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FreightWaves Classics: U.S. Navy assesses all-jet aircraft adaptability to carriers

World War II had been over for less than one year when the U.S. Navy (USN) began to assess “the adaptability of an all-jet aircraft to shipboard operations.”

Therefore, on July 21, 1946 an aviation milestone occurred. USN Lieutenant Commander James J. Davidson was the pilot of a McDonnell XFD-1 Phantom fighter jet. He made a series of successful catapult-free takeoffs from and landings on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt. At the time, the Roosevelt was the largest aircraft carrier in the U.S. Navy, which allowed the aircraft to take off without assistance from a catapult. The ship was approximately 60 miles east of Cape Henry, Virginia, in the Atlantic Ocean.  

The McDonnell FH-1 Phantom in flight. (Photo: warbirdsresourcegroup.org)
The McDonnell FH-1 Phantom in flight. (Photo: warbirdsresourcegroup.org)

Within a 90-minute period, Davidson successfully completed five launches and landings in the twin-engine Phantom. “Dozens of Navy officers and aeronautical experts gasped as the Phantom, starting at the 650-foot mark [on the ship’s deck], pulled off after about a 400-foot run and made a beautiful climbing turn,” reported AP News. “Davidson took it around for a landing approach without retracting the wheels and came in as lightly as a bird.”

Although Davidson’s flights were the first time a jet used an aircraft carrier for a series of successful takeoffs and landings in the U.S. Navy, the British were the first to accomplish the feat. A British De Havilland Sea Vampire jet fighter did so in December 1945. British Royal Navy (RN) Lieutenant Commander Eric M. Brown piloted the Vampire from and onto the deck of an RN aircraft carrier three times each. 

Brown’s flights were an experiment; Davidson’s Phantom trial runs seven-and-a-half months later were a “formal part of USN acceptance procedures to certify that aircraft for sea duty.” According to AP News, the Phantom’s success during its trial runs “opened a new page in American fleet history.”

Drawings of the FH-1 Phantom. (Source: wikipedia)
Drawings of the FH-1 Phantom. (Source: wikipedia)

FH-1 Phantom

A twin-engine jet fighter aircraft, the McDonnell FH-1 Phantom was designed and first flown during World War II by the United States Navy. As noted above, the Phantom was the first purely jet-powered aircraft to take-off from and land on an American aircraft carrier. It was also the first jet deployed by the United States Marine Corps (USMC). Its front-line service in the U.S. arsenal was relatively brief; however, it proved the viability of carrier-based jet fighters. In addition, it was McDonnell Aircraft Corporation’s first successful fighter, which led to the development of the F2H Banshee, which was one of the two most important naval jet fighters of the Korean War.

In early 1943, McDonnell and the U.S. Navy began to develop a shipboard jet fighter, using turbojets under development by Westinghouse Electric Corporation. Three prototypes were ordered on August 30, 1943. 

A flight of three Phantoms. (Photo: military.history.fandom.com)
A flight of three Phantoms. (Photo: military.history.fandom.com)

McDonnell engineers “buried” the airplane’s engines in the wing root to keep intake and exhaust ducts short, offering greater aerodynamic efficiency, and the engines were angled slightly outwards to protect the airplane’s fuselage from the hot exhaust blast. Seating the engines in the middle of the Phantom’s airframe allowed the engineers to place the cockpit ahead of the wing, granting the pilot excellent visibility in all directions. The engine location also freed up space under the airplane’s nose, which allowed the use of tricycle gear, “thereby elevating the engine exhaust path and reducing the risk that the hot blast would damage the aircraft carrier deck.” In addition, folding wings were used to reduce the width of the aircraft in storage configuration. 

Adapting a jet to carrier use was a much greater challenge than producing a land-based fighter because of the slower landing and takeoff speeds required on a small carrier deck. During flight tests, the Phantom became the first U.S. Navy aircraft to fly faster than 500 mph. 

A U.S. Navy FH-1 Phantom fighter taxis to the catapult during carrier qualifications on the light aircraft carrier USS Saipan in May 1948. (Photo: military.history.fandom.com)
A U.S. Navy FH-1 Phantom fighter taxis to the catapult during carrier qualifications on the USS Saipan in May 1948.
(Photo: military.history.fandom.com)

Only 62 of the FH-1 Phantoms were built before World War II ended. Realizing that more powerful jet engines would be developed in the near-term, McDonnell engineers proposed a more powerful version of the aircraft while the original Phantom was still being developed – which would lead to the design of the Phantom’s replacement, the F2H Banshee. Although the Banshee was envisioned at first as a modified Phantom, the need for “heavier armament, greater internal fuel capacity, and other improvements” led to a new aircraft that shared few parts with the Phantom. 

Although the original Phantom was not produced in great numbers, it helped to prove the viability of carrier-based jet fighters. McDonnell Aircraft brought the name back with the Mach 2-class McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. That version of the Phantom was the “most versatile and widely used western combat aircraft of the Vietnam War era.” The  F-4 Phantom II was used by both the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy.

The first Phantoms were delivered to the Navy in August 1947. Beginning in November 1947, Phantoms were delivered to the USMC, which were that service branch’s first jet aircraft.

A McDonnell FH-1 Phantom I with its wings folded at the National Air and Space Museum. (Photo: Mark Avino/Smithsonian Institution)
A McDonnell FH-1 Phantom I with its wings folded at the National Air and Space Museum.
(Photo: Mark Avino/Smithsonian Institution)

The Phantom’s service as a front-line fighter was short-lived. Its limited range and inability to carry bombs made it best-suited as an interceptor. Unfortunately, its speed and rate of climb were only slightly better than existing propeller-powered fighters and were deficient compared to other jets of the period. In addition, World War II experience had shown the value of naval fighters that could double as fighter-bombers, which was a major strike against the Phantom. 

The McDonnell F2H Banshee and the Grumman F9F Panther began flight tests around the same time the Phantom entered service. Both better satisfied the Navy’s quest for a “versatile, long-range, high-performance jet.” Therefore, the Phantoms were used primarily for carrier qualifications to transition pilots from propeller-powered fighters to jets.

The Phantoms were then used for training duty with the U.S. Naval Reserve until being replaced by the F9F Panther in July 1954. None were ever used in combat, having been retired from front-line service prior to the beginning of the Korean War.

The USS Franklin D. Roosevelt at its commissioning at the New York Navy Yard, Brooklyn on Navy Day, October 27, 1945. (Photo: seaforces.org
The USS Franklin D. Roosevelt at its commissioning at the New York Navy Yard, Brooklyn on Navy Day, October 27, 1945.
(Photo: seaforces.org

USS Franklin D. Roosevelt 

The USS Franklin D. Roosevelt was the second of three Midway-class aircraft carriers. She was the first aircraft carrier of the United States Navy to be named in honor of a president of the United States. The carrier spent most of her active deployment operating in the Mediterranean Sea as part of the United States Sixth Fleet. 

The USS Franklin D. Roosevelt steams past New York City in late 1945. (Photo: seaforces.org)
The USS Franklin D. Roosevelt steams past New York City in late 1945. (Photo: seaforces.org)

The Franklin D. Roosevelt was built at the New York Naval Shipyard beginning on December 1, 1943. The ship was originally christened the Coral Sea when it was launched on April 29, 1945. However, on May 8, 1945, President Harry S. Truman approved a recommendation from the Secretary of the Navy to rename the Coral Sea to honor President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had died four weeks earlier.

The new aircraft carrier was commissioned on October 27, 1945 (Navy Day). During April and May 1946, the Roosevelt participated in maneuvers of the Eighth Fleet off the East Coast, which was the Navy’s first major post-war training exercise.

Lt. Cmdr. Davidson and the FH-1 Phantom taking off from USS Franklin D. Roosevelt on July 21, 1946. (Photo: seaforces.org)
Lt. Cmdr. Davidson and the FH-1 Phantom taking off from USS Franklin D. Roosevelt on July 21, 1946. (Photo: seaforces.org)

As noted above, the Roosevelt was the first American carrier to operate an all-jet aircraft under controlled conditions. After the successful jet trials in July 1946, additional trials were held on the ship in November 1946. USMC Lt. Col. Marion E. Carl made two catapult launches, four unassisted take-offs, and five arrested landings in a Lockheed P-80A.

The ship was decommissioned in 1977 and was scrapped shortly afterward. 

As always, FreightWaves and FreightWaves Classics salutes the men and women of the armed forces of the United States, and thanks them for their duty and sacrifice.

FreightWaves Classics thanks seaforces.org, warbirdsresourcegroup.org, wikipedia.org and other sources for information and photos that contributed to this article.

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Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.