Staff Writer (Updated: 5/11/2016):
Breaking a Stalemate
In the decade that was the 1930's, American aviation design and production was essentially proceeding at a snail's pace with bombers generally stealing the limelight in terms of firepower and speed over their fighter ("pursuit") counterparts. Many aircraft design firms were quite content with providing fighter creations based on an outdated yet tried-and-true formula from a decade before. This formula made heavy use of the most basic of fuselages, a standard monoplane wing structure arrangement and, at the very least, a simple twin-machine gun setup.
USAAF Initiative R-40C
The United States Army Air Corps was looking to change all that and stir the creative juices of these design firms to produce the very best aircraft possible with whatever powerplants and armament configurations the firms themselves deemed appropriate. The Army Air Corps would then evaluate each submission (submissions could include monoplane or biplane wing types) against other like-aircraft designs under a series of basic performance and armament categories by awarding points with the overall total not exceeding 1,000. With designs now coming in across all fronts from a variety of American aircraft producers (each smelling a potentially lucrative production contract to follow), the Vultee XP-54 garnered the top prize, scoring 817.9 points out of the maximum 1,000. Vultee assigned the company designation of Model 84 to the winning design and would work with the USAAF (United States Army Air Forces) on refining the fighter. It should be noted that not one design was a biplane and all used the relatively new construction method of all-metal stressed skin. Vultee assigned relatively optimistic performance specs of a 510 mile-per-hour top speed, a 500 mile range and a ceiling of 37,000 feet with a gross weight of 8,500lbs. The USAAF signed a contract order for the Model 84 (s/n 41-1210) on January 8th, 1941.
Vultee XP-54 Swoose Goose Walk-Around
The Vultee design featured a twin-boom arrangement with a centralized fuselage nacelle containing the pilot, cockpit, fuel, engine and armament. The central nacelle was sleek and slim with the cockpit situated amidships. The engine was mounted to the rear of the nacelle and was of a "pusher" type contra-rotating arrangement while the armament would have been fitted into the nose. The twin booms emanated from the wing trailing edges and were connected aft by a large horizontal plane. Each boom was capped with a short vertical tail surface. Wings themselves were set as inverted "gull" wings. Wings would contain the needed intercoolers and radiators for the engine. The selected engine was a Pratt & Whitney X-1800 liquid-cooled system powering contra-rotating propellers fitted between the booms. The undercarriage was of a tricycle arrangement made up of two single-wheeled main landing gears retracting into the forward portions of the booms and a long-stemmed single-wheeled nose landing gear recessing under the forward fuselage.
Cockpit entry for the pilot was addressed through a rather distinct approach. The pilot activated an electrically powered lift that would drop the cockpit floor - seat and all - down to where the pilot could climb aboard. Once strapped down, the system was reactivated once more to bring the pilot up and into the cockpit.