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Forgotten Warbirds of the Early Jet Age II

Remember the amazing intro in the first Forgotten Warbirds of the Early Jet Age video?

If so, take a moment to replay it in your mind, because honestly, it included everything that needed to be said.  

Finished?

Good, let’s jump in.  

Grumman F-9 Cougar

The Grumman F-9 Cougar was a swept wing carrier-based fighter/interceptor developed for the US Navy during the early ‘50s. 

Based on the company’s straight-wing Panther – also designated F-9 – Cougars were commissioned to defend carrier groups from fighters and high-altitude bombers, as well as to escort vulnerable attack and reconnaissance aircraft. 

But though dogfighting capabilities were important, air superiority fighters hadn’t historically been the Navy’s top priority, and as a result American swept-wing technology lagged behind the Soviet’s. 

That said, the situation became even more dire when the MiG-15 burst onto the scene in 1949. 

Hence, the development of more modern aircraft took on a new urgency, and Grumman was awarded a contract to develop the F-9 in early 1951. 

Things progressed quickly since the new bird was based on the existing Panther, though over their relatively short lives Cougars were never particularly adept in the roles for which they’d been built.  

Prototypes

Prototypes were quickly produced from modified Panthers, and the first flew in late September of 1951 less than a year after Grumman got the contract. 

Though still subsonic, performance had increased markedly, and an upgrade to a Pratt & Whitney J48-P-8 centrifugal-flow turbojet – a license-built version of the Rolls-Royce Nene – boosted power by nearly 30% to more than 7,200 pound-feet of dry thrust. 

Pratt & Whitney J48 turbojet, Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola, Florida
Pratt & Whitney J48 turbojet, Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola, Florida. By Greg Goebel, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Armed with four 20 mm cannons stuffed into the nose, in conjunction with a new sight and gun-ranging radar, the new Cougars packed a formidable punch. 

In addition, each could carry two 1,000-pound (450 kg) bombs on wing hardpoints, and later variants were fitted with probes for inflight refuelling.  

However despite impressive weapons loads and better performance, development continued with the F9F-8 variant in 1953 to address high takeoff and landing speeds, weak landing gears, and poor visibility that made carrier operations hair-raising for all but the most experienced pilots.  

In fact in the early stages of carrier qualification, Navy representatives informed Grumman executives that the Cougar’s stall speed would need to be reduced by more than 10 miles per hour (16 km/h), and that if the problem wasn’t fixed the new planes would be prohibited from carrier operations, which would’ve made them useless. 

Featuring longer fuselages and bigger wings, these issues were largely resolved in subsequent variants, and top speed jumped to more than 700 miles per hour (1,130 km/h) at sea level. 

F9s were now capable of breaking the sound barrier, but only in steep dives. 

Later F9F-8s also had the ability to carry AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, making them the first Navy aircraft to deploy these revolutionary new weapons. 

A few were even modified to carry nuclear bombs, though none ever did. 

More than 100 became dedicated reconnaissance versions designated F9F-8Ps, each of which substituted cannons, bombs, and missiles for cameras and other electronic gear. 

Nearly 41 feet (12.47 m) from nose to tail and 34 feet 6 inches (10.5 m) from wingtip to wingtip, Cougars had maximum takeoff weights of between 16,000 pounds (7,257 kg) and 21,000 pounds (9,525 kg) depending on variant.

However, due to the rigors of carrier operation, pilots needed to get the weight down to about 14,000 pounds (6,350 kg) before landing, which meant burning fuel reserves and expending ordinance.  

Flexible Deck Testing

While the Cougars were under development the US Navy (along with the Royal Navy) were busy experimenting with rubberized non-rigid carrier decks on which airplanes without fixed landing gears could land. 

Since nearly a third of many carrier aircraft’s total weight came from their beefed-up landing gears, it was apparent that by eliminating them altogether, the planes would be lighter, faster, more maneuverable, and have significantly longer ranges. 

They’d be able to carry more fuel and bombs too, and to determine whether the idea had merit the Navy commissioned a flexible shore-based deck which was built by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio. 

A number of F9F-7 Cougars were fitted with reinforced false bottoms to protect their relatively fragile airframes, after which nearly two dozen made successful landings onto cushiony, lubricated rubber decks, in what must of been akin to a Slip-n-Slide for naval aviators. 

The planes were launched into the skies over the Patuxent River in southern Maryland using makeshift ramps and detachable dollies, but though the tests yielded surprisingly positive results, Navy brass thought unlikely that run-of-the-mill pilots would be able to land safely at night, in inclement weather, and under battle conditions on such slippery surfaces.  

In addition, moving the wheelless planes around the carrier after they’d landed would have been an issue, and all that leftover industrial lubricant could have turned otherwise clean flight decks into gurgling tar pits. 

Though technically feasible, the project was ultimately scrapped. 

Deployment 

The first F9F squadrons deployed with the USS Yorktown in the summer of 1953. 

Though they were too late to participate in the Korean War, three Cougars set a transcontinental speed record in April of 1954, covering nearly 2,440 miles (3,926 km) in just under four hours. 

