From the heady days of 1947 through to the present day you could be forgiven for thinking the Air Force/NACA X-1 was the lone aircraft probing the sound barrier, but it wasn’t. The Navy had contracted the Douglas Aircraft Corporation to build an aircraft with a similar objective to the X-1. Perhaps if it’s Navy competitor had been blessed with a snappier name, it might have been the one people remembered. I mean, who’s going to mention the “Douglas D-558 Phase I” in casual conversation? Douglas’s PR people obviously recognized the disadvantage when they gave the aircraft the “Skystreak” moniker, but it never caught on.
In fairness the D-558 Phase I was intended to explore the high subsonic range and only capable of going supersonic in a dive (Mach 1.01, and it only did that once). In level flight the best it could achieve was Mach 0.99, a tantalizingly close number that must have frustrated Douglas, the Navy and the plane’s pilots.
The D-558 Phase I was a very small aircraft to minimize drag. This meant the cockpit was minuscule, so small in fact that when Bob Champine noticed streaks on the canopy he realized they were paint from his helmet rubbing against it’s plexiglass surface. So, in typical fashion he didn’t make a big deal of the issue, he just covered his helmet with chamois to prevent the marks. There’s an interesting write up of the aircraft and its size on a site dedicated to pilot Gene May.
The D-558 Phase I came to a sad end on May 3rd, 1948. Shortly after take off the engine compressor disintegrated, throwing turbine blades like machetes and severing the control cables. The resulting crash killed pilot Howard Lilly (on the right below).
The Phase I replacement, inventively named Phase II, was had swept wings and new air intakes for the engine. But the D-558 Phase II (Skyrocket) had a bad start. When delivered to Muroc Field it was woefully underpowered with a Westinghouse J-34 jet engine. Unlike the X-1, the D-558 Phase II was designed to take off from a runway. Most people would therefore expect it to be able to this under it’s own power, but not the D-558 Phase II. At Muroc they discovered the flaps and landing gear created so much drag it wasn’t capable of getting airborne without some form of assistance. The assistance came in the hasty form of attaching JATO rockets to the side of the aircraft. Four rockets were really required for good performance, but in the cash strapped years after WW2, they could only use two per flight. Even with the additional thrust of the rockets, take off wasn’t easy. Pilot Bob Champine outlined the procedure as
1) get up to the maximum speed possible with the jet engine (this would take about mile over the dry lake of Muroc Field)
2) fire the JATO rockets to bring the aircraft up to take off speed.
3) take off
4) immediately retract the landing gear to reduce drag and help the speed gradually rise.
5) with increased airspeed, the flaps could be retracted just before the JATO rockets ran out.
6) dump the rockets at the end of the runway and finally fly.
It’s not quite the take off you’d imagine for an aircraft designed to go supersonic, but in a way it brings it closer to the spirit of the headline grabbing X-planes. They were so highly optimized to explore one or another aspect of flight, they had severe limitations, being launched from a mothership for instance, that could never be tolerated on an aircraft in service. In time the D-558 Phase II was augmented with a version of the same rocket used on the X-1 and eventually reached Mach 2.
In the next post well talk about something that might have been a more serious challenge to the X-1’s historical position. In the meantime, what do you think? Was the Navy cheated of the fame it deserved alongside the NACA/Air Force X-1? Or were its goals too low to propel it into the same historical orbit as the little orange rocket ship?
And would you fly in something so small your head was wedged against the canopy?!
(Images courtesy of NASA and Aerospaceweb.org)
Great article Nigel. In my opinion the Navy was not “cheated”. They had precisely the amount of publicity that they wished for.
The Navy was concentrating it’s PR efforts on aspects of it’s nuclear programs. They had to keep congress convinced that the astronomical costs of developing nuclear propulsion for large attack carriers, cruisers, and two classes of submarines was justifiable in terms of national defense and power projection. The Navy also had to keep funding flowing for submarine launched missiles, surface ship air defense missiles, surface launched anti-ship missiles, and ship launched missiles for land targets. This was happening just as congress was wanting to take a deep breath after contemplating what had been spent on the enormous ship building programs for world war two. Congress could not have been thrilled that ships that ranged in age between five years and five days were now considered by the navy to be mostly useful as targets for weapons testing.
If your not dizzy from contemplating the tax implications yet consider that the Navy had to also get funding for the development of radar, sonar, secure communications, satellites, network liking systems etc.
I can only guess that the Navy was content with letting the boys at Edwards take as many headlines as possible.
The Air Force was at the time a newly independent branch of service. It was desperately trying to establish it’s own traditions and culture so it served their goals to work harder to accommodate the press.
Would I fly in anything that tight? Not if I can avoid it. I have traveled more miles than I care to remember in helicopters and small aircraft. When practical I prefer a quiet walk.
That the Navy might have been managing its publicity like that is an angle I hadn’t thought of. Which is remiss of me, because next weeks article suggests the Air Force may have been doing exactly the same thing at the same time (and of course the services have always done it).
Hope you’ve got better weather than Texas to enjoy your walk. Rain and thunder here tonight.
Never heard of this airplane. Good on you for digging it up, so to speak.
I wish the public had a better understanding of the process by which new systems are developed. And of course, what you don’t understand you ridicule.
An aircraft, a rocket, a sighting system–all are complex, and there’s no way to get every part of the thing working 100% on day one. So, you drop a plane out of another plane, or strap JATO bottles to it (well, duh, they are called JATO, after all) to get it off the ground. Or, you stick waffle irons to the side of the target when you’re starting to develop a new infrared gizmo. However, back when the X-1 and D-558 planes were being developed, the tax-paying public had a better relationship with the government, and more optimistic-gee-whizzery in their hearts. They had just defeated one of the greatest (well, two of the greatest because Japan was right in there swinging) evil empires the world had known up to that time, and they had done it with bone and muscle and MANUFACTURING. So, my guess is that they would not have had the jaundiced peepers we’re afflicted with these days.
Would I fly in something that small? I’ve flown in some downright uncomfortable aircraft, but never one that small. My guess is that the cockpit was hotter than hell. I’m not claustrophobic, but I do not like being hot. So, nope, not flying in that unless the weather on the ground is frosty.
Loving this series. Did you know that I graduated from L. D. Bell high school? Are you psychic? Lawrence D. Bell himself gave our town the money to build a school. How cool is that?
I didn’t know about L D Bell high school, amazingly small world, isn’t it?
I think you’re right about people’s perceptions. Attitudes post WW2 were very different because of the war. Engineering was also something that the majority of people could grasp. These days, despite some jaundiced views, the gee-whizz engineering isn’t so easy to understand. Engineers often only understand their own small portion of a system. I think that’s why, sometimes, big projects go astray – people don’t understand the significance of their piece of the puzzle, so can’t do their best to solve the overall puzzle.
I plan to do a post on perspective in the new year.
One more important reason that I’d never fly in that airplane: looks like a one-seater to me, and I’m not a pilot.
Lol. Good point Texanne!