Nicknamed "flying stovepipe" or "crimson test tube", the D558-1 seems coming right from a 1947 "Flash Gordon" strip, but has actually been designed by Douglas Aircraft as a transsonic speeds research tool for the first phase of a NACA / US NAVY joint venture program (the second phase would later allow the first time at Mach 2 with D558-2 "Skyrocket")
The first of 3 units produced officially took off for the first time on 5 may 1947 in hands of Douglas senior test pilot Gene May, from Muroc Dry Lake, California.
On 20 august 1947, it broke the world speed record at 640.633 mph - Mach 0.825 flown by NAVY CDR Turner Caldwell, followed 4 days later by USMC LTCOL Marion Carl, at 650.606 mph - Mach 0.828.
Like most postwar high performance experimental aircraft, the D558-1 was seriously hazardous to fly with a good deal of hairy times to be faced by its pilots. On 3 May 1948, the General Electric TG-180 engine compressor desintegrated when just airborne, destructing pitch control cables, which didn't give any chance to NACA test pilot Howard Lilly to survive in the seconds later's crash.
Held by history as "the aircraft that lost the race to first time beyond sound speed" (on 14 october 1947 with Bell X-1 and an USAF team), mainly due to a more "conservative" design and testing than its challenger, it eventually broke the famous barrier on 29 september 1948 for the only time of its career. Nevertheless, It remains a key factor for postwar high speed research as it allowed to collect precious data for more than 6 years.
Released in 1989 by MEIKRAFT, this injected multimedia kit is not very difficult to build and is basically accurate, except for the main wheel bays which are not close enough from each other. The finely engraved parts require however a thorough cleaning and sanding, the fuselage halves lack of symetry and quite a bit of filling and sanding when assembled. A lot af trying and a bit of surgery are needed for the landing gear to obtain an aircraft horizontal pitch when standing on ground.
2 vacformed, but different, canopies, a good decal sheet and comprehensive historic data and drawings allow to build any of the many different variants of this testbed aircraft.
I used the excellent "Naval Fighters" n°56 by Scott Libis as main technical and historic reference, which is fully dedicated to the D558-1 and include some beautiful 1947 color pics.
My model is representing an early aircraft with red livery (later painted white for better high range visibility in the Californian pure sky), the "X15 fashion" canopy (very first flights with a more fragile bubble canopy), the big "Skystreak" logo, and a scrathbuilt tailpipe extension (shortly removed due to cracks on the real airplane). It is painted with Humbrol 174 "signal red" to consider scale effect and sun alteration, the real color being reported as "scarlet" or "crimson", but as well as for its challenger, the Bell X-1, a large debate can take place on that subject...
As a side note to this article.....there is a restored D-558-1 Skystreak at the Carolinas Historic Aviation Commission (CHAC). I am a member of the CHAC, which is located in one of the original hangers at the northeast corner of Charlotte Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, NC. The aircraft was restored and dedicated a year or so ago with Scott Crossfield, who was one of the pilots, in attendance. The aircraft is finished in the white scheme with the restoration being done by some of our talented members (which doesn't include me). Just thought you might like to know.
Photos and text © by Alex Bigey