USAF Museum
WW II History

A Push For Performance

When war broke out in Europe in 1939, the Army Air Corps was substantially behind German and Great Britain in fighter aircraft development. It began an informal competition among aircraft designers and received a variety of fighter design proposals. Some never existed except on paper, but prototypes of other concepts were flight tested.

Among the most unusual designs were those single seat pusher-type fighters, in which the propeller was mounted behind the pilot. They appeared to offer better visibility, lower drag (air resistance), and the opportunity to carry more guns in the nose. Three such pusher designs actually were flight tested, the Vultee XP-54, Curtiss XP-55, and Northrop XP-56. None went into production, however. Performance generally was disappointing and due to the success of conventional fighters, the need for further testing of such unusual designs vanished.

Vultee XP-54 Swoose Goose
Vultee XP-54Designed as a fast climbing interceptor, its planned role was changed to that of bomber destroyer. One unconventional feature was the emergency system which ejected the pilot and seat downward out of the aircraft below the propeller arc. The Army Air Corps ordered two test aircraft in January 1941. The first made 86 test flights in 1943; the second only flew once. Although Vultee hoped it would reach a top speed of 510 mph., its maximum was 381. Engine development problems hindered the program and design revisions increased weight and dramatically reduced expected performance, causing program cancellation.

Curtiss-Wright XP-55 Ascender
Curtiss XP-55The XP-55 tested a "canard" feature in which the tail assembly was eliminated and the elevators were mounted in the nose. The vertical tail surfaces were placed on the wing tips. A handle in the cockpit allowed the pilot to jettison the propeller if bail out became necessary in an emergency. Three XP-55s were built and the first one made its initial flight on July 13, 1943. Performance was disappointing, stability problems persisted, and the program was canceled.

Northrop XP-56 Black Bullet
Northrop XP-56The Northrop XP-56, was a tailless interceptor with a short fuselage mounted on a swept-back wing. It had two contrarotating propellers, each turning in the opposite direction. Other unusual features were its all magnesium, all welded airframe and the pilot's escape system. If he were forced to jump, he set off an explosive cord which blew away the propellers and the rear of the aircraft.

The first XP-56 made its maiden flight on September 6, 1943. It was destroyed later when a tire blew out. The second aircraft first flew on March 23, 1944, with a much larger dorsal vertical stabilizer to improve directional stability. The design still needed improvement and the program was canceled. By then the Army Air Forces was looking toward the introduction of jet propelled fighters.

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