Ryan FR Fireball Mixed-Power Fighter Aircraft
The Ryan Fireball was a combination-propulsion fighter design, making use of a radial piston and turbojet engine.
Authored By Dan Alex; Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com
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.
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 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.
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.
As a composite fighter design, the Ryan Fireball maintained some unique performance figures from her radial and turbojet engines. The FR-1 production model fielded a Wright R-1820-72W Cyclone radial piston engine delivering 1,350 horsepower to a three-bladed propeller coupled with the General Electric J31-GE-3 turbojet engine of 1,600lbf of thrust. This combined power allowed for a maximum speed of 426 miles per hour (limited to 275 miles per hour when running on just the radial engine alone). Cruise speed was generally in the vicinity of 150 miles per hour and range was an impressive 1,300 miles. The Fireball's listed service ceiling was equally impressive at 43,100 feet and the aircraft could climb through 80 feet per second.
Armament for the Fireball was quite modest given the lessons learned through air-to-air combat in World War 2. While the successful US Navy fighters mounted no less than 6 x 0.50 caliber heavy machine guns and other nations utilized cannons of various calibers, the Fireball was limited to just 4 x 0.50 caliber M2 Browning air-cooled heavy machine guns with each gun afforded 300 rounds of ammunition. Her offensive punch was furthered, however, by provision for 2 x 1,000lb bombs held underwing. This allowed the Fireball the capability to attack ground targets with some authority. Additionally, the bombs could be replaced by 8 x 5-inch (127mm) unguided air-to-surface, high-explosive rockets on individual launch racks under each wing (four rockets to a wing underside).
The Fireball was assigned to just one US Navy flight squadron during her operational tenure. This became the "Firebirds" squadron of the VF-66. The VF-66 existed from May of 1945 into October of 1945 before becoming the VF-41. The VF-41 maintained a fleet presence from October of 1945 to the middle of 1947 before being redesignated as the VF-1E in November of that year. Ultimately, the "Firebirds" became the VRF-32.
The Writing on the Wall
The end of World War 2 essentially meant the end of "fancy-free" spending habits of the American war machine. The yearly billions upon billions spent on defense now dwindled to maintain a barely active military force as people turned their attentions to peace and rebuilding of lives and countries. Many-a-military-product suffered short-lived lives as a result and the unique Fireball proved no exception. Couple this with the fact that turbojet technology was gaining more and more traction and all-jet dedicated fighters quickly became the hot-selling product to the American military and one begins to understand such decisions. It was this curtailing of military finances that would ultimately spell near-doom for the free world in the early years of the upcoming Korean War.
The First Jet Carrier Landing Anywhere...is Unintentional
On November 6th, 1945, a Fireball was forced to land on the deck of the escort carrier USS Wake Island. Apparently, the radial piston engine of the aircraft had failed on the pilot forcing him to activate the jet powerplant. This allowed the pilot to land the aircraft safely on the USS Wake Island - in effect becoming the first aircraft anywhere to land on a naval vessel under jet power. The Fireball in question nearly missed her mark, however, and only caught the final arrestor wire before being stopped by the crash barrier.
The Pinnacle After Just a Short Two Years
By this time, the Fireball had more-or-less reached its pinnacle. There was no more war to fight and the concept proved more work than reward. The US Navy became more and more interested in all-jet products and the Fireball quickly took a backseat. In 1947, the Ryan Fireball was officially withdrawn from operational service - a quick end to be sure, serving the USN just a short two years.
Furthering the Fireball
In her entire production run spanning from 1944 to 1945, only 66 total examples were ultimately delivered. There were further attempts to make for a more promising system and included the XFR-2 prototype mounting a Wright R-1820-74W series piston engine. The FR-3 would have been a production form fitting the General Electric I-20 series turbojet engine. The XFR-4 was another prototype proposal though this one mounting a Westinghouse J34 series turbojet engine - ultimately proving the fastest of all the Fireball designs by some 100 miles per hour. The XF2R-1 "Dark Shark" prototype was something of a vast departure from the base Fireball line and attempted to mate a General Electric XT31-GE-2 turboprop engine with the turbojet engine for increased performance specifications. However, only one prototype was ultimately produced but did go on to set a new world altitude record concerning turboprop-powered aircraft, the magic number being 39,160 feet on May 2nd, 1947. The Dark Shark was easily identified from the base Fireball by her pointed spinner and large, four-bladed propeller system.
The Fireball Today
It is believed that only a single Ryan Fireball airframe exists anywhere in the world. This single example was procured by the Planes of Flame Air Museum at Chino, California.