Tag Archives: Interceptor

13 December 1958

NASA test pilot Einar K. Enevoldson in the cockpit of a NASA/Lockheed F-104N, N811NA, in 1984. (NASA)
NASA test pilot Einar K. Enevoldson in the cockpit of a NASA/Lockheed F-104N, N811NA, in 1984. (NASA)

13 December 1958: First Lieutenant Einar Knute Enevoldson, U.S. Air Force, set seven Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) time-to-climb records in a Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter, serial number 56-762,¹ at Naval Air Station Point Mugu (NTD) (located on the shore of southern California), including Sea Level to 3,000 meters (9,843 feet) in 41.85 seconds; 6,000 meters (19,685 feet) in 58.41 seconds; 9,000 meters (29,528 feet) in 1 minute, 21.14 seconds; 12,000 meters (39,370 feet) in 1 minute, 39.90 seconds; 15,000 meters (49,213 feet) in 2 minutes, 11.1 seconds; 20,000 meters (65,617 feet) in 3 minutes, 42.99 seconds; and 25,000 meters (82,021 feet) in 4 minutes, 26.03 seconds.

Lockheed F-104A Starfighter 56-762 being prepared for a record attempt at NAS Point Mugu. (F-104 Society)
Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter 56-762 being prepared for a record attempt at NAS Point Mugu, California. (International F-104 Society)

Lieutenant Enevoldson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for these accomplishments.

The Distinguished Flying Cross
The Distinguished Flying Cross

FAI Record File Num #9107 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – retired by changes of the sporting code
Region: World
Class: C (Powered Aeroplanes)
Sub-Class: C-1 (Landplanes)
Category: Not applicable
Group: 3 : turbo-jet
Type of record: Time to climb to a height of 3 000 m
Performance: 41.85s
Date: 1958-12-13
Course/Location: Point Mugu, CA (USA)
Claimant Einar Enevoldson (USA)
Aeroplane: Lockheed F-104A “Starfighter”
Engine: 1 G E J79

FAI Record File Num #9106 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – retired by changes of the sporting code
Region: World
Class: C (Powered Aeroplanes)
Sub-Class: C-1 (Landplanes)
Category: Not applicable
Group: 3 : turbo-jet
Type of record: Time to climb to a height of 6 000 m
Performance: 58.41s
Date: 1958-12-13
Course/Location: Point Mugu, CA (USA)
Claimant Einar Enevoldson (USA)
Aeroplane: Lockheed F-104A “Starfighter”
Engine: 1 G E J79

FAI Record File Num #9105 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – retired by changes of the sporting code
Region: World
Class: C (Powered Aeroplanes)
Sub-Class: C-1 (Landplanes)
Category: Not applicable
Group: 3 : turbo-jet
Type of record: Time to climb to a height of 9 000 m
Performance: 1 min 21.14s
Date: 1958-12-13
Course/Location: Point Mugu, CA (USA)
Claimant Einar Enevoldson (USA)
Aeroplane: Lockheed F-104A “Starfighter”
Engine: 1 G E J79

FAI Record File Num #9104 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – retired by changes of the sporting code
Region: World
Class: C (Powered Aeroplanes)
Sub-Class: C-1 (Landplanes)
Category: Not applicable
Group: 3 : turbo-jet
Type of record: Time to climb to a height of 12 000 m
Performance: 1 min 39.90s
Date: 1958-12-13
Course/Location: Point Mugu, CA (USA)
Claimant Einar Enevoldson (USA)
Aeroplane: Lockheed F-104A “Starfighter”
Engine: 1 G E J79

FAI Record File Num #9103 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – retired by changes of the sporting code
Region: World
Class: C (Powered Aeroplanes)
Sub-Class: C-1 (Landplanes)
Category: Not applicable
Group: 3 : turbo-jet
Type of record: Time to climb to a height of 15 000 m
Performance: 2 min 11.1s
Date: 1958-12-13
Course/Location: Point Mugu, CA (USA)
Claimant Einar Enevoldson (USA)
Aeroplane: Lockheed F-104A “Starfighter”
Engine: 1 G E J79

FAI Record File Num #9102 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – retired by changes of the sporting code
Region: World
Class: C (Powered Aeroplanes)
Sub-Class: C-1 (Landplanes)
Category: Not applicable
Group: 3 : turbo-jet
Type of record: Time to climb to a height of 20 000 m
Performance: 3 min 42.99s
Date: 1958-12-13
Course/Location: Point Mugu, CA (USA)
Claimant Einar Enevoldson (USA)
Aeroplane: Lockheed F-104A “Starfighter”
Engine: 1 G E J79

FAI Record File Num #9080 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – retired by changes of the sporting code
Region: World
Class: C (Powered Aeroplanes)
Sub-Class: C-1 (Landplanes)
Category: Not applicable
Group: 3 : turbo-jet
Type of record: Time to climb to a height of 25 000 m
Performance: 4 min 26.03s
Date: 1958-12-13
Course/Location: Point Mugu, CA (USA)
Claimant Einar Enevoldson (USA)
Aeroplane: Lockheed F-104A “Starfighter”
Engine: 1 G E J79

U.S. Air Force Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter 56-762 on the runaway at Naval Air Station Point Mugu, December 1958. (International F-104 Society)
U.S. Air Force Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter 56-762 on the runaway at Naval Air Station Point Mugu, December 1958. (International F-104 Society)

Einar Enevoldson later flew as a civilian test pilot for NASA from 1968 to 1986 and was awarded the NASA Exceptional Service Medal. He holds numerous FAI world records.

Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter 56-762 climbing under Southern California's overcast coastal skies. (International F-104 Society)
Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter 56-762 climbing under Southern California’s overcast coastal skies. (International F-104 Society)

The Lockheed F-104A Starfighter was a single-place, single-engine supersonic interceptor. It was designed by a team lead by the legendary Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson. The F-104A was 54 feet, 8 inches (16.662 meters) long with a wingspan of 21 feet, 9 inches (6.629 meters) and overall height of 13 feet, 5 inches (4.089 meters). It had an empty weight of 13,184 pounds (5,980.2 kilograms), combat weight of 17,988 pounds (8,159.2 kilograms), gross weight of 22,614 pounds (10,257.5 kilograms) and a maximum takeoff weight of 25,840 pounds (11,720.8 kilograms). Internal fuel capacity was 897 gallons (3,395.5 liters).

The F-104A was powered by a single General Electric J79-GE-3A engine, a single-spool axial-flow afterburning turbojet, which used a 17-stage compressor and 3-stage turbine. The J79-GE-3A is rated at 9,600 pounds of thrust (42.70 kilonewtons), and 15,000 pounds (66.72 kilonewtons) with afterburner. The engine is 17 feet, 3.5 inches (5.271 meters) long, 3 feet, 2.3 inches (0.973 meters) in diameter, and weighs 3,325 pounds (1,508 kilograms).

The F-104A had a maximum speed of 1,037 miles per hour (1,669 kilometers per hour) at 50,000 feet (15,240 meters). Its stall speed was 198 miles per hour (319 kilometers per hour). The Starfighter’s initial rate of climb was 60,395 feet per minute (306.8 meters per second) and its service ceiling was 64,795 feet (19,750 meters).

Armament was one General Electric M61 Vulcan six-barreled revolving cannon with 725 rounds of 20 mm ammunition. An AIM-9B Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missile could be carried on each wing tip, or a jettisonable fuel tank with a capacity of 141.5 gallons (535.6 liters).

Lockheed built 153 of the F-104A Starfighter initial production version. A total of 2,578 F-104s of all variants were produced by Lockheed and its licensees, Canadair, Fiat, Fokker, MBB, Messerschmitt,  Mitsubishi and SABCA. By 1969, the F-104A had been retired from service. The last Starfighter, an Aeritalia-built F-104S ASA/M of the  Aeronautica Militare Italiana, was retired in October 2004.

The same type aircraft as that flown by Einar K. Enevoldson, this is a Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter, 56-761. It is carrying both wingtip and underwing fuel tanks. (U.S. Air Force)
The same type aircraft as that flown by Einar K. Enevoldson, this is a Lockheed F-104A-10-LO Starfighter, 56-761. It is carrying both wingtip and underwing fuel tanks. (U.S. Air Force)

¹ 56-762 was one of three F-104As later converted to an NF-104A rocket/turbojet Advanced Aerospace Trainer. It is the same Starfighter that crashed when Chuck Yeager had to eject after it went into an uncontrolled spin during a zoom-climb altitude record attempt, 10 December 1963.

© 2016, 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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24 October 1953

Convair YF-102 52-7994 on Rogers Dry Lake, Edwards Air Force Base, California. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)
Convair YF-102 52-7994 on Rogers Dry Lake, Edwards Air Force Base, California. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)

24 October 1953: At Edwards Air Force Base, California, Convair’s Chief Test Pilot Richard Lowe Johnson took the first prototype YF-102 Delta Dagger, serial number 52-7994, for its first flight.

The YF-102 was a delta-wing interceptor developed from the earlier experimental Convair XF-92 Dart. It was a single-seat, single-engine fighter designed as an all-weather, missile-armed, Mach 2 interceptor. It was planned for a Westinghouse XJ67-W-1 engine, but when that was not ready, an interim Pratt & Whitney J57-P-11 afterburning turbojet engine was substituted. The J57 was a two-spool, axial-flow engine with a 16-stage compressor section (9 low- and 7-high-pressure stages) and a 3-stage turbine section (1 high- and 2 low-pressure stages). The J57-P-11 was rated at 10,000 pounds of thrust (44.482 kilonewtons), and 16,000 pounds (71.172 kilonewtons) with afterburner.

The first prototype Convair YF-102 Delta Dagger, 52-7994, was completed at the Convair plant in San Diego, 2 October 1953. (U.S. Air Force)
The first prototype Convair YF-102 Delta Dagger, 52-7994, was completed at the Convair plant in San Diego, 2 October 1953. (Convair Division of General Dynamics)

The prototype had finished assembly at the Convair plant in San Diego, California, on 2 October 1953, and was then shipped to Edwards AFB for final preparation and testing.

NACA wind tunnel testing with scale models of the YF-102 had found that it produced significant shock waves at near-sonic speeds. Surprisingly, shock waves were created at the trailing edge of the delta wing. These created very high drag that would keep the aircraft from reaching Mach 1, even with the more powerful engine planned for production models.

Convair YF-102 with the original fuselage. (NASA)
Convair YF-102 52-7995 with the original fuselage. (NASA)

The Republic YF-105 fighter bomber had similar problems, though it did pass the speed of sound. Both aircraft were significantly redesigned to incorporate the “Area Rule.” Rather than considering the aerodynamics of the fuselage independently, the frontal area of the wings and tail surfaces had to be included to reduce drag. This produced the “wasp waist” or “Coke bottle” shape that the production models of these two fighters were known for.

Convair built two YF-102s before the design was changed, resulting in the YF-102A prototypes and the production F-102A Delta Dagger.

The first prototype Convair YF-102 Delta Dagger, 52-7994, on Rogers Dry Lake, October 1953. (U.S. Air Force)
The first prototype Convair YF-102 Delta Dagger, 52-7994, on Rogers Dry Lake, October 1953. (U.S. Air Force)

Several problems showed up on the YF-102’s first flight. Severe buffeting was encountered at high sub-sonic speed. As predicted by NACA, aerodynamic drag prevented the YF-102 from reaching Mach 1 in level flight. There were problems with the landing gear and the fuel system and the J57 engine did not produce the rated power.

The production F-102A was considerably larger than the YF-102. The fuselage was lengthened, the wing area and span were increased, and the vertical fin was taller. A more powerful J57-P-23 engine was used. These and other changes increased the F-102’s gross weight by nearly 1,800 pounds (815 kilograms).

Convair YF-102 52-7994 parked on the dry lake bed, Edwards AFB, California. (U.S. Air Force)

On 2 November 1953, just nine days after the first flight, the Pratt & Whitney J57-P-11 engine flamed out during a test flight. Dick Johnson was unable to restart it and made a forced landing in the desert. The  YF-102 was severely damaged and Dick Johnson badly hurt. The flameout was traced to a problem with the the fuel control system. The prototype was written off.

Convair YF-102 Delta Dagger 52-7994. (U.S. Air Force)
Convair YF-102 Delta Dagger 52-7994 just before touchdown on Rogers Dry Lake. (U.S. Air Force)
Wreck o fConvair YF-102 52-994 near Edwards Air focre Base, 2 Novemnber 1953. (U.S. Air Force)
Wreck of Convair YF-102 52-7994 near Edwards Air Force Base, 2 November 1953. (U.S. Air Force)
Convair Chief Test Pilot Richard Lowe Johnson.
Convair Chief Test Pilot Richard Lowe Johnson.

Dick Johnson flew the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt during World War II. Following the war, he was selected for test pilot training. On 15 September 1948, he set a World Speed Record flying a North American Aviation F-86A Sabre to an average speed of 670.981 miles per hour (1,079.84 kilometers per hour). He was the second U.S. Air Force pilot to be publicly acknowledged for breaking the “sound barrier.” During the Korean War, Johnson was sent to supervise field installations of improvements to the F-86 and was “caught” flying “unauthorized” combat missions. He was sent home.

Lieutenant Colonel Johnson resigned from the Air Force in 1953 to become the Chief Test Pilot for Convair. He flew the YF-102, the F-106 Delta Dart (which had originally been designated F-102B) and the B-58 Hustler supersonic strategic bomber. He was Chief Engineering Test Pilot for the F-111 “Aardvark.” In 1977, Dick Johnson, now the Director of Flight and Quality Assurance at General Dynamics, retired. He died 9 November 2002.

Compare this overhead view of a Convair F-102A-90-CO Delta Dagger, 57-0809, to that of the prototype YF-102 at top. The “wasp waist” area rule fuselage is very noticeable. U.S. Air Force)
Compare this overhead view of a production Convair F-102A-90-CO Delta Dagger, 57-0809, to that of the prototype YF-102 above. The “wasp waist” area rule fuselage is very noticeable. U.S. Air Force)

© 2017, 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).

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.

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)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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3 October 1953

Lieutenant Commander James B. Verdin, United States Navy, in the cockpit of the record-setting Douglas XF4D-1. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)
Lieutenant Commander James B. Verdin, United States Navy. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)

3 October 1953: Lieutenant Commander James B. Verdin, United States Navy, a test pilot assigned to NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, flew the second prototype of the Douglas Aircraft Company’s XF4D-1 Skyray, Bu. No. 124587, over a three kilometer course at the Salton Sea, California. Flying at approximately 150 feet (46 meters), Commander Verdin made four passes, with two in each direction. He set a new Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Speed over a 3-kilometer course, averaging 1,211.75 kilometers per hour (752.95 miles per hour).¹

The runs were measured at 746.075, 761.414, 746.053 and 759.498 miles per hour (1,200.691, 1,225.377, 1,200.656, and 1,222.294 kilometers per hour). The total elapsed time for the flight, from take off to landing at NAS El Centro, was 20 minutes, 25 seconds. The XF4D-1 burned 575 gallons (2,177 liters) of fuel.

Verdin had broken the record set 25 September 1953 by Michael J. Lithgow, chief test pilot for Vickers Supermarine, flying a Supermarine Swift F. Mk.4, WK198, at Castel Idris, Libya.²

In an interview with famed writer Bob Considine for his newspaper column, Verdin said,

“Douglas had its high priced help there at the course, and they iced my fuel for the Skyray while I took a look at the course from a Grumman Cougar,” he remembered. “They ice the fuel because that shrinks it and you can pack more in.

“We towed her out to the starting line to save the stuff. Didn’t even use blocks on the wheels after the engine was started. Just started rolling. I was in the air a little over a minute after the engine started, and headed for the measured course, 40 miles away.

“It was marked for me by smudge pots and burning tires, and orange-red markers to tell me when to turn off my afterburner, which eats fuel like crazy. About five miles short of the line I was doing 620 and turned on the afterburner. It gave me another hundred miles an hour right away, and I held her steady and low over the course. It doesn’t take long. . . about nine seconds for the just under two miles.”

—Bob Considine, On the Line—By Considine, International News Service, published in The Daily Review, Hayward, California, Vol. 62, No. 21, 20 October 1953, Page 14 at Columns 1–3

Douglas XF4D-1 Skyray Bu.No. (U.S. Navy)
Douglas XF4D-1 Skyray Bu.No. 124587. (U.S. Navy)

The Douglas XF4D-1 Skyray was a single-place, single-engine delta-winged fighter powered by a turbojet engine. It had retractable tricycle landing gear and was to operate off of the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers as a high altitude interceptor. The Skyray was designed by the legendary Ed Heinemann, for which he was awarded the Collier Trophy in 1954. Two prototypes were built (Bu.Nos. 124586, 124587). It was a delta-winged aircraft, though the wingtips were significantly rounded.

The Douglas F4D-1 Skyray was 45 feet, 4¾ inches (13.837 meters) long, with a wingspan of 33 feet, 6 inches (10.211 meters) and overall height of 13 feet, 8 inches (4.166 meters). The empty weight was 16,024 pounds (7,268 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight was 27,116 pounds (12,300 kilograms).

Originally built with Allison J35-A-17 turbojet engines, both prototypes later had a Westinghouse J40-WE-8 afterburning turbojet installed. The Skyray was equipped with the Westinghouse engine when it set the speed record. Production Skyrays used a Pratt & Whitney J57-P-8 afterburning turbojet.

The Westinghouse J40-W-8 was a single-shaft, axial-flow, afterburning turbojet engine with an 11-stage compressor and two-stage turbine. It produced 10,500 pounds of thrust (46.706 kilonewtons) at 7,600 r.p.m. The engine was 25 feet, 0 inches (7.620 meters) long, 3 feet, 4 inches (1.016 meters) in diameter and weighed 3,500 pounds (1,588 kilograms).

Douglas XF4D-1 Skyray Bu.No. 124587. (U.S. Navy)
Douglas XF4D-1 Skyray, Bu.No. 124587. (U.S. Navy)

The F4D-1 was the first U.S. Navy fighter able to reach supersonic speeds in level flight. The production aircraft had a maximum speed of 722 miles per hour (1,162 kilometers per hour), and service ceiling of 55,000 feet (16.764 meters). Its rate of climb was 18,300 feet per minute (92.97 meters per second) and the maximum range was 1,200 miles (1,931 kilometers).

The Skyray was armed with four Colt Mk 12 20 mm autocannon, with 65 rounds of ammunition per gun. It could also carry 2.75-inch FFAR rockets, four AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, or two 2,000 pound (1,588 kilogram) bombs.

The Douglas Aircraft Company built 420 F4D-1 Skyrays. They were in service with the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps from 1956 until 1964.

Douglas XF4D-1 124587 as a test aircraft for General Electric.
Douglas XF4D-1 Bu.No. 124587 as a flight test aircraft for General Electric, at Edwards Air Force Base, circa 1955. (U.S. Navy)

The record-setting XF4D-1 was transferred to General Electric in July 1955 and used to test GE’s J79 afterburning turbojet engine and the commercial CJ805.

XF4D-1 Bu. No. 124587 was returned to the Navy in May 1960. It is on display at the U.S. Navy Museum of Armament and Technology, NAWS China Lake, California.

Lieutenant Commander James B. Verdin, USN (1918–1955)
Lieutenant Commander James B. Verdin, USN (1918–1955)

James Bernard Verdin was born in Montana, 23 February 1918, the son of James Harris Verdin, a farmer, and Nellie Cambron Verdin. He entered the United States Navy as a Seaman, 2nd Class, 11 July 1941. His enlistment was terminated 7 January 1942 and he was accepted as an Aviation Cadet. He was assigned to NAS Corpus Christi, Texas, for flight training. Verdin was commissioned as an Ensign, 18 June 1942. He was promoted to Lieutenant (Junior Grade), 1 May 1943, and then promoted to Lieutenant, 1 July 1944.

During World War II, Lieutenant James Bernard Verdin, U.S.N., was a fighter pilot flying the Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat, assigned to VF-20 aboard USS Enterprise (CV-6). He was awarded the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, 25 October 1944:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Lieutenant James Bernard Verdin, United States Naval Reserve, for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while service as a Pilot of a carrier-based Navy Fighter Plane in Fighting Squadron TWENTY (VF-20), attached to the U.S.S. ENTERPRISE (CV-6), on a strike against the Japanese Fleet during the Battle for Leyte Gulf on 25 October 1944, in the Philippine Islands. With complete disregard for his own personal safety and in the face of intense anti-aircraft fire, Lieutenant Verdin attacked and scored a direct bomb hit on an enemy battleship. His outstanding courage and determined skill were at all times inspiring and in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

General Orders: Commander 1st Carrier Task Force Pacific: Serial 046. 31 January 1945

Grumman F6F-5 Hellcats on teh flight deck of USS Enterprise (CV-6), 30 october 1944. The aircraft carrier USS belleau Wood (CVL-24) is burning on the horizon, after being struck by a kamikaze. (U.S. navy)
Grumman F6F Hellcats on the flight deck of USS Enterprise (CV-6), 30 October 1944. The aircraft carrier USS Belleau Wood (CVL-24) is burning on the horizon. (U.S. Navy)

Lieutenant Verdin flew more than 100 combat missions during World War II and the Korean War. In addition to the Navy Cross, Lieutenant Commander Verdin was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with one gold star, and the Air Medal with five gold stars.

Verdin left the Navy in 1954 and joined Douglas as a test pilot, June 1954.

He married Miss Kathryn    and they lived in Coronado, California, near NAS North Island. They had one child. They divorced in 1948. Later, he married his second wife, Miss Muriel Carolyn Larson. They had three children and lived in Brentwood, California.

While testing a Douglas YA4D-1 Skyhawk, Bu. No. 137815, 13 January 1955, Lieutenant Commander Verdin encountered violent vibrations during a high speed run near Victorville, California. He was forced to eject, but his parachute failed to open and he was killed. His body was not found until the following day, located 2½ miles from the crash site. Verdin was 37 years old. He is buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, California.

Douglas Aircraft Company YA4D-1 Skyhawk, Bu. No. 137820, sister shop of Verdin's Skyhawk. (Navy Pilot Overseas)
Douglas Aircraft Company YA4D-1 Skyhawk, Bu. No. 137820, sister shop of Verdin’s Skyhawk. (Navy Pilot Overseas)

¹ FAI Record File Number 9871

² FAI Record File Number 9870

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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