08 March 2016

The Ryan FR-1 Fireball and F2R Dark Shark: An Evolutionary Dead-End

When the US Navy initiated the development of its first jet fighter, the McDonnell FD-1/FH-1 Phantom, in 1942, not only did it hedge its bets on McDonnell's design by carrier testing the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, but it also initiated a back up program at the insistence of the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) for a mixed-powerplant fighter that combined a conventional piston radial engine with a jet engine. There were still a lot of unknowns about the operation of jet aircraft from fleet carriers and the concept of a mixed powerplant fighter would combine what was known- that a conventional radial engine had the performance for a carrier takeoff and a wave-off from landing and that a jet engine could provide a boost for high speed performance. At the same time as the start of the FD-1/FH-1 program, BuAer held a competition for a mixed-powerplant fighter which was won by San Diego-based Ryan Aeronautical Corporation which started work in 1943 on the prototype for the FR-1 Fireball.

Ryan FR-1 Fireball
The Fireball's radial engine was a Wright R-1820 Cyclone 9-cylinder radial engine generating 1,425 horsepower. The R-1820 was used on a variety of World War 2 aircraft from the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress to the Douglas SBD Dauntless and Curtiss SB2C Helldiver. This was a surprising choice given that the standard engine of the Navy fighters of the day was the 2,000 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800 18-cylinder Double Wasp. The jet engine in the rear fuselage, fed by wing root intakes, was a General Electric I-16 (later redesignated J31) developing approximately 1,600 lbs of thrust. The I-16/J31 was a GE production version of the Whittle W.1 centrifugal flow turbojet and was the first production jet engine built in the United States. Outside of the Fireball, two of the same jet engine were used on the Bell P-59 Airacomet. Development of the three prototype XFR-1 airframes proceeded along remarkably smoothly and the prototype made its first flight on 25 June 1944 powered only by its piston engine. On the third flight, the I-16 engine was fitted to the prototype and used successfully.

The Fireball boasted excellent cockpit visibility but one of its other unique features was it was the first production carrier-borne aircraft to have a tricycle landing gear. This was done primarily out of necessity to elevate the jet engine exhaust up and away from the wooden decks of the Navy's fleet carriers. Despite the loss of the three prototypes, the Navy was anxious to field the FR-1 Fireball and had already ordered 100 aircraft a year before the first flight of the prototype. With satisfactory flight testing and excellent performance, another 600 aircraft were added to the order in 1944. The Navy wanted the Fireballs in the Pacific as a Kamikaze interceptor- Fireballs were planned to be used in combat air patrols, loitering on their radial engines. When inbound Kamikazes were detected on radar, the Fireballs would light up the jet engine and speed off to intercept the enemy. At the end of 1944, the Navy ordered 600 of a faster variant, the FR-2, that had a more powerful R-1820 engine that developed 1,500 horsepower. 

VF-66 Fireballs in formation flight
(San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives)
Navy fighter squadron VF-66 stood up at NAS North Island where the Ryan plant was located to speed the introduction into service of the Fireball. Instead of the usual operational evaluations and demonstrations, VF-66 was tasked to get the Fireball into action as soon as possible. Unusual for a Navy squadron of the day, VF-66 was made up of senior officers and experienced pilots. Five days after VF-66 stood up on New Year's Day 1945, the first FR-1s were making their initial carrier qualifications aboard the USS Ranger in preparation for combat deployment. The squadron pilots enjoyed flying the FR-1 for its speed and maneuverability. Pilots often would make low passes at area airfields with the front prop feathered to confuse tower and airport personnel. By July 1945 VF-66 was in final preparations to take the FR-1 into combat but it was all for naught when the Pacific War ended the following month with surrender of Japan after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Fireball was officially unveiled to the public in September 1945 but only 66 FR-1s were produced and delivered before the war ended, the balance of orders for the FR-1 and FR-2 being canceled. After the war in November 1945 a Fireball that suffered a radial engine failure landed on the USS Wake Island to be come the first jet landing on an aircraft carrier, but obviously not intentionally!

Looking to improve the Fireball's performance, Ryan proposed the FR-3 that would have taken the faster FR-2 design and swapped out the I-16 engine for a more powerful GE I-20 engine that offered 2,000 lbs of thrust. The FR-3 never got built, but Ryan did a contract for a prototype of the FR-4, which used a 3,400-lb thrust Westinghouse J34 engine in the rear fuselage. The XFR-4 did fly, and the main external difference was the relocation of the jet intakes from the wing roots to the lower sides of the nose just aft of the radial engine. Doors could close off the NACA-style flush intakes to keep the jet engine from windmilling and producing drag and small eyelid doors could increase the area of the intake as well. The XFR-4 added 100 mph to the top speed of the Fireball, but only one prototype was built. The small number of FR-1s, however, were withdrawn from service when in 1947 they were found to have significant structural fatigue in the aft fuselage just behind the wings. The last flyable FR-1 arrived at the Naval Air Technical Training Center in Memphis, Tennessee, to be used as a maintenance trainer.

