Daily Archives: December 29, 2023

29 December 1972

Eastern Airlines' Lockheed L-1011-385-1 TriStar, N310EA, the airliner that crashed 29 December 1972. (Photograph © Jon Proctor. Used with permission.)
Eastern Air Lines’ Lockheed L-1011-385-1 TriStar, N310EA. (Photograph © Jon Proctor. Used with permission.)

29 December 1972: Eastern Air Lines Flight 401, a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, was en route from John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), New York, to Miami International Airport (MIA), Florida, with a crew of 13 and 163 passengers. The flight was under the command of Captain Robert Albin Loft, a 32-year-veteran of Eastern Air Lines. The co-pilot was First Officer Albert John Stockstill, a former U.S. Air Force pilot who had flown with Eastern as a flight engineer for 12 years before upgrading to first officer the previous year. The Second Officer (flight engineer) was Donald Louis Repo. He was employed as a mechanic by Eastern in 1947, and had qualified as a flight engineer in 1955.

On approach to MIA, the flight crew lowered the landing gear. The indicator light for the nose gear did not illuminate. Captain Loft informed the Miami control tower that he was abandoning the approach and requested a holding pattern. Miami Approach Control placed Flight 401 in a “race track” pattern at 2,000 feet (610 meters), west of MIA.

The flight crew confirmed that the landing gear was operating properly, and confirmed that the incandescent light bulb for the gear position indicator was burned out. Still, all three members of the flight crew, as well as a fourth Eastern Air Lines employee who was in the cockpit, continued to investigate the light’s malfunction. While they did so, the airplane entered a very gradual descent which went unobserved by the crew.

The following partial transcript is from the airplane’s Cockpit Voice Recorder:

Miami Approach Control: “Eastern, ah Four Oh One how are things comin’ out there?” [2341:40]

Eastern Air Lines Flight 401: “Okay, we’d like to turn around and come back in.” [2341:44]

Miami Approach Control: “Eastern Four Oh One turn left heading one eight zero.” [2341:47]

First Officer: “We did something to the altitude.” [2342:05]

Captain: “What?” [2342:05]

First Officer: “We’re still at two thousand, right?” [2342:07]

Captain: “Hey, what’s happening here?” [2342:07]

Radar Altimeter Altitude Alert: BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP [2342:10]

(Sound of ground impact) [2342:12]

At 11:42:12 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, Flight 401 impacted the surface of an Everglades swamp, 18.7 miles (30.1 kilometers) west-northwest of the end of Runway 9L. The TriStar hit the ground at 227 miles per hour (365 kilometers per hour) in a 28° left bank. Of the 176 persons on board, 99 were killed and 75 were injured. 2 of the injured died later.

Wreckage of Eastern Airlines Flight 401.
Wreckage of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401.

The cause of the accident was “pilot error.” In the simplest terms, the flight crew failed in their primary responsibility to FLY THE AIRPLANE while they dealt with an inconsequential technical issue. At the time, this was the highest number of fatalities in an aircraft accident in the United States.

PROBABLE CAUSE: “The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the failure of the fight crew to monitor the flight instruments during the final 4 minutes of flight, and to detect an unexpected descent soon enough to prevent impact with the ground. Preoccupation with a malfunction of the nose landing gear position indicating system distracted the crew’s attention from the instruments and allowed the descent to go unnoticed.”

Aircraft Accident Report, Eastern Air Lines, Inc. L-1011, N310EA, Miami, Florida, December 29, 1972, Report Number NTSB-AAR-73-14, Adopted 14 June 1973, Chapter 2.2 at Pages 23–24

Following the crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401, and the similar crash of a United Air Lines DC-8, Flight 173, at Portland, Oregon, 28 December 1978, airlines developed a system called Cockpit Resource Management to ensure that the flight crews stayed focused on cockpit priorities while dealing with unexpected issues.

