High Desert Hangar Stories: The Convair XF-92 – a Delta Wing Movie Star

By Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News
When the United States was looking to develop a point-defense interceptor in the 1940s, the delta wing design was getting a lot of attention. Test bed aircraft were being developed by various contractors to fill that requirement.

Convair, which would later go on to become a successful creator of several delta wing designs, built a mock-up that was identified as the Model 7002 in official documentation. It would not be long before it became the XF-92, a one-off research project that was never intended to be a production aircraft.

The official poster for the movie Jet Pilot. (Courtesy photograph)

As such, the craft was assembled from many different aircraft parts to keep costs down — similar to what is happening today with the X-59 QueSST. You had components like the main landing gear that was from the North American FJ-1; the nose wheel from a Bell P-63; the J-33 engine, brakes and hydraulics from a Lockheed P-80; the ejection seat from a XP-81, and the rudder pedals from a BT-13 trainer. Built at the old Vultee Field in Downey and finished up in San Diego at the Consolidated plant, the project took over a year to complete — which frustrated the Air Force, which was eager to get it into the research mode. On March 26, 1948, it was loaded aboard a Navy LST and taken to the Port of Los Angeles. From there it was trucked to Muroc Army Air Field, where it would live out its life in flight test.

While I was researching the jet, it was obvious that it was a great test bed and provided much useful data that would find its way into future delta-wing aircraft. One aspect of that old airframe caught my attention, when a couple of odd photos showed it in a strange paint scheme. I started to snoop around for a story and it wasn’t long before I discovered it was tied to a “casting call” from Hollywood, that had come in search of an American Jet to play the part of a Russian MiG!

The XF-92 in its MiG-23 paint job for the movie Jet Pilot. The footage of the XF-92 ended up on the cutting room floor. (Courtesy photograph)

In the big production of the 1957 movie Jet Pilot, starring John Wayne and Janet Leigh, it was decided that an unused airframe in flying condition would be a great stand in as a MiG-23. The XF-92 was dolled up for the role in a strange paint job and it took to our High Desert skies, with some of our test pilots from Edwards doing the flying for the movie.

As is typical of Hollywood, and given the fact that it was a Howard Hughes project, the film ran over time and over budget. Bringing out the plot line, which was not so much about the “jet pilot” of the title, but more about showcasing a very provocative Janet Leigh, who played the part of a Russian pilot and John Wayne’s love interest, required some trimming of the film.

So where does this leave our XF-92/struggling movie star and its sex appeal? Why, on the cutting room floor, of course! The XF-92 found out how fickle Hollywood can be — its role as that Russian MiG never hit the big screen and Lockheed P-80s took over the role instead. Jet Pilot is a great old movie for the fans of the early Jet Age and the exploits of those marquee actors of Holywood’s Golden Age, but it’s really a shame we lost the chance to see that XF-92 on the big screen in a flying role. (Even if it is worth seeing Janet Leigh steal the spotlight as the alluring Russian agent/pilot!)

The XF-92 made a cameo appearance in the 1956 film Towards the Unknown. (Courtesy photograph)

So did the XF-92 ever get a chance for silver screen redemption? Well, Hollywood would come calling again up at Edwards and it would get a small cameo in the epic movie Toward the Unknown in a static scene where it “played the part” of a crashed Convair F-102, as the pilot was rescued from the craft that had supposedly crash landed.

Today the XF-92 is on display at the Air Force Museum in Ohio, after touring the country until 1962 as an exhibit of experimental aircraft. One year it even ended up at the front entrance to the Antelope Valley Fair, as well as being on a float in a parade in Detroit, Mich!  Now this is one jet that sure knows how to get the most out of a hodgepodge of components and turn its 118 flights and 62 hours of air time into a lifetime role!  Well done, comrade!

Until next time, Bob out …

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