Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Lockheed's Sluggard XF-90

The first XF-90 sits on the ramp at Edwards AFB.
This is the story of one plane that just didn't have what it takes. In response to a 1945 Air Corps request for a high-performance, long-range bomber-escort fighter, Lockheed adapted some of the design elements of the P-80 Shooting Star into a new, swept-wing design. Initially designated the XP-90, and then XF-90 after the reordering of things as a part of the Air Force's independence, the aircraft competed against McDonnell's XF-88 Voodoo, the forerunner of the F-101. Two XF-90s were built, and the aircraft pictured today, tail number 46-687, was the first of them.

When famed Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier coaxed the XF-90 into the air for the first time on June 3, 1949, it became readily apparent that Lockheed had missed the mark. Though the plane was built rugged, it was also built heavy. Adding to that, the pair of Westinghouse J34 engines produced a total of only 6,200 pounds of thrust, hardly enough to push the large plane, which tipped the scales at 27,200 pounds when loaded. Underpowered was an understatement. Unless the plane carried only a minimal amount of fuel, it couldn't even take off without JATO rocket assist. For the second aircraft, Lockheed added afterburners, but that only boosted the power to 8,200 pounds of total thrust. The Voodoo easily won the production contract in September, 1950, before the program was cancelled. McDonnell resubmitted a slightly larger design for a subsequent fighter competition, which won to become the F-101.

Unneeded, 46-687 was sent to NACA's Cleveland labs in 1953 were it was subjected to structural testing, in the classic test-to-destruct mode. What was left was scrapped. The second airframe, -688, was used in nuclear weapons testing, and subjected to three different blasts. It survived, in a manner of speaking, and the battered remnants are planned to be displayed at the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton to show the effects of a nuclear blast.

Another photo taken the same day as ours can be seen in the National Museum's on-line archive, here.

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