The cabin crew of Flight 401, 29 December 1972: Back row: Pat Ghyssels, Trudy Smith, Adrianne Hamilton, lead Flight Attendant, Mercy Ruiz. Front row: Sue Tebbs, Dottie Warnock, Beverly Raposa, Stephanie Stanich. Laying on the coat rack, Patty George. Not shown, Sharon Transue. Pat Ghyssels and Stephanis Stanich, seated next to each other in jump seats, were killed. (Sharon Transue/Eastern Airlines)
The cabin crew of Flight 401, 29 December 1972: Back row: Pat Ghyssels, Trudy J. Smith, Adrianne Ann Hamilton, lead Flight Attendant, Mercedes V. Ruiz. Front row: Sue F. Tibbs, Dorothy M. Warnock, Beverly Jean Raposa, Stephanie Stanich. Laying on the coat rack, Patricia R. Georgia. Not shown, Sharon R. Transue. Pat Ghyssels and Stephanie Stanich, seated next to each other in jump seats, were killed. (Sharon  R. Transue/Eastern Airlines)

Flight 401 was a Lockheed L-1011-385-1 TriStar, a long-range variant of the “wide body” airliner, FAA registration N310EA, (serial number N193A-1011) which had been delivered to Eastern Air Lines 18 August 1972 had entered service three days later. At the time of the crash it had just 986 hours total flight time (TTAF).

The L-1011 was a very technologically advanced airliner, operated by a flight crew of three, and could carry a maximum of 330 passengers. The –385 was 14 feet shorter than the previous TriStar versions, with a length of 164 feet, 2.5 inches (50.051 meters). It had longer wings, spanning 164 feet, 4 inches (50.089 meters). Its overall height was 55 feet, 4 inches (16.865 meters). Empty, it weighed 245,400 pounds (111,312 kilograms). The maximum takeoff weigh was 510,000 pounds (231,332 kilograms) and maximum landing weight, 368,000 pounds (166,922 kilograms).

N310EA was powered by three Rolls-Royce RB.211-22C turbofan engines, with two suspended on pylons under the wings and one in the rear of the fuselage. They produced 42,000 pounds of thrust (186.83 kilonewtons), each.

The L-1011-385-1 had a maximum speed of 0.95 Mach. Its cruising speed was 604 miles per hour (972 kilometers per hour). Range with maximum passengers was 6,151 miles (9,899 kilometers). The service ceiling was 43,000 feet (13,106 meters).

The Lockheed L-1011 was in production from 1968 to 1984. 250 of the airliners were built at Palmdale, California.

Eastern Airlines CEO, Frank F. Borman II (Gemini 7, Apollo 8) in the cockpit of a Lockheed L-1011 with Lockheed's test pilot Henry Baird ("Hank") Dees. (Eastern Airlines)
Eastern Air Lines CEO, Frank F. Borman II (Gemini 7, Apollo 8) in the cockpit of a Lockheed L-1011 with Lockheed’s test pilot Henry Baird (“Hank”) Dees. (Eastern Airlines)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

29 December 1949

Jackie Cochran with her Cobalt Blue North American Aviation P-51C Mustang, N5528N, Thunderbird, circa December 1949. (FAI)

29 December 1949: Jackie Cochran (Lieutenant Colonel, United States Air Force Reserve) flew her North American Aviation P-51C Mustang, Thunderbird, CAA registration N5528N, to two Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) Class C-1 world speed records of 703.38 kilometers per hour (437.06 miles per hour)¹ and a U.S. National record of 703.275 kilometers per hour (436.995 miles per hour) over the 500 kilometer (310.7 mile) Desert Center–Mt. Wilson course in the Colorado Desert of southern California.

She would later be awarded the first of three Distinguished Flying Crosses for this series of flight records.

Left profile drawing of Thunderbird, Jackie Cochran’s unlimited class North American Aviation P-51C Mustang, N5528N. (Image courtesy of Tim Bradley, © 2014)
National Aeronautic Association Certificate of Record in the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive. (Bryan R. Swopes)
National Aeronautic Association Certificate of Record in the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive. (Bryan R. Swopes)
Jackie Cochran’s North American Aviation P-51C Mustang, N5528N. (FAI)

Thunderbird was Jackie Cochran’s third P-51 Mustang. She had purchased it from Academy Award-winning actor and World War II B-24 wing commander James M. Stewart just ten days earlier, 19 December 1949.

