Landis, Tony R. and Dennis R. Jenkins. Experimental and Prototype U.S. Air Force Jet Fighters. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1-58007-111-6.
This beautifully produced book covers every prototype jet fighter developed by the U.S. Air Force from the beginning of the jet age in the 1940s through the present day. Only concepts which at least entered the stage of prototype fabrication are included: “paper airplane” conceptual studies are not discussed, except in conjunction with designs which were actually built. The book is lavishly illustrated, with many photographs in colour, and the text is well written and almost free of typographical errors. As the title states, only Air Force prototypes are discussed—Navy and CIA development projects are covered only if Air Force versions were subsequently manufactured.

The first decade of the jet age was a wild and woolly time in the history of aeronautical engineering; we'll probably never see its like again. Compared to today's multi-decade development projects, many of the early jet designs went from contract award to flying hardware in less than a year. Between May 1953 and December 1956, no fewer than six operational jet fighter prototypes (F-100, F-101, F-102, F-104, F-105, and F-106) made their first flights. Among prototypes which never entered into serial production were concepts which illustrate the “try anything” spirit of the age. Consider, for example, the XP-81 which had a turboprop engine in the nose and a turbojet in the tail; the XF-84H with a turbine driven propeller whose blade tips exceeded the speed of sound and induced nausea in pilots and ground crews, who nicknamed it “Thunderscreech”; or the tiny XP-85 which was intended to be carried in the bomb bay of a B-36 and launched to defend the bomber should enemy interceptors attack.

So slow has been the pace of fighter development since 1960 that the first 200 pages of the book cover events up to 1960 and everything since occupies only forty pages. Recent designs are covered in the same detail as those of the golden age—it's just that there haven't been all that many of them.

If you enjoy this book, you'll probably also want to read the companion, U.S. Air Force Prototype Jet Fighters Photo Scrapbook, which collects hundreds of photographs of the planes featured in the main work which, although often fascinating, didn't make the cut for inclusion in it. Many photos, particularly of newer planes, are in colour, although some older colour shots have noticeably faded.

April 2010 Permalink