Tag Archives: Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket

19 April 2006

Albert Scott Crossfield, Jr., with the Victor Black Edition Continental engine overhauled by Victor Aviation of Palo Alto, California.
Albert Scott Crossfield, Jr., with the Victor Black Edition Continental IO-470-E engine installed in his Cessna 210A, N6579X. The engine was overhauled by Victor Aviation of Palo Alto, California. (Victor Aviation)

19 April 2006: Former experimental test pilot Albert Scott Crossfield, Jr., was enroute from Prattville, Alabama, to Manassas, Virginia. Scott Crossfield¹ was flying his personal Cessna 210A, N6579X. The Cessna was cruising at 11,000 feet (3,353 meters) under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), under the control of the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC).

During the flight, he encountered a Level 6 thunderstorm.

Scott Crossfield requested to deviate from his planned course to avoid the severe turbulence. Atlanta Center authorized his request and he began to turn. Approximately 30 seconds later, at 11:10 a.m., radar contact was lost near Ludville, Georgia. The last indication was that the Cessna was descending through 5,500 feet (1,676 meters).

The wreckage of N6579X was located the following day by a Civil Air Patrol search team, 3.3 nautical miles (6.1 kilometers) northwest of Ludville at an elevation of 1,269 feet (386.8 meters) above Sea Level. [N. 34° 30.767′, W. 84° 39.492′] The airplane had descended through the forest canopy nearly vertically and created a crater approximately 4½ feet (1.4 meters) deep and 6 feet (1.8 meters) across. Albert Scott Crossfield’s body was inside.

Scott Crossfield’s 1962 Cessna 210A Centurion, photographed at Santa Monica Airport, California, 26 September 1999. (AirNikon Collection, Pima Air & Space Museum, Tucson, Arizona via airliners.net)

N6579X was a Cessna Model 210A, serial number 21057579, built in 1960 by the Cessna Aircraft Company, Inc., of Wichita Kansas. It was a six-place, single-engine, high-wing monoplane with external struts to brace the wings, and retractable, tricycle landing gear. The airplane was certified for instrument flight by a single pilot. At the time of the crash, N6579X had been flown 4,987.4 hours, total time since new (TTSN).

The Cessna 210A was 28 feet, 2 inches (8.585 meters) long with a wingspan of 36 feet, 6 inches (11.125 meters) and overall height of 9 feet, 7 inches (2.921 meters). The airplane had an empty weight of 1,839 pounds (834.2 kilograms) and maximum gross weight of 2,900 pounds (1,315.4 kilograms). It had a fuel capacity of 65 gallons (246 liters), with 10 gallons (37.9 liters) unusable, and 12 quarts of engine oil (11.4 liters).

N6579X was powered by an air-cooled, fuel-injected, 471.239-cubic-inch-displacement (7.722 liters) Teledyne Continental IO-470-E horizontally-opposed six-cylinder direct-drive engine with a compression ratio of 8.6:1. The engine was rated at 260 horsepower at 2,625 r.p.m. for takeoff, using 100LL aviation gasoline. It weighed 429 pounds (195 kilograms). This engine, serial number 77583-0-E, was original to the airplane and accumulated 4,987.4 hours, total time since new (TTSN). It had been overhauled by Victor Aviation, Palo Alto, California, 1,259.8 hours prior to the accident (TSO). A three-bladed McCauley constant-speed propeller with a diameter of 6 feet, 10 inches (2.083 meters) was installed in 2005.

The Cessna Model 210A has a maximum structural cruise speed of 175 miles per hour (282 kilometers), and maximum speed (Vne) of 200 miles per hour (322 kilometers per hour). Maneuvering speed, which should be used in turbulent conditions, is 130 miles per hour (209 kilometers per hour). The 210A has a maximum rate of climb of 1,300 feet per minutes (6.6  meters per second) and service ceiling of 20,700 feet (6,309 meters). Its maximum range is 1,284 miles (2,066 kilometers).

Albert Scott Crossfield, Jr., aeronautical engineer and test pilot, 1921-2006. (Jet Pilot Overseas)

Albert Scott Crossfield, Jr., was born 2 October 1921 at Berkeley, California. He was the second of three children of Albert Scott Crossfield, a chemist who was employed as the superintendant of the Union Oil Company refinery in Wilmington, California, and Lucia M. Dwyer Crossfield.

When he was five years old, young “Scotty” contracted pneumonia. He was comatose for a while and was not expected to survive, but after several weeks he began to recover. A year later, he again became seriously ill, this time with rheumatic fever. He was confined to total bed rest for four months, and continued to require extensive bed rest until he was about ten years old. It was during this time that he became interested in aviation.

Scott Crossfield attended Boistfort Consolidated School, southwest of Chehalis, Washington, graduating in 1939, and then studied engineering at the University of Washington until taking a job at Boeing in late 1941. During this time, Scotty learned to fly in the Civilian Aviation Training Program.

The week following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II, Scott Crossfield enlisted as an aviation cadet in the United States Army Air Corps. After numerous delays, he joined the United States Navy on 21 February 1942, and resigned from the Air Corps. He began aviation cadet training at NAS Sand Point, near Seattle, and then was sent to NAS Corpus Christi, Texas. In December 1942, he graduated, received his gold Naval Aviator wings and was commissioned as an Ensign, United States Naval Reserve.

Ensign Crossfield was assigned to NAS Kingsville as an advanced bombing and gunnery instructor. He was promoted to Lieutenant (junior grade), 1 March 1944. He continued as a gunnery instructor for two years before being transferred to Air Group 51 in the Hawaiian Islands, which was preparing for the invasion of Japan. He was promoted to Lieutenant, 1 August 1945, while serving aboard the Independence-class light aircraft carrier USS Langley (CVL-27). With the end of World War II, though, the Navy was cutting back. Lieutenant Crossfield was released from active duty 31 December 1945.

In April 1943 at Corpus Christi, Texas, Ensign A. Scott Crossfield married Miss Alice Virginia Knoph of Seattle. They would have five children.

Following the War, Scotty returned to the University of Washington to complete his degree. He took a part time job operating the University’s wind tunnel. At the same time, he remained in the Naval Reserve, assigned to VF-74, a fighter squadron which flew both the Grumman F6F Hellcat and Chance Vought F4U Corsair out of NAS Sand Point, back where his naval career began.

Chance Vought F4U-4 Corsair, Bu. No. 82034, assigned to Fighter Squadron 74 (VF-74). (United States Navy)

Crossfield graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering in June 1949, and a master’s degree in 1950.

In 1950 Crossfield joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as a research test pilot at the High-Speed Flight Station, Edwards Air Force Base, California. He flew the Republic YF-84, F-84F Thunderstreak, and North American Aviation F-86 Sabre. Crossfield made 25 flights in the delta-winged Convair XF-92A, which he described as “the worst flying airplane built in modern times.” He also flew the Northrop X-4 and Bell X-5. He made 17 flights conducting stability tests in the Douglas D-558-1 Skystreak. Scotty made 65 flights in the North American Aviation F-100A Super Sabre, including a test series which discovered a fatal flaw which led to the death of North American’s chief test pilot, George S. Welch.

NACA Research Test Pilot Albert Scott Crossfield in the cockpit of the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket after exceeding Mach 2, 20 November 1953. (NASA)

Crossfield is known as a rocketplane pilot. He made 10 flights in the Bell X-1, and 89 in the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket. He became the first pilot to exceed Mach 2 when he flew the Skyrocket to Mach 2.005, 20 November 1953.

Scott Crossfield discusses the X-15 with North American Aviation engineers Edmond R. Cokeley and Charles H. Feltz. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

Crossfield flew for NACA for approximately five years. During that time, approximately 500 flights were made at Edwards by NACA test pilots. Scott Crossfield flew 181 of them.

Scott Crossfield left NACA in 1956 to join North American Aviation, Inc., as chief engineering test pilot for the X-15 project. Between 8 June 1959 and 6 December 1960, he made fourteen flights in the X-15. He reached a maximum speed of Mach 2.97 and altitude of 88,116 feet (26,858 meters). Once the contractor’s flight tests were completed and the rocketplane turned over to the U.S. Air Force and NACA, the customers’ test pilots, Joe Walker and Major Robert M. White, took over.

Albert Scott Crossfield made 114 flights in rocket-powered aircraft, more than any other pilot.

After completing his work on the X-15, Crossfield followed Harrison (“Stormy”) Storms, who had been the Chief Engineer of North American’s Los Angeles Division (where the X-15 was built) to the Space and Information Systems Division in Downey, California, where he worked in quality assurance, reliability engineering and systems testing for the Apollo Command and Service Modules and the Saturn S-II second stage.

Crossfield left North American at the end of 1966, becoming Vice President for Technological Development for Eastern Air Lines. In this position, he flew acceptance tests for new Boeing 720 and 727 airliners at Boeing in Seattle.

In The X-15 Rocket Plane, author Michelle Evans quoted Crossfield as to why he had not entered NASA’s space program as an astronaut:

     One question that pressed was, with his love of flight and the early responsibility of going into space with the X-15, why would Scott not apply to the NASA astronaut office? He explained, “[Dr.] Randy Lovelace and General [Donald] Flickinger were on the selection board. They took me to supper one night and asked me not to put in for astronaut. I asked them, ‘Why  not?’ and they said, ‘Well, we’re friends of yours. We don’t want to have to turn you down.’ I asked, ‘Why would you have to turn me down?’ and they said, ‘You’re too independent.’ “

The X-15 Rocket Plane: Flying the First Wings into Space, by Michelle, Evans, University of Nebraska Press, 2013, Chapter 1 at Page 33.

The remains of Albert Scott Crossfield are interred at the Arlington National Cemetery.

Scott Crossfield is in the cockpit of X-15 56-6670, under the right wing of NB-52A 52-003. (NASA)

¹ “Scott Crossfield” is the family name, going back for several generations.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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22 March 1956

Boeing P2B-1S, Bu. No. 84029, at Edwards AFB, 22 March 1956. (NASA)

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.

Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, Bu. No., 37974, NACA 144, is dropped from the Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress, Bu. No. 84029, NACA 137. (NASA)

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.

John Barron McKay, NACA/NASA Research Test Pilot. (NASA)

“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.

The P2B1-S is jacked up inside a hangar at Edwards AFB so the the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket can be loaded aboard.
The P2B-1S is jacked up inside a hangar at Edwards AFB so the the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket can be loaded aboard. (NASA)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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20 November 1953

NACA test pilot Scott Crossfield in the cockpit of the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket after his record-setting flight, 20 November 1953. (NASA) 20 November 1953: At Edwards Air Force Base, California, NACA’s High Speed Flight Station test pilot Albert Scott Crossfield 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 U.S. 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) and 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) “mothership”. Without the need to climb to the test altitude, the Skyrocket’s fuel load was available for the high speed runs.

NACA 144. a Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974, on Rogers Dry Lake. (NASA)
NACA 144. a Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974, on Rogers Dry Lake. (NASA)

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.

Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, Bu. No., 37974, NACA 144, is dropped from the Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress, Bu. No. 84029, NACA 137. (NASA)
Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974, NACA 144, is dropped from the Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress, Bu. No. 84029, NACA 137. (NASA)

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) until 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 accelerated, 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 and the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, with their support team: two North American F-86 Sabre chase planes and the Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress mothership, at the NACA High Speed Flight Station, Edwards Air Force Base, California, 1 January 1954. (NASA)
Scott Crossfield and the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, with their support team: two North American F-86 Sabre chase planes and the Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress mothership, at the NACA High Speed Flight Station, Edwards Air Force Base, California, 1 January 1954. (NASA)

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.

NACA Test Pilot Albert Scott Crossfield on Rogers Dry Lake. (NASA)
NACA Test Pilot Albert Scott Crossfield on Rogers Dry Lake. (NASA)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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2 October 1921–19 April 2006, Albert Scott Crossfield, Jr.

Albert Scott Crossfield, aeronautical engineer and test pilot, 1921–2006. (Jet Pilot Overseas)
Albert Scott Crossfield, aeronautical engineer and test pilot, 1921–2006. (Jet Pilot Overseas)

Albert Scott Crossfield, Jr., was born at Berkeley, California, 2 October 1921, the second of three children of Albert Scott Crossfield and Lucia Dwyer Scott Crossfield. (“Scott Crossfield” is the family name, going back for many generations.) His father was a chemist who was the superintendent of the Union Oil Refinery in Wilmington, California. At the age of 5 years, the younger Scott Crossfield contracted pneumonia. He was comatose for a time and not expected to survive. When he finally began to recover, he was confined to bed for many months. The effects of this illness lasted throughout his childhood.

It was during this time that he developed his interest in aviation. He learned to draw, studied airplanes, and built scale models. Charles Lienesch, who was a pilot for the Union Oil Company, gave Scotty his first ride aboard an airplane at age 6. As a teenager, he took flight lessons in an Inland Sportster at the Wilmington Airport.

After his family bought a farm in Oregon, Scott Crossfield continued flight lessons and soloed a Curtis Robin at the age of 15. He earned his private pilot certificate at 18. After graduating from high school, he helped his father with the family farm before attending the University of Washington as a student of aeronautical engineering. He took a job at Boeing to pay his tuition and support.

After America’s entry into World War II, Scott Crossfield enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet, but quickly transferred to the U.S. Navy. He completed military flight training and was commissioned an Ensign, United States Navy, in December 1942.

During World War II, Scott Crossfield served as a fighter pilot, flight and gunnery instructor, flying the Chance Vought F4U Corsair and Grumman F6F Hellcat. Though he was assigned overseas, he did not serve in combat. After the war he joined the Naval Reserve and flew the Goodyear Aircraft Co. FG-1D Corsair at NAS Sand Point, Washington. During this time he resumed his education at the University of Washington and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 1949 and a master’s degree in 1950. As a graduate student he was the operator of the university’s wind tunnel.

In 1950 Scott Crossfield joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the predecessor of NASA) as an Aeronautical Research Pilot at the NACA High Speed Flight Station, Edwards Air Force Base, California. He flew many high-performance jet aircraft like the North American Aviation F-100 Super Sabre, and experimental airplanes such as the Convair XF-92, Douglas X-3, Bell X-4 and X-5. He also flew the research rocketplanes, making 99 rocket flights in the Bell X-1, Douglas D-558-I Skystreak and D-558-II Skyrocket, more than any other pilot.

Douglas D-558-2 Bu. No. 37974 dropped from Boeing P2B-S1 Superfortress 84029, 1 January 1956. (NASA)
Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974, is dropped from Boeing P2B-S1 Superfortress, Bu. No. 84029, 1 January 1956. (NASA)

On 20 November 1953, Scott Crossfield became the first pilot to fly faster than twice the speed of sound (Mach 2). The D-558-II was carried aloft by a Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress drop ship (a four-engine B-29 heavy bomber which had been transferred from the U.S. Air Force to the Navy, then heavily modified by Douglas) to 32,000 feet (9,754 meters) and then released. Scotty fired the LR8 rocket engine and climbed to 72,000 feet (21,945 meters). He put the Skyrocket into a shallow dive and, still accelerating, passed Mach 2 at 62,000 feet (18,898 meters). After the rocket engine’s fuel was expended, he flew the rocketplane to a glide landing on Rogers Dry Lake.