According to Civil Aviation Administration records, the airplane had been “assembled from components of other aircraft of the same type.” It has no U.S. Army Air Corps serial number or North American Aviation manufacturer’s serial number. The C.A.A. designated it as a P-51C and assigned 2925 as its serial number. It was certificated in the Experimental category and registered N5528N.

Thunderbird had won the 1949 Bendix Trophy Race with pilot Joe De Bona, after he had dropped out of the 1948 race. Its engine had been upgraded from a Packard V-1650-3 Merlin to a V-1650-7 for the 1949 race.

Cobalt Blue North American Aviation P-51C Mustang N5528N with Joe De Bona’s race number, 90. (Unattributed).

Jackie Cochran set three world speed records with Thunderbird. In 1953, she sold it back to Jimmy Stewart. After changing ownership twice more, the P-51 crashed near Scott’s Bluff, Nebraska, 22 June 1955 and was totally destroyed. Pilot James M. Cook parachuted with minor injuries.

The P-51B and P-51C Mustangs are virtually identical. The P-51Bs were built by North American Aviation, Inc., at Inglewood, California, while P-51Cs were built at North American’s Dallas, Texas, plant. They were 32 feet, 2.97 inches (9.829 meters) long, with a wingspan of 37 feet, 0.31-inch (11.282 meters) and overall height of 13 feet, 8 inches (4.167 meters) high. The fighter had an empty weight of 6,985 pounds (3,168 kilograms) and a maximum gross weight of 11,800 pounds (5,352 kilograms).

P-51Bs and Cs were powered by a liquid-cooled, supercharged, 1,649-cubic-inch-displacement (27.04-liter) Packard V-1650-3 or -7 Merlin single overhead cam (SOHC) 60° V-12 engine which produced 1,380 horsepower at Sea Level, turning 3,000 r.p.m and 60 inches of manifold pressure (V-1650-3) or 1,490 horsepower at Sea Level, turning at 3,000 r.p.m. with 61 inches of manifold pressure (V-1650-7). These were license-built versions of the Rolls-Royce Merlin 63 and 66. The engine drove a four-bladed Hamilton-Standard Hydromatic constant speed propeller with a diameter of 11 feet, 2 inches (3.404 meters).

The P-51B/C had a cruise speed of 362 miles per hour (583 kilometers per hour) and the maximum speed was 439 miles per hour (707 kilometers per hour) at 25,000 feet (7,620 meters). The service ceiling was 41,900 feet (12,771 meters). With internal fuel, the combat range was 755 miles (1,215 kilometers).

In military service, armament consisted of four Browning AN/M2 .50-caliber machine guns, mounted two in each wing, with 350 rounds per gun for the inboard guns and 280 rounds per gun for the outboard.

1,988 P-51B Mustangs were built at North American’s Inglewood, California plant and another 1,750 P-51Cs were produced at Dallas, Texas. This was nearly 23% of the total P-51 production.

According to the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum, “At the time of her death in 1980, Jacqueline Cochran held more speed, altitude, and distance records than any other male or female pilot in aviation history.”

Identical to the Inglewood, California-built North American Aviation P-51B Mustang, this is a Dallas, Texas-built P-51C-1-NT, 42-103023. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

¹ FAI Record File Numbers 4476 and 12323

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

29 December 1944

Flight Lieutenant Richard Joseph Audet, Royal Canadian Air Force, with his Supermarine Spitfire LF Mk.IX, MK950, assigned to No. 411 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force.

29 December 1944: Flying Officer Richard Joseph Audet, Royal Canadian Air Force, was a section leader of No. 411 Squadron, an RCAF squadron under the control of the Second Tactical Air Force, Royal Air Force. The squadron was based at an advanced airfield in The Netherlands.

In the early afternoon, Audet’s Yellow Section engaged a flight of twelve Luftwaffe fighters, four Messerchmitt Bf 109s and eight Focke-Wulf Fw 190s, near Rheine, in northwestern Germany.

Flying a Supermarine Spitfire LF Mk.IX .5, RR201, Flying Officer Audet led his section into the attack. He later reported:

I was leading Yellow section of 411 Squadron in the Rheine/Osnabruck area when Control reported Huns at Rheine and the squadron turned in that direction. An Me 262 was sighted and just at that time I spotted 12 e/a on our starboard side at 2 o’clock. These turned out to be a mixture of approximately 4 Me 109’s and 8 FW 190’s.

