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January 07, 2009

When Flattops Encountered Jets

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Well-rounded information takes time to emerge. This is especially true where government secrets are concerned.

Then there is the need for perspective. In matters technological, once a problem has become well understood and a set of tested solutions is available, then the attempts to create that solution set can be evaluated fairly.

Which is why I enjoyed reading this book (see cover, below).


Actually, the publisher got the title wrong. "U.S. Naval Air Superiority" to me means something like the World War 2 struggle between the air arms of the U.S. Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy; the Japanese held it in the early going and ceded it by 1943. In the time frame of the book, the United States always had the strongest naval air arm in the world. The publisher should have used something like the sub-title "Development of Shipborne Jet Fighters 1943-1962" as the title, because that's what the book is about.

Why does all this ancient (in terms of aviation) history interest me? Partly it's because I have an interest in technological evolution. Mostly it's because the book covers an exciting era in aviation that happened to slightly overlap the time I entered Kindergarten to when I graduated from college. I would first see newspaper stories announcing this or that new Navy fighter and then find follow-up articles in aviation magazines and the Popular Mechanics/Science-type magazines.

All such articles were essentially raw or rephrased public relations handouts. There would be a dramatic photo or two of the airplane, perhaps some solid technical information such as main dimensions and possibly some sketchy performance statistics. If the plane entered squadron service more information would seep out, though bad news would be covered up or downplayed unless it became a scandal such as the failure of the Westinghouse J40 engine program.

Such secrecy and deception is understandable with respect to weaponry. Once the aircraft had completed their path from front-line serve through use by reserve units to an aircraft boneyard, real information began to emerge regarding capabilities and, especially, defects. Although much of the information in the book has been public for years, Thomason (who was involved in the industry for many years) has packaged the facts well. I find it fun to discover the real story behind those PR-generated news stories of my childhood and youth.

The technical landscape during the late 1940s with respect to naval aviation included the following:

  • Reciprocating (piston driven) engines driving propellers had reached the point of diminishing returns. Increases in power required increases in weight and complexity, more difficulty in cooling, and decreases in reliability. It was clear that the top level-flight speed for any fighter using such engines would never exceed 500 miles per hour. Meanwhile, German and British jet-propelled fighters easily surpassed that speed barrier.

  • Early jet engines were unreliable. They had to undergo maintenance frequently.

  • They weren't very powerful, either. Yet they burned a lot of fuel fast, requiring incorporation of large fuel tanks that were heavy when filled. Weak engines have trouble overcoming high weights.

  • The best early engines were of the centrifugal-flow type, conceptually similar to supercharges for piston engines. But they were fat and not suited for speeds in the near-sonic and higher range. Axial-flow engines (the kind used today) had a smaller diameter (better for reducing frontal area and wind resistance) and could handle higher speeds thanks to relative air flow-through simplicity, but they were less reliable at first.

  • Unlike propeller planes, jets accelerate slowly. This is not a good thing for aircraft carrier operations when a plane about to land has to be "waved off" by the landing officer. A prop plane could easily zoom away whereas a jet would still be sluggish during the crucial seconds needed to climb away from the deck.

  • The straight-axis decks of carriers in service before the 1950s always ran the risk of a landing plane missing restraining cables and hopping barriers to crash into other aircraft spotted towards the front of the deck. Considering that all the planes contained some fuel and possibly ordinance, a bad landing of that sort had the potential to end up in a massive, fire-consumed wreckage. British innovations that included steam-powered launch catapults, reflector-based landing systems and, most importantly, the angled deck that separated landing and parked aircraft resulted in a much improved environment for jet fighters (the the slow acceleration problem is inherent to turbines and cannot be completely resolved).

So aircraft designers had to cope with wimpy, fuel-hungry, unreliable engines that weren't well suited for the split-second power adjustments needed for safe carrier operations. Plus, their years of experience with propeller fighters was of limited value for designing aircraft for the new jet-age environment.

Engine designers were breaking even more new ground, though Americans, late to the jet engine game, could rely on the World War 2 experience of the British and Germans.

Below are examples of Navy fighters that were unsuccessful. Some never left the prototype stage. Some had limited production runs. Some were built in quantities sufficient to supply several squadrons, yet their service life was brief thanks to their many shortcomings.


McDonnell FH-1 Phantom
Originally the FD-1 (renamed because D normally belonged to Douglas), this was McDonnell's first production aircraft. It was the first American jet fighter to complete carrier trials. Even though its performance was inferior to the Army's P-80, the Navy ordered 60 in order to practice jet operations for squadrons. The FH served as the basis for an improved version, the FH2 Banshee that saw action in the Korean War. It cannot be considered a failure; rather, it was a useful first step, but not really a combat-ready machine in a jet fighter environment.

Vought F6U Pirate
Vought was a long-standing supplier of planes to the Navy, the most famous being the "gull-wing" F4U Corsair of World War 2 and Korea. The F6U was something of a flop. Only 30 production versions were built, but the plane was seriously under-powered, experienced delays due to flight test problems and never saw active squadron service.

