Dive Bomber / Low-Level Attack Aircraft
Originating as a dive bomber, the Vultee XA-41 was evolved into an attack platform until passed on by the United States Army.
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It was during September of 1942 that the United States Army commissioned the Vultee Aircraft concern to develop a viable single-engine, single-seat dive bombing platform. The dive bomber has proven its worth in the opening stages of World War 2 (1939-1945) through the exploits of the German Luftwaffe though its vulnerability began to show through once Allied airpower rose up to the challenge. Vultee engineers returned with the "Model 90" based around the massive Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major engine of 3,000 horsepower. The Model 90 sufficiently impresses Army authorities as an order for two prototypes followed on November 10th, 1942.
While originally envisioned as a dive bomber, the changing war situation in Europe soon showcased the inherent vulnerabilities of dive bomber types like the German Junkers Ju 87 Stuka line. This led to a rethinking on the part of the Army to request a low-level attack-minded platform instead and this only led to the inevitable delays witnessed time and again throughout a myriad of American World War 2 aircraft projects whose type was consistently changed over the course of development - usually to the detriment of entire programs.
A new developmental contract was signed and work on the first XA-41 proceeded into the latter half of 1943. However, by this time, the war in Europe began to showcase original fighter designs like the North American P-51 Mustang and Republic P-47 Thunderbolt increasingly taking on the role of fighter-bombers and ground attack, leading many in the Army to believe that there served no purpose in putting the time and money into a specialized aircraft like the XA-41. This led to a termination of the contract and essentially an end to the XA-41 as a possible operational aircraft.
However, there were some in the Army that had originally pushed for the aircraft and worked to secure some future for it. Material Division was granted a single example for the continued testing of the Wasp Major engine in conjunction with new technologies that may perhaps be featured elsewhere. This finally led to a first flight for the prototype on February 11th, 1944. Subsequent tests revealed a rather solid, if unspectacular, aircraft and only minor modifications were enacted to the design over its test phase.
The U.S. Army then took delivery of the airframe in the summer of 1944 to which the aircraft then completed over 60 flights in all since its first. While handling, agility and ground running generally proved itself sound, the aircraft lacked the top-flight speed sought in an attack aircraft - an aircraft that could very well find itself pressed to tackle enemy fighters directly. The U.S. Army interest waned to the point that the XA-41 was no longer in any of its plans and only a brief interest by the U.S. Navy in an attack type lengthened the tenure of the aircraft. Once engine maker Pratt & Whitney purchased the airframe for additional powerplant testing, the end of the line for the Vultee XA-41 had officially come in 1950.
As completed, XA-41 exhibited something of an unconventional shape as aircraft of the period went. The engine was held in a forward compartment as can be expected though the cockpit was set directly behind the installation, well ahead of midships. The pilot's engine was deliberately raise so as to provide the best vision possible. The engine drove a four-blade Hamilton Standard propeller and was initially displayed without a spinner - this added in later testing. The cockpit was covered over in a heavily framed canopy though vision out of the cockpit was generally good. The main wing assemblies were set ahead of midships which drastically blocked downward visibility to the sides of the aircraft. Wings were straight in their general design, clipped at the tips and well tapered along the trailing edges. The fuselage proved long and slender and the tail unit incorporated a single, squared-off vertical tail fin and mid-set horizontal tailplanes, also clipped at their tips. The wide-track undercarriage was retractable and of the tail-dragger arrangement.
Proposed armament for the design included 4 x 0.50 caliber M2 Browning heavy machine guns along with 4 x 37mm autocannons, all in the wings so as to not require interrupter gear for the spinning propeller blades. Internal bombload ranged up to 2,000lbs with an estimated 1,100lbs in additional stores to be held under the wings (including high-explosive rockets). Its official listed ordnance load was published as 6,500lbs.
Power from the Pratt & Whitney R-4360 28-cylinder, radial piston engine of 3,000 horsepower proved mighty. However, its achievable maximum speed only ever reached around 360 miles per hour at a time when fighters were breaking the 400mph mark. Service ceiling was listed at 29,300 feet with a rate-of-climb near 2,730 feet per minute.