1) I attacked an Me 109 which was the last a/c in the formation of about twelve all flying line astern. At approximately 200 yds and 30° to starboard at 10,000 feet I opened fire and saw strikes all over the fuselage and wing roots. The 109 burst into flames on the starboard side of the fuselage only, and trailed intense black smoke. I then broke off my attack.

2) After the first attack I went around in a defensive circle at about 8500 feet until I spotted an FW 190 which I immediately attacked from 250 yards down to 100 yards and from 30° to line astern. I saw strikes over cockpit and to the rear of the fuselage. It burst into flames from the engine back, and as I passed very close over top of it I saw the pilot slumped over in his cockpit, which was also in flames.

3) My third attack followed immediately on the 2nd. I followed what I believed was an Me 109 in a slight dive. He then climbed sharply and his coupe top flew off at about 3 to 4,000 feet. I then gave a very short burst from about 300 yards and line astern and his aircraft whipped downwards in a dive. The pilot attempted or did bale out. I saw a black object on the edge of the cockpit but his ‘chute ripped to shreds. I then took cine shots of his a/c going to the ground and bits of parachute floating around. I saw this aircraft hit and smash into many flaming pieces on the ground. I do not remember any strikes on this aircraft. The Browning button only may have been pressed.

4) I spotted a FW 190 being pursued at about 5,000′ by a Spitfire which was in turn pursued by an FW 190. I called this Yellow section pilot to break and attacked the 190 up his rear. The fight went downwards in a steep dive. When I was about 250 yards and line astern of this 190 I opened fire. There were many strikes on the length of the fuselage and it immediately burst into flames. I saw this FW 190 go straight into the ground and burn.

5) Several minutes later while attempting to form my section up again I spotted an FW 190 from 4000 feet. He was at about 2000 feet. I dived down on him and he turned in to me from the right. Then he flipped around in a left hand turn and attempted a head-on attack. I slowed down to wait for the 190 to flypast in range. At about 200 yds and 20° I gave a very short burst, but couldn’t see any strikes. This a/c flicked violently, and continued to do so until he crashed into the ground. The remainder of my section saw this encounter and Yellow 4 (F/O McCracken) saw it crash in flames.

—Post Mission Report of Flying Officer R. J. Audet, 29 December 1944

This air battle had been Flying Officer Audet’s first engagement with enemy aircraft. It was over within a matter of minutes. For his actions of 29 December 1944, Richard Audet was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Air Ministry, 16th February, 1945.

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the following awards in recognition of gallantry and devotion to duty in the execution of air operations:—

Distinguished Flying Cross.

Flying Officer Richard Joseph Audet (Can/J.20136), R.C.A.F., 411 (R.C.A.F.) Sqn.

This officer has proved himself to be a highly skilled and courageous fighter. In December, 1944, the squadron was involved in an engagement against 12 enemy fighters in the Rheine/Osnabrück area. In a most spirited action, Flying Officer Audet achieved outstanding success by destroying 5 enemy aircraft. This feat is a splendid tribute to his brilliant shooting, great gallantry and tenacity.

Flight Lieutenant Richard Joseph Audet in the cockpit of a Supermarine Spitfire. (RCAF)

Richard Joseph Audet was born 13 March 1922 at Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. He was the sixth child of Paul Audet, a rancher, and Ediwisca Marcoux Audet. “Dickie” Audet rode a horse to school at the age of ten years, traveling about 18 miles (29 kilometers) every morning.

Audet studied at Garbutt Business College in Lethbridge, and worked as a stenographer and bookkeeper at RCAF Air Station High River.

Dick Audet enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force at Calgary, Alberta, 28 August 1941. He was trained as a fighter pilot and was commissioned as a Pilot Officer, 24 October 1942. His pilot’s wings were presented to him by The Right Honourable William Lyon MacKenzie King, tenth Prime Minister of the Dominion of Canada.