Ryan F2R Dark Shark configuration
(San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives)
It wasn't the end of the road for the Fireball just yet, though. The Powerplant Division of BuAer still remained skeptical of the performance of jets in the carrier landing pattern. Ryan was asked to further develop the FR-1design by replacing the radial engine with a General Electric 1,700-horsepower XT31 turboprop engine. The XT31 was the first turboprop engine designed and built in the United States and was also used on the Air Force's Convair XP-81 turboprop/jet fighter. The new Ryan fighter was designated the F2R Dark Shark and though it retained the wing root intakes and the I-16/J31 engine of the FR-1, it had an impressive climb rate but lacking the drag-reducing jet intakes of the FR-4, it was actually slower than the XFR-4 in level flight. With the large 8-foot prop, the Dark Shark demonstrated improved performance in the carrier landing pattern over the FR-1, but by the time of its first flight in November 1946 McDonnell had proven the practicality of pure-jet carrier operations with the FD-1/FH-1 Phantom and the last resistance within BuAer to pure jets had ended as the Navy decreed that all future fighters after the Grumman F8F Bearcat would be pure jets.

The Dark Shark in flight
(San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives)
The Air Force (then still the USAAF) was impressed with the performance of the XF2R-1 Dark Shark prototype and asked Ryan to make some modifications to evaluate it in competition against the Convair XP-81. What was designated the XF2R-2 featured the NACA flush intakes on the nose of the XFR-4 feeding a Westinghouse J34 engine. The XF2R-2 was ultimately never built other than as a mockup, as the Air Force decided, like the Navy, that mixed powerplant fighters were an evolutionary dead end and the future lay with pure jets.

I should also mention the Curtiss XF15C which was also planned as a Navy mixed-propulsion fighter. But that aircraft will be getting its own article at a later date here at Tails Through Time!

Further reading: 

The Coming Kamikaze Threat in World War II We Never Faced
Refining Anti-Submarine Warfare: The Grumman AF Guardian
The Ground-Breaking Gun Turret of the Grumman TBF Avenger
The Boeing PBB Sea Ranger: The Best Flying Boat at the Worst Possible Time

Source: U.S. Naval Air Superiority- Developement of Shipborne Jet Fighters 1943-1962 by Tommy H. Thompson. Specialty Press, 2008, p28-30.

03 March 2016

A Cat of a Different Sort: The Grumman Ag-Cat

Crop dusting expanded considerably after the Second World War with a surplus of pilots, aircraft and engines. Most crop dusting operations used the Boeing/Stearman Kaydet training biplane as it was rugged to deal with the ham fisted flying of students and it was cheap being war surplus as the US military modernized its training fleets in the postwar period. Though plentiful and relatively easy to maintain, a fully loaded Stearman for crop dusting was in most cases underpowered. One of the qualities that made the aircraft so ideal for training was that it required a lot of coordination to minimize its yaw tendencies. It wasn't unusual for a Stearman student to find operational combat aircraft less demanding to fly! That's not to say it was a difficult aircraft in the training environment, but if you were to add a heavy load of chemicals and associated spray equipment, then the Stearman was definitely a handful for crop duster pilots who were flying just a few feet above the ground and then having to climb to avoid treelines and whatever obstacles surrounded most agricultural fields. In 1956, two members of Grumman Aircraft's preliminary design group, Joe Lippert and Arthur Koch, had been touring the Gulf Coast talking to oil industry executives and operators on their requirements for proposed amphibian they were considering. They had a second aircraft in mind as well, a purpose-built crop duster, but the amphibian was their priority at the time of their visit to the Gulf Coast. What Lippert and Koch found was that there was a broad range of needs by the oil industry that they weren't sure a single design could meet all the demands they discussed with prospective customers. Shelving the amphibian project, they then visited farming communities and observed crop dusting operations with considerable interest. Discussions with crop duster pilots revealed some of the problems pilots faced with the near-ubiquitous Stearmans that were the bulk of the crop dusting fleet of the day. While Grumman was not alone in its considerations of a custom-designed crop dusting aircraft, they certainly chose a different design philosophy than other aircraft manufacturers like Piper and Cessna took in their crop dusting designs. 

The Smithsonian's Gruman Ag-Cat
(NASM Udvar-Hazy Center)
Lippert in particular was fascinated with how crop duster operations were getting war surplus radial engines for only $25 to replace the existing worn out Continental R-670 seven-cylinder radial engines for their Stearmans. He astutely realized that the best approach for Grumman was a design that used the 220-hp radial engine as they were inexpensive and plentiful on the aftermarket. This would make acquisitions costs more reasonable and potential owners and operators already had experience operating and maintaining the R-670 engine. Lippert and Koch went back to Leroy Grumman and presented their preliminary specification for what would become the Grumman Ag-Cat. However, Grumman was tied up with a lot of military business in the later half of the 1950s and Grumman told the two men that the new project would have to carried out on a shoestring budget. An empty hangar was secured as a workshop and design space along with tooling that was to be scrapped that they thought might be of use. The entire engineering team for the aircraft consisted of only eight people, two of which were Joe Lippert and Arthur Koch. They borrowed craftsmen from the production floor as needed based on who was available- most of these craftsmen were on the verge of retirement but their skills dating back from the 1920s and 1930s would prove valuable to the Lippert and Koch. While the number of craftsmen working varied based on who was available, it usually averaged about thirty individuals. With the craftsmen working right next to the engineers and draftsmen, a tight-knit group that hearkened back to the Grumman's early days formed. 

