The Forgotten Fireball Made the First Jet-Powered Carrier Landing by Accident

 In Land, Sea, Air, Forces & Capabilities

Ryan’s mixed-power FR‑1 naval fighter was an evolutionary dead-end, but it did make history.

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Nearly 75 years ago, a U.S. Navy pilot was the first to land a jet-pow­ered air­craft on an air­craft car­ri­er, but it wasn’t sup­posed to happen. The name of the pilot who made that mile­stone land­ing, Ensign J. C. “Jake” West, is now little known, as is the air­craft that he was flying, the curi­ous Ryan FR‑1 Fireball naval fight­er, which had jet and piston engines.

The Fireball was a true oddity with its radial piston engine in the famil­iar posi­tion in the nose, plus a tur­bo­jet engine buried in the rear fuse­lage. The unusu­al spec­i­fi­ca­tion was a result of the lim­i­ta­tions of early tur­bine tech­nol­o­gy. While the tur­bo­jet was trust­ed for a high-speed “boost,” it was not mature enough, and con­sumed too much fuel, for sus­tained cruise flight.

Critical car­ri­er land­ings also required the “insur­ance” of a trusty piston engine. The first jet engines were not con­sid­ered respon­sive enough for a “bolter” — when an air­craft aborts an attempt­ed deck land­ing after miss­ing the wire, accel­er­ates at full throt­tle, and takes off again for anoth­er attempt. 

Ensign West found out the impor­tance of that two-engine insur­ance policy on November 6, 1945. At the time, he was assigned to the U.S. Navy’s Fighter Squadron 41 (VF-41), the “Firebirds,” which had only begun flying the Fireball the pre­vi­ous month. The squadron’s first task was to con­duct car­ri­er trials with the new air­craft aboard the escort car­ri­er USS Wake Island (CVE 65). These car­ri­er qual­i­fi­ca­tions began one day before West’s impromp­tu jet-pow­ered land­ing.

On November 6, West was in the land­ing pat­tern headed toward the car­ri­er when his Fireball suf­fered an engine fail­ure. It wasn’t the General Electric J31 tur­bo­jet that he lost — the jet had already been shut down, which was the stan­dard pro­ce­dure for land­ing — but the Wright R‑1820 – 72W Cyclone piston engine in the fighter’s nose.

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An FR-1 Fireball from Fighter Squadron 66 (VF-66), the first operational unit.

As the pro­peller began to wind­mill in front of him, cre­at­ing drag, West feath­ered it to stop it from turn­ing. West now had to make a rapid deci­sion between ditch­ing the FR‑1 in the water, bail­ing out (there was no ejec­tion seat), or attempt­ing to start the jet engine. He chose the last of these options and began the pro­ce­dure of start­ing the J31, which required up to around 30 sec­onds.

The jet engine roared into life and as West climbed, he declared an emer­gency and care­ful­ly man­aged the throt­tle to ensure he had suf­fi­cient power to get back safely onto the boat. As he ensured he was lined up on the cor­rect approach path, the crew on the deck below set up the bar­ri­er net for emer­gency recov­ery. The arrester hook caught the last wire before the air­craft ended up in the bar­ri­er. West had man­aged to recov­er aboard USSWake Island on jet power alone. 

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An FR-1 moments before catching the wire.

The fact that the FR‑1 was a mixed-power air­craft — at least, it was sup­posed to be — means that West’s debut jet-pow­ered car­ri­er land­ing is often for­got­ten. Added to this, only a month after West’s land­ing, Lieutenant Commander Eric “Winkle’ Brown suc­cess­ful­ly put a pure-jet de Havilland Vampire fight­er onto the deck of the U.K. Royal Navy air­craft car­ri­er HMS Ocean — and this time, it was planned.

Other accounts of West’s land­ing, includ­ing this one by naval his­to­ri­an Norman Polmar, sug­gest that the Wright Cyclone was still pro­duc­ing at least some power during the land­ing, although that wouldn’t be pos­si­ble with the prop feath­ered.

In his excellent blog, naval avi­a­tion his­to­ri­an Matt Willis is also skep­ti­cal about whether West recov­ered aboard the car­ri­er using only tur­bine power. He points to claims in a book about the Vampire that again ref­er­ence Norman Polmar, of “resid­ual power in the piston engine.” The same book argues that the Fireball would have strug­gled to recov­er “with a dead engine, wind­milling pro­peller, under­car­riage, and flaps down” on jet power alone.

