Tag Archives: Altitude Record

9 February 1914

Second Lieutenant Henry Burnet Post, United States Army. (San Diego Air and Space Museum)
Second Lieutenant Henry Burnet Post, 25th Infantry Regiment, United States Army. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)

9 February 1914: At 9.35 a.m., Second Lieutenant Henry Burnet Post, 25th Infantry regiment, United States Army, was “Killed in hydroplane No. 10 accident at Signal Corps Aviation School, San Diego, Calif., at 9.35 a.m. Feb. 9, 1914. (in line of duty)”

Lieutenant Post had just returned from 15 days’ compassionate leave (22 January–5 February 1914). His father, Henry Albertson Van Zo Post, had died at the family home in Manhattan, New York City, 25 January 1914.

North Island, looking west, 1914. Coronado is to the left. The body of water between is Spanish Bight. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)

ARMY FLIER KILLED AS MACHINE BREAKS
Lieutenant Post Plunges To Death In San Diego Bay
Beachley Blames The Government

SAN DIEGO, California – February 9, 1914 – Lieutenant Henry B. Post of the First Aero Corps, considered one of the most skillful United States Army aviators, plunged to his death in San Diego Bay today, when the right wing of his hydro-aeroplane crumpled. Lieutenant Post died after establishing an American altitude record of 12,120 feet. He fell 600 feet into shallow water and was dead when Francis Wildman, another aviator, reached the spot in a flying boat.

Lieutenant Post left the North Island hangars at 8:50 o’clock this morning after having declared his intention of breaking the American altitude record for hydro-aeroplanes. Within an hour he had attained a height of 12,120 feet, the barograph showing this figure when recovered from the wreckage.

A series of wide spirals was a feature of the descent, the machine appearing to be under perfect control. When within 600 feet of the water the plane was seen to collapse, then careen. The next instant the pilot was hurled from his seat and the machine dropped like a bullet. Post fell into five feet of water, the wrecked craft disappearing from sight a few feet away.

Captain Arthur S. Cowen, head of the First Corps, said the machine which Lieutenant Post was piloting was responsible for the accident.

“The man has the natural ability of a born flyer, and it had to take the breakage of his machine to cause his death.,” said Captain Cowen.

“The death of Lieutenant Post only substantiates the charge that I made against the policy of the United State Government last November,” said Lincoln Beachley, aviator, in a telegram received here tonight.

“At that time I blamed Congress for the deaths of the Army and Navy aviators. I do not believe Government aviation would be much better off if the $2,000,000 or $3,000,000 appropriation for the supposed betterment of the flying branch of the services were made. They simply would have a little more machines with which to kill off more officers.

“Within a week that old machine will probably be patched up with a few new wires and some cloth and another aviator will be sent out in it.”

Some time ago Beachley told Secretary Garrison that Army aviators were losing their lives because the equipment supplied to them was old.

Lieutenant Post was 28 years of age. He came here June 28, 1913 from Honolulu where he was attached to the Twenty-fifth Infantry, and became a military aviator November 11. He is survived by his widow and his sister, who came here recently to visit him from their home in Babylon, New York, where his mother also resides. His brother, V. Z. Post, is a novelist. His father died two weeks ago.

The body will be sent to Washington for interment in the Arlington National Cemetery.

The death of Lieutenant Post was the fourteenth aviation fatality to occur in the United States Army and Navy service. Beside the fourteen officers killed, two civilian instructors, Al Welch and Paul Beck, lost their lives while experimenting with Army machines. The first officer killed was Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge on September 17, 1908. He was flying as a passenger with Orville Wright at Fort Myer. Lieutenant Selfridge was the first man to lose his life in an aeroplane accident.

The other officers who lost their lives were: Lieutenant G. E. M. Kelly, on May 10, 1911, at San Antonio; Lieutenant L. W. Hazelhurst, jr., on June 11, 1912, at College Point, Maryland; Lieutenant L. C. Rockwell and Corporal Frank Scott at College Point on September 28, 1912; Lieutenants Rex Chandler and Lewis H. Brereton at North Island on April 8, 1913; Lieutenant Joseph D. Park on May 9, 1913 at Los Angeles; Ensign William B. Billingsley on June 30, 1913 while flying over Chesapeake Bay; Lieutenant Loren H. Call on July 8, 1913 at Texas City; Lieutenant Moss L. Love on September 4, 1913 at San Diego; Lieutenant C. Perry Rich on November 14, 1913 when he fell into Manila Bay; and Lieutenant Kelly at San Diego on November 24, 1913.

The New York Times, 10 February 1914, Page 1.

A Wright Model CH hydro-aeroplane, circa 1913. (Wright Brothers Aeroplane Co.)

Henry Burnet Post was born at Brooklyn, New York, 15 June 1885. He was the last of seven children of Colonel Henry Albertson Van Zo Post, a Civil War veteran, engineer and railroad equipment financier, and Caroline Burnet McLean Post.

Henry Post entered the School of Applied Science at Columbia University as a member of the Class of 1906. He studied mechanical engineering. While at the University, he was a member of the Alpha Chapter of the Delta Psi (ΔΨ) fraternity, and in 1905, was president of the sophomore class. Post was also a member of the Deutscher Verien (the German club). He participated in varsity athletics, playing the position of Left End on the University football team and the Stroke of the Varsity Eight  Crew.

Henry Burnet Post married Miss Grace Woodman Phillips at St. Paul’s Methodist Episcopal Church, Manhattan, New York City, New York, 25 January 1907. (Mrs. Post later married Captain Francis Cogswell, U.S. Navy. She was a foreign service officer for the United States government during World War I. During World War II, she served with the Office of Strategic Service (O.S.S.) and later, the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.). She died 21 December 1971.)

On 28 January 1910, Henry Post enlisted as a private in Troop 4, Squadron A, of the New York National Guard. He served with the Guard’s 1st Aero Squadron. On 11 February 1911, Post was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 25th Infantry Regiment, United States Army. Lieutenant Post then attended the School of Musketry at the Presidio of San Francisco in San Francisco, California. He completed the course 6 January 1912.

Lieutenant Post joined Company E, 2nd Battalion, 25th Infantry, at Schofield Barracks on the island of Oahu, Territory of Hawaii, 22 March 1912.

During 1913, Schofield Barracks suffered an epidemic of typhoid fever as a result of a “gross pollution of the water supply.” Lieutenant Post was “sick in quarters (line of duty)”and quarantined from 27 January to 12 February 1913. He then returned to duty with Company E.

On 5 July 1913, Lieutenant Post was detached from Company E to attend the Signal Corps Aviation School, San Diego, on North Island, for training as an airplane pilot.

On 18 December 1913, he flew an airplane to 10,500 feet (3,200 meters).

Second Lieutenant Henry Burnet Post, 25th Infantry Regiment, United States Army, died in the line of duty at San Diego, California, 9 February 1914. He was buried at the Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia. Post Field, Fort Sill, Oklahoma, (now, Henry Post Army Airfield) was named in his honor.

A Wright Model C sits on the factory floor at Dayton, Ohio. (Wright Brothers Aeroplane Co.)

The airplane flown by Lieutenant Post during his record-setting flight, and subsequent fatal accident, was a Wright Model C, Signal Corps serial number S.C. 10. (This was the second S.C. 10. The first, also a Wright Model C, had been destroyed in a crash during acceptance trials at College Park, Maryland, 11 June 1912. Arthur L. Welsh, a Wright Flying School instructor, and 2nd Lieutenant Leighton Wilson Hazelhurst, Jr., were killed.) The U.S.  Army Signal Corps had purchased six of these airplanes. The Model C was similar to the earlier Model B, though it had dual flight controls. The wings were shorter and the rudder taller.

The Wright Model C was 29.8 feet (9.1 meters) long, with a wingspan of 38 feet (11.6 meters). The upper and lower wings had 5 feet (1.52 meters) vertical separation. The airplane weighed 920 pounds (417 kilograms), empty.

The airplane was powered by a water-cooled, normally-aspirated, 405.89-cubic-inch-displacement (6.65 liters) Wright inline 6-cylinder overhead-valve engine which produced 50–75 horsepower between 1,400–1,560 r.p.m. The Wright “6-60” weighed 305 pounds (138 kilograms). Two 8.5 foot (2.59 meter) diameter, two-bladed, fixed-pitch, counter-rotating propellers, driven by a chain drive and turning 525–575 r.p.m., are mounted behind the wings in pusher configuration.

The Model C had a maximum speed of 55 miles per hour (86 kilometers per hour).

All six of Signal Corps’ Wright Model C airplanes had crashed and been rebuilt at least once. The airplanes were prone to aerodynamic stall because of the pusher propeller configuration. As the pilot raised the nose, the propellers’ thrust vector accelerated the rate of pitch change. The wings stalled and the nose pitched down. There was insufficient elevator authority to bring the airplane out of the dive.

By the end of 1913, eleven Army pilots had been killed while flying Wright Brothers’ airplanes, five of them were flying the Wright Model C. Lieutenant Henry Burnet Post was the sixth pilot to die while flying the type.

Within a week of Lieutenant Post’s death, the Army grounded all pusher-type airplanes and prohibited their future use. This ended the Wright Brothers’ business with the United States Army.

Lieutenant Post’s altitude record of 12,120 feet (3,694.2 meters) was broken just two weeks later when Theodore C. Macauley, a civilian instructor at the Signal Corp Aviation School, flew to an altitude of 12,139 feet (3,700 meters).

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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6 December 1963

Lockheed NF-104A Aerospace Trainer 56-756, with its Rocketdyne engine firing during a zoom-climb maneuver. (U.S. Air Force)
Lockheed NF-104A Aerospace Trainer 56-756, with its Rocketdyne engine firing during a zoom-climb maneuver. (U.S. Air Force)

6 December 1963: Air Force test pilot Major Robert W. Smith takes the Lockheed NF-104A Aerospace Trainer, 56-0756, out for a little spin. . .

Starting at 0.85 Mach and 35,000 feet (10,668 meters) over the Pacific Ocean west of Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, Bob Smith turned toward Edwards Air Force Base and accelerated to Military Power and then lit the afterburner, which increased the General Electric J79-GE-3B turbojet engine’s 9,800 pounds of thrust (43.59 kilonewtons) to 15,000 pounds (66.72 kilonewtons). The modified Starfighter accelerated in level flight. At Mach 2.2, Smith ignited the Rocketdyne LR121 rocket engine, which burned a mixture of JP-4 and hydrogen peroxide. The LR121 was throttleable and could produce from 3,000 to 6,000 pounds of thrust (13.35–26.69 kilonewtons).

When the AST reached Mach 2.5, Smith began a steady 3.5G pull-up until the interceptor was in a 70° climb. At 75,000 feet (22,860 meters), the test pilot shut off the afterburner to avoid exceeding the turbojet’s exhaust temperature (EGT) limits. He gradually reduced the jet engine power to idle by 85,000 feet (25,908 meters), then shut it off.  Without the engine running, cabin pressurization was lost and the pilot’s A/P22S-2 full-pressure suit inflated.

The NF-104A continued to zoom to an altitude where its aerodynamic control surfaces were no longer functional. It had to be controlled by the reaction jets in the nose and wing tips. 756 reached a peak altitude of 120,800 feet (36,820 meters), before reentering the atmosphere in a 70° dive. Major Smith used the windmill effect of air rushing into the intakes to restart the jet engine.

Lockheed NF-104 Aerospace Trainer zoom-climb profile. (U.S. Air Force via NF-104.com)

Major Smith had set an unofficial record for altitude. Although Lockheed had paid the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) license fee, the Air Force had not requested certification in advance so no FAI or National Aeronautic Association personnel were on site to certify the flight.

For this flight, Robert Smith was nominated for the Octave Chanute Award “for an outstanding contribution made by a pilot or test personnel to the advancement of the art, science, and technology of aeronautics.”

Major Robert W. Smith, U.S. Air Force, with a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. (U.S. Air Force)

Robert Wilson Smith was born at Washington, D.C., 11 December 1928. He was the son of Robert Henry Smith, a clerk (and eventually treasurer) for the Southern Railway Company, and Jeanette Blanche Albaugh Smith, a registered nurse. He graduated from high school in Oakland, California, in 1947. Smith studied at the University of California, Berkeley, and George Washington University.

Robert W. Smith joined the United States Air Force as an aviation cadet in 1949. He trained as a pilot at Goodfellow Air Force Base, San Angelo, Texas, and Williams Air Force Base in Arizona. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant, United States Air Force, 23 June 1950.

Second Lieutenant Robert Wilson Smith married Ms. Martha Yacko, 24 June 1950, at Phoenix, Arizona.

Lieutenant Robert W. Smith and his crew chief, Staff Sergeant Jackson, with Lady Lane, Smith’s North American F-86 Sabre. (Robert W. Wilson Collection)

He flew the F-86 Sabre on more than 100 combat missions with the 334th and 335th Fighter Interceptor Squadrons of the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing during the Korean War. he named one of his airplanes Lady Lane in honor of his daughter. Smith was credited with two enemy aircraft destroyed, one probably destroyed and three more damaged.

Smith graduated from the Air Force Test Pilot School in 1952 and flew more than fifty aircraft types during testing at Edwards Air Force Base and Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. He was later assigned to the Aerospace Research Test Pilots School at Edwards Air Force Base for training as an astronaut candidate for Project Gemini.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Smith, United States Air Force

After the NF-104A project was canceled, Lieutenant Colonel Smith volunteered for combat duty in the Vietnam War. He commanded the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 388th Tactical Fighter Wing, at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, flying the Republic F-105D Thunderchief. Bob Smith was awarded the Air Force Cross for “extraordinary heroism” while leading an attack at Thuy Phoung, north of Hanoi, 19 November 1967.

He had previously been awarded the Silver Star, and five times was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Lieutenant Colonel Smith retired from the Air Force on 1 August 1969 after twenty years of service.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Wilson Smith died at Monteverde, Florida, 19 August 2010. He was 81 years old.

Lockheed F-104A Starfighter 56-756 following a landing accident at Edwards AFB, 21 November 1961. (U.S. Air Force via the International F-104 Society)

56-756 was a Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter. Flown by future astronaut James A. McDivitt, it had been damaged in a landing accident at Edwards following a hydraulic system failure, 21 November 1961. It was one of three taken from storage at The Boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, Arizona, and sent to Lockheed for modification to Aerospace Trainers (ASTs). These utilized a system of thrusters for pitch, roll and yaw control at altitudes where the standard aerodynamic control surfaces could no longer control the aircraft. This was needed to give pilots some experience with the control system for flight outside Earth’s atmosphere.

Lockheed NF-104A Aerospace Trainer 56-756. (U.S. Air Force)

The F-104A vertical fin was replaced with the larger fin and rudder from the two-place F-104B for increased stability. The wingspan was increased to 25 feet, 11.3 inches (7.907 meters) for installation of the hydrogen peroxide Reaction Control System thrusters. The fiberglass nosecone was replaced by an aluminum skin for the same reason. The interceptor’s radar and M61 Vulcan cannon were removed and tanks for rocket fuel and oxidizers, nitrogen, etc., installed in their place. The standard afterburning General Electric J79-GE-3B turbojet engine remained, and was supplemented by a Rocketdyne LR121 liquid-fueled rocket engine which produced 3,000 to 6,000 pounds of thrust (13.35–26.69 kilonewtons) with a burn time of 105 seconds. The fuselage “buzz number” was changed from FG-756 to NF-756.

56-756 was damaged by inflight explosions in 1965 and 1971, after which it was retired. It is mounted for static display at the Air Force Test Pilot School, Edwards Air Force Base, California, marked as 56-760.

Lockheed NF-104 Aerospace Trainer 56-756, marked as 56-760, on display at Edwards Air Force Base. (Kaszeta)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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28 September 1921

Lieutenant John A. Macready dressed for high altitude flight. (U.S. Air Force)
First Lieutenant John A. Macready dressed for high altitude flight. (U.S. Air Force)
Lieutenant John A. Macready, Air Service, United States Army. (U.S. Air force)
Captain John Arthur Macready, Air Service, United States Army, circa 1918. (U.S. Air Force)

28 September 1921: At McCook Field, Ohio, First Lieutenant John Arthur Macready, Air Service, United States Army, flew a turbo-supercharged Packard Lepère L USA C. II biplane, serial number S.C. 40015, to a world record altitude of 40,800 feet (12,436 meters). He won his first of three Mackay Trophies for this flight.

John A. Macready graduated from Stanford University in 1913 with a degree in economics. He enlisted in the Aviation Section, Signal Corps, U.S. Army, as a Private 1st Class, 16 July 1917. On 27 December 1917, he was commissioned as a 1st lieutenant in the Aviation Section, Signal Officers Reserve Corps. Lieutenant Macready became a flight instructor at Brooks Field, Texas, where he wrote the standard instructional text. On 11 October 1918, Lieutenant Macready was promoted to the rank of captain. After World War I, he became an engineering test pilot at McCook Field near Dayton, Ohio. He reverted to his permanent rank of first lieutenant, 18 September 1920. In 1923, Macready graduated from the Aeronautical Engineer Course, Air Service Engineering School.

For six years John Macready was responsible for testing turbosuperchargers, which enabled aircraft engines to produce continuous power at increasing altitudes. It was while testing these that he established his altitude record.

Lt. John A. Macready with his Packard Lepère L USA C.II. (San Diego History Center)

During a 35 hour, 18 minute endurance flight at Rockwell Field, San Diego, California, 5–6 October 1922, John Macready and Oakley G. Kelly pioneered the use of inflight refueling from another aircraft. Also, he and Kelly made the first non-stop transcontinental flight when they flew a Fokker T-2 across the United States from Roosevelt Field, Long Island, New York to Rockwell Field in 26 hours, 50 minutes, 38.6 seconds on 2 May 1923. Macready won his second and third Mackay Trophies for these achievements. He is the only many to have won it three times.

The Packard Lepère L USA C.II was a World War I biplane designed by French aeronautical engineer Captain Georges Lepère and built by the Packard Motor Car Company of Detroit, Michigan. It was to have been a two-place fighter, light bomber and observation aircraft armed with four machine guns.

The Packard Lepère was 25 feet, 3-1/8 inches (7.699 meters) long. The upper and lower wings had an equal span of 41 feet, 7¼ inches (12.681 meters), and equal chord of 5 feet, 5¾ inches (1.670 meters). The vertical gap between the wings was 5 feet, 5/8-inch (1.527 meters) and the lower wing was staggered 2 feet, 15/16-inch (0.633 meters) behind the upper wing. The wings’ incidence was +1°. Upper and lower wings were equipped with ailerons, and had no sweep or dihedral. The height of the Packard Lepère, sitting on its landing gear, was 9 feet, 7 inches (2.921 meters). The Packard Lepère had an empty weight of 2,561.5 pounds (1,161.9 kilograms) and its gross weight was 3,746.0 pounds (1,699.2 kilograms).

The fuselage was a wooden structure with a rectangular cross section. It was covered with three layers of veneer, (2 mahogany, 1 white wood) with a total thickness of 3/32-inch (2.38 millimeters). The fuselage had a maximum width of 2 feet, 10 inches (0.864 meters) and maximum depth of 4 feet, 0 inches (1.219 meters).

The wings were also of wooden construction, with two spruce spars and spruce ribs. Three layers of wood veneer covered the upper surfaces. Heavy bracing wires were used. These had an airfoil cross-section and actually provided additional lift. The interplane struts were unusual in that they were fully-framed units.

The Packard Lepère was powered by a water-cooled, normally-aspirated, 1,649.336-cubic-inch-displacement (27.028 liter) Liberty L-12 single overhead cam (SOHC) 45° V-12 engine with a compression ratio of 5.4:1. The Liberty produced 408 horsepower at 1,800 r.p.m. The L-12 as a right-hand tractor, direct-drive engine and it turned turned a two-bladed, fixed-pitch wooden propeller. The Liberty 12 was 5 feet, 7.375 inches (1.711 meters) long, 2 feet, 3.0 inches (0.686 meters) wide, and 3 feet, 5.5 inches (1.054 meters) high. It weighed 844 pounds (383 kilograms).

The engine coolant radiator was positioned horizontally in the center section of the Lepère’s upper wing. Water flowed through the radiator at a rate of 80 gallons (303 liters) per minute.

Packard Lepère LUSAC 11 P53, left profile. The turbocharger is mounted above the propeller driveshaft.
Packard Lepère L USA C.II S.C. 40013, McCook Field project number P53, left profile. The turbocharger’s turbine housing is mounted above the propeller driveshaft. (U.S. Air Force)

The Packard Lepère had a maximum speed of 130.4 miles per hour (209.9 kilometers per hour) at 5,000 feet (1,524 meters), 127.6 miles per hour (205.4 kilometers per hour) at 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), 122.4 miles per hour (197.0 kilometers per hour) at 15,000 feet (4,572 meters), 110.0 miles per hour (177.0 kilometers per hours) at 18,000 feet (5,486 meters) and 94.0 miles per hour (151.3 kilometers per hour) at 20,000 feet (6,096 meters). Its cruising speed was 112 miles per hour (180 was kilometers per hour). The airplane could climb to 5,000 feet in 4 minutes, 24 seconds, and to 20,000 feet in 36 minutes, 36 seconds. In standard configuration, the Packard Lepère had a service ceiling of 20,200 feet (6,157 meters). Its range was 320 miles (515 kilometers).

The fighter’s armament consisted of two fixed M1918 Marlin .30-caliber aircraft machine guns mounted on the right side of the fuselage, synchronized to fire forward through the propeller arc, with 1,000 rounds of ammunition, and two M1918 Lewis .30-caliber machine guns on a flexible mount with 970 rounds of ammunition.

The Air Service had ordered 3,525 of these airplanes, but when the War ended only 28 had been built. The contract was cancelled.

Six Packard Lepères were used for flight testing at McCook Field, Dayton, Ohio, assigned project numbers P 44, P 53, P 54, P 65, P 70 and P 80. One of these, flown by Major Rudolph W. Schroeder, set two Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Records for Altitude at 9,455 meters (31,020 feet), 18 September 1918.¹ On 6 September 1919, Schroeder flew a Packard Lepère to 8,616 meters (28,268 feet) while carrying a passenger. This set two more World Altitude Records.² Flying P 53, A.S. 40015, he set a fifth FAI altitude record of 10,093 meters (33,114 feet), 27 February 1920.³ On 28 September 1921, Captain John A. Macready flew P 53 to an altitude of 40,800 feet (12,436 meters). On 13 October 1922, 1st Lieutenant Theodore J. Koenig flew P 53 to win the Liberty Engine Builders’ Trophy Race at Selfridge Field, near Mount Clemens, Michigan. Koenig completed ten laps of the triangular racecourse in 2:00:01.54, at an average speed of 128.8 miles per hour (207.3 kilometers per hour).

The only Packard Lepère in existence, serial number A.S. 42133, is in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

Lieutenant John A Macready flew this turbosupercharged Packard Lepère L USA C.II, S.C 40013, McCook Field project number P53, to an altitude of 40,800 feet, 28 September 1921. (U.S. Air Force)
Barograph chart showing Lieutenant Macready’s record altitude of 40,800 feet (12,192 meters), 28 September 1921. (Sally Macready Wallace via www.earlyaviators.com)

¹ FAI Record File Number 15463

² FAI Record File Number 15671

³ FAI Record File Number 8229

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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29 August 1955

Wing Commander Walter Frame Gibb, DSO, DFC. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett)
Wing Commander Walter Frame Gibb, DSO, DFC. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test & Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)

29 August 1955: Wing Commander Walter Frame Gibb, DSO, DFC, the Chief Test Pilot for the Bristol Aeroplane Co., set a new Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world record for altitude when he flew an English Electric Canberra B Mk.II, WD952, to 20,083 meters (65,889 feet), near Filton, Gloucestershire.¹

The Telegraph reported:

. . . taking off from Filton, he climbed over the Bristol Channel towards Ireland and levelled off at 50,000 ft in order to burn off fuel to lighten the aircraft before continuing his ascent.

He turned east and finally reached a new record latitude of 65,876 ff (nearly 12.5 miles high) over Bristol. Gibb, who was flying solo, observed: “The last 500 ft took an awfully long time. It was the most difficult flying I have ever experienced.”

WD952 was equipped with the new Bristol Olympus Mk.102 axial-flow turbojet engines, which produced 12,000 pounds of thrust (53.38 kilonewtons), each.

Wing Commander Gibb’s record-setting Olympus-powered English Electric Canberra B Mk.II, WD952. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett)

This was the second FAI altitude record set by Gibb with WD952. Two years earlier, 4 May 1953, Gibb had flown the Canberra to an altitude of 19,406 meters (63,668 feet).²

On 9 April 1956, WD952 was taking off from Filton when the left engine suffered a turbine blade failure at 50 feet (15 meters). In the resulting forced landing, the Canberra’s left wing struck an oak tree and was torn off. The record-setting airplane was damaged beyond repair and was scrapped.

¹ FAI Record File Number 10350

² FAI Record File Number 10323

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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22 August 1963

Joe Walker and the X-15 on Rogers Dry Lake at the end of a flight. Walker is wearing a David Clark Co. MC-2 full-pressure suit. (U.S. Air Force)

22 August 1963: On his twenty-fifth and last flight with the X-15 program, NASA Chief Research Test Pilot Joseph Albert Walker would attempt a flight to Maximum Altitude. Engineers had predicted that the X-15 was capable of reaching 400,000 feet (121,920 meters) but simulations had shown that a safe reentry from that altitude was risky. For this flight, Flight 91, the flight plan called for 360,000 feet (109,728 meters) to give Walker a safety margin. Experience had shown that slight variations in engine thrust and climb angle could cause large overshoots in peak altitude, so this was not considered an excessive safety margin.

For this flight, Joe Walker flew the Number 3 X-15, 56-6672. It was the only one of the three North American Aviation X-15s equipped with the Honeywell MH-96 flight control system, which had been developed to improve control of the rocketplane outside Earth’s atmosphere. This flight was the twenty-second for Number 3.

North American Aviation X-15 56-6672 immediately after being dropped by the Boeing NB-52 Stratofortress. (NASA)
North American Aviation X-15A 56-6672 immediately after being dropped by the Boeing NB-52 Stratofortress. (NASA)

Walker and the X-15 were airdropped from the Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress 52-003, The High and Mighty One, at 45,000 feet (13,716 meters) above Smith Ranch Dry Lake, Nevada, about half-way between the city of Reno and the NASA High Range Tracking Station at Ely. Launch time was 10:05:57.0 a.m., PDT. Walker ignited the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine. This engine was rated at 57,000 pounds of thrust. Experience had shown that different engines varied from flight to flight and that atmospheric conditions were a factor. Thrust beyond 60,000 pounds was often seen, but this could not be predicted in advance. The flight plan called for the duration of burn to be 84.5 seconds on this flight. The X-15 climbed at a 45° angle.

As Walker was about to shut down the engine according to plan, it ran out of fuel. The total burn time was 85.8 seconds, just slightly longer than planned.

“At burnout, Joe was passing 176,000 feet [53,645 meters] and traveling at 5,600 feet per second [1,707 meters per second]. He then began the long coast to peak altitude. It would take almost 2 minutes to reach peak altitude after burn out. Two minutes does not seem like a lot of time, but try timing it. Just sit back in your easy chair and count off the seconds. It is almost impossible to believe that you can continue to coast up in altitude for that length of time after the engine burns out. It gives you some feel for how much energy is involved at those speeds. For comparison, when you throw a ball up in the air as hard as you can, it only coasts upward a maximum of 4 or 5 seconds. The X-15 coasted up for 120 seconds.

“The airplane would coast up another 178,000 feet during that time to peak out at 354,200 feet. . . .”

At The Edge of Space: The X-15 Flight Program, by Milton O. Thompson, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1992, Chapter 5 at Page 125.

Joe Walker and the X-15 reached the peak of their ballistic trajectory at 354,200 feet (67.083 miles, 107,960 meters). Walker pitched the nose down to be in the proper attitude for atmospheric reentry. The X-15 decelerated as it hit the atmosphere and Walker experienced as much as 7 Gs. The rocketplane’s aerodynamic control surfaces again became operational as it descended through 95,000 feet (28,956 meters) and Walker leveled at 70,000 feet (21,336 meters). He then glided to a landing on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base, California, after 11 minutes, 8.6 seconds of flight.

Flight 91 was the highest flight achieved by any of the X-15s. It was Joe Walker’s second flight into space. His record would stand for the next 41 years.

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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