Nukes vs. Airplanes
Between the F-80 and the F-104, a supersonic pioneer fought the Cold War...in its own way.
- By Jorge and Karen Escalona
- Air & Space magazine, July 2008
On April 22, 1952, dozens of journalists and approximately 2,000 military personnel watched as a 31-kiloton nuclear bomb exploded above the Nevada Proving Ground. Operation Tumbler-Snapper, as the series of atmospheric tests was called, was designed to evaluate the vulnerability of parked aircraft to an atomic bomb blast. Among the aircraft gathered there was one of the hottest-looking fighters ever built: Lockheed’s XF-90.
The needle-nose fighter followed Lockheed’s F-80 Shooting Star, the first U.S. jet fighter to see action, and was an important precursor to the “missile with a man in it,” the F-104 Starfighter. And though only two were built, the XF-90’s dashing good looks earned it movie-star status throughout the 1950s—far beyond its operational life—attracting readers and advertisers to prominent aviation periodicals and comic books of the time. As a single-engine F-90B, it made a splashy cover for the September 1953 comic book Blackhawk. Thereafter, a generation of young Boomers dazzled by futuristic aviation technology awaited each new adventure of American pilot Blackhawk, his buddy Chuck, and their coalition of international fighter jocks manning a fleet of six sleek F-90Bs in the quest to take down the “Red Tide” thugs of the atomic age.
The F-90 was the first U.S.-built, swept-wing jet to use afterburners as standard equipment and have wingtip fuel tanks and a fully adjustable fin and stabilizers. Fowler flaps and leading-edge slats improved airflow over the wings, making the F-90 one of the pioneers in 35-degree swept-wing technology. In tests, the hot rod exceeded Mach 1 fifteen times.
So how did such a capable aircraft, one that so captured the public’s imagination, become atomic bomb test fodder?
After World War II, the U.S. Army Air Forces needed a “penetration fighter,” capable of escorting bombers to and from their targets. The early jet fighters had been far from perfect, and their notorious fuel consumption decreased their range. In 1945, the AAF issued a request for a fighter with a combat radius of about 900 miles. Competing for the contract against McDonnell’s XP-88A and North American’s XP-86C, Lockheed’s team, headed by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson and Willis Hawkins, went through 65 versions before settling on the swept-wing design of the XP-90. (In 1948, the P designation, for “pursuit,” was changed to F, for “fighter.”)
Johnson pushed the group to produce two twin-engine prototypes, whose appearance inspired the team to coin the nickname Big Broad-Breasted Turkey. “Its front view with the broad fuselage and side inlet ducts gave it the broad-breasted look,” says Jim Beach, the engineer who pioneered the XF-90’s canopy actuation and ejection system. “Jim Pray, the windshield designer, dubbed it a ‘turkey’ due to its wimpy engines.”
Testing of the “wimpy” engines began on the ground at Burbank, California, but the first XF-90 was trucked to the North Base of Muroc Air Force Base, now Edwards Air Force Base, in 1949 for flight testing by Tony LeVier, Lockheed’s chief test pilot.
Lockheed assigned flight test engineer Ernest Joiner to the project. “Very little was known at that time about what happened to an airplane when it exceeded the speed of sound,” Joiner recalls. “There were all kinds of weird ideas that the airplane would be subjected to very high structural loads. This lack of information contributed to the XF-90 being the strongest airplane anyone had ever seen. Of course, the sound barrier had been broken by Chuck Yeager in the X-1 research aircraft in October 1947, but [that didn’t happen] in time to have much influence on the design of the XF-90.”