22 March 1956: While carrying the U.S. Navy’s Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, problems developed aboard both the research rocketplane and the “mothership.” The modified four-engine heavy bomber, a U.S. Air Force Boeing B-29-95-BW Superfortress (which had been transferred to the U.S. Navy and redesignated P2B-1S Superfortress), had a runaway propeller on the Number 4 engine, outboard on the right wing. The propeller broke apart from excessive rotational speed, slicing through the Number 3 engine, the fuselage, and striking the Number 2 engine.
NACA research test pilot John Barron (“Jack”) MacKay, in the cockpit of the Skyrocket, had called “No drop!” because of problems with the rocketplane, but he was jettisoned so that the mothership could maintain flight and make an emergency landing.
McKay dumped the Skyrocket’s propellants and glided to the lake bed.
“Each rocket-plane pilot had worked out, in conjunction with the pilot of the mother ship, a procedure to follow if any emergency developed in either plane. Jack McKay, who had developed into a very able test pilot, and I had agreed with Butchart that if something went wrong after either of us had entered the cockpit of the Skyrocket and had closed the canopy, he would immediately jettison the rocket plane, leaving the rocket-plane pilot to look after his own hide. As a matter of fact, McKay and Butchart later ran into such an emergency. One day something went haywire in a propeller on the B-29 mother plane. As agreed, Butchart instantly cut loose the Skyrocket. A split second later the B-29 prop tore loose and cartwheeled through the space the Skyrocket had just vacated. McKay landed without difficulty; but had Butchart not cut the parasite plane loose, the prop would have ripped into its fuel tanks, causing an explosion that would have killed everyone, including McKay.”
— Always Another Dawn: The Story of a Rocket Test Pilot, by A. Scott Crossfield and Clay Blair, Jr., The World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, 1960, Chapter 21 at Pages 201–202.
The Superfortress pilots, Stanley Paul Butchart and Neil Alden Armstrong, landed the plane safely on the lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base.
Neil Armstrong would land on The Moon 13 years later.
20 November 1953: At Edwards Air Force Base, California, NACA’s High Speed Flight Station research test pilot Albert Scott Crossfield, Jr., rode behind the flight crew of the Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress as it carried the Douglas Aircraft Company D-558-II Skyrocket supersonic research rocketplane to its launch altitude. As the four-engine bomber climbed through 18,000 feet (5,486 meters), Crossfield headed back to the bomb bay to enter the Skyrocket’s cockpit and prepare for his flight.
The Douglas D-558-II was Phase II of a United States Navy/Douglas Aircraft Company/National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics joint research project exploring supersonic flight. It was a swept-wing airplane powered by a single Reaction Motors LR8-RM-6 four-chamber rocket engine. The Skyrocket was fueled with alcohol and liquid oxygen. The engine was rated at 6,000 pounds of thrust (26.69 kilonewtons) at Sea Level.
There were three Phase II aircraft. Originally, they were also equipped with a Westinghouse J34-W-40 turbojet engine which produced 3,000 pounds of thrust (13.35 kilonewtons). The Skyrockets took off from the surface of Rogers Dry Lake. Once the D-558-II reached altitude, the rocket engine was fired for the speed runs.
As higher speeds were required, the program shifted to an air launch from a B-29 (P2B-1S) drop ship. Without the need to climb to the test altitude, the Skyrocket’s fuel load was available for the high speed runs.
The D-558-II was 42.0 feet (12.80 meters) long, with a wingspan of 25.0 feet (7.62 meters). The leading edge of the wing was swept at a 35° angle and the tail surfaces were swept to 40°. The aircraft weighed 9,421 pounds (4,273 kilograms) empty and had a maximum takeoff weight of 15,787 pounds (7,161 kilograms). It carried 378 gallons (1,431 liters) of water/ethyl alcohol and 345 gallons (1,306 liters) of liquid oxygen.
The mothership, NACA 137, was a Boeing Wichita B-29-95-BW Superfortress, U.S. Air Force serial number 45-21787. It was transferred to the U.S. Navy, redesignated P2B-1S and assigned Bureau of Aeronautics number 84029. Douglas Aircraft modified the bomber for its drop ship role at the El Segundo plant.
Going above the planned launch altitude, the Superfortress was placed in a slight dive to build to its maximum speed. At the bomber’s critical Mach number (Mcr), the Skyrocket was just above its stall speed. At 32,000 feet (9,754 meters), Crossfield and the Skyrocket were released. The rocketplane fell for about 400 feet (122 meters) before the rocket engine ignited and then it began to accelerate.
Crossfield climbed at a steep angle until he reached 72,000 feet (21,946 meters), and then leveled off. Now in level flight, the D-558-II continued to accelerate, quickly passing Mach 1, then Mach 1.5. Crossfield pushed the nose down and began a shallow dive. The Skyrocket, still under full power, built up speed. As it passed through 62,000 feet (18,998 meters) the Skyrocket reached its maximum speed, Mach 2.005, or 1,291 miles per hour (2,078 kilometers per hour).
