It was the height of WWII, aerospace technology was developing at an incredible rate. The jet engine was a fragile new technology, but it sure seemed like the future of combat aviation. Who would be first to field a jet fighter to Navy? Enter the engineers from Ryan Aeronautical and their FR-1 'Fireball' composite piston-jet fighter.
Even though jets were seen as a game changing, and possibly war winning technology, by the early 1940s they were horribly sluggish when it comes to throttle changes, had relatively poor reliability and lacked thrust. With this in mind, the Navy was interested in trying to advance the best piston engineered technology at the time by augmenting it with a jet engine.
After soliciting concepts from industry, the US Navy selected Ryan Aeronautic's design, even though Ryan had next to no experience building a carrier-borne fighter and was known for their trainer and sport aircraft, and "The Spirit Of St. Louis" above all else. None-the-less, under the purview of Admiral John McCain (yes Senator John McCain's father), two XFR-1s were ordered in early 1943, with another 'sight unseen' contract for 100 of the mixed powered aircraft placed by the end of that same year.
The XFR-1 had similar mass and dimensions as the Navy's F6F Hellcat, and was powered by a General Electric J-31 turbojet fed by air inlets placed on the leading edge of the inner part of each wing. The 'first generation' jet engine put out about 1,600lbs of thrust at sea level, and pretty fuel thirsty. The aircraft's piston powerplant was a dependable Wright R-1820 'Cyclone' radial engine which put out a around 1,400hp.
The marriage of the jet and piston engine was not ideal, but it did have its advantages, and reliability was just one of them. To increase the aircraft's loiter time, the jet could be idled or even shutdown while the more fuel efficient radial engine would give the aircraft a fair cruising speed and greatly enhanced range. The jet could be brought back online for climbing, high-speed tactical situations, such as chasing down Kamikazes, which was becoming a major issue at the time, as well as for shortened takeoffs. Interestingly, both engines ran on Avgas which greatly simplified the aircraft's fuel system and increased its range.
The cockpit sat fairly high atop the FR-1's fuselage and a bubbly canopy gave the pilot incredible visibility that was somewhat uncommon for the time period. The FR-1's design was the first Navy aircraft that incorporated laminar flow into its wing shape. Also, the Fireball's tricycle landing gear and flush riveting over the whole aircraft were seen as incredibly advanced for the time period.
The FR-1s Armament was really nothing ground breaking with four 50 caliber M2 machine guns with 300 rounds each, four rockets could also be carried under each wing and centerline weapons stations could accommodate up to 1,000lbs of bombs.
Performance-wise, the Fireball was impressive, with a top speed of over 400mph, and cruise speed on the radial alone was around 160mph. The Fireball's range of around 1600 miles with a pair of drop tanks was respectable and the aircraft's ceiling was then jaw-dropping at well over 43,000ft. The hybrid fighter could out climb and out turn anything flying operationally at the time.
The two XFR-1s were completed in a mere 14 months, the first flying on its radial engine power alone in June of 1944, and shortly after with its jet engine installed in its tail cone. Immediately there were issues with the design's center of gravity and aerodynamic shaping that caused unexpected results in flight testing. Because of the 'concurrent' method of buying the aircraft before it was test flown, close to 20 FR-1s were built by the time a fix could be made, which included fitting a larger horizontal and vertical tail to the aircraft.
The first three prototypes were lost during flight testing. The first two disintegrated in flight due to compressibility effects at high speed, and the third lost its canopy during a high-speed pass. The reality was that the canopy blowout was caused by wing structure failure, so the Fireball's wings were strengthened and the canopy issue was fixed. Flight testing was restarted and proceeded quickly under the pressures of wartime.
FR-1 pilots caught on quickly to the novelty of their hybrid fighter, and its unassuming looks. It was common practice for a Fireball pilot to form up on an unsuspecting aircraft and shut down the plane's radial engine. The other plane's crew would be shocked as the FR-1 proceeding to not only continue on without descending, but the FR-1 would even climb or slowly pull away from the other aircraft with a feathered prop! The whole event seemed magical to those witnessing it and rumors began circulating that the Navy had a new super technology that was seemingly out of this world. In retrospect, I guess the rumor was half true.