Unusually for an aircraft program, the design and build of the Ag-Cat began simultaneously on 30 October 1956. Some of the workers came in on weekends and evenings on their own time to help with the project- after all, the last Grumman biplane was the F3F from the 1930s, so there was considerable interest among the "old hands" at Grumman in the Ag-Cat project (which had yet to get the Ag-Cat name at the time). The fuselage mock up was built in Joe Lippert's garage much to his wife's consternation. Ideas from the mock up then went to the hangar in the morning for incorporation in the aircraft as it came together. To keep things simple, a welded tube fuselage was used with removable aluminum panels to allow the interior to be washed out of any chemical residue from crop dusting. The two wings were staggered with the lower wing 35% aft of the top wing to give the aircraft very benign stall characteristics. This way one wing stalled before the other which insured the pilot would always have some level of control in a stall situation. The four wing panels- left and right top and bottom wings, were all interchangeable which eased maintenance and production costs. The aileron on a top wing panel became a flap if that wing panel were used on the lower wing. The nose sloped downward to improve the pilot's vision during low level flying and the airspeed indicator and engine tachometer were put right at the pilot's eye level to avoid having to look down at the instrument panel. The fuselage structure around the cockpit was designed to absorb a 40G crash- given that 10% of crop duster pilots crashed each year of their careers, making the aircraft survivable in the event of a crash was to be a prime selling point- in fact, from the first delivery in 1959, nine years elapsed before the first Ag-Cat crash. The chemical hopper was installed in the fuselage ahead of the cockpit right at the center of gravity to prevent there being any shifts in the center of gravity as the load was expended. The hopper had a 217 gallon capacity for liquids or 1,200 lbs for dry product. The price was established at $12,995 without the engine and propeller, $13,995 if a power plant package was factory installed. 

N10291, the Grumman Ag-Cat prototype
(Wikipedia/Rene Francillon Collection)
The first flight took place on 27 May 1957, just seven months after design/fabrication of the prototype, N10291, began! Lippert and Koch requested that all the workers who worked on the project bring their wives to the first flight- as many of them had worked additional hours on top of their existing jobs on the project, they thought that the wives should see "the other woman" in their husbands' lives!

With a successful first flight that revealed no major issues, the second prototype joined the test program a month later. Grumman himself invited crop duster pilots from around the country to try out the prototypes and every single one was enthusiastic about the aircraft's handing and tight turning capability given that most crop duster pilots that stalled did so during turns to make another pass. The two prototypes were then taken on a nationwide tour by Lippert and Koch with over 150 pilots trying out the aircraft. One of the crop duster pilots that tried out the aircraft, Dick Reade, suggested the name Ag-Cat to the Grumman team as it was in line with Grumman's naming of its fighter aircraft with feline names (Dick Reade's name is below the cockpit of the Ag-Cat on display at the National Air & Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center). While on tour in Texas, Joe Lippert began to take flying lessons and on the day he earned his pilot's license, the first thing he did was try out the Ag-Cat- one of those few occasions where an aircraft's designer got to fly their own aircraft- common in the early days, but increasingly rare as aircraft grew in complexity and performance. 

Leroy Grumman had planned on building the Ag-Cat at the Bethpage facility on Long Island in the event that military sales slowed, but this wasn't to be the case and space was lacking for the production of the Ag-Cat. Grumman had the entire production sub-contracted to Schweizer Aircraft in Elmira, New York, who had the production space and the experience in building welded tube aircraft from their long line of gliders. The first production Ag-Cat was delivered in 1959- Schweizer would build 1,730 Ag-Cats from Grumman until 1980. In 1981, Schweizer purchased the design rights outright from Gulfstream (which was the spin off of Grumman's civilian aircraft business) and would build another 617 Ag-Cats until production ended in 1995. Over its production life, more powerful engines and even turbine power was offered which allowed even greater load carrying capability. In 1995, the Ag-Cat Corporation of Missouri purchased the design rights from Schweizer and a further five Ag-Cats were built before they went bankrupt. A large Ag-Cat operator in Arkansas then bought the design, but I haven't been able to determine who currently holds the design rights to one of the most iconic agricultural aircraft. I did come across an online article from 2011 in the Columbus Telegram in Nebraska about an individual named Jared Storm who owned an agricultural flying service and was in negotiations at the time about relaunching Ag-Cat production at David City Municipal Airport in Nebraska (93Y), but haven't found anything further from that news item. If any of my readers has any information, please do add it in the comments section of this article. 

Further reading: 

Sources: Ironworks: The Story of Grumman and Its Aircraft by Terry Treadwell. Tempus Publishing, 2000, pp 160-164. The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum's entry on the Ag-Cat (http://airandspace.si.edu/collections/artifact.cfm?object=nasm_A20080395000).