Blackburn Firecrest – Unsuitable for the Navy
The Blackburn Firecrest was designed as a British fighter plane to carry out aircraft carrier operations as part of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. Blackburn had already designed the Firebrand aircraft carrier fighter in the 1940s for the Royal Navy. However, the Firebrand’s troubled production followed by pilot complaints of its handling and cockpit visibility prompted Blackburn to explore designing a new aircraft.
The British Air Ministry issued a new specification call in 1944 in response to Blackburn’s new design. The design team at Blackburn sought to implement lessons learned from the Firecrest and focused on boosting the new plane’s speed and allowing for better pilot visibility.
However, the Firecrest also saw a troubled design process, much of which was hobbled by changes made to the engine unit. Eventually, three prototypes of the Firecrest were produced, with only two taken to the skies.
The Firecrest was developed by the Blackburn Aircraft Company of Yorkshire, England during the mid-1940s.
During the Second World War, Blackburn attempted to develop the Blackburn Firebrand as a fighter and strike aircraft for the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. Although over 220 units of the Firebrand were built, the aircraft was set back by a troubled production which saw it introduced at the end of the war.
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Both test and Royal Navy pilots also complained of what they felt was the Firebrand’s lack of manoeuvrability, which was described as sluggish with the controls being slow to respond, and poor visibility from the cockpit with the wings obscuring important angles.
Blackburn set to work on designing a new and improved version of the plane which they provisionally named the B-48 and later it was given the unofficial title Firecrest. This new design would also perform aircraft carrier-based combat duties and be intended to act as a fighter and a strike aircraft for the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm.
In 1944, the British Air Ministry issued a specification calling for a new aircraft carrier-based fighter in tandem with Blackburn’s new development. The new aircraft specification would be designed around a Bristol Centaurus 77 radial engine as the centrepiece.
The specification intended that the engine would drive contra (opposite) rotating propellers and allowed for the size of the rudder to be reduced.
In keeping with the specification, the Blackburn design team worked around the Bristol engine at their factory in Brough, Yorkshire. They also focused on improving the cockpit view for the pilot and increasing the aircraft’s speed.
Like the Firebrand, the new plane was designed as a low-winged, single-seat fighter that had an all-metal finish. Subsequent drafts and redesigns featured the required evolution of the Blackburn B-37 Firebrand fuselage to meet the specification and leave room for the engine.
The new design also featured a raised and repositioned cockpit which the designers moved further forwards down the fuselage so that the wings no longer obstructed the view and the pilot could look down the nose.
The cockpit canopy was lifted from the Hawker Tempest fighter and was a streamlined bubble design.
The design team then tried a radically new wing design which Blackburn chose after observing the aerodynamic qualities of other fighters, such as the Chance Vought Corsair, the North American Mustang and the Hawker Tempest.
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The new wings featured an anhedral centre section and a new thinner laminar flow wing section on the wing’s outer section. To meet the requirements for carrier use, the wings were designed with a hydraulic double-fold feature to allow squadrons of the new plane to be parked closely in rows.
Finally, four “Fowler Flaps” were fitted to improve the low-speed handling of the plane retractable wing-mounted dive brakes were also added.
Blackburn initially decided the armament of the plane would consist of a single torpedo or two underwings 250 pounds bombs. Design specifications were also made for the carriage of rockets and two underwing Browning machine gun pods or fuel drop tanks to allow for a longer flight range.
Subsequent redesigns changed the weaponry to proposing two 20 mm automatic cannons fitted at the front of the aircraft. Space was also made beneath for the Firecrest to carry up to 1,000 pounds worth of bombs.
Prior to testing, the maximum speed of the new plane was predicted to be 612 miles per hour with an average cruising speed of 212 mph. The projected range of the first prototype was estimated to be over 900 miles and the maximum service ceiling was 31,000 feet. The rate of climb was predicted to be 2,500 feet per minute.
However, while Blackburn had intended the new design to be an improvement on their Firebrand model, it also met a similar troubled production that caused it to miss deployment into service during the Second World War and pushed the flying prototype stage back further.
Although the design process had started in 1943, it continued on into 1945 as proposals for the engine kept changing. In 1945, it was decided by Blackburn and the Air Ministry that one prototype would be finished with an updated version of the Bristol Centaurus while another three prototypes would feature the liquid-cooled Napier Sabre H-type E.122 engine.
Both Blackburn and the Air Ministry hoped it changing the engine would provide research into the engine and aerodynamic designs, but it was found the Sabre was too heavy for the plane and could only balance out the weight distribution if it was fitted behind the cockpit.
