Flying the Ford:
Compared to the other aircraft of the era, the Ford was a very maneuverable fighter, featuring an incredible roll rate. With light wing loading it could handle high a conditions without the need for aerodynamic assists like leading edge slats, making for a fairly clean wing. One Navy test pilot who flew the Skyray said that Air Force chase-plane pilots were desperate to find a USAF machine that could out-turn it. Indeed, the XF4D could maintain a 3+g turn in level flight at 40,000 ft when its contemporaries struggled for 2g.
Nevertheless, flying the F4D proved to be a handful – in part from the tailless design, period control theory and design practice (e.g., The prototype was configured with hydraulically operated elevons but a mechanically operated rudder). A problematic issue with transonic pitch trim change took over four years to fix and handling that some reported “bordered on the bizarre” put the Ford in the varsity league for aviators. In the hands of a skilled pilot it displayed promise (realized in the canceled follow-on F5D Skylancer), but could be a handful for a relatively inexperienced pilot. Modern digital fly-by-wire flight control systems would have tamed the Skyray, even exploited its instability to optimize maneuverability, but such things were almost unimaginable in its day. In fact, the Navy’s test pilot school retained an example through the early 1960’s to provide a flying lab for new test pilots for something that flew “different” than the normal fleet aircraft they were used to.
The F4D also had a number of difficulties common among jet fighters of its generation. The cockpit was an ergonomic nightmare, with pilots complaining that the stick blocked the view of the radar display (itself lowered to improve visibility over the nose during a carrier approach). In typical fleet workaround fashion, one Navy ground crewman lifted two small mirrors from his wife and fitted them into a cardboard frame, making a periscope that enabled the pilot to see the radar screen over the top of the stick. This scheme worked so well that the Navy ordered construction of a formal periscope with a plastic housing, and installed them in Fords in service as standard gear.
The F4D’s range left something to be desired — it was always flown with external tanks — and the reliability of its weapons, again a hallmark of aircraft of that era, was poor. The weapon system was actually pretty good at getting the F4D into position, but the notorious accuracy of the unguided folding fin rockets left the fighter without a punch. Pilots had no confidence in unguided rocket packs for interception. The folding-fin rockets jinked around like crazy until the fins deployed, and the usual comment was “it was a wonder anybody could hit anything with them.” Attacks on target drones apparently bore this out.
The Ford’s interceptor qualities (namely an unmatched climbing ability) were formally recognized when VF(AW)-3 was “chopped” to NORAD for continental defense. Flying out of San Diego, the squadron’s aircraft were painted in one of the better recognized schemes in an era of already colorful Naval aircraft. As the only Navy squadron, VFAW-3 twice won NORAD’s trophy for best performing unit, placing above USAF squadrons in the process. During this time, VFAW-3 was deployed to Key West for the Cuban Missile crisis. That and a deployment to Taiwan in 1958 were the nearest the Ford would get to combat action.
Eventually events conspired against the Ford – a shift towards multi-purpose aircraft as embodied by the new F4H Phantom and cancellation of a follow-on (F5D Skylancer) in favor of the F8U Crusader brought the Ford line to an end. A total of 419 production F4D-1s were built, the last was delivered on December 22, 1958. At least 230 others were cancelled. In September 1962, the F4D-1 was re-designated the F-6A under the new tri-service designation system, but was in service with only 4 frontline squadrons, all shore-based. The last active duty squadron to fly the Ford was VMF(AW)-542 in November 1963. The last Ford left service in February 1964.
Because of its climb capabilities, the Ford participated in some extraordinary programs, including a couple of which attempted to place a satellite into space from a rocket launched off the Skyray.
The first such project was the NOTSNIK project, designed and developed in early 1958 by engineers at the Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) at China Lake. They proposed to build a very small multi-stage air-launched satellite launch vehicle using existing solid-propellant rockets. To obtain funding, they proposed to orbit a small instrumented satellite to make measurements during high-altitude nuclear tests (Project Argus) planned for August 1958. Development was approved, and the program was officially named Project Pilot. However, it is better known as NOTSNIK, a combination of “NOTS” and “Sputnik”. The vehicle itself was also designated the NOTS-EV-1.
A five stage system (technically six if you count the launch aircraft), all attempted Pilot launches used the F4D as the launch aircraft, which carried the vehicle on an under wing pylon. Launch followed a zoom-climb at 50 degree angle, with release near the top of the arc (41,000 ft) at 400 kts. Multiple stages would eventually place the very small payload (an 8-in diameter, very primitive IR line-scanning imager) into orbit with a perigee at 1400 miles.
That, at least, was the concept. Practice was another matter. Two ground launch and five air were attempted – none, save possibly the second, were successful. On that second shot, some ground stations claimed to have picked up a weak signal, but nothing could be verified.
The NOTSNIK program was cancelled in Aug 1958 and replaced by the Caleb project.
The CALEB vehicle (NOTS-EV-2) was designed as an air-launched four-stage all-solid rocket vehicle capable of orbiting tiny satellites. The stages were a NOTS-500, an ABL X-248, a NOTS-100A and a small spherical NOTS motor. A casualty of inter-service rivalry (the orbital Caleb program was cancelled under pressure from the USAF which wanted to monopolize the satellite launching program) Caleb continued for suborbital missions. The first test launch, with one live stage only, occurred on 28 July 1960 from an F4D-1 Skyray aircraft, successfully placing an object in a sub-orbital trajectory. Further refinement/development was continued under the Hi-hoe program, using the McDonnell F4H and placed an object into a suborbital flight with a 725-mile high perigee.
* Performance: Maximum speed 722 mph at sea level, 695 mph at 36,000 feet. Cruising speed 520 mph. Initial climb rate 18,300 feet per minute. Service ceiling 55,000 feet. Combat ceiling 51,000 feet. Landing speed 134 mph. Normal range 700 miles, maximum range 1200 miles.
* Weights: 16,024 pounds empty, 22,648 pounds combat, 25,000 pounds gross, 27,116 pounds maximum.
* Internal fuel capacity: 640 US gallons; w/2 x 150- or 300-US gallon drop tanks total maximum fuel capacity was 1240 US gallons.
Examples may be found in many locations, but the best example is found in the National Museum of Naval Aviation, located in Pensacola, Fl. If you haven’t been there yet — you owe it to yourself to put this branch of the Smithsonian Institute’s holdings on your travel itinerary.
* Francillon, René J. MCDONNELL DOUGLAS Volume 1: Douglas Aircraft 1920–1997, Revised.
* Thomason, Tommy. U.S. Naval Air Superiority: Delevelopment of Shipborne Jet Fighters – 1943-1962
Plus several out-of print periodicals, monographs and books in the author’s private collection