Issue Date: August 30, 2004
History in Blue
XF-90 gets a new life: Salvaged fighter to teach about Cold War test flights
By Robert F. Dorr
Special to the Times
The Air Force Museum hopes to use a partially salvaged fighter from the 1950s to educate visitors about flight test operations and atmospheric nuclear tests of the early Cold War era.
The XF-90 that will appear at the museum was evaluated by the Air Force as a possible “penetration fighter” for long-range incursions into Soviet airspace during the Cold War.
After it failed to win a production contract, the XF-90 spent a second career on a Nevada test range, one of many subjects used to measure the results of atomic weapons during atmospheric nuclear tests.
The story began in 1946 when the Air Force ordered two XP-90 aircraft from Lockheed to compete with the XP-88 built by McDonnell and the XP-86C from North American.
The “X” indicated an experimental mission, and in June 1948 the “P” for pursuit aircraft was changed to “F” for fighter. The North American aircraft was redesignated XF-93, so the Air Force now found itself with a three-way competition between the XF-88, XF-90, and XF-93, for what was expected to be a huge production contract.
Although World War II had shown the need for a fighter that could escort bombers to their targets, Strategic Air Command boss Gen. Curtis LeMay disliked fighters and believed his long-range strike force could survive without them.
The XF-90 was the best-looking of the three designs but the worst performer. Even before the first of two XF-90s made its initial flight at Muroc Dry Lake, Calif., on June 3, 1949, it was obvious the plane’s twin Westinghouse J34 turbojet engines — each with 3,000 pounds of thrust — were inadequate. The “Blackhawk” comic book characters of the era flew XF-90s, but in real life the aircraft didn’t make the grade.
When afterburners were added to the engines, the plane was redesignated XF-90A but remained inadequate.
On Aug. 15, 1950, just weeks into the Korean War, the Air Force declared the similarly modified McDonnell XF-88A Voodoo to be the winner of a “penetration fighter” competition.
A production F-88 would have been useful in Korea, but the production order never came, although the XF-88A did influence the later F-101 Voodoo.
One of the two XF-90s built was turned over to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in Cleveland and was destroyed in structural testing. The second aircraft found its way to Nevada.
“Our XF-90 served as one of the test aircraft in Operation Tumbler-Snapper in 1952,” said Jeffery S. Underwood, historian at the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
Tumbler-Snapper was one of several series of atomic-bomb tests held above ground in Nevada.
“We arranged to have the Department of Energy recover the airframe,” said retired Maj. Gen. Charles Metcalf, director of the museum. “It had been fairly heavily damaged during the nuclear tests but was not ‘hot’ [radioactive], just dirty.”
Eventually, Metcalf said, the plane will be displayed as it appeared at the test site. Metcalf and Underwood said it will be several years before the XF-90 can be displayed, just as it appeared at the test site, in the museum’s new Cold War gallery.
Robert F. Dorr, an Air Force veteran, lives in Oakton, Va. He is the author of numerous books on Air Force topics, including “Air Force One.” His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
I actually remember F-90’s in those comic books.
Performance notwithstanding, it was a pretty good looking plane.