The McDonnell FH Phantom piled up an impressive stack of firsts. The FH (initially designated FD) was the first twin jet-powered fighter flown by the United States Navy (USN), the first jet-powered aircraft to land on an aircraft carrier, the first jet aircraft to deploy with the Marine Corps, and the first naval aircraft to exceed 500 miles per hour in level flight. McDonnell’s first jet fighter was developed after their first propeller-driven design, the radical XP-67 Moonbat, made a favorable impression on the decision makers of the day.
Three XFD-1 Phantom prototypes were ordered August of 1943. The design was drawn to incorporate the Westinghouse J30 turbojet engine, itself still under development at the time. Though several engine configurations were considered, including six tiny engines mounted three in each wing, twin wing root-mounted engines became the design of choice. The jet would mount four .50 caliber machine guns in the nose and underwing racks for rockets. The Phantom also utilized tricycle landing gear and straight wings with split flaps, had a forward-mounted cockpit with bubble canopy, and featured a high mounted tailplane design with dihedral that would be free of exhaust influence.
The first XFD-1 BuNo 48235) rolled out of McDonnell’s factory in January of 1945. At the time only a single Westinghouse 19XB-2B (J30 prototype) engine was available. After successful single-engine ground runs and taxi tests, test pilot Woodward Burke flew the jet with a single engine on January 26th 1945. Even with the engine challenges, flight tests went well and a contract to build 100 Phantoms was awarded to McDonnell Aircraft on March 7th 1945. When the war ended the contract was reduced to 30 airframes, subsequently increased to 60. The first prototype XFD-1 was destroyed in a fatal mishap on November 1st 1945.
Second prototype ready for carrier ops
The second prototype XFD-1 (BuNo 48236) became the first purely jet-powered aircraft to operate from an American aircraft carrier on July 21st 1946. The jet made four takeoffs and landings from the aircraft carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV-42) while the ship was operating in the Atlantic Ocean near Norfolk in Virginia. The size of the Roosevelt, at the time America’s largest carrier, allowed the Phantom to takeoff using conventional deck runs instead of catapults. The second XFD-1 prototype was lost in a mishap on August 26th 1946.
After entering production, FH-1 Phantoms were modified to carry a conformal belly-mounted fuel tank, wing-mounted speed brakes, and an improved gunsight. The engines had finally caught up with the aircraft and production FH-1s were powered by the J30 turbojets. The tailplane design was altered as well, resulting in a smaller rudder, reshaped vertical stabilizer, and shorter horizontal stabilizers. The fuselage was stretched nearly 20 inches. The McDonnell FH-1 Phantom gained operational status with Fighter Squadron SEVENTEEN A (VF-17A) Iron Men on May 5th 1948.
VF-17A didn’t take long to get the Phantom to sea. They deployed aboard the light carrier USS Saipan (CVL-48) during May of 1948. The Gray Angels, three Rear Admirals (Daniel V. Gallery, Apollo Soucek, and Edgar A. Cruise) flying Naval Air Test Center Phantoms, were one of the first jet demonstration teams in existence- even before the Blue Angels, who flew Grumman F8F Bearcats at the time. The Grey Eagles disbanded after a near mishap at Cleveland and their jets were subsequently assigned to Test and Evaluation Squadron THREE (VX-3).
Only two Marine Corps squadrons operated Phantoms. Marine Fighter Squadron ONE TWO TWO (VMF-122) Crusaders and VMF- 311 Tomcats operated FH-1s. VMF-122 formed a flight demonstration team too, dubbed the Marine Phantoms and then the Flying Leathernecks, while flying Phantoms. Production of the McDonnell FH-1 Phantom ended during May of 1948 after a total of 62 airframes were completed.
The Phantom jet could not carry or deliver bombs and experience dictated that any naval aircraft capable of carrying bombs became a force multiplier. The margin between the FH-1s performance and propeller-driven fighters of the day was not great enough. Other contemporary jets outperformed it. The jet also could not be modified to mount an ejection seat. The location of the forward-firing machine guns even caused the pilot to be flash-blinded by the muzzle blast. These limitations and the development of both the McDonnell F2H Banshee and the Grumman F9F Panther spelled a short service life for the first Phantom– the FH-1.
FH-1s couldn’t really do much for weapons training (no bombs) but were used for initial jet-powered transition and carrier qualifications for future Banshee and Panther pilots. VF-17A (by then VF-171) transitioned to the McDonnell F2H-1 Banshee in June of 1949. Their Phantoms went to VF-172 Checkmates for a short time before all FH-1s were replaced and transferred to Naval Reserve units around the country by November of 1949. Phantoms had been replaced by the time the Korean War broke out so they never saw combat. FH-1 Phantoms were completely gone from service by the end of July 1954.