Sea Sabres; The North American FJ Furys

April 26, 2023

The F-86 Sabre is one of those aircraft that established itself as a legend of air warfare. Mainly remembered for its epic battles against its great rival, the MiG-15, during the Korean War, the Sabre was pretty much the mainstay fighter for many Western orientated nations during the 1950s. Indeed, the F-86 would still be a mainstay for many countries into the 1970s and wouldn’t actually be retired from frontline service until 1994.

But what isn’t so well remembered is that this remarkable aircraft actually originated from humble roots. More surprisingly, naval roots.

This is the story of the North American FJ Fury,  an aircraft that created a legend and also evolved from very limited origins into a genuinely formidable fighter. And all in all, it is kind of surprising that it ranks as a “Forgotten Aircraft”.

 

The first Fury, the FJ-1, originated in a requirement issued by the US Navy in 1944 for one of the fancy new jet aircraft that seemed to be making ripples amongst aeronautic designers. In fact, the Navy were so keen not to get left behind that they ordered four separate aircraft designs; the McDonnell XFD-1 Phantom, the McDonnell XF2D-1 Banshee, the Vought XF6U-1 Pirate and the North American XFJ-1 Fury.

 

For the latter, and because of the desire of the Navy to get a jet into service ASAP, North American largely went with what they knew, which was the P-51 Mustang; probably not a bad basis for building a new fighter. Like the P-51 the new FJ-1 had a frameless teardrop canopy, a cockpit mounted high up in the fuselage to give the pilot excellent visibility, and thin straight wings.

The difference came in the powerplant, which was a single Allison J35 turbojet which produced 3,820 lbf in the prototype aircraft and 4,000lbf in the production ones. This was mounted within the fuselage and North American elected to go for a single nose air inlet in contrast to the wing root or cheek-mounted inlets of the other American jets in development at the time, giving the FJ-1 that distinctive tubby, barrel-like look that was common in the early jets that used nose inlets.

The initial hope was that at least one of these jet aircraft types would be available for service before the end of the war, and so in May 1945 one hundred FJ-1s were ordered practically off the drawing board. As it was, the war ended somewhat sooner than had been expected and so the order for the FJ-1 was cut to just three prototypes and thirty production aircraft, with the development rush slowed down.

So it wasn’t until September 1946 that the XFJ-1 made its first flight, and deliveries of the production aircraft to the US Navy began in October 1947, with the FJ-1 only serving with a single squadron, VF-5A. With the FJ-1 this squadron was to be the first operational jet fighter squadron in the US Navy, landing aboard the USS Boxer in March 1948.

 

But even by this point the FJ-1 was already recognized as a very limited design and its top speed of 547mph (880km/h), while not bad for a first-generation jet fighter, was soon surpassed and so it was that the front-line service of the FJ-1 was extremely short, only fourteen months, and they were swiftly transferred to the US Navy reserve before being retired completely in 1953.

And that would be it, a rather unremarkable aircraft that would be memorable for conducting a few “firsts” and for an extremely short service life. But as said, the Fury was to lay the groundwork for a line of much more famous and successful descendants.

As the FJ-1 was in development in 1945 North American had proposed to the United States Army Air Force, as it was then, that they could build a much-improved aircraft derived from the basic design. This was authorized and when German research and data on jet aircraft was captured and became available to the North American team at the end of the war, the new aircraft was altered to have swept wings and a longer, slimmer fuselage.

This, the XP-86, was the first of the Sabres, and though a far more formidable aircraft than its progenitor, the lineage was still clear to see.

And the success of the Sabre would mean that, somewhat ironically, the US Navy soon wanted their own version. The Navy had stuck with straight wing designs largely because the problems that swept wing aircraft had with higher stalling speeds and tricky low-level performance, significant issues for carrier operation.

But the war in Korea soon demonstrated that the US Navy’s Panther’s and Banshee’s were outclassed by the Soviet MiG-15 and so in January 1951 a crash program was initiated to develop a naval Sabre. This was essentially the F-86E configured for carrier use and as such had just about nothing in common with the original FJ-1 anymore. But the US Navy went with retaining the Fury name, designating the aircraft as the FJ-2.

 

I’ve seen several explanations on this, mainly around it being a way for the Navy to con the necessary money for the FJ-2 out of Congress. After all, this wasn’t a new aircraft, oh no!, it was  a development of an existing Navy aircraft…or at least that is how the Navy painted it.

Of course, the retention of the Fury name might also have been a point-blank refusal to admit that the Navy was having to adopt an Air Force plane as an emergency measure, which considering the traditional antipathy between the two services was probably a handy extra in choosing the name. Because the adoption of the Sea Sabre, sorry, I mean the FJ-2 Fury, was indeed an emergency that meant the program rocketed along.

North American first proposed a naval Sabre on the 30 January 1951. On February 10, before any development work had been done or prototype even ordered, the US Navy issued a contract for 300 of the new fighters. So it was that on 27 December 1951 the first FJ-2 flew.

 

The first two prototypes were essentially F-86E Sabres modified for testing carrier handling on the type, while the production aircraft had quite substantial changes to the design to better fit the Navy’s needs. On top of the standard adaptations such as arrestor gear and foldable wings the FJ-2 had a wider undercarriage and armament switched from the Sabre’s six 0.5-calibre Browning machine guns to four 20mm cannon.

For powerplant the aircraft used the General Electric J47-GE-2 engine rated at 6000 lbf and the wings were based on those used on the early models of the F-86F. Top speed was 676mph (1,088km/h) at sea level, only fractionally slower than the contemporary F-86F of the USAF even though the FJ-2 was around half a tonne heavier.

However, it wasn’t all rosy. Despite the US Navy’s subterfuge that the FJ-2 was basically the development of the FJ-1, the aircraft really wasn’t suitable as a carrier aircraft, being tricky in deck landings. Concerns on this and the fact that North American was almost completely at capacity building Sabre’s for the Korean War meant that after the initial rush development slowed down. The first production FJ-2 Fury wasn’t received by the US Navy until late 1952, and by the time of the ceasefire in July 1953 only seven had been delivered.

 

The production order was slashed to two hundred and, because of concerns about its carrier suitability, the entire order was handed over to the US Marine Corps for use from land bases.

But this still didn’t mark the end of the Fury line, as a new model was already well in development – the FJ-3.

In 1950 Curtiss-Wright obtained a license to build the British Sapphire engine. This weighed only slightly more than the J47, but offered considerably more power, rated at 7,800lbf. The Navy decided this was what they wanted in their Fury’s and in 1952 ordered a new variant fitted with it; the FJ-3.

The new engine entailed making changes to the air inlet to make it bigger, as well as a redesigned fuselage, increased ammunition load for the four 20mm cannon and additional cockpit armour.

Deliveries of the FJ-3 commenced in December 1953 and the US Navy seems to have been happy with the new Fury, though it would play second fiddle to the Grumman Cougar that was to be the US Navy’s primary carrier fighter throughout the first half of the 1950s.

 

That isn’t to say though that the new Fury didn’t have its moments, indeed, the type was the first fighter to land on the new supercarrier the USS Forrestal in 1956, and the FJ-3 would see improvements made to it as production continued, including improved wings for better agility, provision for inflight refueling and the capability to carry bombs, rockets and the new AIM-9 Sidewinder missile that was coming into service.

 

The type would fly cover for the American intervention in Lebanon in 1958 but other than that enjoyed a short and quiet frontline career, serving into the 1960s and being redesignated as the F-1C in 1962, ending its days as controllers for target drones and Regulus cruise missiles. All told 538 FJ-3’s were built, and that was pretty respectable number for an aircraft that was largely eclipsed by its contemporaries.

But even then, the US Navy wasn’t finished with the Fury, and started a program to build the final variant, the FJ-4.

 

And this aircraft, if perhaps a bit of a chonker in contrast to its streamlined forebears and Sabre brethren, was possibly the most formidable of all the Sabre variants. I would say “Fury” variants, but let’s be honest the FJ-4 was so far removed now from the FJ-1 it is kind of surprising that the name was retained, especially as the Grumman Panther/Cougar combo arguably saw less radical development but got different names. The FJ-4, meanwhile, was almost unrecognizable in comparison to the FJ-1 and in fact an almost totally new design even compared to the FJ-3.

Originally designed to be a naval interceptor, the FJ-4 carried fifty percent more fuel than the FJ-3. To accommodate this an additional tank was fitted under the engine and the wings configured as “wet”, in which the whole wing was hollow and served as a fuel tank.

The wing flaps were also radically changed over the previous Fury’s, having high lift flaps, a controllable drooping leading edge, and mid-span control surfaces. With a shortened fuselage, now fitted with a distinctive spine, the FJ-4 was truly the naval aircraft that had been wanted from the beginning, resolving the handling issues that had long been an issue with the series. Armament was the standard 4 20mm cannon, but the first FJ-4s also had four under wing hardpoints for carrying AIM-9s.

Deliveries began in February 1955 and 152 of the FJ-4 fighters were built for the US Navy and Marines before the final production variant, the FJ-4B, entered service. This took the FJ-4 and turned it into a heavy hitting fighter-bomber.

 

The wings were strengthened, and payload was doubled to 6,000lbs (2,722kgs) of ordnance on six hardpoints. Powerplant was now the J65-W-16A that produced 7,700lbf and this gave the FJ-4s a top speed of 680mph (1,094km/h).

But most significantly, the FJ-4B was configured to use both the new Bullpup standoff missile and fitted with the Low-Altitude Bombing System (LABS) that enabled the type to toss bomb nuclear weapons.

 

The 222 FJ-4Bs therefore provided the US Navy with one of its primary strike aircraft throughout the late-1950s and early-‘60s, eventually being displaced by the A-4 Skyhawk, making their last flights off aircraft carriers in 1962 before being relegated to the Reserve until they were retired in 1964.

All told North American delivered 1,112 Fury’s, which makes their comparative lack of reputation somewhat surprising. Of course, they never saw any combat, which probably helps explain their status as a forgotten aircraft, but the significance of the Fury in the story of the F-86 means they probably should deserve more recognition. Because let’s be honest, while I’ve titled this as “Sea Sabres”, we could probably refer to the F-86 family as the “Land Fury’s”.

FJ-1 and FJ-2 together

 

Sources/Related:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_FJ-1_Fury

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_FJ-2/-3_Fury

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_FJ-4_Fury

https://www.boeing.com/history/products/fj-fury.page

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