In mid-December 1953, the airplane’s reputation was burnished further when Heinemann received the Collier Trophy for the Skyray; he shared the honor for the first supersonic fighter with North American’s Dutch Kindelberger, father of the F-100 (and Heinemann’s former boss). And there was more good news: Another Heinemann creation, the D-558-2 Skyrocket, made Scott Crossfield the first human to reach Mach 2 in an airplane and enabled Marion Carl to set an unofficial world altitude mark: 83,235 feet.
By this time no one believed Westinghouse could deliver a reliable afterburning J40. (Indeed, the J40 fiasco would drive the company out of the jet engine business.) But Heinemann had seen the problem coming, and had built the Ford’s fuselage with enough space to accommodate a larger engine: Pratt & Whitney’s afterburning J57-P-2, with 14,500 pounds of thrust. The Skyray would finally have enough power to serve as the interceptor that Douglas and the Navy had envisioned.
Production began in 1954. Once the F4D-1s were ready for flight testing, they were towed across Imperial Boulevard to Mines Field, now better known as Los Angeles International. The airplanes were supposed to include an Aero-13 fire control system, built around the Westinghouse An/APQ-50 radar, a system that could see targets 18 miles away and lock onto them at 12 miles. Like the J40 engine, however, the radars were slow in reaching Douglas, and not all Skyrays flew with that equipment; some spent their careers as day fighters, as their creators had intended.
The Ford’s foibles remained, but were not seen as insurmountable. “It had a lot of complicated restrictions,” says Abzug. “Get the thing rolling at high speed, you had to tell the pilot about restrictions. For example, at 400 knots do not exceed two-thirds aileron or one-third back stick. But there’s no way pilots can remember all that stuff. We resorted to placarding,” putting up the small warning signs that dot even Cessna cockpits with no-no’s for the pilot.
On an afternoon in 1955, Bob Rahn leapt off the Los Angeles International Airport’s runway in a production Skyray, heading out over the Pacific a hundred feet above the waves. The idea was to see whether enough pitch trim was available with the new engine to compensate for the airplane’s tuck-under at transonic speeds. He later wrote, “I had accelerated to Mach .98 (approximately 750 mph) in afterburner. This Mach speed created the maximum tuck-under. Full trimmer deflection was required to maintain trimmed flight. Therefore I concluded that the engineers had done a good job with respect to adequate trim for this low-altitude, high-speed flight environment. For all practical purposes, the test was completed. So I nonchalantly shut off the afterburner.”
The Skyray decelerated so rapidly that the trimmer became super-effective, flipping the nose suddenly skyward. “My Skyray and I were pitched up at a gut-wrenching 9.1 Gs,” Rahn wrote. “The airplane had a design limit of 7.0 Gs. Moreover, I wasn’t wearing a g-suit…. I immediately blacked out.” Rahn lost his vision but was aware of his situation. Reluctant to touch anything for fear of making a bad situation worse, he endured the ride. When his eyes cleared, his windscreen was all blue Pacific. “I was in a vertical dive after completing three-fourths of a loop.” Gingerly recovering at about 3,000 feet, he looked out at the wings. “They were wrinkled from wing tip to wing tip, resembling dried prunes.”
Back on the ground at LAX, Rahn found that the rest of the Skyray’s skin was wrinkled, the wings were incurably bent, and some of the vertical stabilizer’s stringers were protruding, like broken bones. The engine had torn off its mounts and was resting on the engine-compartment access door, pinching a fuel line. Later, Rahn reckoned that the event had been caused by the added thrust and the resulting increase in tuck-under. The corresponding increase in nose-up trim had made the Ford go nuts when it suddenly decelerated. Scratch one Skyray.
Even before the F4D entered production, the Navy had altered its mission. Instead of a day fighter, a role for which it had been exquisitely prepared, the Ford would now be an all-weather interceptor. Unstable and skittish by nature, the Skyray seemed a poor choice for such work, a thoroughbred tapped for hansom duty.
In April 1956, more than five years after the prototype’s first flight, Douglas began delivering Skyrays. In all, Fords went out to 11 Navy, six Marine Corps, and three reserve squadrons, with a few more going to specialized units.
But the Ford’s finest moment came not with the Navy, but with the Air Force.
The first unit to receive the Skyray, eventually reorganized as VFAW-3 (Fleet All Weather Squadron 3) and based at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego, was the only Navy unit under the operational control of the North American Air Defense Command. It protected a southwestern wedge of U.S. airspace from unidentified intruders. Like Royal Air Force pilots during the Battle of Britain, the pilots of VFAW-3 slept in their flightsuits a short run from their aircraft.
“A claxon still makes the hairs stand up on my neck,” says David Dungan, a retired Navy captain. “We’d come out of there like a shot. They held all traffic, airliners, everything, when we launched. From a sound sleep to takeoff on Runway 18 within five minutes. Flying out over the black sea. By the time we were in the airplanes we were so adrenalined up” all thought of sleep was gone.
“We were really good. One reason, we had only second-tour pilots, no one fresh out of training command. We all had some experience. The Air Force demanded that we be able to operate at 200-foot ceilings, half-mile visibility. You needed some experience.”
“We did a lot of demo scrambles,” remembers retired commander James Berry, another VFAW-3 veteran. “When VIPs came to North Island we’d get hit with the scramble horn. We had five minutes to get airborne. We were usually in the air with two aircraft in about two and a half minutes.” Later he adds, “We were also sort of the apple of the Navy’s eye, winning Air Force prizes.”
Those prizes included the top interceptor titles in 1957 and 1958, flying against such faster Air Force fighters as the McDonnell F-101 and Convair’s delta-wing F-102 and F-106.
Dungan notes that in a fight, speed and better armament systems aren’t everything. “We carried 2.75-inch FFAR [folding-fin aircraft rockets] in a pod. I think the Skyray would have done fine in combat. You have to use what you have. You didn’t get into a merge fight with MiGs in the Phantom, you’d lose. The F4D, you could turn inside this room. There was also that acceleration.”
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, a VFAW-3 detachment took its Skyrays to Naval Air Station Key West to guard against intruders crossing the narrow straits. “We were flying three, four times a night down there,” says Dungan. “No lights, just black water. Like flying off a carrier. We had to intercept a lot of little planes.” Private pilots would wander into defended airspace, causing the Skyrays to scramble. “No sooner were we airborne out of Key West,” he says, “we could see the lights of Havana.”
“There were a lot of problems with aircraft coming up from the south and flight plans not being passed through Cuba,” says Berry. “We didn’t make contact with any MiGs, but we were vectored toward them and they turned back for home.”
As for piloting the Ford, “I loved it,” says Dungan. “I didn’t fly it onto a carrier, I flew it off the beach at North Island. It wasn’t the most stable airplane in the world. You had to hold onto it on landing, that’s for sure. The F4D rocked around a lot,” partly because the main gear deployed one leg at a time, causing the airplane to skid. “We’d make an approach to North Island at 3,000 feet for Runway 27. About the time they turned us on final, we dropped the gear. The airplane would move around—it was like standing on top of a pencil. Okay in VFR conditions, but not so good in IFR approaches.”
According to Gerald G. O’Rourke, a retired Navy captain with long experience in—and a low opinion of—the Ford, “The wings were large for the size of the plane, and altogether too efficient at producing lift at slow speeds. The vertical tail was too small and tended to get blanked out by the wings at the high angles of attack required for slower speed flight. As a result, the slightest disturbance induced by rough air or a rough pilot made the Ford swing from side to side on approach. As it did, the advancing wing increased its lift, the opposite one decreased its lift, and the plane started to roll…. Low-speed flight was really a series of wallowing, half-roll, half sideslip maneuvers that made the bird look drunk.” He called the airplane the worst Dutch roller in the fleet.
Loved or loathed, the Skyray was on borrowed time. In December 1958 production had ceased at 420 airplanes, and orders for another 230 were canceled.
Ed LeFaivre’s time-to-climb mark of May 1958 was snatched away that December by an Air Force F-104A. Bob Rahn’s record-breaking 100-kilometer run was among the last flown so close to the ground. But in February 1959, a French Dassault Mirage III stole that crown, albeit at 22,970 feet. In August 1961, McDonnell’s Phantom II broke Jim Verdin’s three-kilometer mark. VFAW-3 was decommissioned in April 1963 and the Navy bowed out of the continental air defense system for good. The Marines’ VMF(AW)-542, the last active-duty squadron to fly the Skyray, came home from Japan in November 1963. Even the phonetically evocative F4D designation disappeared, replaced by the F-6A tri-service nomenclature.