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18 February 1943, 12:26 p.m., Pacific War Time

The second prototype Boeing XB-29 Superfortress, 41-0003, takes off from Boeing Field, 12:09 p.m., 18 February 1943. (Boeing)
The second prototype Boeing XB-29 Superfortress, 41-0003, takes off from Boeing Field, 12:09 p.m., 18 February 1943. (Boeing)

18 February 1943: At 12:09 p.m., Boeing Aircraft Company Chief Test Pilot Edmund Turney (“Eddie”) Allen took off from Boeing Field, Seattle, Washington, in the Number 2 prototype XB-29 Superfortress long-range heavy bomber, serial number 41-0003. Allen’s co-pilot was engineering test pilot Robert R. Dansfield. The rest of the XB-29 flight crew were Charles Edmund Blaine, flight test engineer; Fritz Mohn, senior inspector; Vincent W. North, aerodynamicist; Harry William Ralston, radio operator; Barclay J. Henshaw, flight test analyst; Thomas R. Lankford, engineer; Robert Willis Maxfield, flight test engineer; Raymond Louis Basel, flight test engineer; Edward I. Wersebe, flight test engineer.

Edmund T. ("Eddie") Allen. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)
Edmund Turney Allen. (San Diego Air & Space Museum Archive)

41-0003 had first flown on 30 December 1942, piloted by Allen. During that flight, the prototype bomber suffered a major engine fire and Eddie Allen’s performance in returning the airplane to the airport later earned him the U.S. Army’s Air Medal, awarded on the specific orders of President Harry S. Truman.

Problems with the XB-29s’ Wright R-3350-13 engines had caused major delays in the B-29 testing program. The Number 2 aircraft had its engines replaced with those from the first XB-29, 41-0002. By 18 February, 41-0003 had made only eight flights, with a total flight time of 7 hours, 27 minutes.

The ninth test flight of 41-0003 was planned to test the climb performance to 25,000 feet (7,620 meters) and to collect engine cooling data.

At 12:17 p.m., 41-0003 was climbing through 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) when the engine (the outboard engine on the left wing) caught fire. The engine was shut down and CO2 fire extinguishers were activated. Eddie Allen began a descent and turned back toward Boeing Field.

The wind was out of the south at 5 miles per hour (2.24 meters per second) so it was decided to land on Runway 13, the southeast/northwest runway. At 12:24, radio operator Harry Ralston reported that the XB-29 was 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) northeast of the field at 1,200 feet (366 meters).

The airplane was in the landing pattern turning from the downwind leg to the base leg when at 12:25 an explosion occurred. Ralston was heard to say, “Allen, better get this thing down in a hurry. The wing spar is burning badly.”

In order to save weight, various parts of the Wright R-3350 engine were made of magnesium, a flammable metal which burned at a very high temperature. With an engine on fire, the bomber’s wing structure was extremely vulnerable.

The prototype bomber was now shedding parts and left a trail behind it on the ground. The fire was now burning inside the fuselage. Three crew members bailed out but the altitude was too low and they were killed.

At 12:26 p.m., Boeing XB-29 41-0003 crashed into the Frye Meat Packing Plant, south of downtown Seattle, and exploded. Nearly 5,000 gallons (18,927 liters) of gasoline started a massive fire. The 8 men still aboard the prototype bomber were killed, as were 20 employees inside the building. A firefighter who responded was also killed.

The Frye packing plant on fire, 18 February 1943. (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

Three XB-29 prototypes were built. The XB-29 was 98 feet, 2 inches (29.896 meters) long with a wing span of 141 feet, 3 inches (43.053 meters), and 27 feet, 9 inches (8.458 meters) high to the top of its vertical fin. The prototype bomber had a gross weight of 105,000 pounds (47,627.2 kilograms).

Boeing XB-29-BO, 41-002, the first XB-29 built. (U.S. Air Force)
Boeing XB-29-BO, 41-002, the first XB-29 built. (U.S. Air Force)

The XB-29 was powered by four 3,347.662-cubic-inch-displacement (54.858 liter) air-cooled, supercharged, Wright Aeronautical Division Cyclone 18 670C18H1 (R-3350-13) two-row 18-cylinder radial engines (also known as the Duplex-Cyclone) with a compression ratio of 6.85:1. The R-3350-13 had a Normal Power rating of 2,000 horsepower at 2,400 r.p.m., and 2,200 horsepower at 2,800 r.p.m. for takeoff, using 100 octane aviation gasoline. The engines turned 17-foot-diameter (5.182 meters) three-bladed Hamilton Standard Hydromatic constant-speed propellers through a 0.35:1 gear reduction. The R-3350-13 was 76.26 inches (1.937 meters) long, 55.78 inches (1.417 meters) in diameter, and weighed 2,668 pounds (1,210 kilograms).

The XB-29 had a maximum speed of 368 miles per hour (592 kilometers per hour) and cruised at 255 miles per hour (410 kilometers per hour). Its service ceiling was 32,100 feet (9,784 meters). The airplane was designed to carry 20,000 pounds (9,072 kilograms) of bombs.

The B-29 Superfortress was the most technologically advanced—and complex—aircraft of the War. It required the manufacturing capabilities of the entire nation to produce. Over 1,400,000 engineering man-hours had been required to design the prototypes. It would be manufactured by Boeing at Seattle and Renton, Washington and at Wichita, Kansas; by Glenn L. Martin Company at Omaha, Nebraska; and by Bell Aircraft Corporation, Atlanta, Georgia.

There were three XB-29 prototypes; 14 YB-29 pre-production test aircraft; 2,513 B-29; 1,119 B-29A; and 311 B-29B Superfortress aircraft. The bomber served during World War II and the Korean War and continued in active U.S. service until 1960.

The Eddie Allen.

The employees of the Boeing plant at Wichita, Kansas donated the money to build a B-29 to be named in honor of Eddie Allen. B-29-40-BW 42-24579 flew 24 combat missions. On its final mission over Tokyo, Japan, the Eddie Allen was so badly damaged that, though it was able to reach its base on the island of Tinian, it never flew again.

Boeing B-29 Superfortress "Eddie Allen." (U.S. Air Force)
Boeing Wichita-built B-29-40-BW Superfortress 42-24579, “Eddie Allen,” of the 45th Bombardment Squadron (Very Heavy), 40th Bombardment Group (Very Heavy), XX Bomber Command, circa 1944. (U.S. Air Force)
Boeing's acknoledgemnt of the sacrifice of its flight test crew, 18 February 1943,
Boeing’s acknowledgement of the sacrifice of its flight test crew, 18 February 1943, from the annual report to the shareholders.

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

15 February 1946

Douglas XC-112A Liftmaster 45-873 (U.S. Air Force)
Douglas XC-112A 45-873 (W. T. Larkins Collection/Wikipedia)

15 February 1946: First flight of Douglas XC-112A (s/n 36326) 45-873.

In 1944, the U.S. Army Air Corps had requested a faster, higher-flying variant of the Douglas C-54E Skymaster, with a pressurized cabin. Douglas Aircraft Company developed the XC-112A in response. It was completed 11 February 1946 and made its first flight 4 days later. With the end of World War II, military requirements were scaled back and no orders for the type were placed.

Douglas saw a need for a new post-war civil airliner to compete with the Lockheed L-049 Constellation. Based on the XC-112A, the prototype Douglas DC-6 was built and made its first flight four months later, 29 June 1946.

Prototype Douglas DC-6 civil transport. (Century of Flight)

The Air Force ordered the twenty-sixth production Douglas DC-6 as a presidential transport, designated VC-118, The Independence. Beginning in 1951, the Air Force ordered a variant of the DC-6A as a the C-118A Liftmaster military transport and MC-118A medical transport. The U.S. Navy ordered it as the R6D-1.

The Douglas DC-6 was flown by a pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and a navigator on longer flights. It was designed to carry between 48 and 68 passengers, depending on variant.

The DC-6 was 100 feet, 7 inches (30.658 meters) long with a wingspan of 117 feet, 6 inches (35.814 meters) and overall height of 28 feet, 5 inches (8.612 meters). The aircraft had an empty weight of 55,567 pounds (25,205 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 97,200 pounds (44,090 kilograms).

The initial production DC-6 was powered by four 2,804.4-cubic-inch-displacement (45.956 liter), air-cooled, supercharged Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp CA15 two-row, 18 cylinder radial engines with a compression ratio of 6.75:1. The CA15 had a Normal Power rating of 1,800 h.p. at 2,600 r.p.m. at 6,000 feet (1,829 meters), 1,600 horsepower at 16,000 feet (4,877 meters), and 2,400 h.p. at 2,800 r.p.m with water injection for take off. The engines drove  three-bladed Hamilton Standard Hydromatic 43E60 constant-speed propellers with a 15 foot, 2 inch (4.623 meter) diameter through a 0.450:1 gear reduction. The Double Wasp CA15 was 6 feet, 4.39 inches (1.940 meters) long, 4 feet, 4.80 inches (1.341 meters) in diameter, and weighed 2,330 pounds (1,057 kilograms).

The Douglas DC-6 had a cruise speed of 311 miles per hour (501 kilometers per hour) and range of 4,584 miles (7,377 kilometers).

XC-112A 45-873 was redesignated YC-112A and was retained by the Air Force before being transferred to the Civil Aeronautics Administration at Oklahoma City, where it was used as a ground trainer. 36326 was sold at auction as surplus equipment, and was purchased by Conner Airlines, Inc. Miami, Florida and received its first civil registration, N6166G, 1 August 1956. The YC-112A was certified in the transport category, 20 August 1956.

Conner Airlines sold 36326 to Compañia Ecuatoriana de Aviación (CEA), an Ecuadorian airline. Registered HC-ADJ, Ecuatoriana operated 36326 for several years.

It was next re-registered N6166G, 1 August 1962, owned by ASA International. A few months later, 1 May 1963, 36326 was registered to Trabajeros Aereos del Sahara SA (TASSA) a Spanish charter company specializing in the support of oil drilling operations in the Sahara, registered EC-AUC.

XC-112A was operated as a DC-6, EC-AUC, by TASSA Air Charter, seen here at London Gatwick, 29 August 1964. (RuthAS)
The XC-112A was operated as EC-AUC by TASSA Air Charter, seen here at London Gatwick, 29 August 1964. (RuthAS)

In 1965, with a private owner, 36326 was once again re-registered N6166G. Just two weeks after that, 1 June 1965, 36326 was registered to TransAir Canada as CF-TAX.

A TransAir DC-6
A TransAir DC-6

Two years later, 13 June 1967, Mercer Airlines bought 36326. This time the airplane was registered N901MA. Mercer was a charter company which also operated a Douglas C-47 and Douglas DC-4.

