14 December 1959

Captain Joe Bailey Jordan, U.S. Air Force, in the cockpit of his record-setting Lockheed F-104C Starfighter. (U.S. Air Force)
Captain Joe Bailey Jordan, U.S. Air Force, in the cockpit of his record-setting Lockheed F-104C Starfighter. (U.S. Air Force)

14 December 1959: Air Force test pilot Captain Joe Bailey Jordan, United States Air Force, established a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Altitude in a Turbojet Aircraft, breaking a record set only 8 days before by Commander Lawrence E. Flint, Jr., U.S. Navy, flying the number two prototype McDonnell YF4H-1 Phantom II, Bu. No. 142260.¹

Lockheed F-104C-5-LO Starfighter 56-885. (U.S. Air Force)
Lockheed F-104C-5-LO Starfighter 56-885. (U.S. Air Force)

Flying a slightly modified Lockheed F-104C-5-LO Starfighter, 56-885, (the aft fuselage had been replaced by one from a two-place F-104B, which had larger tail surfaces), Jordan released the brakes at Edwards Air Force Base, and 15 minutes, 4.92 seconds later he reached 30,000 meters (98,425 feet) establishing an Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world record for time-to-altitude.² The Starfighter continued the zoom climb profile, peaking at 103,389 feet (31,513 meters) ³ and going over the top at 455 knots (843 kilometers per hour). While accelerating for the zoom maneuver, Jordan’s F-104 reached Mach 2.36.

The Harmon International Trophy (NASM)

Fédération Aéronautique Internationale rules required that a new record must exceed the previous record by 3%. The Starfighter beat the Phantom II’s peak altitude by 4.95%. Captain Jordan was credited for his very precise flying and energy efficiency. For this flight, Captain Jordan was awarded the Harmon International Trophy, which was presented to him by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Joe Bailey Jordan was born at Huntsville, Texas, 12 June 1929, the son of James Broughtan Jordan, a track foreman, and Mattie Lee Simms Jordan. Jordan graduated from Sweeney High School in 1946, then studied at the University of Houston. He entered the United States Air Force in 1949, trained as a pilot and received his pilot’s wings 15 September 1950. He flew more than 100 missions during the Korean War, and received two Distinguished Flying Crosses and two Air Medals. He then served as a flight instructor at Laredo Air Force Base, Laredo, Texas. In 1961 he was stationed at Bitburg Air Base in Germany. Jordan was a graduate of both the Air Force Test Pilot School and the Air Force Fighter Weapons School. He became a project test pilot on the F-104 in 1956.

Jordan married Dolores Ann Craig of Spokane, Washington, 8 February 1958, at Santa Monica, California. They had two children, Carrie and Ken.

Colonel Jordan was the first Western pilot to fly the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 interceptor and his evaluations allowed U.S. pilots to exploit the MiG’s weaknesses during the Vietnam War.

General Dynamics F-111A 65-5701. Photographed by Hervé Cariou at the Salon du Bourget (Paris Air Show), May 1967.

While testing General Dynamics F-111A 65-5701, Jordan and his co-pilot were forced to eject in the fighter’s escape capsule when the aircraft caught fire during a gunnery exercise at Edwards AFB, 2 January 1968. His back was injured in the ejection.

After Jordan retired from the Air Force in 1972, he became an engineering test pilot for the Northrop Corporation’s YF-17 flight test program.

Lieutenant Colonel Joe Bailey Jordan died at Oceanside, California, 22 April 1990, at the age of 60 years. His ashes were spread at Edwards Air Force Base. Jordan Street on the air base is named in his honor.

Captain Joe Bailey Jordan, United States Air Force. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)
Captain Joe Bailey Jordan, United States Air Force. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)

The Lockheed F-104C Starfighter was a tactical strike variant of the F-104A interceptor. The F-104C shared the external dimensions of the F-104A, but weighed slightly less.

The F-104C was powered by a single General Electric J79-GE-7 engine, a single-spool axial-flow afterburning turbojet, which used a 17-stage compressor and 3-stage turbine. The J79-GE-7 is rated at 10,000 pounds of thrust (44.482 kilonewtons), and 15,800 pounds (70.282 kilonewtons) with afterburner. The engine is 17 feet, 4 inches (5.283 meters) long, 3 feet, 2.3 inches (0.973 meters) in diameter, and weighs 3,575 pounds (1,622 kilograms).

The F-104C could carry a 2,000 pound weapon on a centerline hardpoint. It could carry up to four AIM-9B Sidewinder missiles.

On 9 May 1961, near Moron AFB, Spain, Starfighter 56-885 had a flight control failure with stick moving full aft. The pilot was unable to move it forward, resulting in an initial zoom climb followed by unrecoverable tumble. The pilot safely ejected but the airplane crashed and was destroyed.

Captain Joe B. Jordan, USAF, is congratulated by Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier. Captain Bailey is wearing a David Clark Co. MC-3 capstan-type partial-pressure suit with a ILC Dover MC-2 helmet. (Jet Pilot Overseas)
Captain Joe B. Jordan, USAF, is congratulated by Lockheed Chief Engineering Test Pilot Tony LeVier. Captain Bailey is wearing a David Clark Co. MC-3 capstan-type partial-pressure suit with an ILC Dover MC-2 helmet. (Jet Pilot Overseas)

A short Air Force film of Joe Jordan’s record flight can be seen at:

¹ FAI Record File Number 10352

² FAI Record File Number 9065

³ FAI Record File Number 10354

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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About Bryan Swopes

Bryan R. Swopes grew up in Southern California in the 1950s–60s, near the center of America's aerospace industry. He has had a life-long interest in aviation and space flight. Bryan is a retired commercial helicopter pilot and flight instructor.

7 thoughts on “14 December 1959

  1. Nice article, I wanted help you with an error in your article concerning the “This Day in Aviation History” 14 December 1959 and the setting of the Worlds Altitude and Time to climb record in an F-104C Starfighter. The pilot’s name was Joe Bailey Jordan. If you listen to the film clip it says the new record was 103,395.5 feet. The official record also states the new altitude number including this additional 1/2 of a foot in altitude. Adding this 1/2 foot to the record was done intentionally. The US government wanted the Russians to believe that our instruments were good enough to measure within 6 inch tolerance at 100,000 feet! It was a Cold War Tactic employed by the US.

    1. Thanks, Mr. Jordan. Any relation to Joe B.??? Yes, I know about the 0.5 foot. The reason that I didn’t include it is that this was an international record. FAI altitude records are in meters, with no fractions. The FAI record for Captain Jordan’s flight is 31,153 meters. The equivalent altitude in feet is 103,389.11. When converting from one system to another, it is improper to add a degree of accuracy that was not present in the original record. If the FAI record were 31,153.00 meters, I would have used the 11/100ths of a foot. The Air Force should not have used the 0.5. It is incorrect. But they also seem to have added SIX FEET to the record altitude. (The Navy only added four feet to their altitude record claim.) From my point of view, it is unimportant whether the Air Force beat the Soviet record. What IS important is that Joe Jordan smashed Lawrence Flint’s week-old record so badly that the Navy never tried to come back for a rematch. . . When President Eisenhower presented the Harmon Trophy to Captain Jordan at the White House, 3 October 1960, he asked, “Couldn’t you have made another half foot?”, or “Couldn’t you have made it half a foot more?” depending on which newspaper article you read. . . Thanks for your input, and thank you very much for reading my blog. —Bryan

  2. Thank you for the article on my dad. He was an amazing man and father. Ken Jordan is my brother.

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