Cold War Era

The story of NASA F-8 Crusader Oblique Wing Test Aircraft that never was

Fortunately, the program was dropped before it got to the stage of actually configuring one of NASA’s F-8s with an oblique wing. Ascetically, it would have been a truly horrible thing to do to the “last of the gunfighters!”

One of the most capable fighters of the post-World War II era, the F-8 Crusader was a sleek design that featured a gaping jet intake beneath the fuselage and a variable-incidence wing that could be raised to enable the aircraft to land and takeoff at slow speeds while maintaining excellent visibility for the pilot. In an era in which fighter pilots relied increasingly on missiles, the Crusader retained 20mm cannon, prompting its pilots to call it the “Last of the Gunfighters.”

Crusaders flew their first combat missions triggering cameras instead of weapons as part of the photo reconnaissance flights over Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. F-8s also logged these missions as well as strike and combat air patrol flights throughout the Vietnam War, with Crusader pilots credited with the downing of eighteen enemy MiGs in aerial combat.

Several modified F-8s were also used by NASA in the early 1970s, proving the viability of both digital fly-by-wire technology (using data-processing equipment adapted from the Apollo Guidance Computer), as well as supercritical wing design.

An F-8 was almost used as test aircraft for the Oblique Wing concept too, as Read Admiral Paul T. Gillcrist explains in his book Crusader! : Last of the Gunfighters: ‘He had two strikes against him when he walked through the door of my office in the Pentagon. He was an acquaintance, not a friend, a retired, Crystal City Rear Admiral who admitted to be employed by Rockwell International and who was looking for a small amount of (10 million dollars) research and development money to develop the concept of the oblique wing. My office, Director, Aviation Plans and Programs (OP-50) had something to say about how and where Navy are R&D dollars were spent. But, the artist’s sketch he carried was the thing that did him in. And, the sad thing is that he didn’t even know it!

‘Not surprisingly, the airframe of choice for the test bed for the oblique wing was the F-8. For the same reason as the supercritical wing flight test program (ease of removal and reinstallation of the wing) the F-8 was chosen. The concept of the oblique wing was new then, in 1982, and it is, I believe, an off-shoot of the X wing concept. The wing pivots around the vertical axis, the tip of the left wing, as an example, would sweep aft while the tip of the right wing swept forward. It achieves the same effect as wing sweeping in the conventional sense with a greatly diminished engineering penalty in terms of weight, complexity and cost. Its only problems are that it looks like hell, it is asymmetric and it is terribly unconventional.

F-8 Crusader Oblique Wing Test Aircraft

‘He must have caught me in a weak moment because I agreed to “donate” the dollars which I then had to steal from another funded program. My staff was furious at me . . . but then, that was not a new circumstance. The Navy money, along with a defense advanced research projects agency (DARPA) contribution permitted initial work to proceed at the national aeronautics and space administration (NASA) Hugh L. Dryden Flight Research Facility at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

‘A remotely piloted vehicle (RPV), called the AD-1 Low-Speed Oblique-Wing Research Aircraft was built as a proof-of-concept and flown successfully. Wind tunnel tests had shown potential performance benefits transonically and supersonically when an oblique-wing aircraft was compared with an equivalent variable sweep aircraft. ‘The approach was to build a small, low cost manned research vehicle. NASA contracted to build a foam-and-fiberglass piloted via aircraft powered by two ducted fan turbine engines. This low cost, low speed, manned vehicle made significant contributions to oblique wing technology. Probably more significant than the stability for and control data which were gathered in this project were the handling qualities data obtained.

‘Pilots flew the aircraft to wing-skew angles of 60 degrees in the cruise configuration and landed at angles of up to 45 degrees. This unaugmented aircraft provided valuable information on the effects of cross coupling on handling qualities. Although skew effects were most dramatic during the first 45 degrees of skew angle, pilots found cross coupling effects fairly minor in this regime. Between 45 and 60 degrees, however, the cross coupling effects became significant in maneuvering flight.

‘The AD-1 showed that the return on investment can be very high for small and inexpensive flight research vehicles. Although very limited in scope, such vehicles can address specific flight regimes, flight configurations, and flight dynamics issues, and provide a credible data base that includes data on pilot-vehicle interface as well as stability and control characteristics. The data from the AD-1 program represents the predominant source of flight data for skew-wing technology in the low speed flight regime.

‘Fortunately, the program was dropped before it got to the stage of actually configuring one of NASA’s F-8s with an oblique wing. Ascetically, it would have been a truly horrible thing to do to the “last of the gunfighters!”’

Crusader! : Last of the Gunfighters is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-8C Crusader VF-84 Jolly Rogers, AG200 / 145559 / 1962

Photo credit: NASA and Secret Projects Forum

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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