N901MA at Hollywood-Burbank Airport (Bureau d'Archives des Accidents d'Avion)
N901MA at Hollywood-Burbank Airport (Bureau d’Archives des Accidents d’Avion)

A Las Vegas, Nevada, hotel chartered Mercer Airlines to fly a group of passengers from Ontario International Airport (ONT), Ontario, California, to McCarran International Airport (LAS). On 8 February 1976, 36326, operating as Mercer Flight 901, was preparing to fly from Hollywood-Burbank Airport (BUR) where it was based, to ONT. The airliner had a flight crew of three: Captain James R. Seccombe, First Officer Jack R. Finger,  Flight Engineer Arthur M. Bankers. There were two flight attendants in the passenger cabin, along with another Mercer employee.

Weather at BUR was reported as 1,000 feet (305 meters) scattered, 7,000 feet (2,134 meters) overcast, with visibility 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) in light rain and fog. The air temperature was 56 °F. (13.3  °C.), the wind was 180° at 4 knots (2 meters per second).

At 10:35 a.m. PST (18:35 UTC), Flight 901 was cleared for a rolling takeoff on Burbank’s Runway 15. While on takeoff roll, Flight Engineer Bankers observed a warning light for engine (inboard, starboard wing). He called out a warning to the Captain, however, the takeoff continued.

Immediately after takeoff, a propeller blade on failed. The intense vibration from the unbalanced propeller tore the engine off of the airplane’s wing, and it fell on to the runway below.

The thrown blade passed through the lower fuselage, cut through hydraulic and pneumatic lines and electrical cables and then struck the engine (inboard, port wing), further damaging the airplane’s electrical components and putting a large hole in that engine’s forward accessory drive case. The engine rapidly lost lubricating oil.

Flight 901 declared an emergency and requested to land on Runway 07, which was approved by the Burbank control tower, though they were informed that debris from the engine was on the runway at the intersection of 15/33 and 07/25. The airplane circled to the right to line up for Runway 07.

Just prior to touchdown, warning lights indicated that the propeller on the engine had reversed. (In fact, it had not.) Captain Seccombe announced that they would only reverse and (the outboard engines, port and starboard wings) to slow 36326 after landing, and the airplane touched down very close to the approach end of the runway.

Because of the damage to the airplane’s systems, the outboard propellers would not reverse to slow the airplane and the service and emergency brakes also had failed. N901MA was in danger of running off the east end of the 6,055 foot (1,846 meters) runway, across the busy Hollywood Way and on into the city beyond.

The flight crew applied full power on the remaining three engines and again took off.  The landing gear would not retract. The electrical systems failed. The engine lost oil pressure and began to slow.

The DC-6 circled to the right again and headed toward Van Nuys Airport (VNY), 6.9 miles (11.1 kilometers) west of Hollywood-Burbank Airport. They informed Burbank tower that they would be landing on Van Nuys Runway 34L which was 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) long. Because of the emergency, the crew remained on Burbank’s radio frequency. The engine then stopped but the propeller could not be feathered.

Bob Hope Burbank irport is at the right edge of this image, and Van Nuys Airport is at the left. Woodly Golf Course is just south of VNY. (Google Earth image)
Hollywood-Burbank Airport (BUR) is at the right edge of this image, and Van Nuys Airport is at the left. Woodley Lakes Golf Course is just south of VNY. (Google Earth image)

Van Nuys weather was reported as 600 feet (183 meters) scattered, 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) overcast, with visibility 10 miles (16.1 kilometers) in light rain, temperature 55 °F. (12.8 °C.). The airliner was flying in and out of the clouds and the crew was on instruments. [1045: “Special, 1,200 scattered, 10,000 feet overcast, visibility—10 miles, rainshowers, wind—130° at 4 kn, altimeter setting—29.93 in.”]

Because of the drag of the unfeathered engine propeller and the extended landing gear, the Flight 901 was unable to maintain altitude with the two remaining engines. The airplane was not able to reach the runway at VNY.

A forced landing was made on a golf course just south of the airport. The airplane touched down about 1 mile south of the threshold of Runway 34L on the main landing gear and bounced three times. At 10:44:55, the nose then struck the foundation of a partially constructed building, crushing the cockpit. All three flight crew members were killed by the impact.

Douglas YC-112A serial number 36326, N901MA, shortly after crash landing at Woodley Golf Course, Van Nuys, California, 8 February 1976. (Bureau d’Archives des Accidents d’Avions)

Both flight attendants were trapped under their damaged seats but were able to free themselves. They and the passenger were able to escape from the wreck with minor injuries.

Los Angeles City Fire Department firefighters attempted to rescue the crew by cutting into the fuselage. Even though the area around the airplane had been covered with fire-retardant foam, at about 20 minutes after the crash, sparks from the power saw ignited gasoline fumes. Fire erupted around the airplane. Ten firefighters were burned, three severely. N901MA was destroyed.

"Feb. 8, 1976: Firemen scatter after saw ignites gas fumes at crash site of DC-6 in Van Nuys. Three trapped crew members of Mercer Enterprises DC-6 charter plane died. Ten firemen were injured." (Boris Yaro/Los Angeles Times)
“Feb. 8, 1976: Firemen scatter after saw ignites gas fumes at crash site of DC-6 in Van Nuys. Three trapped crew members of Mercer Enterprises DC-6 charter plane died. Ten firemen were injured.” (Boris Yaro/Los Angeles Times)

At the time of the accident, YC-112A 36326 was just three days short of the 30th anniversary of its completion at Douglas. It had flown a total of 10,280.4 hours. It was powered by three Pratt & Whitney R-2800-83 AMS, and one R-2800-CA18 Double Wasp engines. All four engines drove three-bladed Curtiss-Wright Type C632-S constant-speed propellers. The failed propeller had been overhauled then installed on N901MA 85 hours prior to the 8 February flight.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the accident. It was found that a fatigue fracture in the leading edge of the propeller blade had caused the failure. Though the propeller had recently been overhauled, it was discovered that the most recent procedures had not been followed. This required that the rubber deicing boots be stripped so that a magnetic inspection could be made of the blade’s entire surface. Because this had not been done, the crack in the hollow steel blade was not found.

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

13 February 1950

A flight of two Consolidated-Vultee B-36B Peacemaker strategic bombers. (LIFE Magazine)

13 February 1950: Two Consolidated-Vultee B-36B Peacemaker long-range strategic bombers of the 436th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 7th Bombardment Wing (Heavy), Strategic Air Command, departed Eielson Air Force Base (EIL), Fairbanks, Alaska, at 4:27 p.m., Alaska Standard Time (01:27 UTC), on a planned 24-hour nuclear strike training mission.

B-36B-15-CF 44-92075 was under the command of Captain Harold Leslie Barry, United States Air Force.¹ There were a total of seventeen men on board.

Also on board was a Mark 4 nuclear bomb.

The B-36s were flown to Alaska from Carswell Air Force Base, Fort Worth, Texas, by another crew. The surface air temperature at Eielson was -40 °F. (-40 °C.), so cold that if the bomber’s engines were shut down, they could not be restarted. Crews were exchanged and the airplane was serviced prior to takeoff for the training mission. In addition to the flight crew of fifteen, a Bomb Commander and a Weaponeer were aboard.

Consolidated-Vultee B-36 44-92027. (LIFE Magazine)

After departure, 44-92075 began the long climb toward 40,000 feet (12,192 meters). The flight proceeded along the Pacific Coast of North America toward the practice target city of San Francisco, California. The weather was poor and the bomber began to accumulate ice on the airframe and propellers.

About seven hours into the mission, three of the six radial engines began to lose power due to intake icing. Then the engine, outboard on the left wing, caught fire and was shut down. A few minutes later, the engine, the center position on the left wing, also caught fire and was shut down. The engine lost power and its propeller was feathered to reduce drag. The bomber was now flying on only three engines, all on the right wing, and was losing altitude. When the engine, center on the right wing, caught fire, the bomber had to be abandoned. It was decided to jettison the atomic bomb into the Pacific Ocean.

Consolidated-Vultee B-36B-1-CF Peacemaker of the 7th Bombardment Wing. (U.S. Air Force)

The Mark 4 did not have the plutonium “pit” installed, so a nuclear detonation was not possible. The conventional explosives would go off at a pre-set altitude and destroy the bomb and its components. This was a security measure to prevent a complete bomb from being recovered.

The bomb was released at 9,000 feet (2,743 meters), north-northwest of Princess Royal Island, off the northwest coast of British Columbia, Canada. It was fused to detonate 1,400 feet (427 meters) above the surface, and crewmen reported seeing a large explosion.

Consolidated-Vultee B-36B-1-CF Peacemaker, 44-92033, of the 7th Bombardment Wing (Heavy). This bomber is similar to 44-92075. (U.S. Air Force)

Flying over Princess Royal Island, Captain Barry ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft. He placed the B-36 on autopilot. Barry was the last man to leave 44-92075. Descending in his parachute, he saw the bomber circle the island once before being lost from sight.

Consolidated-VulteeB-36B-1-CF Peacemaker, 44-92033, of the 7th Bombardment Wing (Heavy). This bomber is similar to 44-92075. (U.S. Air Force)

Twelve of the crew survived. Five were missing and it is presumed that they landed in the water. Under the conditions, they could have survived only a short time. The survivors had all been rescued by 16 February.

It was assumed that 44-92075 had gone down in the Pacific Ocean.

Approximate path of B-36B 44-92075, 13 February 1950. (Royal Aviation Museum of British Columbia)

On 20 August 1953, a Royal Canadian Air Force airplane discovered the wreck of the missing B-36 on a mountain on the east side of Kispiox Valley, near the confluence of the Kispiox and Skeena Rivers in northern British Columbia.

The U.S. Air Force made several attempts to reach the crash site, but it wasn’t until August 1954 that they succeeded. After recovering sensitive equipment from the wreckage, the bomber was destroyed by explosives.

Bomb, Mark 4. (Nuclear Weapons Archive)
Bomb, Mark 4. (Nuclear Weapons Archive)

The Mark 4 bomb was designed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). It was a development of the World War II implosion-type Mark 3 “Fat Man.” The bomb was 10 feet, 8 inches (3.351 meters) long with a maximum diameter of 5 feet, 0 inches (1.524 meters). Its weight is estimated at 10,800–10,900 pounds (4,899–4,944 kilograms).

The core of the bomb was a spherical composite of plutonium and highly-enriched uranium. This was surrounded by approximately 5,500 pounds (2,495 kilograms) of high explosive “lenses”—very complex-shaped charges designed to focus the explosive force inward in a very precise manner. When detonated, the high explosive “imploded” the core, crushing it into a smaller, much more dense mass. This achieved a “critical mass” and a fission chain reaction resulted.

The Mark 4 was tested during Operation Ranger at the Nevada Test Site, Frenchman Flat, Nevada, between 27 January and 6 February 1951. Five bombs were dropped from a Boeing B-50 Superfortress of the 4925th Special Weapons Group from Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. The first four bombs were dropped from a height of 19,700 feet (6,005 meters) above ground level (AGL) and detonated at 1,060–1,100 feet (323–335 meters) AGL. Shot Fox was dropped from 29,700 feet (9,053 meters) AGL and detonated at 1,435 feet (437 meters) AGL. (Ground level at Frenchman Flat is 3,140 feet (957 meters) above Sea Level).

Operation Ranger, Shot Able, 5:45 a.m., 27 January 1951. Mark 4 bomb with Type D pit, 1,060 foot (323 meters) air burst. Yield, 1 kiloton. This was the first nuclear test in the continental United States since Trinity, 16 July 1945.

The Mark 4 was produced with explosive yields ranging from 1 to 31 kilotons. 550 were built.

Consolidated-Vultee B-36B-15-CF Peacemaker 44-92075 was completed at Air Force Plant 4, Fort Worth, Texas, on 31 July 1949. It had been flown a total of 185 hours, 25 minutes.

The B-36B is 162 feet, 1 inch (49.403 meters) long with a wingspan of 230 feet (70.104 meters) and overall height of 46 feet, 8 inches (14.224 meters). The wings’ leading edges were swept aft 15° 5′ 39″. Their angle of incidence was 3°, with -2° twist and 2° dihedral. The empty weight is 137,165 pounds (62,217 kilograms) and the maximum takeoff weight was 326,000 pounds (147,871 kilograms).

With a wing area of 4,772 square feet (443 square meters) and 21,000 horsepower, the B-36 could fly far higher than any jet fighter of the early 1950s.

A Pratt & Whitney R-4360-41 Wasp Major aircraft engine on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. This engine weighs 3,404 pounds (1,544 kilograms). Wikipedia
A Pratt & Whitney Wasp Major B4 (R-4360-41) aircraft engine on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. This engine is 9 feet, 1¾-inch (2.788 meters) long and 4 feet, 6 inches (1.372 meters) in diameter. It weighs 3,567 pounds (1,618 kilograms). Wikipedia

The B-36B was powered by six air-cooled, supercharged and turbocharged 4,362.49 cubic-inch-displacement (71.488 liter) Pratt & Whitney Wasp Major B4 (R-4360-41) four-row, 28-cylinder radial engines placed inside the wings in a pusher configuration. These had a compression ratio of 6.7:1 and required 115/145 aviation gasoline. Each engine was equipped with two General Electric BH-1 turbochargers. The R-4360-41 had a Normal Power rating of 2,650 horsepower at 2,550 r.p.m. Its Takeoff/Military Power rating was 3,500 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m., with water/alcohol injection. The engines turned three-bladed Curtiss Electric constant-speed, reversible propellers with a diameter of 19 feet, 0 inches (5.791 meters) through a 0.375:1 gear reduction. The R-4360-41 is 9 feet, 1.75 inches (2.788 meters) long, 4 feet, 6.00 inches (1.372 meters) in diameter, and weighs 3,567 pounds (1,618 kilograms).

The B-36B Peacemaker had a cruise speed of 193 knots (222 miles per hour/357 kilometers per hour) and a maximum speed of 338 knots (389 miles per hour/626 kilometers per hour) at 35,500 feet (10,820 meters). The service ceiling was 43,700 feet (13,320 meters) and its combat radius was 3,710 nautical miles (4,269 statute miles/6,871 kilometers). The maximum ferry range was 8,478 nautical miles (9,756 statute miles/15,709 kilometers).

The B-36 was defended by sixteen M24A-1 20 mm automatic cannons. Six retractable gun turrets each each had a pair of 20 mm cannon, with 600 rounds of ammunition per gun (400 r.p.g.for the nose guns). These turrets were remotely operated by gunners using optical sights. Two optically-sighted 20 mm guns were in the nose, and two more were in a tail turret, also remotely operated and aimed by radar.

In this photograph, two of the B-36's retractable gun turrets are visibile behind the cockpit, as well as the nose gun turret. (Unattributed)
In this photograph, two of the B-36’s retractable gun turrets are visible behind the cockpit, as well as the nose gun turret. The plexiglas “blister” just ahead and below the dorsal turrets is a gunner’s sighting station. The bomb bay doors are open. (Unattributed)

The B-36 was designed during World War II and nuclear weapons were unknown to the Consolidate-Vultee Aircraft Corporation engineers. The bomber was built to carry up to 86,000 pounds (39,009 kilograms) of conventional bombs in the four-section bomb bay. It could carry two 43,600 pound (19,777 kilogram) T-12 Cloudmakers, a conventional explosive earth-penetrating bomb. When armed with nuclear weapons, the B-36 could carry several Mk.15 thermonuclear bombs. By combining the bomb bays, one Mk.17 25-megaton thermonuclear bomb could be carried.

Between 1946 and 1954, 384 B-36 Peacemakers were built by Convair. 73 of these were B-36Bs, the last of which were delivered to the Air Force in September 1950. By 1952, 64 B-36Bs had been upgraded to B-36Ds.

The B-36 Peacemaker was never used in combat. Only four still exist.

¹ Captain Barry was killed along with other 11 crewmen, 27 April 1951, when the B-36D-25-CF on which he was acting as co-pilot, 49-2658, crashed following a mid-air collision with a North American F-51-25-NT Mustang, 44-84973, 50 miles (80 kilometers) northeast of Oklahoma, City, Oklahoma, U.S.A. The Mustang’s pilot was also killed.

© 2020, Bryan R. Swopes

12 December 1953

Bell X-1A 48-1384 in flight. The frost band on the fuselage shows the location of the cryogenic propellant tank. (U.S. Air Force)

12 December 1953: On its tenth flight, U.S. Air Force test pilot Major Chuck Yeager flew the Bell X-1A rocket plane to Mach 2.435 (1,618 miles per hour/2,604 kilometers per hour) at 74,700 feet (22,769 meters), faster than anyone had flown before.

After the rocket engine was shut down, the X-1A tumbled out of control—”divergent in three axes” in test pilot speak—and fell out of the sky. It dropped nearly 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) in 70 seconds. Yeager was exposed to accelerations of +8 to -1.5 g’s. The motion was so violent that Yeager cracked the rocketplane’s canopy with his flight helmet.

Yeager was finally able to recover by 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) and landed safely at Edwards Air Force Base.

Yeager later remarked that if the X-1A had an ejection seat he would have used it.

Bell Aircraft Corporation engineers had warned Yeager not to exceed Mach 2.3.

Major Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force, seated in the cockpit of the Bell X-1A, 48-1384, circa 1953. (U.S. Air Force)

The following is from Major Charles E. Yeager’s official post-flight report:

After a normal drop at 31,000 feet, chambers , , and were ignited and [the] airplane was accelerated up to .8 Mach number. A flight path was formed holding .8 Mach number up to 43,000 feet where chamber was ignited and the airplane accelerated in level flight to 1.1 Mach number. A climb was again started passing through 50,000 feet at 1.1 Mach number, 60,000 feet at 1.2 Mach number and a push-over was started at 62,000 feet. The top of the round-out occurred at 76,000 feet and 1.9 Mach number. The airplane was accelerated in level flight up to 2.4 [2.535 indicated] Mach number where all of the rocket chambers were cut. The flight path was very normal and nothing uneventful [sic] happened up to this point. After the engine was cut, the airplane went into a Dutch roll for approximately 2 oscillations and then started rolling to the right at a very rapid rate of roll. Full aileron and opposite rudder were applied with no effect on the rate of roll of the airplane. After approximately 8 to 10 complete rolls, the airplane stopped rolling in the inverted position and after approximately one-half of one second started rolling to the left at a rate in excess of 360 degrees per second, estimated by the pilot. At this point the pilot was completely disoriented and was not sure what maneuvers the airplane went through following the high rates of roll. Several very high ‘g’ loads both positive and negative and side loads were felt by the pilot. At one point during a negative ‘g’ load, the pilot felt the inner liner of the canopy break as the top of his pressure suit helmet came in contact with it. The first maneuver recognized by the pilot was an inverted spin at approximately 33,000 feet. The airplane then fell off into the normal spin from which the pilot recovered at 25,000 feet.

Flight test data from Yeager's 12 December 1953 flight superimposed over a photograph of the bell X-1A. (NASA)
Flight test data from Yeager’s 12 December 1953 flight superimposed over a photograph of the Bell X-1A. (NASA)

The following is a transcript of radio transmissions during the flight:

Yeager: Illegible [inaudible]—gasping—I’m down to 25,000 over Tehachapi. Don’t know
whether I can get back to the base or not.
Chase (Ridley): At 25,000 feet, Chuck?
Yeager: Can’t say much more, I got to (blurry—save myself).
Yeager: I’m—(illegible)—(Christ!)
Chase (Ridley): What say, Chuck?
Yeager: I say I don’t know if I tore anything up or not but Christ!
Chase (Murray): Tell us where you are if you can.
Yeager: I think I can get back to the base okay, Jack. Boy, I’m not going to do that any more.
Chase (Murray): Try to tell us where you are, Chuck.
Yeager: I’m (gasping)…I’ll tell you in a minute. I got 1800 lbs [nitrogen] source pressure.
Yeager: I don’t think you’ll have to run a structure demonstration on this damned thing!
Chase (Murray): Chuck from Murray, if you can give me altitude and heading, I’ll try to check you from outside.
Yeager: Be down at 18,000 feet. I’m about—I’ll be over the base at about 15,000 feet in a minute.
Chase (Murray): Yes, sir.
Yeager: Those guys were so right!
Yeager: Source pressure is still 15 seconds, I’m getting OK now.
Yeager: I got all the oscillograph data switches off. 4 fps camera off, it’s okay.
Bell Truck: Jettison and vent your tanks.
Yeager: I have already jettisoned. Now I’m venting both lox and fuel. Leaving hydrogen peroxide alone.
Bell Truck: Roger.
Yeager: I cut it, I got—in real bad trouble up there.
Yeager: Over the base right now, Kit, at 14,500 feet.
Chase (Murray): I have you.

A North American F-86E-10-NA Sabre chase plane, 51-2848, follows the Bell X-1A as it glides toward Rogers Dry Lake. (NASA)
A North American F-86E-10-NA Sabre chase plane, 51-2848, follows the Bell X-1A as it glides toward Rogers Dry Lake. (NASA)

In his autobiography, Always Another Dawn, NACA test pilot Albert Scott Crossfield wrote:

Probably no other pilot could have come through that experience alive. Much later I asked Yeager, as a matter of professional interest, exactly how he regained control of the ship. He was vague in his reply, but he said he thought that after he reached the thick atmosphere, he had deliberately put the ship into a spin.

