The First Jet Fighter. . . . Sorta
Three new fighter aircraft entered Navy squadrons as the Pacific war was reaching its violent conclusion: Grumman's twin-engine F7F Tigercat and "lightweight" F8F Bearcat, and the Ryan FR Fireball. All three were piston-engine aircraft, but the Fireball could almost lay claim to being the world's first jet-propelled carrier fighter.
In 1941 the United States began the development of jet-propelled aircraft, building on British gas turbine engine technology. Early jet engines, however, had slow acceleration, requiring long takeoff runs; consumed fuel at a prodigious rate; and required specialized fuel instead of the avgas burned by piston-engine aircraft. These factors initially delayed Navy interest in jet powerplants. In late 1942, however, the Navy began considering a composite aircraft with both piston and turbojet power.
Nine aircraft firms were invited to submit designs for such an aircraft. The Ryan Aeronautical Corporation of San Diego showed the best understanding of the concept, and the Navy contracted for three XFR-1 prototypes from the firm.1
The only previous Ryan-built aircraft flown by the Navy is believed to have been the NR-1 Recruit, an open-cockpit, monoplane trainer. It was flown by the Army as the PT-22. The Navy acquired 100 NR-1s, which served until 1944. The lack of previous experience in building naval fighters was in many respects an advantage, allowing Ryan to truly start with a clean slate. Several of the other firms were also already producing Navy aircraft and had little design or production capability to spare.
Beyond being a piston-turbine aircraft, the Fireball was intended from the outset to operate from small escort carriers (CVEs). Another challenge was that the aircraft would have a tricycle landing gear to accommodate the jet exhaust configuration, also unusual in carrier aircraft.
Developed by a Ryan team led by Ben T. Solomon, the FR-1 was a sleek-looking, low-wing monoplane with the first laminar-flow airfoil intended for carrier operation. The pilot had excellent visibility, and the aircraft had upward folding wings and the requisite tail hook. Armament consisted of four wing-mounted .50-caliber machine guns (300 rounds per barrel). There were provisions for carrying two 1,000-pound bombs or 100-gallon drop tanks under the wings.
The first XFR-1 prototype flew on 25 June 1944. The initial flights were made using only the Wright R-1820-72W, 1,350-horsepower piston engine. The General Electric J31-GE3 turbojet, generating 1,600 pounds static thrust, was installed in July. The flight tests got off to a good start.
The second XFR-1 flew in September, but the test program was marred the following month when the first prototype crashed. Investigations found that the wing rivets were not strong enough; doubling their number solved this problem. Still, both of the remaining prototypes also crashed.
But even before the first XFR-1 had flown, in December 1943 the Navy ordered the production of 100 Fireballs, a practice that was common during the war. A further 600 aircraft were ordered in January 1945, but most were cancelled when the war ended. Only 66 production FR-1s were delivered, the first in January 1945. They were similar to the modified prototypes except for changes to the wing flaps.
With a gross weight of 11,652 pounds, the Fireball was a heavy piston fighter, larger than the Grumman F6F Hellcat and F8F Bearcat and roughly comparable with the Chance-Vought F4U Corsair series.
The first FR-1s reached the Fleet in March 1945 with deliveries to Fighter Squadron (VF) 66. Three of the squadron's FR-1s were hoisted on board the carrier Ranger (CV-4) on 1 May 1945, and in three days of operations off the coast of California they proved the feasibility of flying the composite power plant aircraft from carriers. The plane normally flew on the piston engine with the turbojet to be used for rapid climb and combat. The squadron's aircraft were transferred to VF-41, and that unit went aboard the escort carrier Wake Island (CVE-65) on 5 November 1945.2
History was made the next day as an FR-1 piloted by Ensign Jake C. West lost power taking off from the Wake Island. West started his turbojet engine and immediately returned to the carrier to make a successful landing on jet power although it is believed that his piston engine did not lose its total power. (The first true jet carrier landings and takeoffs occurred a month later when Lieutenant Commander Eric M. Brown took a Vampire I fighter aboard the British light carrier Ocean on 3 December 1945.)
After some modifications, especially following problems with the tender nose gear, the squadron flew its FR-1s on board the Bairoko (CVE-115) in March 1946. VF-41 also operated from the Badoeng Strait (CVE-116) from March 1947 and the Rendova (CVE-114) for six days in June 1947. There were accidents and all aircraft, grounded for inspection, were found to suffer from structural deterioration. A short time later the Fireballs were withdrawn from service. Navy records indicate that the last aircraft were retired from squadron service with VF-1E in June 1947.
One FR-1 was modified with a lengthened fuselage to house the more-powerful J34 turbojet engine. Designated XFR-4, it was reported to have an added 100 mph in top speed.
A further development of the FR-1 design was the XF2R-1 Dark Shark, which was to have a turboprop engine forward and a turbojet engine in the after fuselage. Maximum level speed was expected to be about 500 mph with a ceiling of 52,200 feet. One FR-1 was modified to the XF2R-1, with an XT-31-GE-2 turboprop engine fitted. In flight tests in 1946-47, it—the Navy's first turboprop aircraft to fly—exceeded the FR-1's top speed by only 75 mph because of the weight of the new engine. The XFR-4 remained the fastest variant. The XF2R-1, however, set a world altitude record for turboprop aircraft of 39,160 feet in May 1947.
The Air Force expressed interest in the Dark Shark and ordered a pair of XF2R-2s from Ryan. These were to have the TG-100 turboprop engine forward and a J34 turbojet engine aft; gun armament was to be four 20-millimeter cannon with provisions for bombs and rockets. A mock-up was built, but the program was cancelled before the aircraft were produced.
Thus ended one of the U.S. Navy's first—and highly unusual—efforts in the field of jet-propelled aircraft.
1. Three books are recommended for the FR Fireball story: Ernest McDowell, FR-1 Fireball (Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publications, 1995); Steve Ginter, Ryan FR-1 Fireball and XF2R-1 Darkshark (Simi Valley, CA: Ginter Books, 1995); and William Green, War Planes of the Second World War, Vol. 4: Fighters (London: Macdonald, 1961).
2. Squadron VF-66 was disestablished on 18 October 1946, with its aircraft and personnel assigned to VF-41. VF-41 itself was redesignated VF-1E on 15 November 1946.