6 December 1963: Air Force test pilot Major Robert W. Smith takes the Lockheed NF-104A Aerospace Trainer, 56-0756, out for a little spin. . .
Starting at 0.85 Mach and 35,000 feet (10,668 meters) over the Pacific Ocean west of Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, Bob Smith turned toward Edwards Air Force Base and accelerated to Military Power and then lit the afterburner, which increased the General Electric J79-GE-3B turbojet engine’s 9,800 pounds of thrust (43.59 kilonewtons) to 15,000 pounds (66.72 kilonewtons). The modified Starfighter accelerated in level flight. At Mach 2.2, Smith ignited the Rocketdyne LR121 rocket engine, which burned a mixture of JP-4 and hydrogen peroxide. The LR121 was throttleable and could produce from 3,000 to 6,000 pounds of thrust (13.35–26.69 kilonewtons).
When the AST reached Mach 2.5, Smith began a steady 3.5G pull-up until the interceptor was in a 70° climb. At 75,000 feet (22,860 meters), the test pilot shut off the afterburner to avoid exceeding the turbojet’s exhaust temperature (EGT) limits. He gradually reduced the jet engine power to idle by 85,000 feet (25,908 meters), then shut it off. Without the engine running, cabin pressurization was lost and the pilot’s A/P22S-2 full-pressure suit inflated.
The NF-104A continued to zoom to an altitude where its aerodynamic control surfaces were no longer functional. It had to be controlled by the reaction jets in the nose and wing tips. 756 reached a peak altitude of 120,800 feet (36,820 meters), before reentering the atmosphere in a 70° dive. Major Smith used the windmill effect of air rushing into the intakes to restart the jet engine.
Major Smith had set an unofficial record for altitude. Although Lockheed had paid the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) license fee, the Air Force had not requested certification in advance so no FAI or National Aeronautic Association personnel were on site to certify the flight.
For this flight, Robert Smith was nominated for the Octave Chanute Award “for an outstanding contribution made by a pilot or test personnel to the advancement of the art, science, and technology of aeronautics.”
Robert Wilson Smith was born at Washington, D.C., 11 December 1928. He was the son of Robert Henry Smith, a clerk (and eventually treasurer) for the Southern Railway Company, and Jeanette Blanche Albaugh Smith, a registered nurse. He graduated from high school in Oakland, California, in 1947. Smith studied at the University of California, Berkeley, and George Washington University.
Robert W. Smith joined the United States Air Force as an aviation cadet in 1949. He trained as a pilot at Goodfellow Air Force Base, San Angelo, Texas, and Williams Air Force Base in Arizona. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant, United States Air Force, 23 June 1950.
Second Lieutenant Robert Wilson Smith married Ms. Martha Yacko, 24 June 1950, at Phoenix, Arizona.
He flew the F-86 Sabre on more than 100 combat missions with the 334th and 335th Fighter Interceptor Squadrons of the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing during the Korean War. he named one of his airplanes Lady Lane in honor of his daughter. Smith was credited with two enemy aircraft destroyed, one probably destroyed and three more damaged.
Smith graduated from the Air Force Test Pilot School in 1952 and flew more than fifty aircraft types during testing at Edwards Air Force Base and Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. He was later assigned to the Aerospace Research Test Pilots School at Edwards Air Force Base for training as an astronaut candidate for Project Gemini.
After the NF-104A project was canceled, Lieutenant Colonel Smith volunteered for combat duty in the Vietnam War. He commanded the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 388th Tactical Fighter Wing, at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, flying the Republic F-105D Thunderchief. Bob Smith was awarded the Air Force Cross for “extraordinary heroism” while leading an attack at Thuy Phoung, north of Hanoi, 19 November 1967.
He had previously been awarded the Silver Star, and five times was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Lieutenant Colonel Smith retired from the Air Force on 1 August 1969 after twenty years of service.
Lieutenant Colonel Robert Wilson Smith died at Monteverde, Florida, 19 August 2010. He was 81 years old.
