29 September 2006

Flightdeck Friday!

Ryan FR Fireball

In 1942 the Navy was less than impressed with the state of jet-powered development. Hedging its bets, it comissioned construction of two "composite-powered" aircraft -- the Grumman XTB3F-1 (last week's Flightdeck Friday subject) and a fighter from a little known company, Ryan, who had not previously built an aircraft for the Navy. Ryan won the contract as it, of 9 companies, showed the best appreciation for the problems involved with the design.

On Feb 11, 1943 Ryan was authorized to construct 3 flying prototypes and a fourth to be used for static testing. The XFR-1 was a low-wing, flush-riveted fighter, and powered by the Wright R-1820-72W radial engine with a GE I-16 turbojet in the rear fuselage. Breaking convention, the XFR-1 would also be a tri-cycle configuration because of the jet engine. Later that year, the Navy placed an initial production order for 100 FR-1 Fireballs -- a good 6 months before the first flight. Another 600 were ordered in January 1945 for a production total of 700 (this was subsequently cut by 634 post VJ-day).

First flight occured 25 June 1944, but it was on piston power only (as would the next flight). Later flights with the jet-engine installed showed the FR-1 to have demonstrably good flight characterisitcs. Unfortunately, the first prototype disintegrated in mid-flight near the end of its testing. The problem was traced to the flush rivets on the wings. A fix was instituted that consisted of doubling up the number of rivets, but in the interim the remaining two prototypes also crashed.

Although 634 had been canceled, the remainder of the FR-1s were delivered to Fleet squadrons -- first to VF-66, which was stood-up for the express purpose of evaluating the FR-1, and when VF-66 was dis-established in October, 1945, to VF-41. VF-66 conducted the initial carrier qualification of the FR-1 and VF-41 later operated the FR-1 off USS Wake Island, USS Bairoko and USS Badoeng Strait, flying up through 1947. The FR-1 was withdrawn form service shortly thereafter.

One significant modification was made by replacing the piston engine with a turboprop, creating the XF2R-1 Dark Shark. Although it showed substantial improvements over the FR-1, by this point the Navy was more interested in further developing the pure jet.

One interesting footnote to the development of the FR-1 is that it was the first jet-powered aircraft to be tested in a full-scale wind-tunnel. The team studying the FR-1 was quite interested in a number of novel items, not least of which was the embedded jet engine. One team member went so far as to investigate the use of vectored thrust to control the aircraft, using vanes inserted in the jet exhaust. The concept, controlling an aircraft's flight path through the use of vectored thrust, was written up in a research paper that, in the author's words, gathered dust until the space age arrived, when it was dusted off and the principals of vectored thrust applied to space- and aircraft. Again, in his words, this may have been the most important contribution of the FR-1...

Today, few examples remain with the best preserved found in the "Planes of Fame" museum in Chino, CA.


  • Swanborough, Gordon and Bowers, Peter M. United States Navy Aircraft since 1911. Naval Institute Press, 1990.
  • http://www.conway.com/cdi/ryan.htm "The Navy's First Jet by McKinley Conway."