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Forgotten Warbirds of the Early Jet Age

Forgotten Warbirds of the Early Jet Age

Like borbon, pinot noir and pecorino cheese, old jets get better with age. 

That said, against modern combat aircraft they’d stand little chance, so perhaps they don’t age so well after all.  

Whatever the case, despite high development costs, poor performance, abysmal safety records and hopeless obsolescence, there’s just something cool about vintage jets. 

If you’re inclined to agree, stick around, because we’re about to look at five forgotten warbirds of the early jet age. 

FR-1 Fireball

Though it’s not so well-known now, the odd Ryan FR-1 Fireball was one of the earliest mixed-power aircraft, which meant that it had both piston and jet engines.

Perhaps more impressively, a Fireball was the first airplane to land on an aircraft carrier under jet power in November of 1945, but the event wasn’t planned, and it almost ended in disaster. 

The original idea was to touch down using power from the 1,300 horsepower Wright Cyclone radial engine in the nose, but things changed quickly when it stalled on approach. 

The frantic pilot was able to get the General Electric turbojet in the tail lit just a few hundred yards out, but after slamming into the deck the heavy plane barely snagged the last arrestor wire before barreling headlong into the ship’s elastic crash barrier. 

As dramatic as it was, the FR-1’s story began years earlier when American jet engine development was in its infancy. 

Back then jet engines were complex, unreliable, and underpowered. 

These characteristics made them unsuitable for carrier operations, but the Navy was eager to harness the new powerplant’s potential, and to that end the Ryan Aeronautical Company of San Diego, California was awarded a contract for three mixed-power prototypes, all of which were delivered in early 1943. 

By all outward appearances Fireballs weren’t any different than traditional piston-engine planes. 

Featuring single-seats, wings set low in their fuselages and tricycle landing gears, unlike their counterparts, each had a GE turbojet engine producing 1,600 pounds of thrust stuffed into its stubby tail. 

Since standard nose inlets weren’t feasible due to the big radial engines up front, air was fed to the jet through ducts in the wings, which made them much thicker and less aerodynamic than they would have been otherwise. 

To simplify things, both engines used identical aviation fuel drawn from shared tanks, but the first prototype made its maiden flight in June of 1944 with only its radial unit installed. 

The second plane flew a few months later, but early on a host of issues were revealed that included problems with stability and wing strength, both of which ultimately proved to be Achilles heels. 

To make matters worse, each of the three prototypes crashed during testing, and though the incidents were different, the planes also suffered from the inability to recover from steep dives, underpowered radial engines that were prone to overheating, and arresting hooks that tended to skip over the lines they were meant to grab onto – a huge flaw for carrier-based aircraft. 

Though a number of successful takeoffs and landings using one or both power plants were made, when it came to officially qualifying pilots for carrier operations, most couldn’t cut the mustard. 

Perhaps if performance had been better these issues could have been remedied or overlooked altogether, but sadly, the Fireball wasn’t a thoroughbred. 

In fact, for such a powerful twin-engine aircraft, the nearly 12,000 pound (5,440 kg) machine could barely top 400 mph (643 km/h) which made it markedly slower than many of the planes it might face in battle, like the 425 mph (683 km/h) Fockewulf FW 190, and the nearly 550 mph (885 km/h) Messerschmitt ME 262. 

By November of 1945 only 66 production Fireballs had been delivered, and probably not by chance, none saw combat. 

Shortly after Japan’s unconditional surrender, orders for more than 1,000 additional aircraft were cancelled.  

Existing Fireballs technically remained in service for a few years after the war, but they were officially mothballed in the summer of 1947. 

Supermarine Swift

The Swift was a single-seat multi-role British jet developed and manufactured by Supermarine – of Spitfire fame – between the late ‘40s and mid-’50s. 

The concept for the aircraft was conceived after World War II when England found itself in a perplexing predicament. 

Money was tight, and though government officials and RAF brass considered another major conflict unlikely any time soon, it was evident that piston-engine aircraft were rapidly becoming obsolete.  

Supermarine Swift F.1 WK195 at Blackbushe Airport, Hants, in 1953
Supermarine Swift F.1 WK195 at Blackbushe Airport, Hants, in 1953. By RuthAS, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

As a result, a tentative aircraft development policy was adopted, which in the end put many of the country’s fighters, bombers and interceptors a generation or more behind their competitors. 

Nonetheless, development of new aircraft did go forward, and the prototypes that would eventually become Swifts were given 500-series designations.   

In 1948 the Type 510 took to the air on its maiden flight as the first British aircraft with swept wings and tail surfaces.

A number of upgraded variants followed, though in many cases design “improvements” created more problems than they actually solved.  

In addition, Swifts had a number of persistent flaws that included an unreliable and fuel-thirsty engine, poor maneuverability, unpredictable handling characteristics, and afterburners (reheaters) that often refused to light at high-altitude.  

From the getgo test pilots doubted the plane’s airworthiness, designers claimed it was hopelessly over engineered, and costs surged into the proverbial stratosphere. 

On the bright side, the first production model – the Mk 1 – was powered by a revolutionary Avon 109 axial flow jet engine capable of producing 7,500 pound-feet of thrust. 

