Designed in 1945, the Douglas D-558-I Skystreak was a revolutionary transonic research aircraft designed for the US Navy Bureau of Aeronautics in conjunction with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The Skystreak, unlike most American high-speed aerial search vehicles of the day, lifted off the ground on its own. Each had conventional straight wings and tails, with power coming from an Allison J35-A-11 turbojet producing around 5,000 pounds of thrust. Only three of the six planned Skystreaks have been completed. The guy first flew in a dramatic scarlet livery, earning him the nickname “Crimson Test Tube”.
NACA then had its copies repainted white to improve optical tracking and photography. The Skystreaks could carry 634 pounds of instrumentation and were ideal first-generation transonic research aircraft – with complexity only where needed.
The first Skystreak made its maiden flight on April 14, 1947 at Muroc Dry Lake (now known as Edwards Air Force Base). On August 20, the aircraft set a new world speed record of 640.74 mph, with Commander Turner Caldwell (USN) in command. While NACA took delivery of this Skystreak in April 1949, it never actually flew the plane.
The NACA took delivery of the second Skystreak in November 1947. They performed 19 flights in their service until a tragedy struck on May 3, 1948. The engine compressor disintegrated on takeoff and the accident that resulted in follow-up claimed the life of NACA pilot Howard C. Lilly.
Douglas delivered the third Skystreak (BuNo.37872) to NACA in 1949 after three test pilots from Douglas and Howard Lilly had already flown it. Aircraft number three resumed the planned flight program from D-558-I # 2. From the first flight in 1949 to 1953, the third Skystreak participated in an intensive flight research program. Seven different NACA test pilots participated in this undertaking which collected important data on the handling of high subsonic aircraft. In total, D-558-I # 3 performed 78 search flights with the NACA before removing the aircraft on June 10, 1953.
Despite its invaluable service, much of the Skystreak’s research, at least in the public mind, is overshadowed by the Bell XS-1 in which legendary fighter ace and test pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. for the first time on October 14, 1947. – although news of this feat did not make the headlines for several months due to the secrecy surrounding it. It should be remembered, however, that the Skystreak played an important role in aeronautical research by being able to fly for long periods at transonic speeds; this freed up the X-1 to aim for fame and finally break the sound barrier, albeit in brief sprints.
Of the three D-558-I built, two are still in a state of conservation, they are Skystreak # 1 (BuNo.37970) at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida and Skystreak # 3 (BuNo.37972 ) at the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina.