On March 15, 1944, while Allied forces prepared for the invasion of Normandy in Europe and the assault on the Marianas in the Pacific, Army Air Forces and Navy officers looked to the future in a meeting at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA) Langley Laboratory. The subject was high-speed flight and by the end of the year a plan was in place for the development of research aircraft, with the Navy focusing on subsonic flight and the Army Air Forces (later U.S. Air Force) tasked with pushing beyond the sound barrier.
The specifications for the Navy aircraft called for it to be a pure research design, capable of taking off and landing on its own power using existing engines. It also had to be able to carry 500 lb. of instruments to records data from the test flights.
In developing their company’s proposal, Douglas Aircraft Company engineers designed a straight-wing airplane with a cylindrical fuselage to house the engine, which was the 5,000 lb. static thrust Allison J35-A-11. One unique aspect of the design was the escape system for the pilot. In the event of an emergency, the nose detached from the fuselage and when it reached a safe speed, the pilot would perform a bailout through the detached end of the nose section.
With Douglas test pilot Eugene F. May at the controls, the D-558-1 Skystreak made its maiden flight at Muroc Army Air Field (later Edwards Air Force Base) on April 15, 1947. Landing gear problems revealed themselves on early test flights, but by August the airplane was ready for high-speed flights. Improving its aerodynamic qualities was a streamlined canopy replacing the original bubble canopy design.
On August 20, 1947, Commander Turner F. Caldwell took off in the first D-558-1 (Bureau Number 37970) on an attempt to top the speed record of 623.738 M.P.H. established a month earlier by Army Air Forces Colonel Albert Boyd in a P-80R Shooting Star modified for the flight. In four passes over the 3-kilometer course, Caldwell averaged a speed of 640.743 M.P.H., shattering Boyd’s mark. According to newspaper accounts of the era, Caldwell made his turns at the end of his four runs as tightly as possible to conserve fuel, using a black stripe on the ground and two clouds of green smoke marking the beginning and end of the 3-kilometer distance. His altitude was 75 feet. It marked the first time the Navy held the world speed record since Lieutenant Al Williams attained 266.59 M.P.H. in 1923.
Caldwell could rest on his laurels for just five days. On August 25, 1947, wearing the traditional cloth flight helmet because the height of a hard hat would preclude his tall frame from fitting in the cockpit, Marine Lieutenant Colonel Marion Carl climbed into the second Skystreak (Bureau Number 37971). Describing the airplane as the “blood-red Douglas Skystreak,” a newspaper article announced “Plane Zooms Ahead of Sun,” in describing Carl’s flight that day, reflecting the fact that with his average speed of 650.6 M.P.H., he would have had to set his watch back a few minutes if flying from Berlin to London. “The ship is a beautiful one to fly, and I had no trouble whatever,” Carl said after completing his four passes, sometimes at just 25 ft. off the ground. “I felt nothing like compressibility or turbulence.”
The aircraft that the press nicknamed “The Crimson Test Tube,” held the mantel of fastest aircraft in the world for just a brief time. The X-1, flown by Captain Chuck Yeager, became the first airplane to break the sound barrier on October 14, 1947.
D-558-1 Skystreak research flights continued until June 10, 1953, with NACA test pilots at the controls.
The museum displays the first D-558-1 (Bureau Number 37970), the aircraft in which Commander Turner F. Caldwell established a world speed record on August 20, 1947. It joined the aircraft collection in 1964.
Manufacturer: Douglas Aircraft Company
Dimensions: Length: 35 ft., 8 ½ in.; Height: 12 ft., 1 11/16 in.; Wingspan: 25 ft.
Weights: Takeoff configuration: 10,105 lb.; Landing configuration: 7,711 lb.
Power Plant: One 5,000 lb. static thrust Allison J-35-A-11 turbojet
Performance: Mach 0.832 at sea level