Tags: Flightdeck Fridays, history lessons
As the resident (former) brown-shoe around these parts, one supposes it’s about time to elevate the discussion out of ground effect. Some few years ago I started a series over at the home-blog that sought, with apologies to Paul Harvey, to tell “the rest of the story” about Naval Aviation. Over the years we’ve shared the stories of some of the lesser known, but no less important planes, concepts, tactics and people who have made up the rich tapestry of NAVAIR. My plan is to share some of those stories here and in the process, draw parallels with some of the challenges we face in the here and now. Along the way we’ll see our share of things that worked and others that, well, it *seemed* like a good idea at the time…and the occasional flat-out folly. – SJS
Today’s story is one such example. As we struggle with what the future fleet will look like, being one of many iterations between “transformational” carriers, stealth destroyers or frigate-sized LCS’, we see another time when many streams of new technology converged, forcing a review and new direction in what we built and how we intended to operate and most importantly, fight with that item.
At the end of the Second World War, the future had been revealed insofar as aviation was concerned, primarily in the skies over Germany with the appearance of the Me 262 jet fighter. Britain too had built a pair of jet fighters, one of which was being used to intercept – jet (OK, pulsejet) powered, unmanned land attack cruise missiles. Late to the game, the US had flown its first prototype, but was late to the game. Navy, reluctantly, was forced to look into this new realm. Unfortunately, as we shall see, while the cutting edge work in engines, materials and aerodynamics could be accommodated ashore – at sea, on a carrier deck, it could prove to be a bridge too far and if so, one of the principle weapons system from WWII, the fast carrier, would be rendered moot in this new age.
Navy’s approach was to go to three manufacturers, some of whom had long experience with carrier aviation, others – less so, and have each build a limited number of prototypes to test the concept ad determine a viable way ahead. Those three manufacturers were McDonnell, North American Aviation and Vought. McDonnell, with little experience in full design and manufacture of aircraft was a dark horse. North American had long experience in building medium bombers and a noted fighter from the last conflict, but not so much in the world of carrier aviation. Vought had been around, well, almost from the very inception of carrier aviation. It’s Corsair, while troubled at first, gained a reputation as a first rate killer in the skies over the Pacific and would reprise its role as a much beloved (by ground forces) close support aircraft in a fight that was still on the horizon. Vought, with a tradition of thinking out of the box and trying something different, surely had the inside track. Presented here today then, is the transformational Vought F6U Pirate…
Certain pairings, on the surface, seem to be made for each other – Bogie & Bacall, rum & Coke ®, Nebraska v. Oklahoma … But balsa wood and afterburners? Almost seems counter-intuitive. say hello to Navy’s first composite-built, afterburner-equipped jet fighter.
By 1944 it was apparent from the reports being returned from the European theater of ops that the future lay in jets and the Navy soon joined the fray. In September 1944, BuAer (Bureau of Aeronautics) issued a specification for a single seat fighter to be powered by the Westinghouse J34 turbojet. Unfortunately, Westinghouse power plants at the time were notoriously underpowered, and later, the J40 would be the death knell for otherwise good designs (see Grumman F11F). The J34 started the trend, mustering a mere 3K lbs of thrust (for comparison, the contemporary P-80 using an Allison J33 mustered 5400 lbs of thrust).
With such miniscule power available, weight saving measures were the order of the day and Vought evidently thought they had a solution in the forms of their “Metalite” and “Fabrilite” materials. The former consisted of a sandwich of balsa wood between two thin aluminum sheets and would be used for most of the structure. The latter consisted of a fiberglass sandwich with a balsa wood core and was used for the vertical tail surfaces and inlet (see, the Hornet wasn’t the first plastic jet).
Alas, as inspired as the material solution might have been, the aircraft itself was, well, as underwhelming as its thrust. Looking much like a fat sausage with wings and empennage stuck on as an afterthought, the Pirate tipped the scales at just over 7,000 lbs. Empty. Gross was over 12K. Paint it pink and it probably would have been a suitable prop for a concert…
Be that as it may, it had to fly – which it did, badly. In an attempt to boost performance an afterburner section was added, giving it the dubious distinction of being the first a/b aircraft in the Navy’s inventory. Even at that, it added only another 1K lbs worth of thrust. Three prototypes and 30 production aircraft were ordered before it was (mercifully) euthanized in 1950 with BuAer’s report stating in part:
“The F6U-1 had proven so sub-marginal in performance that combat utilization is not feasible.”
Where are they now? Most ended up as fodder on weapons ranges in the southwest US, but one remains and is now under going restoration at the Vought plant in Grand Prairie, Texas. The aircraft was transferred from the New England Air Museum to Vought on October 2002.
* Crew: 1
* Length: 37 ft 7 in (11.46 m)
* Wingspan: 32 ft 10 in (10 m)
* Height: 12 ft 11 in (3.39 m)
* Wing area: 203.4 ft² (18.9 m²)
* Empty weight: 7,320 lb (3,320 kg
* Loaded weight: 12,900 lb (5,850 kg)
* Powerplant: 1× Westinghouse J34-WE-30A turbojet
Dry thrust: 3,150 lbf (14.0 kN)
Thrust with afterburner: 4,224 lbf (18.78 kN)
* Maximum speed: 596 mph (517 knots, 959 km/h)
* Range: 1,170 mi (1,020 nm, 1,880 km)
* Service ceiling: 46,260 ft (14,100 m)
* Rate of climb: 8,060 ft/min (40.95 m/s)
* Wing loading: 63.4 lb/ft² (304 kg/m²)
* Thrust/weight: 0.327
* Guns: 4× 20 mm (0.787 in) M3 cannon under the nose