As the emerging theme this week is hypersonics, what with the reference to the Shenlong and the upload to the Virtual Library of a comprehensive 3-volume history of the US hypersonic effort from the X-15 through the NASP, reader and frequent correspondent Thommy Thomason joins the scene as a guest author of this week’s Flightdeck Friday.  The subject?  The D-558-III Skyrocket.  The D-558-III?  Well, we’ll let him explain.  Oh, and see the box at the end for a special notice too…

“D-558-3” is commonly used to identify the proposed Douglas hypersonic research aircraft follow-on to their successful D-558-1 Skystreak and D-558-2 Skyrocket program. Although the designation doesn’t officially exist, that hasn’t hindered its use by aviation historians and others to refer to two somewhat different Douglas designs, the Model 671 and 684. What’s more, the name “Skyflash” is sometimes used in conjunction with the D-558-3 designation but appears to have even less validity.

The original D-558 type name came from the Navy’s practice in the 1940s for identifying aircraft types that they procured for purely experimental reasons and that did not already have a military or civil type identification. In those cases, the Navy simply gave the aircraft a designation that combined the Navy’s letter for the manufacturer with the manufacturer’s internal model number for the design.

For example, the Vought skimmer demonstrator for the F5U program was the V-173 and the swept-wing P-63s that the Navy bought were referred to as L-39s, L being the Navy’s manufacturing letter for the Bell Aircraft Corporation. In the case of the D-558, the D stood for Douglas and 558 was the Douglas model number for the design originally proposed for the Navy’s high-speed research aircraft program. The –1 and –2 differentiated the two types that resulted from the first two phases of the program.

Manufacturers use model numbers for their own internal records, typically assigning each of their designs a number, not always sequential but sometimes actually begun with “1” denoting their first. Not all of these designs are built, of course, and some companies keep two different lists, one for predesign studies and another of projects that have been committed to detail design and fabrication. For marketing reasons, model numbers of committed projects are often not sequential but are based on some hoped for association, the Bell Helicopter Model 209, 309 and 409 gun ships, for example. In some cases what appears to be a Model number, e.g. Boeing 707, is not actually the model number, which was “367-80”, explaining why the prototype was referred to as the “Dash 80”. Design study numbers tend to be sequential since they are assigned by engineering as the need to document a project for future reference arises. 

Although there was a third phase in the original 1945 Navy contract with Douglas that resulted in the D-558s, it was for a full-scale mockup of an operational jet fighter, not a third research aircraft type. As it turned out, the mockup requirement was cancelled and the aircraft requirements and specifications contained in the first two phases were considerably revised. The D-558-3 designation has persisted, however, if for no other reason than the direct lineage back to the D-558-1 and –2 research aircraft programs of the follow-on work that did not result in a new contract.

The last of the three D-558-2 Skyrockets was completed in 1949. By November 1953, one of them had been flown to the highest altitude and highest speed that the type was to achieve, both records at the time but soon to be bettered during X-1 flights. The only follow-on high-speed rocket aircraft program at the time was the troubled X-2, and while it would eventually exceed 100,000 feet and Mach 3, the USAF, U.S. Navy and NACA were all interested in going much higher and faster.

In 1954, the Office of Naval Research contracted with Douglas for a predesign study of the next generation of rocket-powered research aircraft, to determine what altitudes were attainable (1,000,000 feet was desired) and recommend design and test requirements. The resulting design has been informally referred to as the D-558-3, in recognition of it being the next Douglas high-performance research aircraft, but was in fact designated by Douglas as their Model 671.

It bore a family resemblance to both D-558 types, combining a straight wing and empennage similar to the –1’s with a fuselage like the rocket powered –2’s. Relatively little detail design definition was provided for the aircraft, however, since it wasn’t required for the purpose of the study. Only enough detail was created to communicate the design concept and make approximate weight, performance and program cost projections. The report stated that configuration changes would likely result as the design evolved.

Among other things, Douglas concluded that while climbing to 1,000,000 feet was doable, pulling out of the subsequent dive was not, the profile closely resembling that of a lawn dart thrown almost vertically. They projected a maximum altitude of 700,000 feet was achievable and on a different flight profile, a maximum speed on the order of Mach 7, assuming success with evaluation of temperature-resistant materials. Other conclusions closely described the actual X-15 program activity.

The USAF and NACA were also considering manned, rocket-powered, hypersonic aircraft projects, the former a Super X-2 and the latter, what eventually became the X-15. Of the three projects, the USAF was the most modest in performance goals and the Navy, the most ambitious but focused on altitude with speed as a literal fallout. The NACA project was intent on achieving Mach 7.

