5 January 1956: The prototype Piasecki Helicopter Company YH-16A-PH Transporter twin-turboshaft, tandem-rotor helicopter, serial number 50-1270, was returning to Philadelphia from a test flight, when, at approximately 3:55 p.m., the aft rotor desynchronized, collided with the forward rotor and the aircraft broke up in flight. It crashed at the Mattson Farm on Oldman’s Creek Road, near Swedesboro, New Jersey, and was completely destroyed.
Test pilots Harold W. Peterson and George Callahan were killed.
It was determined that a bearing associated with an internal coaxial shaft supporting test data equipment had seized, causing the rotor shaft to fail.
At the time, the YH-16 was the largest helicopter in the world. The United States Air Force intended it as a very-long-range rescue helicopter, while the U.S. Army expected it to serve as a heavy lift cargo and troop transport.
YH-16 50-1269 was powered by two 2,181.2-cubic-inch-displacement (35.74 liter) air-cooled, supercharged Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp E2 (R-2180-11) two-row, fourteen-cylinder radial engines with a Normal Power Rating of 1,300 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. at 8,000 feet ( meters), and 1,650 horsepower at 2,600 rp.m., for Takeoff.
The second YH-16A, 50-1270, was modified while under construction and was powered by two Allison Division YT38-A-10 turboshaft engines which produced 1,800 shaft horsepower, each. This made the YH-16A the world’s first twin-engine turbine-powered helicopter.
The YH-16A had a fuselage length of 78 feet (23.774 meters), and both main rotors were 82 feet (24.994 meters) in diameter. With rotors turning, the overall length was 134 feet ( meters). Their operating speed was 125 r.p.m. Overall height of the helicopter was 25 feet (7.62 meters). The helicopter’s empty weight was 22,506 pounds (10,209 kilograms) and the gross weight was 33,577 pounds (15,230 kilograms).
The cruise speed of the YH-16A was 146 miles per hour (235 kilometers per hour). In July 1955, Peterson and Callahan had flown 50-1270 to an unofficial record speed of 165.8 miles per hour (266.83 kilometers per hour). The service ceiling was 19,100 feet (5,822 meters) and the maximum range for a rescue mission was planned at 1,432 miles (2,305 kilometers).
After the accident, the H-16 project was cancelled.
22 December 1954: At Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of southern California, test pilot Captain Richard James Harer was flying a Lockheed F-94C-1-LO Starfire, serial number 50-962.¹ Harer was accompanied by fellow test pilot Captain Milburn G. Apt in a chase plane.
The Lockheed F-94 was the first U.S. production fighter aircraft to be equipped with a drag chute to provide aerodynamic braking on landing. (Drag chutes had been in use on larger aircraft since the 1930s.) There was speculation that the sudden deceleration provided by a drag chute might be useful during air-to-air combat.
Captain Harer’s test flight was to determine what would happen when the drag chute opened while the airplane was traveling at 600 miles per hour (96 kilometers per hour).
LIFE Magazine described the test in the following excerpt:
. . . A captain named Richard J. Harer was assigned to make the test in an F-94C, capable of flying 600 miles an hour. The plane was equipped with a manual release, so Harer could get rid of the parachute after the test. In the event that the manual release failed, Harer could get rid of the parachute by detonating a small explosive charge which was wired to the rope that secured the parachute to the plane. If both of these devices failed, Harer could still get rid of the parachute by going into a dive and maneuvering the parachute into the blast of flame from his afterburner. In sum, a thoughtful arrangement of affairs. Harer got into his plane and took it up to 20,000 feet, closely followed by a chase aircraft flown by another captain named Milburn Apt. Harer opened the parachute, began to tumble crazily across the sky and then—as far as anyone knows—must have tried the manual release. It failed. Then, because he was a cool, skillful pilot, Harer must have kept his head and tried the explosive charge, although no one is sure what he did. In any case, the charge did not explode. By this time Harer was plummeting out of control toward the dry lake bed at perhaps 500 miles an hour, with Captain Apt flying right beside him shouting advice over the radio. Harer’s plane continued down, wallowing, gyrating, the deadly parachute never quite getting into the flame of the afterburner. Harer crashed. His plane burst into flames.
Captain Apt landed on the lake bed at almost the instant of the crash. The two planes, one burning, one under control, skidded along beside each other. As soon as he came to a halt, Apt leaped out of his plane and ran over to Harer’s. “It was nothing but fire,” Apt remembers. “The only part of the plane I could see sticking out of the flames was the tip of the tail.”
Apt dashed around to the other side of Harer’s plane. Strangely, this side was not burning. Apt was able to climb up onto the plane and look through the Plexiglas canopy into the cockpit. It was filled with smoke, but he could see Harer inside, feebly, faintly moving his head. Apt grabbed the canopy release, a device on the outside of the plane designed for just such and emergency. It failed.
The dry lake bed has absolutely nothing on its surface except the fine-grained sand of which it is composed. No sticks, no stones, nothing that Apt might have picked up to smash the canopy. He tried to pry it off with his bare hands, an effort that, had it not been for the circumstances, would have been ludicrous. He smashed it with his fists and succeeded only in injuring himself. Meanwhile he could see Harer inside, the fire beginning to get to him now.
As Captain Apt smashed his fists on the canopy, a single jeep raced across the lake bed toward the plane at 70 miles an hour. Reaching the plane, the driver leaped out and ran over to it, carrying the only useful piece of equipment he had: a five-pound brass fire extinguisher, the size of a rolling pin. He could as well have tried to put out the fire by spitting on it. Apt and the jeep driver shouted contradictory instructions at each other above the growing roar of the fire. The jeep driver emptied his extinguisher on the forward part of the plane, then handed the empty container to Apt. Apt raised it above his head and smashed it down on the canopy. It bounced off. He pounded the canopy again and again, as hard as he could, and each time the extinguisher bounced off. “It was like hitting a big spring,” he says forlornly. “I couldn’t break it.”
Meanwhile, 9,950 men on the base quietly pursued their jobs, unaware of the accident. The obstetrician said, “Come back Thursday, Mrs. Smith,” Robert Hawn worked on his YAPS, and Smith, Douglas S., changed a tire. The only immediate spectators, aside from Apt and the jeep driver, were the Joshua trees growing all along the edge of the lake bed, very old and mournful.
By this time Captain Harer’s flesh was on fire. The jeep driver dashed back to his vehicle and returned with a five-gallon gasoline can. “My God.” Apt thought. “No, no,” the jeep driver cried, “it’s full of water. It’s all right.”
Apt hefted the can, which weighed nearly 50 pounds. He raised it high in the air and smashed it down. The canopy cracked. Apt hit it again, opening a hole in it, letting out the smoke inside. In a few seconds he had broken a large jagged opening through which Harer could be pulled out. “It was a tough job,” Apt says. “Harer was a very tall man.” Was a tall man. Not is, but was.
“He’s not tall now,” Apt says. “Both his feet were burned off.” Captain Harer lived. Today, he gets around very well on his artificial feet. He has been promoted to major and will soon be honorably retired from the Air Force with a pension. He has no memory whatever of the accident. He recalls flying at 20,000 feet and popping open the parachute, and his next memory is of awakening in a hospital two weeks later. . . .
—Excerpted from “10,000 Men to a Plane,” LIFE Magazine, 18 June 1956.
For his heroism in the face of great danger, Captain Mel Apt was awarded the Soldier’s Medal, the highest award for valor in a non-combat mission for Army and Air Force personnel. The regulation establishing the award states, “The performance must have involved personal hazard or danger and the voluntary risk of life under conditions not involving conflict with an armed enemy. Awards will not be made solely on the basis of having saved a life.”
Mel Apt would continue as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base, and on 26 September 1956, he would be the first pilot to exceed Mach 3 when he flew the Bell X-2 rocketplane to Mach 3.196 (2,094 miles per hour/3,377 kilometers per hour) at 65,589 feet (19,992 meters). Just seconds later, the X-2 began uncontrolled oscillations and came apart. Mel Apt was unable to escape from the cockpit and was killed when the X-2 hit the desert floor. He was the thirteenth test pilot to be killed at Edwards since 1950.
¹ Several sources list the U.S. Air Force serial number of the F-94C flown by Captain Harer as “50-692,” however that serial number is actually assigned to a Boeing C-97C-35-BO Stratofreighter four-engine medical transport. It is apparent that the numbers have been transposed.
17 December 1903, 10:35 a.m.: Orville and Wilbur Wright, two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, had been working on the development of a machine capable of flight since 1899. They started with kites and gliders before moving on to powered aircraft. At the Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, they made the first successful flight of a powered, controllable airplane. Orville was at the controls of the Flyer while Wilbur ran along side, steadying the right wing. The airplane flew 120 feet (36.6 meters) in 12 seconds.
Three more flights were made that day, with the brothers alternating as pilot. Wilbur made the last flight, covering 852 feet (263.7 meters) in 59 seconds. The Flyer was slightly damaged on landing but before it could be repaired for an intended flight four miles back to Kitty Hawk, a gust of wind overturned the airplane and caused more extensive damage. It never flew again.
The Wright 1903 Flyer is a canard biplane, with elevators to the front and rudders at the rear. The flight controls twisted, or “warped,” the wings to cause a change in direction. The pilot lay prone in the middle of the lower wing, on a sliding “cradle.” He slid left and right to shift the center of gravity. Wires attached to the cradle acted to warp the wings and move the rudders. The airplane is built of spruce and ash and covered with muslin fabric. It is 21 feet (6.401 meters) long with a wingspan of 40 feet, 4 inches (12.293 meters) and overall height of 9 feet, 3 inches (2.819 meters).
Power is supplied by a 201.06-cubic-inch-displacement (3.295 liter) water-cooled inline 4-cylinder gasoline engine producing 12 horsepower at 1,090 r.p.m. The engine was built by the Wright’s mechanic, Charlie Taylor. It uses cast iron cylinders and an aluminum crankcase. Two 8-foot diameter (2.4 meter) two-bladed wooden propellers, in pusher configuration, are turned in opposite directions at 350 r.p.m. by a chain-and-sprocket drive from the engine. The Flyer weighs 605 pounds (274.4 kilograms).
In 1928, the Wright Flyer was shipped to England where it was displayed at the Science Museum on Exhibition Road, London. It returned to the United States in 1948 and was placed in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution.
Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever in 1912. Orville continued to fly until 1918. He served as a member of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA, predecessor of NASA) for 28 years. He died in 1948.
5 December 1963: On Flight 97 of the X-15 Program, Major Robert A. Rushworth flew the number one aircraft, Air Force serial number 56-6670, to an altitude of 101,000 feet 30,785 meters) and reached Mach 6.06 (4,018 miles per hour/6,466 kilometers per hour).
The rocketplane was dropped from the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress “mother ship” 52-008, Balls 8, flying at 450 knots (833.4 kilometers per hour) at 45,000 feet (13,716 meters) over Delamar Dry Lake, Nevada. Rushworth ignited the Reaction Motors XLR-99-RM-1 rocket engine, which burned for 81.2 seconds before shutting down.
The flight plan had called for an altitude of 104,000 feet (31,699 meters), a 78 second burn and a maximum speed of Mach 5.70. With the difficulties of flying such a powerful rocketplane, Rushworth’s flight was actually fairly close to plan. During the flight the right inner windshield cracked.
Bob Rushworth landed the X-15 on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base, California, after a flight of 9 minutes, 34.0 seconds.
Mach 6.06 was the highest Mach number reached for an unmodified X-15.
56-6670 flew 81 of the 199 flights of the X-15 Program. It is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum.
From 1960 and 1966, Bob Rushworth made 34 flights in the three X-15s, more than any other pilot.
20 November 1953: At Edwards Air Force Base, California, NACA’s High Speed Flight Station test pilot Albert Scott Walker rode behind the flight crew of the Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress as it carried the Douglas Aircraft Company D-558-II Skyrocket supersonic research rocketplane to its launch altitude. As the four-engine bomber climbed through 18,000 feet (5,486 meters), Crossfield headed back to the bomb bay to enter the Skyrocket’s cockpit and prepare for his flight.
The Douglas D-558-II was Phase II of a U.S. Navy/Douglas Aircraft Company/National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics joint research project exploring supersonic flight. It was a swept-wing airplane powered by a single Reaction Motors LR8-RM-6 four-chamber rocket engine. The Skyrocket was fueled with alcohol and liquid oxygen. The engine was rated at 6,000 pounds of thrust (26.69 kilonewtons) at Sea Level.
There were three Phase II aircraft. Originally, they were also equipped with a Westinghouse J34-W-40 turbojet engine which produced 3,000 pounds of thrust (13.35 kilonewtons) and the Skyrockets took off from the surface of Rogers Dry Lake. Once the D-558-II reached altitude, the rocket engine was fired for the speed runs. As higher speeds were required, the program shifted to an air launch from a B-29 (P2B-1S) “mothership”. Without the need to climb to the test altitude, the Skyrocket’s fuel load was available for the high speed runs.
The D-558-II was 42.0 feet (12.80 meters) long, with a wingspan of 25.0 feet (7.62 meters). The leading edge of the wing was swept at a 35° angle and the tail surfaces were swept to 40°. The aircraft weighed 9,421 pounds (4,273 kilograms) empty and had a maximum takeoff weight of 15,787 pounds (7,161 kilograms). It carried 378 gallons (1,431 liters) of water/ethyl alcohol and 345 gallons (1,306 liters) of liquid oxygen.
The mothership, NACA 137, was a Boeing Wichita B-29-95-BW Superfortress, U.S. Air Force serial number 45-21787. It was transferred to the U.S. Navy, redesignated P2B-1S and assigned Bureau of Aeronautics number 84029. Douglas Aircraft modified the bomber for its drop ship role at the El Segundo plant.
Going above the planned launch altitude, the Superfortress was placed in a slight dive to build to its maximum speed. At the bomber’s critical Mach number (Mcr), the Skyrocket was just above its stall speed. At 32,000 feet (9,754 meters), Crossfield and the Skyrocket were released. The rocketplane fell for about 400 feet (122 meters) until the rocket engine ignited and then it began to accelerate.
Crossfield climbed at a steep angle until he reached 72,000 feet (21,946 meters), and then leveled off. Now in level flight, the D-558-II accelerated, quickly passing Mach 1, then Mach 1.5. Crossfield pushed the nose down and began a shallow dive. The Skyrocket, still under full power, built up speed. As it passed through 62,000 feet (18,998 meters) the Skyrocket reached its maximum speed, Mach 2.005, or 1,291 miles per hour (2,078 kilometers per hour).
Scott Crossfield was the first pilot to fly an aircraft beyond Mach 2, twice the speed of sound. During his career as a test pilot, he flew the Douglas D-558-II, the Bell X-1, Bell X-2 and North American X-15. He made 112 flights in rocket-powered aircraft, more than any other pilot.