Tag Archives: Fighter

14 October 1938

The Curtiss-Wright XP-40 prototype, 38-10, on its first flight, 14 October 1938. Test pilot Ed Elliot is in the cockpit. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives) 16_008532

14 October 1938: At Buffalo, New York, test pilot Everett Edward Elliot made the first flight in the new Curtiss-Wright Corporation’s Model 75P, a prototype for a single-engine pursuit plane which had been designated XP-40 by the U.S. Army Air Corps.

Curtiss-Wright’s Chief Engineer, Donovan Reese Berlin, had taken the tenth production P-36A Hawk, Air Corps serial number 38-10, and had its air-cooled radial engine replaced with the Harold Caminez-designed, liquid-cooled, supercharged, 1,710.597-cubic-inch-displacement (28.032 liter) Allison Engineering Co. V-1710-C13 (V-1710-19).

Donovan Reese Berlin. (Niagara Aerospace Museum)

The V-1710-19 was a single overhead cam (SOHC) 60° V-12 engine with four valves per cylinder and a compression ration of 6.65:1. It had a Normal Power rating of 910 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. at Sea Level, and 1,060 horsepower at 2,950 r.p.m. for Takeoff. At 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), the V-1710-19 had Maximum Continuous Power rating of 1,000 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m., and Military Power rating of 1,150 horsepower at 2,950 r.p.m. The engine required 100/130-octane aviation gasoline. It drove a three-bladed Curtiss Electric constant-speed propeller through a 2:1 gear reduction. The V-1710-19 was 8 feet, 1.75 inches (2.483 meters) long, 3 feet, 4.75 inches (1.035 meters) high and 2 feet, 4.94 inches (0.735 meters) wide. It weighed 1,320 pounds (599 kilograms).

Curtiss-Wright XP-40 38-10 (SDASM 16_008531)

At 1,829.39-cubic-inches (29.978 liters), the original Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp S1C1-G (R-1830-17) 14-cylinder radial engine had greater displacement and produced 80 horsepower more for takeoff than the Allison V-12. The long, narrow V-12, though, allowed for a much more streamlined engine cowling for higher speed and greater efficiency.

XP-40 16_008533
Curtiss-Wright XP-40 prototype. (SDASM 16_008534)
The Curtiss XP-40 prototype at Langley Field in the original configuration. (NASA)
The Curtiss-Wright XP-40 in the original configuration at Langley Field. (NASA)
Everett Edward Elliot (1907–1981).

In the early testing, the XP-40 was much slower than expected, reaching only 315 miles per hour (507 kilometers per hour). (The P-36A Hawk had a maximum speed of  313 miles per hour). Engineers experimented with different placement for the coolant radiator, oil coolers and the engine air intake. The Air Corps project officer, Lieutenant Benjamin Scovill Kelsey, had the prototype sent to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) Research Center at Langley Field, Virginia, where the full-size airplane was placed inside a wind tunnel.

Over a two-month period, NACA engineers made a number of improvements. The radiator was moved forward under the engine and the oil coolers utilized the same air scoop. The exhaust manifolds were improved as were the landing gear doors.

When they had finished, Lieutenant Kelsey flew the modified XP-40 back to Curtiss. Its speed had been increased to 354 miles per hour (570 kilometers per hour), a 12% improvement.

By December 1939 the airplane had been further improved and was capable of 366 miles per hour (589 kilometers per hour).

The Curtiss-Wright XP-40 prototype in a wind tunnel at Langley Field, 24 April 1939. (NASA)
Curtiss XP-40 in the NACA Full Scale Wind Tunnel at Langley Field, Virginia, April 1939. (NASA)
Curtiss-Wright XP-40 in the NACA Full Scale Wind Tunnel at Langley Field, Virginia, 24 April 1939. (NASA)

The Curtiss Hawk 75P, XP-40 38-10, was 31 feet, 1 inch (9.574 meters) long with a wingspan of 37 feet, 4 inches (11.354 meters) and overall height of 12 feet, 4 inches (3.734 meters). It had an empty weight of 5,417 pounds (2,457.1 kilograms) and maximum gross weight of 6,870 pounds (3,116.2 kilograms).

The prototype had a maximum speed of 342 miles per hour (550 kilometers per hour) at 12,200 feet (3,719 meters) with a gross weight of 6,260 pounds (2,839.5 kilograms). Its range was 460 miles (740 kilometers) flying at 299 miles per hour (481 kilometers per hour) with 100 gallons (378.5 liters) of fuel. With 159 gallons (601.9 liters) and with speed reduced to 200 miles per hour (322 kilometers per hour), the XP-40 had a maximum range of 1,180 miles (1,899 kilometers).

