18 May 1961: Operation SAGE BURNER, one of a series of record-setting flights intended to commemorate the 50th anniversary of United States Naval Aviation, ended tragically when a McDonnell F4H-1F Phantom II, Bu. No. 145316, crashed during a low-altitude supersonic speed run at the White Sands Missile Range near Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.
Commander Jack Lee Felsman and Ensign Raymond Maxwell Hite, Jr., were killed and their Phantom was destroyed when a pitch damper failed, which resulted in Pilot Induced Oscillation. The uncontrolled oscillations became so severe that the Phantom’s airframe was subjected to 12 gs, causing it to break apart in flight. Both engines were torn from the airframe.
This was the first fatal accident involving the Phantom II.
A video clip showing the inflight break up can be seen on YouTube at
Jack Lee Felsman was born 4 April 1923, the second of two children Charles Edward Felsman, a farmer, and Vera McKay Felsman.
Jack Felsman entered the United States Navy 12 December 1942. He was trained as a pilot and commissioned an Ensign, United States Navy 4 September 1943. He was promoted to Lieutenant (j.g.), 1 February 1945. He was promoted to Lieutenant, 15 July 1951, and to Lieutenant Commander, 1 August 1956. Felsman was married to Miss Hallie May McKay.
Commander Felsman’s remains were buried at the Rock Island National Cemetery, Rock Island, Illinois.
Raymond Maxwell Hite, Jr., was born 3 December 1927 in Los Angeles County, California, the son of Raymond Maxwell Hite and Elizabeth Ball Hite. Ensign Hite’s remains were interred at the Roselawn Burial Park, Martinsville, Virginia.
25 September 1960: At Edwards Air Force Base, California, Commander John Franklin (“Jeff”) Davis, United States Navy, flew a McDonnell F4H-1 Phantom II to a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Speed Over a Closed Circuit of 100 Kilometers Without Payload, averaging 2,237.37 kilometers per hour (1390.24 miles per hour).¹ Commander Davis flew the 62-mile circular course at an altitude of 45,000 feet (13,716 meters).
“On 25 September 1960 Davis flew the shorter, 100-kilometer course at 1,390.24 miles per hour, roughly Mach 2.2. He went around the course in a continuous circle, at 70° of bank and three g’s. The heavy bank put the honeycomb structure of the right stabilator directly in the engine exhaust the entire way around, but it held on. These two flights demonstrated the brute strength of the airframe and the sophistication of the F4H navigation system around the curves.”
— Engineering the F-4 Phantom II: parts into systems, by Glenn E. Bugos, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 1996, Chapter 5 at Page 104.
John Franklin Davis was born at Chicago, Illinois, 4May 1921. He was the son of John E. Davis and Bernice B. McNair Davis.
On 11 July 1940, John Franklin Davis was admitted to the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, as a Midshipman. He graduated and was commissioned an Ensign, United States Navy, 9 June 1943. Ensign Davis served aboard the battleship USS New York (BB-34). He was promoted to Lieutenant (junior grade), 1 September 1944. He was promoted to Lieutenant, 1 April 1946.
Also in 1946, Lieutenant Davis qualified as a Naval Aviator. He was assigned as a pilot VF-74 aboard USS Midway (CVB-41). During the early 1950s, Lieutenant Davis served as operations officer for VF-191 aboard USS Oriskany (CVA-34). The squadron was equipped with the swept-wing Grumman F9F-6 Cougar. He then commanded VF-191, flying the Chance Vought F8U Crusader. Commander Davis was then assigned to the Bureau of Weapons as project officer for the McDonnell F4H Phantom II.
Following that assignment, Commander Davis was selected as executive officer of the Midway-class aircraft carrier, USS Coral Sea (CVA-43).
United States Navy aircraft carriers are traditionally commanded by Naval Aviators, but they usually are required to have experience commanding a “deep-draft” ship. Early in his career, Captain Davis had served aboard the 27,000-ton USS New York. He was given command of the Haskell-class attack transport USS Talladega (APA-208) from 10 April 1965 through 1966. From 30 September 1968 to 15 November 1969, Captain Davis commanded the supercarrier USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) during combat operations in Southeast Asia.
Captain Davis was married to the former Miss Bonnie Adair of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. They had six children.
Captain John Franklin Davis, United States Navy (Retired), died at Marrero, Louisiana, 16 May 1993. His ashes were spread at sea from his last command, USS Kitty Hawk.
