Beautiful Climber

In the summer of ‘58, nothing was faster to 50,000 feet

A U.S. Marine Corps Douglas F4D-1 Skyray in flight. (USMC/US Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation)
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The Skyray—and Heinemann’s design shop—entered a brief golden age. While Rahn and his colleagues had been wringing out one prototype at Edwards, Navy and Marine pilots had been growing the second prototype’s sea legs at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. The Skyray was headed for the fleet.

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.

About Carl A. Posey

Novelist and award-winning science writer Carl A. Posey was the author of seven published novels, a number of non-fiction books, and dozens of magazine articles. He was a licensed pilot and an Air & Space magazine contributor for more than 30 years, beginning with its second issue in 1986. Posey died on February 9, 2018.

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