The prototype was armed with two air-cooled Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns mounted above the engine and synchronized to fire forward through the propeller arc.

The Air Corps placed an initial order for 524 P-40s. This was the largest single order for airplanes by the U.S. military up to that time. The first production model was the P-40 Warhawk, armed with two .50-caliber machine guns. There was only one P-40A variant which was a P-40 modified as a camera aircraft. The definitive pursuit model was the P-40B Warhawk, which retained the two .50-caliber guns of the P-40 and added two Browning M2 .30-caliber machine guns to each of the wings.

A Curtiss-Wright P-40B Warhawk, 79th Pursuit Squadron, 20th Pursuit Group, Hamilton Field, California, 1940. (U.S. Air Force)

The P-40B was best known as the airplane flown by the American Volunteer Group fighting for China against the Japanese. They were called the “Flying Tigers”. Between 1939 and 1945, Curtiss built 13,738 P-40s in many configurations. They flew in combat in every theater of operations during World War II.

A Curtiss-Wright Hawk 81-A3 (Tomahawk IIb) of the American Volunteer Group, Kunming, China, 1942. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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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, the “Sabre 45” soon developed into an almost completely new airplane. The Super Sabre had a 49° 2′ sweep to the leading edges of the wings and horizontal stabilizer. The total wing area was 385.2 square feet (35.79 square meters). The wings had an angle of incidence of 0°, with no twist or dihedral. 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 its maximum takeoff weight was 28,971 pounds (13,141 kilograms). It had an internal fuel capacity of 744 gallons (2,816 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. The J57 was a two-spool axial-flow turbojet which had a 16-stage compressor section (9 low- and 7 high-pressure stages) and a 3-stage turbine (2 high- and 1 low-pressure stages). Its continuous power rating was 8,000 pounds of thrust (35.586 kilonewtons). The Military Power rating was 9,700 pounds (43.148 kilonewtons) (30-minute limit). Maximum power was 14,800 pounds (43.148 kilonewtons) with afterburner (5-minute limit). The engine was 20 feet, 9.7 inches (6.342 meters) long, 3 feet, 3.9 inches (1.014 meters) in diameter, and weighed 5,075 pounds (2,303 kilograms). Later production aircraft used a J57-P-39 engine.

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 at Sea Level, 1,224.9 kilometers per hour, under Standard Atmospheric Conditions.) The maximum speed of the F-100A was 759 knots (873 miles per hour/1,406 kilometers per hour)—Mach 1.32—at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters). Its service ceiling was 47,500 feet (14,478 meters). The fighter’s combat radius was 402 nautical miles (463 statute miles/745 kilometers). The maximum ferry range with external fuel was 1,124 nautical miles (1,493 statute miles/2,082 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.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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6 October 1977

The first prototype Mikoyan MiG 29A, 9-01, ("01 Blue") on display at the Central Air Force Museum, Monino. (Detail from image by AVIA BavARia/Wikipedia)
The first prototype Mikoyan MiG 29A, 9-01, (“01 Blue”) on display at the Central Air Force Museum, Monino. (Detail from image by AVIA BavARia/Wikipedia)
Alexander Vasilyevich Fedotov (1932–1982)
Alexander Vasilievich Fedotov

6 October 1977: The first of eleven prototypes of the Mikoyan MiG 29A fighter, 9-01, made its first flight at Ramenskoye Airfield with Chief Test Pilot Alexander Vasilievich Fedotov, Hero of the Soviet Union, in the cockpit. Fedotov had been a test pilot at A.I. Mikoyan EDB since 1958 and set eighteen speed and altitude world records flying high performance aircraft. He was killed while testing the MiG 31 in 1984.

The MiG 29A is a fourth generation, single-seat, twin-engine, Mach 2+ air superiority fighter built by the Mikoyan Design Bureau. It entered service with the Soviet Union in 1983 and has been widely exported to many other nations. The MiG 29A is 13.37 meters (57 feet) long and has a wing span of 11.4 meters (37 feet, 3 inches). Its empty weight is 11,000 kilograms (24,250 pounds) and the maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) is 20,000 kilograms (44,100 pounds). The fighter is powered by two Klimov RD-33 turbofan engines which produce 11,240 pounds of thrust, or 18,277 pounds of thrust with afterburner. It has a maximum speed of Mach 2.25 (1,490 miles per hour/2,400 kilometers per hour) and a service ceiling of 59,100 feet (18,013 meters). Maximum range with internal fuel is 1,430 kilometers (888 miles).

Armament consists of one Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-301 30mm autocannon with 150 rounds of ammunition and a combination of air-to-air missiles, rockets or bombs carried on underwing pylons or fuselage hard points.

More than 1,600 MiG 29s have been built.

Mikoyan MiG 29SMT RF-92934 ("22 Red"),Russian Air Force. (Alex Beltyukov/Wikipedia)
Mikoyan MiG 29SMT RF-92934 (“22 Red”), Russian Air Force. (Alex Beltyukov/Wikipedia)

Alexander Vasilievich Fedotov born 23 June 1932 at Stalingrad, Russia (renamed Volgograd in 1961). He graduated from the Air Force Special School at Stalingrad,  and in 1950, entered the Soviet Army. Fedotov attended the Armavir Military Aviation School of Pilots at Amravir, Krasnodar Krai, Russia, graduating in 1952, and then became a flight instructor. In 1958 he attended the Ministry of Indutrial Aviation Test Pilot School at Zhukovsky. He was a test pilot for the Mikoyan Experimental Design Bureau from 1958 to 1984. In 1983, Alexander Fedotov was promoted to the rank of Major General in the Soviet Air Force.

On 22 July 1966, Fedotov was honored as a Hero of the Soviet Union. He was named an Honored Test Pilot of the Soviet Union, 21 February 1969. He was qualified as a Military Pilot 1st Class. Fedotov was twice awarded the order of Lenin, and also held the Order of the Red Banner and the Order of the Red Banner of Labor.

During his career as a test pilot, Major General Fedotov had been forced to eject from an airplane three times. He had also set 15 Fédération Aéronautique Internationale world records for speed, altitude and time to altitude. One of these, FAI Record File Number 2825, in which he flew a Mikoyan E-266M to 37,650 meters (123,534 feet), 31 August 1977, remains the current record. The FAI has also honored him three times (1961, 1973 and 1977) with The De la Vaulx Medal, and in 1976 awarded him the FAI’s Gold Air Medal.

Major General Alexander Vasilyevich Fedotov and his navigator, Valerie Sergeyvich Zaytevym, were killed when the second MiG 31 prototype, number 83/2, crashed during a test flight. Neither airman was able to eject.

Major General Federov
Major General Alexander Vasilyevich Federov, Hero of the Soviet Union

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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5 October 1954

Lockheed XF-104 Starfighter 083-1002, serial number 53-7787, the second prototype, in flight near Edwards AFB. (U.S. Air Force)

5 October 1954: Chief Engineering Test Pilot Tony LeVier made the first flight in the second prototype Lockheed XF-104 Starfighter, 53-7787, at Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of southern California. This was the armament test aircraft and was equipped with a General Electric T171 Vulcan 20mm Gatling gun. This six-barreled gun was capable of firing at a rate of 6,000 rounds per minute.

The XF-104 was 49 feet, 2 inches (14.986 meters) long with a wingspan of 21 feet, 11 inches (6.680 meters) and overall height of 13 feet, 6 inches (4.115 meters). The prototypes had an empty weight of 11,500 pounds (5,216 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 15,700 pounds (7,121 kilograms).

While the first prototype, 53-7776, was equipped with a Buick J65-B-3 turbojet engine, the second used a Wright Aeronautical Division J65-W-6 with afterburner. Both were improved derivatives of the Armstrong Siddely Sa.6 Sapphire, built under license. The J65 was a single-shaft axial-flow turbojet with a 13-stage compressor and 2-stage turbine. The J65-B-3 was rated at 7,330 pounds of thrust, and the J65-W-6, rated at 7,800 pounds (34.70 kilonewtons), and 10,500 pounds (46.71 kilonewtons) with afterburner.

The XF-104 had a maximum speed of 1,324 miles per hour (2,131 kilometers per hour), a range of 800 miles (1,287 kilometers) and a service ceiling of 50,500 feet (15,392 meters).

53-7787 was lost 19 April 1955 when it suffered explosive decompression at 47,000 feet (14,326 meters) during a test of the T171 Vulcan gun system. The lower escape hatch had come loose due to an inadequate latching mechanism. Lockheed test pilot Herman R. (“Fish”) Salmon was unable to find a suitable landing area and ejected at 250 knots (288 miles per hour/463 kilometers per hour) and 15,000 feet (4,572 meters). The XF-104 crashed 72 miles (117 kilometers) east-northeast of Edwards Air Force Base. Salmon was found two hours later, uninjured, about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) from the crash site.

