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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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.

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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