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Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk

Biplane Parasite Fighter Aircraft

The Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk biplane was built to serve as a parasite fighter launched fro USN airships USS Akron and USS Macon.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited: 5/8/2018
In between the great World Wars of the 20th Century, aviation advanced at a considerable pace. The canvas-and-wood biplanes of old began to evolve to include metal skinning, spatted undercarriages and more streamlining than ever before. This allowed far-off thinking to be had amongst warplanners and aviation engineers alike and, in tim,e the idea of a "parasite fighter" took hold within the ranks of the United States Navy (USN).

The parasite fighter concept involved a compact, single-seat fighter attached to mothership (an airship or fixed-wing bomber or similar) where the fighter could be launched and retrieved from. This pairing of weapon systems benefited the mothership in several ways - extending its range (particularly in reconnaissance sorties), self-defense or defending contested airspace. More advanced work on the parasite fighter topic was had during the post-World War 2 period and this involved jet-powered fighters and bombers but the concept was never fully accepted in any one form operationally.

Curtiss' F9C "Sparrowhawk" fighter was originally born under a USN requirement for a shipboard fighter and competed against designs from Berliner-Joyce and General Aviation. This requirement sheltered a secretive program for the USN which involved creation of a parasite fighter to field from its fleet of airships - namely USS Akron and USS Macon.

The USN fighter was eventually embodied in the "XF9C-1" prototype and a single example of this aircraft was realized. A second prototype, XF9C-2, was later completed, and this carried a single-strut main undercarriage. Serial production forms eventually totaled six F9C-2 "Sparrowhawk" fightersand used a similar tripod undercarriage as seen in the original prototype. XF9C-2 was eventually taken into the active inventory of the USN and reworked into a production F9C-2 standard fighter.

A first-flight was had on February 12th, 1931.

Design-wise the Curtiss aircraft was a traditionally-arrange biplane fighter. There was an upper and lower wing mainplane joined by extensive cabling and N-style struts. Over the midway span of the upper wing was a structure containing the retrieval hook, or "Skyhook", to work in conjunction with the retractable "trapeze" structure to be found under the belly of the airships themselves. The engine was fitted to a forward compartment in the usual way, driving a two-bladed propeller unit, and the fuselage was well-streamlined. The tail unit showcased a single fin and low-mounted horizontal planes as well as a tailwheel. The undercarriage was spatted at the main legs for aerodynamic efficiency and each was also wheeled. The pilot's position was set aft of the upper wing assembly he operated in an open-air cockpit.

The fighter was powered by a single Wright R-975-E3 air-cooled radial piston engine of 438 horsepower and armed through 2 x 0.30 caliber Browning air-cooled machine guns firing through the spinning propeller blades by way of synchronizing gear. The aircraft weighed 960 kilograms empty and 1,260 kilograms gross. It could manage a top speed of 176 miles per hour.

In practice the Sparrowhawk fighters were lowered from their hangar aboard the airship along their already-connected retractable trapeze assemblies. The pilot would then engage his engine and detach after having assessed conditions. The Sparrowhawk could then be used to reconnoiter the terrain far off from the mothership or engage enemy fighters one-to-one. Once the mission was completed, the pilot would return his aircraft to the mothership and, using the hook above the upper wing assembly, reconnect to the airship's trapeze system. The trapeze assembly was then retracted into the airship and Sparrowhawk returned to its hangar. Several Sparrowhawks could be held aboard a single airship.

The fighter series operated from the two aforementioned American airships from the period of 1932 until 1935 and were used in reconnaissance sorties over both American coastlines. However, the program was doomed by the loss of USS Akron in 1933 along the New Jersey coastline and USS Macon in 1935 off the coast of California. Some four Sparrowhawks went down with the Macon when it crashed on February 12th, 1935. A single Sparrowhawk example survived history and is on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington, D.C. and represents an example to have served at one time with USS Macon.


Retired, Out-of-Service
[ 7 Units ] :
Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company - USA
National flag of United States United States
- Fighter
- Reconnaissance (RECCE)
20.57 ft (6.27 m)
83.66 ft (25.5 m)
35.83 ft (10.92 m)
(Showcased structural dimension values pertain to the Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk production model)
Empty Weight:
2,116 lb (960 kg)
2,778 lb (1,260 kg)
(Diff: +661lb)
(Showcased weight values pertain to the Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk production model)
1 x Wright R-975-E3 radial piston engine developing 415 horsepower and driving a two-bladed propeller in the nose.
(Showcased powerplant information pertains to the Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk production model)
Maximum Speed:
176 mph (283 kph; 153 kts)
Service Ceiling:
19,193 feet (5,850 m; 3.64 miles)
Maximum Range:
295 miles (475 km; 256 nm)
1,700 ft/min (518 m/min)
(Showcased performance values pertain to the Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk production model; Compare this aircraft entry against any other in our database)
2 x 0.30 caliber (7.62mm) Browning machine guns synchronized to fire through the spinning propeller blades.
(Showcased armament details pertain to the Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk production model)
XF9C-1 - Initial Prototype Model; tripod strut undercarriage; scrapped during 1936.
XF9C-2 - Secondary Prototype Model; single-strut undercarriage; later reworked to F9C-2 production standard for active service.
F9C-2 - Production Model Designation; six examples completed to the XF9C-1 design; four lost with USS Macon crash.

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