The FR-1 went to sea for trials after a few minor modifications. The aircraft performed relatively well, and test pilots gave it a good reviews when it came to its handling around the boat. Visibility was said to be exceptional compared to other Navy fighters operating in the Pacific at the time. This was due to the Fireball's bubble canopy and tricycle landing gear.
In January of 1945 an order for 1,000 Fireballs was placed by the US Navy, but the dropping of the Atomic bombs later that year, and Japan's subsequent surrender, would see all orders for the FR-1 cancelled. In all, only 66 Fireballs were ever completed.
Still, this is not to say that the FR-1 never saw operational use, it was deployed with VF-66, a squadron established to get the Fireball into service as fast as possible, aboard the USS Ranger in 1945 as a small-scale pre-deployment test. Out of the three aircraft that were craned aboard, only one made it back without major damage. Both were damaged on landing, one taking the barrier and the other breaking its nose-gear strut.
VF-41 was given the aircraft after VF-66 was disbanded following VJ day, but problems with the aircraft's nose gear persisted, with only about two thirds of the squadron's pilots getting qualified to operate the hybrid aircraft off the carrier. During this same carrier qualification attempt, one of the FR-1s and its pilot made history as the first aircraft powered on a jet alone to land on a carrier. The Fireball's radial had conked out and the pilot, a Marine named J. C. West, was forced to land with just the jet providing thrust. Apparently this resulted in an extremely high angle of attack as the plane crossed the USS Wake Island's fantail, and it floated over all but the last wire, sending it careening into barrier.
The squadron finally did get fully qualified and went on cruise in March of 1946. Things proceeded to get worse for the aircraft and her crews. The strut issue continued on even after Ryan Aeronautics tried to fix it multiple times, and the wings were showing signs of cracking far earlier than they were designed to. The aircraft were all limited to 5G going forward.
Accidents continued to plague to Fireball, with VF-41 losing three pilots and three aircraft over a very short period of time, including the squadron's commander who had a wing break off the Fireball he was flying while executing a rudimentary barrel roll, sending him careening into another aircraft.
By early 1947 the Fireball was dubbed a 'widow maker' and morale was extremely low among those that were tasked with taming her. Re-designated the VF-1E for publicity's sake, the Fireball and her brave crews went back to the boat again. Carrier qualifications were abysmal with just a handful of pilots qualifying. Then in June, a Fireball literally split into two upon landing. After further inspection of the rest of the fleet, it was clear that the aircraft could not operate aboard a carrier. Their structures were showing signs of catastrophic failure in multiple locations. As a result all operational Fireballs were pulled from service by fall of 1947.
Although the Fireball was a spectacular failure as a fighter, it did serve as a useful test platform. A few other powerplant configurations were tested, with a larger jet engine being added with lackluster results. The XF2R 'Dark Shark' on the other hand was an entirely different story.
The Dark Shark axed the FR-1's 'Cyclone' radial engine and wore a General Electric T-31 turboprop in its place, pushing a big four bladed wide chord adjustable pitch 'paddle' style prop. The T-31 put out 1,700hp and added another 500lbs of thrust to the 1,600lbs already produced by the aircraft's J-31 jet engine. The XF2R first flew in 1946 and had very promising performance. Seeing as turboprops ran at high RPM at all times, and thrust was modulated via the pitch of the propeller, power changes were instant, which was ideal for carrier operations. Regardless of this fact, the Navy was not interested in the project in the least bit, but the USAF was extremely interested in it and saw it as a competitor for the XP-81.
At the USAF's request, the XF2R was modified again into the XF2R-2, the difference being a more powerful J-34 turbojet was mounted in the jet's tail and its air inlets were relocated to the fuselage sides instead of the planes's wing leading edges.
The XF2R-2 was said to have been a marvelous performer with a top speed over 500mph, and the reliability and power of two gas turbines instead of one. The aircraft could haul fairly massive payload over long distances and at high speed, perfect for a fighter-bomber aircraft. Yet the Dark Shark's accomplishments were too little too late, as jet aircraft and airframe design was rapidly accelerating, spurred on by a looming Cold War and from the benefit of seized Nazi technology, research and scientists. Pure jets were the future of fighter aircraft, the USAF could not deny it nor could the Navy.
By the end of 1947, the Fireball and the Dark Shark were finally labeled dead-end technologies in any configuration, thus ending the aircraft's troublesome development and short, if not horrific, career.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com