In 1955 Crossfield left NACA and joined North American Aviation, Inc., as Chief Engineering Test Pilot. He planned and participated in the design and operation of the X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane for the Air Force and NASA. He also worked closely with the David Clark Co., in the development of the projects’ full-pressure suits.

Milton O. Thompson, another X-15 test pilot, wrote in At the Edge of Space, “. . . he was intimately involved in the design of the aircraft and contributed immensely to the success of the design, as a result of his extensive rocket airplane experience. . . Scott was responsible for a number of other excellent operational and safety features built into the aircraft. Thus, one might give Scott credit for much of the success of the flight program.”

Scott Crossfield, NAA Chief Engineering Test Pilot; Edmond Ross Cokeley, NAA Director of Flight Test;  and Charles H. Feltz, NAA Chief Engineer, with an X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane. (North American Aviation via Jet Pilot Overseas)

In 1959–1960, Scott Crossfield flew all of the contractor’s demonstration phase flights in the X-15, including 16 captive carry flights under the wing of the NB-52A Stratofortress while systems were tested and evaluated, one glide flight, and thirteen powered flights. He reached a maximum speed of Mach 2.97 (1,960 miles per hour/3,154 kilometers per hour) on Flight 26 and a maximum altitude of 88,116 feet (26,858 meters) on Flight 6. The X-15 was then turned over to NASA and the Air Force. The X-15 Program involved a total of 199 flights from 1959 until 1968.

Scott Crossfield, wearing a David Clark Co. XMC-2 full pressure suit which he helped to design and test, with the first of three North American X-15s, 56-6670. (North American Aviation)

After leaving the X-15 Program, Scott Crossfield continued as a Systems Director with North American Aviation, Inc., working on the Apollo Command and Service Module and the S-IVB second stage of the Saturn V rocket. He left North American in the late ’60s and served as an executive with Eastern Air Lines and Hawker Siddeley. He also continued as a aeronautical engineering consultant to private industry and government.

Among many other awards, Scott Crossfield was received the Harmon International Trophy and the Collier Trophy.

Scott Crossfield's 1962 Cessna 210A Centurion, photographed at Santa Monica Airport, California, 26 September 1999. (AirNikon Collection, Pima Air & Space Museum, Tucson, Arizona via airliners.net)
Scott Crossfield’s Cessna 210A Centurion, N6579X, photographed at Santa Monica Airport, California, 26 September 1999. (AirNikon Collection, Pima Air & Space Museum, Tucson, Arizona via airliners.net, used with permission)

In 1980 Crossfield resumed flying when he purchased a 1960 Cessna 210A Centurion, N6579X, serial number 21057579, a single-engine, four-place light airplane, powered by an air-cooled Continental six-cylinder engine. He had flown more than 2,000 hours in this airplane when it crashed during a severe thunderstorm, 19 April 2006, while on a flight from Prattville, Alabama to Manassas, Virginia.

Albert Scott Crossfield, jr., was killed. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Albert Scott Crossfield, Test Pilot. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)

Highly recommended: Always Another Dawn: The Story Of A Rocket Test Pilot, by Albert Scott Crossfield and Clay Blair, Jr., The World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, 1960.

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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21 August 1953

Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, Bu. No., 37974, NACA 144, is dropped from the Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress, Bu. No. 84029, NACA 137. (NASA)
Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, Bu. No., 37974, is dropped from the Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress, Bu. No. 84029. (NASA)

21 August 1953: Major Marion E. Carl, United States Marine Corps, flew the number three Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974, to an unofficial world altitude record of 83,235 feet (25,370 meters).

The supersonic research rocketplane had been dropped from a Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress at 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) over Edwards Air Force Base. During this flight the Skyrocket reached Mach 1.728.

