Hugh Harkins’ USAF JET POWERED FIGHTERS XP 59 – XF 85
Book review by Dennis D. McDonald
The post-World War II period of jet aircraft development interests me due to the rapid advances in propulsion, aerodynamics, and manufacturing techniques that were stimulated by World War II and the Cold War. This particular book is a no-frills overview of some of the United States’ earliest — and some of the least successful — jet aircraft designed during and shortly after WWII. Some thoughts:
- Our dependence on British jet engine technology. Early U.S. jet engines were woeful compared to British designs. Many of these U.S. jets reviewed here used licensed versions of British jet engines. Had these engines not been available, the U.S. would have probably been delayed for years in developing competitive jet aircraft. Also, had the British refused to license their engine designs, their postwar aircraft industry might have survived longer than it did.
- Some of the designs in this book are god-awful. By this I don’t mean that these aircraft are generally underpowered; far as I can tell they all were. The lack of aerodynamic sophistication and just plain stupid ideas should have been obvious. A jet powered aerial ram? A miniature “parasite fighter” launched and retrieved from a B-36 bomber’s bomb bay? A jet fighter launched from a short rail with rocket assist and later retrieved without landing gear on an inflated pad? I’m all for trying out innovative ideas but some of those presented here are just plain dumb. What were they thinking?
- Uneven technology diffusion. Not only were some of the ideas presented here dumb or half-baked but I really wonder if these designs are being hatched by the best and the brightest using the latest technologies? Sure the Lockheed P-80 presented here had a long development and deployment history despite its inferiority to European designs. But I know based on reading books like NASA’s First 50 Years: Historical Perspectives and Dennis R. Jenkins’ X-15: EXTENDING THE FRONTIERS OF FLIGHT that high speed wind tunnel performance and mathematical modeling of airflows were advancing rapidly during this period as well. Were the people who designed some of these aircraft unaware of these developments? Also, why was there such a consistent disconnect between available jet engine thrust and aircraft design? Didn’t the engine teams in the airframe teams talk to each other?
Perhaps the best that we can say is that there was a lot of experimentation but the means of organizing and controlling technology did not advance as rapidly as the technologies themselves.
We have continued to see failures, of course. Also, the sheer complexity of aircraft has evolved to a point where we may no longer be able to afford to buy individual aircraft. Still, reading books like this reminds us that “simpler” is not always synonymous with “better.”
- Barrett Tillman’s WHIRLWIND: THE AIR WAR AGAINST JAPAN, 1942-1945
- Boris Chertok’s ROCKETS AND PEOPLE VOLUME 3: HOT DAYS OF THE COLD WAR
- Comparing Eras of Innovation: 1950’s Aerospace Advances and Today’s Web 2.0
- David E. Hoffman’s THE DEAD HAND: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE COLD WAR ARMS RACE AND ITS DANGEROUS LEGACY
- Dennis R. Jenkins’ X-15: EXTENDING THE FRONTIERS OF FLIGHT
- Donald Mallick’s THE SMELL OF KEROSENE; A TEST PILOT’S ODYSSEY (with Peter Merlin)
- Hayao Miyazaki’s PORCO ROSSO
- Richard H. Graham’s FLYING THE SR-71 BLACKBIRD; in the cockpit on a secret operational mission
- Robert Schwentke’s FLIGHTPLAN
- Stephen Budiansky’s BLACKETT’S WAR: THE MEN WHO DEFEATED THE NAZI U-BOATS AND BROUGHT SCIENCE TO THE ART OF WARFARE
- William Wellman’s ISLAND IN THE SKY and THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY
Review copyright (c) 2015 by Dennis D. McDonald.