56-756 was a Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter. Flown by future astronaut James A. McDivitt, it had been damaged in a landing accident at Edwards following a hydraulic system failure, 21 November 1961. It was one of three taken from storage at The Boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, Arizona, and sent to Lockheed for modification to Aerospace Trainers (ASTs). These utilized a system of thrusters for pitch, roll and yaw control at altitudes where the standard aerodynamic control surfaces could no longer control the aircraft. This was needed to give pilots some experience with the control system for flight outside Earth’s atmosphere.
The F-104A vertical fin was replaced with the larger fin and rudder from the two-place F-104B for increased stability. The wingspan was increased to 25 feet, 11.3 inches (7.907 meters) for installation of the hydrogen peroxide Reaction Control System thrusters. The fiberglass nosecone was replaced by an aluminum skin for the same reason. The interceptor’s radar and M61 Vulcan cannon were removed and tanks for rocket fuel and oxidizers, nitrogen, etc., installed in their place. The standard afterburning General Electric J79-GE-3B turbojet engine remained, and was supplemented by a Rocketdyne LR121 liquid-fueled rocket engine which produced 3,000 to 6,000 pounds of thrust (13.35–26.69 kilonewtons) with a burn time of 105 seconds. The fuselage “buzz number” was changed from FG-756 to NF-756.
56-756 was damaged by inflight explosions in 1965 and 1971, after which it was retired. It is mounted for static display at the Air Force Test Pilot School, Edwards Air Force Base, California, marked as 56-760.
© 2017, Bryan R. Swopesby
6 December 1959: Project Top Flight. At Edwards Air Force Base, California, Commander Lawrence Earl Flint, Jr., United States Navy, set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Altitude with McDonnell YF4H-1 Phantom II, Bu. No. 142260.
At 47,000 feet (14,326 meters), Commander Flint accelerated in level flight with afterburner to Mach 2.5, then pulled up into a 45° climb and continued to 90,000 feet (27,432 meters). He had to shut down the Phantom’s two General Electric J79 jet engines to prevent them from overheating in the thin atmosphere. He continued on a ballistic trajectory to 30,040 meters (98,556 feet). This was just short of the arbitrary 100,000 feet (30,480 meters) that delineated the beginning of space at the time. Diving back through 70,000 feet (21,336 meters), Flint restarted the engines and flew back to Edwards.
This was the first of three FAI World Records set by 142260.¹
McDonnell Aircraft Corporation test pilot Gerald (“Zeke”) Huelsbeck had been conducting test flights to determine the best profile for the record attempt.
“Huelsbeck was flying the very first F4H prototype when an engine access door blew loose, flames shot through the engine compartment, and the F4H crashed, killing Huelsbeck.”
—Engineering the F-4 Phantom II: Parts Into Systems, by Glenn E. Bugos, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1996, Chapter 5 at Page 101. (The accident occurred 21 October 1959.)
Commander Flint flew twelve zoom climbs between October and December, five times climbing past 95,000 feet (28,956 meters), but not exceeding the previous record, 28,852 meters, set by Vladimir Sergeyevich Ilyushin ² with a Sukhoi T 431 (a modified Su-9 interceptor), 14 July 1959, by the FAI-required 3% margin. During the first week of December, with National Aeronautic Association personnel at Edwards to monitor and certify the record for the FAI, he flew three flights each day.
Commander Flint was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for this flight.
General Orders: All Hands (August 1960)
Action Date: December 6, 1959
“The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Flying Cross to Commander Lawrence E. Flint, Jr., United States Navy, for extraordinary achievement in aerial flight on 6 December 1959. As pilot of a Navy all-weather fighter aircraft, Commander Flint succeeded in establishing a new world jet aircraft altitude record of 98,560 feet. Exercising brilliant airmanship, initiative and planning ability, he clearly demonstrated the inherent capabilities and the maximum performance of an extremely important Naval aircraft, and was instrumental in focusing world attention on the continuing and significant development of the science of aviation in the United States.”