The Associated Press wire service reported the event:

Altitude Record Set By Hubbard Pilot

     WASHINGTON (AP) —The Navy said Monday Lt. Col. Marion E. Carl, a Marine Corps pilot set a new altitude record of 83,235 feet in the Douglas Skyrocket research plane on Aug. 21.

    The Navy said the unofficial world mark was established during a test of a newly developed high-altitude flying suit. ¹

     The previous altitude record was 79,494 feet, set in the same airplane by Douglas test pilot Bill Bridgeman on Aug. 7, 1951.

     A Navy spokesman said Carl is at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. for an attempt Monday or Tuesday on the speed mark of 1,238 miles an hour set by Bridgeman in the Navy D-558-2 Skyrocket Aug. 1, 1951.

     As in Bridgeman’s altitude and speed record flight, Carl’s runs are being made through aerial launching. The Skyrocket is carried to an altitude of 30,000 feet or better by a B29 “mother plane,” and then released.

     National Aeronautic Assn. rules require that altitude record attempts be launched from the ground and that speed runs be made at specified altitudes.

     For these reasons, none of the Skyrocket records is, or likely to become, official. Some flying authorities have urged that official rules be rewritten to conform to modern developments in flying technique.

     Carl is from Hubbard, Ore. and is stationed at the Quantico, Va., Marine Corps Air Station. He has been assigned as assistant Marine Corps project officer for the national aircraft show at Dayton next week.

     Five Years ago Carl set a world speed mark of 650.8 miles an hour in the Skyrocket’s Navy predecessor, the D-558-1 Skystreak.

Eugene Register-Guard, Vol. XXCVII, No. 243, 31 August 1951, at Page 1A, Columns 6 and 7

Screen Shot 2016-08-07 at 11.13.14

20 November 1953: At Edwards Air Force Base, California, NACA’s High Speed Flight Station test pilot Albert Scott Walker 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 U.S. 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) and 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) “mothership”. 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.

Between 4 February 1948 and 28 August 1956, the three rocketplanes made a total of 313 flights.

Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974. (NASA)
The rocket-powered Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974 (NACA 144). (NASA)

Marion Eugene Carlwas born at Hubbard, Oregon, 1 November 1915. He was the second of four children of Herman Lee Carl, a dairy farmer, and Ellen Lavine Ellingsen Carl.

Marion E. Carl 1935

Carl graduated from Oregon State College at Corvallis, Oregon, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Army Reserve, 31 May 1938. Lieutenant Carl soon resigned this commission to accept an appointment as an Aviation Cadet, United States Navy. He enlisted as a private, first class, Volunteer Marine Corps Reserve, 17 July 1938, and was designated a student Enlisted Naval Aviation Pilot assigned to the Naval Reserve Aviation Base, Squantum, Massachusetts. He entered flight school as an Aviation Cadet at Naval Air Station Pensacola near Pensacola, Florida, 26 July 1938.

Lieutenant Marion E. Carl, USMC, Naval Aviator. (U.S. Navy)

After completing flight training, Carl was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, United States Marine Corps Reserve, 20 October 1939. He was then assigned to Marine Fighting Squadron One (VMF-1) at Brown Field, Quantico, Virginia.

In 1940, Lieutenant Carl returned to NAS Pensacola as a flight instructor. On 25 February 1941, Second Lieutenant Carl, U.S.M.C.R., was appointed a Second Lieutenant, United States Marine Corps.

Lieutenant Carl was transferred to VMF-221 at San Diego, California, as a fighter pilot. The unit was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) for transportation to MCAS Ewa, Oahu, Territory of Hawaii. On 25 December 1941, VMF-221 was deployed to Midway Atoll.

Marion Carl and his squadron fought during the Battle of Midway. Flying a Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat, Bu. No. 1864,² on 4 June 1942, he shot down his first enemy airplane, a Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter, and damaged two others. Lieutenant Carl was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions in that decisive battle.

