Tag Archives: Muroc Army Air Field

7 August 1951

William Barton Bridgeman. (Boris Artzybasheff/TIME Magazine)

7 August 1951: Douglas Aircraft Company test pilot William Barton Bridgeman flew the rocket-powered U.S. Navy/NACA/Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974 (NACA 144), to a record speed of Mach 1.88 (1,245 miles per hour/2,034 kilometers per hour) at Muroc Dry Lake (later Edwards Air Force Base) in the high desert of southern California.

The D-558-2 was airdropped at 34,000 feet (10,363 meters) from a Navy P2B-1S Superfortress, Bu. No. 84029 (a U.S. Air Force Boeing B-29-95-BW Superfortress, 45-21787, transferred to the Navy and heavily modified as a drop ship) flown by another Douglas test pilot, George Jansen.

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

In his autobiography, Bridgeman described the flight:

We are at 34,000 feet. My cue. Ten cold minutes preparing the ship for flight. The trap door springs and releases the captive Skyrocket swollen with explosive propellants. She blasts into flight.

Thirty seconds and I am supersonic. Sixty-eight thousand feet and this is it. Over the rim. Easy. The electrically controlled stabilizer flies her now. It takes over for me. At .6 G I push over just enough to get my speed. I am on the ragged edge between .6 G and .8 G. It is working! Everything is going according to my plan. It is so easy this time. Surely I cannot be breaking my last record without having to pay for it. The Machmeter is moving up, fluttering toward the Number 2. . . the rockets sputter and the fuel is gone. That’s all she wrote.

Late that afternoon the official speed attained by the Skyrocket reduced from data and film came out  of the aerodynamicists’ office. Mach 1.88.

The Lonely Sky, William Bridgeman, Castle and Company LTD, London, 1956, Chapter XXII at Page 260.

NACA 144, a Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974, parked on Muroc Dry Lake. (NACA E-1441)

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 end of the war, then he flew for Trans-Pacific Air Lines in the Hawaiian Islands and Southwest Airlines in San Francisco, before joining the Douglas Aircraft Company as a production test pilot. He flew new AD Skyraiders as they came off the assembly line at El Segundo, California. Bridgeman soon was asked to take over test flying the D-558-2 Skyrocket test program at Muroc Air Force Base.

Screen Shot 2016-08-07 at 11.13.14

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. The Skyrocket flown by Bill Bridgeman to Mach 1.88 is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum.

NACA 144, a Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, on display at the National Mall Building, Smithsonian Institution. (NASM)
NACA 144, a Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, on display at the National Mall Building, Smithsonian Institution. (NASM)

© 2020, Bryan R. Swopes

25 June 1946

Northrop XB-35 taking of at Northrop Field, Hawthorne, California. (U.S. Air Force)
Northrop XB-35 taking off at Northrop Field, Hawthorne, California. (U.S. Air Force)
Max R. Stanley (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers))

25 June 1946: Northrop Aircraft, Inc., experimental test pilot Max R. Stanley,  flight test engineer Dale Schroeder and Orva H Douglas, Jr., flight engineer, made the first flight of the Northrop XB-35 “Flying Wing,” serial number 42-13603. They took off from the factory’s airfield at Hawthorne, California, and flew the prototype bomber to Muroc Army Air Field (now, Edwards Air Force Base). The initial flight lasted 55 minutes.

The Los Angeles Times reported:

Gigantic Flying Wing Triumphs in First Flight

Northrop 110,000-Pound Superbomber Soars 44 Minutes, makes Perfect Landing

     Unleashed into the future, a huge and spectral devilfish bellowed up from the earth yesterday and soared eastward toward the morning sun—Northrop’s malevolent Flying Wing superbomber on her maiden test flight, Forty-four minutes later teh ship made a perfect landing at Muroc Army Airfield.

Eerie, almost supernatural, she trundled to the west end of Northrop’s mile-long Hawthorne runway as the sun burned away the morning mists.

