A torpedo bomber is a bomber aircraft designed primarily to attack ships with aerial torpedoes, but they could also carry out conventional bombings. Torpedo bombers existed almost exclusively prior to and during World War II when they were an important element in many famous battles, notably the British attack at Taranto and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The introduction of improved weapons that could be carried by conventional bombers, notably anti-shipping missiles, and the vulnerability of torpedo bombers during the attack, led to the type's disappearance almost immediately after the war.
The torpedo bomber first appeared during the latter years of World War I.
Generally, they carried torpedoes designed for air launch, that were smaller and lighter than those used by submarines and surface warships. Nonetheless, as an airborne torpedo could weigh as much as 2000 pounds (or 907 kilograms), more than twice the bomb load of a contemporary single-engined bomber, the aircraft carrying it needed to have a more powerful engine. Carrying torpedoes also required a long bomb-bay (or in any case a longer fuselage), which was why a special type of plane was needed for this role.
A number of multi-engined, heavier aircraft have also been used in the torpedo bomber role, with the Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" being used in the sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse. The same squadron and planes later attempted a torpedo attack on USS Lexington, but the carrier's combat air patrol and anti-aircraft guns downed 17 of the Japanese planes, which exposed the vulnerability of this type against such defenses.
Torpedo bombers disappeared almost immediately at the end of the war, being replaced by more generalized aircraft, and then missiles. However, some postwar jet aircraft (such as the Ilyushin Il-28T) were adapted as torpedo bombers in the late 1940s and 1950s. The North Korean Air Force notably had the world's last operational torpedo bombers in the 1980s.
In a parallel development, some maritime strike aircraft and helicopters have been capable of launching guided torpedoes against submarines. However, the mode of operation of these aircraft is considerably different.
One crucial limitation of a torpedo bomber was that it had to fly a long, straight course at a constant altitude of 30 metres (100 ft) toward the target ship before launching its torpedo. The torpedoes were very sophisticated weapons and were prone to damage when landing on water, especially on a wave; they were ideally aimed at the bottom of a wave but this was difficult in practice.
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