Willis points to the 30-second start­ing pro­ce­dure for the J31 as being insuf­fi­cient for the air­craft to remain air­borne after the piston engine had cut out. However, other sources explic­it­ly state that West feath­ered his prop, which would have left no option but to rely on the jet to get back to the car­ri­er.

Whatever the truth, West’s land­ing was a sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ment, reflect­ing the naval aviator’s cool-headed deci­sion-making and flying skills.

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Wings folded, a Fireball sits on the wooden deck of an escort carrier. 

Much of the rest of the his­to­ry of the FR‑1 Fireball has faded into obscu­ri­ty, as well. Development of the air­craft began early on in World War II when the U.S. Navy began to iden­ti­fy the poten­tial of the emerg­ing tur­bo­jet tech­nol­o­gy. With the above-men­tioned draw­backs of these early tur­bines in mind, in late 1942 the Navy set­tled upon a mixed-power car­ri­er-capa­ble fight­er before accept­ing the pro­pos­al from Ryan Aeronautical. It was the first time the San Diego, California-based com­pa­ny had built a combat air­craft for the Navy.

In February 1943, Ryan received a con­tract for three pro­to­type single-seat XFR‑1 air­craft and by the end of the same year, orders had been placed for 100 FR‑1 pro­duc­tion air­craft, too. A first flight was achieved by the ini­tial XFR‑1 on June 25, 1944, but with­out the jet engine installed at that stage. Full mixed-power flying com­menced the fol­low­ing month.

The primitive J31 — which was known in-house by General Electric as the I‑16 — was the first tur­bo­jet engine to see quan­ti­ty pro­duc­tion in the United States. Its ori­gins lay in the General Electric I‑A, the first work­ing jet engine in the United States, and which had been devel­oped in turn from the Power Jets W.2B, plans for which had been pro­vid­ed by the United Kingdom. The W.2B was an out­growth of the Frank Whittle-designed W.1, the first British jet engine to ever power a flying air­craft — the exper­i­men­tal Gloster E.28/39 that made its maiden flight in May 1941.

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A flight of Fireballs “intercepts” a Douglas C-54 transport. Note the feathered props on the fighters. 

Such were the demands of the war in the Pacific that the Navy even­tu­al­ly ordered anoth­er 600 exam­ples. All these were can­celed, how­ev­er, after the end of the war in August 1945, by which time just 66 FR-1s had come out of the fac­to­ry. 

At a time of rapid aero­nau­ti­cal devel­op­ment, the Fireball includ­ed sev­er­al “firsts” for the Navy. It was the service’s first single-engine car­ri­er air­craft with tri­cy­cle land­ing gear, the first to have an entire­ly flush riv­et­ed exte­ri­or, and the first car­ri­er air­craft with a low-drag lam­i­nar-flow air­foil. 

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An impressive formation start-up by a line-up of Fireballs assigned to VF-66.

As the Navy’s first oper­a­tional mixed-power car­ri­er air­craft, the FR‑1’s pow­er­plant was intend­ed to be fairly straight­for­ward for the pilot to oper­ate. The piston and jet engines used the same fuel and the engine con­trols allowed the pilot to switch back and forth between piston and jet, using two throt­tles locat­ed side-by-side on the same con­sole. One draw­back of having two dis­tinct pow­er­plants was the fact that the air intakes for the jet were in the wing lead­ing edges, reduc­ing the fixed arma­ment to just four Browning 50-cal­iber machine guns in the center panels of the wings.

All three XFR‑1 pro­to­types were even­tu­al­ly lost in a vari­ety of acci­dents during tests, but over­all the Fireball was judged suit­able for front­line ser­vice. Moreover, the threat of Japan’s rocket-pow­ered MXY-7 Ohka kamikaze pilot­ed mis­siles saw FR‑1 trials ramped up and the first air­craft were issued to VF-66, the “Firebirds,” in March 1945 for poten­tial ser­vice in the Pacific the­ater.

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An overhead view reveals the FR-1’s wide fuselage to accommodate the jet engine, plus the wing leading-edge intakes.

The com­mand­ing offi­cer of VF-66, Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTJG) “Willie” Schmall’s expe­ri­ences of flying the FR‑1 are pre­sent­ed in Steve Ginter’s book
Ryan FR‑1 Fireball and XF2R‑1 Darkshark, in which Schmall recalls the Fireball as “a fan­tas­tic little air­plane. It was small­er and faster than an F6F [Hellcat], and it would maneu­ver just as quick as a wink. You could slap that stick into the corner of the cock­pit and the Ryan would snap right now.” Schmall added: “It could out­turn an F6F by far, and it had extreme­ly beau­ti­ful vis­i­bil­i­ty com­pared to other Navy air­craft.”

