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Ryan FR Fireball Fighter (1945)

Authored By Dan Alex | Last Updated: 10/31/2015

The Ryan Fireball was a combination-propulsion fighter design, making use of a radial piston and turbojet engine.

The Ryan FR Fireball fighter was something of a unique creation in the annals of US Navy aviation. The fighter fielded two individual powerplants - a radial piston engine and a turbojet engine - within a single airframe that supplied impressive performance statistics for her time. Unfortunately for Ryan, the Fireball arrived simply too late to see combat actions in World War 2 and subsequently fell out of favor with the post-war US military looking for "all-jet" systems. Fireball production lasted for just one year and her life span covered two short years thereafter before she was retired in favor of more potent and modern systems. The Fireball became the first turbojet aircraft to be fielded by the United States Navy and the first jet-powered aircraft to make a landing on a naval vessel. She also set a world altitude record for turboprop-powered aircraft.

Fireball Origins
The Ryan FR Fireball series was conceived of in 1943 under the direction of USN Admiral John S. McCain, Sr. His proposal called for a "composite" powered fighter requiring the use of a propeller piston engine coupled with the power of a turbojet engine. The war in Europe and the Pacific was in full swing and the turbojet was a burgeoning propulsion project in several nations. The idea behind the composite concept maintained a tried and proven radial piston engine system while incorporating the untapped power and inherent benefits of the turbojet. Early turbojet forms - those unveiled by the United States, Britain and Nazi Germany - all suffered from poor reliability, endurance and power. As such, they were proven to be generally unsafe as primary propulsion methods for any airframe of note, particularly during the pivotal take-off and landing actions - though testing and development nonetheless continued. It was deemed that composite fighter would alleviate the worries of an all-jet aircraft and only maintain the turbojet propulsion as a backup to the primary piston-powered radial engine. The result would also net a fighter design that, potentially, could outpace all other piston-powered fighters of the time.

Enter Ryan Aeronautical
Ryan Aeronautical was tabbed to develop the new fighter to fit the unique USN requirements. It is worth noting that Ryan Aeronautical attempted several such design configurations that fielded this dual-powerplant arrangement though many such developments were given up by the US military as the war quickly drew to a close - the military instead waiting to see what would become of the all-jet fighters then under development. Ryan Aeronautical began life in 1934 in San Diego, California under founder T. Claude Ryan - builder of Charles Lindbergh's mythical "Spirit of St. Louis". In 1969, the firm became a part of Teledyne until Northrop Grumman purchased the company in 1999. Ryan would best be remembered for their many distinct aircraft designs including a pair of V/STOL aircraft while the most notable Ryan product ultimately becoming the "Firebee" unmanned drone of the early 1950s.

The Prototype
The initial composite fighter prototype by Ryan was unveiled in 1944 and recorded a first flight on June 25th. Tests continued though the prototype was eventually lost to accident at China Lake Naval Air Station in October. A further two prototypes were also lost and investigations centered around the riveting along each wing. These proved too weak to maintain the needed stress resistance for the new aircraft and thusly were doubled in number. Trials were held on the deck of the USS Ranger in 1945. Development progressed at a promising pace and the Ryan product was officially adopted for service by the United States Navy as the Ryan FR-1 "Fireball" with introduction of the aircraft commencing on March of 1945. An order for 700 Fireballs was placed and at least sixty-six of these novel systems were delivered before the end of World War 2.

Just in Time for the End of the Show
The United States Navy and Marine Corps actions were largely centered in and around the Pacific Theater of War. These combined forces also included the involvement of the British Royal Navy as well as Commonwealth forces and ultimately beat back the Empire of Japan from far-off places like Okinawa. World War 2 also ushered in the age of the aircraft carrier and proved them vital components to the modern military - the US Navy became a global powerhouse in this field. The stranglehold around the Empire ultimately shrunk to encompass the Japanese mainland. Japan ultimately capitulated under the lethality of the American bombing campaigns and the atomic bombs by August of 1945. The surrender was made formal in September and World War 2 was officially over (the war in Europe was over by June of 1945). This, of course, left the Ryan Fireball system in limbo for the time being and military procurement orders were quickly curtailed or cancelled altogether. As such, the Ryan FR Fireball was not to see combat actions on the Grand Stage.

Fireball Walk-Around
As far as outward design, the Fireball could be considered most conventional. The fuselage was circular in its forward profile with rounded sides, essentially mimicking a tube that was tapered at the aft end. The radial powerplant was fitted to the forward compartment ahead of the single-seat cockpit. The cockpit position was of note for it was held well-forward in the design. The pilot sat behind a slightly framed windscreen and under a single-piece bubble-type canopy with little framing. The canopy could slide rearwards to allow access for entry and exit to the cockpit. Controls, for the most part, were also conventional with the exception of the turbojet systems. Wings were low-set along the fuselage sides with dihedral (upwards angle) of the assemblies just outboard of the main landing gear legs. The fuselage tapered into the empennage which contained a traditional vertical tail fin and applicable horizontal stabilizers. The jet engine was buried in the rear fuselage and exhausted through a ring under the tail fin. The undercarriage, unlike other prop-engine fighters, was of a tricycle arrangement and made up of two single-wheeled main legs and a single-wheeled nose leg. This gave the Fireball a pronounced "nose-up" appearance when at rest. By any regard, the Fireball certainly maintained all of the physical qualities of an excellent fighter design. As a US Navy aircraft, the Fireball was fitted with an arrestor hook for carrier landings.

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Specifications for the
Ryan FR Fireball

Focus Model: Ryan FR-1 Fireball
Country of Origin: United States
Manufacturer: Ryan Aeronautical - USA
Initial Year of Service: 1945
Production Total: 66

Crew: 1

Length: 39.99 ft (12.19 m)
Width: 39.99 ft (12.19 m)
Height: 13.62ft (4.15 m)
Weight (Empty): 7,915 lb (3,590 kg)
Weight (MTOW): 10,595 lb (4,806 kg)

Powerplant: 1 x Wright R-1820-72W Cyclone radial piston engine developing 1,350 horsepower; 1 x General Electric J31-GE-1 turbojet engine developing 1,600 lb f of thrust.

Maximum Speed: 426 mph (686 kmh; 370 kts)
Maximum Range: 1,305 miles (2,100 km)
Service Ceiling: 43,100 ft (13,137 m; 8.2 miles)
Rate-of-Climb: 0 feet-per-minute (0 m/min)

Hardpoints: 2
Armament Suite:
4 x 12.7mm M2 Browning air-cooled, heavy machine guns.

8 x 5" (127mm) air-to-surface rockets underwing
2 x 1,000lb bombs underwing

XFR-1 - Initial Prototype; fitted with Wright R-1820-72W radial piston engine; three examples produced.

XFR-2 - Second Prototype; fitted with Wright R-1820-74W of 1,500 horsepower.

XFR-4 - Fitted with Westinghouse J34 series turbojet engine.

FR-1 "Fireball" - Production Model Designation; 66 examples produced.

FR-3 - Proposed variant; fitting General Electric I-20 turbojet engine.

XF2R-1 - Prototype; final variant; fitting General Electric XT31-GE-2 turboprop in place of the original piston engine.

United States