The scientific tourist #19 — the X-13

This week’s picture comes to you from the San Diego Air & Space Museum — it’s of another interesting piece of experimental aircraft history, the Ryan X-13 along with its trailer:

Ryan X-13

The X-13 (full formal name: Ryan X-13 Vertijet) was built in the U.S. in the 1950’s in order to explore the possibilities of vertical takeoff / landing aircraft. But its story really starts before then, in the waning days of World War II.

In the latter years of WWII, all the major powers still fighting were experimenting with jet-powered aircraft of some kind or another. One of these odd experimental warbirds was the Ryan FR-1 Fireball — a hybrid aircraft with one piston-driven and one jet engine. Early jet engines had sluggish acceleration, so the idea was that the FR-1 (or something like it) would would be a stopgap on the way to carrier-based jets, taking off under propeller power and cruising at higher jet speeds. The unfortunately (aptly) named Fireball proved to be prone to structural failure, but it was able to achieve lift-to-drag ratios greater than one — at least, when its fuel tanks were near empty.

This got Ryan engineers thinking — could the Fireball take off vertically? By the time they got U. S. Navy funding to investigate the idea, World War II was long over. But since some were still skeptical of the prospects for jet fighters on aircraft carriers, the Navy wanted to investigate flying jets off of submarines. The X-13, of which only two prototypes were ever built, was the vehicle (no pun intended) that would be used to experiment with this concept.

In storage, the X-13 hung vertically from its raised trailer, as it is on display in the museum today. As its engine was throttled up, the craft would rise vertically, then transition to horizontal flight. Landing was much the same, but in reverse — a gradual transition to a vertical orientation followed by a slow and careful engagement with the landing wire on the trailer. The geometry of the aircraft was such that landing was accomplished with the trailer almost invisible to the pilot — a long striped pole had to be added to the X-13 so that the pilot could use it as a gauge of his height with respect to the landing wire.

Eventually, the program was shut down (as was the Sea Dart) when jets capable of aircraft carrier operations became available. The X-13 in San Diego was the first prototype to be built; the other resides at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

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