The aircraft rendezvoused over Kansas with a North American AJ Savage for in-flight refueling, but despite the momentous occasion the planes were relegated to reserve units until the mid-’60s.  

The only Cougar variant to see combat over Vietnam were two-seat Marine trainers from Da Nang and Chu Lai that helped direct airstrikes against enemy positions in South Vietnam between mid-1966 and early 1969. 

With the ‘70s approaching and more capable jets coming online, even foreign nations with small military budgets weren’t interested in discounted Cougars, though a few saw service with the Argentine Navy. 

As a side note, the Cougar was the first jet to break the sound barrier, so there is at least one feather in their collective cap.

The End of the Cougar

After nearly two decades, Cougars were withdrawn from service, never having served as much more than whole-fillers until more potent aircraft like F11F Tigers and F8U Crusaders became available. 

But many didn’t go out with a whimper, instead they were used as target drones for training and weapons testing purposes. 

North American FJ-2/FJ-3 Fury

Like Cougars, North American FJ-2 and FJ-3 Furies were swept-wing carrier fighters built for the US Navy and Marines in the early ‘50s. 

Both were offshoots of the land-based North American F-86 Sabre that had been used by the Air Force since 1949. 

They were among the first aircraft used to evaluate the new steam catapult launching system that would become standard equipment on US carriers, and like the Cougars, Furies were meant to fill a void in the Navy’s pipeline until more capable aircraft were delivered. 

As an interim measure, the Bureau of Aeronautics ordered a carrier variant of North American’s  F-86, because tweaking an existing land-based aircraft for carrier use was quicker and less expensive than designing a whole new plane, and 300 aircraft were ordered even before the first prototype left the ground. 

At least outwardly, FJs were nearly indistinguishable from F-86s, apart from their Navy paint jobs and the larger 20 mm cannon muzzles which replaced the .50 caliber machine guns on Sabres.  

37 feet 7 inches (11.46 m) long and with nearly identical wingspans, Furies had maximum takeoff weights of nearly 19,000 pounds (8,550 kg) and each was powered by a single GE J47-GE-2 turbojet which were “navalized” versions of the engines in F-86s. 

With approximately 6,000 pound-feet of thrust, power was sufficient to propel the airplanes past 670 miles per hour (1,086 km/h, 587 kn) in level flight at sea level. 

Featuring ranges of 860 miles (1,380 km), good climb rates and service ceilings of nearly 47,000 feet (14,300 m) the Fury’s future seemed bright.  

Development 

The first Fury prototype flew just two days after Christmas in 1951, and less than a month later carrier trials got underway from the USS Midway and Coral Sea

Including all-important tail arrester hooks, lengthened and strengthened nose wheel components to withstand high-impact takeoffs and landings, the results were generally satisfactory, but low-speed handling was poor, power was lacking, and some landing gear elements needed to be even more robust. 

Modifications included widing the main landing gear, reinforcing struts, and adding foldable wingtips, and the first production aircraft flew less than a year later. 

In addition, a more powerful Wright J65 engine –  a license-built version of the British Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire turbojet – was added which delivered nearly 25% more thrust. 

The only visible change to the aircraft were the larger intakes which allowed more air to flow into the bigger engine. 

The new power plant increased weight by more than 1,000 pounds (500 kg, but it was a small price to pay for getting a new carrier fighter in less than half the time it would’ve taken to develop an entirely new aircraft. 

Designated the FJ-3, nearly 400 aircraft were ordered in March of 1952, the first of which was delivered the following summer. 

However production proceeded much more slowly than anticipated because F-86s were a bigger priority, and North American’s manufacturing facilities were already working at full-tilt.  

Furies wouldn’t be produced in large numbers until after the war’s end, at which time the Navy didn’t really want them.

Victims of the Times

Technological advancements were made rapidly in the ‘50s and ‘60s and defense budgets were burgeoning, so settling for a reworked Air Force fighter wasn’t what the Navy had in mind as the Cold War set in. 

In addition, the Navy actually preferred F9F Cougars due to their superior slow-speed performance which made them more popular among the pilots tasked with landing them on rolling, windswept carrier decks, often at night. 

So, as it often does, the Navy unloaded its unwanted merchandise on the branch of service farther down the proverbial totem pole – the Marine Corps.

Of the nearly 750 units built, many were capable of carrying new Sidewinder missiles, but by the early ‘60s the writing was on the wall.

A few reserve units soldiered on in obscurity, but all remaining Furies were officially retired in 1962.  

Saunders-Roe SR.53

Sleek, futuristic and featuring razor-thin stiletto-like wings, the Saunders-Roe SR.53 was a revolutionary mixed-power jet-rocket interceptor prototype developed for the RAF in the early ‘50s. 

Saunders Roe SR.53
Saunders-Roe SR.53 ‘XD145’. By Alan Wilson is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The idea was that groups of R.53s would use their superior thrust-to-weight ratios to take off and climb rapidly, after which they’d fly at supersonic speeds to intercept nuke-laden Soviet bombers streaking across Western Europe. 

