The Forgotten Fireball Made The First Jet-Powered Carrier Landing By Accident
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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