The Lonely Sky
This is the story of an experimental high-speed aeroplane and the test pilot who flew it.
The story of America’s experimental aeroplanes, the supersonic pioneers, could begin in the dawn of a summer day above a German countryside. The year is 1942.
Out of the brightening sky an unarmed, stripped-down Mosquito, cameras whining, shot in low over the remote Nazi airship. The RAF officer again noticed the many peculiar-looking black streaks at the end of the runway; some as even as railroad tracks. Seconds later the little bomber disapeared into the west.
At Medmenham the developing laboratory of the RAF Photo Interpretation Unit verified the news once more. The Germans were busily experimenting with something radically different from anything the Allies had in the air – probably rockets and rocket-propelled aircraft. And there was little doubt, the even, parallel streaks were burned by the flames from a twin-jet fighter.
The United States had no such weapons. Upon their entry into the war a high-level decision was made. Only a fraction of resources would be devoted to jet and rocket research. Time and men and money would be used to pour out and perfect more of what the yanks had going already. The huge production machine would be uninterrupted while the conflict lasted.
But with the news from Medmenham, added to the top of the pile of intelligence reports from other sources, General Hap Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces, appointed a special committee of scientists and engineers in the allied fields of aerodynamics to advise him on the future of aircraft weapons. He particularly asked the committee to think about the aircraft not only of tomorrow but of 20 years from then. To head his advisory committee he chose, on the advice of his close friend Robert Millikan of the California Institute of Technology, a member of Millikan’s staff, Dr. Theodore von Karman.
As head of Arnold’s Scientific Advisory board, von Karman, a long-time prober of supersonic and a strong advocate of applying its principles to design of aircraft, began to explore the possibilities of a truly supersonic aeroplane.
At the same time, the military services were demanding that manufacturers produce tactical aircraft capable of reaching speeds of 400 mph. The designers were handed the sizable task of moulding a shell sleek and strong enough to reach this speed with the available, puny reciprocating engine.
It was true, there was access to a jet engine. But it wasn’t much more powerful then the engines already available and it ate up twice the fuel. General Electric had put it together, at General Arnold’s request, from plans of the British Whittle engine brought secretly into the country by Arnold in 1941. Arnold gave the job of wrapping a frame around the G.E. turbo-jet attempt to the young and enterprising Bell Company.
The result was America’s first jet, the P-59. It flew valiantly enough late in 1942, but according to Arnold’s own account of the experimental ship, its “legs weren’t long enough” to successfully reach a target. The model never got into combat.
Arnold turned back into the “right-now” aircraft. He listened to the problems of the manufacturers who were successfully turning out the faster ships he had demanded. He talked to the combat pilots who flew the high-performing planes that were now coming off the line by the thousands.
“What can we do to improve performance?” he asked his fighter pilots.
“They’re pretty hot right now, sir. If you make them any faster we won’t be able to fly them. I drove my Mustang on an ME-109 last week … the controls froze up on me and she shook like a rivet handle. I couldn’t pull her out of it. I was a few thousand feet from the bottom before I could get the nose up.”
A new problem. In the aeroplanes that reached the 400-mile-an-hour mark demanded by the military, pilots, diving in combat, were running into the raw edge of the speed of sound (Mach 1), into the air-monster, “compressibility,” a phenomenon that eventually became more romantically known as the sound barrier.
The Germans and the Japs were not the only enemy that the fighter pilots had to face. There was the reef of the sound barrier, the dark area of speed where compressibility lurked to shake a plane to pieces or suck it out of control straight down into a hole in the ground.
An effect of high speed, compressibility was a phenomenon known to the aerodynamicists in theory for many years. Because of this phenomenon, it was generally agreed that flight at and beyond the speed of sound was impossible.
However, as a result of combat demands, aircraft had flown right into the monster and the scientists were caught with no answers. In order to get the answers, investigations into high speed were urgently needed. This need for all-out research into the unexplored area where compressibility lay was apparent to the aircraft industry, the Air Force, the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics, and the nation’s aeronautical research establishment, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics.
It also became apparent that new tools to investigate the area were needed. Methods of reaching speeds where compressibility could be studied just didn’t exist. Wind tunnels “choked” as speeds reached that of sound. Test pilots could dive into such transonic speeds, but it was too dangerous. There was only one answer: full-scale, high-speed experimental models fitted with instrumentation recording devices, to fly in nature’s big laboratory, the sky; aeroplanes that would do in level flight what had only been done in dives.
When things began to look pretty good in Europe, General Arnold became a champion of the “research-aeroplane” idea. By the end of 1943 the Navy, Air Force, and NACA held conferences at NACA headquarters in Washington to discuss the feasibility of such research aeroplanes.