“A spin is something I know how to get out of,” he said. “That other business— the tumble—there is no way to figure that out.”

. . . Yeager received many accolades. I didn’t begrudge him one of them. If ever a pilot deserved praise for a job well done, it was Yeager. After that X-1A episode, he never flew a rocketplane again.

Always Another Dawn: The Story of a Rocket Test Pilot, by A. Scott Crossfield with Clay Blair, Jr., The World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, Chapter 19 at Pages 183–184.  

Bell X-1A 48-1384 (U.S. Air Force)

The Bell X-1A, 48-1384, was an experimental rocket-powered high-speed, high-altitude research aircraft. It was one of four second-generation X-1s (including the X-1B, X-1D and X-1E), specifically designed to investigate dynamic stability at speeds in excess of Mach 2 and altitudes greater than 90,000 feet. It was a mid-wing monoplane with retractable tricycle landing gear. The airplane was 35 feet, 6.58 inches (10.835 meters) long with a wingspan of 30 feet, 6 inches (9.296 meters) and overall height of 10 feet, 2.37 inches (3.261 meters). The wheelbase, measured from the nose wheel axle to the main wheel axle, was  13 feet, 5.13 inches. (4.093 meters). The main wheel tread was 4 feet, 3 inches (1.295 meters). The X-1A design gross weight was 10,668 pounds (4,839 kilograms).

The X-1A was powered by a single Reaction Motors XLR11-RM-5 rocket engine with four independent combustion chambers. The XLR11 was fueled with ethyl alcohol and liquid oxygen. It produced 6,000 pounds of thrust (26.689 kilonewtons).

The Bell X-1A made its first flight 14 February 1953 with Bell test pilot Jean Ziegler in the cockpit. It reached its highest speed, Mach 2.44 on Flight 10. Its highest altitude was 90,440 feet (27,566 meters) on its 24th flight. On 8 August 1955, while still on board its B-50 drop ship, the X-1A suffered an external explosion. The rocketplane was jettisoned and destroyed when it hit the desert floor.

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

24 October 1968

William Harvey Dana, NASA Research Pilot. (National Aeronautics and Space Administration E-5327)

24 October 1968: William Harvey Dana takes the first North America Aviation X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane, 56-6670, for the 199th and final flight of the X-15 program.

Carried aloft by NASA’s Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress mothership, 52-003, the first X-15A was launched over Smith Ranch Dry Lake, about half-way between the city of Reno and the NASA High Range Tracking Station at Ely, Nevada, at 10:02:47.3 a.m., Pacific Daylight Time (17:02:47.3 UTC). Bill Dana started the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine for a planned 84 second burn. The flight plan called for the X-15 to reach Mach 5.45 and 250,000 feet (76,200 meters).

The rocketplane’s performance was very close to plan, a tribute to Dana’s piloting skill. The engine burned out after 83.8 seconds. The maximum speed was slightly lower than planned at Mach 5.38, while the peak altitude was a little higher, at 255,000 feet (77,724 meters).

Dana glided back to Edwards Air Force Base. The total duration of the flight was 11 minutes, 28.3 seconds.

Dana made his first flight in the North American Aviation X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane on 4 November 1965. He reached a maximum speed of Mach 4.22, and a peak altitude of 80,200 feet (24,445 meters). He made a total of sixteen flights in the X-15s. Dana’s highest speed was Mach 5.38, and his highest altitude, 306,900 feet, (93,543 meters), on 1 November 1966.

This had been 56-6670’s 81st flight, and the 141st time it had been carried aloft aboard a B-52.

A. Scott Crossfield, wearing a David Clark Co. XMC-2 full-pressure suit, which he helped to design and test, with the first of three North American X-15s, 56-6670. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

56-6670 is the first of three X-15s built by North American Aviation’s Los Angeles Division for NASA, the United States Air Force, and the United States Navy, to investigate the effects of hypersonic flight (Mach 5+). On 8 June 1959, North American Aviation Chief Engineering Test Pilot, and former NACA research test pilot, Albert Scott Crossfield, had made the first glide flight of 56-6670, also launched by 52-003.

NASA Research Pilot William H. Dana with North American X-15A 56-6672 on Rogers Dry Lake. (NASA)

From 8 June 1959 to 24 October 1968, the three X-15s were flown by twelve test pilots, three of whom would qualify as astronauts in the X-15. Two would go on to the Apollo Program, and one, Neil Alden Armstrong, would be the first human to set foot on the surface of the Moon, 20 July 1969. Joe Engle would fly the space shuttle. Four of the test pilots, Petersen, White, Rushworth, and Knight, flew in combat during the Vietnam War, with Bob White being awarded the Air Force Cross. Petersen, Rushworth and White reached flag rank.

Overhead view of X-15A-1 56-6670 shows the rocketplane’s overall fineness ratio and short wings. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

Flown by a single pilot/astronaut, the X-15 is a mid-wing monoplane with dorsal and ventral fin/rudders and stabilators. The wing had no dihedral, while the stabilators had a pronounced 15° anhedral. The short wings have an area of 200 square feet (18.58 square meters) and a maximum thickness of just 5%. The leading edges are swept to 25.64°. There are two small flaps but no ailerons. The entire vertical fin pivots for yaw control.

