15 August 1962: American Airlines’ Captain Eugene M. (“Gene”) Kruse set a National Aeronautic Association Class C-1 record for Speed Over a Commercial Air Route, East to West Transcontinental, when he flew a Boeing 720B Astrojet from New York to Los Angeles, 2,474 miles (3,981.5 kilometers), in 4 hours, 19 minutes, 15 seconds, at an average speed of 572.57 miles per hour (921.46 kilometers per hour). 55 years later, this record still stands.
The National Aeronautic Association has placed Captain Kruse’ record on its “Most Wanted” list: long-standing flight records that it would like to see challenged. Rules require that a new record exceed the old by at least a 1% margin. The performance needed to establish a new record would be 578.30 miles per hour (930.68 kilometers per hour).
The Boeing 720B was a variant of the Model 707, intended for short to medium range flights. It had 100 inches (2.54 meters) removed from the fuselage length and improvements to the wing which decreased aerodynamic drag. The 720B was the first commercial jet airliner to use more efficient turbofan engines, substituting four Pratt & Whitney JT3D for the 707’s JT3C-6 turbojets. Boeing built 154 Model 720 and 720B airliners from 1959 to 1967.
The Boeing 720 was operated by a flight crew of four and could carry up to 149 passengers. It was 136 feet, 2 inches (41.504 meters) long with a wingspan of 130 feet, 10 inches (39.878 meters) and overall height of 41 feet, 7 inches (12.675 meters). The airplane had an empty weight of 103,145 pounds (46,786 kilograms) and Maximum Takeoff Weight of 220,000 pounds (99,790 kilograms).
The JT3C turbojet engines produced 12,000 pounds of thrust, each, while the more efficient JT3D turbofans used for the 720B produced 17,000 pounds of thrust, each.
The Boeing 720B had a maximum cruise speed was 611 miles per hour (983 kilometers per hour) and its maximum speed was 620 miles per hour (998 kilometers per hour). Range at at maximum payload was 4,370 miles (7,033 kilometers).
The last flight of a Boeing 720B took place on 9 May 2012, when an airliner used by Pratt & Whitney Canada as a test aircraft was placed in the National Air Force Museum of Canada at Trenton, Ontario.
15 August 1951: Just 8 days after he set an unofficial world speed record of Mach 1.88 (1,245 miles per hour; 2,033.63 kilometers per hour) Douglas Aircraft Company test pilot William Barton (“Bill”) Bridgeman flew the rocket-powered United States Navy/National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974, to a world record altitude at Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of Southern California.
The Skyrocket was airdropped at 34,000 feet (10,363 meters) from a highly-modified U.S. Navy P2B-1S Superfortress, Bu. No. 84029. The mother ship was a U.S. Air Force Boeing B-29-95-BW Superfortress, 45-21787, transferred to the Navy and flown by another Douglas test pilot, George R. Jansen.
The flight plan was for Bridgeman to fire the rocket engine and allow the Skyrocket to accelerate to 0.85 Mach while climbing. The Skyrocket was powered by a Reaction Motors LR8-RM-6 engine, which produced 6,000 pounds of thrust. As the rocketplane continued to accelerate to Mach 1.12, the test pilot was to pull up, increasing the angle of climb while holding an acceleration rate of 1.2 Gs. This would result in a constantly increasing angle of climb. When it reached 50°, Bridgeman was to maintain that, climbing and accelerating, until the rocket engine ran out of fuel.
Initially, the plan was to continue climbing after engine shutdown until the D-558-II was approaching stall at the highest altitude it could reach while on a ballistic trajectory. There were differing expert opinions as to how it would behave in the ever thinner atmosphere. On the morning of the flight, Douglas’ Chief Engineer, Ed Heinemann, ordered that Bridgeman push over immediately when the engine stopped.
Bill Bridgeman stuck to the engineers’ flight plan. As the Skyrocket accelerated through 63,000 feet (19,200 meters), it started to roll to the left. He countered with aileron input, but control was diminishing in the thin air. The next time it began there was no response to the ailerons. Bridgeman found that he had to lower the Skyrocket’s nose until it responded, then he was able to increase the pitch angle again. At 70,000 feet (21,336 meters), travelling Mach 1.4, he decided he had to decrease the pitch angle or lose control. Finally at 76,000 feet (23,165 meters), the engine stopped. Following Heinemann’s order, Bridgeman pushed the nose down and the D-558-II went over the top of its arc at just 0.5 G.
“In the arc she picks up a couple of thousand feet. The altimeter stops its steady reeling and swings sickly around 80,000 feet. The altitude is too extreme for the instrument to function.
“Eighty thousand feet. It is intensely bright outside; the contrast of the dark shadows in the cockpit is extreme and strange. It is so dark lower in the cockpit that I cannot read the instruments sunk low on the panel. The dials on top, in the light, are vividly apparent. There seems to be no reflection. It is all black or white, apparent or non-apparent. No half-tones. It is a pure, immaculate world here.
“She levels off silently. I roll right and there it is. Out of the tiny windows slits there is the earth, wiped clean of civilization, a vast relief map with papier-mâché mountains and mirrored lakes and seas. . . .
“It is as if I am the only living thing connected to this totally strange, uninhabited planet 15 miles below me. The plane that carries me and I are one and alone.”
—The Lonely Sky,William Bridgeman with Jacqueline Hazard, Castle and Company LTD, London, 1956, Chapter XXII at Page 268.
After the data was analyzed, it was determined that William Bridgeman and the Douglas Skyrocket had climbed to 79,494 feet (24,230 meters), higher than any man had gone before. This was the last flight that would be made with a Douglas test pilot. The rocketplane was turned over to NACA, which would assign it the number NACA 144.
Bill Bridgeman had been a Naval Aviator during World War II, flying the Consolidated PBY Catalina and PB4Y (B-24) Liberator long range bombers with Bombing Squadron 109 (VB-109), “The Reluctant Raiders.” Bridgeman stayed in the Navy for two years after the war, then he flew for Trans-Pacific Air Lines in the Hawaiian Islands and Southwest Airlines in San Francisco, before joining Douglas Aircraft Co. as a production test pilot, testing new AD Skyraiders as they came off the assembly line at El Segundo, California. He soon was asked to take over test flying the D-558-2 Skyrocket test program at Muroc Air Force Base.
The D-558-II Skyrocket was Phase II of a planned three phase experimental flight program. It was designed to investigate flight in the transonic and supersonic range. It was 46 feet, 9 inches (14.249 meters) long with a 25 foot (7.62 meter) wing span. The wings were swept back to a 35° angle. The Skyrocket was powered by a Westinghouse J34-WE-40 11-stage axial-flow turbojet engine, producing 3,000 pounds of thrust, and a Reaction Motors LR8-RM-6 four-chamber rocket engine, which produced 6,000 pounds of thrust. The rocket engine burned alcohol and liquid oxygen.
There were three D-558-2 Skyrockets. Between 4 February 1948 and 28 August 1956, they made a total of 313 flights. Bill Bridgeman’s speed and altitude record-setting Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974, NACA 144, is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum.
15 August 1939: As Nazi Germany prepared for a war now just weeks away, the Luftwaffe gave a demonstration of its Junkers Ju 87 B-1 Stuka dive bombers for a group of generals at a test range near Neuhammer-am-Queis, Silesia :
“. . . scores of generals were assembled at the training area at Neuhammer to watch a dive-bombing demonstration. Already, said Rudolf Braun, who took part with his unit (I St. G 3) there was a feeling of war in the air.
“Normally the order of attack was the Kommandeur’s Stab Kette (Staff Flight)first, followed by Staffels 1, 2, and 3. For some unknown reason Staffel I, led by Oberleutnant Peltz, was this time ordered to attack last. It would save Rudolf Braun’s life.
“The Met. reported cloud from 6,000 feet down to 2,500 with clear visibility below. At 6.00 a.m. Hauptmann Sigel led his Gruppe into attack at 12,000 feet. Half-rolling his Ju. 87 he plunged nearly vertically earthwards, with Oberleutnants Eppen and Mueller on each side.
“On the ground below, the generals (including Wolfram von Richthofen, the Stuka‘s chief) listened to the whining crescendo of the dive-bombers as they plummeted towards the ground. Horrified, they knew that nothing could avert disaster. The Met. report was wrong. Cloud base was at three hundred feet.
“Hauptmann Sigel, yelling into his microphone, “Pull out!” managed to do so himself a few feet above the trees. But Eppen went in, Mueller went in, and both burst into flames. The nine Ju. 87s of Staffel 2 and two of Staffel 3 all went in.
“Rudolf Braun and his comrades of Staffel I had heard Sigel’s warning and remained circling above the cloud layer through which columns of black smoke were now rising from the wreckage of thirteen dive bombers. I St. G 3 lost twenty-six young aircrew that day.”
— Duel of Eagles, Group Captain Peter Wooldridge Townsend, CVO, DSO, DFC and Bar, RAF, Castle Books, Edison, New Jersey, 2003, Chapter 14 at Pages 171–172.
15 August 1935: Two of the most famous men of their time, Wiley Hardeman Post and William Penn Adair (“Will”) Rogers, were killed in an airplane crash near Point Barrow, Alaska.
Post, a pioneering aviator who had twice flown around the world—once, solo—and helped develop the pressure suit for high altitude flight, was exploring a possible air mail route from the United States to Russia. His friend, world famous humorist Will Rogers, was along for the trip.
Post’s airplane was a hybrid, built from the fuselage of a former Transcontinental & Western Air, Inc., Lockheed Model 9E Orion Special, NC12283, combined with a wing from a Lockheed Model 7 Explorer. T&WA operated the Orion for two years before selling it to Charles Babb, Glendale, California. Babb installed the salvaged wing from a modified Lockheed Model 7 Explorer, Blue Flash, NR101W, which had crashed in Panama in 1930.
The Orion’s standard 450 horsepower Pratt & Whitney Wasp SC1 engine was replaced with an air-cooled, supercharged, 1,343.8-cubic-inch-displacement (22.021 liter) Pratt & Whitney Wasp S3H1 nine-cylinder radial engine (serial number 5778), rated at 550 horsepower at 2,200 r.p.m. to 5,000 feet (1,524 meters), and 600 horsepower at 2,250 r.p.m. for takeoff. A three-bladed Hamilton Standard variable-pitch propeller was used. Both the SC1 and S3H1 were direct drive engines. The S3H1 was 3 feet, 7.01 inches (1.093 meters) long and 4 feet, 3.60 inches (1.311 meters) in diameter. It weighed 865 pounds (392 kilograms).
Post also wanted to replace the retractable landing gear with pontoons for water landings.
Lockheed engineers were of the opinion that the hybrid aircraft and the other modifications which were requested by Post were dangerous and refused to do the work. Pacific Airmotive, also located in Burbank, California, however, agreed to modify the airplane. Several names were used to describe the hybrid airplane, such as “Lockheed Aurora,” as well as others perhaps less polite. It was given the restricted registration NR12283.
NR12283 was 27 feet, 6 inches (8.382 meters) long with a wingspan of 48 feet, 6 inches (14.783 meters). The wing area was 313 square feet (29.079 square meters).
Post had the pontoons installed at Renton, Washington. The floats that he had ordered did not arrive on time so he installed a larger set intended for another aircraft.
After several days of flying from Seattle and through Alaska, Post and Rogers were nearing Point Barrow on the northern coast of the continent. They encountered dense fog and landed on Walakpa Bay, about 13 miles (21 kilometers) southwest of the village of Barrow.
After talking with a local resident, Clair Okpheah, they taxied back on the lagoon and took off to the north. Post banked to the right, but at about 50 feet (15 meters) the engine stopped. NR12283 pitched down, rolled to the right, and then its right wing struck the mud. The right wing and pontoon were torn off and the airplane crashed upside down. Post and Rogers died.
Clair Okpheah ran to Barrow for help. When a rescue party arrived 16 hours after the crash, the men recovered the bodies of Post and Rogers. It was noted that Wiley Post’s wristwatch had stopped at 8:18 p.m.