Share This Article

U.S. Experimental & Prototype Aircraft Projects: Fighters 1939-1945

by Bill Norton, Specialty Press, North Branch, Minn., 2008, $44.95.

It’s no secret that World War II motivated nations to design, test and produce fighter aircraft with ever-increasing speed, range and armament. Bill Norton’s extraordinary review of U.S. Army Air Forces and Navy fighters is mind-boggling in its detailed history of dozens of successful projects, as well as others that had no possibility of being produced in quantity and never saw combat duty. It includes nearly 400 photographs, and lists performance characteristics illustrating the rapid technological progress during the war.

What is especially captivating about this unusual compilation of information is the variance exhibited by the “name” fighter plane producers competing to satisfy changing service requirements and specifications as the war progressed. Former fighter pilots will be particularly interested in the many unsuccessful modifications attempted and subsequent improvements in fighting capability during production of such stalwarts as the Army Air Forces’ P-38, P-40, P-47, P-51, P-61 and the Navy’s SB2C, SBD, TBD, F4F and F4U. Norton outlines the experiences of the test pilots and also details the causes of accidents. Many of those mishaps resulted from the fast pace of development required while aircraft were still being tested and sent to units for training.

U.S. Experimental & Prototype Aircraft Projects is one of the most unusual compilations of wartime fighter specifics yet produced. It documents never-before-shown losers in the race to win contracts, explaining why they didn’t succeed. Rare photos include such oddities as the Republic P-47 with an inline engine, the twin-pusher Bell YFM-1 Airacuda with tricycle landing gear, the Curtiss XP-55 sweptwing pusher, Northrop’s wooden N-1M flying wing, Vought’s XF5U flying saucer and the Ryan FR-1 propeller-and-jet combination. Norton also covers the reasons for major and minor design changes, such as attempts to solve instability, poor handling qualities, high stall speeds and numerous problems with engine reliability and armament limitations.

Norton is a flight test engineer at the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and serves as a pilot in the Global Hawk RQ-4A high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle program. His latest book is a valuable reference for anyone interested in the challenges of wartime aircraft production—when time is short, stakes are high and requirements can change rapidly.


Originally published in the March 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.