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D-558-2 launch from P2B-1S mothership

D-558-2 launch from P2B-1S mothership

Movie Number   EM-0007-02
Movie Date   Early 1950s
Formats   160x120 15-fps QuickTime Movie
320x240 30-fps QuickTime Movie (1.3 MB)
320x240 30-fps MPEG-1 Movie (2.7 MB)
D-558-2 Still photos of the D-558-2 are available in several resolutions at

This 28-second video clip shows Scott Crossfield descending from the bomb bay of the P2B-1S into the cockpit of the D-558-2, strapping in, and having the hatch closed by a crewmember.

The Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket airplanes were among the early transonic research airplanes like the X-1, X-4, X-5, and XF-92A. Three of these single-seat, swept-wing aircraft flew from 1948 to 1956 in a joint program involving the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA); the Navy-Marine Corps; and the Douglas Aircraft Company, Long Beach, California. Flight research was done at the NACA Muroc Flight Test Unit in California, redesignated in 1949 the High-Speed Flight Research Station (HSFRS). The HSFRS is now known as the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, California. The Skyrocket made aviation history when it became the first airplane to fly twice the speed of sound.

Douglas Aircraft pilot John F. Martin made the first flight at Muroc Army Airfield (later renamed Edwards Air Force Base) in California on February 4, 1948. The goals of that program were to investigate the characteristics of swept-wing aircraft at transonic and supersonic speeds with particular attention to pitchup (uncommanded rotation of the nose of the airplane upwards) -- a problem prevalent in high-speed service aircraft of that era, particularly at low speeds during takeoff and landing and in tight turns.

The three aircraft gathered a great deal of data about pitchup and the coupling of lateral (yaw) and longitudinal (pitch) motions; wing and tail loads, lift, drag, and buffeting characteristics of swept-wing aircraft at transonic and supersonic speeds; and the effects of the rocket exhaust plume on lateral dynamic stability throughout the speed range. (Plume effects were a new experience for aircraft.) The number three aircraft also gathered information about the effects of external stores (bomb shapes, drop tanks) upon the aircraft behavior in the transonic region (roughly 0.7 to 1.3 times the speed of sound). In correlation with data from other early transonic research aircraft such as the XF-92A, this information contributed to solutions to the pitchup problem in swept-wing aircraft.

The Navy contracted with Douglas Aircraft Company to design the airplane, and in the course of the design process, the D-558 came to be divided into two separate phases. Phase one was a straight-wing turbojet aircraft and phase two consisted of a swept-wing design with turbojet and rocket propulsion. At the NACA suggestion, which was based on the research of Robert Jones at Langley and some captured German documents, Douglas Aircraft and the Navy had agreed to the swept-wing design and to provide sufficient power to propel the swept-wing airplane past Mach 1. They also agreed to add rocket propulsion.

Then, to fit both a turbojet and rocket engine in the phase two aircraft a new fuselage was required. Like the D-558-1, the Skyrocket featured a horizontal stabilizer high on the vertical tail to avoid the wake from the wing. As with the X-1 and the D-558-1, the Skyrocket also featured, at NACA suggestion, a horizontal stabilizer that was thinner than the wing and movable in flight so as to avoid simultaneous shock wave effects for the wing and horizontal tail and to provide pitch (noseup or nosedown) control when shock waves made the elevators ineffective. While Douglas Aircraft was constructing the D-558-2 airplanes, the NACA continued to furnish the contractor data it needed on aircraft performance based on tests in Langley Research Center wind tunnels and with rocket-propelled models from the Wallops Island Pilotless Aircraft Research Station, Wallops Island, Virginia.

The three airplanes flew a total of 313 times -- 123 by the number one aircraft (Bureau No. 37973 -- NACA 143), 103 by the second Skyrocket (Bureau No. 37974 -- NACA 144), and 87 by airplane number three (Bureau No. 37975 -- NACA 145). Skyrocket 143 flew all but one of its missions as part of the Douglas Aircraft contractor program to test the airplane's performance.

NACA aircraft 143 was initially powered by a Westinghouse J-34-40 turbojet engine configured only for ground takeoffs, but in 1954-55 the contractor modified it to an all-rocket air-launch capability featuring an LR8-RM-6, 4-chamber Reaction Motors engine rated at 6,000 pounds of thrust at sea level (the Navy designation for the Air Force LR-11 used in the X-1). In this configuration, NACA research pilot John McKay flew the airplane only once for familiarization on September 17, 1956. The 123 flights of NACA 143 served to validate wind-tunnel predictions of Skyrocket performance, except for the fact that the airplane experienced less drag above Mach 0.85 than the wind tunnels had indicated.

NACA 144 also began its flight program with a turbojet powerplant. NACA pilots Robert A. Champine and John H. Griffith flew 21 times in this configuration to test airspeed calibrations and to research longitudinal and lateral stability and control. In the process, during August of 1949 they encountered pitchup problems, which NACA engineers recognized as serious because pitchup could produce a limiting and dangerous restriction on flight performance. Hence, they determined to make a complete investigation of the problem.

In 1950, Douglas Aircraft Company replaced the turbojet with an LR-8 rocket engine, and its pilot, William B. Bridgeman, flew the aircraft seven times -- up to a speed of Mach 1.88 (1.88 times the speed of sound) and an altitude of 79,494 feet (the latter an unofficial world altitude record at the time, achieved on August 15, 1951). In the rocket configuration, a Navy P2B (Navy version of the B-29) launched the airplane at an altitude of approximately 30,000 feet after taking off from the ground with the Skyrocket attached beneath its bomb bay. During Bridgeman's supersonic flights, he encountered a violent rolling motion known as lateral instability. This phenomenon was less pronounced on the Mach 1.88 flight on August 7, 1951, than on a Mach 1.85 flight in June when he pushed over to a low angle of attack (angle of the fuselage or wing to the prevailing wind direction).

The NACA engineers studied the behavior of this aircraft before beginning their own flight research in the airplane in September 1951. Over the next couple of years, NACA pilot A. Scott Crossfield flew the airplane 20 times to gather data on longitudinal and lateral stability and control; wing and tail loads; and lift, drag, and buffeting characteristics at speeds up to Mach 1.878.

At that point, Marine Lt. Col. Marion Carl flew the airplane to a new (unofficial) altitude record of 83,235 feet on August 21, 1953, and to a maximum speed of Mach 1.728.

Following Carl's completion of these flights for the Navy, NACA technicians at the High-Speed Flight Research Station (HSFRS) near Mojave, California, outfitted the LR-8 engine cylinders with nozzle extensions to prevent the exhaust gas from affecting the rudders at supersonic speeds. This addition also increased the engine thrust by 6.5 percent at Mach 1.7 and an altitude of 70,000 feet.

Even before Marion Carl had flown the Skyrocket, HSFRS Chief Walter C. Williams had unsuccessfully petitioned NACA headquarters to fly the aircraft to Mach 2 to garner the research data at that speed. Finally, after Crossfield had secured the agreement of the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics, NACA director Hugh L. Dryden relaxed the organization's usual practice of leaving record setting to others and consented to attempting a flight to Mach 2.

In addition to adding the nozzle extensions, the NACA flight team at the HSFRS chilled the fuel (alcohol) so more could be poured into the tank and waxed the fuselage to reduce drag. With these preparations and employing a flight plan devised by project engineer Herman O. Ankenbruck to fly to an altitude of approximately 72,000 feet and push over into a slight dive, Crossfield made aviation history on November 20, 1953, when he flew to Mach 2.005 (1,291 miles per hour). He became the first pilot to reach Mach 2 in this, the only flight in which the Skyrocket flew that fast.

Following this flight, Crossfield and NACA pilots Joseph A. Walker and John B. McKay flew the airplane for such purposes as to gather data on pressure distribution, structural loads, and structural heating. The last flight in the program occurred on December 20, 1956, when McKay obtained dynamic stability data and sound-pressure levels at transonic speeds and above.

Meanwhile, NACA 145 had completed 21 contractor flights by Douglas Aircraft pilots Eugene F. May and Bill Bridgeman in November 1950. In this jet-and-rocket-propelled craft, Scott Crossfield and Walter Jones began the NACA investigation of pitchup lasting from September 1951 well into the summer of 1953. They flew the Skyrocket with a variety of wing-fence, wing-slat, and leading-edge chord extension configurations, performing various maneuvers as well as straight-and-level flying at transonic speeds. While fences significantly aided recovery from pitchup conditions, leading edge chord extensions did not, disproving wind-tunnel tests to the contrary. Slats (long, narrow auxiliary airfoils) in the fully open position eliminated pitchup except in the speed range around Mach 0.8 to 0.85.

In June 1954, Crossfield began an investigation of the effects of external stores (bomb shapes and fuel tanks) upon the Skyrocket transonic behavior. McKay and Stanley Butchart completed the NACA investigation of this issue, with McKay flying the final mission on August 28, 1956.

Besides setting several records, the Skyrocket pilots had gathered important data and understanding about what would and would not work to provide stable, controlled flight of a swept-wing aircraft in the transonic and supersonic flight regimes. The data they gathered also helped to enable a better correlation of wind-tunnel test results with actual flight values, enhancing the abilities of designers to produce more capable aircraft for the armed services, especially those with swept wings. Moreover, data on such matters as stability and control from this and other early research airplanes aided in the design of the century series of fighter airplanes, all of which featured the movable horizontal stabilizers first employed on the X-1 and D-558 series.


D-558-2; Scott Crossfield; Douglas Aircraft Company; U.S. Navy; NACA; National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics; Skyrocket; P2B-1S; B-29; mothership; Muroc Flight Test Unit; High-Speed Flight Research Station; U.S. Marine Corps; Dryden Flight Research Center; DFRC; HSFRS; Muroc Army Airfield; transonic; lift; drag; buffeting; pitch; yaw; plume effects; external stores; XF-92A; Robert Jones; swept-wing; X-1; Westinghouse; J34-40; LR8; Reaction Motors; LR-11; LR-8; Robert A. Champine; John H. Griffith; William B. Bridgeman; John F. Martin; stability and control; Marion Carl; nozzle extensions; Walter C. Williams; Bureau of Aeronautics; Herman O. Ankenbruck; Mach 2; Joseph A. Walker; John B. McKay; Walter P. Jones; Stanley Butchart.

Selected Links: D-558-2 Skyrocket Fact Sheet
D-558-2 Photo Collection
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