The straight-wing F2H Banshees and F9F Panthers that filled most carrier fighter squadrons at the end of the Korean War were replaced with the second generation of swept-wing fighters. Swept wings allowed jets to deal with the Mach effects of supersonic flight and the performance of carrier-based aircraft once again compared favorably with their land-based counterparts. These second generation fighters included the nuclear-capable F9F-6 Cougar, the F7U-3 Cutlass, and later the FJ-4B Fury. (Initially, Composite Squadron [VC] detachments of F2H-4 Banshees provided night fighter capabilities to the new carriers until the development of true all-weather fighters.)
The Grumman F9F-6 Cougar model of the single-engine F9F Panther introduced swept-wing fighters to the carrier air groups. The Cougar series reached the F9F-8 version and was used primarily as a day fighter, but there were light attack and photo reconnaissance versions as well. Although the Cougar was replaced as a fighter on the carriers by the F11F and F8U in the late 1950s, training versions remained in naval service until 1974.
Among the first post–Korean War fighter deliveries were improved, swept-wing FJ-2 models of the North American Fury. Ironically, this was a “navalized” version of the Air Force’s F-86E, while the original XF-86 prototype design evolved from the Navy’s straight-winged FJ-1. The FJ-3 variant of the Fury appeared in time to be the first aircraft to operate from the Forrestal. It featured a new wing, fuselage, rudder, engine, and landing gear. With six underwing carrying points, the FJ-3 was an excellent weapons platform for the Sidewinder air-to-air missile. The FJ-4 Fury was a complete redesign with new fuselage, wing, and control surfaces. With six wing store points, additional armor, a low-altitude bombing system, and an improved control system for high speed flight at low altitude the FJ-4B Fury was a mainstay of many carrier attack squadrons and was the only version capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Three or four years behind the second-generation jet fighters came several new designs in the mid- to late 1950s into the early 1960s. These included the supersonic Vought F7U Cutlass, the Douglas F4D Skyray and Grumman F11F Tiger, and the McDonnell F3H Demon. A trailing member of this generation was the Vought F8U Crusader, which would remain in front line service into the 1970s, with reconnaissance versions serving into the 1980s.
The Vought F7U Cutlass was one of the most unorthodox aircraft ever to operate from a carrier. It was a tail-less, single-seat, twin-engine jet with twin vertical tail fins but no horizontal tail surfaces. The first versions of the Cutlass were underpowered (leading to the nickname “Gutless Cutlass”) and the introduction of improved engines was delayed. Although the F7U-3 version could reach speeds exceeding Mach 1, the speed of sound, the radical design encountered previously unknown aerodynamic problems, which earned it the nickname of “The Ensign killer.” Few squadrons made deployments with the Cutlass, and most beached them ashore during part of the cruise because of operational problems, but the VA-86 Sidewinders did deploy on the Forrestal from January to March 1956 during her shakedown cruise. The F7U-3 version could carry a nuclear weapon and F7U-3P photo reconnaissance and F7U-3M missile-armed variants followed. (The F7U-3M and F3H-2M were the first to use the Sparrow air-to-air missile on board carriers.)
During this period, the Navy also introduced two new all-weather fighters, the Douglas F4D Skyray and McDonnell F3H Demon, into the fleet. As the Navy’s first delta wing fighter, the F4D was a single-seat, single-engine high-performance interceptor that sacrificed endurance for rate of climb and speed in order to counter the threat of high-altitude bomber attacks on carriers. After engine changes and modifications the “Ford,” as it soon became known, began capturing flight records. In addition to serving in Navy and Marine all-weather fighter squadrons, the F4D also served with the shore-based Navy all-weather fighter squadron VFAW-3 as part of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), a predominantly Air Force organization.
The McDonnell F3H Demon was a swept-wing, single-engine, single-seat fighter that was developed in parallel with the Skyray. The Demon first flew in 1951 and early models were underpowered and accident prone. After production of the improved F3H-2N Demon began in 1955, the fighter found its place in carrier air wings. In 1956 VF-14 received the F3H-2N and the Tophatters flew them from the Forrestal during a January to July 1957 Mediterranean deployment. The Navy eventually equipped 22 squadrons and the Demon also deployed on board Saratoga, Ranger, Independence, and Constellation until 1963. The F3H-2M missile-armed version was equipped with Sparrow air-to-air missiles. Four Sparrows could be carried, but a full load was rarely carried by fleet aircraft because their weight seriously affected performance. Although not supersonic, the Demon complemented day fighters such as the Vought F8U Crusader and Grumman F11F Tiger as an all-weather, missile-armed interceptor.
The F11F Tiger was an outgrowth of Grumman efforts to incorporate new aerodynamic concepts, such as area rule, and other advances to the Cougar design. In the end, the Tiger was a completely new aircraft. Although supersonic, the Tiger’s carrier service lasted only four years because of its engine reliability problems and lack of range and endurance. Tigers served in seven Navy fighter squadrons and operated from the Forrestal, Saratoga, and Ranger. Its place was taken by the superior Crusader, which entered fleet service at about the same time in 1957.
After the Navy’s bad experiences with the Cutlass, Vought came up with a winner in the F8U Crusader. The design had several innovative features, but the most notable was the variable incidence wing. (Not to be confused with the variable sweep wings of later aircraft, such as the F-14 Tomcat.) In order to increase the angle of attack for greater lift, the wing pivoted seven degrees out of the fuselage. This kept the fuselage level to maintain cockpit visibility during carrier launches and recoveries. Further lift was provided by drooping leading-edge slats and extending the inboard flaps. The Crusader was the last Navy fighter designed with cannons as its primary armament, although it had launch rails on “cheek” pylons for Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. The aircraft exceeded the speed of sound during its maiden flight and the development was so trouble-free that the second prototype and the first production F8U-1 flew on the same day. In April 1956 the F8U-1 performed its first catapult launch from the Forrestal. The Swordsmen of VF-32 were the first fleet squadron to fly the Crusader and deployed to the Mediterranean in late 1957 on the Saratoga. Navy fighter pilots were happy with the Crusader—it was a fighter. It could reach Mach 1.7, had a phenomenal rate of climb, and was maneuverable. But the Crusader was not an easy aircraft to fly. Although it took a catapult shot well, it was often unforgiving in carrier landings, particularly on the smaller Essex-class carriers, because of yaw instability. Later versions had twin ventral strakes fitted under the tail to increase directional stability, but the improvement was negligible. Once on board, the castered nose wheel caused problems steering on the deck. Moreover, with its short landing gear, which caused the exhaust to be close to the deck, and low mounted air scoop that looked like jaws ready to suck up the careless, it was called the “Gator” by wary flight deck crews. While known as the ultimate “day fighter” later versions of the Crusader had limited all-weather and strike capabilities. As the Crusader was replaced by the Phantom II on the larger ships, it remained in service on board the modernized Essex-class ships still operating as attack carriers until 1976. The reconnaissance versions of the Crusader continued in service until 1987.
In 1955 the Navy decided that all fighters in production would be fitted for in-flight refueling and many aircraft were modified accordingly. This technique extended the range of strike aircraft, allowed combat air patrols to stay aloft longer, and enabled aircraft returning from a mission to be refueled while flight decks were cleared or other aircraft landed or launched. The tanker aircraft would unreel a hose with a flexible cone, called a “drogue,” at the end. The pilot of the receiving aircraft would bring his plane below and aft of the tanker, adjust his speed to that of the tanker, and jockey his plane’s refueling probe into the trailing drogue. The probe and drogue would automatically interlock and the fuel would be transferred. (The Air Force developed another aerial refueling method using a flying boom, which offered faster fuel transfer, but required a dedicated aircraft with a boom operator station. The Navy method was simpler to adapt to existing aircraft, which could use refueling pods and additional drop tanks on other aircraft.) Initially, the refueling probes were mounted externally on existing aircraft, but later aircraft were equipped with retractable probes.
In the early days of jet aircraft development, many aircraft manufacturers had designed their own ejection seat escape systems, each with varying characteristics and performance. However, following the successful demonstration of a ground level ejection seat designed by the British Martin-Baker company at the Naval Air Test Facility in Patuxent River, Maryland, the Navy decided to standardize on the Martin-Baker Mark 5 for all its jet fighters and trainers. Subsequently, most Navy tactical jet aircraft were equipped with Martin-Baker “zero-zero” (zero altitude and zero airspeed) ejection seats.