Tony LeVier with the XF-104 armament test prototype, 53-7787, at Edwards AFB, 1954. LeVier is wearing a David Clark Co. T-1 capstan-type partial-pressure suit with K-1 helmet. (U.S. Air Force)

The YF-104A pre-production aircraft and subsequent F-104A production aircraft had many improvements over the two XF-104 prototypes. The fuselage was lengthened 5 feet, 6 inches (1.68 meters). The J65 engine was replaced with a more powerful General Electric J79-GE-3 turbojet. There were fixed inlet cones added to control airflow into the engines. A ventral fin was added to improve stability.

Lockheed F-104A-15-LO Starfighters 56-0769 and 56-0781. (Lockheed Martin)

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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1 October 1947

North American Aviation test pilot George S. Welch, flying the first of three XP-86 prototypes, serial number 45-59597. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

1 October 1947: After three years development in which 801,386 engineering hours and 340,594 drafting hours had been expended, the first prototype North American Aviation XP-86 (company designation NA-140), serial number 45-59597, was ready for its first flight at Muroc Dry Lake in the high desert, north of Los Angeles, California.

Completed at North American’s Inglewood plant on 8 August 1947, it was trucked to Muroc in mid-September. It was reassembled, everything was checked out, and after a few taxi tests, company test pilot George S. Welch took off for a initial familiarization flight. Chief Test Pilot Bob Chilton flew chase in an XP-82 Twin Mustang with a company photographer on board. The duration of the first flight was 1 hour, 18 minutes.

Recently completed, the first prototype XP-86, 45-59597, waits inside the North American Aviation plant at Inglewood, California, 14 August 1947. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

During this first flight, George Welch climbed to 35,000 feet (10,668 meters):

“In a little more than ten minutes he had reached 35,000 feet. Leveling out, the test pilot smiled as he watched the indicated airspeed accelerate to 320 knots. He estimated that should be 0.90 Mach number. . . Rolling into a 40 degree dive, he turned west. . . The airspeed indicator seemed to be stuck at about 350 knots. The Sabre was behaving just fine. Then at 29,000 feet, there was a little wing roll. Correcting the roll, George pushed into a steeper dive. The airspeed indicator suddenly jumped to 410 knots and continued to rise. At 25,000 feet, he pulled the Sabre into level flight and reduced power. The wing rocked again and the airspeed jumped back to 390.”

Aces Wild: The Race for Mach 1, by Al Blackburn, Scholarly Resources Inc., Wilmington, Delaware, 1998, at Chapter 5, Pages 144–145.

George Welch was the first to report instrument readings that would be referred to as “Mach jump.” It has been argued that George Welch flew the XP-86 beyond Mach 1 during this flight, breaking the “sound barrier” two weeks before Chuck Yeager did with the Bell X-1 rocketplane. During flight testing, it was firmly established that the XP-86 could reach Mach 1.02–1.04 in a dive, so it is certainly possible that he did so on the Sabre’s first flight.

North American Aviation Model NA-140, the first XP-86 prototype, 45-59597, at Muroc AAF, 1947. (U.S. Air Force)
North American Aviation Model NA-140, the first XP-86 prototype, 45-59597, at Muroc AAF, 1947. (U.S. Air Force)

The XP-86 was unlike any airplane before it. It was the first airplane with a swept wing. After analyzing test data from the Messerschmitt Me 262, North American’s engineers designed a wing with a 35° degree sweepback to its leading edge. The wing tapered toward the tips, and its thickness also decreased from the root to the tip. In order to create a very strong but very thin wing, it was built with a two-layered aluminum skin, instead of ribs and spars, with each layer separated by “hat” sections. The wing sweep allowed high speed shock waves to form without stalling the entire wing.

Cutaway illustration of the XP-86. The speed brake configuation was not used for production aircraft. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

The wing also incorporated leading edge “slats” which were airfoil sections that automatically extended below 290 knots, smoothing the air flow over the wing’s upper surface and creating more lift at slow speeds. Above that speed, aerodynamic forces closed the slats, decreasing drag and allowing for higher speeds. Effectively, the wing could change its shape in flight.

Test pilot George S. Welch, wearing his distinctive orange helmet, in the cockpit of the prototype XP-86. This photograph was taken 14 October 1947. (U.S. Air Force)
This photograph of the XP-86 shows the 35° wing sweep. Test pilot George S. Welch, wearing his distinctive orange helmet, in the cockpit of the prototype XP-86. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

The XP-86 prototypes were 37 feet, 6½ inches (11.443 meters) long with a wingspan of 37 feet, 1–7/16 inches (11.314 meters) and overall height of 14 feet, 9 inches (4.496 meters). The empty weight was 9,730 pounds (4,413.5 kilograms), gross weight, 13,395 pounds (6,075.9 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight was 16,438 pounds (7,456.2 kilograms).

North American Aviation XP-86 45-59597. (Ray Wagner Collection, San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives, Catalog #: 16_002950)

The XP-86 was initially powered by a General Electric-designed, Chevrolet-built J35-C-3 turbojet which produced 4,000 pounds of thrust. This was soon changed to an Allison J35-A-5. Performance testing was conducted with the Allison engine installed. The J35 was a single-spool, axial-flow turbojet engine with an 11-stage compressor and single-stage turbine. The J35-A-5 was rated at 4,000 pounds of thrust (17.79 kilonewtons) at 7,700 r.p.m. (static thrust, Sea Level). The engine was 14 feet, 0.0 inches (4.267 meters) long, 3 feet, 4.0 inches (1.016 meters) in diameter and weighed 2,400 pounds (1,089 kilograms).

The three North American Aviation XP-86 prototypes. Front to back, 45-59598, 45-59597 and 45-59599. (National Archives and Records Administration)

The maximum speed of the XP-86 at Sea Level was 0.787 Mach (599 miles per hour, 964 kilometers per hour), 0.854 Mach (618 miles per hour, 995 kilometers per hour) at 14,000 feet (4,267 meters) and 575 miles per hour (925 kilometers per hour) at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters)—0.875 Mach.

The prototype fighter was able to take off at 125 miles per hour (201 kilometers per hour) in just 3,020 feet (920.5 meters) of runway. It could climb to 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) in 12.1 minutes and had a service ceiling of 41,300 feet (12,588 meters).

The end of XP-86 45-59597 at Frenchman Flats, 1953.

XP-86 45-59597 was expended as a target during nuclear weapons tests. On 25 May 1953, it was 1,850 feet from ground zero of Upshot Knothole Grable. The only part still intact was the engine, which was thrown 500 feet.

Upshot Knothole Grable (National (Nuclear Security Administration CIC 0315864)
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)

George Welch was born George Lewis Schwartz, in Wilmington, Delaware, 10 May 1918. 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, and enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1939.

George S. Welch is best remembered as one of the heroes of Pearl Harbor. He was one of only two fighter pilots to get airborne 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. For this action, Lieutenant General H.H. “Hap” Arnold recommended the Medal of Honor, but because Lieutenant Welch had taken off without orders, an officer in his chain of command refused to endorse the nomination. He received the Distinguished Service Cross.

During World War II, George 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.

Suffering from malaria, George Welch was out of combat, and when North American Aviation approached him to test the new P-51H Mustang, General Arnold authorized his resignation. Welch test flew the P-51, FJ-1 Fury, F-86 Sabre and F-100 Super Sabre. He was killed 12 October 1954 when his F-100A Super Sabre came apart in a 7 G pull up from a Mach 1.5 dive.

North American Aviation F-86-A-NA Sabre 47-630. (North American Aviation, Inc./Chicago Tribune)
An early production aircraft, North American Aviation P-86A-1-NA Sabre 47-630 (s/n 151-38457). (North American Aviation, Inc./Chicago Tribune)

After testing, the North American Aviation XP-86 was approved for production as the F-86A. It became operational in 1949. The first squadron to fly the F-86 held a naming contest and from 78 suggestions, the name “Sabre” was chosen. The F-86 Sabre was in production until 1955 at North American’s Inglewood, California, and Cleveland, Ohio, plants. It was also built under license by Canadair, Ltd., Sain-Laurent, Quebec, Canada; the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation, Port Melbourne, Victoria, Australia; and Mitsubishi Heavy  Industries at Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan. A total of 9,860 Sabres were built. They served with the United States Air Force until 1970.

XP-86 45-59597 was expended in nuclear weapons tests, Operation Snapper Easy and Snapper Fox, at the Nevada Test Site, Frenchman’s Flat, Nevada, in May 1952. The second and third prototypes, 45-59598 and 45-59599, met similar fates.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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