Tag Archives: McDonnell Aircraft Corporation

27 May 1958

Robert C. Little with YF4H-1 Bu. No. 142259. (McDonnell Douglas)
Robert C. Little with McDonnell YF4H-1 Phantom II, Bu. No. 142260, the second prototype. (McDonnell Douglas Corporation)

27 May 1958: At Lambert Field, St. Louis, Missouri, McDonnell Aircraft Corporation’s Chief Test Pilot (and future company president) Robert C. Little made the first flight of the YF4H-1 prototype. The twin-engine Mach 2+ airplane was the first pre-production model of a new U.S. Navy fleet defense interceptor that would be developed into the legendary F-4 Phantom II fighter bomber.

The flight lasted 22 minutes. Little had planned to go supersonic but a leak in a pressurized hydraulic line caused him to leave the landing gear extended as a precaution, should the back-up hydraulic system also have a problem. This limited the maximum speed of the prototype to 370 knots (426 kilometers per hour). A post-flight inspection found foreign-object damage to the starboard engine.

The McDonnell YF4H-1 Bu. No. 142259 on its first flight 27 May 1958.
McDonnell YF4H-1 Phantom II, Bu. No. 142259, on its first flight, 27 May 1958. (McDonnell Douglas Corporation)

Initially designated XF4H-1 and assigned Bureau of Aeronautics serial number (“Bu. No.”) 142259, the identifier was changed to YF4H-1. It had been in development for over five years based on a company proposal to the Navy.

The McDonnell YF4H-1 Phantom II was 56 feet, 7.9 inches (17.271 meters) long with a wingspan of 38 feet, 4.89 inches (11.707 meters) and overall height of 16 feet, 3.0 inches (4.953 meters). With wings folded, the airplane’s span was narrowed to 27 feet, 6.6 inches (8.397 meters). The wings were swept 45°, measured at 25% chord. The inner wing had no dihedral, while the outer panels had 12° dihedral. The stabilator had a span of 16 feet, 5.0 inches (5.004 meters), with -23.25° anhedral. The wheelbase of Phantom II’s tricycle undercarriage was 23 feet, 3.25 inches (7.093 meters), with a main wheel tread of 17 feet, 10.46 inches (5.447 meters).

McDonnell YF4H-1 Phantom II, Bu. No. 142259, at Lambert Field, St. Louis. (McDonnell Aircraft Corporations)

The YF4H-1 prototype was powered by two General Electric J79-GE-2 engines. These were single-spool, axial-flow turbojet engines with a 17-stage compressor and 3-stage turbine. The J79-GE-2 was rated at 10,350 pounds of thrust (46.039 kilonewtons), and 16,150 pounds (71.389 kilonewtons) with afterburner. The engines were 17 feet, 4.0 inches (5.283 meters) long, 3 feet, 2.3 inches in diameter (0.973 meters), and each weighed 3,620 pounds (1,642 kilograms).

The production F4H-1 (F-4B) had a maximum speed of 845 miles per hour (1,360 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level and 1,485 miles per hour (2,390 kilometers per hour) at 48,000 feet (14,630 meters meters). (Mach1.11 and Mach 2.25, respectively). The service ceiling was 62,000 feet (18,898 meters) and maximum range with external fuel was 2,300 miles (3,700 kilometers).

McDonnell YF4H-1 Bu.No. 142259.
McDonnell Aircraft Corporation prototype YF4H-1 Phantom II Bu. No. 142259.

The second prototype YF4H-1, Bu. No. 142260, flown by Commander Lawrence E. Flint, Jr., USN, set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Altitude, 6 December 1959, when it zoom-climbed to 30,040 meters (98,556 feet).¹ On 22 November 1961, 142260, flown by Lieutenant Colonel Robert B. Robinson, USMC, also set an FAI World Record for Speed over a Straight 15/25 Kilometer Course, averaging 2,585.425 kilometers per hour (1,606.509 miles per hour).² On 5 December 1961, the same Phantom set an FAI World Record for Altitude in Horizontal Flight at 20,252 meters (66,444 feet) with Commander George W. Ellis, USN, in the cockpit.³

McDonnell YF4H-1 Phantom II, Bu. No. 142260, takes off at Edwards Air Force Base, during Project Top Flight. (U.S. Navy)
McDonnell YF4H-1 Phantom II, Bu. No. 142260, takes off at Edwards Air Force Base, during Project Top Flight. (U.S. Navy)

The F-4A through F-4D Phantoms were armed with four AIM-7 Sparrow radar-homing air-to-air missiles, and could carry additional Sparrows or AIM-9 Sidewinder infrared-homing missiles on pylons under the wings. Up to 16,000 pounds (7,257 kilograms) of bombs could be carried on five hardpoints.

McDonnell Aircraft built two YF4H-1 prototypes, followed by 45 F4H-1F (F-4A) Phantom IIs before the F-4B was introduced in 1961. 649 F-4Bs were produced. The initial U.S. Air Force variant was the F-110A Spectre (F-4C Phantom II). McDonnell Douglas delivered its last Phantom II, an F-4E-67-MC, on 25 October 1979. In 21 years, the company had built 5,057 Phantom IIs.

McDonnell Douglas F-4E-67-MC Phantom II, 78,0744, the last of 5,057 Phantoms built at St. Louis, 25 October 1979. (McDonnell Douglas)
McDonnell Douglas F-4E-67-MC Phantom II, 78,0744, the last of 5,057 Phantoms built at St. Louis, 25 October 1979. (McDonnell Douglas)

After 11 test flights at St. Louis, Bob Little flew the YF4H-1 west to Edwards Air Force Base in California where more detailed flight testing and evaluation took place.

On 21 October 1959, a failure of an engine access door led to a cascading series of problems which resulted in the loss of the airplane and death of the pilot, Gerald “Zeke” Huelsbeck.

Test Pilot Gerald Huelsbeck with a prototype McDonnell YF4H-1 Phantom II. Huelsbeck is wearinga Goodrich Mark IV full-pressure suit. (McDonnell Aircraaft Corporation)
Test Pilot Gerald Huelsbeck with the first prototype McDonnell YF4H-1 Phantom II, Bu. No. 142259, at Edwards Air Force Base, California. “Zeke” Huelsbeck is wearing a B.F. Goodrich Mark IV full-pressure suit. (McDonnell Aircraft Corporation)
McDonnell YF4H-1 Phantom II Bu. No. 142259, seen from above. (U.S. Navy)
McDonnell YF4H-1 Phantom II Bu. No. 142259, seen from above. (U.S. Navy)

¹ FAI Record File Number 10352

² FAI Record File Number 9060

³ FAI Record File Number 8535

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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24 May 1978

James S. McDonnell, Founder and Chairman of the Board, McDonnell Douglas Corporation, with the 5,000th Phantom. (Boeing)
James S. McDonnell, Founder and Chairman of the Board, McDonnell Douglas Corporation, with the 5,000th Phantom. (Boeing)

24 May 1978: McDonnell Douglas delivered the 5,000th F-4 Phantom II, F-4E-65-MC 77-0290, to the United States Air Force in a ceremony at the McDonnell Aircraft Company division at St. Louis, Missouri.

The Mach 2 fighter bomber was developed in the early 1950s as a long range, missile-armed interceptor for the U.S. Navy. The first Phantom II, XF4H-1 Bu. No. 142259, made its maiden flight at St. Louis with future McDonnell Douglas president Robert C. Little at the controls. During flight testing, the U.S. Air Force was impressed by the new interceptor and soon ordered its own version, the F-110A Spectre. Under the Department of Defense redesignation, both Navy and Air Force versions became the F-4. Its name, “Phantom II,” was chosen by James S. McDonnell, and was in keeping with his naming the company’s fighters after supernatural beings.

McDonnell Douglas F-4E-65-MC Phantom II, 77-0290, at St. Louis, 9 May 1978. (Boeing)
McDonnell Douglas F-4E-65-MC Phantom II, 77-0290, at St. Louis, 9 May 1978. (Boeing)

The Phantom was a very powerful aircraft and set several speed, altitude and time-to-altitude records. The second aircraft, YF4H-1 Bu. No. 142260, flew to 98,557 feet (30,040 meters) on 6 December 1959. On 22 November 1961, the same Phantom set a World Absolute Speed Record of 1,606.509 miles per hour (2,585.425 kilometers per hour). 142260 was entered in the record books again when it established a World Record for Altitude in Horizontal Flight of 66,443.57 feet (20,252 meters), 5 December 1961. Future astronaut Commander John W. Young, United States Navy, flew another Phantom II, Bu. No. 149449, from the runway at NAS Point Mugu on the southern California coast to an altitude of 30,000 meters (82,020.997 feet) in 3 minutes, 50.440 seconds.

The 5,000th Phantom II, McDonnell Douglas F-4E-65-MC 77-0290, climbing. (Boeing photo)
The 5,000th Phantom II, McDonnell Douglas F-4E-65-MC 77-0290, climbing. (Boeing photo)

The Phantom II first entered combat  during the Vietnam War. It became apparent that the all-missile armament was insufficient for the subsonic dogfights that it found itself in, and a 20 mm Gatling gun was added. Designed as an interceptor, it evolved into a fighter bomber and carried a bomb load heavier that a World War II B-17 bomber. The last American “aces” scored their victories while flying the Phantom over Vietnam.

The F-4 served with the U.S. Air Force until April 1996. The last operational flight was flown by an F-4G Wild Weasel assigned to the Idaho Air National Guard. A total of 5,195 Phantom IIs were built, most by McDonnell Douglas at St. Louis, but 138 were built in Japan by Mitsubishi. The Phantom is still in service with several air forces around the world.

McDonnell Douglas F-4E-65-MC 77-0290 going vertical. (Boeing)

McDonnell Douglas F-4E-65-MC Phantom II 77-0290 was transferred to the Türk Hava Kuvvetleri  (Turkish Air Force), where it retained the U.S. Air Force serial number. It was written off 30 May 1989, however, it was later modernized by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to the F-4E-2020 Terminator standard and as of 2016, remained in service.

The 5,000th Phantom II, McDonnell Douglas/Israeli Aerospace Industries F-4E-2020 Terminator 77-0290 in service with the Turkish Air Force, 19 June 2013. (Iglu One One)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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20 May 1967

Colonel Robin Olds, U.S. Air Force (1922–2007)
Colonel Robin Olds, U.S. Air Force (1922–2007)

20 May 1967: Colonel Robin Olds, USAF, commanding officer of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing based at Ubon Rachitani Royal Thai Air Force Base, and Weapons System Officer 1st Lieutenant Stephen B. Croker, destroyed two Vietnam People’s Air Force MiG-17 fighters with AIM-7 Sparrow radar-guided and AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missiles while flying McDonnell F-4C-24-MC Phantom II, serial number 64-0829, named SCAT XXVII.

An official U.S. Air Force history publication describes the air battle:

Two other MiG-17s became the victims of Col. Robin Olds and his pilot, 1st. Lt. Stephen B. Croker. [Note: at this point in time, the WSOs of USAF F-4Cs were a fully-rated pilots.—TDiA] These were aerial victories three and four for Olds, making him the leading MiG-killer at that time in Southeast Asia. An ace from World War II, the 8th TFW commander was battle-tested and experienced. Olds termed the events of 20 May “quite a remarkable air battle.” According to his account:

“F-105s were bombing along the northeast railroad; we were in escort position, coming in from the Gulf of Tonkin. We just cleared the last of the low hills lying north of Haiphong, in an east-west direction, when about 10 or 12 MiG-17s came in low from the left and, I believe, from the right. They tried to attack the F-105s before they got to the target.

Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-17F in Vietnam Peoples' Air Force markings at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. (U.S. Air Force).
Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-17F in Vietnam People’s Air Force markings at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. (U.S. Air Force).

“We engaged MiG-17s at approximately 15 miles short of the target. The ensuing battle was an exact replica of the dogfights in World War II.

“Our flights of F-4s piled into the MiGs like a sledge hammer, and for about a minute and a half or two minutes that was the most confused, vicious dogfight I have ever been in. There were eight F-4Cs, twelve MiG-17s, and one odd flight of F-105s on their way out from the target, who flashed through the battle area.

