Tag Archives: Air Medal

19 May 1976

Captain James A. Yule, U.S. Air Force

19 May 1976: A Strategic Air Command Boeing B-52D Stratofortress eight-engine bomber took off from Carswell Air Force Base, Fort Worth, Texas on a training flight. As the airplane’s landing gear was retracting, the hydraulic system failed leaving the right front gear with its 2-wheel bogie partially retracted and unlocked. The hydraulic system failure also disabled the B-52’s steering, brakes and rudder. Captain James A. Yule, an Instructor Pilot, took command of the aircraft. SAC headquarters at Omaha, Nebraska, diverted the airplane to Edwards Air Force Base in California so that the bomber could land on the large dry lake bed there.

Rogers Dry Lake and Edwards Air Force Base, looking south west. Captain Yule landed his B-52 Stratofortress on the dry lake bed. (U.S. Air Force)
Rogers Dry Lake and Edwards Air Force Base, looking to the south west. Captain Yule landed his B-52 Stratofortress on the dry lake bed. The air base and its concrete runways are at the top center of the photograph. (U.S. Air Force)

After a five-hour flight and making several practice approaches, Captain Yule landed the aircraft. With no brakes, it coasted for two-and-a-half miles before coming to a stop. During the roll out, the right front bogie bounced up and down, providing no support. However, with the limited control available, Captain Yule successfully landed the Stratofortress with no damage and no injuries to the crew. He and another pilot received the Air Medal, and the rest of the air crew were awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal.

Boeing B-52D-75-BO Stratofortress 56-0606, the same type bomber flown by Captain James A. Yule, 19 May 1976. In this photograph, the airplane has its landing gear extended and flaps lowered. (U.S. Air Force)
Boeing B-52D-75-BO Stratofortress 56-0606, the same type bomber flown by Captain James A. Yule, 19 May 1976. In this photograph, the airplane has its landing gear extended and flaps lowered. (U.S. Air Force)

Captain Yule was the recipient of the Mackay Trophy for 1976. Established in 1911 and administered by the National Aeronautic Association, the Mackay Trophy is awarded to the “most meritorious flight of the year” by an Air Force person, persons, or organization. His citation reads:

The Mackay Trophy.
The Mackay Trophy.

For gallantry and unusual presence of mind while participating in a flight as an instructor pilot of a B-52D Stratofortress.

“Captain James A Yule, distinguished himself by gallantry and unusual presence of mind while participating in an aerial flight as an instructor pilot of a B-52D aircraft on 19 May 1976. Captain Yule’s flight developed a unique multiple emergency and he assumed command of the aircraft, and at great personal risk, checked out the hydraulic open wheel well area to detect the problem. Using initiative, he coordinated with ground agencies and crew members and determined that a safe landing could be made after loss of braking and complete failure of steering. Captain Yule’s professional competence and outstanding airmanship under extreme stress resulted in successful recovery of the crew and a valuable aircraft. His courageous acts in landing a malfunctioning aircraft reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

20 February 1972

20 February 1972: A United States Air Force Lockheed HC-130H Hercules, 65-0972, flew from Ching Chuan Kang Air Base, Taiwan, Republic of China, to Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, U.S.A., non-stop, in 21 hours, 12 minutes. This set a new Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Distance, 14,052.95 kilometers (8,732.10 statute miles).¹ This broke the record set 21–22 January 1971, by a U.S. Navy Lockheed P-3C Orion.² lSee TDiA 21 January–8 February 1971]

The crew were: LCOL Edgar L. Allison, Jr., Mission Commander, Chatanooga TN; CPT Richard J. Racette, Aircraft Commander, Niles IL; CPT David E. Gardner, Pilot, South Gate CA; MAJ Anthony Liparulo, Navigator, New London, CT; CPT Carl E. Bennett, Navigator, Hamilton TX; TSGT Morelle E. Larouche, Flight Engineer, Holyoke MA; TSGT William F. Litton, Flight Engineer, Pennington Gap PA; TSGT Theodore Trainer, Loadmaster, Wapabo WA; TSGT Robert Landry, Crew Chief, New Orleans, LA; Major Kenneth S. Wayne, Flight Surgeon, Oak Park IL; SSGT William L. Hippert, Radio Operator, Rahway NJ; SSGT Pat E. Carrothers, Radio Operator, Lake Charles LA.

The crew was assigned to the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service ARRS).

General Jack J. Catton, Military Airlift Command, presented Lieutenant Colonel Allison the Distinguished Flying Cross, while the other crewmembers received the Air Medal.

Lockheed HC-130H Hercules 65-0977, sister ship of the record-setting aircraft. (© Lewis Grant/AirHistory.net)

¹ FAI Record File Number 8062.  Ratified – retired by changes of the sporting code.

² FAI Record File Number 8582.

© 2021, Bryan R. Swopes

12 February 1971

MEDEVAC FROM THE FOG – SS STEEL EXECUTIVE
By Sean M. Cross, CAPT, USCG (retired)

“Lewis had to make what he considered to be one of the most crucial decisions of his life. Peering at the fog below him, he remembers asking himself a question to plunge or not to plunge…”

TODAY IN COAST GUARD AVIATION HISTORY – 12 FEBRUARY 1971: an HH-3F #1473 assigned to Air Station San Diego, CA and crewed by LCDR Paul R. Lewis (AC), LT Joseph O. Fullmer (CP), ASM3 Larry E. Farmer (FM), AT3 Charles Desimone (AV) and HM3 Richard M. McCollough (AMS) launched in response to an injured or ill “seaman in need of an operation” ¹ from the 492-foot freighter STEEL EXECUTIVE, approximately 220 miles south of San Diego. The WWII-era Type C3-class cargo ship owned by Isthmian Lines, Inc. of New York was on an extended trip from Saigon, South Vietnam to New York City via the Panama Canal with stops in Astoria, OR and various east coast ports. They departed Saigon on 29 January 1971 and on 12 February were southbound for the Panama Canal.² After requesting assistance, the ship reversed course back toward San Diego to reduce transit distance for the helicopter. This is their story.

A United States Coast Guard Sikorsky HH-3F Pelican over Air Station San Diego. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Friday afternoon at around 4:00 PM, Rescue Coordination Center Long Beach launched the off-going Air Station San Diego HH-3F duty crew on a long range medical evacuation or MEDEVAC. The maintenance crew had to stop downtown vehicle traffic so that #1473 could taxi from the unit’s waterfront location across Harbor Drive to Lindberg Field in order to utilize the runway for a running takeoff – as the aircraft could not get airborne from a hover with a maximum fuel load.³ According to LCDR Lewis, taking off “out of San Diego, it was a clear afternoon,” ⁴ but the sun was lowering in the sky with official sunset at 5:31 PM.

Photo caption: profile view of generic Type C3-S-A2 cargo ship built by Ingalls – a development of the C3 basic design. During WWII these ships stood the test as cargo vessels and transports and after the war as cargo liners sold under Merchant Sales Act of 1946. These ships were widely used by U.S. and Foreign Steamship Companies into the 1970s.

After two hours of night overwater navigation and using a combination of radio direction finding, helicopter radar, and guidance from the STEEL EXECUTIVE, #1473 arrived in the vessel’s vicinity, but was unable to make visual contact through the dense fog which extended from the surface to about 700 feet above the water.

Flight mechanic Larry Farmer described the scene, “We flew over the estimated position at 1,500 feet and it was beautiful, you could see stars clear to either horizon, but glancing down – it looked like a huge layer of thick cotton blanketing the water below us.” ⁵

Chartlet Caption: Approximate route of flight to STEEL EXECUTIVE’s last known position “about 220 miles southeast of San Diego” en route to the Panama Canal.

With visibility less than 1/8 mile, the helicopter directed the vessel to turn on all available topside lighting and dropped two MK-58 marine location markers (floating cylinder that produces smoke and flames for 40-60 minutes) approximately two miles downwind to assist in executing an instrument approach to a hover above the water’s surface. ⁶

Lewis had to make a crucial decision. Peering at the fog below him, he remembers asking himself a question to plunge or not to plunge. ⁷ Lewis knew that the answer could spell a chance at life for the seriously ill merchant seaman. However, there was also his crew, his co-pilot, a radio operator, a corpsman and the aviation survivalman who operated the rescue hoist. Their lives and his own also were at stake. “I decided to lower the helicopter down to the water,” he said in an interview. “By then it was pitch dark. I flew away from where our radar told us the ship was and then went down to about 40 feet from the ocean.” ⁸

Diagram Caption: overhead view of the HH-3F PATCH (Precision Approach to a Coupled Hover) a procedure very similar to the “beep-to-hover”.

To transition from forward flight to a hover, #1473 executed a challenging “beep-to-hover” maneuver, which enabled them to safely approach the water and the ship. The “beep-to-hover” maneuver was developed by LCDR Frank Shelley, test pilot and program manager for HH-52A acquisition testing, to help pilots safely transition to an overwater hover at night and/or in instrument conditions. The HH-3F PATCH (precision approach to a coupled hover) eventually replaced the “beep-to-hover” in late-1971. ⁹ Interestingly, both procedures most closely mimic the ‘early’ MATCH (manual approach to a controlled hover) in the H-60 and H-65 series aircraft – the PATCH and CATCH in these aircraft utilize auto-pilot and trim functions to perform a ‘hands off’ coupled approach to the water.

This “beep-to-hover” maneuver can be disorienting in the clouds at night, particularly when low over the water with little room for error. Both pilots must continuously scan and interpret the flight instruments – this is critically important – while smoothly manipulating the controls to ensure they are hitting various airspeed and altitude windows to fly the correct profile.

At the completion of this very demanding approach, the helicopter crew found itself in nearly “zero-zero” weather but had executed the approach with such precision that the MK-58s were located. ¹⁰ Barely establishing visual reference with the ocean surface from a 40-foot hover, the helicopter crew was unable to see the vessel’s lights and therefore was hovering at night in a dense fog with minimal visual reference with the ocean surface.

“We made what amounted to an instrument approach to the water,” Lewis explained, “Hovering just over the waves we crawled toward the ship which was about two to three miles away.” ¹¹ At least that’s where a little black box on the instrument panel said the ship was. The aircrew inched forward using the helicopter doppler hover system, the radar, the RDF (radio direction finding, which provided a bearing to a radio signal from the ship). At about one mile out, the STEEL EXECUTIVE’s blip on the helicopter radar was lost in surface clutter – the mood was tense with the aircrew concerned about the combination of low visibility, closure rate, low altitude and vessel rigging obstacles. ¹² At an altitude of 40 feet in extremely limited visibility, the helicopter could literally stumble into the vessel, causing a collision that would doom everyone on board the aircraft and imperil the ship’s crew as well. Eventually, the ship’s surface search radar picked up the helicopter and guided it to her. ¹³ Farmer was on a gunner’s belt leaning out the cabin door and straining to find the ship’s glow. ¹⁴

Lewis praised ASM2 Larry Farmer for far exceeding the scope of duties he’d been trained for – hoisting the injured man off his ship and onto the hovering aircraft. “Farmer actually guided me to the ship.” Lewis said, “I had no visual references so I depended entirely on him. He became our aircraft’s eyes and brought us over the freighter.” ¹⁵

Pucker factor is a slang phrase used by military aviators to describe the level of stress and/or adrenaline response to danger or a crisis situation. The term refers to the tightening of the sphincter caused by extreme concern – on particularly challenging missions, the seat cushions might go missing altogether. The pucker factor had been high since the initial descent into the fog bank, however Farmer remarked that “finally gaining a visual with the ship eased the pucker factor and transformed the aircrew’s outlook from uncertainty of success to ‘we can do this’.” ¹⁶

Huge spotlights pierced the fog, but all Lewis and Farmer could see was the hoist аrеа. Even under ideal weather conditions, positioning a hovering helicopter over the crowded decks of a freighter is a delicate maneuver. “Doing it in pitch darkness while howling 25-mile an hour winds rock ship and aircraft alike is – in the words of the young crewmen who were there with Lewis – something else”. ¹⁷

Diagram Caption: HH-3F #1473’s approximate hoisting position with STEEL EXECUTIVE (represented with a generic Type C3 cargo ship plan of roughly the same arrangement).

The pilot and flight mechanic were still concerned with the helicopter’s low hoisting altitude as they surveyed the vessel obstacles – the ship’s towering rigging literally disappeared in the fog above. ¹⁸ Much of the obstacle clearance judgement and decision making fell on the flight mechanic’s shoulders as the pilot was unable to see the hoisting area behind him. The crew was convinced that a ‘basket with trail line’ was the right technique for the situation as it would allow the helicopter to hoist from a position offset 30-40 feet from the ship and facilitate Lewis’ use of the STEEL EXECUTIVE as a hover reference. A trail line is a 105-foot piece of polypropylene line (similar to a water ski rope) with a 300-pound weak-link at one end and a weight bag at the other. The weight bag end of the trail line is paid out below the helicopter and delivered to the persons in distress (usually vertically, but seasoned flight mechanics can literally ‘cast’ the weight bag to a spot). The weak link is then attached to the hoist hook and the helicopter backs away until the pilot can see the hoisting area. The persons in distress can then pull the basket to their location – creating a hypotenuse or diagonal – as opposed to a purely vertical delivery.

Farmer carefully conned the helicopter over the vessel providing voice commands to the pilot – delivering the trail line and, subsequently, the rescue basket to the stern of the STEEL EXECUTIVE. The semi-ambulatory patient was assisted into the basket by the ship’s crew and then hoisted aboard the helicopter. Lewis and Farmer were able to complete the hoist on the first attempt. Farmer appreciatively described Desimone’s efforts: “he spent most of his time working the radios, but he assisted me during the hoists. He was the extra set of hands getting the rescue basket into the cabin and then clearly directed the patient to the back of the cabin.” ¹⁹ Petty Officer McCollough secured the patient for the flight, administered antibiotics and maintained constant watch on the patient’s condition during the return flight. ²⁰

Often forgotten was the job done by Fullmer as Safety Pilot. He continuously scanned the system instruments to ensure the aircraft was operating normally and monitored the flight instruments to ensure obstacle clearance and safe altitude. He effectively conveyed critical information without interfering with Farmer’s conning commands. ²¹

After completing the hoist, it took a few minutes to secure the cabin – Farmer stowed the basket and secured the hoist hydraulics, then closed the cabin door and reported the cabin was secured and ready for forward flight. The pilots then executed a demanding night instrument take-off or ITO from a hover over the water. The ITO is similar to the “beep-to-hover” in terms of relying on aircraft instruments instead of visual cues, but its purpose is the opposite – to get you away from the water and into a forward flight profile at a safe airspeed and altitude. The maneuver was flawlessly executed and the aircrew soon found themselves above the fog bank in clear skies. The helicopter returned to San Diego to deliver the patient to medical authorities. The STEEL EXECUTIVE crewman subsequently recovered. ²²

LCDR Lewis earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for this mission, while ASM3 Farmer earned the Air Medal. The medals were presented by RADM James Williams, Commander, 11th Coast Guard District, in a ceremony at Air Station San Diego on 23 February 1972.

The Lewis and Farmer citations are below:

LCDR Lewis also earned the American Helicopter Society (now the Vertical Flight Society) Frederick L. Feinberg Award on 19 May 1972 at the Sheraton-Park Hotel, Washington, D. C – presented to the pilot or crew of a vertical flight aircraft who demonstrated outstanding skills or achievement during the preceding 18 months.

The award was presented by RADM William A. Jenkins, Chief, Office of Operations, Coast Guard Headquarters, who outlined the case as follows:

“Commander Lewis was selected for his sea rescue of an ill crewman from the merchant ship, S.S. Steel Executive, at night and under extremely hazardous weather conditions. Despite very dense fog, Lt. Cdr. Lewis took off and proceeded to the estimated position of the vessel some 220 miles south of San Diego, Calif. , and — by applying extremely skillful instrument approach procedures — was able to find the vessel with visibility reduced to an eighth of a mile and less at times, and by hovering 50 feet above the vessel, he rescued its seriously ill crewman and safely delivered the patient to medical authorities. The crewman subsequently recovered. This demonstration of courage, skill and airmanship has deservingly earned him the Frederick L. Feinberg Award.” ²³

LCDR Lewis provided the following acceptance speech:

“It’s indeed a deep personal honor for me to receive this award from the American Helicopter Society and from the Kaman organization. But in a sense I really feel that it’s unfortunate that this award should be given to an individual. Without attempting to feign false modesty, I sincerely feel that this award should be shared with many others; specifically the other 3 members of my crew, my service — the Coast Guard — and really, in a sense, you, the members of the American helicopter industry. I am sure there are people sitting here in the audience this evening that participated in the design, the development, and the production of the very fine Sikorsky HH-3 helicopter that was used in this rescue. In honoring the Coast Guard by my selection, I really feel that you honored a service that from the helicopters very beginning — we employed it to rescue thousands of people and saved millions of dollars of property. My rescue that is honored here this evening is really very typical of many other rescues that the Coast Guard has accomplished. And so — even though it’s my name alone that is on this award — I sincerely believe that the honor belongs to my entire crew for that evening that this rescue was accomplished and I feel also that it should be shared with the many other Coast Guard crews who accomplished many other rescues of equal ability or what may it be, but I feel I should share the honor with them.” ²⁴

Later that summer (1972), LCDR Lewis transferred to Air Station St. Petersburg, FL where he continued flying the HH-3F helicopter. Unfortunately, six months after the Feinberg Award presentation, on 16 December 1972, HH-3F #1474 assigned to Air Station St. Petersburg was lost off Sarasota along with the crew LCDR Paul R. Lewis, MAJ Marvin A. Cleveland, USAF (Exchange pilot), AD1 Edward J. Nemetz, AT3 Clinton A. Edwards, and four rescued crewmen from the 54-foot fishing vessel WANDA DENE William Peek, George Dayhoss, Herbert Hardy and Paul Manley. It was late on Saturday when the WANDA DENE, sent out a distress call. The stricken vessel was 35 miles southwest of Key West, taking on water and sinking in rough seas. HH-3F #1474 was launched with its crew of four for a long range rescue. The helicopter arrived overhead the WANDA DENE several hours later and successfully hoisted the four crewmen from the sinking vessel in challenging conditions. The #1474 then flew to Naval Air Station Key West to refuel. From there #1474, now with eight people aboard, departed at about 7 PM for a return flight to St. Petersburg. Normal flight operations were reported with regular radio position reports until about 8:30 PM. Two days later a small portion of the helicopter was found in the Gulf of Mexico south of Fort Myers. Despite a massive search, very little of the aircraft and only one body, that of one of the fisherman, was ever recovered. The cause of the crash was never determined.

On 04 March 2011, a dedication ceremony was held at Air Station Clearwater, FL to posthumously name an annex building in honor of the Service and Sacrifice displayed by LCDR Paul R. Lewis. Members of the Lewis Family including daughter Kara Lewis, wife, Jackie Lewis, sister Abby Sauer, son Curt Lewis, daughter Megan Lewis, sister Joan Chaffee, and Abby’s husband, Gene Sauer were in attendance. Here is a section of the presentation that was made that day:

“LCDR Lewis was a tall, athletic Coast Guard Academy graduate who was regarded as the type of officer and pilot that others strive to become. He graduated in 1960, and went to serve his time aboard a Coast Guard cutter before attending flight school.

Prior to being stationed at Air Station St. Petersburg, LCDR Lewis served at the following air stations: Miami, Kodiak and San Diego. LCDR Lewis was known for his exceptional crew resource management and inclusion of his crew in all his flying duties. Among the pilots he was heralded as a flight instructor and examiner who knew the aircraft better than anyone.
LCDR Lewis is notably remembered for being the first Coast Guard pilot awarded the Frederick L. Feinberg Award for a rescue he performed offshore in San Diego. For that same rescue, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.”
While the building was named to honor Lewis, the air station believed Lewis would have wanted to honor the service and sacrifice of his crew as well. Hence, the auditorium within the building was named for Major Cleveland, the conference room for AD1 Nemetz, and the training room for AT3 Edwards.

¹ Staff writer, “Ex-Area Flier Lost In Crash”, Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, NY. December 19, 1972, page 22. NOTE: The crewman, name and ailment unknown, may have been suffering from appendicitis and needed to get to a higher level of medical care within 6-12 hours. Various articles describe the issue as “severely ill crewman”; “ill crewman”; “seriously ill seaman”; “injured merchant seaman”; “seaman in need of an operation” and “injured crewman”, but I was unable to ascertain the exact ailment.

² Vietnam Era Voyages as reported in Lloyds Shipping Index (SS Steel Executive)

³ Larry Farmer (HH-3F Flight Mechanic) in email message to author on January 12, 2022 (and subsequent phone interview).

⁴ John Phillip Sousa, “Fog Thwarted Mission – Hero Recalls Perilous Rescue,” The San Diego Union, San Diego, CA, February 27, 1972, page B-3.

⁵ Ibid.

⁶ Air Station San Diego – “Awards Board Minutes” – Case #200-71, page 3.

⁷ Sousa newspaper article.

⁸ Ibid.

⁹ LCDR D. K. Shorey, “The PATCH: Precision Approach to Coupled Hover”, Flight Lines, Summer 1972, pages 2-3.

¹⁰ Ibid.

¹¹ Ibid.

¹² Farmer email.

¹³ Air Station San Diego.

¹⁴ Farmer email.

¹⁵ Ibid.

¹⁶ Ibid.

¹⁷ Ibid.

¹⁸ Ibid.

¹⁹ Ibid.

²⁰ Air Station San Diego.

²¹ Ibid.

²² “28th Forum, Trade Exhibit Registers 800 as 533 See Honors Night Awards Distributed” Vertiflite July/August 1972, pages 6-9.

²³ Ibid.
Ibid.
Ormie King, “Ormie King’s Legends of Auburn: Honoring a native son”, The Post Standard, Syracuse, NY. May 05, 2011 – available here: https://www.syracuse.com/neighbors/2011/05/ormie_kings_legends_of_auburn_honoring_a_native_son.html .

²⁴ Ibid.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

Retired CAPT Sean M. Cross served 25 years in the Coast Guard as a helicopter pilot and aeronautical engineer. Flying both the MH-60T and MH-65D, he accumulated over 4,000 flight hours while assigned to Air Stations Clearwater, FL; Cape Cod, MA; San Diego, CA; Elizabeth City, NC and Traverse City, MI – which he commanded.

“LCDR Paul R. Lewis is first Coast Guard Aviator name etched on the Feinberg Award and the story of HOW it got there should be preserved for posterity.”

© 2022, Sean M. Cross

 

13 December 1960

Lieutenant Henry L. (“Larry”) Monroe, USN, (left) and Commander Leroy Anthony Heath, USN, with a North American Aviation A3J-1 Vigilante, a carrier-based supersonic attack bomber. The two aviators are wearing B.F. Goodrich Mark IV full-pressure suits for protection at very high altitudes. (U.S. Navy)

13 December 1960: Commander Leroy Anthony Heath and Lieutenant Henry L. (“Larry”) Monroe, set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) with an early production North American A3J-1 Vigilante supersonic attack bomber. A 1,000-kilogram payload was carried in the bomber’s tubular weapons bay.

Over Edwards Air Force Base, in the high desert of southern California, the Vigilante accelerated to approximately 1,400 miles per hour (2,253 kilometers per hour), then pulled up into a steep climb. The Vigilante zoom-climbed in a nearly ballistic trajectory and reached an altitude of 27,874 meters (91,450 feet).¹ As the aircraft went “over the top,” it had slowed to about 400 miles per hour (644 kilometers per hour). They were momentarily “weightless,” which Commander Heath described as a “pleasant sensation.”

Their new record broke the previous record by 7,418 meters (24,337 feet).²

According to an article by Greg Goebel on the web site Air Vectors,

“. . . At that altitude, the aircraft was no longer aerodynamic and tumbled onto its back as it fell down the far side of the arc, with the engines flaming out in the thin atmosphere. However, such problems had been encountered in practice flights leading up to the attempt, and the flight crew knew what to expect. Heath simply neutralized the controls; once the Vigilante reached thicker air halfway through its fall, it naturally adopted a nose-down attitude, and Heath was able to relight the engines.”

— http://www.airvectors.net/ava5.html

North American Aviation A3J Vigilante. (SDASM Archives Catalog #: 00001959)

For their achievement, the Secretary of the Navy, William B. Franke, awarded Commander Heath the Distinguished Flying Cross, and Lieutenant Monroe, the Air Medal. Also present at the 16 December 1960 presentation were Admiral Arleigh Burke, Chief of Naval Operations, and Admiral James Russell, Vice Chief of Naval Operations.

Lieutenant Larry Monroe and Commander Leroy Heath in the cockpits of a North American Aviation A3J-1 Vigilante supersonic attack bomber. (Detail & Scale)

Navy Jet Breaks Russ World Altitude Mark

Vigilante Attack Bomber Carries More Thank 2,000 Lb. Payload to 91,450.8 Ft.

     A Navy Vigilante attack bomber has carried a payload of more than 2,000 lb. to an altitude of 91,045.8 ft. to break Russia’s international record of 67,096 ft., it was disclosed Thursday.

The flight was made last Tuesday from Edwards Air Force Base by a North American twin-jet A3J aircraft piloted by Comdr. Leroy A. Heath of the Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent, Md.

     It was observed officially by representatives of the National Aeronautic Assn. headed by Bertrand Rhine, chief West Coast timer.

     A U.S. claim for a world record altitude for a land-based jet aircraft carrying a 1,000 kilogram (2,204.62 lbs.) payload has been filed with the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, world record agency in Paris.

Awarded Medal

     Comdr. Heath was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for the record achievement. His navigator, Lt. Larry Monroe, was awarded the Air Medal. The presentations were made in Washington Thursday by Navy Secretary Franke.

     Following a carefully controlled flight pattern, teh Vigilante’s high climb was tracked by altitude registering radars monitored by NAA representatives on the ground. The record altitude also was calibrated by a sealed barograph carried in the plane to measure and record air pressures from which height can be determined.

     The flight marked the first time the United States has competed for this particular class record which requires that the aircraft carry its payload in a compartment measuring at least 141 cubic ft.

     The Vigilante is a double sonic, all-weather attack plane built by North American Aviation’s Colombus (O.) division. Designed for carrier operation, it can deliver both nuclear and conventional weapons by a unique tail ejection system from very high altitude or on deck-level attack missions.

     Powered by two General Electric J79 engines developing approximately 15,000 lbs. of thrust each, the Vigilante is 70 ft. long and has a wing span of 50 ft.

     The previous Russian record was set July 13, 1959, by Vladimir Smirnov, flying a twin-jet RVmonoplane over Bykova Aerodrome near Moscow.

Los Angeles Times, 16 December 1960, Page 2, Column 6, and Page 32, Column 2.

The prototype North American Aviation YA3J-1 Vigilante. (Boeing)

The North American Aviation A3J-1 Vigilante is a carrier-based, twin-engine, supersonic bomber designed for high-altitude nuclear attacks. It is crewed by a pilot and navigator. The airplane has a high-mounted swept wing and tricycle landing gear. There are no ailerons, elevators or rudder. Control is provided by spoilers, a large moveable vertical fin and independent horizontal stabilizers.

The A3J-1 is 76.547 feet (23.332 meters) long with a wing span of 53.02 feet (16.16 meters), and overall height of 19.366 feet (5.90 meters). The wings are swept 37.5° at 25% chord. The wing area is 700 square feet (65 square meters). The bomber has an empty weight of 32,714 pounds (14,839 kilograms) and Maximum Takeoff Weight (MTOW) of 56,293 pounds (25,534 kilograms).

Three-view illustration with dimensions. (U.S. Navy)

The A3J-1 Vigilante is powered by two General Electric J79-GE-8  turbojet engines with afterburner. The J79 is a single-spool axial-flow turbojet with a 17 stage compressor and 3-stage turbine. It is 17 feet, 4.inches (5.625 meters) long, with a diameter of 2 feet, 7.6 inches (0.803 meters). The J79-GE-8 produced a maximum 17,000 pounds of thrust (23.049 kilonewtons) at 7,685 r.p.m.

A North American Aviation A3J-1 Vigilante,  circa 1958. (U.S. Navy 1039888)

The A3J-1 had a maximum speed of 1,147 knots (1,320 miles per hour/2,124 kilometers per hour) at 40,000 feet (12,192 meters). Its combat ceiling was 52,100 feet (15,880 meters).

The Vigilante had a tubular bomb bay between the engines. Weapons were ejected rearward. It could carry a Mk 28, Mk 27 or Mk 43 thermonuclear bomb in the weapons bay, or conventional or nuclear bombs mounted on underwing hardpoints. The A3J carried no defensive weapons.

In 1962, the A3J was designated as A-5. North American Aviation built a total of 167 Vigilantes, in both attack and reconnaissance (RA-5C) variants.

The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVAN-65) launches a North American Aviation A3J Vigilante from a forward catapult. (U.S. Navy)

Leroy Anthony Heath was born in Detroit, Michigan, 20 November 1922. He was the first of seven children of Leroy Vincent Heath, a firefighter, and Catherine Crumley Heath. He graduated from high school in 1941 then went to work for the Cadillac Motor Car Division, General Motors Corporation.

Heath enlisted in the United States Navy 7 August 1942. He had brown hair and eyes, a light complexion, was 6 feet (1.83 meters) tall and weighing 190 pounds (86 kilograms), he was selected as an aviation cadet through the V-5 Program, 3 January 1943. After completion of flight training, on 1 July 1944 Aviation Cadet Heath was designated a Naval Aviator and commissioned as an ensign, United States Naval Reserve (U.S.N.R.). Sent to the Pacific Theater, Ensign Heath flew Chance Vought F4U Corsairs from USS Lexington (CV-16). Following the end of World War II, Heath was transferred to the Regular Navy (U.S.N.). He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant, junior grade, 1 January 1946.

On 9 November 1946, Lieutenant (j.g.) Heath married his long-time girlfriend, Miss Mary Helen Garver in Detroit. They would have seven children.

Heath graduated with Class 9 of the U.S. Navy’s test pilot school at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland. He served two tours as a project officer in the Service Test Division at the Naval Air Test Center.

He was promoted to lieutenant, 5 July 1951, and to lieutenant commander, 1 November 1955.

CDR Leroy A. Heath, USN, commanding officer, Heavy Attack Squadron SEVEN (VAH-7), USS Enterprise (CVAN 65), 1963. (U.S. Navy)

In 1962, Commander Heath as commanding officer of VAH-7, a heavy attack squadron, flying the new A3J-1 Vigilante from USS Enterprise (CVAN-65). He later served as operations officer of USS Independence (CVA-62).

On 1 January 1965, Heath was promoted to the rank of captain. From September 1968 to December 1969, he was in command of the attack transport, USS Cambria (APA-36). (Naval aviators were often assigned as commanding officers of “deep draft” ships prior to serving as captain of an aircraft carrier.)

USS Cambria (APA-36), at Valetta, Malta, 1968. Capatin Heath commanded the attack transport 25 Sept 1968–December 1969. (U.S. Navy)

After a tour as Executive Director, Material Acquisitions Group, Naval Air Systems Command, Captain Heath retired from the U.S. Navy in March 1972.

After earning a bachelor’s and masters degree in education from the University of Central Florida, Heath served as an assistant professor of mathematics at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, 1976 through 1985.

Mary Helen Heath died 28 Oct 1985. Professor Heath then married his second wife, Ms. Tamara Sue Sundbo, 20 June 1987 at Volusia, Florida.

Captain Heath died 21 February 2003.

¹ FAI Record File Number 4568

² FAI Record File Number 14658: Vladimir Smirnov, 13 July 1959. Air craft RV w/ 37V engine

© 2021, Bryan R. Swopes