Propellers were different. On a powerful fighter like the P-51, you had to feed in power judiciously, because if you firewalled the throttle, the entire airplane tried to counterrotate against the prop’s torque. With a tractor propeller spinning clockwise (as seen from the cockpit), the airplane would turn hard left and plow straight off the runway. But compared to jets, propellers provided power right now.
The XF-84H was built for the Air Force’s Propeller Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Engineers there wanted to test supersonic propellers to see if they could get the best of both worlds—jet speeds and propeller responsiveness. “That didn’t mean the airplane will run supersonic,” Beaird cautions, “because with that big a prop disc up front, it’s like a big speed brake. It meant that on the -84H, the outer 12 to 18 inches of the propeller were supersonic all the time.”
That, of course, was the source of the horrendous noise. The Thunderscreech’s engine ran at full speed all the time, and the propeller rotated at 2,100 rpm from startup until shutdown. “All you had to do was move the propeller pitch control to get power and you got it pretty instantaneously,” Beaird explains. He thinks it might have gotten even louder with power, because he remembers he could hear it better where he lived, 22 miles away from the base, when the crew ran up the engine to full power.
“Edwards was worried that the noise of the airplane would break the windows in the control tower,” he remembers. “The runway’s about a mile from the tower, but they’d put blankets over the top of the shelf where the radios were, and they’d get up under their desks, under the blankets. Nobody ever actually recorded the decibels. I think they were afraid the measuring device might get broken.”
“Oh, man, that noise was terrible,” recalls Edward von Wolffersdorff, Beaird’s crew chief. “You can’t imagine,” he adds with a groan. “I remember making my first ground runs with the thing, down on the main base, and I was wondering Why are they flashing that red light at me over on the control tower? It turned out they couldn’t hear a damn thing over their radios, so they kicked us out and sent us over to the north base.”
Most accounts of the XF-84H program specify that the propeller spun at 3,000 rpm, which would have resulted in the prop tips traveling at an incredible Mach 1.71. Extensive research and computation by John M. Leonard of the Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust (Rolls Aerospace currently owns Allison) indicate that an engine turning at 14,300 rpm driving a 6.8:1 gearbox, as the T40 did, would push the tips of a 12-foot-diameter propeller to a far more logical Mach 1.18.
Beaird agrees. “The tachometer indicated 3,000, but I’m not sure that was prop rpm. The tip speed was about 1.2 Mach, so what Leonard calculated is correct,” he says.
The airplane was not popular at Edwards and is to this day rumored to have caused several miscarriages. “It’s hard working on a project like that when you know everybody’s against it,” von Wolffersdorff says. “Nobody wanted the damn thing. First the Navy backed out and then the Air Force canceled the project. A lot of people thought we were trying to go supersonic with a prop, but that wasn’t true at all.”
The Navy had gotten wind of the -84H and initially wanted in on the project, so Republic planned to build three—two for the Air Force and one for the Navy. But because the Navy canceled its order, only the first two made it out the door. The Navy originally liked the fast-turboprop concept because pure jets caused problems aboard carriers. The early catapults had a hard time accelerating fighters to takeoff speed, and even today on landing, standard procedure is to go to full power right at touchdown in case the tailhook misses the arresting wires and the aircraft has to go around. Jets are slow to spin up after a “bolter,” as such misses are called.
Three manufacturers were asked to provide experimental props for the -84H: Aeroproducts, Curtiss-Wright, and Hamilton Standard. In the end, only Aeroproducts stepped up to the plate, providing a stubby three-blade paddle prop, each blade about four times as long as it was wide. “It was a funny-looking propeller,” Beaird recalls. “I think it was just one they happened to have available.”