By William Pearce
On 8 July 1931, the United States Army Air Corps (AAC) issued production contract W535-ac-4434 to the Curtiss-Wright Corporation for the production of 46 P-6E Hawk fighter aircraft. The P-6E was one of many variants that had branched from the P-6 line, which originated in 1928. The basic P-6 was a refined P-1 equipped with a Curtiss V-1570 Conqueror engine; however, the 46th aircraft from contract W535-ac-4434 would not be finished as a P-6E. Rather, it would become the Model 63, which carried the AAC designation XP-23. In the early 1930s, the AAC was interested in exploring advancements with turbosuperchargers to create a fighter capable of high speeds at high altitudes, and the XP-23 was an opportunity to create just such an aircraft.
The Curtiss XP-23 was a single engine biplane with conventional fixed taildragger undercarriage. The only components the aircraft had in common with a P-6E were the wings, although some sources state that the wings had a spar and rib frame built of metal rather than wood. Whether it was made of wood or metal, the wing’s frame was covered in fabric. The upper wing had a 1.5-degree dihedral, was mounted 4 in (102 mm) higher than on the P-6E, and was positioned 28.5 in (724 mm) forward of the lower wing. The lower wing had no dihedral and was 5 ft 6 in (1.68 m) shorter in span. Ailerons were located on the upper wing only.
The aircraft’s monocoque fuselage and tail were of all-metal construction. The main and reserve fuel tanks were housed forward of the cockpit and held a total of 78 US gallons (65 Imp gal / 295 L). The oil tank held 11 US gallons (9 Imp gal / 42 L). A .30-cal machine gun was mounted on each side of the aircraft just forward of the cockpit. A long blast tube extended from each gun, through the engine bay under the exhaust, and exited just behind the spinner. Some sources indicate the armament was one .30-cal and one .50-cal machine gun, while other sources state two .30-cal and one .50-cal machine gun. It is not clear where the third gun would have been located, if indeed there was one. Aerodynamic fairings covered the main wheels except for their outer side.
The XP-23 was powered by a liquid-cooled Curtiss V-1570 Conqueror V-12 engine, which was equipped with a General Electric F-2C turbosupercharger. The turbosupercharger was externally mounted to the left side of the engine. Exhaust from the left cylinder bank was fed directly into the turbosupercharger, and exhaust from the right cylinder bank was ducted through the cowling just behind the engine and to the turbosupercharger. The intake was just forward of the turbosupercharger. The engine did not have a mechanically-driven supercharger or blower.
The turbosupercharger enabled the V-1570 engine to produced 600 hp (447 kW) at 2,400 rpm from sea level to 15,000 ft (4,572 m). The V-1570 had a 6.1 to 1 compression ratio and consumed 60 US gph (50 Imp gph / 227 L/h) at full throttle and 36 US gph (30 Imp gph / 136 L/h) at 2,100 rpm (cruise power / 88% throttle). At a .500 reduction, the engine turned a metal, three-blade, ground-adjustable Hamilton Standard propeller that was 9 ft 6 in (2.90 m) in diameter. Mounted under the engine and between the main gear was the radiator for the engine’s ethylene glycol cooling system.
The XP-23’s upper wing had a span of 31 ft 6 in (9.60 m), and its lower wing had a span of 26 ft (7.92 m). The aircraft had a length of 23 ft 9 in (7.24 m) and a height of 8 ft 9 in (2.67 m). The XP-23’s top speed was 223 mph (359 km/h) at 15,000 ft (4,572 m) and 178 mph (286 km/h) at sea level. The aircraft’s cruising speed was 192 mph (309 km/h) at 15,000 ft (4,572 m), and its stalling speed was 69 mph (111 km/h) at sea level. The XP-23 had an initial climb rate of 1,370 fpm (6.96 m/s), and its service ceiling was 32,000 ft (9,754 m). The aircraft’s range was 292 miles (470 km) at full throttle and 435 miles (700 km) at cruise power. The XP-23 had an empty weight of 3,142 lb (1,425 kg) and a gross weight of 4,032 lb (1,829 kg).
The XP-23 was allotted serial number 32-278 and built at the Curtiss Airplane Division Plant 1 on Kenmore Avenue in Buffalo, New York. The aircraft was accepted by the AAC on 16 April 1932 at a cost of $12,279.36. Although the XP-23’s performance met expectations, there is some indication that the turbosupercharger overheated and was unreliable. Regardless, the age of biplane fighters was at an end, and the XP-23 was the last biplane fighter accepted by the AAC. The Boeing P-26 Peashooter prototype was the AAC’s first monoplane fighter to enter service and made its first flight on 20 March 1932. The P-26 out-performed the XP-23 and showed that the monoplane type was the future.
Curtiss had proposed powering the XP-23 with a V-1800 Super Conqueror engine. The V-1800 had a mechanically-driven supercharger that eliminated the bulbous side-mounted turbosupercharger previously used on the XP-23 and resulted in a much cleaner cowling. The engine produced 800 hp (597 kW) at 2,400 rpm and turned a 10 ft (3.05 m) diameter, metal, three-blade, ground-adjustable Hamilton Standard propeller at a .714 reduction. With the V-1800, the XP-23 had an anticipated top speed of 234 mph (377 km/h) at 12,000 ft (3,658 m) and a cruise speed of 199 mph (320 km/h). At 23 ft 11 in (7.29 m) long and 3,227 lb (1,464 kg) empty, the aircraft was 2 in (51 mm) longer and 85 lb (39 kg) heavier than the V-1570-powered variant. Curtiss did note that the wing might need to be moved forward slightly to achieve a proper center of gravity. However, the V-1800 was never installed in the XP-23.
The sole XP-23 was modified by removing the turbosupercharger, but the V-1570 was retained. It is not clear if the modifications were in anticipation of further changes to incorporate the V-1800, or if it was done to compare the turbosupercharger setup to the normally-aspirated V-1570. With the turbosupercharger removed, the aircraft became commonly known as the YP-23. The engine’s air intake was positioned atop the cowling, a two-blade propeller was fitted, and its armament was removed. In this configuration, the YP-23 achieved 200 mph (322 km/h) at 15,000 ft (4,572 m).
The YP-23 underwent one last round of modifications to explore the effects of radiator drag on high-speed aircraft. The coolant radiator was removed, the V-1570 engine was switched to a total-loss water cooling system, and the aircraft’s main fuel tank was used as a water reservoir. Using fuel from the reserve tank, cooling water flowed through the engine at a reduced rate from the main tank and was then vented overboard. The previous deletion of the turbosupercharger and the removal of the radiator gave the YP-23 an exceptionally clean appearance. Unfortunately, test results of these modifications have not been found. It is possible that thorough testing was never conducted since monoplanes offered higher performance. The YP-23 was disassembled, and its wings were reportedly used on the XF11C-1 Goshawk prototype fighter for the United States Navy.
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