McDonnell’s First Spirit

by Dr. Marshall Michel
52nd Fighter Wing historian

In 1942, the U.S. Naval Bureau of Aeronautics requested that McDonnell Aircraft design a jet interceptor to operate from aircraft carriers. On August 30, 1943 the Navy awarded McDonnell a contract for two prototypes of the new fighter, to be designated XFD-1, using one of the turbojet engines under development by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation.

The name was soon changed to XFH-1 (under the complex Navy naming system at this time, the H stood for McDonnell Aircraft) Phantom, the first of what would be the McDonnell “supernatural series” – it would be followed by the Banshee and Voodoo.

The McDonnell engineers evaluated a number of engine combinations and finally selected two 19-inch diameter Westinghouse J30-WE-20 turbojets with 1,600 pounds of thrust each.

The engineers chose to design as conservative an aircraft as possible, to minimize risk and ease manufacture and maintenance. The airframe was simple – a low-mounted straight wing that folded for carrier storage, with flaps on both the folding and fixed wing sections to improve low-speed landing performance and a solid spoiler-type airbrake on the top of the wing outboard of the wing fold. The wing and horizontal tail had noticeable dihedral.

The engines were buried in the wing root to keep the intake and exhaust ducts short, provide greater aerodynamic efficiency than underwing nacelles, and the engines were angled slightly outwards to protect the fuselage from the hot exhaust blast.

Putting the engines in the middle of the airframe also allowed the pilot’s bubble canopy to be placed ahead of the wing, which gave the pilot excellent visibility in all directions and was necessary for carrier landing. The engine placement also freed up space under the nose for tricycle landing gear which raised the jet engine exhaust and reduced the risk that the hot blast would damage the aircraft carriers’ deck, many of which were wooden.

The FH-1 had some serious disadvantages, mainly caused by the aircraft’s small size. There was not room for the pilot to have an ejection seat, and it only carried 375 gallons of fuel. A conformal 295 gallon belly fuel tank was mounted on production models, but this added to the weight. The armament was light — four .50 caliber machine guns on the top side of the nose, with 325 rounds of ammunition per gun — but by this time the Navy had decided to standardize four 20 millimeter cannons as aircraft armament, and the FH-1 was too small to carry the cannon. It also had virtually no bomb carrying capability.

When the first aircraft was completed in January 1945, only one Westinghouse jet engine was available so ground runs, taxi tests and even the short first flight on Jan. 26, 1945 was made with only the one engine, though the first twin-engine flight took place a few days later. A second prototype followed, and the two machines successfully passed company and initial Navy trials.

With successful completion of tests, a production contract was awarded on March 7, 1945, for 100 aircraft. However, with the end of World War II, the Phantom production contract was reduced to 60 aircraft.

The second Phantom prototype became the first American pure jet aircraft to land and take off from an aircraft carrier, completing four successful takeoffs and landings on July 21, 1946, from the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt. It also became the Navy’s first airplane to fly over 500 mph.

The first Phantoms were delivered to Navy fighter squadron VF-171 in August 1947, and the squadron received a full complement of 24 aircraft on May 29, 1948. It became the Navy’s first operational jet carrier squadron when it deployed aboard USS Saipan on May 5, 1948.

Beginning in November 1947, Phantoms were delivered to Marine squadron VMF-122, making it the first Marine Corps combat squadron to fly jets.

Phantom’s service as a front-line fighter was short lived. Its limited range and light armament made it best suited for duty as a point-defense interceptor, but its speed and rate of climb were only slightly better than existing propeller-powered fighters. Additionally, its navigational avionics were poor, and more importantly, its performance fell far short of other contemporary jets such as the Air Force’s P-80 Shooting Star.

With more powerful jet engines imminent, McDonnell engineers proposed a more powerful variant of the Phantom, the F2H Banshee, while the Phantom was still under development. The Banshee and the Grumman F9F Panther, both of which began flight tests around the time of the Phantom entered into service, were better suited to the Navy’s requirement for a versatile, long-range, high-performance jet fighter-bomber. The FH-1 was entirely withdrawn from Navy and Marine corps service prior to the outbreak of the Korean War, and no FH-1 ever saw combat.
Although the FH-1 Phantom had a short service life, they were passed on to Navy Reserve squadrons where they performed useful service converting Reserve pilots from piston fighters to jet fighters until the FH-1’s final retirement from military service in 1954.

But the FH-1 Phantom’s most important contribution to world aviation was that it put McDonnell Aircraft on a firm financial foundation and led eventually to the F-4 Phantom II, one of the world’s immortal fighters and the mainstay of American air power from the 1960s until the mid-1970s.

Today FH-1s are on display at the Marine Corps Aviation Museum in Quantico, Va., and at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla.

(For questions or comments, contact Dr. Michel at