Scott Crossfield was the first pilot to fly an aircraft beyond Mach 2, twice the speed of sound. During his career as a test pilot, he flew the Douglas D-558-II, the Bell X-1, Bell X-2 and North American X-15. He made 112 flights in rocket-powered aircraft, more than any other pilot.
15 August 1951: Just 8 days after he set an unofficial world speed record of Mach 1.88 (1,245 miles per hour; 2,033.63 kilometers per hour) Douglas Aircraft Company test pilot William Barton (“Bill”) Bridgeman flew the rocket-powered United States Navy/National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974, to a world record altitude at Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of Southern California.
The Skyrocket was airdropped at 34,000 feet (10,363 meters) from a highly-modified U.S. Navy P2B-1S Superfortress, Bu. No. 84029. The mother ship was a U.S. Air Force Boeing B-29-95-BW Superfortress, 45-21787, transferred to the Navy and flown by another Douglas test pilot, George R. Jansen.
The flight plan was for Bridgeman to fire the rocket engine and allow the Skyrocket to accelerate to 0.85 Mach while climbing. The Skyrocket was powered by a Reaction Motors LR8-RM-6 engine, which produced 6,000 pounds of thrust. As the rocketplane continued to accelerate to Mach 1.12, the test pilot was to pull up, increasing the angle of climb while holding an acceleration rate of 1.2 Gs. This would result in a constantly increasing angle of climb. When it reached 50°, Bridgeman was to maintain that, climbing and accelerating, until the rocket engine ran out of fuel.
Initially, the plan was to continue climbing after engine shutdown until the D-558-II was approaching stall at the highest altitude it could reach while on a ballistic trajectory. There were differing expert opinions as to how it would behave in the ever thinner atmosphere. On the morning of the flight, Douglas’ Chief Engineer, Ed Heinemann, ordered that Bridgeman push over immediately when the engine stopped.
Bill Bridgeman stuck to the engineers’ flight plan. As the Skyrocket accelerated through 63,000 feet (19,200 meters), it started to roll to the left. He countered with aileron input, but control was diminishing in the thin air. The next time it began there was no response to the ailerons. Bridgeman found that he had to lower the Skyrocket’s nose until it responded, then he was able to increase the pitch angle again. At 70,000 feet (21,336 meters), travelling Mach 1.4, he decided he had to decrease the pitch angle or lose control. Finally at 76,000 feet (23,165 meters), the engine stopped. Following Heinemann’s order, Bridgeman pushed the nose down and the D-558-II went over the top of its arc at just 0.5 G.
“In the arc she picks up a couple of thousand feet. The altimeter stops its steady reeling and swings sickly around 80,000 feet. The altitude is too extreme for the instrument to function.
“Eighty thousand feet. It is intensely bright outside; the contrast of the dark shadows in the cockpit is extreme and strange. It is so dark lower in the cockpit that I cannot read the instruments sunk low on the panel. The dials on top, in the light, are vividly apparent. There seems to be no reflection. It is all black or white, apparent or non-apparent. No half-tones. It is a pure, immaculate world here.
“She levels off silently. I roll right and there it is. Out of the tiny windows slits there is the earth, wiped clean of civilization, a vast relief map with papier-mâché mountains and mirrored lakes and seas. . . .
“It is as if I am the only living thing connected to this totally strange, uninhabited planet 15 miles below me. The plane that carries me and I are one and alone.”
—The Lonely Sky,William Bridgeman with Jacqueline Hazard, Castle and Company LTD, London, 1956, Chapter XXII at Page 268.
After the data was analyzed, it was determined that William Bridgeman and the Douglas Skyrocket had climbed to 79,494 feet (24,230 meters), higher than any man had gone before. This was the last flight that would be made with a Douglas test pilot. The rocketplane was turned over to NACA, which would assign it the number NACA 144.
Bill Bridgeman had been a Naval Aviator during World War II, flying the Consolidated PBY Catalina and PB4Y (B-24) Liberator long range bombers with Bombing Squadron 109 (VB-109), “The Reluctant Raiders.” Bridgeman stayed in the Navy for two years after the war, then he flew for Trans-Pacific Air Lines in the Hawaiian Islands and Southwest Airlines in San Francisco, before joining Douglas Aircraft Co. as a production test pilot, testing new AD Skyraiders as they came off the assembly line at El Segundo, California. He soon was asked to take over test flying the D-558-2 Skyrocket test program at Muroc Air Force Base.
The D-558-II Skyrocket was Phase II of a planned three phase experimental flight program. It was designed to investigate flight in the transonic and supersonic range. It was 46 feet, 9 inches (14.249 meters) long with a 25 foot (7.62 meter) wing span. The wings were swept back to a 35° angle. The Skyrocket was powered by a Westinghouse J34-WE-40 11-stage axial-flow turbojet engine, producing 3,000 pounds of thrust, and a Reaction Motors LR8-RM-6 four-chamber rocket engine, which produced 6,000 pounds of thrust. The rocket engine burned alcohol and liquid oxygen.
There were three D-558-2 Skyrockets. Between 4 February 1948 and 28 August 1956, they made a total of 313 flights. Bill Bridgeman’s speed and altitude record-setting Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974, NACA 144, is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum.