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The XF-85 Goblin

Back to the drawing board

The McDonnell XF-85 Goblin was the only American aircraft designed on the drawing board as a “parasite” fighter – meant to be launched from, and retrieved by, another aircraft in flight.

It was one of many Cold War ideas that didn’t work. It would have been carried by the mighty B-36 Peacemaker bomber on long-range bombing missions to targets in the Soviet Union and would have helped protect other B-36s from MiG interceptors.

The XF-85 had a cramped cockpit. Like an astronaut in space, the Goblin pilot would get no amenity that was not justified. Thus, the rudder pedals were adjustable but the seat was not.

The XF-85 was lightweight, with limited capacity for avionics and armament and with a confounding “skyhook” and trapeze arrangement that looked like a creation of the mad cartoonist of the era, Rube Goldberg. The Strategic Air Command’s Gen. Curtis E. LeMay questioned its value because of its limited endurance.

XF-85 Goblin

To fit inside the parent aircraft’s bomb bay, the XF-85’s wings folded up. U.S. Air Force photo

Design work on the Goblin began during World War II at the newly formed McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in St. Louis after several established planemakers refused to take part. Chief designer was Garrett “Gary” Covington, but CEO James S. McDonnell also hired a promising young engineer, Herman Barkey, who would later design the F2H Banshee, F-101 Voodoo, and F4H Phantom II.

Given the go-ahead on Oct. 9, 1945, Covington and project engineer Barkey “pinched and squeezed,” as Barkey put it, to make the XP-85 fit into a B-36 bomb bay, which was 15 feet by 5 feet 6 inches. The Army ordered only two prototypes, initially called XP-85s, with foldable, 21-foot swept wings. a rotund fuselage, no landing gear except for emergency skids, and a retractable hook (skyhook) to engage a trapeze on the parent aircraft. The power plant was a 3,000-lb thrust Westinghouse J34-WE-22 turbojet.

The newly independent U.S. Air Force in 1948 began “captive carry” tests with the XF-85, piloted by McDonnell’s Ed Schoch, taken aloft inside an EB-29 Superfortress. Numerous aerodynamic problems were immediately evident.

The XF-85 had a cramped cockpit. Like an astronaut in space, the Goblin pilot would get no amenity that was not justified. Thus, the rudder pedals were adjustable but the seat was not.

XF-85 Goblin and EB-29 mothership

A McDonnell XF-85 Goblin hooked up to the “trapeze” of the EB-29 mothership. U.S. Air Force photo

Tests using existing aircraft produced mixed results when attempts were made to mate a bomber and a fighter in flight.  The newly independent U.S. Air Force in 1948 began “captive carry” tests with the XF-85, piloted by McDonnell’s Ed Schoch, taken aloft inside an EB-29 Superfortress. Numerous aerodynamic problems were immediately evident.

On Aug. 23, 1948, the EB-29 lowered the XF-85 on its trapeze and Schoch flew the parasite fighter, but turbulence prevented him from re-attaching to the bomber. Schoch lunged at the trapeze with his skyhook and missed – once, twice, three times. On a subsequent attempt, the XF-85’s canopy struck the trapeze and shattered. Windblast rushed into the cockpit at 200 mph (320 km/h) and tore away Schoch’s helmet and oxygen mask. In serious trouble, Schoch eventually succeeded in making what amounted to a belly landing at Muroc Dry Lake.

The team persisted, and Schoch took the XF-85 on flight no. 6 on March 18, 1949. Again, the hook-trapeze linkup failed. Again, Schoch landed on the lakebed.

Undaunted, Schoch piloted the XF-85 on flight no. 2 on Oct. 14, 1948, for a 20-minute test of directional stability and recovered aboard the EB-29. The next day, Schoch and the Goblin made free flights no. 3 and 4 from the trapeze without mishap.

XF-85 Goblin

The McDonnell XF-85 Goblin was a small parasite jet fighter intended to be carried on long range bombing missions aboard B-36 strategic bombers, and although it was never carried on a B-36 it was flight tested on a B-29. On August 23, 1948 during the first flight test of the second of two Goblin prototypes, McDonnell test pilot Edwin F. Schoch successfully detached from the trapeze carried on mother ship Boeing EB-29B Superfortress ‘Monstro’. However, when he attempted to hook up after free flight, the tiny fighter, buffeted by turbulence from the B-29, swung violently forward and smashed its canopy against the trapeze, knocking the pilot’s helmet off. Schoch successfully belly landed the XF-85 on the dry lakebed at Muroc Air Force Base, Calif., suffering little damage. U.S. Air Force photo

On the fifth flight Oct. 22, 1948, Schoch began a flight for the first time with the skyhook retracted. This improved the XF-85’s performance, but when Schoch extended the hook, disturbance around the retraction-well reduced directional stability. Schoch could not begin to get his skyhook near the trapeze yoke. After much difficulty, including a collision that broke the hook, Schoch ended this 36-minute flight by again bellying-in at Muroc in a 1,500-foot cloud of yellow dust.

The team persisted, and Schoch took the XF-85 on flight no. 6 on March 18, 1949. Again, the hook-trapeze linkup failed. Again, Schoch landed on the lakebed.

All of the first half-dozen flights had been made with the second of two XF-85 airplanes. The first aircraft, with a slightly different tail design, made one 30-minute flight under the control of Schoch – the only pilot ever to fly the Goblin – who reached 314 miles per hour, the highest speed ever reached by the Goblin and about half the maximum speed of the Soviet Union’s MiG-15. After 15 minutes of frustrating attempts to hook on the B-29, Schoch again landed on the lakebed.

The Air Force eventually operated a handful of RF-84K Thunderflash reconnaissance jets as parasite fighters in the 1950s, but the XF-85 Goblin was finished with its short roster of achievements: seven flights over eight weeks totaling just over two hours of flight time with three successful hook-ups and four flights terminated in belly landings. Today, the two XF-85s are displayed at the Strategic Air and Space Museum in Omaha, Neb. and the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

By

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