By Tommy H. Thomason

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The First Supersonic U.S. Navy Fighter?

Revised 14 May 2021 to add more information about the F4D Skyray

The statement that the F8U/F-8 Crusader was the first is in the subtitle of Bill Spidle's excellent book on its development (see yesterday's post). Some might quibble with that (many think it was the F4D Skyray if the claim is defined as supersonic speed in level flight) so I undertook to determine which airplane had bragging rights from that standpoint.

After World War II, the Navy embarked on an ambitious program to develop high-performance swept-wing jet fighters, contracting for the Vought F7U-1 Cutlass, Douglas F4D Skyray, Grumman F10F Jaguar, and McDonnell F3H Demon. All were intended to have afterburning engines and be supersonic, at least in a dive. The F4D was expected to be supersonic in level flight.

There is no question in my mind that XF7U-1 BuNo 122474 was the first U.S. Navy fighter to break the sound barrier, albeit in a dive and then only to Mach 1.006, on 21 June 1950. And that was with the aid of afterburning.

It was only capable of about Mach 0.9 in level flight. The thrust required as you approach Mach 1, the speed of sound (which varies with air temperature) is significant as depicted, approximately, in this illustration.
Note the dramatic steepening of the curve at about Mach 0.9.

None of the other fighters of its generation (or the F7U-3 for that matter) were capable of staying supersonic in level flight either. The XF10F was never dived faster than Mach 0.975 (for one thing, Grumman was never provided an afterburner for its J40 engine) in a single high-speed test flight on 11 October 1952, five months after its first flight. The sleek XF3H Demon, which first flew in August 1951, was probably the fastest, having been dived to Mach 1.3, but as far as I know, it never broke the sound barrier in level flight and the heavier production Demons were not as fast.

What of the F4D? Douglas projected its top speed would be Mach 1.2 in level flight. Its first flight on 21 January 1951 was with an interim J35 engine. After the more powerful J40 finally became available (without an afterburner), an XF4D was dived through the sound barrier in mid 1952. In October 1953, finally equipped with an afterburner, it set an official absolute speed record on a three-km low-altitude, sea-level course of 753.4 mph. That wasn't, however, supersonic. The speed of sound at 15 degrees C and sea level is 761.1 mph but the successful attempt was made, deliberately so, when the temperature had reached almost 37 degrees C (even though it decreases engine thrust, a higher temperature is your friend when you don't have quite enough thrust to go supersonic in level flight) because that raises the speed at which the transonic drag increase begins. The speed of sound was therefore about 790 mph on the course, which means that the XF4D's speed was about Mach 0.95.

Although Douglas engineers and test pilots strove mightily to reduce the F4D's transonic drag and achieve supersonic speed in level flight, they were unable to do so, as reported by the Navy following its formal acceptance tests in late 1957.

Nevertheless, the belief persists that the Skyray was supersonic in level flight, justified by a statement to that effect in Wikipedia and/or any of several books. Tellingly though, neither Bob Rahn (a Douglas experimental test pilot who made many of the F4D development and demonstration flights) nor Ed Heinemann mention it in their respective books. In fact, Rahn describes the effort to do so and dives at well over Mach 1 but never states that it was; Heinemann doesn't either and he was never known to hide his light under a bushel. My good friend and mentor, Hal Andrews, who was an engineer at the Bureau of Aeronautics for many years as well as a very well respected naval aviation historian, had personal knowledge of the program and insisted that the F4D was not supersonic in level flight.

If you restrict claimants to supersonic speed in level flight, there is one other contender, the Grumman F11F Tiger. It was probably the first fighter to be area-ruled by design. Grumman expected it to reach a level flight speed of Mach 1.21. Grumman received "go-ahead" for the program a month before Vought was notified that it had won the OS-130 competition. It first flew, as the F9F-9, on 30 July 1954. However, Grumman didn't receive an afterburner for it until late 1954 or early 1955 and the first attempt to fly supersonically with it on 25 January 1955 was terminated at Mach 1.03 when it failed catastrophically. Wright wasn't able to provide another flight-worthy one for more than a year. In May 1956, the F11F would finally just break the sound barrier in level flight; according to its Standard Aircraft Characteristics Chart, its top speed was Mach 1.1 at 35,000 feet. During BIS evaluation, it failed to meet guarantees but was definitely, if barely, supersonic (the second colum is the specification requirement; the third column is Pax River's measured performance):

I've heard that the training-command F11Fs were unlikely to be capable of breaking the sound barrier in level flight but easily did so in a descent.

Meanwhile, Vought had flown its F8U for the first time on 25 March 1955, breaking the sound barrier in the process, possibly but not necessarily in level flight.

Because of ongoing modifications required to make the F11F suitable for operational use, the F8U was delivered to VX-3, the cognizant Navy Air Development squadron, in December 1956, whereas it didn't receive its first F11F until February 1957. However, deliveries to operational squadrons of both airplanes were made in March 1957 and VX-3 took both aboard for at-sea evaluation in April. In the end, although probably not predicated on the fighters' respective readiness, VF-32 deployed with its F8Us aboard Saratoga on 1 February 1958 while VA-156 with F11Fs didn't go out aboard Shangri-La until 8 March 1958.

So Grumman received a contract for the supersonic F11F a month earlier, flew for the first time several months earlier, went supersonic two months earlier, and then faltered on the back stretch, finally deploying in what amounts to a dead heat. It should also be noted that the F11F was just barely supersonic in level flight, while the F8U was really supersonic. Although when the excellent J79 was substituted for the so-so J65, the F11F could arguably match the F8U in speed and altitude capability...

After all that, I think the edge goes to the Crusader over the Tiger for the first supersonic U.S. Navy fighter but it depends on your definition of what constitutes "first" and it won't be by much.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Vought F-8 Crusader by William D. Spidle

If you're considering buying this book—and you really should if you have any interest in carrier-based airplanes—note the subtitle. It covers the predesign, proposals, engineering design, test (and tragedy), and marketing (think record-setting) of the Crusader and its derivatives from Vought's vision of a true supersonic carrier-based fighter through their retirement. Look elsewhere if you prefer stories beginning "There I was, upside down, in cloud, on fire, nothing on the clock except the maker's name, when suddenly...". There are several available of that genre on the F-8, whereas there are none about it that go into this level of illustrated detail.

Bill Spidle is uniquely qualified to be the author. He had unfettered access to the Vought archives that were maintained by Vought-retiree volunteers and stuffed with documents, pictures, reports, etc. contributed by Vought employees over time. Rare among company archives (some now jealously guarded and almost unavailable to researchers by the company that had absorbed them), Vought's were accessible. In exchange, he helped review and catalogue the material for several years. As a result, his book incorporates pictures, illustrations, and information not only not previously published but which I had not seen before.

Another point to consider is that it is published by Specialty Press, which is once again adding to its sales catalogue of aviation books. As a result, it is a large format (10 inches square) tome with many color and high-resolution photos printed on heavy, glossy paper, a joy to behold and peruse.

One note on the subtitle: The Navy's First Supersonic Jet Fighter. The first ones to reach the fleet were the swept-wing placeholders for those with afterburners that the U.S. Navy had ordered after World War II, the Cutlass, Skyray, Demon, and Jaguar. Like them, however, the F9F Cougar and FJ-2/3 Fury could only break the sound barrier in a dive. And that includes the F4D Skyray, often cited as the first Navy fighter to be supersonic in level flight. It was stubbornly subsonic except in a dive despite Douglas' best efforts to make it otherwise (more on that in another post). Some might argue that Grumman's F11F Tiger was the Navy's first supersonic fighter in terms of level-flight speed since it was on contract and flew before the F8U Crusader did. However, its initial flight test was without an afterburner, whereas Vought test pilot John Konrad took the F8U supersonic on its very first flight. Moreover, F8Us were delivered to Navy development squadron VX-3 in December 1956 whereas the first F11F did not arrive there until February 1957 after a somewhat protracted development required to make it satisfactory for deployment.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Brewster F2A Buffalo

I have a soft spot for unappreciated or much maligned aircraft as you could tell from the subjects of most of my monographs, i.e. soft-cover books (see I might have written one about the F2A Buffalo except that it was built in some numbers and saw service use, which requires a lot more research and insuring that the expected "war stories" are accurate and representative.

