The End of Curtiss-Wright Aeroplane Division

The End of Curtiss-Wright Aeroplane Division

  • John Stone
  • -
  • Oct, 24 , 23

Curtiss-Wright was the richest, most prestigious American aircraft design and manufacturing firm at the start of the Second World War. The roots of this aviation giant begin with none other than Glenn Curtiss and the Wright brothers. By 1950, Curtiss-Wright Aeroplane Division was being sunset, and its assets sold off. There was no single cause of this collapse; the company was plagued with numerous personal and political issues during the period. Although by no means the only factor, the failure of one specific design definitively signaled the end, that being the XP-87 Blackhawk.

The XP-87/XF-87 was built for an Army Air Force all-weather fighter contract. Construction of prototypes began right around the end of WWII. Despite being built for a fighter contract, the design originated as an attack aircraft. With its attack lineage being partially to blame, the Blackhawk ended up as a particularly large, heavy fighter. The airframe was 63 feet long with a gross loaded weight well over 40,000 pounds (max 49,200); for reference, a B-25 Mitchell bomber is about 53 feet long and weighed around 31,000 pounds loaded for combat.

Two prototypes were built and thoroughly flight-tested by the Air Force. The planes exhibited serious buffeting issues, and performance was extremely underwhelming. Despite being powered by four turbojet engines, the Blackhawk struggled to keep pace with a P-51 Mustang in level flight.

It became clear that the pretty, modern-looking XF-87 was not what the Air Force wanted, and it was comprehensively outperformed by its chief competitor, the Northrop XF-89. On October 14, 1948, the Air Force terminated the XF-87 development program, and Curtiss-Wright’s production contract was canceled.

Shortly afterward, Curtiss-Wright threw in the towel and began selling off the aircraft division, including a huge airplane factory in Columbus, Ohio, which was acquired by North American Aviation. NAA’s tenure in charge of the Columbus facility is the subject of North American Aviation in the Jet Age, Vol. 2, by Andrew Frankel. The book is an excellent reference on the types developed and produced at the factory, including the FJ Fury, OV-10 Bronco, A-5 Vigilante, and the B-1B Lancer. 

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