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12 October 1954

North American Aviation’s Chief Engineering Test Pilot, George S. Welch, with the first prototype YF-100A Super Sabre, 52-5754. (U.S. Air Force)

12 October 1954: North American Aviation Chief Engineering Test Pilot George S. Welch, testing the ninth production F-100A-1-NA Super Sabre, serial number 52-5764, made a planned 7.3 G pullout from a Mach 1.55 dive to verify the aircraft’s design limits.

A Boeing B-47 Stratojet crew flying at 25,000 feet (7,620 meters) reported that Welch’s F-100 winged over and began a rapid descent, passing within four miles (6.4 kilometers) of their position and diving at a very high speed. The aircraft appeared to be under control but then suddenly disintegrated.

The Super Sabre had encountered Inertial Roll Coupling. It went out of control and then disintegrated. Its nose folded over the windshield, crushing Welch in his seat. The vertical fin broke away. The ejection seat fired but because of the supersonic speeds the parachute was shredded.

Welch was still alive when rescue teams arrived. He died while being flown to a hospital by helicopter.

George S. Welch, North American Aviation test pilot, wearing his orange flight helmet. An F-86 Sabre is in the background. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Photo Archives)

Inertial roll coupling led to the death of test pilot Mel Apt when his rocket-powered airplane, the Bell X-2, went out of control at Mach 3.2 It nearly killed Chuck Yeager when he lost control of the Bell X-1B at Mach 2.4. It is a complex phenomenon which I will briefly attempt to explain:

To increase maximum speed of transonic and supersonic airplanes during the late 1940s and early 1950s, their wings and tail surfaces were made smaller in order to decrease aerodynamic drag. At the same time, the fuselage became longer and the placement of engines, armament, landing gear, fuel, etc., within the fuselage concentrated the airplane’s mass near its center. While the gyroscopic effects of the turbojet engine contributed some degree of longitudinal stability, the torque effect made rolls to the left occur more easily, but with a higher rate than a roll to the right. The resistance to a change in attitude—inertia—decreased at the same time that the control surfaces’ ability to control the airplanes’ attitude also decreased. The airplanes became unstable.

This North American Aviation F-100-1-NA Super Sabre, 52-5761, is from the same production black as the aircraft flown by George Welch, 12 October 1954. (U.S. Air Force)
This North American Aviation F-100-1-NA Super Sabre, 52-5761, is from the same production block as the aircraft flown by George Welch, 12 October 1954. This photograph shows FW-761 with the original short vertical fin of the F-100A. (North American Aviation, Inc.)
North American Aviation F-100A-1-NA Super Sabre  52-5763, sister ship of the airplane flown by George Welch, 12 October 1954. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

When George Welch tried to pull the F-100 out of its supersonic dive, the airplane’s speed began to decrease as the angle of attack increased. The wings’ ability to stabilize the natural roll instability of the fuselage’s concentrated mass was lessened, and the ailerons could not provide sufficient control to counteract this rolling tendency. The low vertical fin of the original F-100A did not provide adequate directional stability. The Super Sabre rolled and then yawed, entering a side slip. This caused the Super Sabre to pitch down and it was suddenly out of control in all three axes. The physical forces exceeded the strength of the aircraft structure and it came apart.¹

[Aerodynamicists and Aeronautical Engineers: Your corrective comments are welcome.]

Wreckage of North American Aviation F-100A Super Sabre, 12 October 1954. (U.S. Air Force)
Wreckage of North American Aviation F-100A-1-NA Super Sabre 52-5764, 12 October 1954. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

Following the death of George Welch, NACA High Speed Flight Station research test pilot Albert Scott Crossfield spent three months conducting flight tests of the F-100A, demonstrating its inertial roll coupling characteristics using three different vertical fins. F-100A-5-NA 52-5778 was Crossfield’s test aircraft.