Fortunately, Captain Dann is more ambitious and industrious than I and Steve Ginter continues to be open to publishing monographs on lesser known aircraft. The result is an excellent history of the Buffalo, both the airplane itself and its service life in not only the U.S. Navy but other countries.

As importantly, they had the full support of Jim Maas, who is the go-to guy for Buffalo pictures, drawings, useage, etc.

The result is the most in-depth and complete book on the F2A that we are likely to ever have. The various types are described in detail with copious pictures and illustrations, including development and proposed modifications/improvements. Their usage is summarized by country and squadron and includes first-person commentary. Regardless of the extent of your knowledge of the type, I can all but guarantee that there will be pictures that you have not seen before and information that you did not know. (I was unaware of the one-off "XF2A-4", for example.)

As is customary in Ginter publications on specific types (see, it concludes with a summary of model kits available. Note that you can buy them directly from him, which will help keep these histories of esoteric subjects coming.

Monday, July 31, 2017

F8U-3 Auxiliary Rocket Engine

One of the options after World War II that the U.S. Navy considered for the defense of the carrier against incoming bombers was the deck-launched interceptor. The performance priority was on rate of climb, which required the highest possible thrust-to-weight ratio at the expense of endurance. (Another desire was the ability to launch with zero wind-over-deck or even a tailwind so a time-consuming turn into the wind wasn't necessary.)

Adding a rocket engine for auxiliary thrust in the takeoff, climb, and acceleration phases was therefore very attractive because of the rocket's thrust relative to its weight and the oxidizer required. The Navy was already utilizing JATO (Jet Assisted Takeoff) for seaplane operation in rough water and carrier takeoffs without the benefit of a catapult. The A3D was JATO-capable for just that reason, to be launched with an atomic bomb even if the carrier's catapults were out of action.

JATO was actually a solid-fuel rocket that didn't provide thrust for very long. What was needed was a liquid-fuel rocket. The ultimate in this regard was an interceptor that was relied on rocket engines only. See

While this concept wasn't taken up, the addition of rocket engines was a feature during the competition for the fleet air defense fighter that resulted in the F4H Phantom. In fact, BuAer was planning on buying some F8U-3s with an auxiliary rocket engine. This is a ground test installation in an F8U-1's aft fuselage.

Reaction Motors was originally selected by BuAer to provide the 8,000-lb thrust rocket engine that was to be located in a fairing at the base of the vertical fin. The airplane's jet fuel was mixed with an oxidizer, hydrogen peroxide, to provide the thrust. (Some of the F8U-3's fuel tanks had to be dedicated to the oxidizer, reducing endurance.) Unfortunately, there was a tragic accident during the test of this engine at the Naval Air Rocket Test Station in Dover, New Jersey. Glenn Repp provided this summary report.
Reaction Motors was replaced by Aerojet and design work continued at Vought, but the auxiliary rocket concept was abandoned when the F8U-3 lost the fly-off to the F4H-1.

For much more on the F8U-3 program, see my monograph available from Steve Ginter:

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Extravagantly Illustrated and Detailed VQ-2 History!

Click on the image to better see the preorder offer for this cradle-to-grave history of one of the earliest and most  used electronic reconnaissance squadrons, which went in harm's way to obtain the intelligence necessary to minimize harm to those that might have to follow.

This collage illustrates the breath and depth of this monograph from noted naval aviation historian, author, and photographer, Angelo Romano and his coauthor, VQ-2's John Herndon:

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Short, Tragic Operation of the F-4 Phantom by the Blue Angels

In the process of doing some fact checking on the operation of the F-4 Phantom by the Blue Angels, I discovered that many of the online articles about it are somewhat incorrect, beginning with the statement that it served with them from 1969 to 1974. In fact, the 1973 season was tragically terminated early and the Blues resumed flight demonstrations in early 1974 flying Douglas A-4 Skyhawks.