R.C.A.F. Form R. 100, enlistment document of Richard Joseph Audet. (Royal Canadian Air Force)

Pilot Officer Audet was sent to England, crossing the North Atlantic aboard ship and arriving 6 December 1942. He was assigned to the No. 6 Elementary Flying School at RAF Little Rissington, Gloucestershire, and then No. 17 Advanced Flying Unit at RAF Calvely, Nantwich, Cheshire. He was promoted to Flying Officer 23 April 1943, and transferred to No. 53 Operational Training Unit at RAF Heston, west of London, where he transitioned to the Supermarine Spitfire fighter.

Flying Officer Richard J. Audet married Miss Iris Christina Gibbons of Pinner, a village in the London Borough of Harrow, at Northhampton, Northamptonshire, England, 9 July 1944.

Audet joined No. 411 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force, 14 September 1944. He was promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant, 23 October 1944.

During January 1945, Flight Lieutenant Audet was credited with destroying another 6.5 enemy aircraft: 4.5 Focke-Wulf FW-190s (one shared) and two Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters (one on the ground), and a third Me 262, damaged.

Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar

On 3 March 1945, Flight Lieutenant Audet was strafing railway trains near Coesfeld, Coesfelder Landkreis, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany, when his Spitfire LF Mk.IXE, MK950, was shot down. The Spitfire was seen to crash in flames and explode. Audet was listed as missing in action, and was presumed to have been killed. His remains were not recovered.

On 9 March 1945, Flight Lieutenant Richard Joseph Audet was posthumously awarded a Bar to his Distinguished Flying Cross (a second award).

There is no grave for Dick Audet. His name appears with those of 20,287 others on the Runnymede Memorial, Surrey, England, and among the nearly 400 on the Lethbridge Cenotaph at Lethbridge, Alberta. Audet Lake, north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, and Rue Richard Joseph Audet in Saugenay, Quebec, were named in his honor.

A Supermarine Spitfire LF Mk.IX .5 of No. 412 Squadron, RCAF, taxiing at an advanced landing field, Volkel, Holland, 27 October 1944. This is the same type Spitfire as flown by Dick Audet. Note the position of the .50-caliber machine guns, just inboard of the 20 mm cannon. Photograph by Flight Lieutenant T. Lea, RAF. © IWM (CL 1451)

The aircraft flown by Dick Audet on 29 December 1944, was a Supermarine Spitfire LF Mk.IX .5 (redesignated LF Mk.IXe in 1945), Royal Air Force serial number RR201. The identification letters on the fuselage were DB-G. It was built at built at the Castle Bromwich Aircraft Factory, at Warwickshire, West Midlands, in late summer or early fall 1944.

The Supermarine Spitfire was a single-place, single-engine low-wing monoplane of all-metal construction with retractable landing gear. The fighter had been designed by Reginald Joseph Mitchell CBE. The prototype first flew 5 March 1936.

The Spitfire LF Mk.IXe was optimized for low-altitude operations. The Spitfire F Mk.Vb was 29 feet, 11 inches (9.119 meters) long with a wingspan of 36 feet, 10 inches (11.227 meters) and overall height of 11 feet, 5 inches (3.480 meters). The exact dimensions of the LF Mk.IXe are not known but are presumably similar. Some Mk.IXe fighters had “clipped” wings, while others did not.

The LF Mk.IXe had an empty weight of 5,749 pounds (2,608 kilograms) and gross weight of 7,450 pounds (3,379 kilograms).

The Spitfire LF Mk.IXe was powered a liquid-cooled, supercharged, 1,648.959-cubic-inch-displacement (27.022 liters) Rolls-Royce Merlin 66 single overhead camshaft (SOHC) 60° V-12 engine with a compression ratio of 6.00:1. It was equipped with a two-speed, two-stage supercharger. The Merlin 66 was rated at 1,315 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m. and 12 pounds per square inch boost (0.83 Bar), for Take Off; 1,705 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m. at 5,750 feet (1,753 meters) and 1,580 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m. at 16,000 feet (4,877 meters), with 18 pounds boost (1.24 Bar). These power ratings were obtained with 130-octane aviation gasoline. When 150-octane gasoline became available, the Merlin 66 was cleared to use 25 pounds of boost (1.72 Bar). The Merlin 66 had a propeller gear reduction ratio of 0.477:1 and drove a four-bladed Rotol Hydulignum (compressed laminated wood) propeller with a diameter of 10 feet, 9 inches (3.277 meters). The engine weighed 1,645 pounds (746 kilograms).

