The Curtiss-Wright Corporation, through the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, had been an early pioneer in the field of naval aviation. A Curtiss Model D had been the first aircraft to take off from a ship, and the company’s flying boats found service all over the world. During the Second World War, that legacy became a distant memory. Expensive projects such as the XF14C and the XSB3C had been cancelled without any orders. By 1945, the future of fixed-wing Curtiss-Wright aircraft rested on two designs: the XF15C and the XF-87 Blackhawk. The former was a mixed-propulsion fighter powered by a Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp radial engine and an Allis-Chalmers J36 turbojet. A prototype flew that year. The latter was a large jet-powered interceptor being developed for the United States Air Force. It only existed on paper.
Mixed-propulsion solved the poor fuel efficiency and short life of early jet engines, but technology was advancing rapidly. As official interest waned, Curtiss-Wright investigated the possibility of adding a second jet engine as a replacement for the Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp. The first drawings were complete in June 1946. Four months later, the United States Navy threatened to terminate the XF15C contract. Through careful negotiation, Curtiss-Wright was able to modify the existing terms. It would no longer be developing a mixed-propulsion carrier fighter. It would instead be designing a jet-powered night fighter. The modified XF15C would be allowed to compete with the Grumman XF9F-1 and the Douglas XF3D as the Curtiss-Wright XF16C.
In October 1947, the first XF16C took to the skies. It was one of three prototypes ordered under the modified contract. By December, the second and third prototypes were delivered to the Naval Air Test Center in Patuxent River for evaluation. All three were built to a common design, though a rushed development process had led to variations in quality. The XF16C was propelled by two Allis-Chalmers J36 turbojets producing a combined thrust of 24 kN (5,400 lbf). A clone of the de Havilland Goblin, the J36 was large for the amount of thrust it produced. However, as it had been employed on the XF15C, it was considered a safe option. The XF-87 Blackhawk would test the more advanced Westinghouse J34 in due course. Unfortunately, this decision meant that the XF16C would have a gross weight 9,750 kg (21,495 lb). Though less than that of the XF3D, it was substantially heavier than most contemporary fighters of the United States Navy. It was no small aircraft either, with a wingspan of 14.8 m (48.6 ft). Folding wings were carried over from the XF15C. So too was the landing gear, which was a tricycle design. The armament, four 20 mm (0.79 in) M2 cannon, was also identical. The XF16C carried a single pilot, who had to operate a Westinghouse radar while performing his traditional duties.
Unfortunately for Curtiss-Wright, selecting the J36 proved to be a poor decision. The XF16C had a thrust-to-weight ratio comparable to the first Gloster Meteors and was underpowered in comparison to the XF3D. In 1946, the United States Navy chose to abandon the XF16C in favour of the Douglas design. This became the F3D Skynight. This news was soon followed by the cancellation of the XF-87 Blackhawk. It too was deemed underpowered and the United States Air Force chose the Lockheed F-94 Starfire instead. An offer to replace the Blackhawk with the XF16C was rejected almost immediately. To make matters worse, few customers were available elsewhere. Most countries were content with post-war surplus at the time, and those that weren’t generally had a healthy domestic aviation industry. Britain’s decision to loan or sell its Colossus class aircraft carriers could have been a valuable opportunity if it were not for the fact that the XF16C was far too heavy for smaller British carriers. The corporation was dead in the water.
In 1949, Curtiss-Wright abandoned the XF-87 Blackhawk entirely and laid off the team that had designed it. Two derivatives of the XF16C would be developed for export. The CW-30A was to be a land-based aircraft, while the CW-30B would be a carrier-capable design. As the number of aircraft carriers in the world was limited, development of the former would be prioritised. Smaller engines would be employed, reducing weight and size. The night fighter role was retained, as there were doubts that Curtiss-Wright could compete directly with transonic aircraft such as the F-86 Sabre then entering service. Both variants would be marketed under the name ‘Firehawk’, harkening back to the famous Hawk. 1952 saw the first flight of the CW-30A Firehawk. Curtiss-Wright’s marketing men then caroused with officers and politicians around the world.
Orders were not forthcoming. As before, most nations were content with post-war surplus or developing their own designs. In time, American materiel aid would also erode sales opportunities. There was, however, a country which had an alarming need for modern combat aircraft. The Republic of China, facing regular intrusions from the mainland, saw the CW-30A Firehawk as a valuable asset. In 1953, they ordered 54 from Curtiss-Wright. Deliveries occurred between 1954 and 1956. The Firehawks supplied to China were equipped with two General Electric J47-GE-27 turbojets producing a combined thrust of 54 kN (11,940 lbf). Fuel consumption and aerodynamic limitations limited the prospects offered by this massive increase in thrust. However, a pair of wingtip fuel tanks were added to increase range. The four cannons which had armed the XF16C were replaced with six AN/M3 12.7 mm (0.5 in) machine guns which were believed to be more reliable. During the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1958, Chinese Firehawks shot down three MiG-15s and MiG-17s. Six were modified with American technical assistance to carry the Sidewinder air-to-air missile, and two of the three kills achieved involved this weapon. This modification was later applied to all Chinese Firehawks. Two Firehawks were lost to enemy action. Despite proving itself in combat, the Firehawk did not last long in Chinese service. It was supplemented by the North American F-86D in 1960 and withdrawn in 1964 after large numbers of Lockheed F-104 Starfighters became available.
The Chinese order was soon followed by Canadian interest in the carrier-capable CW-30B. The Royal Canadian Navy, then equipped with the Hawker Sea Fury, had expressed its intent to purchase the McDonnel F2H Banshee in 1951. However, budget limitations prevented the placement of an order before production of the Banshee ceased in 1953. Canada could purchase second-hand Banshees from the United States Navy, but these aircraft would be worn. Parts availability was also a concern. No other force operated the Banshee and new ones would not be appearing off the line anytime soon. Curtiss-Wright was more than happy to step in. In 1955, the Royal Canadian Navy ordered 39 CW-30B Firehawks. These aircraft included the landing hook and folding wings which existed on the XF16C but had been deleted for the land-based CW-30A. Another difference between the Chinese CW-30A and the Canadian CW-30B was the replacement of the two wingtip tanks with a pair of smaller tanks protruding beneath the fuselage. This was done to reduce the height of the aircraft while the wings were folded. The armament was also changed, with two Colt Mk 12 20 mm (0.79 in) cannon replacing the six machine guns. From 1959, this armament was supplemented with a pair of Sidewinder missiles. Canadian Firehawks flew from HMCS Bonaventure, a Majestic class aircraft carrier. Though the carrier would have been incapable of operating the XF16C, the lighter Firehawk proved to be more than capable. Unfortunately, the Firehawk did not last long in Canadian service. It was retired in 1963 without replacement as the Royal Canadian Navy shifted its attention to anti-submarine warfare.
Interest in the CW-30A dwindled as former United States Air Force aircraft of a similar or greater calibre became available. European designs such as the Hawker Hunter also limited Curtiss-Wright sales. However, another customer was soon found for the CW-30B. In 1959, the Argentine Navy placed an order for 15 naval Firehawks. In theory, these planes would serve alongside the F9F Panthers embarked on the Colossus class aircraft carrier ARA Independencia. The basic Colossus design was incapable of recovering the Firehawk in normal conditions. It was too heavy. However, as HMS Warrior, Independencia had received a strengthened deck. CW-30Bs manufactured for the Argentine order were slightly different to their Canadian counterparts. Four weapon pylons were included from the beginning. The two inner pylons could carry additional fuel instead of a missile. Unfortunately, the Firehawk never entered Argentine service. Argentine Naval Aviation declared the F9F Panther to be too heavy for operations aboard Independencia, and the Firehawk was heavier. It cancelled its order in 1960.
The Indian Navy, then in the process of adopting the Hawker Sea Hawk, expressed interest in acquiring the Argentine order. The night fighting capability of the Firehawk could complete the day fighting abilities of the Sea Hawk. The 15 Argentine CW-30Bs entered Indian service in 1961 and served aboard INS Vikrant. A further 15 were ordered from Curtiss-Wright in 1964. Unlike those aircraft destined for China and Canada, the Firehawks delivered to India had a relatively long and prosperous career. In the 1965 war with Pakistan, Indian Firehawks flew from land bases to protect naval installations from attack. While no kills were reported, no losses occurred either. In the 1971 war, Firehawks operating from Vikrant covered naval operations in the Bay of Bengal. Pakistani resistance in the air was minimal at sea, but four victories were recorded. After the conflict, Firehawks continued to operate from Vikrant until 1983 when they were phased out in favour of the Sea Harrier.
In the uncertainty that followed the cancellation of the XF16C and the XF-87 Blackhawk, many at Curtiss-Wright thought that the corporation would leave the aircraft business and focus on engines. While the Firehawk was a minor success, it only delayed the inevitable. After the second Indian order, no other customers for the Firehawk were found. A swept-wing derivative known as the CW-30C was proposed in 1965. It would have been an attack aircraft, eliminating the need for a high-performance design. However, all work was terminated in 1967. In that year, Curtiss-Wright turned away from fixed-wing aircraft. The Firehawk would be its last.