In 1968, the Grumman F11F Tigers, which had served the Blues well for a decade, were increasingly hard to campaign with. Various alternatives were evaluated, but by chance the seemingly ideal candidate was the so-called lead-nosed F-4J. The F-4J was succeeding the F-4B on the production line in St. Louis. The major changes were the AWG-10 radar and fire control system and the J79-GE-10 engine (the identical dash numbers were coincidental). As it happened, both were government furnished equipment and deliveries were behind schedule. The Navy agreed to let McDonnell complete and deliver the first of the Js with lead ballast in the nose (hence the nickname) and the B's -8 engines. Otherwise the airplanes were identical to the J configuration: removal of the IR detector under the radome, bulged inner wing for the bigger main landing gear tires introduced with the Air Force F-4C, lift improvements introduced late in F-4B production, etc. (see

There were 18 of these built, five in production block 26 and 13 in production block 27, BuNos 153071-153088. Although the Navy had other non-deployable uses for them, their assignment to the Blues was logical since neither the lack of a radar (which allowed the nose to be used as a baggage compartment) or the slightly lower engine thrust of the -8 engine was a drawback. The only external difference apparent from a -10 powered J was the visible portion of the afterburner nozzle (also see
The difference between the nozzles was more apparent when the engine was running but not in afterburner because of the different way the reduction in area for "dry" thrust was mechanized.

Many modifications were made to convert most of these Js to the Blue Angels configuration. These included installation of the Air Force anti-skid braking system, additional radio and navigation avionics*, the smoke system, a gaseous oxygen system, etc. The flight control and throttle systems were also modified to provide more precise control in formation and early activation of afterburning. (Joe Debronski, McAir's chief test pilot at the time, flew a formation flight on the wing of the Blues leader at the time, CDR Bill Wheat, in 1968 as the latter put his F11F through the maneuvers required: "(Bill) had requested that I do this to help me understand the need for changes they wanted in the longitudinal control-feel system".)

* For the configuration of the antennas mounted in the rear canopy, click here:

Wheat accepted the first of an initial seven Blues F-4Js on 23 December 1968. Twelve of the lead-nose Js were eventually converted to the Blue Angels configuration and flown by them at air shows. Ten of them, plus one of the two replacement, -10 powered, Js were destroyed:

Half were the result of three midair collisions. Although trading paint was not unknown because of the extremely close formation flying that the Blues were famous for, actual collisions resulting in a crash had been rare up until then. However, up until the last midair only one of the crashes had been fatal.

Some internet articles also incorrectly identify the specific Phantoms operated by the Blue Angels. One of my F-4 subject-matter experts, Peter Greengrass, provided the following list based on F-4 Aircraft History Cards and other sources;

153072: Midair with 153081 26 July 1973, Lakehurst, NJ
153075: Fuel exhaustion near El Paso, TX 6 November 1969
153076: Reassigned 25 September 1973
153078: Midair with 153081 19 September 1969 (081 did not crash)
153079: Midair with 153080 and 083 at El Centro, 8 March 1973
153080: Midair with 153079 and 083 at El Centro, 8 March 1973
153081: Midair with 153072 26 July 1973, Lakehurst, NJ
153082: In-flight fire 4 June 1971 at Quonset, RI
153083: Midair with 153079 and 080 at El Centro, 8 March 1973
153084: Reassigned 25 September 1973
153085: Gear-up landing 30 August 1970 at Cedar Rapids, IA
153086: Crashed 14 February 1972 in Superstition Mountains, AZ
153839: Reassigned 25 September 1973
153876: Crashed 8 July 1973 at Lake Charles, LA

Note that 153077 is not on this list although it is sometimes identified as a former Blue Angels F-4J; Peter wrote that it was assigned for its entire service life to NATC, Patuxent River. There were also only two later Js assigned. In this picture of the two solos in formation, the -10 powered F-4J is inverted and the -8 powered one is right side up.

Peter also identified three F-4Bs that were briefly assigned to the Blues early on for training/proficiency/hack duties: 150996, 152982, and 153068. These were stock and did not sport the Blues livery.

1973 was both a triumph and a tragedy for the Blue Angels. It began ominously with a three-plane collision during training in March at El Centro. All three pilots ejected successfully but leader LCDR Don Bently was injured and had to be replaced by former Blue Angel LCDR Skip Umstead. In June, he led them on a multi-venue European tour including performances at the prestigious Paris Air Show. Tragically, he was killed along with Marine CAPT Mike Murphy and Ronald Thomas, one of the two Petty Officers flying with them when they collided during arrival at Lakehurst, NJ for a show.

