Tag Archives: Muroc Dry Lake

1 October 1947

North American Aviation test pilot George S. Welch, flying the first of three XP-86 prototypes, serial number 45-59597. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

1 October 1947: After three years development in which 801,386 engineering hours and 340,594 drafting hours had been expended, the first prototype North American Aviation XP-86 (company designation NA-140), serial number 45-59597, was ready for its first flight at Muroc Dry Lake in the high desert north of Los Angeles, California.

Completed at North American’s Inglewood plant on 8 August 1947, it was trucked to Muroc in mid-September. It was reassembled, everything was checked out, and after a few taxi tests, company test pilot George S. Welch took off for a initial familiarization flight. Chief Test Pilot Bob Chilton flew chase in an XP-82 Twin Mustang with a company photographer on board. The duration of the first flight was 1 hour, 18 minutes.

Recently completed, the first prototype XP-86, 45-59597, waits inside the North American Aviation plant at Inglewood, California, 14 August 1947. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

During this first flight, George Welch climbed to 35,000 feet (10,668 meters):

“In a little more than ten minutes he had reached 35,000 feet. Leveling out, the test pilot smiled as he watched the indicated airspeed accelerate to 320 knots. He estimated that should be 0.90 Mach number. . . Rolling into a 40 degree dive, he turned west. . . The airspeed indicator seemed to be stuck at about 350 knots. The Sabre was behaving just fine. Then at 29,000 feet, there was a little wing roll. Correcting the roll, George pushed into a steeper dive. The airspeed indicator suddenly jumped to 410 knots and continued to rise. At 25,000 feet, he pulled the Sabre into level flight and reduced power. The wing rocked again and the airspeed jumped back to 390.”

Aces Wild: The Race for Mach 1, by Al Blackburn, Scholarly Resources Inc., Wilmington, Delaware, 1998, at Chapter 5, Pages 144–145.

George Welch was the first to report instrument readings that would be referred to as “Mach jump.” It has been argued that George Welch flew the XP-86 beyond Mach 1 during this flight, breaking the “sound barrier” two weeks before Chuck Yeager did with the Bell X-1 rocketplane. During flight testing, it was firmly established that the XP-86 could reach Mach 1.02–1.04 in a dive, so it is certainly possible that he did so on the Sabre’s first flight.

North American Aviation Model NA-140, the first XP-86 prototype, 45-59597, at Muroc AAF, 1947. (U.S. Air Force)
North American Aviation Model NA-140, the first XP-86 prototype, 45-59597, at Muroc AAF, 1947. (U.S. Air Force)

The XP-86 was unlike any airplane before it. It was the first airplane with a swept wing. After analyzing test data from the Messerschmitt Me 262, North American’s engineers designed a wing with a 35° degree sweep back to its leading edge. The wing tapered toward the tips, and its thickness also decreased from the root to the tip. In order to create a very strong but very thin wing, it was built with a two-layered aluminum skin, instead of ribs and spars, with each layer separated by “hat” sections. The wing sweep allowed high speed shock waves to form without stalling the entire wing. The wing also incorporated leading edge “slats” which were airfoil sections that automatically extended below 290 knots, smoothing the air flow over the wing’s upper surface and creating more lift at slow speeds. Above that speed, aerodynamic forces closed the slats, decreasing drag and allowing for higher speeds. Effectively, the wing could change its shape in flight.

Test pilot George S. Welch, wearing his distinctive orange helmet, in the cockpit of the prototype XP-86. This photograph was taken 14 October 1947. (U.S. Air Force)
This photograph of the XP-86 shows the 35° wing sweep. Test pilot George S. Welch, wearing his distinctive orange helmet, in the cockpit of the prototype XP-86. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

The XP-86 prototypes were 37 feet, 6½ inches (11.443 meters) long with a wingspan of 37 feet, 1–7/16 inches (11.314 meters) and overall height of 14 feet, 9 inches (4.496 meters). The empty weight was 9,730 pounds (4,413.5 kilograms), gross weight, 13,395 pounds (6,075.9 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight was 16,438 pounds (7,456.2 kilograms).

The XP-86 was initially powered by a General Electric-designed, Chevrolet-built J35-C-3 turbojet which produced 4,000 pounds of thrust. This was soon changed to an Allison J35-A-5. Performance testing was conducted with the Allison engine installed. The J35 was a single-spool, axial-flow turbojet engine with an 11-stage compressor and single-stage turbine. The J35-A-5 was rated at 4,000 pounds of thrust (17.79 kilonewtons) at 7,700 r.p.m. (static thrust, Sea Level). The engine was 14 feet, 0.0 inches (4.267 meters) long, 3 feet, 4.0 inches (1.016 meters) in diameter and weighed 2,400 pounds (1,089 kilograms).

The three North American Aviation XP-86 prototypes. Front to back, 45-59598, 45-59597 and 45-59599. (National Archives and Records Administration)

The maximum speed of the XP-86 at Sea Level was 0.787 Mach (599 miles per hour, 964 kilometers per hour), 0.854 Mach (618 miles per hour, 995 kilometers per hour) at 14,000 feet (4,267 meters) and 575 miles per hour (925 kilometers per hour) at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters)—0.875 Mach.

The prototype fighter was able to take off at 125 miles per hour (201 kilometers per hour) in just 3,020 feet (920.5 meters) of runway. It could climb to 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) in 12.1 minutes and had a service ceiling of 41,300 feet (12,588 meters).

George S. Welch, North American Aviation test pilot, wearing his orange flight helmet. An F-86 Sabre is in the background. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Photo Archives)

George Welch was born George Lewis Schwartz, in Wilmington, Delaware, 10 May 1918. His parents changed his surname to Welch, his mother’s maiden name, so that he would not be effected by the anti-German prejudice that was widespread in America following World War I. He studied mechanical engineering at Purdue, and enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1939.

George S. Welch is best remembered as one of the heroes of Pearl Harbor. He was one of only two fighter pilots to get airborne during the Japanese surprise attack on Hawaii, 7 December 1941. Flying a Curtiss P-40B Warhawk, he shot down three Aichi D3A “Val” dive bombers and one Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter. For this action, Lieutenant General H.H. “Hap” Arnold recommended the Medal of Honor, but because Lieutenant Welch had taken off without orders, an officer in his chain of command refused to endorse the nomination. He received the Distinguished Service Cross.

During World War II, George Welch flew the Bell P-39 Airacobra and Lockheed P-38 Lightning on 348 combat missions. He had 16 confirmed aerial victories over Japanese airplanes and rose to the rank of Major.

Suffering from malaria, George Welch was out of combat, and when North American Aviation approached him to test the new P-51H Mustang, General Arnold authorized his resignation. Welch test flew the P-51, FJ-1 Fury, F-86 Sabre and F-100 Super Sabre. He was killed 12 October 1954 when his F-100A Super Sabre came apart in a 7 G pull up from a Mach 1.5 dive.

North American Aviation F-86-A-NA Sabre 47-630. (North American Aviation, Inc./Chicago Tribune)
North American Aviation F-86A-1-NA Sabre 47-630. (North American Aviation, Inc./Chicago Tribune)

After testing, the North American Aviation XP-86 was approved for production as the F-86A. It became operational in 1949. The first squadron to fly the F-86 held a naming contest and from 78 suggestions, the name “Sabre” was chosen. The F-86 Sabre was in production until 1955 at North American’s Inglewood, California and Cleveland, Ohio plants. It was also built under license by Canadair, Ltd., Sain-Laurent, Quebec, Canada; the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation, Port Melbourne, Victoria, Australia; and Mitsubishi Heavy  Industries at Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan. A total of 9,860 Sabres were built. They served with the United States Air Force until 1970.

