April 27, 1956: The FICON Project was Completed After Seven Flights of an RF‑84K From a Modified B-36

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  • Air Force Test Center

The FICON project was completed after seven flights of an RF‑84K from a modified B-36. Although the flights were successful, the project was terminated due to difficulties in recovering the parasite fighter under all but optimum conditions, and by range degradation of the combined aircraft.

The FICON (Fighter Conveyor) program was conducted by the United States Air Force in the 1950s to test the feasibility of a Convair B-36 Peacemaker bomber carrying a Republic RF-84K Thunderflash parasite fighter in its bomb bay. Earlier wingtip coupling experiments included Tip Tow, which were attempts at carrying fighters connected to the wingtips of bombers. Tom-Tom followed the FICON project afterwards.  Although the experimental McDonnell XF-85 Goblin escort fighter proved to be a failure, USAF believed that the bomber-borne fighter concept was still viable. Instead of escort, the focus had shifted to a strike role with a Convair B-36 Peacemaker carrying a Republic F-84 Thunderjet fighter. The plan was for the heavy bomber with superior range to arrive in the vicinity of the target and deploy a faster, more maneuverable F-84 to deliver the tactical nuclear bomb. The F-84 would then return to the "mothership" and be carried home.  A production RB-36F-1-CF Peacemaker (serial number 49-2707) was modified with a special trapeze mechanism in its bomb bay and designated GRB-36F, and a production F-84E Thunderjet (serial number 49-2115) was fitted with a retractable hook in the nose in front of the cockpit. The hook would link the fighter to the trapeze which would hold the aircraft in the bomb bay during flight, lower it for deployment, and raise it back in after the mission. Due to the size of the fighter, only the cockpit, the fuselage spine, and the tailfin actually fit inside the GRB-36, which considerably increased the drag and reduced the big bomber's range by 5–10%. On a positive note, the fighter pilot was able to leave his aircraft while attached to the carrier, making the 10-hour flights to-and-from the target much more bearable.

The initial FICON trials were performed in 1952. First hookup took place on 9 January 1952, with first retrieval into the bomb bay on 23 April, and first flight of the complete system from takeoff to landing on 14 May. In 1953, the GRB-36/F-84E was sent to Eglin Air Force Base where 170 airborne launches and retrievals were subsequently performed. In May 1953, the F-84E was replaced by the faster Republic F-84F Thunderstreak, with the original YRF-84F (briefly called YF-96A) prototype (serial number 49-2430) modified for the role and briefly designated GRF-84F. When the RF-84F Thunderflash tactical reconnaissance fighter began entering service, the FICON role was changed from attack to reconnaissance. As with the F-84, the RF-84 was supposed to utilize its smaller size and superior agility to overfly heavily defended targets and gather intelligence while the bomber loitered outside the range of enemy defenses. The scheme was found to be "tactically sound" and USAF ordered 10 production RB-36D to be converted to GRB-36D carriers with a complement of 25 RF-84K tactical reconnaissance fighters. The RF-84K differed from RF-84F in having retractable hookup equipment and anhedral tailplanes to better fit inside the GRB-36. Since it retained an armament of four 0.50 in. machine guns, it could also act as an escort fighter. The RF-84K could be deployed at altitudes of up to 25,000 feet and added 1,180 miles to GRB-36D's 2,800 miles combat range.