Pursuing a slightly different course, Dr. von Karman’s Scientific Advisory Board had already stimulated the Air Force’s interest in the long-range research approach to a supersonic aeroplane. General F. O. Carroll, in informal sessions with manufacturers, had brought up the idea of such an aircraft, not so much as an exploratory tool as an attempt towards a conventional-operating ship capable of supersonic speed in actual flight. Douglas Aircraft Company picked up the challenge and with their own resources assigned their then-small research–design group to come up with something. The project became known as X-3.
A year later, toward the last days of the war, Germany got her V-1 rockets and her jet-powered ME-262 and rocket-propelled ME-163B into the air. But they were too late. They were a futile attempt, a final bid; and their appearance caused more wonder than destructions.
The war in Europe was over. It was then that the final decision was made to go ahead with the hurry-up research-aeroplanes program. Two projects were ordered: the Bell X-1, sponsored by the Air Force, and the Douglas D-558, sponsored by the Navy. Both projects were eventually to be tools that would enable NACA to find out all about high-speed flight.
The X-1, fitted with a rocket engine, was to fly briefly at transonic speed; while the D-558, using a turbo-jet engine, was designed to explore, for a longer period, in the high subsonic range.
On V-J Day a group of Navy, NACA, and Douglas engineers met in a conference room of the nearly deserted El Segundo plant to work out the details of the D-558. A year had passed since Ed Heineman’s El Segundo staff had been offered the idea of the original experimental research plane. In that time advantages of the swept-back wing in cutting down compressibility were picked up from Germany after V-E Day.
The Navy project became two aeroplanes: the Phase I straight-winged D-558 and the Phase II D-558. The D-558-II utilised the swept wing and, in addition to the turbo-jet engine, it was equipped with a rocket engine similar to that in the Bell X-1. She was named Skyrocket.
Sometime later the Air Force signed a contract with Douglas to go on investigating with their X-3 project the possibilities of a true supersonic aeroplane. The X-3 was eventually ordered in 1949, to be added to small stable of weird-shaped Navy and Air Force-sponsored research aeroplanes, seven in all, including the Bell X-2, the Northrop X-4, and the Bell X-5.
While the aeroplanes that were to blast into the new frontier of flight were gradually pushing their way into experience, I was beginning my piloting career on Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbour. After a year of training at Pensacola, my first official duty at the Navy Air Station was Officer of the Day. The day was December 7, 1941…
The morning had begun gently, warm and fragrant, like most Honolulu mornings. Then, one hour after I had taken the duty on the weekend-deserted base, Sunday exploded. At once I was no longer a shiny new ensign; the old chiefs promoted me, within minutes after the first bomb dropped through Number 3 hangar, to an equal, a comrade pitching in against an awesome catastrophe.
Until this morning I had been an onlooker, respectfully staring up at the United States Navy; she answered my needs, she did the thinking. I had been taught very thoroughly to fly; the rest, the matter of decision, would wear off on me slowly as I grew into the organisation.
It was disquieting to discover that the giant mother and father, the protector, needed me. If I felt any pride at being accepted, integrated all of a sudden, it was dampedened by the unsettling awareness that I was the Navy.
And now in the welcome dark, I huddled around the radio with the rest of the PBY squadron in the shelter of Number 2 hangar. We discussed vacantly the day we had lived through, and we waited for the Japs to return. The weary drone of conversation was interrupted occasionally by the arrival of trucks that rolled up mysteriously to pass out food, coffee, and, finally, saw-horses and planks that were to be used for cots. All was done that could be done – carbines had been passed and trenches had been dug. The wounded had been found and carried down to the BOQ. There was nothing more to do.
From the little radio before which we attentively sat came the familiar voice of a stateside news commentator. The sound of the voice at first was reassuring. It was the sound of home.
“We have lost the islands! We have backed up to the West Coast, where we will hold the enemy.”
At home they had given us up. Now there was no doubt at all in my mind that we were trapped. The voice that dismissed us was a voice of authority. One I had heard since I was in high school. He was announcing our defeat to us. There was no recourse now but to wait. I slept.
The rough board under my back, the darkness of the now-enforced blackout, the image of a thousand screaming little Jap troops, bayonets pointed, climbing onto Ford Island didn’t stop me from sleeping. Though I was now certain that Ford, a ship adrift headed for an iceberg, was helpless, I could escape into sleep.
0403 … it began. The ominous shrill of the sirens, 24 hours too late. The radar had picked up something – a squadron of Jap dive bombers or a seagull – and the sirens set off a warning.
Seven of us were ordered out into the predawn darkness from our wooden beds to look for the Japanese fleet. Out of 45 flying boats, only one PBY was capable of taking to the air.
I awoke as if a searchlight had flashed in my face. After a few hours’ sleep my body was restored to the point where weariness no longer acted as a buffer against fear. I remembered yesterday and I was afraid.
One plane was going out to look for the enemy. Out there in the blackness every gun in the Japanese fleet was waiting for us. Where was my other sock?
The fat PBY wallows in the black water, ready for the crew. Her belly is sunk deep with the heavy load of fuel that is required to get us 700 miles out over the water, 100 miles across, and 700 miles back. A big piece of pie cut out of the Pacific.
She begins to taxi down the water runway; a boat before us sweeps the broken pieces of Navy out of our path as we move slowly through the graveyard that is Pearl. We lift heavily from the water, low out of the harbour, over the awkward, looming projections of battleship carcasses. The canefields pass beneath us and we head out into the “piece of pie.”
Out of the wet darkness sliding by us the sun is rising and the search begins. The searches have little qualification for their mission. We are young, uninitiated, and bewildered. In a matter of hours, from an easy, unenterprising Navy life, we are dropped into the middle of war. We are to find the Jap fleet and report its position to the somewhat optimistic headquarters at Pearl.
On our wings we carry bombs that we have been ordered to drop on the Japanese fleet. Two machine guns are warmed up every 30 minutes by gunners who will fire at the squadrons of Jap carrier planes that will fly out at us when we sight their nest.
To break the monotony, which is added to by the vibration of the ship, the noise from the engines, the constant attention on our particular duty, we make bets on the degree of drift. Although we make a joke of it, we are afraid of getting lost.
The sun is high now, burning a white path in the metallic ocean, blistering the eyes of the watch. We are all the way out. We change course and head out on the leg across the “piece of pie.”
The constant flow of radio traffic is carefully decoded from a lead-bound decoded book. But the messages we break are not for us. Radio silence is kept with our home base – even that thin string of authority is cut from us. Back at Pearl they will send only to warn us of an attack.
We take a high-noon sight and the search is relieved by lunchtime. Coffee, turkey sandwiches, canned tomatoes; the meal unleashes nervous small talk.
Now we go back to our corners. We are on the way home. Just a half a day more of searching dutifully and finding nothing and maybe we will make it back, after all – that is, if we are still on course.
Radio silence is broken with a message to Pearl, a report on the patrol: NO HITS. NO RUNS. NO ERRORS.
Halfway back on the last 700 miles of the search, the sun has lowered over the empty, darkening sea. The heat in the vibrating plane is lessened, the anxiety of the crew is lessened – we have not found the Jap fleet, we’re going home. The enemy has evaporated.
It is night when we sight the unlighted harbour. Now all that remains between us and the small comforts that still remain on Ford is landing. To separate the land from the water, we look for the blackest area – that is the harbour.
Hanging over the water at night, it is impossible to judge distance. The pilot must rely on instruments entirely.
In the faint light of the cockpit we attentively watch the calculating dials on the instrument panel. Speed is set at 77 knots and we begin our gradual descent of 200 feet per minute from a mile out. We drop gradually, holding at 77 knots. There it is! The short hissing, shish … shish … shish … of the small waves as the water feels the keel skim through it. Throttles off! The belly drops down into the water, rocks gently; we taxi up to the figures on the ramp waiting to pull us on shore.
No hits. No runs. No errors.
On the Offensive
It had been almost two years since I had left Hawaii for uneventful, tedious duty in Australia, where I continued to search for the enemy in a PBY. And now, flying in from Sa Diego to Kaneohe on the windward side of Oahu, with the other members of the newly commissioned 109 Bombing Squadron, the island lay beneath me, healed up and bustling with the sure movements of offensive war. Under the roar of our starboard engines Pearl Harbour floated by, mended.
Things had altered since my last arrival, I had evolved from an obscure ensign into a lieutenant, j.g., and my fat, awkward flying boat had finally been replaced with a Goliath. Now I was the commander of the four-engine 4800-horsepower ship, something capable of going after the enemy.
Things had changed on the island too. At night it was ablaze with light. Over the field, beacon swords two miles high swept the sky. Honolulu wasn’t hiding from anything.
We were expecting orders to join our sister squadron already in the Ellice Islands, and so each week was lived as if it would be the last that girls, liquor, and sleep would be available.
The war was “somewhere out there” as the first month lagged into two, then three, months. The sun was hot and the surfing was good at Waikiki. Our lumbering ex-Air Force bombers sat polished and painted, newly dressed in Navy blue and fitted with typical Navy engineering – an added gun there, an extra armour plate, and the latest in long-range over-water navigation devices.
About 75 per cent of the crew that manned them were veterans, but everyone in the outfit was brand new to Lieutenant Commander Norman “Buzz” Miller’s first squadron. The duty that any of us had seen had been, for the most part, a pull-in-your-horns kind of duty, looking for the enemy, while hiding behinds clouds.
But now the day of the negative search was over. The battle of Midway had been fought and won, the offensive war had begun, and we waited in Honolulu for the day we would be ordered out to join it.