Commander Flint’s world altitude record would fall 8 days later when Captain Joe B. Jordan, United States Air Force, flew a Lockheed F-104C Starfighter to 31,513 meters (103,389.11 feet ).³
Lawrence Earl Flint, Jr., was born at Sophia, West Virginia, 24 June 1920. He was the first of three children of Lawrence Earl Flint, a salesman, and Rosetta M. Richmond Flint. He attended Woodrow Wilson High School at Beckley, West Virginia, graduating in 1938. He then attended Beckley College (now, Mountain State University), and Emory & Henry College at Emory, Virginia.
Flint entered the United States Navy as an aviation cadet under the V-5 Program, 30 July 1940. He was trained as a pilot at NAS Pensacola and NAS Jacksonville. He was commissioned as an Ensign, United States Naval Reserve, 10 October 1941, and designated a Naval Aviator, 5 December 1941, two days before the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaiian Islands.
Ensign Flint was assigned to Scouting Squadron Two (VS-2), flying the Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive bomber. He was promoted to Lieutenant, Junior Grade (j.g.), 1 October 1942. In 1943 he transitioned to the Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat fighter with Fighting Squadron Eighteen (VF-18) aboard USS Bunker Hill (CV-18). Flint was promoted to Lieutenant (Temporary), 1 October 1943. This rank was made permanent on 30 October 1944.
In 1944, Lieutenant Flint was assigned to Flight Test and NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, flying the earliest American jet aircraft. Flint was promoted to Lieutenant Commander, United States Navy, 3 October 1945.
Lieutenant Commander Flint then attended the U.S. Navy General Line School at Newport, Rhode Island. In 1947, Flint went to Attack Squadron Fourteen (VA-14, “Tophatters) as the squadron’s executive officer. VA-14 flew the Chance Vought F4U-4 Corsair.
In 1949, Lieutenant Commander Flint married Miss Betty Alice Noble of Salt Lake City, Utah. Mrs. Flint had served in the United States Navy during World War II.
After a staff assignment in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, in 1951, Lieutenant Commander Flint was sent to the Empire Test Pilot School at Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, England.
Flint returned to combat operations during the Korean War, as executive officer, and then commanding officer, of Fighter Squadron Eleven (VF-11, “Red Rippers”), flying the McDonnell F2H-2 Banshee from USS Kearsarge (CVA-33 ).
Following the Korean War, Flint was assigned as Assistant Experimental Officer at the Naval Ordnance Test Station, China Lake, California, and then went back to sea as Air Operations Officer on board USS Lake Champlain (CVA-39 ). He was promoted to Commander, 1 January 1954.
From 1957 to 1959, Commander Flint was once again in flight test operations at NATC Patuxent River. In 1959, he was assigned as Chief of Staff to the commanding officer of Readiness Air Wing Twelve (RCVW-12) at NAS Miramar, San Diego, California. It was while in this assignment that he set the World Altitude Record with the YF4H-1. On 1 July 1962, Flint was promoted to the rank of Captain and took command of RCVW-12.
Captain Flint took command of USS Merrick (AKA-97), an Andromeda-class attack cargo transport, 16 July 1966. (A “deep-draft command,” that is command of a large naval ship, is generally considered a prerequisite to being selected for command of an aircraft carrier.) Merrick was operating in the western Pacific and Vietnam. Captain Flint remained in command until 13 May 1967.
Captain Lawrence Earl Flint, Jr., retired from the United States Navy in March 1968. He and Mrs. Flint resided in La Jolla, a seaside community within the city of San Diego, California, until his death, 16 November 1993. She passed away 20 December 1996.
¹ FAI Record File Number 10352: 30,040 meters (98,557 feet), 6 December 1959; FAI Record File Number 9060: 2,585.425 kilometers per hour (1,606.509 miles per hour), 22 November 1961; and FAI Record File Number 8535: 20,252 meters (66,444 feet), 5 December 1961.
² FAI Record File Number 10351
³ FAI Record File Number 10354
© 2016, Bryan R. Swopesby