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Curtiss Ascender XP-55

 by Gerry Balzer, Ginter Books, Simi Valley, Calif., 2014, $24.95

 War is urgent. Yet amid history’s ghastliest conflict both sides found the leisure to evaluate unorthodox flying machines, in full knowledge that they would contribute nothing to the outcome. The weird Curtiss XP-55 Ascender was one of three pusher-propeller aircraft that underwent tests long after the more conventional P-51 Mustang was waxing the wall with the Third Reich’s fighter force (the others were the Vultee XP-54 and Northrop XP-56). The tailless Ascender had swept wings.

Gerry Balzer is an unsung archival hero who has spent a lifetime researching weird and wonderful aircraft, plus a few that are less bizarre. A diligent researcher and smart writer known for his generosity to others in the field, Balzer has evolved into the go-to expert on many Northrop designs. He’s also a World War II–era veteran and a retired aeronautical engineer who worked on a dozen major aircraft projects.

As a teenager, rummaging in the Smithsonian archive back in the day when you could buy an 8-by-10 print for 75 cents, I felt I’d hit the big time when I discovered just one photograph of the XP-55. This book provides 145 photos, many never before seen, of the Model CW 24B developmental aircraft that preceded the XP-55 and the XP-55 itself. Although two of the three Ascenders crashed during tests, the third is on display at the Air Zoo museum in Kalamazoo, Mich.—on loan from the Smithsonian—and it makes for a grand portrait on the cover of this book from prolific publisher Steve Ginter.

Balzer explains technical details in plain language that will work for anyone and is ideal for young readers. This is the definitive work on the XP-55. It will fascinate you for hours. You’ll savor the fruit of Balzer’s research and ask yourself, “How did they do that, anyway?”


Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.