In the late 1950's and early 1960's there were many dark and stormy nights into which F3H Demons were launched while the F11F, F4D, and F8F pilots were munching popcorn while watching their nightly movie. Soundly berated for it's lack of aerodynamic performance and for its high rate of fuel consumption, the Demon was nevertheless the Navy's first true all-weather fighter-interceptor and was the point of that important spear during a very tense era of the cold war.
On May 21, 1948 the United States Navy issued a Request for Proposal to build a carrier-based jet day fighter. The Navy wanted an aircraft equal or superior to the high performance land-based fighters being built at that time.
The jet engine that the Navy chose to power this aircraft was the Westinghouse afterburner equipped J40 turbojet which provided twice the thrust of any engine then in Navy service. Eleven companies responded to the RFP and competed for the contract. McDonnell won the contract in December 1948 and in January 1949 the XF3H-1 prototype was ordered. The specification called for a single-engine, single-seat fighter with wings and tail surfaces swept back to forty-five degrees.
In July of 1949 the Navy inspected a mockup of the XF3H-1 which resulted in some redesign to lower the predicted gross weight and two XF3H-1 prototypes were ordered on September 30, 1949. After the prototypes entered construction, the Navy decided that it wanted the production version of the aircraft to be designed as an all-weather fighter and specified that this production version would be designated as the F3H-1N. The mockup was modified to incorporate the changes directed by the Navy and was inspected again in July of 1951. The design changes resulted in a major delay in the Demon program, although the XF3H-1 prototypes were not affected because they were to be used mainly as platforms in which to conduct the aerodynamic testing.
The afterburner version of the Westinghouse J40-WE-8 was not available to install in the prototypes however, so the non-afterburner J40-WE-6 was installed in its place. The maiden flight of the Demon (BuNo. 125444), piloted by Robert Edholm, launched on August 7, 1951. The second prototype (BuNo. 125445) had its initial flight in January of 1952.
A whole host of problems plagued the prototype testing program. The Westinghouse J40 proved to be an unreliable power plant and the first prototype was damaged during a dead-stick landing eventuated by an engine failure in August of 1952. Both prototypes were grounded due to engine problems. Other problems that were revealed during testing included poor forward visibility, an unacceptably slow roll rate, and poor lateral stability. McDonnell redesigned the nose section to deal with the visibility problem and moved the ailerons further inboard to solve the roll rate problem. Wing fences on the outboard wing panel were removed to improve lateral stability.
A 10,500 lb. static thrust afterburning Westinghouse J40-WE-8 was installed in the second prototype in January of 1953, but this engine was not any more dependable than the WE-6. Preliminary flight evaluation tests at the Naval Air Test Center Patuxent, Maryland were conducted in August of 1953 and in October the second XF3H-1 was used for initial carrier landing evaluation flights aboard USS Coral Sea (CVA-43). Although no major problems were encountered during these tests, restricted visibility during the final carrier approach was noted by the test pilots.
The first prototype crashed after an in-flight engine explosion March 18, 1954. This resulted in the grounding of the second prototype and it eventually was shipped to the Naval Air Development Center at Johnsville, Pennsylvania where it was used to conduct barricade engagement tests.