XP-86 45-59597 was expended in nuclear weapons tests, Operation Snapper Easy and Snapper Fox, at the Nevada Test Site, Frenchman’s Flat, Nevada, in May 1952. The second and third prototypes, 45-59598 and 45-59599, met similar fates.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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1 October 1942

Bell XP-59A Airacomet 42-108784, first flight at Muroc Dry Lake, 1 October 1942. (U.S. Air Force)

1 October 1942: At Muroc Dry Lake, in the high desert north of Los Angeles, California, Bell Aircraft Company Chief Test Pilot Robert M. Stanley made the first flight of the top secret prototype turbojet-powered fighter, the Bell XP-59A Airacomet, serial number 42-108784. Weather was “C.A.V.U.” (Ceiling and Visibility Unrestricted) and wind was from the west at 20 miles per hour. In his report, Stanley wrote:

“4.     All take-offs were made using 15,000 r.p.m. on both engines with flaps fully up and with the airplane pulled off the ground at about 80 to 90 m.p.h. Throttle was applied promptly and acceleration during take-off appeared quite satisfactory. The run was estimated to be in the vicinity of 2,000 feet, possibly more. The first flight reached an altitude of approximately 25 feet, and landing was made using partial power without flaps. This take-off had the wind approximately 60° on the right bow and must be considered a cross-wind take-off.

“5.     Aileron and elevator action appear satisfactory, although the rudder force appears undesirably light causing the airplane to yaw somewhat for very light pedal pressures. Left rudder was needed for take-off due to cross wind.”

—Bell Aircraft Corp. Pilot’s Report 27-923-001, at Page 1-12, by Robert M. Stanley, 1 October 1942

Bell Aircraft Coproration test pilot Robert M. Stanley in the cockpit of an XP-59A Airacomet. (NASM)
Bell Aircraft Corporation Chief Test Pilot Robert M. Stanley in the cockpit of an XP-59A Airacomet. (National Museum of the United States Air Force)

Stanley made three more flights that day, as high as 100 feet (30.5 meters). The following day, Army Air Corps test pilot Colonel Laurence C. Craigie conducted the “official” first flight, reaching an altitude of 10,000 feet (3,048 meters).

Bell XP-59A Airacomet in flight, 1942. (U.S. Air Force)
Bell XP-59A Airacomet 42-108785  in flight, 1942. Test pilot Bob Stanley is in the cockpit. (U.S. Air Force)

Three XP-59A prototypes were built. The number one ship, 42-108784, was affectionately nicknamed Miss Fire, because of the initial difficulty in getting the engines to start.

The Bell XP-59A was conventional single place airplane with retractable tricycle landing gear. It was primarily of metal construction, though the control surfaces were fabric-covered. The prototype was 38 feet, 10 inches (11.836 meters) long with a wingspan of 49 feet, 0 inches (14.935 meters) and overall height of 12 feet, 3¾ inches (3.753 meters), at rest. The leading edge of the wings were swept 7°. The horizontal stabilizer had a span of 16 feet, 8 inches (5.080 meters). Its empty weight was 7,319 pounds (3,320 kilograms) and maximum gross weight was 10,089 pounds (4,576 kilograms).

A cutaway display of a General Electric I-A turbojet engine. The compressor and turbine are on a single shaft (center). One of the combustion chambers is sectioned at the upper left. (National Museum of the United States Air Force)
A cutaway display of a General Electric I-A turbojet engine. The single-stage centrifugal compressor and single-stage axial-flow turbine are on a single shaft (center). One of the annular combustion chambers is sectioned at the upper left. (National Museum of the United States Air Force)

The experimental fighter was initially powered by two General Electric Type I-A centrifugal reverse-flow turbojet engines, serial numbers 170121 (left) and 170131 (right), each producing 1,250 pounds of thrust (5.561 kilonewtons) at 15,000 r.p.m. These were copies of the British Whittle W.2B engines. They were heavy, underpowered and unreliable.

Performance of the XP-59A was disappointing with a maximum speed of 350 miles per hour (563 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level and 389 miles per hour (626 kilometers per hour) at 35,160 feet (10,717 meters), significantly slower than many piston-engined fighters.

