Aircraft, awful and awesome: McDonnell XF-85 Goblin

Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing historian

***image1***The Air Force had learned from bitter experience in World War II that strategic bombers needed fighter escorts. In 1947, however, with the arrival of the huge, very long range   B-36 – which had a range of over 10,000 miles – this seemed impossible.

The new jet engines provided very short range, and air-to-air refueling was only a dream at this time, but one seemingly feasible answer seemed to be for the B-36s to carry their own escort – small fighters that could be launched to repulse an enemy attack and then (hopefully) be recovered.

The idea was not new. Several countries had explored carrier/parasite composite aircraft combinations, and since the B-36 had two large bomb bays, it had room to carry a fighter in one and a thermonuclear weapon in the other. A trapeze-like arrangement was developed for the rear bomb bay to raise and lower the aircraft and in March 1947 the Air Force chose McDonnell Aircraft Corporation to develop two prototypes of a very small fighter, designated the XF-85.

It had an egg-shaped fuselage only 14 feet long and had a wing with a span of 21 feet. The tail surfaces canted upwards and the swept wings folded up to fit into the bomb bay. It also had a large hook in the nose to latch on to the trapeze. The plane also had only emergency landing skids.

McDonnell’s aircraft names came from the spirit world – the Phantom, Banshee, and Voodoo – so the name Goblin was an easy choice for the  XF-85, with its horn-like tail surfaces and hook on the nose.

In August 1948, the XF-85 began its test flights under a B-29. After dropping from the trapeze it flew reasonably well, but when it returned the test pilot found the small flying surfaces made it very difficult to control in the turbulent air below the bomber. After ten minutes of futile attempts to hook up, the XF-85 slammed up against the trapeze, shattered the canopy and broke the pilot’s plastic helmet. He was able to make an emergency landing on the skids, but the fighter acquired the nickname of the “Wobblin’ Goblin.”

Three more flights and successful, if harrowing, recoveries were made, but on the fifth, sixth and seventh flights turbulence and loss of directional stability again forced the pilot to make emergency skid landings on the ground. This, along with tight budgets and the expectation of air-to-air refueling, led to the program being dropped.