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Douglas X-3 (Stiletto)

Research Aircraft

United States | 1952

"Designed to collect data on supersonic speeds up to Mach 2, the Douglas X-3 Stiletto proved more or less a failure in that respect - only a single aircraft being completed."

Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited: 05/31/2016 | Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com | The following text is exclusive to this site; No A.I. was used in the generation of this content.
The Douglas X-3 existed purely as a research aircraft, designed to study the barrier of sustained, supersonic jet-powered flight at speeds of Mach 2. During the 1940s, the jet engine continued to grow as a viable propulsion system for military aircraft. The alternative was rocket power but these systems were fuel-hungry and of limited tactical scope concerning fighters/interceptors. The turbojet suffered from some of the same limitations and this, in turn, would limit the range and performance of many designs of the post-war period. Consideration was given to hybrid-powered aircraft which retained use of a propeller-turning engine coupled with a rocket or turbojet engine for an increased boost. However, these did not reveal any dramatic performance benefits against the best piston-powered, propeller driven fighters of World War 2 and thereafter.

By the late 1940s, jets continued their evolution to the point that the next major conflict would give rise to the first jet-versus-jet duels in the skies over the Korean Peninsula. From the Korean War came the North American F-86 Sabre and Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 "Fagot" fighters as well as other well-known types. Despite their sleek designs and jet propulsion systems, these aircraft were only able to reach Mach 1 speeds in a dive. What was sought were aircraft who could perform faster in a sustained way and go beyond the Mach 1 ceiling to stay there.

The X-3 followed such famous mounts as the Bell X-1 for the Americans. The new design was born from the work of Fancis Clauser, Schuyler Kleinhans, and Baily Oswald and became one of the most unique and easily identifiable research craft of the 1950s. The finalized design incorporated a fuselage just slim enough to house the necessary 2 x Westinghouse J34 afterburning turbojets in a side-by-side arrangement as well as the requisite fuel stores, control systems, undercarriage and cockpit. The main wing appendages could therefore be left quite short in length and of a straight design approach, their thin chords providing the least amount of resistance possible. The tail section was an extended piece of the fuselage and mounted very small-area tailplanes. The cockpit was embedded into the rounded fuselage with the canopy well-integrated while offering limited vision for the pilot. At the front, the aircraft came to a very sharp point in keeping with the X-3's sleek design. The aircraft was also given a retractable tricycle undercarriage which allowed it to taxi, take-off and land on its own without the need for a mothership to launch it. The X-3 was notable for being one of the first aircraft to utilize titanium in its construction.

Due to its highly unorthodox, rather futuristic shape, the X-3 became known as the "Stiletto" due to its dagger-like appearance.

The United States Air Force commissioned for two flyable X-3 aircraft during June of 1945 (World War 2 would end in August of that year). Manufacture of the pair was then formally approved during June of 1949. Initially, the program sought use of 2 x Westinghouse J46 afterburning turbojets outputting at 6,600lbs thrust each but these were eventually replaced by the lower-thrust Westinghouse J34 of 4,850lbs thrust (each) when the expected J46s could not meet the program demands. Nevertheless, work on the X-3 proceeded into the early 1950s to which the first aircraft made a first flight on October 15th, 1952 across a dry lakebed during a high-speed taxiing run. In December of 1953, the aircraft was passed on to the United States Air Force for further flights.

By this time, many shortcomings in the X-3 were revealed. Chief among these was the X-3s lack of power which degraded performance. Pilots cited poor controlling as well, making the X-3 something of a lethal aircraft to fly for any period. Indeed, the design failed to net the expected Mach 2 speeds in sustained flight and only ever was able to reach the maximum speed of Mach 1.2 through a 30-degree dive. Even the Mach 1.0 barrier proved elusive, the X-3 required to enter a 15-degree dive. More or less a failure of its test program, the X-3 was retired in short order. Its final flight occurred on May 23rd, 1956 (for a total of 51 flights) and the planned second X-3 was never completed. The sole X-3 then became a museum showpiece at the United States Air Force Museum of Dayton, Ohio.

Despite it never achieving its program goals, the X-3 provided valuable research data in the area of "inertia coupling", a lethal aerodynamic load concentration phenomena that could endanger both aircraft and crew in seconds (this phenomena led to delays in brining the famous North American F-100 Super Sabre into being). The X-3's razor-thin wings also influenced those seen on the upcoming Lockheed F-104 "Starfighter" which utilized similar short, slim "wing-stubs" in its configuration.

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Power & Performance
Those special qualities that separate one aircraft design from another. Performance specifications presented assume optimal operating conditions for the Douglas X-3 (Stiletto) Research Aircraft.
2 x Westinghouse J34 turbojet with afterburner developing 4,850 lb thrust each.
699 mph
1,125 kph | 607 kts
Max Speed
38,058 ft
11,600 m | 7 miles
Service Ceiling
497 miles
800 km | 432 nm
Operational Range
City-to-City Ranges
Operational range when compared to distances between major cities (in KM).
The nose-to-tail, wingtip-to-wingtip physical qualities of the Douglas X-3 (Stiletto) Research Aircraft.
66.6 ft
20.30 m
O/A Length
22.6 ft
(6.90 m)
O/A Width
12.5 ft
(3.80 m)
O/A Height
16,094 lb
(7,300 kg)
Empty Weight
23,810 lb
(10,800 kg)
Design Balance
The three qualities reflected below are altitude, speed, and range. The more full the box, the more balanced the design.
Notable series variants as part of the Douglas X-3 (Stiletto) family line.
X-3 - Base Series Designation; two aircraft ordered with only one being completed and flown.
Global customers who have evaluated and/or operated the Douglas X-3 (Stiletto). Nations are displayed by flag, each linked to their respective national aircraft listing.

Total Production: 1 Units

Contractor(s): Douglas Aircraft Company - USA
National flag of the United States

[ United States ]
Relative Max Speed
Hi: 750mph
Lo: 375mph
Aircraft Max Listed Speed (699mph).

Graph Average of 563 MPH.
Era Crossover
Pie graph section
Showcasing Aircraft Era Crossover (if any)
Max Alt Visualization
Small airplane graphic
Production Comparison
Entry compared against Ilyushin IL-2 (military) and Cessna 172 (civilian) total production.
MACH Regime (Sonic)
RANGES (MPH) Subsonic: <614mph | Transonic: 614-921 | Supersonic: 921-3836 | Hypersonic: 3836-7673 | Hi-Hypersonic: 7673-19180 | Reentry: >19030
Aviation Timeline
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Image of the Douglas X-3 (Stiletto)
Image courtesy of the USAF Museum, Dayton, Ohio, USA.
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Image of the Douglas X-3 (Stiletto)
Image courtesy of NASA image archives.
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Image of the Douglas X-3 (Stiletto)
Image courtesy of NASA image archives.
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Image of the Douglas X-3 (Stiletto)
Image courtesy of NASA image archives.
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Image of the Douglas X-3 (Stiletto)
Image courtesy of NASA image archives.
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Image of the Douglas X-3 (Stiletto)
Image courtesy of NASA image archives.
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Image of the Douglas X-3 (Stiletto)
Image courtesy of NASA image archives.
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Image of the Douglas X-3 (Stiletto)
Image courtesy of NASA image archives.

Mission Roles
Some designs are single-minded in their approach while others offer a more versatile solution to airborne requirements.
Some designs stand the test of time while others are doomed to never advance beyond the drawing board; let history be their judge.
Going Further...
The Douglas X-3 (Stiletto) Research Aircraft appears in the following collections:
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