Above 100,000 feet (30,840 meters) altitude, conventional aircraft flight control surfaces are ineffective. The X-15 is equipped with a system of reaction control jets for pitch, roll and yaw control. Hydrogen peroxide was passed through a catalyst to produce steam, which supplied the control thrusters.

The forward landing gear consists of a retractable oleo strut with steerable dual wheels and there are two strut/skids at the rear of the fuselage. The gear is retracted after the X-15 is mounted on the NB-52 and is extended for landing by its own weight.

The rocketplane’s cockpit featured both a conventional control stick as well as side-controllers. It was pressurized with nitrogen gas to prevent fires. The pilot wore an MC-2 full-pressure suit manufactured by the David Clark Company of Worcester, Massachusetts, with an MA-3 helmet. The suit was pressurized below the neck seal with nitrogen, while the helmet was supplied with 100% oxygen. This pressure suit was later changed to the Air Force-standardized A/P22S.

North American Aviation, Inc. X-15A 56-6670 on Rogers Dry Lake, Edwards Air Force Base, California. (NASA)

The X-15 is 50.75 feet (15.469 meters) long with a wing span of 22.36 feet (6.815 meters). The height—the distance between the tips of the dorsal and ventral fins—is 13.5 feet (4.115 meters). The stabilator span is 18.08 feet (5.511 meters). The fuselage is 4.67 feet (1.423 meters) deep and has a maximum width of 7.33 feet (2.234 meters).

The X-15s were built primarily of a nickel/chromium/iron alloy named Inconel X, along with corrosion-resistant steel, titanium and aluminum. Inconel X is both very hard and also able to maintain its strength at the very high temperatures the X-15s were subjected to by aerodynamic heating. It was extremely difficult to machine and special fabrication techniques had to be developed.

X-15 56-6670 with NB-52A 52-003, 13 April 1960. (NASA)

Since the X-15 was built of steel rather than light-weight aluminum, as are most aircraft, it is a heavy machine, weighing approximately 14,600 pounds (6,623 kilograms) empty and 34,000 pounds (15,422 kilograms) when loaded with a pilot and propellants. The X-15s carried as much as 1,300 pounds (590 kilograms) of research instrumentation, and the equipment varied from flight to flight. The minimum flight weight (for high-speed missions): was 31,292 pounds (14,194 kilograms) The maximum weight was 52,117 pounds (23,640 kilograms) at drop (modified X-15A-2 with external propellant tanks).

Initial flights were flown with a 5 foot, 11 inch (1.803 meters)-long air data boom at the nose, but this would later be replaced by the “ball nose” air sensor system. The data boom contained a standard pitot-static system along with angle-of-attack and sideslip vanes. The boom and ball nose were interchangeable.

Delays in the production of the planned Reaction Motors XLR99 rocket engine forced engineers to adapt two vertically-stacked Reaction Motors XLR11-RM-5 four-chamber rocket engines to the X-15 for early flights. This was a well-known engine which was used on the previous rocketplanes. The XLR11 burned a mixture of ethyl alcohol and water with liquid oxygen. Each of the engines’ four chambers could be ignited individually. Each engine was rated at 11,800 pounds of thrust (58.49 kilonewtons) at Sea Level.

Thiokol Reaction Motors Division XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine. (U.S. Air Force)

The Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine was throttleable by the pilot from 28,500 to 60,000 pounds of thrust. The engine was rated at 50,000 pounds of thrust (222.41 kilonewtons) at Sea Level; 57,000 pounds (253.55 kilonewtons) at 45,000 feet (13,716 meters), the typical drop altitude; and 57,850 pounds (257.33 kilonewtons) of thrust at 100,000 feet (30,480 meters). Individual engines varied slightly. A few produced as much as 61,000 pounds of thrust (271.34 kilonewtons).

The XLR99 burned anhydrous ammonia and liquid oxygen. The flame temperature was approximately 5,000 °F. (2,760 °C.) The engine was cooled with circulating liquid oxygen. To protect the exhaust nozzle, it was flame-sprayed with ceramic coating of zirconium dioxide. The engine is 6 feet, 10 inches (2.083 meters) long and 3 feet, 3.3 inches (0.998 meters) in diameter. It weighs 910 pounds (413 kilograms). The Time Between Overhauls (TBO) is 1 hour of operation, or 100 starts.

The XLR99 proved to be very reliable. 169 X-15 flights were made using the XLR99. 165 of these had successful engine operation. It started on the first attempt 159 times.

The highest speed achieved during the program was with the modified number two ship, X-15A-2 56-6671, flown by Pete Knight to Mach 6.70 (6,620 feet per second/4,520 miles per hour/ kilometers per hour) at 102,700 feet (31,303 meters). On this flight, the rocketplane exceeded its maximum design speed of 6,600 feet per second (2,012 meters per second).

The maximum altitude was reached by Joe Walker, 22 August 1963, when he flew 56-6672 to 354,200 feet (107,960 meters).

The longest flight was flown by Neil Armstrong, 20 April 1962, with a duration of 12 minutes, 28.7 seconds.

The North American Aviation, Inc., X-15A-1, 56-6670, being brought into the Arts and Industries building, June 1969. (Smithsonian Institution Archives SI-A-4145-23-A)

North American Aviation X-15A-1 56-6670 is on display at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. X-15A-2 56-6671 is at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

North American Aviation Inc./U.S. Air Force/NASA X-15A 56-6670, hypersonic research rocketplane on display at the National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)

© 2023, Bryan R. Swopes