5 September 1960: Lieutenant Colonel Thomas H. Miller, United States Marine Corps, set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Speed Over a 500 Kilometer Closed Course Without Payload with a McDonnell F4H-1F Phantom II, Bu.No. 145311. The fighter averaged 1,216.78 miles per hour (1,958.2 kilometers per hour)¹ over the triangular course in the California and Nevada desert.
Lieutenant Colonel Miller took off from Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of Southern California. The McDonnell F4H-1F carried three external fuel tanks. Miller climbed in full Military Power to 38,000 feet (11,582 meters), then dropped the two wing tanks over the Salton Sea. The Phantom II continued to accelerate with both engines in afterburner while climbing to 48,000 feet (14,630 meters). At Mach 1.6, 30 miles (48.3 kilometers) from the starting gate over Edwards, Miller dropped the empty 600 gallon (2,271 liters) centerline tank. He crossed the gate at 42,200 feet (12,863 meters) at Mach 1.76 and continued to accelerate.
Miller entered the first turn near Lone Pine, California (just east of Mount Whitney) at 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) at Mach 2.04. The second turn was over Beatty, Nevada, the location of a radar and telemetry facility that was operated as part of the NASA High Speed Flight Station’s High Range. The F4H had descended slightly to 49,000 feet (14,935 meters) while accelerating to Mach 2.05.
Colonel Miller was now headed back toward Edwards and the gate on the longest leg of the triangular course. He crossed the finish line at 46,000 feet (14,021 meters) and Mach 2.10.
The total time on the course, gate to gate, was 15 minutes, 19.2 seconds. The Phantoms’ two engines were in afterburner for 25 minutes, 30 seconds. The duration of the flight, from takeoff to landing, was one hour.
When the airplane crossed the gate over Edwards, only 900 pounds (408 kilograms) of fuel remained. Later, Colonel Miller said, “The only way to get on the ground with the engines running was a split-S maneuver with a near-vertical dive, speed brakes out and engines at idle power. This provided positioning for a straight-in approach to the runway at Edwards AFB. Flaps and wheels were lowered at the last minute when I knew I had the runway made, even if the engines quit. Fortunately, they didn’t flame out until I touched down.”
While the FAI credited Tom Miller with a World Record speed of 1,958.2 kilometers per hour (1,216.769 miles per hour) for the 500 kilometer course, a McDonnell Aircraft Corporation publication points out that as the F4H actually flew outside the course lines to make the high-speed turns, it flew 23 miles (37 kilometers) farther than required, and therefore the actual average speed was 1,305 miles per hour (2,100.2 kilometers per hour).
Lieutenant General Thomas H. Mitchell flew combat missions in the Pacific with VMO-155, flying the Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat, and missions during the Korean War with VMFA-323 (Death Rattlers”), flying the Vought F4U-4 Corsair. During the Vietnam War, he commanded VMFA-513, flying the McDonnell F-4B Phantom II. Promoted to Brigadier General, he was Chief of Staff, III Amphibious Group, then Commander, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing. In 1975, he took command of the Fleet Marine Force Pacific. After serving as Deputy Chief of Staff for Aviation, Headquarters, Marine Corps, Miller retired from active duty in 1979.
Lieutenant General Miller died in 2007 at the age of 84 years.
28 August 1961: Operation SAGEBURNER: To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Naval Aviation, Lieutenants Huntington Hardisty and Earl De Esch, United States Navy, flew a McDonnell F4H-1F Phantom II to a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Speed Record of 1,452.777 kilometers per hour (902.714 miles per hour) over a 3 kilometer (1.864 mile) course at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. They flew BELOW 125 feet (38.1 meters) above the ground.¹
An earlier speed record attempt, 18 May 1961, ended tragically when Commander Jack L. Felsman, and Ensign Raymond M. Hite, Jr., were killed and their F4H-1F Phantom II, Bu. No. 145316, destroyed when a pitch damper failed which resulted in Pilot Induced Oscillation. This became so severe that the Phantom’s airframe was subjected to 12 Gs, causing it to break apart in flight. Both engines were torn from the airframe.
The world-record-setting airplane, McDonnell F4H-1F Phantom II, Bureau of Aeronautics Serial Number (Bu. No.) 145307, SAGEBURNER, is at the Paul Garber Restoration Facility of the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum.
Huntington Hardisty rose to the rank of admiral and served as Vice Chief of Naval Operations and Commander in Chief, United States Pacific Command. He retired from the Navy in 1991 and died in 2003 at the age of 74.