North American FJ-1 Fury
The Fury is of interest because North American was developing a similar appearing XP-86 for the Army. Data on wing sweeping captured in Germany resulted in a re-think, and the P-86 Sabre emerged as a swept-wing plane capable of breaking the sound barrier in a dive. The Sabre became America's air superiority fighter during the Korean War, serving as the basis for the Navy's FJ-2 Fury. Only 30 FJ-1s came off the production line because the Navy had better jets such as the Banshee and Grumman's F9F Panther in the pipeline.

Vought F7U Cutlass
The Cutlass in its original form was sleekly futuristic looking, being something of a "flying wing" with a large fuselage attached. The later version in the photo was less attractive, having a high-set cockpit to provide better carrier deck viewing on landing approach. This plane suffered from a large number of problems, including substandard engine power. After a decade in development, Cutlasses were deployed in a few squadrons, but only briefly. The aircraft remained underpowered because Westinghouse was becoming increasingly inept at engine development, and it had a high accident rate on carriers with axial deck configurations.

Grumman XF10F Jaguar
Grumman's Jaguar never went beyond prototype stage. It was a case of too much new technology being implemented in one go, the greatest and most troublesome innovation being variable-sweep wings. Other problems involved flight controls and the Westinghouse J40 engine, a power plant that caused much grief for a number of potentially good Navy fighter designs. The F10F was slated for production, but it proved to be such a hash that the project was canceled even though several planes were partly assembled.

Convair XF2Y-1 Sea Dart
Fears of airfields and aircraft carriers being destroyed in an atomic war led the Navy to consider jet powered seaplanes to supplement its conventional aircraft inventory. A sea-based patrol bomber was developed by Martin; a few examples were built, but it never entered service. The Sea Dart was a sea-based fighter that had the radical feature of using retractable hydra-skis for takeoff and landing. One test aircraft was fitted with a pair of skis in the manner of a water-skier. Another plane had only one ski, mounted centrally. The Sea Dart was intended to be supersonic, but never flew that fast. The skis proved troublesome which, coupled with other problems, led to the cancellation of the program.

The book discusses all fighter programs during the stated 19-year period, not just the false starts and failures mentioned above. I recommend it to aircraft history buffs and people interested in learning about a particularly interesting technological era.



posted by Donald at January 7, 2009


Ah, the Sea Dart. What's not to love about seaplanes? And it wasn't the only jet seaplane fighter. The Saunders-Roe SR.A/1 was another. Here's a video with footage of both.

Posted by: PapayaSF on January 8, 2009 2:21 AM

The US had naval air supremacy for most of the period covered by the book (and since then, I might add, with no rivals so much as lurking over the horizon--China's not even close). The hierarchy of comparative advantage, so to speak, runs, from smallest to largest:

dominance -> superiority -> supremacy

Ironically, the only nation that would have a hope of even downgrading US naval air supremacy to superiority any time in the next decades would be (after a considerable and very expensive rearmament)...


Posted by: PatrickH on January 8, 2009 12:48 PM

"British innovations that included steam-powered launch catapults, reflector-based landing systems and, most importantly, the angled deck that separated landing and parked aircraft resulted in a much improved environment for jet fighters .. .. Americans, late to the jet engine game, could rely on the World War 2 experience of the British and Germans." This reminds everyone that the era of US technical dominance started after WWII, when its potential competitors were in deep trouble - Britain bankrupt, Germany and Japan flattened, and Russia enjoying a socialist economy. And that in turn explains much of the economic pickle that the world is in today.

Posted by: dearieme on January 8, 2009 1:17 PM

At least part of the reason for the head start by the British and Germans was the fact that the U.S. had a really small military budget prior to WWII, especially for R&D. In 1940, the United States had a large but verging on obsolete navy, a very small air force, and an army smaller than that of Romania. The real wonder is that the U.S. was the dominant power on the globe by 1945, not that we lagged in a few areas. The British also had very small military budgets in the 1930's but they started their buildup 2-3 years earlier, and were smart enough to pour a lot of money into research. In terms of technical innovation, the British were probably the leading power in WWII, despite all the press the Germans get...

Posted by: Tschafer on January 8, 2009 8:26 PM

My point, Tschafer, is that the US developed a lot of its business habits when it had no competition.

Posted by: dearieme on January 9, 2009 11:02 AM

"My point, Tschafer, is that the US developed a lot of its business habits when it had no competition"

That's unfortunately true, in some ways, especially with regard to the tendency to build huge bureaucratic infrastructures around any task that needs to be done. Actually, though, getting back to jets and flattops, the U.S. military actually coped better with "foreign competition" than did our auto industry, copying the best of overseas technology and developing our own fairly efficiently, despite nitwits like Robert McNamara. Given the massive inefficiency and bureaucratic nature of the military, I wounder what this says about the auto industry...

Posted by: Tschafer on January 10, 2009 11:13 AM

Since McNamara came from the auto industry, it's not surprising that he was a "twit". He came as close, in my opinion, as anyone, to destroying the armed forces of the US. The American auto industry...what's good for Detroit is bad for America.

Posted by: PatrickH on January 10, 2009 6:56 PM

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