick.”
The first demonstration of a self-sealing fuel tank in America was made on 18 May 1917 by the Navy Bureau of Standards to representatives of the Army and Navy. The self-sealing tank was constructed of double-walled galvanized iron with layers of felt, gum rubber and an Ivory soap whiting paste. By World War II, a more advanced and lighter construction method for self-sealing fuel tanks involved two layers of rubber, one of vulcanized rubber and one of untreated rubber that could absorb oil and expand when wet. When the fuel tank was punctured, the fuel spilled onto the layers and caused swelling of the untreated layer, thus sealing the puncture. Today all military aircraft have some type of self-sealing fuel tank.
Watch this World War II film segment from the wartime documentary “All Out for Victory” in 1943, it shows the production, testing and effects of self-sealing fuel tanks!
Here’s an amazing look at modern science coming up with new ways to self-heal tanks, note the new name!