Testing the Skyrocket
This page is not finished, but here is a little information to whet your appetite.
Gene was never supposed to fly the Skyrocket. When the Skystreak program was finished, Gene was to go back to El Segundo. John Martin was chosen to be the Skyrocket pilot, and he made the first flight in the plane on February 4, 1948.
However, after only 16 flights Johnny was promoted to Chief Test Pilot for the entire Long Beach operation, and had to stop flying the Skyrocket. Finding themselves "up the creek without a paddle," Douglas convinced Gene to take over the initial phase of testing on the Skyrocket, in addition to completing the Skystreak program.
Gene made his first flight in the Skyrocket on September 16, 1948 and his last flight in the Skystreak on January 4, 1949, so there were about 4 months where he was flying both planes -- sometimes both on the same day. At this time, the Skyrockets were being flown with jet engines only. There had been a delay in the development of the rocket motors, so Douglas released two Skyrockets without them. Skyrocket #1 was for their own testing and #2 was for NACA (after Gene made the first few flights and determined it ready to enter service).
Soon Skyrocket #3 was delivered to Muroc Air Force Base with fully operational rocket engines. On February 25 Gene made the first flight in this plane and initiated the rocket powered portion of the Navy research program using this plane. In the meantime, ship #1 was returned to the factory to have its rocket engines installed.
Gene's Skyrocket contract called for him to complete all the sub-sonic tests, then turn the project over to someone else. However, as that time came near, the Navy wasn't real keen on someone else taking over. Due to the complexities of the rocket system, it took at least a week to prepare the plane for its next flight. The Navy had an aggressive flight test agenda, and taking the time to train another pilot with that long of a turnaround time between flight was not in their best interest. So, Gene continued with the program until it was decided that to realize its full potential, it would need to be modified from a jet/rocket plane to one that was entirely rocket powered and air launched. Skyrocket #2 was removed from NACA service and sent back to Douglas for these modifications.
Gene refused to have anything to do with flying the air launched airplane. He felt he had already pushed his luck to its max and the stress was taking its toll. Only reluctantly did the Navy agree to bring aboard a new pilot. That new pilot was Bill Bridgeman. Gene had not previously known Bill, but they actually grew up very close to one another. Bill was from Ottumwa, IA, about 100 miles from where Gene spent his childhood.
Bill came aboard when Skyrocket #1 was returned to service after having its rocket engines installed. This gave Douglas two rocket powered planes for their use. Bill began flying #1, getting ready to graduate to the drop flights, while Gene used #3 to complete the Navy's supersonic flight program. In Bill's book, The Lonely Sky, he describes in great detail the first Skyrocket flight that he witnessed. I have reproduced those pages from the book here. Make sure to check it out.
I have noticed several discrepancies between the official NACA flight records, press reports and personal accounts of people working at Muroc during this transition period. This leads me to believe there were "things" going on that were not exactly as history records them. I will elaborate more about this on another page in the web site once that round tuit shows up.
The last flight that Gene made in the Skyrocket was on December 1, 1949 in ship #1. It was a demonstration flight -- the first time the public was to witness supersonic flight "up close and personal." Over 100 reporters and photographers had been invited, and the Navy furnished a huge Lockheed Hercules to fly many of them from Los Angles to Muroc. Gene made 3 passes for the cameras -- 1st a low speed pass with gear down, 2nd a mid speed pass at full jet power, and 3rd a supersonic pass with rockets blazing.
What a way to say goodbye!
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