Tag Archives: Milburn Grant Apt

22 December 1954

Captain Richard James Harer, United States Air Force. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)
Captain Richard James Harer, United States Air Force. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)

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.

Lockheed F-94C-1-LO Starfire 50-966, the same type airplane flown by Captain Richard Harer, 22 December 1954, is accompanied by Lockheed F-80C-1-LO Shooting Star 47-176 chase plane. (Lockheed)
Lockheed F-94C-1-LO Starfire 50-966, an all-weather interceptor of the same type flown by Captain Richard J. Harer, 22 December 1954. The Starfire is accompanied by a Lockheed F-80C-1-LO Shooting Star chase plane, 47-176. (Lockheed Martin)

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).

In this scene from the motion picture "Toward The Unknown" (Toluca Productions, 1956) which starred William Holden and Lloyd Nolan in a story about test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base, a Lockheed F-94C Starfire has released a drag chute in flight, simulating Captain Richard Harer's test flight of 22, December 1954.
In this scene from the motion picture “Toward The Unknown” (Toluca Productions, 1956) which starred William Holden and Lloyd Nolan in a story about test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base, a Lockheed F-94C Starfire has released a drag chute in flight, simulating Captain Richard J. Harer’s test flight of 22 December 1954. (Toluca Productions)

 LIFE Magazine described the test in the following excerpt:

LIFE Magazine, 18 June 1956. . . 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.

Lockheed F-94C-1-LO Starfire 50-1041 deploys its drogue chute on touchdown. (U.S. Air Force)
Lockheed F-94C-1-LO Starfire 50-1041 deploys its drag chute on touchdown. (U.S. Air Force)

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.

Lockheed F-94C-1-LO Starfire 50-1034 with its drogue chute deployed for aerodynamic braking on landing. (U.S. Air Force)
Lockheed F-94C-1-LO Starfire 50-1034 with its drag chute deployed for aerodynamic braking on landing. (U.S. Air Force)

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.

Captain Richard J. Harer's Lockheed F-94C-1-LO Starfire, 50-962. The airplane has an air data boom mounted on teh nose for flight testing, and carries jettisonable fuel tanks under its wings. (U.S. Air Force photograph via Million Monkey Theatre)
Captain Richard J. Harer’s Lockheed F-94C-1-LO Starfire, 50-962. The airplane has an air data boom mounted on the nose for flight testing, and carries jettisonable fuel tanks under its wings. (U.S. Air Force photograph via Million Monkey Theater)

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.

Captain Milburn Grant Apt, United States Air Force, with a Lockheed T-33A Shooting Star. (LIFE Magazine)
Captain Milburn Grant Apt, United States Air Force, with a Lockheed T-33A Shooting Star at Edwards Air Force Base, 1956. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)
Soldier's Medal
The Soldier’s Medal

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.

Richard James Harer was born at Painesville, Ohio, 8 October 1924. He was the son of Otto H. Harer, a foundry manager, and Edith Mynchenberg Harer. He had a younger sister, Marilyn.

Harer graduated from Harvey High School in Painesville in 1941. He was a member of the debate club and the Hi-Y club. (Harer’s father was president of the Painesville Board of Education.)

In 1942, Harer was a student at the University of Ohio. A member of the Class of 1945, he studied engineering and was a member of the Phi Eta Sigma (ΦΗΣ) fraternity.

World War II interrupted Harer’s education. On 4 December 1942, he enlisted as a private in the Air Corps Enlisted Reserve Corps. On 2 March 1943, Private Harer was selected as an Aviation Cadet and assigned to flight training. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant, Army of the United States (A.U.S.), 7 January 1944. On 6 November 1944, Harer was promoted to first lieutenant, A.U.S. On 25 September 1945, First Lieutenant Harer was transferred to the Air Corps Reserve. In 1947, the United States Air Force was established as a separate military service. Richard Harer was appointed a second lieutenant, U. S. Air Force, with his date of rank retroactive to 8 October 1945.