That disaster ended the Phantoms use by the Blues and the 1973 season. It also almost resulted in the Blues being disbanded but in part due to the support of the Chief of Naval Operations, the team was reformed that winter with Douglas A-4F "Super Fox" Skyhawks (see that had been made redundant with the introduction of the Vought A-7 Corsair. A successful 1974 season resulted.

For more information on the F-4 Phantom with the Blue Angels, see the following on Ron Downey's excellent blog:

McAir Flight Test Report

Information and Markings

Saturday, April 29, 2017

A Carrier-Based Zipper?

In early 1953, Lockheed proposed its Model L-242 in response to the Navy's requests for proposals meeting its Outline Specification 130.
The design was similar to the Model L-246, which won the USAF competition for an F-100 day fighter replacement and was designated XF-104. Lockheed projected that it would easily meet or even better all of the Navy's requirements, including takeoffs from and landings to an aircraft carrier. With the same wing area (not much) and thickness (three inches) as the Air Force's version.

One reason that this was plausible was that the original XF-104 had a shorter fuselage that the production F-104 overlay shown here in gray, which reduced empty weight.
Another was that what little wing there was had features to maximize lift. Spoilers were the primary roll control with the inboard segment of the full-span flaps doubling as roll trim. A new low-speed lift concept, boundary layer control, was also incorporated to increase trailing-edge flap effectiveness.

Although the proposed design had zero dihedral,  subsequent wind tunnel testing would have resulted in five degrees of anhedral.

It was of course, very unlikely that the Navy would have trusted Lockheed, which had essentially zero carrier-based fighter experience (there was a modified P-80 that was evaluated at-sea*) with a contract for one even if none of its favored suppliers bid. As it happened, Vought won the competition with what was to be the F8U Crusader. And that bet was hedged by contracts to North American for the FJ-4 Fury, Grumman for the F11F Tiger, and Douglas for the F4D-2 (F5D) Skylancer. Only McDonnell was left out, which was worrisome for a time in St. Louis, but the consolation prize led to the F4H Phantom.

One footnote to the Navy Zipper (the sound and impression it made on a low, fast flyby) story was a modeler's April Fools article about the Navy modifying two F-104s for carrier operation, for which photos of two F-104s being used to test the Sidewinder at China Lake (or maybe just to get some flight time in one) added plausibility.
That sucked in more than one publication. For an example:

* See

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Complete and Illustrated LSO Guide and Much More

Once upon a time, I posted a brief summary of the history of Landing Signal Officers here: (also see

Boom Powell, Naval Aviator and LSO, has written a much more entertaining and informative book on LSOs, published by Specialty Press:

You can read the rave reviews on Amazon here:

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Carrier Plane Guard by Helicopter

This is a work in progress...

The carrier plane-guard role dates from the very first operation of airplanes from ships. The destroyer Roe was reportedly assigned that duty for Eugene Ely's takeoff from Birmingham on 14 December 1910.

The plane-guard ship trails and/or leads the carrier in order to be into position to heave to and lower a boat for pickup of an airplane's crew when a crash occurs. Here, an OL-8 is landing aboard the first Lexington in 1929 with the plane-guard seen maintaining station in the lower right-hand corner of the picture.
Even experienced aviators occasionally had need of rescue. Here, LCDR Lindsey, CO of VT-6, has crashed his TBD Devastator while attempting to land on Enterprise on 28 May 1942, just prior to the Battle of Midway. The plane guard, Monaghan, is maneuvering into position to launch a boat to pick up Lindsey and his crew.

What is surprising is that it took so long for the Navy to realize that the helicopter was a much better solution for plane guard. Sikorsky had already added a rescue hoist to one of its helicopters in 1944. Igor himself was one of the first to evaluate it.

On 29 November 1945, a hoist-equipped Army helicopter piloted by Sikorsky chief test pilot Dimitry D. (Jimmy) Viner and crewed by Army Captain Jackson E. Beighle was used to make a daring rescue of two crewmen in stormy conditions from a barge aground on a reef off Fairfield, Connecticut.

The Navy did buy and utilize these early helicopters immediately after the war for utility missions but these did not include plane guard. Sikorsky finally volunteered the use of one of its new, civil-registered S-51 helicopters piloted by Jimmy Viner for an at-sea trial.
His first rescue was of LT Robert A. Shields on 9 February 1947, after he had to ditch following the failure of his SB2C's engine. A second rescue was required when Viner was flying plane guard and an SB2C crashed on approach to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Two more rescues would be accomplished before the end of the month.

After that, virtually every Air Group Commander wanted an HO3S, the Navy designation for the S-51, assigned to his carrier for plane-guard duty. However, the HO3S was constrained both by payload and center of gravity limitations (its cabin was well forward of the rotor) for the role. As a result, the Navy had a competition for a bespoke plane-guard helicopter that was won by Piasecki with a variant of its two-rotor configuration. It was designated HUP.
For a hoist, the right seat was removed the hatch below it opened through which the rescue sling was lowered and the rescuee was retrieved.

The crewman stood ready to assist the rescued man into the helicopter and keep him from grabbing the engine controls on the center console.

As Alex noted in his comment below, the Kaman HUK (UH-43C) was also used occasionally for plane guard.
Its intermeshing two-rotor system provided the benefits of the twin-rotor helicopter (excellent hover efficiency and indifference to wind direction) but was much more compact.

As Alex also noted in a comment, the ASW air groups would use one or more of their helicopters for plane guard, since they could be readily equipped with the requisite hoist. This is an HO4S hovering for a pickup in a training/familiarization exercise. Note the dye marker in the water and the smoke float in the background to indicate wind direction.

When the HO4S was replaced by the HSS in the ASW helicopter squadrons, it was similarly utilized. Note the large warning to "Abandon Chute" under the cabin door.

This was dictated after a failed attempt to hoist a pilot after his parachute inadvertently deployed.
The pilot either released himself from the sling or got pulled out. He was subsequently rescued by a whaleboat from the carrier.

Even without the pull of an open parachute, the HUP was underpowered. What's worse, what power that there was provided by a former tank engine that was failure prone. The ultimate solution for the helicopter in general and the plane-guard helicopter in particular was the turbine engine. It was light relative to the piston engine and small, which allowed for the cabin to be located directly under the rotor, eliminating the center-of-gravity concern. Kaman won that competition with its first single-rotor design. It was designated the HU2K, which in 1962 was changed to H-2.
It was sleek and fast, with a retractable rescue hoist in the cowling above the cockpit. One innovation, which did not prove lasting, was a boom-deployed rescue net for scooping up a rescuee.

Although there were teething problems, these were overcome and the Seasprite eventually was powered by two engines. However, the elimination of the ASW-dedicated aircraft carriers resulted in the addition of ASW helicopters to a big carrier's air wing. Since the SH-3 came with a rescue hoist, the HS squadrons were assigned the collateral duty of plane guard, resulting in the retirement of the H-2s.

The H-3s, in turn, were eventually replaced by multi-mission Sikorsky H-60s.

Angelo Romano Photo

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

1946 Royal Navy Deck-Landing Training

"England and America are two countries divided by a common language." Before the U.S. Navy took a close look at postwar Royal Navy innovations like the steam catapult, angled deck, and mirror landing system and adopted them, it pursued a very independent course in developing aircraft carrier operations. This is a brilliant 1946 Royal Navy training film focused on the deck-landing phase of carrier flying:

In particular, note that the signals given by the Deck Landing Control Officer (i.e. LSO) at the time were not only very different in almost all cases, they are actually reversed in the case of the high and low signals used by the U.S. Navy LSOs. See

Most of the airplanes in the film are Corsairs:
No mention is made of difficulty landing them, although in the first landing shown, the pilot does appear to be skidding a bit in the groove to maintain sight of the DLCO.

The film also includes clips of the first jet landing (British, as were most carrier firsts) and the unusual position of the DLCO when waving the twin-engine Mosquito, necessitated by the need to not be hidden from the pilot's view by the engine nacelle: