The Curtiss XP-87/ XF-87 Blackhawk was the company’s first all-jet aircraft, and was briefly ordered into production, before being cancelled in favour of the Northrop F-89 Scorpion.
Curtiss began work on an all-jet attack aircraft in 1945, as the Model 29 XA-43. This aircraft was never built, but when the Army issued a new specification for a turbo-jet powered all-weather interceptor on 23 November 1945 it was used as the basis for that aircraft instead. The interceptor version became the Curtiss Model 29A, and the initial prototype was given the USAAF designation XP-87 Blackhawk. The contract for the two P-87 prototypes was issued on 26 December 1945.
The XP-87 was an all-metal mid-wing monoplane, with straight, taped wings. The four engines were carried in pairs in nacelles carried under the wings (one per wing). These had a rectangular cross section. The cockpit was mounted well forward, in front of the air intakes of the engines, with the pilot and radar operator sitting side by side. It had a high tail, with the horizontal surface carried almost half way up the vertical fin. The XP-87 was powered by four Westinghouse turbojets. The P-87’s layout was visually misleading – although it looked like a standard single seat fighter, it was actually one of the heaviest aircraft ever produced by Curtiss, as heavy as most versions of the C-46 Commando, and five times heavier and almost twice the size of the P-40 fighter. Part of the problem was that the Westinghouse turbojets used gasoline instead of jet-grade kerosene, which was lighter, but less efficient, requiring larger fuel tanks.
When the aircraft was first designed, it was to be armed with four .50in machine guns, carried in automatically operated nose and tail turrets, each carrying two guns, and internally mounted rockets. By the time the prototype was completed, this had changed, and it was armed with four fixed forward firing 20mm cannon. These were originally meant to be carried in a novel Martin nose turret, but that was never installed.
The XP-87 made its maiden flight at the Army Test Centre at Muroc Dry Lake on 1 March 1948, after a rather tricky road journey from Curtiss’s Columbus factory (some sources say 5 March, but the maiden flight was reported in newspapers published on 2 March). The aircraft performed well although suffered from some problems with buffeting at speeds above 200mph. An order for 57 F-87A fighters and 30 RF-87A photographic reconnaissance aircraft was placed on 10 June 1948. The production aircraft would have been powered by the 5,200lb General Electric J47-GE-15 turbojet, with two engines instead of four.
Soon after this the Northrop XF-89 Scorpion made its maiden flight (16 August 1948). The Air Force ordered a fly-off between the F-87, F-89 and the Navy Douglas XF3D-1. The F-87 was felt to have the best cockpit arrangement, and came second for ease of maintenance, but was still suffering from the buffeting problems. The F-89 came last in most categories, but the test teams still felt that it was the best fighter, with the best developmental potential, and so on 10 October 1948 the order for the P-87 was cancelled. At this point work was already underway on the second prototype, which was being converted from the original four engine layout into a two engine version. This aircraft was scrapped without being completed.
The loss of the F-87 contract left Curtiss-Wright with no prospect of any aircraft orders in the immediate future, and so the company decided to shut down their aircraft division. Its assets were sold to North American, and the surviving Curtiss factory used to produce the F-86 Sabre. The company continued to produce aircraft engines, and still exists as of 2020.
Performance figures estimates
Engine: Four Westinghouse XJ34-WE-7 turbojets
Power: 3,000lb thrust east
Span: 60ft 0in
Length: 61ft 10in
Height: 20ft 0in
Empty weight: 25,930lb
Normal loaded weight: 37,350lb
Maximum take-off weight: 49,990lb
Max speed: 580mph at sea level
Climb Rate: 13.8 mins to 35,000ft
Range: 1000 miles