In December 1954, the NACA, Air Force, and Navy agreed to undertake joint development of the proposed hypersonic research aircraft. The performance goals were 250,000 feet in altitude and 6,600 feet per second, roughly Mach 6.7. In January 1955 it received the designation X-15. That same month, the Air Force (which administered the design and construction phases of the project) held the first briefings for potential contractors. This culminated in a competition involving Bell, Douglas, North American, and Republic, their proposals being submitted on 9 May 1955.

Although the design requirements had not changed significantly from the ONR study and the same engine was used, the Douglas proposal only superficially resembled the Model 671 and was given a different Model Number, 684. It was somewhat bigger in every dimension, with the horizontal tail relocated and a ventral fin added, and much greater detail was provided than for the Model 671. The engine remained the same.

The Navy’s George Spangenberg was very impressed by the Douglas proposal for the X-15 program, particularly the innovative way that they met the airframe heating problem with a light weight structure, using magnesium instead of the expected steel. The Model 684 was either a close second, tied for first, or first, depending on how the evaluation data was added up and which agency was polled. However, North American used the preferred basic structural approach, a steel derivative, and was announced the winner on September 30, 1955.

Neither the 1954 Douglas study that described the Model 671 nor the 1955 Douglas proposal of the Model 684 for the X-15 program mention “D-558-3” although they both refer to the D-558-1 and –2. In the unlikely event that the Navy had proceeded with an independent high-performance rocket plane program with Douglas in 1955, it is possible that it would have been designated the D-558-3 in recognition of its heritage, rather than whatever Model number the design might have had at Douglas. In fact, it is likely that the D-558-2, and maybe even the D-558-1, had a different Douglas model number than 558.

Of course if the Douglas proposal of the Model 684 had been selected in the 1955 competition, it would have been called the X-15, not the D-558-3, since that designation has already been identified for the winning design.

Douglas management did have hopes for a hypersonic successor to the D-558s and their lead engineer called it the D-558-3, at least after the fact. In his 1980 book, Combat Aircraft Designer, written with Rosario Rausa, Ed Heinemann includes a chapter on the D-558s and describes the 1953 effort to sell a new research aircraft to the Navy and the resulting 1954 ONR study in some detail, mostly referring to the aircraft as the D-558-3 but also identifying it as the Model 671. He not only doesn’t mention its successor on the Douglas drawing boards, the Model 684, he implies that Douglas did not compete for the X-15 program. The name “Skyflash” is also notable for its complete absence, even in the summary table that lists the D-558-1 and –2 and their popular names along with the D-558-3 but with no name.

See also Dennis Jenkins: Hypersonic! The Story of the X-15

U.S. NAVAL AIR SUPERIORITY: Development of Shipborne Jet Fighters 1943-1962
by Tommy H. Thomason

As World War II came to a close, piston-powered fighter aircraft were at their zenith, and Navy fighters, such as the Grumman F6F Hellcat and Vought Corsair, dominated the skies over the Pacific. As these fighter designs reached their peak, a new propulsion technology was being developed that held great promise. When introduced, the first jet aircraft were underpowered, and in many ways inferior to propeller-driven aircraft of the time. Naval Air Superiority examines the Navy’s internal struggle to adapt the jet engine to its style of warfare as well as the development and evolution of carrier-borne fighters and their airframes and engines, from the closing days of World War II through Vietnam.
For the first time, U.S. Naval Air Superiority profiles the turbulent design and development stage of the Navy’s carrier-based jet fighter program. From the successful designs, such as the Fury, Banshee, Crusader, and Phantom II, to the also-rans, like the Fireball, Demon, Pirate, and Cutlass, the Navy’s needs are measured against contractor and political demands and the limits of the evolving engine and aerodynamic technologies of the day.
This book includes engine cut-aways, aircraft comparison diagrams, and details the safety improvements made to aircraft carriers to enable higher speed and high-gross-weight jet operations.


10 x 10"
276 pages
200 b/w and 100 color photos and 50 technical drawings
ISBN 10: 1-58007-110-4
ISBN 13: 978-1-58007-110-9
Item # SP11

We look forward to Thommy’s book – the topic is obviously a favorite given the thrust of this column, but the period is one that bears a close look.  Transformation is a word that gets tossed around a lot inside the Beltway (well, at least it was under the last SECDEF), but if you want to look at a truly transformational period, look to the period covered by this book.  in less than 20 years we went from F6F’s flying off wooden, straight-deck Essex-class carriers to Mach 2+ F4 Phantoms flying off a nuclear powered carrier.  Heady times indeed.  Of course it helps that one of the Scribe’s all time favorites, the Fabulous F4D, is on the cover (note the wooden deck).  – SJS

1 Comment

  1. Ran Barton

    I have always admired the D-558 program, and am embarrassed to have never heard of the -3 as a possibility. Thank you for writing this up.

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