One of the most memorable airplanes in the U.S. Navy inventory is the little Curtiss F9C “Sparrowhawk” of 1931-36. Aside from its distinctive gull-winged configuration and small size for a contemporary fighter, the F9Cs are best remembered for their unique role as auxiliaries to large rigid airships. They were actually carried aboard the Navy’s airships Akron and Macon.
They sort of backed into this role, which was not foreseen when the Navy issued a tight specification for a small (400 hp) shipboard fighter in May 1930. Three firms responded – Curtiss, Berliner Joyce, and Atlantic (American Fokker) – and each received an order for a single prototype for a fly-off evaluation. First flight of the new Curtiss was in March 1931.
Through no fault of the designers, none of the planes fitted the particular mission that the Navy had invented and promptly abandoned. The Curtiss XF9C-1 was the best of the three, however, so when a requirement came along for a small high-performance plane to be carried by the Akron, then under construction, the Curtiss was sent to the Naval Aircraft Factory to be fitted with a hook-on device and was tested with the Navy’s current rigid airship, the Los Angeles. The first hook-on was made in October 1931.
Curtiss, meanwhile, built a second prototype of its own and gave it the unofficial designation of XF9C-2. It had a 430 hp Wright R-975E “Whirlwind” engine in place of the 420 hp R-975C of the XF9C-1. It also had a new single-leg landing gear and the upper wing was raised four inches to improve the pilot’s visibility. After Curtiss made some other minor modifications to the second prototype, the Navy ordered six production F9C-2s in October 1931, and later bought the second prototype.
The first F9C-2 flew in April 1932. It had the single-leg gear of the second prototype, but this was quickly replaced by the tripod design of the XF9C-1. The others were delivered with the old gear, and when the Navy later bought the second prototype, it too was modified to production standard and designated F9C-2.
The seven F9C-2s and the XF9C-1 were all assigned to the Akron, based at Lakehurst, New Jersey. These planes were not part of a regular Navy squadron, but were auxiliaries of the airship. Four could be carried in a hangar inside the ship with a fifth on an exterior “perch.” Although they were fighter types, their role was not, as popularly supposed, the defense of the airship. Their principal role was as scouts, ranging 100 miles or more on each side and ahead of the airship, which itself was a scout. No “Sparrowhawks” were aboard when the Akron went down in the Atlantic on April 4, 1933. All were then transferred to the new Macon, based at Sunnyvale, California.
For a while, when they were kept on the Macon and not put on the ground after missions, the little planes had their landing gears removed to increase range and performance.
Four “Sparrowhawks” were aboard when Macon went down in the Pacific on Feb. 12, 1935. The three left were stripped of their skyhooks and redesignated as XF9C-2 since there was no standard Navy function that they fitted. The two production models were scrapped at San Diego in 1936 and the second prototype was sent to the Smithsonian Institution, refitted with a skyhook, and put on display with the serial number of the first production model and highly inaccurate color and markings. It has since been refurbished to meticulous accuracy and is on display in the National Air and Space Museum.
ORIGINAL CONFIGURATION: The Curtiss XF9C-1 in its original configuration as a lightweight ship-based Navy fighter. Later fitted with a “skyhook” for operations with airships, it was put in service while retaining its experimental designation.
NO. 2: Curtiss built a second prototype at its own expense and made some improvements, notably a single-leg landing gear. This is a censored photo taken during Navy tests; the X of the unofficial designation XF9C-2 was deleted, along with the X-prefix to the civil registration number X-986M. Finally, the deck arrester hook under the rear fuselage has been blanked out.
HOOK-UP: The second F9C-2, with Macon markings and the unique “Trapeze” unit insignia, just after hooking on to the airship. The hinged arm swings down to cradle the aft fuselage and stabilize the plane so that it can be hoisted into the airship’s hangar.
BASIC BLACK: Soon after assignment to the Macon, the “Sparrowhawk” tails were painted a solid black for unit identification. The projections on the wheel pants were to deflect the arrester cables on carrier decks downward; the small wheels of the “Sparrowhawks” tended to roll under them.
THE POWER OF THREE: Three “Sparrowhawks” from the Macon. These planes were not part of a squadron, but were auxiliaries of the airship. Each plane carried the markings and different colors of a section leader in a regular (18-plane) squadron.
THE FIRST: Six production F9C-2s were ordered after tests of the two prototypes. This is the first, as originally flown with the single-leg landing gear of the second prototype. The “skyhook” has not yet been installed, but the deck arrester hook under the fuselage is in place.THE FIRST: Six production F9C-2s were ordered after tests of the two prototypes. This is the first, as originally flown with the single-leg landing gear of the second prototype. The “skyhook” has not yet been installed, but the deck arrester hook under the fuselage is in place.