During World War II, Lieutenant Harer flew 31 combat missions in the European Theater of Operations. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters.

Following the war, Richard Harer returned to his studies, now at the University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio. He was a member of the Sigma Beta Phi (ΣΒΦ) fraternity, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the Engine Club.

On 21 January 1948, Lieutenant Harer married Miss Barbara Alice Heesen at Lucas, Ohio. They would have four children.

After graduating from the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School, Captain Harer was assigned as a test pilot at the Air Force Flight Test Center, Edwards Air Force Base, California. He conducted performance testing on the Republic F-84F Thunderstreak. Harer flew an F-84F in the Bendix Trophy Race, 4 September 1954. He made one flight in the Bell X-1B rocketplane, 4 November 1954.

1954 Bendix Trophy Race. Captain Richard J. Harer is second from left. (San Bernardino Sun. 4 September 1954, Page 1, Columns 5–7)

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.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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27 September 1956

Captain Milburn G. Apt, U.S. Air Force, with a Bell X-2. (U.S. Air Force)
Captain Milburn Grant Apt, United States Air Force, with a Bell X-2. (U. S. Air Force)

27 September 1956: Captain Milburn G. (“Mel”) Apt, United States Air Force, was an experimental test pilot assigned to the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California. After Frank Everest and Iven Kincheloe had made twelve powered flights in the Bell X-2 supersonic research aircraft, Mel Apt was the next test pilot to fly it.

The X-2 was a joint project of the U.S. Air Force and NACA (the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, the predecessor of NASA). The rocketplane was designed and built by Bell Aircraft Corporation of Buffalo, New York, to explore supersonic flight at speeds beyond the capabilities of the earlier Bell X-1 and Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket.

In addition to the aerodynamic effects of speeds in the Mach 2.0–Mach 3.0 range, engineers knew that the high temperatures created by aerodynamic friction would be a problem, so the aircraft was built from stainless steel and K-Monel, a copper-nickel alloy.

The Bell Aircraft Corporation X-2 was 37 feet, 10 inches (11.532 meters) long with a wingspan of 32 feet, 3 inches (9.830 meters) and height of 11 feet, 10 inches (3.607 meters). Its empty weight was 12,375 pounds (5,613 kilograms) and loaded weight was 24,910 pounds (11,299 kilograms).

Bell X-2 46-675 on its transportation dolly at Edwards Air Force Base, California, 1952. (NASA)
The second of two Bell X-2 supersonic research rocketplanes, 46-675, on its transportation dolly at Edwards Air Force Base, California, 1952. On 12 May 1953 this X-2 exploded during a captive test flight, killing Bell’s test pilot Jean L. “Skip” Ziegler. (NASA)

The X-2 was powered by a throttleable two-chamber Curtiss-Wright XLR25-CW-1 rocket engine that produced 2,500–15,000 pounds of thrust (11.12–66.72 kilonewtons)

Rather than use its limited fuel capacity to take off and climb to altitude, the X-2 was dropped from a modified heavy bomber as had been the earlier rocketplanes. A four-engine Boeing B-50D-95-BO Superfortress bomber, serial number 48-096, was modified as the drop ship and redesignated EB-50D.

The launch altitude was 30,000 feet (9,144 meters). After the fuel was exhausted, the X-2 glided to a touchdown on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base.

Bell X-2 46-674 after drop from Boeing EB-50D Superfortress 48-096. (U.S. Air Force)
Bell X-2 46-674 after drop from Boeing EB-50D Superfortress 48-096. (U.S. Air Force)

With Mel Apt in the cockpit on his first rocketplane flight, the B-50 carried the X-2 to 31,800 feet (9,693 meters). After it was dropped from the bomber, Apt ignited the rocket engine and began to accelerate. He passed Mach 1 at 44,000 feet (13,411 meters) and continued to climb. Apt flew an “extraordinarily precise profile” to reach 72,200 feet (22,007 meters) where he put the X-2 into a dive. The rocket engine burned 12.5 seconds longer than planned, and at 65,589 feet (19,992 meters) the X-2 reached Mach 3.196 (2,094 miles per hour, 3,377 kilometers per hour).

Milburn Apt was the first pilot to exceed Mach 3. He was The Fastest Man Alive.

Bell X-2 46-674 in flight over Southern California, 1955–56. Note the supersonic diamond-shaped shock waves in the rocket engine's exhaust. (Bell aircraft Corporation)
Bell X-2 46-674 in flight over Southern California, 1955–56. Note the supersonic diamond-shaped shock waves in the rocket engine’s exhaust. (Bell Aircraft Corporation)

It was known that the X-2 could be unstable in high speed maneuvers. The flight plan called for Apt to slow to Mach 2.4 before beginning a gradual turn back toward Rogers Dry Lake where he was to land, but he began the turn while still at Mach 3. Twenty seconds after engine burn out, the X-2 began to oscillate in all axes and departed controlled flight. His last radio transmission was, “There she goes.” ¹

Mel Apt was subjected to acceleration forces of ± 6 Gs. It is believed that he was momentarily unconscious. Out of control, the X-2 fell through 40,000 feet (12,192 meters) in an inverted spin. Apt initiated the escape capsule separation, in which the entire nose of the X-2 was released from the airframe. It pitched down violently and Mel Apt was knocked unconscious again. He regained consciousness a second time and tried to parachute from the escape capsule, but was still inside when it hit the desert floor at several hundred miles per hour. Mel Apt was killed instantly.

Since 1950, Milburn G. Apt was the thirteenth test pilot killed at Edwards Air Force Base.

Wreckage of the Bell X-2, 46-674. (U.S. Air Force)
Wreckage of the Bell X-2, 46-674, in the Kramer Hills, east of Edwards Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force)
Wreckage of the Bell X-2, 46-674. (NASM 9A08208)

Milburn Grant Apt was born at Buffalo, Kansas, 8 April 1924. He was the third child of Oley Glen Apt, a farmer, and Ada Willoughby Apt.

“Mel” Apt enlisted as a private in the Air Corps Enlisted Reserve, United States Army, 9 November 1942. On 23 June 1943, Private Apt was appointed an Aviation Cadet. After completing flight training, Cadet Apt was commissioned a Second Lieutenant, Army of the United States (A.U.S.). He was promoted to First Lieutenant, A.U.S., 4 September 1945. Apt was released from active duty on 11 August 1946. On 10 October 1947, he was reclassified as a Second Lieutenant, Air Corps, United States Army, with date of rank 8 April 1945.

In February 1950, Lieutenant Apt, then stationed at Williams Air Force Base, Arizona, married Miss Faye Lorrie Baker of Phoenix. They would have two children.

Mel Apt earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, in 1951, and a second bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. He then attended the U.S. Air Force Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California, graduating in September 1954. Apt was assigned to the Fighter Operations Branch, Air Force Flight Test Center, as a test pilot.

On 22 December 1954, Captain Apt was flying a chase plane during a test at Edwards. The test aircraft crash-landed on the dry lake and caught fire with its pilot trapped inside. Mel Apt, with his bare hands, rescued the other test pilot, saving his life. For this courageous act, he was awarded the Soldier’s Medal.

Captain Apt was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his flight in the X-2. The medal was presented to his widow in a ceremony at Edwards in March 1957.

Captain Milburn Grant Apt, United States Air Force, was 32 years old at the time of his death. His remains were buried at the Buffalo Cemetery, Buffalo, Kansas.

Captain Iven Carl Kincheloe and Captain Milburn Grant Apt (seated in cockpit) with the Bell X-2 at Edwards Air Force Base, 1956. (Jet Pilot Overseas)

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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