From the Planes You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of Department of Aviation History, we bring you the Kaiser-Fleetwings XBTK.
The history of WWII military aviation is dotted with famous names: Grumman, Curtiss, Martin, Boeing, Douglas. These companies created many of the iconic fighters, bombers, dive bombers and torpedo planes that we all remember and revere today. But they weren’t the only players during that era.
By 1942, the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) was looking for a replacement for the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver dive bomber and the Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber, both great aircraft, but both relatively large. They initiated the VBT program to find a replacement, but the Douglas proposal, the BTD Destroyer, was turning into a gargantuan aircraft in its own right, and the Navy wanted something smaller that could operate from the smaller escort carriers that took less time to build than full-sized carriers. And since the big manufacturers were too busy with ongoing projects to fully develop a new aircraft, the Navy turned to Fleetwings of Bristol, Pennsylvania.
Fleetwings was a company originally established in 1926 that patented and manufactured mechanical timing equipment to control automatic welding machines. Eventually, they moved on to the manufacture of stainless steel, particularly for use in aircraft, and made a business out of building parts for other aircraft manufacturers. Beginning in 1936, they built a handful of aircraft, but none were successful save the BT-12 Sophomore trainer, and they only produced 25 of them. In 1943, Fleetwings was purchased by Henry Kaiser, who had made his name manufacturing ships and is considered the father of modern American shipbuilding. The new company would be called Kaiser-Fleetwings.
After turning aside from the SB2D, the Navy rewrote the requirements for the new aircraft in 1944, now calling it the XBK program, and contracted with Kaiser-Fleetwings to produce two prototypes. A mockup was completed in 1944, and the XBTK made its first flight on April 12, 1945, just four months before V-J Day. The XBTK was powered by a single Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engine, and had a maximum speed of 373 mph. To keep the size to a minimum, all ordnance would be carried externally, with a centerline hardpoint for a single 2,000 pound torpedo and two wing stations that could accommodate 1,000 pounds each. It also had two 20mm cannons and wing launchers for 8 rockets.
During flight testing, pilots discovered a severe fuselage vibration and problems with engine cooling. Stall characteristics were also poor, though the XBTK did demonstrate dive characteristics that were better than any other dive bomber currently in service. The second production aircraft employed new leading edge slots to correct the spin problems, but the Navy had already cut its order of 20 planes down to 10. And there was a challenger waiting in the wings that would put the final nail in the coffin of the plucky XBTK: the Douglas AD Skyraider. Between the Skyraider and the Martin AM Mauler, the Navy had all the new aircraft it needed, and in May of 1946 they decided to complete the five XBTKs already in production, then canceled the project altogether four months later. All of the aircraft were scrapped. But the end of the XBTK didn’t mean the end of Kaiser-Fleetwings. Though they didn’t produce any more aircraft, they were still around in 1960, and produced a launch canister for the Echo 1 balloon satellite. But the Bristol plant closed in 1962 and was demolished. A housing development now rests on the site.
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