Friendly interservice rivalries in the United States aren’t uncommon, and they were just as standard in the 1950s. Particularly among pilots who were always trying to one-up each other as it was. At Edwards Air Force Base, where the hottest planes were put through their paces, things got particularly competitive as men tried to score records as much for themselves as for their branch of the service. Between Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager and Navy aviator Scott Crossfield, there was a battle to be the first to Mach 2.
The aircraft at Edwards were sponsored by the military. The Bell built X-1 in which Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947 was co-sponsored by the U.S. Air Force and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. In 1953, the Navy-sponsored Douglas D-558 Skyrocket arrived at Edwards. Scott Crossfield, a Navy trained pilot flying for the NACA at the time, saw the Skyrocket as a chance to secure a flight record for the Navy in a Navy-based plane. And he wanted to make that flight.
But Crossfield didn’t have free reign to just take the Skylancer up and push it through Mach 2. No pilot did. Hugh Dryden was the director of Aeronautical Research at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and he had the final say in how far an NACA pilot could push an aircraft. Dryden placed a restriction on the Skyrocket specifically; no pilot could take it to Mach 2.
Undaunted, Crossfield appealed to someone who might see his point of view: “Perk” Perkins, the Navy’s liaison at Edwards. Crossfield knew Yeager was going to push the Bell X-1A, an advanced version of the X-1, to Mach 2, and he knew the Skyrocket could hit Mach 2 faster. He urged Perkins to press the Navy to lean on Dryden to lift the ban on flying the Skyrocket past Mach 2. It was a circuitous way to go, and potentially professionally disastrous, but it paid off. A week later Dryden called Edwards’ director Walt Williams to say the Mach 2 ban on the Skyrocket was lifted and Crossfield had one shot for the flight..
Friday, November 20, 1953, dawned cold and blustery in the desert. Crossfield, shivering,and flu-ridded, arrived at Edwards before sunrise. He was less worries about his health and more concerned with the Skyrocket’s. He had to perform for a few minutes, but he was going to ask a lot from the aircraft in that time.
Though Crossfield though he could push it, the Skyrocket wasn’t designed for supersonic flight. In 1953 it was already an older design that was significantly unstable at Mach 1.8, the fastest anyone had flown it and already well beyond its design limits. The Skyrocket, like the X-1 and X-1A, was air launched from a motherplane so all its fuel could be used on the powered supersonic flight. It also flew fairly high, above 50,000 feet to take advantage of the thinner atmosphere.
But that wasn’t the only trick to squeeze a little more speed and power out the aircraft. Crossfield and ground crews had figured out some tricks while working with the Skyrocket. Shooting superchilled liquid oxygen through the engine right before it was launched from underneath a motherplane to help it perform a little better. Crossfield had also, through trial and error, figured out the right sequence in which to light the engine’s barrels to get the most power out of all four. But nothing could help push the Skyrocket past Mach 2 like carrying a little more fuel, and they even had a trick for that: they filled the Skyrocket with liquid oxygen four or five hours before the flight and let it “settle.” Called cold-soaking, the process stretched the fuselage and they were able to squeeze a few more pounds of fuel in the tank. The launch crew had perfected a method for topping off the liquid oxygen tank right before releasing the Skyrocket so Crossfield would be able to burn all the fuel in his tank. Crossfield even had the ground crew wax and polish the Skyrocket’s fuselage so it would slice right through the air. He was going to everything he could think of to squeeze every last knot out of the flight.
After an hour and a half ascent, Crossfield was at his launch altitude of 32,000 feet. When the motherplane’s pilot dropped the small rocket plane, Crossfield lit all four rocket barrels in rapid sequence to begin a smooth ascent into the thinner upper atmosphere. He’d calculated that he had 200 seconds of powered flight for his run at Mach 2, and getting the most of the short time meant following a very precise parabolic flight path. To make sure he didn’t deviate in the slightest – any deviation could cost him precious energy – he kept his eyes trained on his instruments.
The Skyrocket rose to 72,000 feet before Crossfield pitched over for a slight downward flight, rocket engine still blazing. The cold soak had done the trick. The Skyrocket’s engine burned for a full 207 seconds and Crossfield picked up just enough speed. Glancing at his Machmeter, he saw the needle edged over the 2.0 mark and linger at Mach 2.04.
Crossfield had done it. Just barely, but he’d passed Mach 2.
Starved for fuel, the rocket barrels abruptly shut down. The Skyrocket slowed suddenly to Mach 1.8 in the thicker air, throwing Crossfield forward against his seat restraints. Now silent, he aircraft eased through the transonic region – the turbulent area between Mach 0.8 and Mach 1.2 – before settling into a subsonic glide. All that was left was for Crossfield to make a smooth landing on the dry lakebed. He managed to land right on target; he often boasted unpowered or deadstick landings were his specialty. The whole flight, from launch to landing, had lasted just 12 minutes.
The next day, Crossfield went to the Statler-Hilton hotel in Los Angeles for a press conference. A gaggle of reporters wanted details about the flight and how it felt to be the fastest man alive.
Crossfield thought through the question. What could he say, in a nice tidy soundbite, to sum up the experience? Say that he didn’t believe in setting records but in testing new designs? That it took a lifetime of training and careful planning to fly the profile for the flight? That he wanted to stick it to Yeager and beat him into the history books as the first man to Mach 2?
“Well, if you want to know the truth,” he told the room at large, “I didn’t feel good yesterday. I had the flu. A real bellyache.”
Of course, that was the soundbite reporters picked up on. That night, Crossfield picked up a local Los Angeles newspaper and saw the headline: “Pilot Flies Mach 2 and Gets Bellyache.”
A. Scott Crossfield with Clay Blair, Jr. Always Another Dawn: The Story of a Rocket Test Pilot. World Publishing Company. 1960.