Odds and Ends in the Freezer: The Bearcat, Helicopter and Fireball
On March 1, 1946, the new carrier USS Midway and its escorting destroyers commenced Operation Frostbite, a test voyage into subarctic conditions in Canadian waters to evaluate the feasibility of conducting carrier operations in extreme cold.
Although World War II had ended just six months before, Navy planners were conscious of the potential of a future war with the Soviet Union. Since Soviet targets within reach of carrier aviation would entail exposure to cruising in high latitudes, naval aviators hoped that operating in wintry conditions could work to their advantage.
Additionally, the nature of even routine flying operations in such extreme conditions excited interest in observing how the fleet’s newest carrier aircraft could cope. Midway already had its Air Group 74 embarked, squadrons of F4U Corsairs and SB2C Helldivers, as well as an F6F Hellcat and a TBM Avenger.
But the carrier also saw the arrival of three additional aircraft for the exercise: the Grumman F8F Bearcat, the Sikorsky HNS-1 helicopter, and the Ryan FR-1 Fireball. Each type was new to carrier operations.
The Bearcat was the latest in a long line of naval fighters by Grumman. Its designers sought an all-new aircraft that could combine power and maneuverability with existing power plants. A necessary tradeoff was sacrificing range for speed, but the Bearcat was anticipated to serve in a defensive interceptor role near the carrier. Test flights in the summer 1944 confirmed a climb rate of 4,800 feet per minute, and a top speed of 424 miles per hour.
Grumman began deliveries in February 1945, and by spring, the first new fighter squadrons were forming. However, when the war ended, the Navy drastically curtailed orders for its last piston engine fighter. The Bearcat left front line service by 1949, but during Operation Frostbite, it was still a contender for carrier service.
Another unusual aircraft was a guest from the U.S. Coast Guard. Although helicopters were nearly as old as conventional aircraft, designs with military potential arrived in the midst of World War II. The naval applications of compact aircraft requiring a minimum flight deck and having the ability to hover intrigued naval planners. In 1942, Admiral Ernest King directed the Coast Guard to take a leading role in evaluating the use of the helicopter for naval warfare. By 1943, the Coast Guard began testing a Sikorsky helicopter model called the HNS-1.
Although the HNS-1 was primitive, with limited performance, the ability to operate from virtually any ship by hovering, made it attractive for at-sea rescue and anti-submarine surveillance protection. Flown by Coast Guard Lt. Walter Bolton, the fragile HNS-1 flew from the Midway’s decks, testing pilot rescue techniques, performing radar calibration flights, and visiting escorting ships. Despite the cold conditions, the contributions of vertical flight to carrier operations were undeniable, and helicopters rapidly became a part of future carrier complements.
The most exotic of the trio of embarked aircraft aboard the Midway was a San Diego product. The Ryan FR-1 Fireball was a composite propeller and jet engine fighter. The Fireball employed a combination of piston power and jet propulsion in a design compact enough for carrier use.
Ryan proposed a simple airframe that housed a proven piston engine forward and a jet engine buried inside the aft section of the plane. Development proceeded rapidly in 1943, prompting the order of production aircraft in December that same year. The Fireball was designed to use the piston engine for takeoffs and landings aboard ship, permitting better responsiveness for launches and approaches for an arrested landing. At altitude, piston engine would be shut down and the turbojet would kick in propelling the fighter at over 400 miles per hour.
After extensive testing and redesigns throughout 1944, the Fireball was delivered for squadron service in March 1945. Designers, however, were now seeking ways to adapt all-jet technology to carrier standards in the war, so interest in the composite Fireball waned to merely familiarizing naval pilots with jets. In November 1945, however, a Fireball pilot was forced to employ the jet engine to take over after his piston engine lost power while approaching the escort carrier USS Wake Island. The resultant landing was quite fast for that era, and the last wire was snagged just prior to the FR-1 engaging the barrier. By 1946, the Fireball at least rated a trial in flying in subarctic conditions.
Over the ensuing three weeks, the Midway and her consorts deliberately sought cold, fearsome weather in Operation Frostbite, and while three aircraft were lost in accidents, the trio of ride-alongs were not among them. Eventually, the Bearcat would see combat with foreign nations, particularly France over Indochina. The HNS-1 rapidly gave way to more sophisticated and capable helicopters. And finally, the Fireball faded into aviation obscurity, an evolutionary dead end.
Regardless, they helped establish the young USS Midway as an enduring naval aviation pioneer.