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The Coolest Experimental Planes of World War II

Ryan P-59 Fireball

Photo: U.S. Navy

The development of jet fighters began during World War II began, but the United States fell behind early as it worked on fielding propeller-driven aircraft and then building them in great numbers. One of the earliest efforts was the U.S. Navy’s P-59 Fireball, a hybrid propeller-jet fighter that lacked in several areas.

There were still a lot of unknowns about the operation of jet aircraft from fleet carriers and the concept of a mixed powerplant fighter would combine what was known, namely that a conventional radial engine had the performance for a carrier takeoff and a wave-off from landing and that a jet engine could provide a boost for high-speed performance.

The Fireball’s radial engine was a Wright R-1820 Cyclone 9-cylinder radial engine generating 1,425 horsepower. The R-1820 was used on a variety of World War II planes — fighters and bombers — from the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress to the Douglas SBD Dauntless and Curtiss SB2C Helldiver. The choice of radial engine was a surprise since the standard engine of the Navy fighters of the day was the 2,000 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800 18-cylinder Double Wasp.

As for the jet engine, it was a General Electric I-16 (later redesignated J31) developing approximately 1,600 lbs of thrust.

Early jet engines featured sluggish throttle response so the Navy considered them too dangerous for carrier landings. As such, pilots in Fireballs took off and landed on carriers using their radial engines, making the aircraft pretty conventional for all intents and purposes. It was basically a prop-driven fighter with a jet engine in the rear. That said, one pilot did land a Fireball on the USS Wake Island carrier under jet power after his radial engine failed.

The planes made their debut in 1945 and never saw combat. Not many were made, either — only 66. They were quickly replaced by the next generation of true jet fighters. The Fireball had a poor range and they were also slower than other planes, even when using their jet engines. Still, the Fireball was important to Navy fighter development as the sea service’s first jet-powered aircraft.

 

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