Thundering Take-off

     For 45 minutes she stood motionless, a 172-foot knife blade, while her four 3000 h.p. engines turned eight coaxial pusher propellers into life.Then at 10:29 a.m. her whirling blades fused into blurred disks. Her thunder enveloped the field.

     Interminably she seemed to hug the ground as Test Pilot Max Stanley held her charging 110,000 pounds down past the hangars, past the flight line, past the midfield control tower.

Monster Leaves Ground

     For 30 thudding heartbeats—and as many seconds—the fantastic silver monster strained at the shackles of earth, hurtling at more than 100 m.p.h. toward the end of the runway.

     Then at 3000 feet Stanley eased back the yoke. Sunlight skipped beneath the spinning wheels and the Wing lifted into her element under perfect control.

Vanishes Into Haze

     In another 60 seconds she vanished into the haze, her wheels still down as Stanley gently tested her sinews. Below, and to the right of his bubble canopy, Co-pilot Fred C. Bretcher stared ahead through plexiglas in the leading edge, and just aft of the pilot, Engineer O. H. Douglas watched her pulse in the needles of scores of instruments.

     In an easy climb, Stanley took the superbomber to 10,000 feet over the flat lands between the San Gabriel Mountains and the sea and then banked her slowly north and inland toward Muroc.

Settles to Runway

     At the Muroc test field, the strip was cleared and ready. Spectators watched the incredible ship circle once and then gently settle to the runway as gently as a tuft of cotton and roll to  stop in 3000 feet.”She handled beautifully,” grinned Stanley.

     The outgrowth of years of engineering, she followed the secret testing of a parade of small wings, and her designer, John K. Northrop, is confident she’ll carry more bombs farther and faster than any other airplane ever built.

     Fourteen more of the giants will be built under Northrop’s contract with the Army.

Los Angeles Times, Vol. LXV, Wednesday Morning, 26 June 1946, Page 1, Columns 5 and 6

The Los Angeles Daily News reported:

Flying wing passes tests

     Everybody who had anything to do with it was happy today over the 44-minute maiden flight of Northrop’s flying wing.

     The bat-like plane, a 104-ton monster bomber, met all expectations during the 85-mile flight from Northrop Field to Muroc Army Air Base.

     “The wing handled just as I expected it would,” veteran test pilot Max Stanley declared after landing the giant ship. “We were delighted with its performance and the plane fully came up to our expectations.”

     Officials of Northrop Aircraft, who witnessed the initial take-off, said the flight had justified their confidence in the wing.

     The ship, a tailess airplane with a bat-like appearance, is the latest in a series of 15 Northrop designed flying wings and was built at a cost of $13,000,000 for the army.

Daily News, Wednesday, 26 June 1946, Page 3, Column 1

Flight test crew of Northrop's XB-35 at Northrop Field, Hawthorne, California, 1946.
The flight test crew of the Northrop XB-35 at Northrop Field, Hawthorne, California, 1946. Left to right, Dale Schroeder, flight test engineer; Orva H Douglas, Jr., flight engineer; and Max Stanley, test pilot. (Unattributed)

The XB-35 was designed as an aerodynamically efficient heavy bomber. It had a very unusual configuration for an aircraft of that time. There was no fuselage or tail control surfaces. The crew compartment, engines, fuel, landing gear and armament was contained within the wing. It was 53 feet, 1 inch (16.180 meters) long, with a wingspan of 172 feet (52.426 meters) and overall height of 20 feet, 1 inch (6.121 meters). The prototype weighed 89,560 pounds (40,624 kilograms) empty, with a gross weight of 180,000 pounds (81,647 kilograms).

The Wing defined the airplane. It had an aspect ratio of 7.4:1. The wing’s root chord was 37 feet, 6 inches (11.430 meters). The wing was 7 feet, 1.5 inches (2.172 meters) thick at the root. The tip chord was 9 feet, 4 inches (2.844 meters). There was 0° angle of incidence at the root, with -4° of twist, and 0° 53′ dihedral. The leading edge was swept aft 26° 57′ 48″, and the trailing edge, 10° 15′ 22″. The wing’s total area was 4,000 square feet (371.6 square meters).

This view of the Northrop XB-35 Flying W 42-13603 on the ramp at Muroc Air Force Base shows the pusher arrangement of four-bladed contra-rotating propellers. In the background, a turbojet-powered YB-49 is in a right bank.. (U,S. Air Force)
This view of the first prototype Northrop XB-35, 42-13603, the “Flying Wing,” on the ramp at Muroc Air Force Base shows the pusher arrangement of four-bladed contra-rotating propellers. In the background, a turbojet-powered Northrop YB-49 is in a steep bank. (U.S. Air Force)

The XB-35 was powered by four air-cooled, supercharged and turbocharged 4,362.49 cubic-inch-displacement (71.49 liter) Pratt & Whitney Wasp Major TSB1P-RGD (R-4360-17 or  -21) four-row 28-cylinder radial engines with a compression ratio of 7:1. The R-4360-17 was rated at 2,500 horsepower at 2,550 r.p.m at 40,000 feet (12,192 meters), and 3,000 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m., for takeoff. It could maintain the takeoff rating to an altitude of 40,000 feet (12,192 meters) for Military Power. The engines were mounted completely inside the wing and were connected to a remote propeller drive unit by drive shafts. The engines were direct drive, while the propeller gear boxes had a 0.381:1 reduction ratio. The R-4360-17 was 5 feet, 7.00 inches (1.702 meters) long, 4 feet, 4.50 inches (1.334 meters) in diameter, and weighed 3,306 pounds (1,499.6 kilograms).

Northrop XB-35 42-13603 in flight with early contra-rotating propellers. (U.S. Air Force)

The propellers were dual three-bladed contra-rotating assemblies located in pusher configuration at the wing’s trailing edge. (These were quickly changed to four-bladed propellers, which were smoother in operation and more efficient.)

Northrop XB-35 42-13603. (U.S. Air Force)
Northrop XB-35 42-13603. (U.S. Air Force)

The XB-35 had a cruising speed of 183 miles per hour (295 kilometers per hour) at 39,700 feet (12,100 meters) and maximum speed was 391 miles per hour (629 kilometers per hour) at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters). With a crew of nine, and another six relief crewmembers, the bomber had a range of 8,150 miles (13,116 kilometers).

The production Northrop B-35 would have been armed with twenty .50-caliber machine guns for defense and a maximum bomb load of 51,200 pounds (23,223 kilograms).

Underside of a Northrop XB-35. (U.S. Air Force)

The XB-35 was plagued by unresolved problems with the propeller gear boxes which eventually forced Jack Northrop to ground the aircraft until the engine and propeller manufacturers could come up with a solution, which was to change from piston to turbojet engines. That version became the YB-49. Because of the continuing problems, though, 42-13603 was grounded after only 19 flights, and with its sister ship, XB-35 42-38323, was scrapped in August 1949.

Northrop XB-35 in flight. (U.S. Air Force)
A Northrop XB-35 in flight. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2022, Bryan R. Swopes

19 June 1947

P-80R speed run
Colonel Boyd flies the Lockheed XP-80R over the 3 kilometer course at Muroc Army Air Field, 19 June 1947. (U.S. Air Force)

19 June 1947: At Muroc Army Airfield (now, Edwards Air Force Base) Colonel Albert Boyd, United States Army Air Forces, set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Speed Over a 3 Kilometer Course, with an average speed of 1,003.81 kilometers per hour (623.74 miles per hour).¹ This was not just a class record, but an absolute world speed record.

Col. Boyd flew the Lockheed P-80R Shooting Star, serial number 44-85200, four times over the course, twice in each direction. The record speed was the average of the two fastest consecutive runs. As can be seen in the above photograph, these runs were flown at an altitude of approximately 70 feet (21 meters).

Originally a production P-80A-1-LO Shooting Star, 44-85200 had been converted to the XP-80B, a single prototype for the improved P-80B fighter.

Lockheed P-80A-1-LO shooting Star 44-85004, similar to the fighter being test flown by Richard I. Bong, 6 August 1945. (U.S. Air Force)
A very early production Lockheed P-80A-1-LO Shooting Star, 44-85004. (U.S. Air Force)

The P-80A-1-LO was a single-place, single-engine, low-wing monoplane powered by a turbojet engine. It was a day fighter, not equipped for night or all-weather combat operations. The P-80A was 34 feet, 6 inches (10.516 meters) long with a wingspan of 38 feet, 10½ inches (11.849 meters) and overall height of 11 feet, 4 inches (3.454 meters). The fighter had an empty weight of 7,920 pounds (3,592 kilograms) and a gross weight of 11,700 pounds (5,307 kilograms).

The P-80A-1 was powered by an Allison J33-A-9 or -11 turbojet, rated at 3,850 pounds of thrust (17.126 kilonewtons). It had a maximum speed of 558 miles per hour (898 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level and a service ceiling of 45,000 feet (13,716 meters).

The P-80A was armed with six Browning .50-caliber machine guns grouped together in the nose.

Lockheed P-80B-1-LO Shooting Star 45-8554, 1948. (U.S. Air Force)
Lockheed P-80B-1-LO Shooting Star 45-8554, 1948. (U.S. Air Force)

After modification to the XP-80B configuration, 44-85200 was powered by an Allison J33-A-17 with water/alcohol injection. It was rated at 4,000 pounds of thrust (17.793 kilonewtons). Fuel capacity was reduced by 45 gallons (170 liters) to allow for the water/alcohol tank. This was also the first American-built fighter to be equipped with an ejection seat.

The P-80B was heavier than the P-80A, with an empty weight of 8,176 pounds (3,709 kilograms) and gross weight of 12,200 pounds (5,534 kilograms). Visually, the two variants are almost identical.

The XP-80B had a maximum speed of 577 miles per hour (929 kilometers) per hour at 6,000 feet (1,829 meters), a 19 mile per hour (31 kilometers per hour) increase. The service ceiling increased to 45,500 feet (13,868 meters).

This photograph of XP-80R shows the cut-down windscreen an canopy, recontoured leading edges and the NACA-designed engine intakes. (U.S. Air Force)
This photograph of XP-80R shows the cut-down windscreen and canopy, re-contoured wing leading edges and the low-drag, NACA-designed engine intakes. (U.S. Air Force)

44-85200 was next modified to the XP-80R high-speed configuration. The canopy was smaller, the wings were shortened and their leading edges were re-contoured. In its initial configuration, the XP-80R retained the J33-A-17 engine, and incorporated new intakes designed by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).

The initial performance of the XP-80R was disappointing. The intakes were returned to the standard shape and the J33-A-17 was replaced by a J33-A-35 engine. This improved J33 would be the first turbojet engine to be certified for commercial transport use (Allison Model 400). It was rated at 5,200 pounds of thrust (23.131 kilonewtons) at 11,750 r.p.m. at Sea Level, and 5,400 pounds of thrust (24.020 kilonewtons) with water/methanol injection.

The J33 was a single-spool turbojet with a single-stage centrifugal-flow compressor, 14 combustion chambers, and a single-stage axial-flow turbine. The J33-A-35 had a maximum diameter of 4 feet, 1.2 inches (1.250 meters) and was 8 feet, 8.5 inches (2.654 meters) long. It weighed 1,795 pounds (814 kilograms).

Lockheed P-80R 44-85200 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force
Lockheed P-80R 44-85200 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force

Technicians who modified the XP-80R at Lockheed Plant B-9 Production Flight Test Center, Metropolitan Airport, Van Nuys (just a few miles west of the main plant in Burbank). nicknamed the modified Shooting Star “Racey.”

Lockheed XP-80R 44-85200 is in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

DAYTON, Ohio -- Lockheed P-80R at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Lockheed P-80R 44-85200 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

At the time of the speed record flight, Colonel Boyd was chief of the Flight Test Divison at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio.

Albert Boyd was born 22 November 1906 at Rankin, Tennessee, the first of three sons of Kester S. Boyd a school night watchman, and Mary Eliza Beaver Boyd. In 1924, Boyd graduated from high school in Asheville, North Carolina, then attended Buncombe Junior College in Asheville.

Boyd was one of the most influential officers to have served in the United States Air Force. He entered the U.S. Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet 27 October 1927. After completion of flight training at Maxwell Field, Alabama, Boyd was commissioned as a second lieutenant, Air Corps Reserve, 28 February 1929, and as a second lieutenant, Air Corps, 2 May 1929.

Lieutenant Boyd married Miss Anna Lu Oheim at San Antonio, Texas, 8 September 1933. She was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. G.F. Oheim of New Braunfels, Texas, (1907–1981).

He was promoted to 1st lieutenant 1 October 1934. On 24 July 1936, Boyd was promoted to the temporary rank of captain. This rank became permanent 2 May 1939. For the next five years, Lieutenant Boyd served as a flight instructor at Maxwell Field, Alabama, an then Brooks, Kelly and Randolph Fields in Texas.

In 1934, 1st Lieutenant Boyd was assigned as engineering and operations officer at Chanute Field, Rantoul, Illinois. He completed the Air Corps technical School and the Engineer Armament Course. On 24 July 1936, Boyd was promoted to the temporary rank of captain. This rank became permanent 2 May 1939. In 1939 he was assigned to the Hawaiian Air Depot as assistant engineering officer, and was promoted to major (temporary), 15 March 1941. He and Mrs. Boyd lived in Honolulu. His Army salary was $3,375 per year. In December 1941, he became the chief engineering officer.

On 5 January 1942, Major Boyd was promoted to lieutenant colonel (temporary) and rated a command pilot. Following the end of World War II, Boyd reverted to his permanent rank of major, 2 May 1946.

In October 1945, Major Boyd was appointed acting chief of the Flight Test Division at Wright Field. He became chief of the division, October 1945, and also flew as an experimental test pilot. Boyd believed that it was not enough for Air Force test pilots to be superior pilots. They needed to be trained engineers and scientists in order to properly evaluate new aircraft. He developed the Air Force Test Pilot School and recommended that flight testing operations be centered at Muroc Field in the high desert of southern California, where vast open spaces and excellent flying conditions were available. He was the first  commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center.

Colonel Albert G. Boyd with XP-80R 44-85200 (U.S. Air Force)
Colonel Albert G. Boyd with the Lockheed XP-80R, 44-85200. (U.S. Air Force)

When Brigadier General Boyd took command of Muroc Air Force Base in September 1949, he recommended that its name be changed to honor the late test pilot, Glen Edwards, who had been killed while testing a Northrop YB-49 near there, 5 June 1948. Since that time the airfield has been known as Edwards Air Force Base.

Major General Albert Boyd, United States Air Force
Major General Albert Boyd, United States Air Force.

In February 1952, General Boyd was assigned as vice commander of the Wright Air Development Center, and commander, June 1952. His final assignment on active duty was as deputy commander of the Air Research and Development Command at Baltimore, Maryland, from 1 August 1955.

From 1947 until he retired in 1957 as a major general, Albert Boyd flew and approved every aircraft in use by the U.S. Air Force. By the time he retired, he had logged over 21,120 flight hours in more than 700 different aircraft. He had been awarded the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal.

Major General Albert Boyd retired from the Air Force 30 October 1957 following 30 years of service. During his military career, he had been awarded the legion of Merit and the Distinguished Flying Cross. General Boyd died  at Saint Augustine, Florida, 18 September 1976 at the age of 69 years. He is buried at the Arlington National Cemetery.

¹ FAI Record File Number 9863

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

14 April 1947

Douglas test pilot Gene May with a D-558-I Skystreak research airplane. (Douglas Aircraft Company)

14 April 1947: Douglas Aircraft Company test pilot Eugene Francis (“Gene”) May took the Number 1  U.S. Navy/NACA/Douglas D-558-I Skystreak high-speed research aircraft, Bu. No. 37970, for its first flight at at Muroc Army Airfield. The aircraft had been transported from the Los Angeles factory to Muroc by truck.

Douglas Aircraft Company test pilot Eugene Francis May. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)

The Skystreak was a joint United States Navy/National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) research aircraft designed to explore flight at high subsonic speed. The Phase I Skystreak was designed by a team led by Douglas Chief Engineer Edward Henry Heinemann. Flight testing was conducted at the NACA High Speed Flight Station at Muroc Army Airfield (later known as Edwards Air Force Base). Three D-558-Is were built, followed by the Phase II, swept-wing Mach 2 D-558-II Skyrocket rocketplane.

The D-558-I carried extensive flight test instrumentation for its time. The wings had 400 orifices for air pressure sensors. During the test series, aircraft stability in the range of 0.82–0.99 Mach was investigated. One of the Skystreaks may have briefly exceeded Mach 1 as it came out of a dive.

Unlike some of the other experimental high speed aircraft of the time, it took off from the ground under its own power rather than being carried aloft by a mother ship. While those other aircraft could briefly reach much higher speeds, the D-558-I was able to fly for extended periods in the high-subsonic range, providing scientists and engineers with a tremendous amount of data.

The research airplane was a single-place, single-engine, low-wing monoplane with retractable tricycle landing gear. The fuselage of the D-558-I was constructed of an aluminum framework covered with sheet magnesium. It was designed for an ultimate load factor of 18 gs. The wings and tail surfaces were aluminum. The airplane was painted scarlet (not orange, like its contemporary, the Bell X-1) and was known as “the crimson test tube.”

The D-558-I was 35 feet, 1.5 inches (10.706 meters) long with a wingspan of 25 feet, 0 inches (7.620 meters) and overall height of 12 feet, 1.6 inches (3.698 meters). Gross weight 10,105 pounds (4,584 kilograms). It carried 230 gallons (871 liters) of kerosene in its wings.

A Douglas D-558-I Skystreak being inspected by U.S. Navy personnel at the Douglas Aircraft Company plant in Los Angeles, California. [Modelers: Note the GREEN anti-glare panel.] (Getty Images/Bettman)
The D-558-I was powered by a single Allison J35-A-11 turbojet engine. The J35 was a single-spool, axial-flow turbojet with an 11-stage compressor section, 8 combustion chambers and single-stage turbine. The J35-A-11 was rated at 5,000 pounds of thrust (22.24 kilonewtons). The engine was 12 feet, 1.0 inches (3.683 meters) long, 3 feet, 4.0 inches (1.016 meters) in diameter and weighed 2,455 pounds (1,114 kilograms).

Bu. No. 37970 made 101 of the 228 Phase I flights. It set a world speed record 1,031.178 kilometers per hour (640.744 miles per hour), flown by Commander Turner F. Caldwell Jr., U.S. Navy,  20 August 1947.¹ (Major Marion E. Carl, U.S. Marine Corps, flew the second Skystreak, Bu. No. 37971, to 1,047.356 kilometers per hour (650.797 miles per hour),² breaking Caldwell’s record.)

After Douglas completed the contractor’s test series, the Number 1 Skystreak was turned over to the NACA High Speed Flight Station and designated NACA 140. It was not as highly instrumented as the Number 2 and Number 3 Skystreaks and was not flown, but was used as a source for spare parts for the other D-558-Is.

Douglas D-558-I Skystreak Bu. No. 37970 is on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum, NAS Pensacola, Florida.

Douglas D-558-I Skystreak, Bu. No. 37970, at the National Naval Aviation Museum, Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. (U.S. Navy)

¹ FAI Record File Number 9864

² FAI Record File Number 9865

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

8 January 1944

Lockheed XP-80 prototype, 44-83020, at Muroc AAF, 8 January 1944. (U.S. Air Force)
The Lockheed XP-80 prototype, 44-83020, at Muroc Army Air Field, 8 January 1944. (Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company)
Milo Burcham
Milo Garrett Burcham

8 January 1944: At Muroc Army Air Field (later to become Edwards Air Force Base), the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation’s chief engineering test pilot, Milo Garrett Burcham, took the prototype Model L-140, the Army Air Forces XP-80 Shooting Star, 44-83020, for its first flight.

Tex Johnston, who would later become Boeing’s Chief of Flight Test, was at Muroc testing the Bell Aircraft Corporation XP-59 Airacomet. He wrote about the XP-80’s first flight in his autobiography:

Early on the morning of the scheduled first flight of the XP-80, busload after busload of political dignitaries and almost every general in the Army Air Force arrived at the northwest end of the lake a short distance from our hangar. Scheduled takeoff time had passed. I was afraid Milo was having difficulties. Then I heard the H.1B fire up, and he taxied by on the lake bed in front of our ramp. What a beautiful bird—another product of Kelly Johnson, Lockheed’s famed chief design engineer—tricycle gear, very thin wings, and a clear-view bubble canopy. Milo gave me the okay sign.

This was the initial flight of America’s second jet fighter, and what a flight it was. Milo taxied along in front of generals and politicians, turned south and applied full power. I could see the spectators’ fingers going in their ears. The smoke and sand were flying as the engine reached full power, and the XP-80 roared down the lake. Milo pulled her off, retracted gear and flaps, and held her on the deck. Accelerating, he pulled up in a climbing right turn, rolled into a left turn to a north heading, and from an altitude I estimated to be 4,000 feet [1,219 meters] entered a full-bore dive headed for the buses. He started the pull-up in front of our hangar and was in a 60-degree climb when he passed over the buses doing consecutive aileron rolls at 360 degrees per second up to 10,000 feet [3,048 meters]. He then rolled over and came screaming back. He shot the place up north and south, east and west, landed and coasted up in front of the spectators, engine off and winding down. I have never seen a crowd so excited since my barnstorming days. I returned to the office and dictated a wire to [Robert M.] Stanley [Chief Test Pilot, Bell Aircraft Corporation]WITNESSED LOCKHEED XP-80 INITIAL FLIGHT STOP VERY IMPRESSIVE STOP BACK TO DRAWING BOARD STOP SIGNED, TEX I knew he would understand.

Tex Johnston: Jet-Age Test Pilot, by A.M. “Tex” Johnston with Charles Barton, Smithsonian Books, Washington, D.C., 1 June 1992, Chapter 5 at Pages 127–128.

A few minor problems caused Burcham to end the flight after approximately five minutes but these were quickly resolved and flight testing continued.

The XP-80 was the first American airplane to exceed 500 miles per hour (805 kilometers per hour) in level flight.

Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson with a scale model of a Lockheed P-80A-1-LO Shooting Star. Johnson's "Skunk Works" also designed the F-104 Starfighter, U-2, A-12 Oxcart and SR-71A Blackbird. (Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Company)
Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson with a scale model of a Lockheed P-80A-1-LO Shooting Star. Johnson’s “Skunk Works” also designed the F-104 Starfighter, U-2, A-12 Oxcart and SR-71A Blackbird. (Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company)

The Lockheed XP-80 was designed by Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson and a small team of engineers that would become known as the “Skunk Works,” in response to a U.S. Army Air Corps proposal to build a single-engine fighter around the de Havilland Halford H.1B Goblin turbojet engine. (The Goblin powered the de Havilland DH.100 Vampire F.1 fighter.)

Lockheed Aircraft Corporation was given a development contract which required that a prototype be ready to fly within just 180 days.

Milo Burcham, on the left, shakes hands with Clarence L. Johnson following the first flight of the Lockheed XP-80, 8 January 1944. (Lockheed)
Milo Burcham, on the left, shakes hands with Clarence L. Johnson following the first flight of the Lockheed XP-80, 8 January 1944. (Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co.)

The XP-80 was a single-seat, single-engine airplane with straight wings and retractable tricycle landing gear. Intakes for engine air were placed low on the fuselage, just forward of the wings. The engine exhaust was ducted straight out through the tail. For the first prototype, the cockpit was not pressurized but would be on production airplanes.

As was customary for World War II U.S. Army Air Forces aircraft, the prototype was camouflaged in non-reflective Dark Green with Light Gull Gray undersides. The blue and white “star and bar” national insignia was painted on the aft fuselage, and Lockheed’s winged-star corporate logo was on the nose and vertical fin. Later, the airplane’s radio call, 483020 was stenciled on the fin in yellow paint. The number 20 was painted on either side of the nose in large block letters. Eventually the tip of the nose was painted white and a large number 78 was painted just ahead of the intakes in yellow block numerals. Early in the test program, rounded tips were installed on the wings and tail surfaces. This is how the XP-80 appears today.

Lockheed XP-80 parked at Muroc Dry Lake, 1944 (Lockheed)
The highly-polished Dark Green and Light Gull Gray Lockheed XP-80 prototype parked at Muroc Dry Lake, 1944 (Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co.)

The XP-80 is 32 feet, 911/16 inches (9.9997 meters) long with a wingspan of 37 feet, ⅞-inch (11.2998 meters) and overall height of 10 feet, 21/16 inches (3.1004 meters). It had a Basic Weight for Flight Test of 6,418.5 pounds (2,911.4 kilograms) and Gross Weight (as actually weighed prior to test flight) of 8,859.5 pounds (4,018.6 kilograms).

The Halford H.1B Goblin used a single-stage centrifugal-flow compressor, sixteen combustion chambers, and single-stage axial-flow turbine. It had a straight-through configuration rather than the reverse-flow of the Whittle turbojet from which it was derived. The H.1B produced 2,460 pounds of thrust (10.94 kilonewtons) at 9,500 r.p.m., and 3,000 pounds (13.34 kilonewtons) at 10,500 r.p.m. The Goblin weighed approximately 1,300 pounds (590 kilograms).

Cutaway illustration of the Halford H.1B Goblin turbojet engine. (FLIGHT and AIRCRAFT ENGINEER)

The XP-80 has a maximum speed of 502 miles per hour (808 kilometers per hour) at 20,480 feet (6,242 meters) and a rate of climb of 3,000 feet per minute (15.24 meters per second). The service ceiling is 41,000 feet (12,497 meters).

Unusual for a prototype, the XP-80 was armed. Six air-cooled Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns were placed in the nose. The maximum ammunition capacity for the prototype was 200 rounds per gun.

The Halford engine was unreliable and Lockheed recommended redesigning the the fighter around the larger, more powerful General Electric I-40 (produced by GE and Allison as the J33 turbojet). The proposal was accepted and following prototypes were built as the XP-80A.

Lockheed built 1,715 P-80s for the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy. They entered combat during the Korean War in 1950. A two-seat trainer version was even more numerous: the famous T-33A Shooting Star.

Lockheed XP-80 Shooting Star 44-83020 was used as a test aircraft and jet trainer for several years. In 1949, it was donated to the Smithsonian Institution. 44-83020 is on display at the Jet Aviation exhibit of the National Air and Space Museum. It was restored beginning in 1976, and over the next two years nearly 5,000 man-hours of work were needed to complete the restoration.

The prototype Lockheed XP-80 Shooting Star, 44-83020, at teh Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)
The prototype Lockheed XP-80 Shooting Star, s/n 140-1001, 44-83020, at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes