United States of America (1944)
Prototype Escort Fighter – 2 Built
The Consolidated Vultee XP-81 was a prototype mixed power fighter developed in late 1943 by the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation in order to meet an Army Air Force requirement calling for a high altitude escort fighter. Plagued by slow development and engine problems, the XP-81 would never see active service and development would be terminated in 1947. Despite this, the XP-81 still holds a distinct place in history as America’s first turboprop engine plane to fly and the world’s first plane to fly with a turboprop engine and a jet engine together.
With the formal introduction of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress on May 8th of 1943, it would be clear that a high altitude escort fighter would soon be needed to accompany the Superfortress on its bombing missions over the Pacific. In the summer of 1943, this need was realized and the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) issued a list of design requirements that consists of the following:
- 1,250 mile (2,012 km) operating radius
- Fuel for 20 minutes of combat plus reserve fuel supply for landing
- Cruising speed of 250 mph (402 km/h) at 25,000 ft (7,620 m)
- Maximum speed over 500 mph (804 km/h)
- Combat ceiling of 37,500 ft (11,430 m)
- Climb rate of 2500 fpm (feet per minute) / 762 mpm (meters per minute) while at 27000 ft (8230 m)
- Two engines*
- 12 ° angle of vision over the nose
* – The USAAF recommended that the designers use a two engine setup consisting of a propeller engine for long range flights while complemented by a jet engine for high speed combat situations.
Interested in this proposal, the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation, later known as Convair, began work on an aircraft which would meet the specifications, appointing Charles R. Irving, who was a chief engineer of the Vultee Field Division and Frank W. Davis, the assistant engineer, who was also the chief test pilot, as the leaders of the design team. The project was known as the “Model 102” within Consolidated Vultee. In the early stages of development, the designers faced a dilemma of engine selection. The Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engine was considered, as was the General Electric TG-100 turboprop engine. After some evaluating and testing however, the TG-100 was selected as it was deemed to have superior performance for combat and cruising situations. As for the jet engine in the rear, a relatively straightforward choice to mount a General Electric J33-GE-5 (also known as I-40) jet engine was made. After a couple of months of development, Consolidated Vultee submitted a preliminary design proposal to the United States Army Air Force in September of 1943. Relatively interested in this design, the plane was given the greenlight for further development and received the designation “XP-81” by the Air Material Command.
Detailed work on the XP-81 began in January 5th of 1944 and on January 18th, Consolidated Vultee was given the contract (no. W33-038-ac-1887) by the USAAF worth about $4.6 million to construct two flying XP-81 prototypes and one airframe for ground testing under the USAAF project name “MX-480”. Another contract followed on June 20th of 1944 worth $3,744,000 for the two flying examples, the airframe and the testing data. The contract was later modified to include 13 YP-81 under the project name “MX-796”. The construction of the first XP-81 prototype would begin on January 20th at the formerly independent Vultee aircraft factory in Downey, California but problems soon surfaced. Some time in April, the Air Material Command was notified that there would be a delay in the delivery of the TG-100 due to a couple of technical difficulties. As such, construction of the first prototype was delayed as the designers sought out an alternative engine to replace the TG-100 in June.
The Packard V-1650-3 (some sources state V-1650-7), which was the American copy of the British Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, was selected to fill in the gap and the USAAF promptly provided Consolidated Vultee with such an engine taken from a North American P-51D Mustang. Within a week of receiving the engine, Consolidated Vultee engineers were able to install it after making considerable structural modifications to the first prototype’s airframe. A radiator similar to that of the Lockheed P-38J’s “beard” radiator would also be mounted on the XP-81, under the propeller spinner. Unfortunately for the designers however, the change of powerplant would add 950 lb (431 kg) to the plane while taking away 960 hp at takeoff and 1720 hp at top speed. With the relatively slow development, the first XP-81 prototype would finally be completed in January of 1945 bearing the serial number of “44-91000”.
Although the aforementioned issues with weight gain and horsepower loss were present, the Packard engine powered XP-81 was still deemed safe for flight tests, and as such, the first XP-81 prototype was prepared for test flights at Muroc Dry Lake in California and finally took to the skies on February 7th of 1945 with Frank W. Davis in the cockpit. Amazingly enough, 46 test flights were made with the Packard engine and it accumulated a total of 47.75 flight hours. In the testing phase it was noted that with the Packard engine installed, the XP-81 had poor directional stability at low speeds and the occasional splatter of oil on the windscreen by the propellers. Plans to replace the Packard engine were brought up on May 18th of 1945 when the TG-100 turboprop was finally available. The conversion was completed and the first prototype was returned back to Muroc for more tests on June 11th. Due to the new engine installation, extensive ground work had to be accomplished before flight tests were to continue. Throughout June 23rd to December 20th of 1945, numerous ground tests were conducted and a few problems surfaced. For one, the TG-100 was difficult to start and once it did, the pilot would have difficulty controlling the propeller. As this was an early turboprop engine,
reliability was low and the turbine wheels had to be replaced constantly, sometimes only after half an hour of use. The 10 inch (25 cm) oil cooler for the TG-100 was also deemed a problem, and it was thus increased to a 12 inch (30 cm) system instead. Perhaps the biggest problem however, was the throttle lag the XP-81 suffered. Frank W. Davis describes the problem by stating “The pilot had about a 10 second lag when he wanted to go and about 2 seconds lag when he wanted to stop, with both thrust and drag being powerful and non-adjustable when they did occur.” (Consolidated Vultee XP-81, by Steve Ginter). The ground personnel concluded in these ground tests that the current Aeroproduct A542 propeller and drive shafts were incompatible with the TG-100, and that new propellers should be developed. An emergency engine feathering system was also recommended.
The first flight of the XP-81 with the TG-100 engine occured on December 21st of 1945. This was the 47th test flight the first XP-81 underwent. Performance was rather satisfactory, and the flight concluded after a mere 5 minutes. Excessive oil consumption was noted however. Test flights with the TG-100 proved disappointing as the turboprop did not perform as it was advertised, delivering less horsepower than was expected. Out of the estimated 2,300 hp the TG-100 was suppose to achieve, only 1,400 hp was achieved. The I-40 engine was no help either, as it developed nearly 250 lb (113 kg) less thrust than advertised as well. The estimated performance of 478 mph (769 kmh) at sea level was not achieved with only a mere 400 mph (643 kmh) achieved. Due to these factors, the performance achieved was similar to that of the Packard engine installation. Despite these problems, the XP-81 still did well in some aspects. The relatively decent handling and decent climb rate was complemented, as was the light controls. The second prototype (serial no. 44-91001) was produced some time before November of 1946, and was ready for flights by February of 1947. It featured a longer ventral fin than that of the XP-81 and had a four blade Hamilton Hydromatic propeller replacing the Aeroproducts propeller used on the first prototype. Unfortunately, it is unknown what date the second prototype made its maiden flight, but it is speculated that it first flew some time in February of 1947.
In total, 116 flights were made by both of the XP-81 prototypes, 22 of which were done by the second XP-81 prototype. More tests were planned, as on January 14th of 1947, Consolidated Vultee called for the following areas to be studied and tested:
- Firearms testing of the Browning AN/M2 and the Hispano T31. Bombs and rockets tests will also be included.
- Anti-icing equipment efficiency.
- Control characteristics and lateral stability.
- Cabin pressurization experiments.
- Power plant operations.
However due to the previously mentioned issues of the XP-81 underperforming, the USAAF gradually lost interest in the XP-81 program. Consolidated Vultee was well aware of this, and they had been trying since December of 1946 to improve their design. A proposal was made in December 31st to the Air Material Command to fix the underperforming prototypes. This proposal suggested that an improved TG-110 (the ones that would have been used on the YP-81) should replace the TG-100 and a J33-19 jet engine should replace the J33-GE-5. The Air Material Command however was not impressed by the proposal due to the amount of redesigning and time needed and in early 1947, their engineering department ceased work on the TG-100 turboprop engine. Things would look even more grim for the XP-81 when on January 27th of 1947, the contract for the 13 YP-81 pre-
production fighters were cancelled. Finally on May 9th, the XP-81 program reached its end when the government decided to cancel the contract on its development. The two prototypes were then taken in by the USAAF on June 24th and 25th. Finalization of the cancellation was conducted on June 23rd of 1948 after the USAAF was reorganized into the United States Air Force (USAF) when Consolidated Vultee was reimbursed with $4,578,231 for their work on the program.
Though development stopped for the XP-81 program, the two prototype’s story did not end there. At the time when the USAAF took in the prototypes, the engine and propeller development branches of the Air Material Command was in the middle of developing more advanced propeller control techniques and a suitable machine was needed to perform tests on as wind tunnels and models were not available. The USAAF promptly provided the two XP-81s which were redesignated as “ZXF-81” for this new role. The two planes were then stored in Edwards AFB (previously known as Muroc AAF) for future use. Unfortunately, they were never used and on April 29th of 1949, all useful parts and gadgets were stripped from the two planes by order of the USAF. The two empty airframes were then dragged onto the photography & bombing range of the Edwards AFB.
Despite the XP-81s now sitting in the desert, Consolidated Vultee was still not willing to yield completely. The company tried proposing reviving the XP-81 program using different power plants and repurposing the role. The proposal called for the use of the British Armstrong-Siddeley Double Mamba turboprop producing 4,000 hp and a Rolls-Royce R.B 41 jet engine producing 6,250 lbf (2,835 kgf) of thrust replacing the original engines. The idea behind this was to create a ground attack aircraft which could be exported to other countries. However, this idea was understandably met with skepticism by the Air Force, but an investigation to see the feasibility of this proposal was made. On September 14th of 1950, a report was finalized stating that at least ⅔ of the airframe would need to be modified in order to mount the new engines. New drop tanks, rocket rails, hardpoints and various other parts would also need to be redesigned. Another investigation was done on this proposal by comparing the hypothetical performance to the all-turboprop Douglas A2D Skyshark, a ground attacker aircraft in service with the USAF. It was determined that the Skyshark would outperform the XP-81 with British engines in all aspects, so there was no point in developing an inferior aircraft. Another factor that was noted was the excessive amount of maintenance, training and logistics needed to service the ground attacker. With all these factors in mind, the proposal was discarded by the USAF and Consolidated Vultee finally gave up on the XP-81.
The two XP-81 airframes would remain in the desert exposed to the elements for decades until August of 1994 when Air Force Flight Test Center Museum curator Doug Nelson retrieved them. They were in derelict condition, with the second XP-81 prototype being more damaged than the first. As of 2018, the two airframes remain in the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio awaiting future restoration. Although never seeing service, the XP-81 still holds a distinct spot in history as America’s first turboprop engine powered plane to fly and the world’s first plane to fly with a turboprop engine and a jet engine together.
The XP-81’s semi-monocoque fuselage was constructed using age hardened 24-SRT aluminum alloy, followed by the exterior surfaces being flush riveted. The entire fuselage is made from metal. The wing design was a NACA laminar flow type, made from aluminum-alloy. The design allowed for a stressed-skin wing which was flush riveted as well, with the rivet heads being milled. Due to the relatively heavy materials used in the wings, the surface was relatively smooth thus allowing for good aerodynamics. The majority of the heavy plating was mounted in the frontal 34.5% of the wings, and thus allowed a decent mount for aerial weapons and permitted ordinance to be mounted. There were spoilers present on each wing which automatically operated in accordance to the ailerons. Another interesting feature was a thermal anti-ice system derived from the hot hair emitted from the TG-100 turboprop and the exhaust. Within the fuselage two fuel tanks were installed directly behind the cockpit, making for a total 811 gallons (3670 L) of fuel. The fuselage also housed the XP-81’s tricycle landing gear which was electrically operated. The main gear was fitted with disc brakes, also doubling as a parking brake.
The canopy on the cockpit was based off of the British bubble design, which allowed for a relatively clean 360° view. This type of canopy was used on many planes in service with the United States and Britain. The canopy would be controlled by the pilot via a hand crank on the left hand side of the cockpit. For fatal combat situations, an emergency canopy jettison system was provided allowing for the pilot to bail out quickly. The pilot’s seat was an ordinary World War II styled seat, but this was eventually replaced with an ejection seat modelled after the one used on the Convair XP-54. As the XP-81 was a long range fighter, an automatic piloting system was also installed. The cockpit would also be pressurized using the air from the TG-100 engine. For pilot comfort, a temperature system was installed allowing for optimal temperatures in all climate and altitudes.
For communication, the XP-81 was fitted with a VHF (Very High Frequency) SCR 522-A radio set. The cockpit also had room for a BC-1206 beacon receiver and an SCR 695 identification friendly-or-foe system, but these were never installed. The pilot would operate the SCR 522-A radio from the right side of the cockpit, where the radio controls were based.
It is also interesting to note that the second YP-81 prototype had a longer ventral fin than the first prototype.
The XP-81’s design called for a General Electric TG-100 (also known as XTG-31-GE-1) turboprop and General Electric/Allison J33-GE-5 (I-40) jet engine as its power plants. The first prototype had a four blade Aeroproducts A542 brand propeller driving the TG-100 while the second prototype had a Hamilton Standard Hydromatic 4260 propeller instead. The TG-100 had a capacity for 8 gallons (30 L) of oil while the I-40 had 3.5 gallons (13 L). In terms of fuel, 811 gallons (3,670 L) was available in the XP-81’s two standard fuel tanks in the fuselage, but could go up to 1,511 gallons (5,720 L) with the installation of drop tanks.
The standard armament envisioned for the production P-81 would consist of either six 12.7x99mm Browning AN/M2 machine guns with 400 rounds each or six 20x110mm Hispano T31 cannons with 200 rounds each. The loadout of these guns would be in groups of three in each wing. For ordinance, a single hard point was mounted under each wing, allowing the plane to carry two bombs size ranging from 100 lb (45 kg) to 1,600 lb (725 kg), allowing for a maximum of 3,200 lb (1,451 kg). Chemical tanks, drop tanks, depth charges could also be equipped. Alternatively, 14 High velocity Aircraft Rockets (HVAR) could be carried.
- XP-81 – Prototype fighter variant powered by a TG-100 turboprop and I-40 jet engine. Two examples were produced and extensively tested up until the cancellation of the project. Both prototypes were redesignated as “ZXF-81” in 1948 and stored in Edwards AFB. They would be stripped of useful parts and towed to the photography/bombing range near Edwards AFB and left there in derelict condition until August of 1994 when they were retrieved by Doug Nelson. The two airframes still survive to this day and are currently awaiting restoration at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.
- YP-81 – Planned batch of 13 pre-production fighter variant powered by a lighter but more powerful TG-110 turboprop engine and an uprated General Electric J33-GE-5 turbojet engine. These planes would have been armed with either the Browning AN/M2 machine guns or the Hispano T-31 cannons. It would have differed from the XP-81 by having the wings moved back 10 inches (2.54 cm). No YP-81s were produced.
- ZXF-81 – Post development termination designation for the two XP-81 prototypes. This designation signified that the prototypes were now flying test beds. However, no use of the prototypes after its termination was noted.
- XP-81 (British Engines) – Unofficial variant proposed by Consolidated Vultee some time in 1949/1950 calling for the revival of the XP-81 project using British Armstrong-Siddeley Double Mamba turboprop producing 4,000 hp and a Rolls-Royce R.B 41 jet engine producing 6,250 lb (2,835 kg) of thrust replacing original engines. This new variant would be used as a ground attacker that would be solely used for export. This proposal never saw any development and was thus discarded.
- United States of America – The XP-81 was intended to be used by the USAAF, but development carried over to the USAF. The project was eventually cancelled.
Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation XP-81
|Wingspan||50 ft 6 in / 15.39 m|
|Length||44 ft 8 in / 13.61 m|
|Height||13 ft 10 in / 4.21 m|
|Wing Area||425 ft² / 39.48 m²|
|Wing Loading||45.9 ft² / 4.26 m²|
|Tire Loading||80 in² / 516.12 cm²|
|Wings Sweep Back||0°|
|Engines||1x General Electric XTG-31-GE-1 (TG-100) turboprop
1x General Electric / Allison J33-GE-5 (I-40) jet
|Oil Capacity||TG-100: 8 gallons / 30 L
I-40: 3.5 gallons / 13 L
|Empty Weight||12,755 lb / 3,887 kg|
|Normal Weight||19,500 lb / 8,845 kg
(Maximum internal fuel with reduced armaments)
|Maximum Combat Weight||24,650 lb / 11,181 kg|
|Fuel Capacity||811 gallons / 3,070 L – Internal Fuel Tanks
1511 gallons / 5,720 L – Internal Fuel Tanks + Drop Tanks
350 gallons / 1,325 L – Individual Drop Tank
|Center of Gravity||Max Forward – 17%
Max Aft – 27%
|Rate of Climb||0 to 5,000 ft / 0 to 1,524 m – 5,200 fpm / 39.31 mps|
|Time of Climb||30,000 ft / 9,144 m in 9.6 minutes|
|Speed||299 mph / 481 kmh at Sea Level
253 mph / 407 kmh at 15,000 ft / 4,572 m
224 mph / 360 kmh at 30,000 ft / 9,144 m
|Maximum Speed||546 mph / 877 kmh
Diving tests were never finalized due to propeller and engine problems. Flight #90 on September 4th of 1946 achieved the highest speed as mentioned above.
|Range||Conditions under maximum combat weight
Ferry Range – 2,393 mi / 3,851 km
|Service Ceiling||47,000 ft / 14,000 m|
|Radio Equipment||SCR 522-A VHF Radio|
|Armament||6x 12.7x99mm Browning AN/M2 (400 rpg, 2,400 total)
6x 20x119mm Hispano T31 (200 rpg, 1,200 total)
Never Fitted on Prototypes, Intended Armament
|Gunsight||1x K-14 Gyro Gunsight|
|Ordinance||2x hardpoints capable of carrying 3,200 lb / 1,452 kg of either bombs, depth charges, chemical tanks or drop tanks
14x 5 inch / 12.7 cm High Velocity Aircraft Rockets (HVAR)
Ginter, S. (2006). Consolidated Vultee XP-81. Simi Valley: Steve Ginter., Jenkins, D. R., & Landis, T. R. (2008). Experimental and Prototype: U.S. Air Force Jet Fighters. North Branch: Specialty Press., Wegg, J. (1990). General Dynamics Aircraft: And their Predecessors. London: Putnam Aeronautical Books., Baugher, J. (1991). Convair XP-81., National Museum of the US Air Force (n.d.). Convair XP-81. Images: Side Profile Views by Escodrion – https://escodrion.deviantart.com