Marion Carl was next assigned to VMF-223 under the command of Captain John L. Smith. The Marine fighter squadron was the first air unit to arrive at Henderson Field on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomons, 20 August 1942. This was a critical airfield, originally built by the Japanese military but occupied by Allied forces. On 26 August, Lieutenant Carl became the Marine Corps’ first “ace.”

Carl was shot down in 9 September 1942 and was missing for five days. He was helped by islanders who eventually returned him to his base.

The squadron departed Guadalcanal 16 October 1942, and sailed to San Francisco, California. VMF-223 was credited with destroying 110½ enemy aircraft. Carl was credited with 16.

Lieutenant Carl married Miss Edna T. Kirvin at New York City, New York, 7 January 1943.

On 26 January, he took command of VMF-223. On 8 May 1943, Lieutenant Carl was promoted to the temporary rank of captain. The squadron was re-equipped with the new Vought-Sikorsky F4U-1 Corsair. Training in the new fighter took place at MCAS El Toro, in southern California.

Major Marion E. Carl, USMC, commanding VMF-223 in 1943. The aircraft is a Vought F4U Corsair in which Carl shot down two enemy aircraft in December 1943. (U.S. Navy)

In August, the squadron returned to combat in the Solomons. By the end of 1943, Major Carl’s total of enemy aircraft destroyed was 18½ with 3 damaged, making him the seventh highest-scoring Marine fighter pilot of World War II.

Marion Carl is dressing in teh Model 7 pressure suit aboard the P2BS-1 drop ship, 21 August 1953. (U.S. Navy)
Marion Carl is dressing in the David Clark Company Model 7 full-pressure suit aboard the P2B-1S drop ship, 21 August 1953. (U.S. Navy)

After the War Marion Carl trained as a test pilot at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, testing jet aircraft on aircraft carriers and he was also the first Marine Corps pilot to fly a helicopter. He commanded the Marine’s first jet squadron, VMF-122, which flew the McDonnell FH-1 Phantom. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel 7 August 1947.

In May 1955, Colonel Carl commanded Marine Photo Reconnaisance Squadron One (VMJ-1). The squadron flew the McDonnell FH-2 Banshee from air bases on Taiwan on secret missions over the People’s Republic of China.

At Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base) he tested the Douglas D-558-I Skystreak and D-558-II Skyrocket, setting world records for speed and altitude. He was promoted to colonel, 1 October 1956.

By 1962 Colonel Carl was Director of Marine Corps Aviation. He was promoted to brigadier general, 1 June 1964.

Brigadier General Carl commanded the First Marine Brigade during the Vietnam War and flew combat missions in jet fighters and helicopter gun ships.

Promoted to major general in August 1967, with his date of rank retroactive to 1 June 1964. Carl commanded the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, then served as Inspector General of the Marine Corps from 1970 until 1973. When he retired in 1973, General Carl had accumulated more that 13,000 flight hours.

During his military career, Major General Carl was awarded the Navy Cross with two gold stars (three awards); The Legion of Merit with valor device and three gold stars (four awards); The Distinguished Flying Cross with four gold stars (five awards); and the Air Medal with two gold and two silver stars (twelve awards).

Tragically, General Carl was murdered in Roseburg, Oregon, 28 June 1998, as he defended his wife, Edna, during a home-invasion robbery. Mrs. Carl was wounded, but survived.

Major General Marion E. Carl, United States Marine Corps, is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Major General Marion E. Carl, United States Marine Corps (1915–1998)
Major General Marion E. Carl, United States Marine Corps (1915–1998)

¹ The pressure suit Lieutenant Colonel Carl was testing was a David Clark Co. Model 7 full-pressure suit.

² Often cited as Grumman F4F-3 Bu. No. 4000 (second bureau number series, 1935–1940) the entry in Carl’s certified pilot logbook for 4 June 1942 states the airplane he flew to shoot down the enemy fighter was F4F-3 Bu. No. 1864.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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