“Quite frankly, there was not only danger from the guns of the MiGs, but the ever-present danger of a collision to contend with. We went round and round that day with the battles lasting 12 to 14 minutes, which is a long time. This particular day we found that the MiGs went into a defensive battle down low, about 500 to 1,000 feet. In the middle of this circle, there were two or three MiGs circling about a hundred feet—sort of in figure-eight patterns. The MiGs were in small groups of two, three, and sometimes four in a very wide circle. Each time we went in to engage one of these groups, a group from the opposite side would go full power, pull across the circle, and be in firing position on our tails almost before we could get into firing position with our missiles. This was very distressing, to say the least.

“The first MiG I lined up was in a gentle left turn, range about 7,000 feet. My pilot achieved a boresight lock-on, went full system, narrow gate, interlocks in. One of the two Sparrows fired in ripple guided true and exploded near the MiG. My pilot saw the MiG erupt in flame and go down to the left.

Colonel Robin Olds flew this McDonnell F-4C-24-MC Phantom II, 64-0829, SCAT XXVII, when he and 1st Lieutenant Stephen B. Croker shot down two VPAF MiG-17s near Haiphong, North Vietnam, 20 May 1967. (U.S. Air Force)
Colonel Robin Olds flew this McDonnell F-4C-24-MC Phantom II, 64-0829, SCAT XXVII, when he and 1st Lieutenant Stephen B. Croker shot down two VPAF MiG-17s near Haiphong, North Vietnam, 20 May 1967. (U.S. Air Force)

“We attacked again, trying to break up that defensive wheel. Finally, once again, fuel considerations necessitated departure. As I left the area by myself, I saw that lone MiG still circling and so I ran out about ten miles and said that even if I ran out of fuel, he is going to know he was in a fight. I got down on the deck, about 50 feet, and headed right for him. I don’t think he saw me for quite a while. But when he did, he went mad, twisting, turning, dodging and trying to get away. I kept my speed down so I wouldn’t overrun him and I stayed behind him. I knew he was either going to hit that ridge up ahead or pop over the ridge to save himself. The minute he popped over I was going to get him with a Sidewinder.

“I fired one AIM-9 which did not track and the MiG pulled up over the ridge, turned left and gave me a dead astern shot. I obtained a good growl. I fired from about 25 to 50 feet off the grass and he was clear of the ridge by only another 50 to 100 feet when the Sidewinder caught him.

“The missile tracked and exploded 5 to 10 feet to the right side of the aft fuselage. The MiG spewed pieces and broke hard left and down from about 200 feet. I overshot and lost sight of him.

“I was quite out of fuel and all out of missiles and pretty deep in enemy territory all by myself, so it was high time to leave. We learned quite a bit from this fight. We learned you don’t pile into these fellows with eight airplanes all at once. You are only a detriment to yourself.”

Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1965–1973, by R. Frank Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob and Charles A. Ravenstein, Office of Air Force History, Headquarters USAF, 1976, Chapter II  at Pages 59–60.

Coloenl Robin Olds, 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, with SCAT XXVII, his McDonnell F-4C-24-MC Phantom II, 64-0829, at Ubon Rachitani RTAFB, 1967. U.S. Air Force)
Colonel Robin Olds, 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, with SCAT XXVII, his McDonnell F-4C-24-MC Phantom II, 64-0829, at Ubon Rachitani RTAFB, 1967. U.S. Air Force)
Fighter pilot Brigadier General Robin Olds, U.S. Air Force (Retired) with SCAT XXVII at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. General Olds died 14 June 2007. (U.S. Air Force)
Fighter pilot Brigadier General Robin Olds, U.S. Air Force (Retired) with SCAT XXVII at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. General Olds died 14 June 2007. (U.S. Air Force) 
Robin Olds’ McDonnell F-4C-24-MC Phantom II, 64-0829, SCAT XXVII, at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio.

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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15 May 1963, 13:04:13.106 UTC, T plus 00:00:00.106

Leroy Gordon Cooper (March 6, 1927 – October 4, 2004). NASA photograph.
Major L. Gordon Cooper, Jr., United States Air Force. NASA Astronaut. (March 6, 1927 – October 4, 2004). Major Cooper is wearing a modified U.S. Navy Mark IV full-pressure suit produced by B.F. Goodrich. (NASA photograph)

15 May 1963: At 8:04:13.106 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, Mercury-Atlas 9, carrying NASA astronaut, L. Gordon Cooper aboard Faith 7, lifted off from Launch Complex 14, Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, Florida. Cooper reported, “The liftoff was smooth, but very definite, the acceleration was very pleasant. The booster had a very good feel to it and it felt like we were real on the go, there.” The maximum acceleration experienced during launch was 7.6 gs.

Faith 7 separated from the Atlas booster at T+00:05:05.5.3 and entered low Earth orbit with an apogee of 165.9 statute miles (267.0 kilometers) and perigee of 100.3 statute miles (161.4 kilometers). The orbital period was 88 minutes, 45 seconds. The spacecraft’s velocity was 25,714.0 feet per second (7,837.6 meters per second), or 17,532.3 miles per hour (28,215.5 kilometers per hour).

MA-9 was the final flight of Project Mercury. Gordon Cooper flew 22.5 orbits. Due to electrical system problems that began on the 21st orbit, he had to fly a manual reentry which resulted in the most accurate landing of the Mercury program.

The spacecraft’s three retrorockets fired 5 second intervals beginning at T+33:59:30. 34 hours, 19 minutes, 49 seconds after lift off, Faith 7 “splashed down” approximately 70 miles (112.7 kilometers) southeast of Midway Atoll in the North Pacific Ocean, just 4.4 miles (7.1 kilometers) from the primary recovery ship, the United States Navy Ticonderoga-class aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge (CV-33).

The Mercury spacecraft, which Cooper named Faith 7, was built by McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, St. Louis, Missouri, which would also build the follow-on, two-place Gemini spacecraft. It was the 20th and final Mercury capsule to be built, and was one of four which were modified to support a day-long mission. Some items considered unnecessary were deleted and extra oxygen and battery capacity was added.

Designed to carry one pilot, the Mercury space craft could be controlled in pitch, roll and yaw by thrusters. The space capsule was truncated cone with sides angled 20° from the longitudinal axis. It was 6 feet, 10 inches (2.083 meters) long and had a maximum diameter of 6 feet, 2.50 inches (1.892 meters). The total height of the spacecraft, from the tip of the aero spike to the booster adapter, was 26 feet, 1.26 inches (7.957 meters). Faith 7 weighed 4,330.82 pounds (1,964.43 kilograms) at liftoff.

During flight outside the atmosphere, the Mercury spacecraft could be controlled in its pitch, roll and yaw axes by hydrogen peroxide-fueled reaction control thrusters. Both manual and automatic attitude control were available. It could not accelerate or decelerate (except for reentry) so it could not change its orbit.

The spacecraft cabin was pressurized to 5.5 psi with 100% oxygen. Gordon Cooper wore a modified  B.F. Goodrich Mark IV full-pressure suit and flight helmet for protection in the event that cabin pressure was lost. Cooper’s suit varied considerably from those worn by previous Mercury astronauts.

Mercury-Atlas 9 at Laucnh Complex 14. The gantry has been pulled back, but the rocket has not been filled with propellants. (NASA)
Mercury-Atlas 9 at Launch Complex 14. The gantry has been pulled back, but the rocket has not been filled with propellants. Two men at the lower right of the image provide scale.(NASA)

The rocket, a “1-½ stage” liquid-fueled Atlas LV-3B, number 109-D, was built by the  Convair Division of General Dynamics at San Diego, California. It was developed from a U.S. Air Force SM-65 Atlas D intercontinental ballistic missile, modified for use as a “man-rated” orbital launch vehicle.

The LV-3B was 65 feet (19.812 meters) long from the base to the Mercury adapter section, and the tank section is 10 feet (3.038 meters) in diameter. The complete Mercury-Atlas orbital launch vehicle is 93 feet (28.436 meters) tall, including the escape tower. When ready for launch it weighed approximately 260,000 pounds (117,934 kilograms).

The Atlas’ three engines were built by the Rocketdyne Division of North American Aviation, Inc., at Canoga Park, California. Two Rocketdyne LR89-NA-5 engines and one LR105-NA-5 produced 341,140 pounds (1,517.466 kilonewtons) of thrust. The rocket was fueled by a highly-refined kerosene, RP-1, with liquid oxygen as the oxidizer.

Diagram of Atlas LV-3B (Space Launch Report)
Diagram of Atlas LV-3B with dimensions. (Space Launch Report)

Faith 7 is displayed at the Space Center Houston, the visitor center for the Johnson Space Flight Center, Houston, Texas.

Faith 7 and Atlas 130_D lift off from Launch Complex 14 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at 13:04:13 UTC, 13 May 1963. (NASA)
Mercury Atlas 9 (MA-9), consisting of  Faith 7 and Atlas 130-D, lifts off from Launch Complex 14 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at 13:04:13 UTC, 15 May 1963. (NASA)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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5 May 1961, 13:34:13.48 UTC, T plus 00:00:00.48

Mercury-Redstone 3 launches from LC-5, 09:34:13 EST, 5 May 1961. (NASA)
Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr., astronaut. (NASA)
Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr., Astronaut. (NASA)

At 09:34:13.48 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, 5 May 1961, Mercury-Redstone 3 lifted off from Launch Complex 5 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Cape Canaveral, Florida. On board was NASA Astronaut, Commander Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr., United States Navy. Shepard had named his spacecraft Freedom 7.

This was the very first time that an American had been carried into space aboard a rocket and came 23 days after Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin had completed one orbit of the Earth.

During the launch, acceleration reached 6.3 gs. The Redstone’s engine shut down at T+02:22, with the rocket having reached a velocity of 6,414 feet per second (1,955 meters per second). 10 seconds later, the Mercury spacecraft separated from the Redstone booster. The spacecraft’s maximum speed was 5,134 miles per hour (8,262.4 kilometers per hour). For the next 5 minutes, 4 seconds, Alan Shepard was “weightless.” Freedom 7 reached a peak altitude of 101.2 nautical miles (187.4 kilometers), 0.9 nautical miles (1.7 kilometers) higher than planned.

Alan B. Shepard, Jr., seated in the cockpit of Freedom 7 before launch, 5 May 1961. (NASA)

Alan Shepard’s flight was suborbital. The rocket launched the capsule on a ballistic trajectory. During the flight, Shepard demonstrated the use of manually controlled thrusters to orient the Mercury capsule in three axes.

Freedom 7 began reentry to the atmosphere at T+07:38. Deceleration forces reached 11.0 gs. Shepard manually controlled the vehicle’s attitude, and once correctly oriented for reentry, reverted to automatic control. With the blunt (bottom) end of the spacecraft forward, aerodynamic drag slowed the capsule. A spherical-segment ablative heat shield protected the space ship and its passenger.

On reaching the lower atmosphere, the capsule’s speed was reduced by a 63-foot (19.2 meter) diameter ring-sail parachute, and a “landing bag” deployed from the base of the spacecraft to provide an impact cushion. The landing, or “splash down,” took place in the Atlantic Ocean, 263.1 nautical miles (487.3 kilometers) down range, 6.8 nautical miles (12.6 kilometers) farther than planned. (N. 75° 53′, W. 27° 13.7′)

The total duration of Alan Shepard’s flight was 15 minutes, 28 seconds.

Alan B. Shepard, Jr., being hoisted aboard the Sikorsky HUS-1 helicopter, N. 75° 53′, W. 27° 13.7′, in the Atlantic Ocean, 5 May 1961. (NASA)

Eleven minutes after splash down, Commander Shepard was hoisted from the capsule to a hovering U.S. Marine Corps HUS-1 Sea Horse (Sikorsky S-58) helicopter of Marine Helicopter Transport Squadron (Light) 262 (HMR(L)-262). The helicopter then lifted the Mercury capsule and flew to the nearby U.S. Navy Ticonderoga-class anti-submarine aircraft carrier, USS Lake Champlain (CVS-39). The Mercury capsule returned to Cape Canaveral for inspection and found to be in excellent condition.

U.S. Marine Corps HUS-1 Sea Horse (Sikorsky S-58) of HMR(L)-262 hovers while hoisting Alan Shepard from the Freedom 7 after his sub-orbital flight, 5 May 1961. The Mercury capsule will also be lifted from the ocean by the helicopter and carried to USS Lake Champlain (CVS-39). (NASA)
USS Lake Champlain (CVS-39), 1 July 1960. (U.S. Navy)

Freedom 7 was the seventh of twenty Mercury capsules built by McDonnell Aircraft Corporation at St. Louis, Missouri, which would also build the follow-on, two-place Gemini spacecraft. It was delivered to Cape Canaveral 9 December 1960. The space capsule was truncated cone with sides angled 20° from the longitudinal axis. It was 6 feet, 10 inches (2.083 meters) long and had a maximum diameter of 6 feet, 2.50 inches (1.892 meters). The total height of the spacecraft, from the tip of the aero spike to the booster adapter, was 26 feet, 1.26 inches (7.957 meters). At launch, Mercury 7 weighed 4,040.28 pounds (1,832.64 kilograms).

Project Mercury spacecraft under construction at McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, St. Louis, Missouri. (NASA)

During flight outside the atmosphere, the Mercury spacecraft could be controlled in its pitch, roll and yaw axes by hydrogen peroxide-fueled reaction control thrusters. Both manual and automatic attitude control were available. It could not accelerate or decelerate (except for reentry) so it could not change its orbit.

The spacecraft cabin was pressurized to 5.5 psi with 100% oxygen. The pilot wore a B.F. Goodrich Mark IV Model 3 Type I full-pressure suit and flight helmet for protection in the event that cabin pressure was lost.

The Redstone MRLV rocket was a redesigned, “man rated” version of the Chrysler-built, United States Army M8 medium-range nuclear-armed ballistic missile. It was lengthened to provide greater fuel capacity, a pressurized instrumentation section was added, the control systems were simplified for greater reliability, and an inflight abort sensing system was installed. The rocket fuel was changed from hydrazine to ethyl alcohol. The cylindrical booster was  59.00 feet (17.983 meters) long and 5 feet, 10 inches (1.778 meters) in diameter. The rocket had four guidance fins with rudders mounted at the tail section. (Interestingly, the Redstone stood freely on the launch pad. No hold-downs were used. The guidance fins supported the entire weight of the vehicle.)

Compare the U.S. Army M8 Redstone medium-range ballistic missile in this photograph to the Mercury-Redstone launch vehicle in the photograph above. This rocket, CC-1002, was the first Block 1 tactical rocket, photographed at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, 16 May 1958. (NASA)

The Redstone MRLV was powered by a single NAA 75-110-A7 liquid-fueled engine built by the Rocketdyne Division of North American Aviation, Inc., at Canoga Park, California. The A7 produced 78,000 pounds of thrust (346.96 kilonewtons) at Sea Level, and 89,000 pounds (395.89 kilonewtons) in vacuum, burning ethyl alcohol with liquid oxygen.

The total vehicle height of Mercury-Redstone 3, including the booster, adapter, capsule and escape tower, was 83.38 feet (25.414 meters). The total vehicle launch weight was 65,987 pounds (29,931.2 kilograms).

Alan B. Shepard, Jr. is credited with two Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World records for this flight:

FAI Record File Num #9519 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – current record
Region: World
Class: K (Space records)
Sub-Class: K-1 (Suborbital missions)
Category: Spacecraft with one astronaut
Group: General category
Type of record: Altitude
Performance: 186.307 km
Date: 1961-05-05
Course/Location: Cape Canaveral, FL (USA)
Claimant Alan B. Shepard, Jr (USA)
Spacecraft: NASA Mercury Redstone MR-7 / Capsule Mercury Spacecraft n°7

FAI Record File Num #9520 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – current record
Region: World
Class: K (Space records)
Sub-Class: K-1 (Suborbital missions)
Category: Spacecraft with one astronaut
Group: General category
Type of record: Greatest mass lifted to altitude
Performance: 1 832.51 kg
Date: 1961-05-05
Course/Location: Cape Canaveral, FL (USA)
Claimant Alan B. Shepard, Jr (USA)
Spacecraft: NASA Mercury Redstone MR-7 / Capsule Mercury Spacecraft n°7

The flight of Freedom 7 was the first manned spaceflight in the 50-year history of the NASA program.¹ Alan Shepard would later command Apollo 14, the third successful manned lunar landing mission, in 1971.

Alan Shepard’s Mercury spacecraft, Freedom 7, is on display at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, Massachusetts.

Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 on display at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, Massachusetts.

¹  From liftoff of Mercury-Redstone 3 until wheel stop of Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-135), the era of NASA’s Manned Spaceflight Programs lasted 50 years, 2 months, 15 days, 20 hours, 23 minutes, 41 seconds.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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