Robert M. Stanley and Laurence C. Craigie with the Bell XP-59A Airacomet at Muroc Dry Lake. (U.S. Air Force)
Colonel Laurence C. Craigie (left) and Chief Test Pilot Robert M. Stanley with a Bell XP-59A Airacomet prototype at Muroc Dry Lake. (U.S. Air Force)

Three XP-59A prototypes and thirteen YP-59A preproduction airplanes were built. The P-59 was ordered into production and Bell Aircraft Corporation built thirty P-59A and twenty P-59B fighters. These were armed with one M4 37mm autocannon with 44 rounds of ammunition and three .50-caliber machine guns with 200 rounds per gun.

Although a YP-59A had set an unofficial altitude record of 47,600 feet (14,508 meters), the Airacomet was so outclassed by standard production fighters that no more were ordered.

Lawrence D. ("Larry") Bell with his XP-59A Airacomet at Muroc Dry Lake. (Robert F. Dorr Collection)
Lawrence D. Bell with his XP-59A Airacomet at Muroc Dry Lake. (Robert F. Dorr Collection)

The race for a jet engine-powered fighter had been ongoing for several years, and the United States’ XP-59A was trailing behind. The first jet airplane, the Heinkel He 178, had made its first flight in Germany three years earlier, on 27 August 1939, though it was a proof-of-concept article, not an operational military aircraft. In the United Kingdom, the Gloster E/28.39, also a proof-of-concept aircraft, though more advanced than the Heinkel, made its first flight, 15 May 1941. The world’s first operational jet fighter, the Messerschmitt Me 262, made its first flight on 18 July 1942. It was nearly two years before production Me 262s entered combat, but they were devastating against bomber formations. The Gloster Meteor, the Allies’ first jet fighter, first flew 5 March 1943, and deliveries to fighter squadrons began in July 1944. The de Havilland DH.100 Vampire made its first flight 20 September 1943, but it did not become operational until after the end of World War II.

The XP-59A flew nearly five months before its British cousin, but would not be assigned to an operational squadron, the 445th Fighter Squadron, 412th Fighter Group, until June 1945.

The first American military jet aircraft, Bell XP-59A  Airacomet 42-108784, was preserved by the Army at Muroc, and the engines at Wright Field, Ohio. In 1978, these were given to the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum where the prototype was later restored and placed on display.

The first American jet-powered aircraft, Bell XP-59A Airacomet 42-108784 on display at the National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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25 August 1947

Major Marion E. Carl, USN, with a Douglas D-558-I Skystreak at Muroc Dry Lake, 1947. (U.S. Navy)
Major Marion E. Carl, USMC, with a Douglas D-558-I Skystreak at Muroc Dry Lake, 1947. (U.S. Navy)

25 August 1947: Major Marion Eugene Carl, United States Marine Corps, flying the Douglas D-558-I Skystreak, Bu. No. 37970, set a new Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Speed Over a 3 Kilometer Straight Course, averaging 1,047.356 kilometers per hour (650.797 miles per hour).¹ The Skystreak was flown over a course laid out on Muroc Dry Lake, site of Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base) in the high desert of Southern California.

Douglas D-558-I Skystreak Bu. No. 37970 makes a pass over the 3 kilometer course on Muroc Dry Lake. (U.S. Navy)
Douglas D-558-I Skystreak Bu. No. 37970 makes a pass over the 3 kilometer course on Muroc Dry Lake. (U.S. Navy)

Four passes were made over the course at an altitude of 200 feet (61 meters) or lower. Two runs were made in each direction to compensate for any head or tail winds. The official speed for a record attempt was the average of the two best consecutive passes out of the four.

Major Carl’s record exceeded one set by Commander Turner F. Caldwell, Jr., U.S. Navy, just five days earlier by 10.053 miles per hour (16.178 kilometers per hour).

Major Marion E. Carl, USMC, and Commander Turner F. Caldwell, Jr., USN, stand with the record-setting Douglas D-558-I Skystreak, Bu. No. 37970, on Muroc Dry Lake. (U.S. Navy)
Major Marion E. Carl, USMC, and Commander Turner F. Caldwell, Jr., USN, stand with the record-setting Douglas D-558-I Skystreak, Bu. No. 37970, on Muroc Dry Lake. (U.S. Navy) 

The D-558 Program was intended as a three phase test program for the U.S. Navy and the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) to investigate transonic and supersonic flight using straight and swept wing aircraft powered by turbojet and/or rocket engines. The Douglas Aircraft Company designed and built three D-558-I Skystreaks and three D-558-II Skyrockets. The Phase I aircraft were flown by Douglas test pilot Eugene Francis (“Gene”) May, Navy Project Officer Commander Turner F. Caldwell, Jr., and Major Marion Carl.

Major Marion E. Carl, USMC; Gene May, Douglas Aircraft Company; Commander Turner F. Caldwell, USN.
Major Marion E. Carl, USMC; Gene May, Douglas Aircraft Company; Commander Turner F. Caldwell, USN.

The D-558-I Skystreak (also referred to as the D-558-1) was a single-engine, straight winged, turbojet-powered airplane. It was built of magnesium and aluminum for light weight, but was designed to withstand very high acceleration loads. It was 35 feet, 8 inches (10.871 meters) long with a wingspan of 25 feet, 0 inches (7.62 meters) and overall height of 12 feet, 1¾ inches (3.702 meters). The airplane had retractable tricycle landing gear. Its empty weight was approximately 7,500 pounds (3,400 kilograms), landing weight at the conclusion of a flight test was 7,711 pounds (3,498 kilograms). The maximum takeoff weight was 10,105 pounds (4,583.6 kilograms). The aircraft fuel load was 230 gallons (870.7 liters) of kerosene.

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). The J35-A-11 was a production version of the General Electric TG-180, initially produced by Chevrolet as the J35-C-3. It was the first widely-used American jet engine.

The D-558-I had a designed service ceiling of 45,700 feet (13,930 meters). Intended for experimental flights of short duration, it had a very short range and took off and landed from the dry lake at Muroc. (After 1949, this would be known as Edwards Air Force Base.) The experimental airplane was not as fast as the more widely known Bell X-1 rocketplane, but rendered valuable research time in the high transonic range.

Gene May did reach Mach 1.0 in 37970, 29 September 1948, though he was in a 35° dive. This was the highest speed that had been reached up to that time by an airplane capable of taking off and landing under its own power.

The three D-558-I Skystreaks made a total of 229 flights and Bu. No. 37970 made 101 of them. After the Douglas test program was completed, -970 was turned over to NACA as NACA 140, but it was quickly grounded after the crash of the number two aircraft, and was used for spare parts for number three.

Today, 37970 is in the collection of the National Naval Aviation Museum at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. The other surviving Skystreak, Bu. No. 37972, is at the Carolinas Aviation Museum, Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, Charlotte, North Carolina.

This painting depicts Major Marion E. Carl's speed record attempt over the 3 kilometer course at Muroc Dry Lake. (Steve Cox, 24" x 30", acrylic on board)
This painting depicts Major Marion E. Carl’s speed record attempt over the 3 kilometer course at Muroc Dry Lake. (Steve Cox, 24″ × 30″, acrylic on board)

¹ FAI Record File Number 9865

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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20 August 1947

Douglas D-558-I Skystreak Bu. No. 37970 makes a pass over the 3 kilometer course on Muroc Dry Lake. (U.S. Navy)
Douglas D-558-I Skystreak, Bu. No. 37970, makes a pass over the 3-kilometer course at Muroc Dry Lake. (U.S. Navy)

20 August 1947: At Muroc Dry Lake in the high desert of southern California, Commander Turner Foster Caldwell, Jr., United States Navy, flew the first of three Douglas D-558-I Skystreaks, Bu. No. 37970, to a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Speed Over a 3 Kilometer Straight Course.¹

Four passes were made over the course at an altitude of 200 feet (61 meters) or lower. Two runs were made in each direction to compensate for any head or tail winds. The official speed for a record attempt was the average of the two best consecutive passes out of the four.

Commander Caldwell’s average speed was 1,031.178 kilometers per hour (640.744 miles per hour). He was awarded his second Distinguished Flying Cross for this flight.

Commander Turner F. Caldwell, jr., United States Navy with the number one Douglas D-558-I Skystreak, Bu. No. 37970, at Muroc dry Lake, 1947. (U.S. Naval Institute)
Commander Turner F. Caldwell, Jr., United States Navy, with the number one Douglas D-558-I Skystreak, Bu. No. 37970, at Muroc Dry Lake, 1947. (U.S. Naval Institute)

The D-558 Program was intended as a three-phase test program for the U.S. Navy and the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) to investigate transonic and supersonic flight using straight and swept wing aircraft powered by turbojet and/or rocket engines. The Douglas Aircraft Company designed and built three D-558-I Skystreaks and three D-558-II Skyrockets. The Phase I aircraft were flown by Douglas test pilot Gene May and Navy project officer, Commander Turner Caldwell.

Major Marion E. Carl, USMC, left, and Commander Turner F. Caldwell, Jr., USN, stand with the record-setting Douglas D-558-I Skystreak, Bu. No. 37970, on Muroc Dry Lake. (U.S. Navy)
Major Marion E. Carl, USMC, left, and Commander Turner F. Caldwell, Jr., USN, stand with the record-setting Douglas D-558-I Skystreak, Bu. No. 37970, on Muroc Dry Lake. (U.S. Navy)

The D-558-I Skystreak was a single-engine, turbojet-powered airplane. It was built of magnesium and aluminum for light weight, but was designed to withstand very high acceleration loads. It was 35 feet, 8 inches (10.871 meters) long with a wingspan of 25 feet (7.62 meters) and overall height of 12 feet, 1¾ inches (3.702 meters). The airplane had retractable tricycle landing gear. Its empty weight was approximately 7,500 pounds (3,400 kilograms), landing weight at the conclusion of a flight test was 7,711 pounds (3,498 kilograms). The maximum takeoff weight was 10,105 pounds (4,583.6 kilograms). The aircraft fuel load was 230 gallons (870.7 liters) of kerosene.

This photograph shows two of the three D-558-I Skystreaks being inspected by U.S. navy officials at the Douglas Aircraft Company plant. In the foreground is the number two aircraft, Bu. No. 37971, with the sections o fte hfuselage separted for better viewing. The entire nose section, including teh cockpit, coul dbe jettisoned in an emergency. The second aircraft is Bu. No. 37970, th eSkystrak flown by CDR Caldwell for his speed record. In the background is another Douglas airplane, the famous AD Skyraider. (Douglas Aircraft Company)
This photograph shows two of the three D-558-I Skystreaks being inspected by U.S. Navy officers at the Douglas Aircraft Company plant. In the foreground is the number two aircraft, Bu. No. 37971, with the sections of the fuselage separated. The entire nose section, including the cockpit, could be jettisoned in an emergency. Just beyond that, two wing tip fuel tanks are displayed on a cart. The second aircraft is Bu. No. 37970. An Allison J35-A-11 jet engine is shown between that and the last airplane, another Douglas product, the famous AD Skyraider. (Douglas Aircraft Company)

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). The J35-A-11 was a production version of the General Electric TG-180, initially produced by Chevrolet as the J35-C-3. It was the first widely-used American jet engine.

The D-558-I had a designed service ceiling of 45,700 feet (13,930 meters). Intended for experimental flights of short duration, it had a very short range and took off and landed from the dry lake at Muroc. (After 1949, this would be known as Edwards Air Force Base.) The experimental airplane was not as fast as the more widely known Bell X-1 rocketplane, but rendered valuable research time in the high transonic range.

Gene May did reach Mach 1.0 in 37970, 29 September 1948, though he was in a 35° dive. This was the highest speed that had been reached up to that time by an airplane capable of taking off and landing under its own power.

The three D-558-I Skystreaks made a total of 229 flights and Bu. No. 37970 made 101 of them. After the Douglas test program was completed, -970 was turned over to NACA as NACA 140, but it was quickly grounded after the crash of the number two aircraft, and was used for spare parts for number three.

Today, 37970 is in the collection of the National Naval Aviation Museum at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. The other surviving Skystreak, Bu. No. 37972, is at the Carolinas Aviation Museum, Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, Charlotte, North Carolina.

Rear Admiral Turner F. Caldwell, Jr., USN, circa 1960. (U.S. Navy)
Rear Admiral Turner F. Caldwell, Jr., United States Navy, circa 1960. (U.S. Navy)
Midshipman Turner F. Caldwell, jr., 1935. (U.S. Navy)

Turner Foster Caldwell, Jr., was born 17 November 1913 at Narbeth, Pennsylvania. He was the first of four children of Lieutenant Turner Foster Caldwell and Eleanor Polk Owings Caldwell. The senior Caldwell was a graduate of Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, and was commissioned as an ensign, United States Navy, through the Reserve Officers Training Corps (R.O.T.C). Commander Caldwell was assigned to the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, 1 September 1930, and was promoted to the rank of captain, 1 October 1930. He retired from the Navy 1 August 1940.

Turner Foster Caldwell, Jr., entered the United States Naval Academy as a midshipman, 12 June 1931. He graduated and was commissioned an Ensign, United States Navy, 6 June 1935.

Ensign Caldwell was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant (Junior Grade), with date of rank 6 June 1938. He was assigned as a flight instructor at NAS Pensacola, Florida. On that same day, Lieutenant (j.g.) Caldwell married Miss Helen Adele Glidden of Coronado, California, at Yuma, Arizona. They would have four children.

By 1940, Lieutenant (j.g.) Caldwell was assigned to Scouting Squadron Five (VS-5). On 7 December 1941, VS-5 was aboard USS Yorktown (CV-5) at Norfolk Virginia.

Caldwell was promoted to Lieutenant, 1 January 1942. He was a Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless scout bomber bomber pilot with Scouting Squadron Five (VS-5) aboard U.S.S. Yorktown (CV-5) and commanded the squadron with its 18 SBD-3s aboard U.S.S. Enterprise (CV-6) during the occupation of Guadalcanal and the Battle of the Eastern Solomons.

Two Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive bombers from VB-5, USS Yorktown, 1942. (U.S. Navy)

Between March and September 1942 he was three times awarded the Navy Cross, the U.S. Navy’s second-highest award for valor after the Medal of Honor. He was promoted to lieutenant commander (temporary) 1 May 1943, and to commander, 1 March 1944. (He retained the permanent rank of lieutenant until after the war.)

Later he commanded a night fighter group of F6F Hellcats and TBM Avengers, CVLG(N)-41, assigned to USS Enterprise (CV(N)-6). For his actions during that period he was awarded his first Distinguished Flying Cross and the Legion of Merit.

After the war, Caldwell commanded Carrier Air Group 4 (CVG-4) aboard USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVB-42). He was promoted to the rank of captain, 1 July 1954. Captain Caldwell commanded the “long-hull” Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14), from 5 September 1959 to 24 August 1960.

USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) underway off the Philippines, 24 May 1960. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)

Captain Caldwell was promoted to the rank of rear admiral, 1 April 1963. He rose to the rank of Vice Admiral, 1 November 1967, and served as Director of Anti-Submarine Warfare Plans. Admiral Caldwell retired from the Navy in May 1971. He died at Kilmarnock Hospital, Rappahannock, Virginia, 12 October 1991.

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

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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16 August 1948

Prototype Northrop XF-89, 46-678, parked on the dry lake bed at Muroc Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force)
Prototype Northrop XF-89, 46-678, parked on the dry lake bed at Muroc Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force)

16 August 1948: The prototype Northrop XF-89 all-weather interceptor, 46-678, made its first flight at Muroc Air Force Base (later, Edwards Air Force Base). Company test pilot Fred Charles Bretcher, Jr., was at the controls.

The Northrop XF-89 was a two-place, twin-engine, mid-wing monoplane with retractable tricycle landing gear, designed as an all-weather interceptor. The pilot and radar intercept officer sat in tandem in the pressurized cockpit. Similar to Northrop’s World War II-era P-61 Black Widow night fighter, the XF-89 was painted gloss black.

Northrop XF-89 prototype, 46-678, near Edwards Air Force Base, California. (U.S. Air Force)

The XF-89 was 50 feet, 6 inches (15.392 meters) long, with a wingspan of 52 feet, 0 inches (15.847 meters). The wing had a 1.5° angle of incident, and1° dihedral. The total wing area was 606.2 square feet (56.32 square meters). The prototype had an empty weight of 23,010 pounds (10,437 kilograms), gross weight of 31,000 pounds (14,061 kilograms), and maximum takeoff weight of 43,000 pounds (19,505 kilograms).

The XF-89 was powered by two Allison J35-A-9 single-spool, axial-flow turbojet engines. The J35 had an 11-stage compressor section and single-stage turbine. The J35-A-9 was rated at 3,750 pounds of thrust (16.68 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).

Northrop XF-89 46-678. (U.S. Air Force)
Northrop XF-89 46-678. (U.S. Air Force)

The prototype crashed during a demonstration flight, its 102nd, at Hawthorne Airport, 22 February 1950. Vibrations caused by the engines’ exhaust caused the tail to separate. The pilot, Charles Tucker, escaped, but flight test engineer Arthur Turton was killed.

The F-89 went into production as the F-89A Scorpion. 1,050 were produced in eight variants. The final series, F-89J, remained in service with the Air National Guard until 1969.

Northrop F-89J Scorpion 53-2509 (converted from F-89D-55-NO) at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. The interceptor is carrying two AIR-2 Genie rockets on its underwing pylons. (U.S. Air Force)

Fred Charles Bretcher, Jr., was born 22 September 1920, at Cincinnati, Ohio. He was the son of Fred Charles Bretcher, a pharmacist, and Frieda Juliana Emma Poggenbeck Bretcher. His father, Sergeant Bretcher (or Bretscher), had served in an ambulance company at Ypres and the Meuse-Argonne during World War I, and had been honorably discharged, 18 April 1919.

The younger Bretcher attended Western Hills High School in Cincinnati. He played with the golf team and worked on the school newspaper. Bretcher graduated in 1938. He then worked as a sales clerk while attending college.

Bretcher enlisted as an aviation cadet in the U.S. Army Air Corps at Fort Thomas, Kentucky, 29 May 1941. He was sent to the Southeast Air Corps Training Center, Maxwell Field, Alabama, as a member of Class 42A. He graduated 8 January 1942, and was released from his enlistment to accept a commission as a second lieutenant, effective 9 January 1942. Lieutenant Bretcher was then assigned to Wright Field, Ohio, as a trainee test pilot. While at Wright, he flew every aircraft in the Air Corps inventory.

Lieutenant Bretcher flew combat missions in the European Theater in the Curtiss-Wright P-40 Warhawk, Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and North American P-51 Mustang. Temporarily assigned to the Royal Air Force, he flew the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Tempest fighters and the Avro Lancaster long-range heavy bomber. While serving in Europe, Bretcher was promoted to the rank of captain.

Captain Bretcher returned to Wright Field in May 1944. Promoted to major, he was assigned as the Chief of the Bomber Test Section, working on the Boeing B-29 Superfortress and Consolidated B-32 Dominator heavy bomber projects.

Major Bretcher also flew at Muroc Army Airfield in California, testing the Bell YP-59 Airacomet, Lockheed YP-80A Shooting Star, and the experimental Northrop N-9M flying wing proof-of-concept airplane. Major Bretcher was released from active duty, 13 January 1946.

Fred Charles Bretcher, Jr.

Fred Bretscher went to work for the Northrop Corporation, Hawthorne, California, as a civilian test pilot. He flew as co-pilot to Chief Test Pilot Max R. Stanley on the first flight of the Northrop YB-35, 15 May 1948.

In 1950, Bretcher was assigned to the flight test program of Northrop’s N-25 Snark cruise missile (which would be developed into the SM-62 Snark) at Holloman Air Force Base, near Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Bretcher married Miss Jean Taylor at Albuquerque, New Mexico, 18 December 1951. He retired from the Northrop Corporation in 1952.

Fred Charles Bretcher, Jr., died at Sedona, Arizona, 2 June 2004. He was 83 years old.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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