The new warbird had gobs of power but still couldn’t break the sound barrier, and since advancements in jet technology were arguably made more quickly in the ‘50s than any other decade before or since, the future wasn’t particularly bright.  

As a result, Swifts were generally seen as little more than stopgap machines only fit for service until better aircraft were developed, but the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 prompted Britain to order more than 100.

Though no Swift would ever fly in combat, in late September of 1953 an F4 piloted by Commander Mike Lithgow broke the world absolute speed record, attaining nearly 738 mph (1,185 km/h). 

But despite this success, the first production model F1 wouldn’t actually enter RAF service until 1954 – the year after the Korean War ended. 

The break-in period was marred by multiple accidents, after which the Swift F1 became a member of a particularly unflattering club composed exclusively of aircraft that entered service and were officially grounded in the same year. 

Other ground attack and reconnaissance variants did remain active for brief periods, but terms like “abysmal failure” and “national scandal” were being thrown around with increasing frequency. 

Nearly 200 Swifts were built, but in the end their mediocre performance, inherent design flaws and poor safety records couldn’t be overlooked. 

Nor could development costs, which ultimately exceeded £20 million, or £700 million (about 950 million USD) in today’s money. 


The MiG-9 was a first generation jet aircraft developed by the Mikoyan-Gurevich design bureau in the waning months of the Second World War. 

In late 1945 orders were handed down to MiG from the Council of People’s Commissars for a single-seat jet fighter powered by a pair of BMW 003 engines that’d been captured on the Eastern Front.  

The two engines – and later reverse engineered variants – would be located in the lower fuselage behind the cockpit, but other than its cutting edge power plants, the new plane’s airframe wasn’t much different than those of the earlier propeller-driven aircraft it was intended to replace. 

MiG-9 Jet Fighter.
MiG-9 Jet Fighter. By Umeyou is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The Council’s directive stated that the plane must have a top speed of at least 560 mph (900 km/h) at sea level, climb to 16,400 feet (5,000 m) in four minutes or less, and have a range of no less than 510 miles (820 km). 

Three prototypes were initially ordered in anticipation of test flights that were already scheduled for mid-March of 1946.

Construction got underway a few months later, and the first unit began ground testing in late December.

A number of inherent defects were discovered, and though many were remedied in later models, the program took another serious blow, when in the summer of 1946 the first flightworthy aircraft crashed in dramatic fashion before stunned MiG executives and military officials who’d made the trip from Moscow. 

Originally intended as both a fighter and an interceptor, the MiG packed quite a punch with its single 37 or 57-millimeter and two 23-millimeter cannons, but though potent, when ingested into the engine’s air intakes, the gun’s exhaust gasses often caused the compressors to stall, especially at high altitude where the air was thinnest. 

Multiple attempts were made to resolve the issue, including repositioning the cannons, lengthening their barrels and fitting them with muzzle brakes, but nothing worked. 

Additional deficiencies included lack of air brakes, an ejection seat, self-sealing fuel tanks and armor around the cockpit, which would have significantly improved survivability for both pilot and machine. 

Unfortunately, these options would have also made the plane heavier, more complex and more expensive than it already was, and none would have fixed what was perhaps the new MiG’s biggest problem – unswept wings which made it unsuitable for high-speed flight.  

In a classic miscalculation, Soviet leadership assumed that many of these flaws would be corrected during production. 

Few were, but multiple orders totalling hundreds of aircraft were placed between 1946 and 1948, and many of the planes would eventually be equipped with new more powerful Soviet-made afterburning RD-20 engines. 

Including prototypes, just more than 600 aircraft were built, most of which entered service with the Soviet Air Forces in 1948 and 1949.

MiG-9s were flown by a number of fighter regiments, and hundreds were sent to China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) as trainers, fighters and ground attack aircraft. 

It’s rumored that the PLAAF briefly considered sending some of them to Korea in 1951, but in an age of more advanced fighters like F-86s flown by better trained American pilots, it’s fairly certain they would’ve sustained heavy losses, and were instead restricted to domestic use. 

Though during its short life the MiG-9 met many of its original performance parameters, it was ultimately dropped for the MiG-15, which went on to become one of the 20th century’s most effective and mass produced military jets. 

Vought F7U Cutlass

When it comes to aircraft with both revolutionary designs and abhorrent safety records, few top the Vought F7U Cutlass. 

The US Navy’s early Cold War tailless carrier fighter was a huge departure from traditional aircraft, and many of its design elements came from German scientists and engineers whisked away to the United States after World War II. 

But despite its groundbreaking layout, the aircraft amassed a cringe-worthy record during its service life, which was prematurely shortened by the deaths of more than two dozen pilots, and even more shockingly, that 25% of all Cutlasses produced were lost in accidents.  

Ironically, the design actually won a Navy competition in 1945. 

One can’t help but wonder what the safety records would’ve been for the aircraft that lost the competition

Three prototypes were ordered in 1946, the first of which accelerated to 625 mph (1,058 km/h) in the sky over Naval Air Station Patuxent River in southern Maryland shortly after delivery in 1948.

Vought’s design featured short swept wings with large surface areas, and instead of a traditional tail housing a single rudder, each Cutlass had two vertical stabilizers protruding from the center-rear of the wings themselves.

In addition, all controls were hydraulically-powered, which provided pilots reassuring artificial feedback while reducing fatigue, though the system was notoriously unreliable. 

The cockpit’s position toward the nose and the retractable bubble canopy provided good visibility during takeoffs and landings, but due to the extraordinarily tall nose landing gear, at rest the pilot was 14 feet (4.2 m) higher than the carrier deck. 

This was done to orient the nose upward during takeoffs to increase lift, but the gear strut itself was prone to failure, and it’s position directly under the cockpit often resulted in back injuries during rough carrier landings.  

Another of the Vought’s problems lay in its anemic Westinghouse engines, which some disgruntled pilots claimed put out less heat than the toasters the company’s housewares division manufactured. 

With about 3,000 pounds of thrust each they were moderately powerful, but even in unison they just weren’t up to the task of propelling the nearly 27,000 pound (12,180 kg) “Gutless Cutlass” adequately, especially during takeoff, and to add insult to injury, the engines frequently flamed out in the rain. 

Notable Cutlass accidents included an ejection in front of a large crowd at an airshow in the summer of 1950, and another near San Diego in 1954, after which the rocket-laden plane circled over the famous Hotel Del Coronado for half an hour before crashing onto the shore nearby. 

One of the Cutlass’ strengths was its armament of four-20 mm cannons, and its ability to carry more than 5,000 pounds of ordinance including bombs and early Sparrow air-to-air missiles. 

But firepower alone wasn’t enough to right the plane’s abundant wrongs.

In an official attempt to drum up support for the flagging program, the Blue Angels flew two Cutlasses in a side demonstration in 1953, but behind closed doors aviators, groundcrews, Navy officers and even company officials considered it an irredeemable death trap. 

Of the 320 units built between 1948 and 1955, all were officially retired in 1959, having done little more than earn the distinction of being one of the deadliest military aircraft of all time. 

SNCASO Trident

The SO.9000 Trident was a high-performance interceptor built by French aircraft manufacturer SNCASO in the ‘50s.

After the Second World War, France made rebuilding its military a priority, and it no longer wanted to rely on foreign equipment. 

SNCASO Trident
SNCASO Trident. By Rama, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

But though jet development was proceeding rapidly, many engines still produced insufficient thrust to propel new aircraft to the speeds for which they were designed. 

Rockets offered a viable solution. 

They were immensely powerful and relatively simple to manufacture, but on the downside, they were dangerous, unreliable, and typically burned through their fuel in a matter of minutes. 

Hence, a mix-powered solution seemed logical.

In the early ‘50s the French Air Force expressed interest in a domestically designed and built supersonic interceptor. 

Requirements included heart-stopping climb rate, the ability to attain Mach 1.3 (997 mph,    1,605 km/h), and the ability to deploy from unfinished airstrips. 

It was a tall order, but SNCASO submitted an unorthodox proposal for a sleek aircraft with a turbojet at the end of each wing, and a big rocket motor in the fuselage. 

Nearly a dozen prototypes and pre-production aircraft were ordered between the early and mid-’50s, and though aircraft losses and pilot fatalities mounted during early testing, the designs seemed promising.  

Featuring a dagger-like fuselage, the Trident looked fast even when parked in a hangar. 

Its thin straight wings and menacing cockpit made it a sight to behold, and it featured a number of innovations like state-of-the-art radar and fire control systems, and control surfaces that moved entirely, which eliminated the weight and complexity associated with traditional elevators and rudders, on which only relatively small flaps moved during flight. 

The plane would use all three engines during takeoff, ascent and travel to the interception point, after which the jet engines alone would be used to return to base. 

Each 42 foot long (12.8m) Trident would have a crew of one, and would be kept aloft by stubby razor thin wings just 23 feet (7 m) wide from tip to tip. 

The central rocket engine was powered by a mixture of Furaline and nitric acid and produced more than 6,600 pounds of thrust, and each of the two turbojets produced nearly 2,500 pounds of thrust. 

With a maximum takeoff weight of just 13,000 pounds (5,900 kg), the machine had a thrust to weight ratio approaching 1:1 – enough to propel it to a maximum speed of Mach 1.92 (1,300 mph – 2,092 km/h), and reach the astonishingly high altitude of 79,000 feet (24,000 m). 

Three different variants were built with upgraded engines, fuselages, canopies and electrical systems, but the latter stages of development were characterized by a number of dramatic accidents, including one in May of 1957 when fuel leak caused a Trident to explode at the Paris Air Show, resulting in the pilot’s death. 

Thanks to rising development costs, short range, high fuel consumption  and a number of safety issues that weren’t ever likely to be overcome, the project was in dire straits. 

To stave off the inevitable, SNACSO set out to highlight its plane’s impressive performance. 

It did become the first European aircraft to attain Mach 1 (767 mph – 1,234 km/h) during level flight, but the program was cancelled shortly thereafter, and though a few airframes were tucked away for future development, most were destroyed and sold for scrap. 

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