While a suc­ces­sion of oper­a­tional units did oper­ate the Fireball, their combat-ready status was strict­ly lim­it­ed and they were pri­mar­i­ly engaged in qual­i­fy­ing pilots on car­ri­ers and fur­ther devel­op­ing pro­ce­dures for oper­at­ing first-gen­er­a­tion jets.  

Fireballs from VF-66 began car­ri­er suit­abil­i­ty trials in May 1945, when three exam­ples landed aboard the USS Ranger (CV 4). However, two were dam­aged on land­ing (one had a nose wheel col­lapse, the other hit the crash bar­ri­er), bring­ing the tests to an early end.

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A technician signals the thumbs-up from the cockpit of a Fireball.

When the war in the Pacific came to an end on August 15, 1945, VF-66 had begun work­ing up, but none of its air­craft had made it to a war zone — an ini­tial oper­a­tional deploy­ment had been planned for October 1945. That month, the squadron stood down and all of its per­son­nel and air­craft trans­ferred to VF-41.

At this point, the Fireball pro­gram was demot­ed to test status, which revealed that this stop­gap fight­er was, in many respects, highly impres­sive. High-speed maneu­ver­abil­i­ty and turn­ing radius were judged excel­lent, and the FR‑1 was more agile than the U.S. Air Force’s P-80 Shooting Star jet fight­er at low-level and could out climb it up to 18,000 feet. 

VF-41’s time on the car­ri­er — which includ­ed “Jake” West’s his­toric land­ing — was a little more suc­cess­ful than VF-66’s expe­ri­ence, ending with 14 of the squadron’s 22 pilots qual­i­fied, but with many other mishaps expe­ri­enced too. Above all, the nose gear proved very dif­fi­cult to master. In March 1946, anoth­er round of car­ri­er trials took place when VF-41 went aboard USS Bairoko (CVE 115), and yet more prob­lems, again mainly relat­ed to the nose gear, which was still prone to col­lapse.

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The rear-fuselage “power egg” of the FR-1, with the General Electric J31 turbojet installed.

In November 1946, VF-41 was redesignated as VF-1E (the “E” suffix denot­ing assign­ment to a small-deck escort car­ri­er), and there fol­lowed a busy period of car­ri­er qual­i­fi­ca­tion on the USS Badoeng Strait (CVE 116). In April 1947, the squadron was aboard the same car­ri­er for anti-sub­ma­rine exer­cis­es, before going aboard the car­ri­er USS Rendova (CVE 114) for a six-day period in June that year. The same month, VF-1E was back on the Badoeng Strait when one of its Fireballs broke in two after a par­tic­u­lar­ly hard three-point land­ing. After an inspec­tion, it was revealed that the squadron’s air­craft were start­ing to show struc­tur­al prob­lems, and the deci­sion was taken to remove the type from front­line ser­vice.

Plans for a re-engined FR‑2 and FR‑3 had been aban­doned after the end of the war, but the XFR‑4 with a more pow­er­ful Westinghouse J34 jet engine did advance to flight test­ing. There was also the more ambi­tious XF2R‑1 Darkshark, an FR‑1 mod­i­fied with a General Electric TG-100 tur­bo­prop in the nose, with the J31 retained in the tail, and first flown in November 1946. Although a tur­bo­prop/­jet-engine XF2R‑2 vari­ant even briefly attract­ed the inter­est of the U.S. Air Force, the era of the American mixed-power fight­er was des­tined to be brief, ending when VF-1E gave up its air­craft in August 1947.

The XF2R-1 Darkshark was the Navy’s first combat aircraft with turboprop propulsion (and also retained its rear-fuselage turbojet).

The Navy’s first exclu­sive­ly jet-pow­ered car­ri­er fight­er, the McDonnell FH-1 Phantom (not to be con­fused with its much more successful namesake), had first flown in pro­to­type XFD‑1 form in January 1945. An exam­ple launched from and then touched down on the car­ri­er USS Franklin D. Roosevelt
(CVB 42), on July 21, 1946. This was the first take­off and land­ing of a jet-pow­ered air­craft from a U.S. Navy air­craft car­ri­er and proved the poten­tial of pure-jet car­ri­er oper­a­tions.

Still, almost 75 years on, the Ryan Fireball — and Ensign J. C. “Jake” West — deserve to be remem­bered for their valu­able con­tri­bu­tions in the pio­neer­ing days of jet-pow­ered car­ri­er avi­a­tion.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com

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