Aircraft, awful and awesome:
U.S. Navy’s first jet
The Ryan XR-1 Fireball

Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing Historian

***image1***The first American jet aircraft, the Army Air Force’s Bell XP-39, premiered in October 1942, but the U.S. Navy initially was in no hurry to build a jet aircraft of its own. The first jet engines had a number of problems that seemed to make it inappropriate for carrier use.  Jet engines had very slow acceleration, which meant it was impossible to rapidly accelerate on final approach away from the carrier if the aircraft was “waved off,” a critical shortcoming. Additionally, the available jet engines had very short range and they used a different type of fuel, which would take up valuable storage space on a carrier. Finally, the Navy had fighters that would provide air superiority over the Japanese for the foreseeable future and there appeared little need to push the technology envelope. 

Nevertheless, the idea of the power of the jet engine intrigued some Navy officers and designers because jet engines were clearly the wave of the future. After some thought, a Navy admiral suggested that the answer might be a combination fighter with both a piston engine and a jet engine. The piston engine would be used under normal circumstances and the jet engine would provide extra thrust for climbs and a burst of speed if needed. In late 1942, the Navy asked several aircraft designers to examine the idea of a dual- powered fighter.

Surprisingly, the best proposal was not from one of the Navy’s normal suppliers, such as Grumman, but from the Ryan Aircraft Corporation, which previously built only trainers and had no experience with shipboard aircraft.  The Ryan proposal was for a small, single-seat fighter with an 1,800 hp piston engine and a small  jet engine of about 1,500 pounds thrust, and, importantly, they both used the same type of fuel. Named the XFR-1 “Fireball,” the small fighter also introduced several innovations, notably a folding laminar flow wing and tricycle landing gear. The tricycle landing gear was intended to keep the jet engine from scraping the ground, but it also gave excellent visibility over the nose and this made it easier to land the XFR-1 on a carrier. 

Testing went very well and the Fireball’s flying characteristics proved to be excellent, so the Navy ordered production of 600 of the dual engine fighters. As predicted, the extra “push” from the jet engine gave the Fireball a very rapid rate of climb and quick acceleration. As Japanese “Kamikazes” began to pound the U.S. fleet, the need to intercept these suicide bombers quickly made these Fireball characteristics even more important. 

The first FR-1s were delivered about four months prior to the end of the Pacific war, but when the war ended it was clear that pure jet aircraft offered better performance so the FR-1 order was cancelled after 66 Fireballs had been delivered.  Nevertheless, in November 1945, a Fireball pilot had failure of his piston engine and had to land on his carrier using only his jet engine, so the Fireball had the distinction of being the first aircraft to land on a carrier using only jet power.
Another interesting sidenote of the FR-1 is the Navy admiral who had originally proposed the dual powered fighter was Admiral John McCain, Senior – the grandfather of Senator John McCain III.