The Spitfire LF Mk.IXe had  cruise speed of 220 miles per hour (354 kilometers per hour) at 20,000 feet (6,096 meters); a maximum speed of 384 miles per hour (618 kilometers per hour) at 10,500 feet (3,200 meters), and 404 miles per hour (650 kilometers per hour) at 21,000 feet (6,401 meters). Diving speed was restricted to 450 miles per hour (724 kilometers per hour) below 20,000 feet (6,096 meters). The airplane’s service ceiling was 42,500 feet (12,954 meters).

The Spitfire LF Mk.IXe was armed with two 20-milimeter Hispano Mk.II autocannon, with 135 rounds of ammunition per gun, and two Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns, with 260 rounds per gun. The .50-caliber machine guns were mounted in the wings, just inboard of the 20 mm cannon.

This photograph of a Supermarine Spitfire LF Mk.IXe shows the position of the .50-caliber machine guns, inboard of the 20 mm cannon.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

29 December 1941

North American Aviation XP-51 Mustang 41-038 at Langley Field, Virginia, 29 December 1941. (NASA)

29 December 1941: The first North American Aviation XP-51 fighter prototype, Air Corps serial number 41-038, arrived at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, Langley Field, Hampton, Virginia, for flight testing. This airplane was the fourth production Royal Air Force Mustang Mk.I, North American serial number 73-3101.

The test program resulted in an improved aileron design which significantly improved the Mustang’s maneuverability. The new aileron was used on all production models.

North American Aviation XP-51 41-038 at the NACA Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. (NASA)

41-038 was returned to Wright Field on 2 November 1942. The second XP-51, 41-039, arrived at Langley in March 1943 for continued testing.

The Mustang Mk.I (NAA Model NA-73) was a single-place, single-engine fighter of all metal construction. It was 32 feet, 3 inches (9.830 meters) long with a wingspan of 37 feet, ½-inch (11.290 meters) and overall height of 12 feet, 2½ inches (3.719 meters). The airplane’s empty weight was 6,280 pounds (25,848.6 kilograms) and loaded weight was 8,400 pounds (3,810.2 kilograms).

North American Aviation XP-51 41-038 at NACA Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, right profile. (NASA)

The Mustang Mk.I/XP-51 was powered by a liquid-cooled, supercharged 1,710.60-cubic-inch-displacement (28.032 liter) Allison Engineering Company V-1710-F3R (V-1710-39) single overhead cam 60° V-12 engine, with a compression ratio of 6.65:1 and a single-stage, single-speed supercharger. This was a right-hand tractor engine (the V-1710 was built in both right-hand and left-hand configurations) which drove a 10 foot, 6 inch (3.200 meter) diameter, three-bladed, Curtiss Electric constant-speed propeller through a 2.00:1 gear reduction.

The V-1710-39 had a Normal Power rating of 880 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. at Sea Level; Take Off Power rating of 1,150 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m. at Sea Level, with 44.5 inches of manifold pressure (1.51 Bar), 5 minute limit; and a War Emergency Power rating of 1,490 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m., with 56 inches of manifold pressure (1.90 Bar). The V-1710-F3R was 3 feet, ¾ inches (0.934 meters) high, 2 feet, 5-9/32 inches (0.744 meters) wide and 7 feet, 1-5/8 inches (2.175 meters) long. It had a dry weight of 1,310 pounds (594 kilograms).

North American Aviation XP-51 41-038 at NACA Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. (NASA)

The XP-51 tested at Wright Field had a maximum speed of 382.0 miles per hour (614.8 kilometers per hour) at 13,000 feet (3,962 meters) at wide open throttle, and cruise speed of 300 miles per hour (483 kilometers per hour).

Below 20,000 feet (6,096 meters), the Mustang was the fastest fighter in the world. The Mk.I was 30 m.p.h. (48 kilometers per hour) faster than its contemporary, the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, though both used exactly the same engine. Below 15,000 feet (4,572 meters), the Mustang was also 30–35 m.p.h (48–56 km/h) faster than a Supermarine Spitfire, which was equipped with the more powerful Roll-Royce Merlin V-12.

The service ceiling was 30,800 feet (9,388 meters) and range was 750 miles (1,207 kilometers).

North American Aviation XP-51 41-038 at NACA Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, rear view. (NASA)

Armament consisted of two synchronized Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns mounted in the nose under the engine and firing through the propeller, and two more .50-caliber and four Browning .303 Mk.II machine guns in the wings.

North American Aviation XP-51 instrument panel. (U.S. Air Force)

Two Mustang Mk.Is, AG348 and AG354, were taken from the first RAF production order and sent to Wright Field for testing by the U.S. Army Air Corps. These airplanes, assigned Air Corps serial numbers 41-038 and 41-039, were designated XP-51. They would be developed into the legendary P-51 Mustang. In production from 1941 to 1945, a total of 16,766 Mustangs of all variants were built.

North American XP-51 41-038 was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. It was restored in 1976. It is now in the collection of the EAA AirVenture Museum, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. It has a current FAA registration number, N51NA.

North American Aviation XP-51 41-038 in the collection of the Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture Museum, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. (EAA AirVenture Museum)
North American Aviation XP-51 41-038 in the collection of the Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture Museum, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. (EAA AirVenture Museum)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

29 December 1939

The prototype Consolidated XB-24 heavy bomber takes off from Lindbergh Field.

29 December 1939: Consolidated Aircraft Corporation’s chief test pilot, William B. (“Bill”) Wheatley, made the first flight of the XB-24, 39-556, from San Diego Municipal Airport – Lindbergh Field, at San Diego, California. The flight crew included George Newman, co-pilot, and flight engineers Jack Kline and Bob Keith. The flight lasted just 17 minutes.

This airplane (the company designation was Model 32) was the prototype of the B-24 Liberator bomber. The U.S. Army Air Corps had approached Consolidated to set up a second production line for Boeing’s B-17 Flying Fortress four-engine heavy bomber. After looking at Boeing’s Seattle operation, Consolidated’s chief executive, Reuben H. Fleet, told the Air Corps that they could build a better, more modern bomber.

Consolidated XB-24 39-556.  (San Diego Air & Space Museum)

The XB-24 was designed to be operated by a seven man crew. It was 63 feet, 9 inches (19.431 meters) long with a wingspan of 110 feet, 0 inches (33.528 meters), and was 18 feet, 8 inches (5.689 meters) high. The wings used the “Davis Airfoil” that had been used on the Model 31, a prototype flying boat, the XP4Y. The root chord was 14 feet, 0 inches (4.267 meters). Their angle of incidence was 3° 0′, with 3° 26° dihedral. The leading edges were swept aft 3° 30′.  The total wing area was 1,048 square feet (97.36 square meters).

Consolidated XB-24 39-556. (San Diego Air & Space Museum)

The empty weight of the XB-24 was approximately 27,500 pounds ( kilograms), and its maximum takeoff weight was 46,400 pounds (21,047 kilograms).

Consolidated XB-24 39-556, 26 December 1939. (San Diego Air & Space Museum)

The XB-24 was powered by four air-cooled, supercharged 1,829.4-cubic-inch-displacement (29.978 liter) Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp S3C4-G (R-1830-33) two-row fourteen-cylinder radial engines. These had a normal power rating of 1,100 horsepower at 2,550 r.p.m. to 6,100 feet (1,859 meters) and 1,000 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m at 14,500 feet. The takeoff/military power rating was 1,200 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m. to 5,000 feet (1,524 meters). The engines drove three-bladed Curtiss Electric variable-pitch propellers through a 2:1 gear reduction. The R-1830-33 was 4 feet, 0.06 inches (1.221 meters) in diameter and 5 feet, 3.48 inches (1.612 meters) long. It weighed 1,480 pounds (671 kilograms).

Consolidated XB-24 low pass.

The XB-24  had cruise speed of 186 miles per hour (299 kilometers per hour), and a maximum speed of 273 miles per hour (439 kilometers per hour) at 15,000 feet (4,572 meters). The service ceiling was 31,500 feet (9,601 meters). Maximum range was 4,700 miles (4,828 kilometers), or 3,000 miles (7,564 kilometers) with 2,500 pounds (1,134 kilograms) of bombs.