Scott Crossfield flew the F-100A-5-NA, 52-5778, in flight testing at the NACA High Speed Flight Station, October–December 1954. (NASA)
Test Pilot A. Scott Crossfield flew this F-100A-5-NA, 52-5778, in flight testing at the NACA High Speed Flight Station, October–December 1954. (NASA)

The North American Aviation F-100 Super Sabre was designed as a supersonic day fighter. Initially intended as an improved F-86D and F-86E, it soon developed into an almost completely new airplane. The fuselage incorporated the “area rule,” a narrowing in the fuselage width at the wings to increase transonic performance, similar to the Convair F-102A. The Super Sabre had a 49° 2′ sweep to the leading edges of the wings and horizontal stabilizer. The ailerons were placed inboard on the wings and there were no flaps, resulting in a high stall speed in landing configuration. The horizontal stabilizer was moved to the bottom of the fuselage to keep it out of the turbulence created by the wings at high angles of attack. The F-100A had a distinctively shorter vertical fin than the YF-100A. The upper segment of the vertical fin was swept 49° 43′.

There were two service test prototypes, designated YF-100A, followed by the production F-100A series. The first ten production aircraft (all of the Block 1 variants) were used in the flight testing program.

The F-100A Super Sabre was 47 feet, 1¼ inches (14.357 meters) long with a wingspan of 36 feet, 6 inches (11.125 meters). With the shorter vertical fin, the initial F-100As had an overall height of 13 feet, 4 inches (4.064 meters), 11 inches (27.9 centimeters) less than the YF-100A.

Following Welch's accident, NACA designed a new vertical fin for the F-100A. Ii was taller but also had a longer chord. This resulted in a 10% increase in area. (NASA E-1573)
Following Welch’s accident, the NACA High Speed Flight Station tested the Super Sabre and designed a new vertical fin for the F-100A. The two F-100As in this photograph are both from the second production block (F-100A-5-NA). 52-5778, on the left, has the new fin, while 52-5773 retains the original short fin. The new fin is taller but also has a longer chord. This resulted in a 10% increase in area. (NASA)

The F-100A had an empty weight of 18,135 pounds (8,226 kilograms), and gross weight of 28,899 pounds (13,108 kilograms). Maximum takeoff weight was 35,600 pounds (16,148 kilograms). It had an internal fuel capacity of 755 gallons (2,858 liters) and could carry two 275 gallon (1,041 liter) external fuel tanks.

The early F-100As were powered by a Pratt & Whitney Turbo Wasp J57-P-7 afterburning turbojet engine. It was rated at  9,700 pounds of thrust (43.148 kilonewtons) for takeoff, and 14,800 pounds (65.834 kilonewtons) with afterburner. Later production aircraft used a J57-P-39 engine. The J57 was a two-spool axial flow turbojet which had a 16-stage compressor, and a 3-stage turbine. (Both had high- and low-pressure stages.) The engine was 15 feet, 3.5 inches (4.661 meters) long, 3 feet, 5.0 inches (1.041 meters) in diameter, and weighed 4,390 pounds (1,991 kilograms).

The Super Sabre was the first U.S. Air Force fighter capable of supersonic speed in level flight. It could reach 760 miles per hour (1,223 kilometers) at Sea Level. (Mach 1 is 761.1 miles per hour, 1,224.9 kilometers per hour, under standard atmospheric conditions.) Its maximum speed was 852 miles per hour (1,371 kilometers per hour) at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters). The service ceiling was 44,900 feet (13,686 meters). Maximum range with external fuel was 1,489 miles (2,396 kilometers).

The F-100 was armed with four M-39 20 mm autocannons, capable of firing at a rate of 1,500 rounds per minute. The ammunition capacity of the F-100 was 200 rounds per gun.

North American Aviation built 199 F-100A Super Sabres at its Inglewood, California, plant before production shifted to the F-100C fighter bomber variant. Approximately 25% of all F-100As were lost in accidents.

his is the fifth production F-100A-1-NA Super Sabre, 52-5760, in flight southeast of San Bernardino, California. This fighter is from the same production block as 52-5764, the fighter being tested by George Welch, 12 October 1954. In this photograph, FW-760 has the taller vertical fin that was designed to improve the Super Sabre's controlability. (U.S. Air Force)
This is the fifth production F-100A-1-NA Super Sabre, 52-5760, in flight southeast of San Bernardino, California, 24 June 1955. This fighter is from the same production block as 52-5764, the fighter being tested by George Welch, 12 October 1954. In this photograph, FW-760 has the taller vertical fin that was designed by NACA to improve the Super Sabre’s stability. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

George Welch was born George Lewis Schwartz, Jr., in Wilmington, Delaware, 10 May 1918. He was the first of two sons of George Lewis Schwartz, a chemist at the Dupont Experimental Station in Wilmington, and Julia Welch Schwartz. His parents changed his surname to Welch, his mother’s maiden name, so that he would not be effected by the anti-German prejudice that was widespread in America following World War I.

He studied mechanical engineering at Purdue University, Indiana, and enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1939. Welch graduated from pilot training at Kelly Field, Texas, and on 4 October 1940, was commissioned as a second lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Corps.

Second Lieutenant Kenneth M. Taylor and Second Lieutenant George S. Welch, 47th Pursuit Squadron, 15th Pursuit Group, the two Curtiss P-40B Warhawk pilots who shot down 8 Japanese aircraft during the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, 7 December 1941. Both officers were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. (U.S. Air Force)

George S. Welch is best remembered as one of the heroes of Pearl Harbor. He, along with Second Lieutenant Kenneth M. Taylor, were the only two fighter pilots to get airborne from Haleiwa Auxiliary Airfield during the Japanese surprise attack on Hawaii, 7 December 1941. Flying a Curtiss P-40B Warhawk, he shot down three Aichi D3A “Val” dive bombers and one Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter. Taylor also shot down four Japanese airplanes. For this action, Lieutenant General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold recommended the Medal of Honor, but because Lieutenants Welch and Taylor had taken off without orders, an officer in their chain of command refused to endorse the nomination. Both fighter pilots were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

During the War, Welch flew the Bell P-39 Airacobra and Lockheed P-38 Lightning on 348 combat missions. He had 16 confirmed aerial victories over Japanese airplanes and rose to the rank of Major. In addition to the Distinguished Service Cross, George Welch was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters (three awards), the Air Medal with one oak leaf cluster (two awards), the Presidential Unit Citation with two oak leaf clusters (three awards), American Defense Service medal with one service star, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with one silver and one bronze star (six campaigns), and the World War II Victory Medal.

George Welch, circa 1943. (Unattributed)
George Welch, circa 1943. (Unattributed)

Welch received the nickname, “Wheaties,” because he was the first military officer to be featured on a box of Wheaties cereal. (Wheaties, “The Breakfast of Champions,” was a toasted wheat bran cereal produced by General Mills. It normally featured champion athletes on its distinctive orange-colored boxes.)

Suffering from malaria, George Welch was out of combat and recuperating in Australia. There he met Miss Janette Alice Williams and they were soon married. Welch returned to the United States with his new wife. They had a son, Giles, born in October 1947. Their home was in Brentwood, California.

North American Aviation approached General Arnold to recommend a fighter pilot who could bring his combat experience to testing new fighters. Welch was one of two that General Arnold suggested. The general authorized Welch’s release from active duty so that he could join North American. Welch held the rank of major, Air Reserve, from 13 November 1944 to 1 April 1953.

George S. Welch, now a civilian test pilot forNorth American Aviation, Inc., sits on the canopy rail of a P-51H Mustang, circa 1945. (North American Aviation Inc.)
George S. Welch, now a civilian test pilot for North American Aviation, Inc., sits on the canopy rail of a P-51H Mustang, circa 1945. (North American Aviation Inc.)

Welch went on to test fly the North American P-51H Mustang, FJ-1 Fury, F-86 Sabre and F-100 Super Sabre.

George Welch made the first flight of the XP-86 prototype, 1 October 1947. There is some evidence that on that flight, and during a subsequent flight on 14 October, Welch exceeded the speed of sound while in a dive. It has been said that during the Korean War, while teaching U.S. Air Force pilots how to best use the F-86 Sabre, he shot down several enemy MiG-15 jet fighters.

George S. Welch is buried at the Arlington National Cemetery, Section 6, Site 8578-D.

¹ Recommended: Coupling Dynamics in Aircraft: A Historical Perspective, by Richard E. Day, Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards AFB, California. NASA Special Publications 532, 1997.

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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21 September 1964

North American Aviation XB70A-1-NA 62-001 takes off for the first time, 21 September 1964. (U.S. Air Force)
North American Aviation XB70A-1-NA 62-0001 takes off for the first time, 21 September 1964. (U.S. Air Force)

21 September 1964: The first prototype North American Aviation XB-70A-1-NA Valkyrie, serial number 62-0001, flown by Chief Test Pilot Alvin S. White and Colonel Joseph F. Cotton, U.S. Air Force, made its first flight from Air Force Plant 42, Palmdale, California, to Edwards Air Force Base.

Originally a prototype Mach 3 strategic bomber, 62-0001 (also known as AV-1) and it’s sister ship, XB-70A-2-NA, 62-0207, (AV-2), were built and used by the Air Force and NASA as high-speed research aircraft. The third Valkyrie, XB-70B-NA 62-0208 (AV-3), was never completed.

Major Joseph F. Cotton, USAF, and Alvin S. White, North American Aviation, with the XB-70A Valkyrie. (Autographed photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, TEST & RESEARCH PILOTS, FLIGHT TEST ENGINEERS)
Colonel Joseph F. Cotton, USAF, and Alvin S. White, North American Aviation, with an XB-70A Valkyrie. (Autographed photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, TEST & RESEARCH PILOTS, FLIGHT TEST ENGINEERS)

The B-70 was designed as a high-altitude Mach 3 strategic bomber armed with thermonuclear bombs. The XB-70A is 196 feet, 6 inches (59.893 meters) long with a wingspan of 105 feet (32.004 meters) and an overall height of 30 feet, 8 inches (9.347 meters) . It weighs 231,215 pounds (104,877 kilograms) empty and has a maximum takeoff weight of 534,792 pounds (242,578 kilograms).

The XB-70A was powered by six General Electric YJ93-GE-3 single-spool, axial-flow turbojet engines, which used an 11-stage compressor and two-stage turbine. The engine required a special heat-resistant JP-6 fuel, and was rated at 22,000 pounds of thrust (97.86 kilonewtons), or 31,000 pounds (137.90 kilonewtons) with afterburner. The YJ93-GE-3 was 19 feet, 7.0 inches (5.969 meters) long, 4 feet, 7.0 inches (1.397 meters) in diameter, and weighed 5,200 pounds 2,359 kilograms).

A Boeing B-52 Stratofortress flies formation with North American Aviation XB-70A Valkyrie 62-0001, approaching the runway at Edwards Air Force Base, California. (U.S. Air Force)

The XB-70A had a maximum speed of Mach 3.1 (2,056 miles per hour, or 3,309 kilometers per hour). At 35,000 feet (10,668 meters), it could reach Mach 1.90 (1,254 miles per hour, or 2,018 kilometers per hour), and at its service ceiling of 75,550 feet (23,012 meters), it had a maximum speed of Mach 3.00 (1,982 miles per hour, or 3,190 kilometers per hour). The planned combat range for the production  bomber was 3,419 miles (5,502 kilometers) with a maximum range of 4,290 miles (6,904 kilometers).

North American Aviation XB-70A Valkyrie 62-0001 made 83 flights with a total of 160 hours, 16 minutes flight time. 62-0001 is on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

North American Aviation XB-70A Valkyrie 62-0001 lands at Edwards Air Force Base at the end of its first flight, 21 September 1964. (U.S. Air Force)
North American Aviation XB-70A-1-NA Valkyrie 62-0001 just before landing at Runway 4 Right, Edwards Air Force Base, ending of its first flight, 21 September 1964. A Piasecki HH-21B rescue helicopter hovers over the adjacent taxiway. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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17 July 1989

Bruce J. Hinds and Richard Couch. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)

17 July 1989: The first Northrop B-2A Spirit, 82-1066, took off from Air Force Plant 42, Palmdale, California, on its first flight. The crew was Northrop Chief Test Pilot Bruce J. Hinds and Colonel Richard Couch, U.S. Air Force. The top secret “stealth bomber” prototype landed at Edwards Air Force Base 1 hour, 52 minutes later.

After completing the flight test program, -1066 was placed in storage until 1993, awaiting upgrade to the Block 10 operational configuration. In 2000 it was again upgraded to the Block 30 standard. It is now named Spirit of America and assigned to the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri.

Northrop B-2A Spirit, 82-1066, the first “stealth bomber,” during a test flight. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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17 July 1965

North American Aviation XB-70A-2-NA 62-0207 takes off for the first time at AF Plant 42, 17 July 1965. (U.S. Air Force)

17 July 1965: At Air Force Plant 42, Palmdale, California, the second North American Aviation B-70 Valkyrie prototype, XB-70A-2-NA 62-0207, took off on its maiden flight enroute Edwards Air Force Base where it would continue the flight test program with its sister ship.

The Valkyrie was designed as a Mach 3+ strategic bomber, capable of flight above 70,000 feet (21,336 meters), with intercontinental range. It’s altitude allowed it to avoid interceptors of the time, but improvements in radar-guided surface-to-air missiles increased its vulnerability. Ultimately, though, political decisions ended the B-70 program.

62-0207 was flown just 46 times, for a total of 92 hours, 22 minutes of flight. Changes to the aircraft corrected the deficiencies discovered in testing the Number 1 XB-70A, 62,-201. The most visible change was 5° dihedral added to the wings for improved stability. On 16 April 1966, 62-0207 reached its maximum design speed, Mach 3.08, which it sustained for 20 minutes.

Less than one year after its first flight, 8 June 1966, the Valkyrie was involved in a mid-air collision with a Lockheed F-104N and crashed just north of Barstow, California. North American’s B-70 test pilot, Al White, was seriously injured and co-pilot, Major Carl Cross, USAF, was killed. NASA test pilot Joe Walker, flying the F-104, was also killed.

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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11 May 1964

XB-70A-1-NA 62-0001 rollout at Air Force Plant 42, 11 May 1964. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

11 May 1964: At Air Force Plant 42, Palmdale, California, the first prototype North American Aviation XB-70A-1-NA Valkyrie, 62-0001, was rolled out. More than 5,000 people were there to watch.

In August 1960, the U.S. Air Force had contracted for one XB-70 prototype and 11 pre-production YB-70 development aircraft. By 1964, however, the program had been scaled back to three XB-70s. Only two of these would actually be completed.

"Ride of the Valkyrs" by John Charles Dollman, 1909.
“Ride of the Valkyrs” by John Charles Dollman, 1909. In Norse mythology, the valkyries were immortal female figures who chose who among those who had died in battle were worthy of being taken to Valhalla.

The B-70 was designed as a Mach 3+ strategic bomber capable of flying higher than 70,000 feet (21,336 meters). The XB-70A Valkyrie prototype is 185 feet, 10 inches (56.642 meters) long with a wingspan of 105 feet, 0 inches (32.004 meters) and overall height of 30 feet, 9 inches (12.116 meters). The canard span is 28 feet, 10 inches (8.788 meters). The prototype has an empty weight of 231,215 pounds (104,877 kilograms) and gross weight of 521,056 pounds (236,347 kilograms).

The airplane was powered by six General Electric YJ93-GE-3 engines, grouped together in the tail. These were single-spool, axial-flow, afterburning turbojets, which used an 11-stage compressor and 2-stage turbine. The YJ93-GE-3 was rated at 22,000 pounds of thrust (97.86 kilonewtons), and 31,000 pounds (137.90 kilonewtons) with afterburner. A special high-temperature fuel, JP-6, was required. The engine was 19 feet, 7.0 inches (5.969 meters) long, 4 feet, 7.0 inches (1.397 meters) in diameter, and weighed 5,200 pounds (2,359 kilograms).

Fuel capacity was 46,745 gallons (176,950 liters), giving the bomber a potential range of 3,750 miles (6,035 kilometers). The B-70 was designed to “surf” on its own supersonic shock wave. The tips of the delta wing folded down as much as 60° for increased stability.

North American Aviation XB-70A-1-NA Valkyrie takes off at Edwards Air Force Base, 17 August 1965. (NASA)
A North American Aviation XB-70A Valkyrie takes off from Edwards Air Force Base, 17 August 1965. (NASA)

XB-70A-1 62-0001 first flew 21 September 1964, and exceeded Mach 3 for the first time on its 17th flight, 14 October 1965. Its final flight was 4 February 1969.

In flight testing, the XB-70 reached a maximum of Mach 3.08 and 2,020 m.p.h. (3,251 kilometers per hour) with a sustained altitude of 74,000 feet (22,555 meters).

The second XB-70A-2-NA , 62-0207, was destroyed in a midair collision. The third Valkyrie, XB-70B-NA 62-0208, was cancelled before completion.

62-0001 is in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force. It has made 83 flight with just 160 hours, 16 minutes total flight time.

XB-70A-1-NA Valkyrie 62-0001 in cruise at very high altitude, 1968. (NASA)
XB-70A-1-NA Valkyrie 62-0001 in cruise at very high altitude, 1968. (NASA)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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