Douglas D558-II Skyocket

Gene May
Test Pilot
Extraordinaire!

Gene in the cockpit of the Douglas Skyrocket

On June 23, 2001 the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, dedicated their newly restored Douglas D-558-1 Skystreak.  They have the aircraft on long term loan from the Marine Aviation Museum, and did a marvelous job of restoring it to its NACA configuration -- especially considering what they had to start with.  The aircraft had been sitting outside for 40 some years in various stages of disassembly.  Some sections were in crates, some were out in the open, and still other small parts were found lying on the ground in the area.

This Skystreak is the third, and last, one built.  It is the aircraft that NACA used for most of their research flights, flying it 78 times.  Unfortunately, the documentation for Douglas flights 1 through 4 is still missing, although it is believed that Uncle Gene first flew the craft on 3/19/48.  There is a possibility that NACA pilot Howard Lilly might have made one of these  flights, with Gene making the others.  Douglas flight 5 was a demonstration flight on January 3, 1949 before delivering the aircraft to NACA.  Gene did a 6.8G dive recovery, maximum left and right sideslips at 580 MPH, and made a very low level, very high speed pass.

Although Gene did manage to squeak Skystreak #1 up to Mach 1.01, the highest speed reached by #3 was Mach .98 on June 13, 1950 with John Griffith at the controls.  Remember, though, the Skystreak's research protocol was changed very early in its existence to restrict its exploration to the extremely dangerous transitional period between Mach .85 and .99.  While most supersonic research aircraft accelerate through that zone as quickly as possible, the super strong and stable Skystreak would shake, rattle and roll in transonic flight for long periods, collecting data.

Click on the images below to view the full, high resolution picture in a pop-up window!  Remember to set your browser to allow pup-up and to close that window before making another selection.

This is the man that made it happen -- Jerry Shore, Director of Restorations for the Carolinas Aviation Museum.  He's not only an expert craftsman, he's a heck of a nice fellow, too!  Thanks, Jerry, for saving one of Gene's airplanes!


As you can tell from this picture, the Skystreak's wing was not in very good condition.  The entire area forward of the main spar (the exposed portion in the picture) was severely corroded and had to be replaced.  This is the area of the wing that served as the fuel tank.  The outer skins, surprisingly, were in very good shape and were reapplied to the new ribs and stringers.


The cockpit section was a real mess, too, but amazingly almost all of the components were found.  Note the instruments scattered around on the floor.  More were found on the ground, along with miscellaneous switches and such.


After many hours of standing on his head, Jerry Shore returned the Streak's cockpit to its original glory.


The perfect roundness of the fuselage is evident in this picture.  The inlet opening is not as large as it appears -- it is only about 18" diameter.  Notice, though, how skinny the tires are (so they'll fit into the thin wing), and how narrow the cockpit canopy is.


Amazingly, the tires are all original!  They were on the plane when they got it.  They look new, with only slight weather checking.  I was surprised that although these were special order tires made to exacting specs, they were branded not only as B.F. Goodrich, but B.F. Goodrich Silvertowns.  These tires were 20"x4.4" and they were inflated to 230 PSI!


The museum even has a pair of the droppable tip tanks!  These increased the fuel capacity from 230 gallons to 330 gallons -- nearly 50%.


Not only are the tanks in good condition, but they are complete with data plates.

Jerry is holding the "cannon" used to blow the tanks off during flight.  The right end is bolted to the wing.  An explosive charge is screwed into the left end and the tube visible sticking out of the tip tanks slips in on top of the charge.  When the charge is electrically ignited, the tank is blown clear. Uncle Gene did the testing of this system in ship #1.


Guests of Honor at the dedication were NACA test pilots Scott Crossfield (right) and Bob Champine (center).  Both Bob and Scott flew this very Skystreak, and both also flew the D-558-2 Skyrocket.  Bob initiated NACA's research program in both airplanes -- April 22, 1949 in the Skystreak and May 24, 1949 in the Skyrocket.  Bob was joined at the festivities by his wife Gloria (left) and 5 of his 6 children.  You can learn more about Bob Champine by visiting his web page.  Scott, as you probably already know, was the first person to exceed Mach 2, and that was in Skyrocket #2 now hanging in the Smithsonian.  Scott also flew the X-15. 


The museum commissioned Russell Smith to paint a portrait of the Skystreak sitting in front of their hangar.  Scott and Bob are shown here admiring the painting.  They each spent much of the afternoon signing autographs on prints of the painting and Scott Libis' Skystreak book.


bob-jerry.jpg (37696 bytes)Bob Champine and Jerry Shore take a break to leaf through Scott Libis' book.

As if meeting Scott Crossfield and Bob Champine wasn't thrill enough, Jerry Shore topped the day off by asking me if I wanted to sit in the cockpit!  WOW! What a thrill!  The cockpit actually felt comfortable to me.  It was very reminiscent of  the Mooney Mite I used to fly in the late 60s-- about the same size and configuration (feet flat out in front of you).  Of course I wasn't wearing a parachute, helmet or had a bail-out oxygen bottle strapped to my leg.


Then they closed the canopy!  Boy is it tight!  The two panes of glass are right next to your face.  I can see how with a helmet on you wouldn't be able to move your head much.  Some pilots elected NOT to wear a helmet when they could get by with it (when no one was looking).  And with the canopy closed, it really blocks your view of the instrument panel.  I had to duck my head down to read some of them.  I now realize the importance of the chase planes.  They would call out the airspeed and altitude during landing approaches. 


After I got out (I heard someone on the ground say "He's really straining" -- which I was), they let Scott Libis give it a try.  He said it was worth the 18 months he spend working on his book just to be there and sit in the plane.


All right, I've mentioned Scott's book three times, so I'd better tell you a little about it.  Scott Libis has written a marvelous book about the Skystreak with lots of stunning pictures.  That's Gene in the cockpit on the front and standing next to #1 on the back cover.  This is a must have book if you're at all interested in early jet or transonic aircraft. Copies of this book are readily available on eBay.


Of course, the Skystreak isn't the only thing of interest at the Carolina Aircraft museum.  In fact, it isn't even the only Gene May related display.  Out front is an unrestored Honest John missile.  After leaving the D-558 program, Gene worked some on this Douglas product too.  I'm not sure just how he was involved, but Douglas production test pilot Bill Smith told me he spent many an enjoyable morning riding shotgun with Gene from Long Beach, CA to White Sands, NM in a DC-3 listening to him tell stories.


The museum even has a DC-3 -- and they were hauling rides in it all weekend.  Gene had a long association with the DC-3.  He flew them as an airline pilot for TWA in the late 30s, and Douglas was still using them for various tasks in the early 50s when he retired.  Gene's son Don flew captain on DC-3s with Bonanza Airlines as well.


A really nice F-84 was sitting on the ramp, looking like it was raring to go fly chase for the Skystreak.  The F-84 used the same engine as the D-558-1.


And if you look long enough, it's hard telling just what you may find.  I found this Tom Ferebee signature (he was the bombardier that released the atomic bomb from the Enola Gay) on a table cloth under a book.  I saw just a portion of the date and was curious enough to move the book and see what it was.  I'm glad I did :-)


All in all it was a great weekend.  The memories will be with me for the rest of my life!  And I will go back -- I just have to sit in that cockpit again!

[go to top of page]

All material on this web site, including images, is copyrighted. Reproduction or use elsewhere without express permission is strictly prohibited.

If you have any information about Gene May or his family, please contact
Webmaster at GeneMay dot info

This web site designed and maintained by Carroll's Creations.