McDonnell’s supernatural fighters – The FD/FH Phantom

In 1943, even as it was in the midst of the Pacific War with Japan and preparing to introduce the ‘Essex’ class of aircraft carriers and with the still large ‘Midway’ class due to enter service in 1945, the US Navy began to take seriously the possibility of developing and introducing turbojet-powered fighters for carrierborne operations. All the major aircraft manufacturers were heavily involved in the design, development and production of important piston-engined warplane types that could play a decisive part in World War II, which contemporary strategic thinking considered might last to 1947. The US Navy thought of its first jet-powered fighters as semi-experimental types, and was therefore happy to contract with a relatively new and inexperienced company for the fighter’s design and development. The company was McDonnell, and the new fighter was the FD (later FH) Phantom that was created under the supervision of Kendall Perkins as a low-wing monoplane of all-metal construction and wholly conservative design in all but its powerplant. This fighter recorded its maiden flight on 26 January 1945 as the straight-winged XFD-1 prototype with tricycle landing gear, a fixed forward-firing armament of four 0.5-in (12.7-mm) machine guns in the nose that could be supplemented by eight unguided rockets under the wing for the fighter-bomber role, and the powerplant of just one of the planned two examples of the Westinghouse 19XB-2B axial-flow turbojet engine rated at 1,600 lb (7.12 kN) dry. The first prototype was soon fitted with its second engine for the undertaking of full manufacturer’s and service trials, in which it was complemented by a second XFD-1 prototype.

Adequate performance

Despite the loss of this latter machine, the Phantom was found to possess adequate performance and viceless handling, and in March 1945 an initial contract was signed for the construction of 100 FD-1 fighters with the powerplant of two examples of the J30 engine, which was the production version of the 19XB-2B unit and, in its J30-WE-20 form as specified for the FD-1, was rated at 1,600 lb st (7.12 kN) dry. With the formal end of World War II in September 1945, the FD-1 order was trimmed to just 56, which was a total designed to provide the US Navy with experience in the operation of turbojet-powered fighters rather than a full operational capability. The first of these aircraft made its maiden flight in 28 October 1946 as the FH-1 because McDonnell’s official designation letter had meanwhile been altered from D to H to avoid confusion with Douglas.

The FH-1 differed from the XFD-1 prototype mainly in the lengthening of the fuselage by 1 ft 7 in (0.48 m), a larger vertical tail surface with a squared-off tip, and the internal fuel capacity increased from 270 US gal (224.8 Imp gal; 1022.1 litres) to 375 US gal (312.25 Imp gal; 1419.5 litres) with provision for external fuel increased from 140 US gal (116.6 Imp gal; 530 litres) in two 70 US gal (58.3 Imp gal; 265 litre) drop tanks to 295 US gal (245.6 Imp gal; 1116.7 litres) in one flush-fitting centreline drop tank. Other changes included an improved weapons sight, the addition of speed brakes, a smaller rudder to resolve problems with control surface clearance discovered during test flights, a slight shortening of the horizontal tail surfaces were shortened slightly, and the amount of framing in the windshield reduced to enhance the pilot’s fields of vision.

An XFD-1 prototype became the first turbojet-powered aeroplane to land on an aircraft carrier when it touched down on Franklin D. Roosevelt, second of the new ‘Midway’ class carriers, on 21 July 1946. The production aircraft were delivered between January 1947 and May 1948, and reached initial operational capability in May 1948 on board the aircraft carrier Saipan in the hands of the VF-17A squadron, which thus became the first carrierborne unit anywhere in the world to operate a turbojet-powered fighter. Two other units that received the FH-1 in 1948 were the VMF-122 and VMF-311 squadrons of the US Marine Corps.  It was the first of these USMC units that was the last to relinquish the FH-1, an event that took place in July 1950 as the first-generation Phantom had been rendered obsolete very quickly by the subsequent development of second and third-generation turbojet-powered fighters.


McDonnell FH-1 Phantom

Type: carrierborne fighter and fighter-bomber

Accommodation: pilot in the enclosed cockpit

Fixed armament: four 0.5-in (12.7-mm) fixed forward-firing machine guns in the nose

Disposable armament: up to eight 5-in (127-mm) HVAR air-to-surface unguided rockets carried under the wing

Equipment: standard navigation and communication equipment, plus a gyro weapons sight

Powerplant: two Westinghouse J30-WE-20 axial-flow turbojet engines each rated at 1,600 lb st (7.12 kM) dry)

Internal fuel: 375 US gal (312.25 Imp gal; 1419.5 litres)

External fuel: 295 US gal (245.6 Imp gal; 1116.7 litres) in one ventral drop tank

Dimensions: span 40 ft 9 in (12.42 m) and folded width 16 ft 3 in (4.95 m); area 276.00 sq ft (25.64 m²); length 37 ft 3 in (11.35 m); height 14 ft 2 in (4.32 m)

Weights: empty 6,683 lb (3031 kg); normal take-off 10,035 lb (4552 kg); maximum take-off 12,035 lb (5459 kg)

Performance: maximum speed 416 kt (479 mph; 771 km/h) at sea level; cruising speed 215.5 kt (248 mph; 399 km/h) at optimum altitude; initial climb rate 4,230 ft (1289 m) per minute; service ceiling 41,100 ft (12525 m); maximum range 851 nm (980 miles; 1577 km) with drop tanks; typical range 603.5 nm (695 miles; 1118.5 km) with standard fuel