On New Year’s Eve, 1942, the U.S. Navy Bureau of Aeronautics called James S. McDonnell, founder of McDonnell Aircraft Corp., offering the company a contract to design and build the first American jet fighter capable of taking off from and landing on an aircraft carrier. McDonnell signed a letter of intent to develop the experimental, or “X,” jet aircraft on Jan. 7, 1943.
The Navy wanted a single-seat, jet-propelled, low-wing monoplane. Two years later, in January 1945, Woodward “Woody” Burke piloted the XFD-1 prototype on its first flight at Lambert Field in St. Louis, Mo. The XFD-1 was still in development when World War II ended, but the Navy decided that development could go forward.
McDonnell named his new jet fighter “Phantom.” McDonnell chose the name from a list of 19 entities from the spirit world — including future products Banshee and Goblin.
The XFD-1, McDonnell wrote, with a speed of 500 mph (800 kph), would “appear and disappear like an apparition.”
On the morning of July 21, 1946, the XFD-1 Phantom roared 400 feet (120 meters) down the deck of the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, a then–recently commissioned U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. The Phantom’s pilot, Lt. Cdr. James T. Davidson, climbed quickly portside, circled the carrier and then landed. It marked the first takeoff and landing of a jet-powered aircraft from the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier.
Davidson made five takeoffs and landings and completed a successful wave-off at 95 mph (150 kph). Later that day, he flew the Phantom to the Naval Air Test Center at Patuxent River, Md.
The XFD-1, later redesignated the FH-1 Phantom, ushered in a new era of naval aviation. McDonnell Aircraft produced 62 FH-1s. It was the first U.S. Navy airplane to fly 500 mph (804 kph), the first all jet airplane to operate from the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier, and the first jet fighter to serve with both to serve with both the Navy and Marines.