Then, after the aforementioned bombers had been blasted into oblivion, the planes would use their jet engines to return to base at subsonic speeds. 

World War II

During the Second World War the importance of heavy long-range bombers had been established, and to countries like Britian, the aforementioned scenario seemed increasingly plausible.   

But whereas WWII bombers were lumbering piston-engined affairs, jet age bombers were capable of breaking the sound barrier, carrying much larger payloads and flying significantly higher.

In short, effective countermeasures were desperately needed, and price wasn’t a huge issue – until it was.  

The Luftwaffe had used a number of rocket aircraft like the Messerschmitt Me 163 and Bachem Ba 349 to attack Allied bomber formations, but though they had impressive guns and unparalleled climb rates, their powered flight time was often measured in minutes, and the unpowered return trip home – if there was one – ended with a dangerous belly landing on an unfinished airstrip.  

To capitalize on these rocket plane’s pros while eliminating their drawbacks, Britain embarked on an ambitious plan to make a hybrid interceptor with previously unthinkable performance. 

In fact, preliminary work had begun all the way back in 1946 when a number of rocket motors were developed that produced between 2,000 and 5,000 pound-feet of thrust using various propellants. 

Proposal

The initial proposal called for a strictly rocket-powered interceptor that could climb to 60,000 feet (18,000 m) in less than 2 ½ minutes and fly at more than Mach 2. 

Crewed only by a pilot, Saunders-Roe’s bird was 45 feet long (13.7 m) and weighed a hair over 18,000 pounds (8,164 kg), but thanks to the company’s forward-looking engineers, it incorporated both rocket and jet engines. 

The first was an Armstrong Siddeley ASV.8 Viper 8 turbojet engine that produced a meager 1,640 pound-feet of thrust, while the second was a de Havilland Spectre liquid-fuelled rocket that cranked out 8,000 pound-feet. 

With 10,000 pounds of combined thrust, the proposed aircraft was more than up for the challenge – at least theoretically. 

Submissions and Development

Ironically, Saunders-Roe didn’t originally receive an invitation to bid from the Ministry of Supply because they were more well-known for producing rugged and reliable but less than speedy flying boats. 

But unbeknownst to Ministry officials, the company’s lead designer Maurice Brennan had been studying rocket-powered aircraft for years. 

He theorized that such aircraft could climb well past 100,00 feet (30,000 m) and smoke even the fastest jet fighters of the era. 

Now officially in the hunt, Saunders-Roe submitted their game-changing proposal in April of 1951. 

With a projected top speed of more than Mach 2.4 (1,610.64 mph / 2,592.08 km/h) their plane would use a disposable undercarriage and even more powerful booster rockets fueled by cordite, and their mixed-power design so impressed Ministry officials that all competing companies were “asked” to consider this arrangement.  

The pointy, delta-winged and T-tailed SR.53 had its engines stacked vertically in the fuselage, and the company got the go-ahead to build three prototypes in October of 1952. 

During the early months of 1953 the SR.53 benefited from a number of fuselage, wing and undercarriage redesigns, and with competition from Avro heating up, Saunders-Roe sought to gain the upperhand by delivering their prototype first.  

The first flight was scheduled for July 1954, and early assessments determined that with a little luck the plane might be ready for production as early as 1956. 

However, these rosy projections left little time to the aircraft’s incredible complexity, let alone the myriad of snafus that would arise during development. 

In addition, the rocket engines weren’t anywhere near ready for production, and the program ground on much more slowly than the company would have liked. 

Ultimately the proposed first flight date was pushed back until 1957, and to make matters worse, Avro’s competing 720 was moving along swimmingly by comparison.  

By 1956 Avro’s prototype was nearly complete, and if the rumors were true, its performance would likely surpass that of the Saunders-Roe machine. 

But while the new super-fast aircraft were being developed military budgets came under increased scrutiny, and the RAF was reconsidering its stance on manned interceptors altogether. 

In the end, despite having poured huge sums of money into research and development, the RAF was becoming increasingly disinterested in the new planes.  

Nonetheless, development continued on Sanders-Roe’s first prototype, the XD145, but its maiden flight wouldn’t take place until early December of 1957.  

Test pilots said the airplane handled well and was an all-around pleasure to fly, though it was never flown anywhere near the speeds or altitudes for which it was designed. 

All told, the two completed prototypes flew 56 test flights.

Most were relatively uneventful, though one airplane was destroyed and its pilot killed when it skidded off the runway and hit a concrete light pylon. 

Cancellation

Like many large military programs, the SR.53 was doomed not only by technological issues and runaway costs, but because its development coincided with the release of the Defence White Paper in 1957. 

In short, Britain’s focus had shifted toward missile development, and jet engine technology had progressed significantly while the SR.53 was being built and tested. 

Now more conventional aircraft with afterburners (reheaters) were much more affordable options with similar performance, shorter development times, and much longer ranges. 

The project was officially cancelled in 1960, and the last remaining prototype is now on display at the Cosford Royal Air Force Museum. 

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