By William Pearce
In March 1942, the Beech Aircraft Company began design work on a two-seat heavy fighter to destroy enemy bombers. Since the Curtiss XP-71 had already been delegated this task, the Beech developed the design into an attack aircraft to replace the Douglas A-20 Havoc. Beech gave this aircraft the in-house designation Model 28 and submitted its proposal to the US Army Air Force on 23 September 1942. On 2 December 1942, the AAF ordered two prototypes and designated the aircraft XA-38; this was Beech’s first combat aircraft. Beech originally called the aircraft Destroyer, but the AAF changed the name to Grizzly. The XA-38 was similar in appearance to the Beech 18, but it was an all-new aircraft. The project was led by Bill Cassidy, and the aircraft was to be strong, maneuverable, and well-armed. Its mission was to destroy fortified gun emplacements, armored vehicles, tanks, submarines, and coastal surface vessels.
The XA-38 was a two-place, mid-wing aircraft with a slim fuselage and twin tails. The gunner sat in the rear of the fuselage and operated remote upper and lower turrets, each fitted with two Browning .50 cal guns. The ventral turret could be locked in the forward position and fired by the pilot in strafing attacks. In the nose of the aircraft were another two Browning .50 cal guns and a T15E1 (M10) 75 mm cannon. The nose swung open to service the guns and was even removable so that different armament could be used. The .50 cal guns each had 500 rounds, and the 75 mm cannon had 20 rounds. Each wing supported two hard points that could carry a combined total of 2,650 lb (1,200 kg) of ordinance or 600 gal (2,270 L) of fuel.
The T15E1 75 mm cannon had an 84 in (2.13 m) barrel that extended about 2 ft (.61 m) beyond the aircraft’s nose. The cannon was self-loading, 144 in (3.66 m) long, and originally weighed 1,800 lb (816 kg). However, through further development, the weight was reduced to 1,138 lb (516 kg). It fired a 26 in (.66 m) shell with a 15 lb (6.8 kg) projectile. The cannon consisted of a 75 mm gun (T9E2), 75 mm feed mechanism (T13), and the 75 mm gun mount (T15E1).
The Grizzly’s aluminum skin was entirely flush riveted, and the fully retractable gear, including tailwheel, was engineered for operations out of unimproved airstrips. The aircraft was powered by two Wright R-3350-43 engines producing 2,300 hp (1,715 kW) each. Each engine turned a 14.2 ft (4.32 m), three-blade Hamilton Standard propeller. The XA-38 could carry 640 gal (2,423 L) of fuel in its wings and an additional 185 gal (700 L) in the fuselage behind the pilot. The aircraft had a wingspan of 67.3 ft (20.5 m) and was 51.8 ft (15.8 m) long. It weighed 22,480 lb (10,197 kg) empty and had a maximum takeoff weight of 35,265 lb (15,995 kg). The XA-38’s climb rate was 2,170 fpm (661 m/m), and it had a service ceiling of 27,800 ft (8,475 m). Maximum speed at 3,100 ft (945 m) was 376 mph (605 km/h), and cruise speed at 16,000 ft (4,877 m) was 344 mph (554 km/h). The 45-degree flaps allowed the aircraft to land at 97 mph and operate out of a 2,500 ft (762 m) runway.
The aircraft program was met with long delays due to the unavailability of the R-3350 engines, remote turrets, and the 75 mm cannon. The Boeing B-29 had engine priority; the Douglas A-26 had the turrets; and the cannon was still being developed. The first XA-38 (serial no 43-14406) took to the air on 7 May 1944 with Vern Carstens at the controls. The turrets were still not available, so dummy turrets were substituted. In July 1944, the aircraft was flown to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the 75 mm cannon was fitted and ground fired. Later in July, the Grizzly fired the cannon in-flight over Great Bend, Kansas.
Flight tests continued and minor issues were worked out. The aircraft performed very well, and during one early, low-level test flight, the XA-38 was able to pull away from the P-51B chase plane. Capt. Jack Williams evaluated the aircraft for the AAF and made 38 flights in the XA-38 between 13-24 October 1944. The aircraft was reported to be very maneuverable for an aircraft of its size and easy to fly through most aerobatic maneuvers. The aircraft was transferred to Dayton, Ohio for further evaluation on 7 July 1945. At some point, at least a mockup of the upper turret was added to the aircraft.
The second aircraft (serial no 43-11407) took to the air on 22 September 1945; Carstens was again at the controls. This aircraft had the correct turrets installed, and all weapons were operational. After initial flight tests, the XA-38 was transferred to Eglin Field, Florida for armament trials. Here, it amassed an additional 38 hours of flight tests, but there was little interest since the war was over.
The Grizzly’s main problem was that its engines were needed elsewhere. B-29 production left no spare R-3350s available for any type of A-38 production until mid-1945. By that time, the war was winding down, and there was no foreseeable need for the A-38. One of the XA-38s reportedly went to Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, but its ultimate fate is not recorded. The other aircraft was believed to be scrapped. The only remnant of the XA-38 Grizzly is the T15E1 cannon on display at the United States Air Force Armament Museum in Eglin AFB, Florida.
– Beech Aircraft and their Predecessors by A.J. Pelleteir (1995)
– U.S. Experimental & Prototype Aircraft Projects by Bill Noton (2008)
– American Attack Aircraft Since 1926 by E.R. Johnson (2008)
– U.S. Aerial Armament in World War II, Vol. 1 by William Wolf (2009)
– American Combat Planes of the 20th Century by Ray Wagner (2004)
– 75MM Cannon M10 display in the United States Air Force Armament Museum in Eglin AFB, Florida