Fearing that American aircraft development was stagnating in the face of technological advances made overseas, the US Army Air Corps issued Request for Data R-40C in 1940 which the Army hoped would encourage designers to create innovative new aircraft that went beyond the traditional monoplane with engine in front arrangement that had become standard during the 1930s. Three aircraft came out of this request: the Vultee XP-54, the Curtiss XP-55 Ascender, and the radical Northrop XP-56 Black Bullet.
This is the first installment in a three-part series that takes a look at the Request for Data R-40C aircraft.
Before merging with Consolidated Aircraft in 1943, the Vultee Aircraft Corporation had found its greatest success with the A-31 Vengeance dive bomber and the BT-13 Valiant trainer. Hoping to remain relevant and acquire another military contract, Vultee responded to the R-40C request with the XP-54, unofficially as the Swoose Goose. Vultee planned to use the experimental Pratt & Whitney X-1800 “hyper engine,” which they expected to provide up to 2,200 turbocharged horsepower and carry the Swoose Goose to a tope speed of 510 mph at 20,000 feet. But when the X-1800 engine was cancelled, Vultee was forced to substitute a less powerful Lycoming H-2470 engine, which turned out to be inadequate for such a large aircraft. Without enough power for dogfighting at high altitude, the Swoose Goose was reclassified as a bomber-interceptor.
Since the XP-54 was no longer a dedicated fighter, its armament was reconfigured to give a heavier punch, and the six .50 caliber machine guns in the nose were changed to two .50 caliber machine guns and two 37mm cannons. But the lower muzzle velocity of the cannons caused difficulty with aiming, so Vultee came up with a novel solution. They devised a system where the entire nose of the aircraft could be tilted upward three degrees in order to lob the cannon shells at the target. The nose could also be lowered six degrees for attacking ground targets. Another Vultee innovation was a pilot’s seat that lowered beneath the plane through a hatch so the pilot could be raised into the cockpit. This mechanism also served to drop the pilot through the bottom of the fuselage in case of emergency, making it essentially an early downward ejection seat.
Two prototypes were built, and the maiden flight took place on January 15, 1943, followed by 86 test flights. But as is so often the case in aircraft development of the period, the Lycoming engine just wasn’t up to the task and the XP-54 never achieved the hoped-for performance. It managed a top speed of only 381 mph and took 10 minutes to reach 23,000 feet. With the completion of a second prototype, the first was used for spare parts, but the second Swoose Goose few only once before the project was canceled in 1942. Vultee considered developing the XP-54 into the XP-68 Tornado by using a more powerful Wright R-2160 Tornado 42-cylinder engine, but when development of the Tornado engine was also cancelled the Tornado airplane followed suit, and the XP-54 became the last airplane designed by Vultee before the merger with Consolidated to form Consolidated-Vultee, or Convair.
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