Douglas D558-II Skyocket

Gene May
Test Pilot

Gene in the cockpit of the Douglas Skyrocket

Testing the Skystreak

This page is not finished, but here is a little information to whet your appetite.

Under ConstructionGene put a lot of time in the Skystreak. It gave him a lot of pleasure -- it was fun to fly, he enjoyed the early fame it brought to him, and it was a tremendous challenge. However, it was also a disappointment -- it didn't live up to its expectations, he lost a friend when #2 crashed, and "politics" played too great a role in the program.

First of all, it is NOT true that the Skystreak was designed to investigate the transonic range from Mach .8 to .99. That is the way it turned out, true enough, and the airplane played an invaluable role in learning about all the things that happen just prior to Mach 1. But Douglas, the Navy and certainly Gene May expected the Skystreak to break the sound barrier and Gene expected to be the first person to do so.

However, they learned early that it was not as fast as they originally thought it would be. Another twist was added with the creation of the Air Force as a separate branch of the armed forces and their thinly veiled hijacking of Bell's X-1 program.

For whatever reason, it is apparent from reading the flight logs that there was a change in direction of the program during the summer of 1947. Suddenly it shifted from doing increasingly faster speed runs at high altitude, to doing runs at a set speed of about Mach .85 at progressively lower altitudes. These culminated with the World Speed Record flights by Navy pilot Turner Caldwell and Marine Pilot Marion Carl (neither of whom came close to the speeds posted by Gene a week prior).


When the research flight resumed, they were no longer trying to see how fast they could go, but rather investigating buffeting, effects of varying horizontal stabilizer positions, G-loadings, control forces, etc., all performed in the .85 to .95 Mach range. It was as if "someone" told the Navy to back off of the sound barrier -- that was the Air force's baby -- but we'll let you set a couple of official speed records as compensation.

History records that Gene did break the sound barrier in the Skystreak, however. This in itself is a complicated story and one I don't have the time to go into today. But I will tell you that that flight was to measure control yoke forces at various horizontal stabilizer positions. As the aircraft reached Mach .95 in a constant angle dive, Gene started to pull out at 33,000 ft. When elevator pull forces reached 60 pounds, he shifted the horizontal stabilizer angle slightly to aid in the recovery. During the pullout, a maximum Mach of .99 was reached at 29,000 feet. The onboard instrumentation recorded maximum control yoke forces of 60 pounds pull to 117 pounds push. The Mach numbers in the report were based on radar calibrations that were not considered accurate because of a malfunctioning range indicator salsyn. The system was recalibrated a few days later and a supplemental report was written by the project engineers stating that when the new calibrations were applied to this flight, the maximum speed reached was revised to Mach 1.01.

It is worth noting that such a high speed was not the intent of the flight, and that the fastest speed was reached during the pullout. Had the dive continued, and the horizontal stabilizer trim been used to keep yoke forces within reason, an even higher speed could surely have been obtained.

Even more interesting is that Gene was never told about the recalibration of the radar system and that he had, in fact, exceeded Mach 1. This information was not made available until years after his death. Why? Well, it's a known fact that Bell test pilot Slick Goodlin had a clause in his contract stating that if he successfully broke the sound barrier he would get a huge bonus. Isn't it likely that Gene had a similar clause in his contract and that keeping this information from him was in Douglas' best interest?

Oh, Skystreak #3 was recently restored and is on display in Charlotte, NC. I went to the dedication, so if you're a Skystreak fan, you might want to check out the picture here.

More to come

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