Seventy-three years ago this month, the Consolidated Vultee XP-81 made its flight test debut at Muroc Army Air Field, California with Vultee test pilot Frank Davis in the cockpit. The XP-81 was a prototype long range escort fighter powered by a combination of single turbojet and single turboprop engines.
The XP-81 was designed to serve as an escort fighter for long range bomber aircraft. Its mission was to defend bomber formations from attack by enemy fighters. To fly and fight, an escort fighter had to match the range and endurance capabilities of the much larger bombers it was assigned to protect.
The US military wanted an escort fighter with an operating range of 1,250 miles and a maximum speed of 500 mph. Consolidated Vultee Aircraft (Convair) chose a bi-mode propulsion system to meet these requirements. The idea was to combine the excellent fuel economy of a turboprop with the high-speed capability of a turbojet. The turboprop was intended for cruise while use of the turbojet was reserved for takeoff and high speed flight.
The XP-51 was a big airplane by fighter standards. It measured almost 45 feet in length and had a wing span of 50.5 feet. Gross take-off and empty weights were 19,500 and 12,755 lbs, respectively. The type’s predicted range was estimated to be 2,500 miles at 275 mph and 25,000 feet. Service ceiling was rated at 35,500 feet.
Convair constructed a pair of XP-81 aircraft. Ship No. 1 (S/N 44-91000) and Ship No. 2 (S/N 44-91001) were completed in 1945 and transported to Muroc Army Air Field for flight testing. Ship No. 1 made the type’s first flight on Wednesday, 07 February 1945 with Vultee test pilot Frank Davis at the controls. With the exception of somewhat marginal directional stability, Davis found the test aircraft’s handling characteristics to be quite good.
Testing of the XP-81 prototypes consisted of just 10 hours in the air. While the aircraft showed decent promise, the entire program was cancelled in May of 1947. With Victory in Europe (VE) having occurred in May of 1945 and Victory in Japan (VJ) in August of 1945, the need for a long range escort fighter simply went away.
Following program cancellation, the XP-81 aircraft served for a season as photo targets on the Bombing Range at Edwards Air Force Base. Eventually they were rescued from that inglorious state and sent to storage at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.