The redesign and modified engine position resulted in a 1,000-pound weight increase to the Firecrest. This ate up available funds, and budget restraints in the Royal Navy in the aftermath of the war cast doubt on the project. Blackburn decided to cancel the Sabre variant of the Firecrest in October 1946.
The project then suffered another setback when the development of the Centaurus 77 engine with the contra-rotating propellers was cancelled in January 1946. Instead, Blackburn chose to fit a conventional Centaurus 57 to the plane which could still generate a powerful 2,825 horsepower.
However, this engine was found to require different mountings and was switched to the Centaurus 59. The plane’s stabiliser and rudder had to be enlarged to suit the engine’s increased power. A new conventional propeller was also fitted.
The Air Ministry also predicted that the airframe would have to be strengthened for the Firecrest to successfully perform strike duties without suffering from structural failure. The cost of performing such modifications added to the already spiralling costs and delay of the Firecrest’s development, and as a result a contract was not placed for mass production but prototype testing would still be given the go-ahead.
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Initial ground tests began in 1947, two years after the end of the war.
The first Blackburn B-48 Firecrest (with the registration RT651) completed its maiden flight on 1st April 1947 at RAF Leconfield. The prototype was not fitted with any weapons but in its stripped-down state, it was found to be fast.
During its initial test run, the Firecrest achieved a speed of 40 miles per hour faster than the Firebrand. It clocked in a maximum speed of 380 miles per hour flying at 19,000 feet when powered by the Bristol Centaurus 59 engine.
The second Blackburn B-48 Firecrest prototype was unveiled but never flew, only being used for structural tests by Blackburn until it was dismantled in 1952.
A third B-48 Firecrest prototype was ordered by the Air Ministry in April 1945 which was fitted with power-assisted ailerons. This aircraft was displayed to the public for the first time in August 1948 before making its flying debut at the Farnborough Air Show in September of that year.
Limited flight testing resumed, but apart from the speed, most test pilots expressed unsatisfactory verdicts on the Firecrest. Renowned Royal Navy test pilot Captain Eric Brown documented in his test review that the Firecrest had even worse handling than the Firebrand, describing the powered ailerons as making the controls lumpy. He also noted that the plane did not have good stability when it hit turbulent air and would roll about.
Due to the subpar performance during proving, it was decided not to take the project any further and the Firecrest was not chosen for mass production.
Timing also did not help the Firecrest’s development. By the time the prototype models had been released, more aircraft were being fitted with gas turbine-powered turboprop engines while the Firecrest still had a piston-driven radial unit.
The Royal Navy opted to use the turboprop-powered Westland Wyvern and the Fairey Gannet for the attack, strike and anti-submarine duties while the Supermarine Attacker and Hawker Sea Hawk were selected to serve in carrier-based fighter roles.
Blackburn debated trying to update the Firecrest and repropose it with a new turbine-powered engine.
Designs were drawn up for a new Firecrest prototype that would be fitted with an Armstrong Siddeley Python turboprop unit. However, this was never put into production as the Royal Navy had already placed orders for the Wyvern and the Gannet.
The incoming jet age also shifted focus to entirely new designs altogether.
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The two flying prototypes of the Firecrest remained in experimental use until their retirement in 1949. Both units were returned to Blackburn in 1050. These were sadly taken apart for scrap in 1952 and no units of the Firecrest survived.
Although the Firecrest demonstrated incredible speed during its testing phase, the timing of its release and troubled production probably stymied any hope it had of entering Navy service.
- Crew: 1
- Length: 39 ft 3.5 in (11.976 m)
- Wingspan: 44 ft 11.5 in (13.703 m)
- Width: 18 ft (5.5 m) folded
- Height: 14 ft 6 in (4.42 m)
- Empty weight: 10,513 lb (4,769 kg)
- Max takeoff weight: 16,800 lb (7,620 kg)
- Powerplant: 1 × Bristol Centaurus 59 18-cylinder air-cooled sleeve-valve radial piston engine, 2,825 hp (2,107 kW) with Water/Methanol injection for take-off
- 2,580 hp (1,920 kW) at rated altitude of 4,000 ft (1,200 m) in MS supercharger gear2,315 hp (1,726 kW) at rated altitude of 16,750 ft (5,110 m) in HS supercharger gear
- Maximum speed: 380 mph (610 km/h, 330 kn) at 19,000 ft (5,800 m)
- Range: 900 mi (1,400 km, 780 nmi) at cruise
- Service ceiling: 30,350 ft (9,250 m) service ceiling
- Rate of climb: 2,100 ft/min (11 m/s) initial r.o.c.