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The XP-55 Ascender

Back to the Drawing Board

Ascender was the official name given to the Curtiss XP-55 experimental fighter. But American troops, with their inimitable wit, can’t leave anything alone: To GIs in uniform, it quickly became the “Ass-ender.”

During World War II, the United States had the luxury of producing many test prototype military aircraft that never stood much chance of becoming operational or contributing to the war effort. Some pioneered new concepts. Some were simply useless. The XP-55 was about halfway between the extremes.

The strange-looking XP-55 Ascender had a pusher engine driving a propeller at the rear of the aircraft, plus some of the characteristics of a flying wing. The typical pilot looked askance at the huge prop, which would be behind him in the event of a bailout.

The strange-looking XP-55 Ascender had a pusher engine driving a propeller at the rear of the aircraft, plus some of the characteristics of a flying wing. The typical pilot looked askance at the huge prop, which would be behind him in the event of a bailout.

Retired Chief Master Sgt. Leonard M. Christensen remembers being given a chance to sit in the cockpit. “I was glad I was an engineer and not a pilot,” said Christensen. “The pilot’s seat was way forward and just behind it was that propeller. We were told it could be jettisoned in an emergency, but what it if refused to cooperate? I could almost, but not quite, reach back and touch the propeller. I have never seen anything published about this aircraft or what its military designation was.”

The Model CW-24B undergoing testing. NASA photo

The Model CW-24B undergoing testing. NASA photo

Although not through any clear flaw in the aircraft, the XP-55 flight test program was marred by crashes. Even its initial development entailed delays. But the plane contributed to aeronautical knowledge – somewhat.

Responding to an Army “Request for Data” dated Feb. 20, 1940, the Curtiss-Wright Corp. of St. Louis, Mo., began its work on this unorthodox aircraft by building a canvas-covered, full-scale flying testbed, the Model CW-24B.

In 1942, the Army began flying the CW-24B at its remote test base at Muroc Dry Lake, Calif. (named in reverse for the Corum brothers who settled the region), site of today’s Edwards Air Force Base. The test flights revealed serious stability problems that were only partly solved by moving the plane’s vertical fins farther outboard from their original position midway down the wing.

The Army ordered the XP-55 in 1942, powered by a 1,475-horsepower Allison V-1710-F23R engine pushing a three-bladed propeller.

After further delays, the first of three XP-55s was delivered on July 13, 1943, and made early test flights at Scott Field, Ill.

There were still stability problems. It was found that excessive speed was required in the takeoff run before the nose-mounted elevator could become effective. Before this problem could be addressed, the first XP-55 went out of control during spin tests near St. Louis on Nov. 15, 1943. The pilot parachuted to safety.

The second XP-55 made its initial flight at St. Louis on Jan. 9, 1944, and the third on April 25, 1944. By then, P-51 Mustangs were flying in combat and would soon escort bombers to Berlin. There had never been an obvious need for a new fighter based on the XP-55 design and now there was clearly none. Briefly, the experts contemplated a jet-powered version, but the idea was quickly discarded. Curtiss also considered a large transport based on the XP-55 configuration, but never built it.

On the road paralleling the airfield fence, Dayton resident Wesley Roehm was leaving the air show with his wife, two children, and a family friend. They were caught in the path of the crashing XP-55 and their car was engulfed in flaming gasoline. Roehm was killed. The others suffered serious burns.

The third XP-55 was taken to Wright Field, Ohio for further tests continuing into 1945.

The war with Germany had ended by May 27, 1945, when a Wright Field air show and war bond rally attracted a crowd of 100,000. The third XP-55 took off to give a flying display. Capt. William C. Glascow, a test pilot and veteran of 80 combat missions in Europe, flew across the field leading five other fighters in formation.

Glascow made one roll before the crowd, began another, and abruptly dived into the ground inverted. The pilot was thrown from the wreckage, but suffered mortal injuries.

On the road paralleling the airfield fence, Dayton resident Wesley Roehm was leaving the air show with his wife, two children, and a family friend. They were caught in the path of the crashing XP-55 and their car was engulfed in flaming gasoline. Roehm was killed. The others suffered serious burns.

The crash – occurring long after the XP-55 could have had any impact on the war effort – put an end to the Army’s infatuation with experimental, unorthodox fighters. The second XP-55, the only one of these planes to survive, was retired from flying. Today, owned by the National Air and Space Museum, it has been restored for display at the Air Zoo in Kalamazoo, Mich.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...