The XB-24 was 38 miles per hour (61 kilometers per hour) slower than the Air Corps specification. A number of changes were made, including replacing the supercharged R-1830-33 engines with turbocharged Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp TSC4-G (R-1830-41) engines. With the addition of the turbochargers, the R-1830-41s were able to maintain 1,200 horsepower up to 25,000 feet (7,620 meters). The propeller gear reduction ratio remained 2:1. At the same time, the round engine cowlings were changed to an elliptical shape that became a characteristic of the B-24. The modified prototype was redesignated XB-24B. In the new configuration, the bomber was able to reach 310 miles per hour (499 kilometers per hour), just 1 mile per hour under the Army’s requirement.

Consolidated XB-24 39-556 in flight near San Diego, California. (U.S. Air Force)

When the Royal Air Force bought several of the YB-24 pre-production airplanes, the Army Air Corps revised the serial numbers assigned to the B-24s. Though it was the same airplane, the XB-24′s designation was changed to XB-24B, and its serial number from 39-556 to 39-680.

The XB-24B was retained by Consolidated, now the Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft Corporation, and in 1944 further modified as a company transport. The prototype was scrapped at Brookley Field, Mobile, Alabama, 20 June 1946.

Consolidated-Vultee XB-24B 39-680 (formerly XB-24 39-556) after modification to a company transport. The large windows in the passenger areas could be covered by Venetian blinds. Photographed 23 April 1945. (San Diego Air & Space Museum)

18,482 B-24 Liberators—more than any other Allied aircraft type—were built during World War II by Consolidated at San Diego, California and Fort Worth, Texas; by North American Aviation at Dallas, Texas; by Douglas Aircraft at Tulsa, Oklahoma. More than half of the total production was built by the Ford Motor Company at Willow Run. During World War II, the B-24 served in every combat theater. In U.S. Navy service, it was designated PB4Y-1 Privateer. It was faster, had a longer range, and could carry a heavier bomb load than the Boeing B-17, but was thought to be less survivable to combat damage. As the war came to an end, hundreds of brand new B-24s were accepted by the Air Corps, but sent immediately to be scrapped rather than placed in service.

William Ballentine Wheatley, (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)

William Ballantine Wheatley was born at Chester, New York, 17 December 1902, the first of three children of William A. Wheatley, a public school superintendent, and Mabel Ballantine Wheatley. He was twice married, first, about 1927, to Esther Leary Wheatley, of Massachussetts. They had two children, Mary and William Thomas Wheatley. His second marriage was to Miss Grace Lenore Ray, 18 April 1935, at Washington, D.C. They would have a son, John, and two daughters, Grace and Charlotte Wheatley.

After two years of college, Wheatley joined the U.S. Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet, 3 March 1925. He trained as a pilot at Brooks Field, Texas, and was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant, 13 March 1926. On 4 May 1927, Lieutenant Wheatley was assigned to the 118th Observation Squadron, 43rd Division, Air Service, at Hartford, Connecticut, as a pilot and observer. He served in the Air Corps Reserve until 1937.

In 1928, Wheatley went to work for the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Company as a test pilot. He was an air mail pilot in 1928-1929, and then, in February 1929, he became a test pilot for Reuben H. Fleet’s Consolidated Aircraft Corporation at Buffalo, New York. In 1935, Consolidated moved to its new headquarters at Lindbergh Field, San Diego, California. Wheatley moved with it. He and his family lived in a 3 bedroom home about three miles northeast of the airport. In 1940, his salary as chief test pilot of Consolidated was $50,000 per year.¹

Bill Wheatley was killed when a Royal Air Force Liberator B Mk.II, AL503, crashed into San Diego Bay during its acceptance flight, 2 June 1941. Four other Consolidated employees on board also died.

Consolidated Model LB-30, Liberator B Mk.II, AL503, photographed 2 June 1941—the same day it crashed. (Consolidated Aircraft Corporation)

¹ Approximately equivalent to $1,083,439 U.S. dollars in 2023.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes