Tag Archives: Muroc Air Force Base

14 October 1947

Captain Charles Elwood (“Chuck”) Yeager, U.S. Air Force, with “Glamorous Glennis,” the Bell XS-1. (U.S. Air Force/National Air and Space Museum)

14 October 1947: At approximately 10:00 a.m., a four-engine Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber, piloted by Major Robert L. Cardenas, took off from Muroc Air Force Base (now know as Edwards Air Force Base) in the high desert north of Los Angeles, California. The B-29’s bomb bay had been modified to carry the Bell XS-1, a rocket-powered airplane designed to investigate flight at speeds near the Speed of Sound (Mach 1).

A Bell XS-1 rocketplane carried aloft in the bomb bay of a modified Boeing B-29-96-BW Superfortress, serial number 45-21800. (NASA)
Captain Chuck Yeager with the Bell XS-1 on Muroc Dry Lake, 1947. (Chuck Yeager collection)

Air Force test pilot Captain Charles Elwood (“Chuck”) Yeager, a World War II fighter ace, was the U.S. Air Force pilot for this project. The X-1 airplane had been previously flown by company test pilots Jack Woolams and Chalmers Goodlin. Two more X-1 aircraft were built by Bell, and the second, 46-063, had already begun its flight testing.

Captain Yeager had made three glide flights and this was to be his ninth powered flight. Like his P-51 Mustang fighters, he had named this airplane after his wife, Glamorous Glennis.

Bob Cardenas climbed to 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) and then put the B-29 into a shallow dive to gain speed. In his autobiography, Yeager wrote:

One minute to drop. [Jack] Ridley flashed the word from the copilot’s seat in the mother ship. . . Major Cardenas, the driver, starts counting backwards from ten. C-r-r-ack. The bomb shackle release jolts you up from your seat, and as you sail out of the dark bomb bay the sun explodes in brightness. You’re looking at the sky. Wrong! You should have dropped level. The dive speed was too slow, and they dropped you in a nose-up stall. . .

Cockpit of Bell X-1, 46-062, Glamorous Glennis, on display at the National Air and Space Museum. (Photo by Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

“I fought it with the control wheel for about five hundred feet, and finally got her nose down. The moment we picked up speed I fired all four rocket chambers in rapid sequence. We climbed at .88 Mach. . . I turned off two rocket chambers. At 40,000 feet, we were still climbing at .92 Mach. Leveling off at 42,000 feet, I had thirty percent of my fuel, so I turned on rocket chamber three and immediately reached .96 Mach. . . the faster I got, the smoother the ride.

“Suddenly the Mach needle began to fluctuate. It went up to .965 Mach—then tipped right off the scale. . . .”

—Brigadier General Charles E. Yeager, U.S. Air Force (Retired), Yeager, An Autobiography, by Chuck Yeager and Leo Janos, Bantam Books, New York, 1985, Pages 120, 129–130.

Chuck Yeager and flown the XS-1 through “the sound barrier,” something many experts had believed might not be possible. His maximum speed during this flight was Mach 1.06 (699.4 miles per hour/1,125.7 kilometers per hour).

Bell X-1 46-062 in flight. Note the “shock diamonds” visible in the rocket engine’s exhaust. (Photograph by Lieutenant Robert A. Hoover, U.S. Air Force)

The Bell XS-1, later re-designated X-1, was the first of a series of rocket powered research airplanes which included the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, the Bell X-2, and the North American Aviation X-15, which were flown by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, NACA and its successor, NASA, at Edwards Air Force Base to explore supersonic and hypersonic flight and at altitudes to and beyond the limits of Earth’s atmosphere.

The X-1 is shaped like a bullet and has straight wings and tail surfaces. It is 30 feet, 10.98 inches (9.423 meters) long with a wing span of 28.00 feet (8.534 meters) and overall height of 10 feet, 10.20 inches (3.307 meters). Total wing area is 102.5 square feet ( 9.5 square meters). At its widest point, the diameter of the X-1 fuselage is 4 feet, 7 inches (1.397 meters). The empty weight is 6,784.9 pounds (3,077.6 kilograms), but loaded with propellant, oxidizer and its pilot with his equipment, the weight increased to 13,034 pounds (5,912 kilograms). The X-1 was designed to withstand an ultimate structural load of 18g.

The X-1 is powered by a four-chamber Reaction Motors, Inc., XLR11-RM-3 rocket engine which produced 6,000 pounds of thrust (26,689 Newtons). This engine burns a mixture of ethyl alcohol and water with liquid oxygen. Fuel capacity is 293 gallons (1,109 liters) of water/alcohol and 311 gallons (1,177 liters) of liquid oxygen. The fuel system is pressurized by nitrogen at 1,500 pounds per square inch (10,342 kilopascals).

The X-1 was usually dropped from a B-29 flying at 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) and 345 miles per hour (555 kilometers per hour). It fell as much as 1,000 feet (305 meters) before beginning to climb under its own power.

The X-1’s performance was limited by its fuel capacity. Flying at 50,000 feet (15,240 meters), it could reach 916 miles per hour (1,474 kilometers per hour), but at 70,000 feet (21,336 meters) the maximum speed that could be reached was 898 miles per hour (1,445 kilometers per hour). During a maximum climb, fuel would be exhausted as the X-1 reached 74,800 feet (2,799 meters). The absolute ceiling is 87,750 feet (26,746 meters).

The X-1 had a minimum landing speed of 135 miles per hour (217 kilometers per hour) using 60% flaps.

The three X-1 rocketplanes made a total of 157 flights with the three X-1. The number one ship, Glamorous Glennis, made 78 flights. On 26 March 1948, with Chuck Yeager again in the cockpit, it reached reached Mach 1.45 (957 miles per hour/1,540 kilometers per hour) at 71,900 feet (21,915 meters).

The third X-1, 46-064, made just one glide flight before it was destroyed 9 November 1951 in an accidental explosion.

The second X-1, 46-063, was later modified to the X-1E. It is on display at the NASA Dryden Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base.

Glamorous Glennis is on display at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum, next to Charles A. Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis.

Bell X-1, 46-062, Glamorous Glennis, on display in the Milestones of Flight gallery at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C. (Photo by Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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1 October 1947

North American Aviation test pilot George S. Welch, flying the first of three XP-86 prototypes, serial number 45-59597. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

1 October 1947: After three years development in which 801,386 engineering hours and 340,594 drafting hours had been expended, the first prototype North American Aviation XP-86 (company designation NA-140), serial number 45-59597, was ready for its first flight at Muroc Dry Lake in the high desert, north of Los Angeles, California.

Completed at North American’s Inglewood plant on 8 August 1947, it was trucked to Muroc in mid-September. It was reassembled, everything was checked out, and after a few taxi tests, company test pilot George S. Welch took off for a initial familiarization flight. Chief Test Pilot Bob Chilton flew chase in an XP-82 Twin Mustang with a company photographer on board. The duration of the first flight was 1 hour, 18 minutes.

Recently completed, the first prototype XP-86, 45-59597, waits inside the North American Aviation plant at Inglewood, California, 14 August 1947. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

During this first flight, George Welch climbed to 35,000 feet (10,668 meters):

“In a little more than ten minutes he had reached 35,000 feet. Leveling out, the test pilot smiled as he watched the indicated airspeed accelerate to 320 knots. He estimated that should be 0.90 Mach number. . . Rolling into a 40 degree dive, he turned west. . . The airspeed indicator seemed to be stuck at about 350 knots. The Sabre was behaving just fine. Then at 29,000 feet, there was a little wing roll. Correcting the roll, George pushed into a steeper dive. The airspeed indicator suddenly jumped to 410 knots and continued to rise. At 25,000 feet, he pulled the Sabre into level flight and reduced power. The wing rocked again and the airspeed jumped back to 390.”

Aces Wild: The Race for Mach 1, by Al Blackburn, Scholarly Resources Inc., Wilmington, Delaware, 1998, at Chapter 5, Pages 144–145.

George Welch was the first to report instrument readings that would be referred to as “Mach jump.” It has been argued that George Welch flew the XP-86 beyond Mach 1 during this flight, breaking the “sound barrier” two weeks before Chuck Yeager did with the Bell X-1 rocketplane. During flight testing, it was firmly established that the XP-86 could reach Mach 1.02–1.04 in a dive, so it is certainly possible that he did so on the Sabre’s first flight.

North American Aviation Model NA-140, the first XP-86 prototype, 45-59597, at Muroc AAF, 1947. (U.S. Air Force)
North American Aviation Model NA-140, the first XP-86 prototype, 45-59597, at Muroc AAF, 1947. (U.S. Air Force)

The XP-86 was unlike any airplane before it. It was the first airplane with a swept wing. After analyzing test data from the Messerschmitt Me 262, North American’s engineers designed a wing with a 35° degree sweepback to its leading edge. The wing tapered toward the tips, and its thickness also decreased from the root to the tip. In order to create a very strong but very thin wing, it was built with a two-layered aluminum skin, instead of ribs and spars, with each layer separated by “hat” sections. The wing sweep allowed high speed shock waves to form without stalling the entire wing.

Cutaway illustration P-86A (North American Aviation, Inc.)

The wing also incorporated leading edge “slats” which were airfoil sections that automatically extended below 290 knots, smoothing the air flow over the wing’s upper surface and creating more lift at slow speeds. Above that speed, aerodynamic forces closed the slats, decreasing drag and allowing for higher speeds. Effectively, the wing could change its shape in flight.

Test pilot George S. Welch, wearing his distinctive orange helmet, in the cockpit of the prototype XP-86. This photograph was taken 14 October 1947. (U.S. Air Force)
This photograph of the XP-86 shows the 35° wing sweep. Test pilot George S. Welch, wearing his distinctive orange helmet, in the cockpit of the prototype XP-86. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

The XP-86 prototypes were 37 feet, 6½ inches (11.443 meters) long with a wingspan of 37 feet, 1–7/16 inches (11.314 meters) and overall height of 14 feet, 9 inches (4.496 meters). The empty weight was 9,730 pounds (4,413.5 kilograms), gross weight, 13,395 pounds (6,075.9 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight was 16,438 pounds (7,456.2 kilograms).

North American Aviation XP-86 45-59597. (Ray Wagner Collection, San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives, Catalog #: 16_002950)

The XP-86 was initially powered by a General Electric-designed, Chevrolet-built J35-C-3 turbojet which produced 4,000 pounds of thrust. This was soon changed to an Allison J35-A-5. Performance testing was conducted with the Allison engine installed. The J35 was a single-spool, axial-flow turbojet engine with an 11-stage compressor and single-stage turbine. The J35-A-5 was rated at 4,000 pounds of thrust (17.79 kilonewtons) at 7,700 r.p.m. (static thrust, Sea Level). The engine was 14 feet, 0.0 inches (4.267 meters) long, 3 feet, 4.0 inches (1.016 meters) in diameter and weighed 2,400 pounds (1,089 kilograms).

The three North American Aviation XP-86 prototypes. Front to back, 45-59598, 45-59597 and 45-59599. (National Archives and Records Administration)

The maximum speed of the XP-86 at Sea Level was 0.787 Mach (599 miles per hour, 964 kilometers per hour), 0.854 Mach (618 miles per hour, 995 kilometers per hour) at 14,000 feet (4,267 meters) and 575 miles per hour (925 kilometers per hour) at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters)—0.875 Mach.

The prototype fighter was able to take off at 125 miles per hour (201 kilometers per hour) in just 3,020 feet (920.5 meters) of runway. It could climb to 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) in 12.1 minutes and had a service ceiling of 41,300 feet (12,588 meters).

The end of XP-86 45-59597 at Frenchman Flats, 1953.

XP-86 45-59597 was expended as a target during nuclear weapons tests. On 25 May 1953, it was 1,850 feet from ground zero of Upshot Knothole Grable. The only part still intact was the engine, which was thrown 500 feet.

Upshot Knothole Grable (National (Nuclear Security Administration CIC 0315864)
George S. Welch, North American Aviation test pilot, wearing his orange flight helmet. An F-86 Sabre is in the background. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Photo Archives)

George Welch was born George Lewis Schwartz, in Wilmington, Delaware, 10 May 1918. His parents changed his surname to Welch, his mother’s maiden name, so that he would not be effected by the anti-German prejudice that was widespread in America following World War I. He studied mechanical engineering at Purdue, and enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1939.

George S. Welch is best remembered as one of the heroes of Pearl Harbor. He was one of only two fighter pilots to get airborne during the Japanese surprise attack on Hawaii, 7 December 1941. Flying a Curtiss P-40B Warhawk, he shot down three Aichi D3A “Val” dive bombers and one Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter. For this action, Lieutenant General H.H. “Hap” Arnold recommended the Medal of Honor, but because Lieutenant Welch had taken off without orders, an officer in his chain of command refused to endorse the nomination. He received the Distinguished Service Cross.

During World War II, George Welch flew the Bell P-39 Airacobra and Lockheed P-38 Lightning on 348 combat missions. He had 16 confirmed aerial victories over Japanese airplanes and rose to the rank of Major.

Suffering from malaria, George Welch was out of combat, and when North American Aviation approached him to test the new P-51H Mustang, General Arnold authorized his resignation. Welch test flew the P-51, FJ-1 Fury, F-86 Sabre and F-100 Super Sabre. He was killed 12 October 1954 when his F-100A Super Sabre came apart in a 7 G pull up from a Mach 1.5 dive.

North American Aviation F-86-A-NA Sabre 47-630. (North American Aviation, Inc./Chicago Tribune)
An early production aircraft, North American Aviation P-86A-1-NA Sabre 47-630 (s/n 151-38457). (North American Aviation, Inc./Chicago Tribune)

After testing, the North American Aviation XP-86 was approved for production as the F-86A. It became operational in 1949. The first squadron to fly the F-86 held a naming contest and from 78 suggestions, the name “Sabre” was chosen. The F-86 Sabre was in production until 1955 at North American’s Inglewood, California, and Cleveland, Ohio, plants. It was also built under license by Canadair, Ltd., Sain-Laurent, Quebec, Canada; the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation, Port Melbourne, Victoria, Australia; and Mitsubishi Heavy  Industries at Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan. A total of 9,860 Sabres were built. They served with the United States Air Force until 1970.

XP-86 45-59597 was expended in nuclear weapons tests, Operation Snapper Easy and Snapper Fox, at the Nevada Test Site, Frenchman’s Flat, Nevada, in May 1952. The second and third prototypes, 45-59598 and 45-59599, met similar fates.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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18 September 1948

Lieutenant Ellis Dent Shannon, Air Corps, United States Army

18 September 1948: The first delta-winged aircraft took flight for the first time when Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft Corporation test pilot Ellis D. “Sam” Shannon lifted off from Muroc Dry Lake with the prototype delta-wing XF-92A, serial number 46-682. For the next  18 minutes he familiarized himself with the new aircraft type, before landing back on the lake bed.

The Convair XF-92 on Rogers Dry lake. (U.S. Air Force)
The Convair XF-92A on Muroc Dry Lake. (U.S. Air Force)

Later, with Captain Chuck Yeager flying, the XF-92A reached Mach 1.05. Yeager found that the airplane’s delta wing made it nearly impossible to stall, even with a 45° angle of attack. He was able to land the airplane at nearly 100 miles per hour slower than the designers had predicted.

The XF-92A was a difficult airplane to fly. NACA test pilot Scott Crossfield commented, “Nobody wanted to fly the XF-92. There was no lineup of pilots for the airplane. It was a miserable flying beast.” Scotty made 25 flights in the experimental delta-winged aircraft. On its last flight, 14 October 1953, the airplane’s nose gear collapsed after landing. The XF-92A was damaged and never flew again.

Convair XF-92A 46-682 on Muroc Dry Lake, 1948. (U.S. Air Force)
Convair XF-92A 46-682 on Muroc Dry Lake, 1948. (U.S. Air Force)

The XF-92A (Consolidated-Vultee Model 7-002) was a single-place, single-engine prototype fighter. The airplane was 42 feet, 6 inches (12.954 meters) long with a wingspan of 31 feet, 4 inches (9.550 meters) and overall height of 17 feet, 9 inches (5.410 meters). It had an empty weight of 9,078 pounds (4,118 kilograms) and gross weight of 14,608 pounds (6,626 kilograms).

The prototype was originally powered by It was powered by an Allison J33-A-21 centrifugal-flow turbojet engine with a single-stage compressor and single-stage turbine. It produced 4,250 pounds of thrust at 11,500 r.p.m. at Sea Level. This was later replaced by a more powerful J33-A-29 (7,500 pounds thrust).

The XF-92A touches down on Muroc Dry Lake, 1948. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)
The XF-92A touches down on Muroc Dry Lake, 1948. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)

The XF-92A had a maximum speed of 718 miles per hour (1,156 kilometers per hour) and a service ceiling of 50,750 feet (15,469 meters).

The XF-92A was not put into production. It did appear in several motion pictures, including “Toward The Unknown” (one of my favorites). It is in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force. This was the first of several Convair delta-winged aircraft, including the F2Y Sea Dart, F-102A Delta Dart and F-106A Delta Dagger supersonic interceptors, and the B-58A Hustler four-engine Mach 2+ strategic bomber.

Consolidated-Vultee XF-92A 46-682 is displayed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

The flight test program of the XF-92A came to an ignonimous colclusion
The flight test program of the XF-92A came to an ignominious conclusion on 14 October 1953. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives)

Ellis Dent Shannon was born at Andalusia, Alabama, 7 February 1908. He was the third of five children of John William and Lucy Ellen Barnes Shannon.

He was commissioned as a second lieutenant the Alabama National Guard (Troop C, 55th Machine Gun Squadron, Cavalry) 21 May 1926. He transferred to the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1929. In 1930, he was stationed at Brooks Army Airfield, Texas.

In 1932 Shannon was employed was assigned as a flight instructor and an advisor to the government of China.

On 24 December 1932, Shannon married Miss Martha Elizabeth Reid at Shanghai, China. They had son, Ellis Reid Shannon, born at Shanghai, 24 August 1934, and a daughter, Ann N. Shannon, born at Baltimore, Maryland, in 1940.

Shannon and his family returned to the United States in 1935 aboard SS Bremen, arriving at New York.

He was employed by the Glenn L. Martin Co., at Baltimore, Maryland, in 1936 as a test and demonstration pilot. He travel throughout Latin America for the company, demonstrating the company’s aircraft. As a test pilot he flew the Martin Model 187 Baltimore, the B-26 Marauder, PBM Mariner and the Martin JRM Mars.

In February 1943, Shannon started working as a Chief of Flight Research for the Consolidated Aircraft Company at San Diego, California. While there, made the first flights of the Consolidated XB-24K, a variant of the Liberator bomber with a single vertical tail fin; the XR2Y-1, a prototype commercial airliner based on the B-24 Liberator bomber; the XB-46 jet-powered medium bomber; the XP5Y-1 Tradewind, a large flying boat powered by four-turboprop-engines; the Convair 340 Metropolitan airliner; and the XF2Y Sea Dart, a delta-winged seaplane powered by two turbojet engines. Shannon also participated in the flight test program of the YF-102A Delta Dart.

After retiring from Convair in 1956, Ellis and Martha Shannon remained in the San Diego area. Ellis Dent Shannon died at San Diego, California, 8 April 1982 at the age of 74 years.

Ellis Dent Shannon, Convair test pilot (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)
Ellis Dent Shannon, Convair test pilot, circa 1953. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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15 September 1948

Major Richard L. Johnson, United States Air Force.
Major Richard Lowe Johnson, United States Air Force. (Unattributed)
Major Richard L. Johnson with the record-setting North American Aviation F-86A Sabre.
Major Richard L. Johnson with the record-setting North American Aviation F-86A Sabre. (Unattributed)

15 September 1948: Major Richard L. Johnson, U.S. Air Force, Air Materiel Command, set a new Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record Speed Over a 3 Kilometer Course,¹ flying the sixth production North American Aviation F-86A-1-NA Sabre, serial number 47-611, at Muroc Air Force Base, California (renamed Edwards AFB in 1949).

The air temperature was 70° F. (21° C.) with very little wind. Making four consecutive passes at an altitude of 75–125 feet (23 to 38 meters), the Sabre averaged 1,079.84 kilometers per hour (670.98 miles per hour) — 0.889 Mach. The slowest pass was 669.830 miles per hour and the fastest was 672.762 miles per hour (1,077.987 and 1,082.705 kilometers per hour, respectively) — 0.8875–0.8914 Mach.

This was Major Lowe’s second attempt for the speed record. At the National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio, on 5 September, official timers clocked the wrong airplane, and then on a repeat pass, a timing camera jammed. During that attempt, Major Johnson flew under a light airplane which had wandered onto the course, missing it by about ten feet (3 meters).

Major Richard L Johnson, USAF with F-86A-1-NA 47-611 and others at Muroc AFB, 15 September 1948. Note the gun port doors on this early production aircraft. They opened in 1/20 second as the trigger was pressed. Proper adjustment was complex and they were soon eliminated. (Image from F-86 SABRE, by Maurice Allward, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1978, Chapter 3 at Page 24.)
Major Richard L. Johnson, USAF with F-86A-1-NA Sabre 47-611 and others at Muroc AFB, 15 September 1948. Note the gun port doors on this early production aircraft. They opened in 1/20 second as the trigger was pressed. Proper adjustment was complex and they were soon eliminated. (Image from F-86 Sabre, by Maurice Allward, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1978, Chapter 3 at Page 24.)
The De la Vaulx Medal.

Major Johnson was awarded the De la Vaulx Medal by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

North American Aviation claimed that any F-86 coming off the assembly line could beat this world record speed. This record stood until 1952 when it was broken by an F-86D Sabre.

The Associated Press reported:

Air Force Tells Of New Speed

     NEW YORK(AP) — The Air Force announced Saturday a new world speed record of 670.981 miles an hour, made with a fully armed standard jet fighter, the North American F-86.

     The mark was set Wednesday. It is 20 miles an hour faster than the record set in August, 1947, by a Navy research plane, the Douglas D-558.

     It was the first world speed mark in history for a production model aircraft ready to fight.

     The pilot was Maj. Richard L. Johnson, slender quiet-spoken test flier for the Air Material Command at Wright-Patterson Airbase near Dayton Ohio. He flew the course at Muroc Lake, Calif., where the record was raised three times last year.

     Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, Air Force chief of staff, announced the new mark at Mitchel Field, Long Island, where he participated in one of the numerous shows being held in observance of the first anniversary of the Air Force.

Eugene Register-Guard, Saturday, 18 September 1948, Page 1, Column 7.

Major Johnson had made a previous speed record attempt flying a different Sabre, but due to a technical problem with the timing equipment, that attempt was disqualified.

47-605 was the first production F-86A-1-NA Sabre. (U.S. Air Force)
F-86A-1-NA 47-605 was the first production Sabre. It first flew on 20 May 1948. (U.S. Air Force)

47-611 was from the first production block of thirty-three F-86A-1-NA Sabres (originally designated P-86A) and was built at North American Aviation’s Inglewood, California, plant. Its NAA serial number was 151-38438. The airplane was withdrawn from service 16 November 1955 and assigned as a ground trainer for the California Air National Guard at Van Nuys, California.

The F-86A was a single-seat, single-engine, swept-wing day fighter, powered by a turbojet engine. The airplane’s design team was headed by Edgar Schmued, who was also responsible for North American’s legendary P-51 Mustang of World War II.

The F-86A had the same dimensions as the prototype XP-86 which had first flown almost two years earlier. The F-86A was 37 feet, 6.6 inches (11.445 meters) long with a wingspan of 37 feet, 1.4 inches (11.313 meters) and overall height of 14 feet, 8.9 inches (4.493 meters). It had an empty weight of 10,093 pounds (4,578 kilograms) and the maximum takeoff weight was 15,876 pounds (7,201 kilograms).

North American Aviation F-86A-1-NA Sabre 47-605, the first production aircraft. (U.S. Air Force)
North American Aviation F-86A-1-NA Sabre 47-605, the first production aircraft. (U.S. Air Force)

The F-86 wings’ leading edges were swept to 35° and included leading edge slats, which automatically extended at low speed to provide an increase in lift.

The F-86A was initially powered by a General Electric TG-190A (J47-GE-1) turbojet engine. This was a major improvement over the Chevrolet-built J35-C-3 that had powered the prototype, and it produced almost 25% greater thrust. The J47-GE-1 was rated at 4,850 pounds of thrust (21.57 kilonewtons), or 5,820 pounds (25.89 kilonewtons) with water injection. The J47 was an axial-flow turbojet with a 12-stage compressor, eight combustion chambers, and single-stage turbine. The engine was 12 feet, 0.0 inches (3.658 meters) long, 3 feet, 3.0 inches (0.991 meters) in diameter and weighed 2,475 pounds (1,123 kilograms).

Early in F-86A production, the engine was standardized with the J47-GE-13, which was rated at 5,200 pounds of thrust (23.13 kilonewtons) and 6,000 pounds (26.69 kilonewtons) “wet.” The -13 had the same exterior dimensions as the -1 engine, but weighed 50 pounds (23 kilograms) more.

North American Aviation F-86-A-NA Sabre 47-630. (North American Aviation, Inc./Chicago Tribune)
North American Aviation F-86A-1-NA Sabre 47-630. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

The F-86A had a maximum speed of 679 miles per hour (1,093 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level, and 601 miles per hour (967 kilometers per hour) at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters). The service ceiling as 48,000 feet (14,630 meters) and it could climb to 40,000 feet (12,192 meters) in 10 minutes, 24 seconds. It had a range of 1,200 miles (1,931 kilometers).

This photograph of a Canadair CL-13 Sabre, a license-built F-86E, shows the firepower of the six .50-caliber machine guns placed close together in the airplane's nose. The smoke trails show the spin of the bullets caused by the gun barrels' rifling. (Royal Canadian Air Force)
This photograph of a Canadair CL-13 Sabre (a license-built F-86E) test-firing its guns shows the firepower of the six .50-caliber machine guns placed close together in the airplane’s nose. The smoke trails show the spin of the bullets caused by the gun barrels’ rifling. The total rate of fire is approximately 7,200 rounds per minute. (Royal Canadian Air Force)

Designed as a day fighter, the F-86 Sabre was armed with six air-cooled Browning AN-M3 .50-caliber aircraft machine guns with 267 rounds of ammunition per gun. These guns had a rate of fire of 1,200 rounds per minute. The F-86A-1-NA had electrically-actuated doors covering the gun ports to maintain the aerodynamically clean surface. Because of their complexity, these doors were deleted beginning with the F-86A-5-NA aircraft.

The fighter could also carry bombs or rockets.

In this photograph, the record-settining North American Aviation F-86A Sabre, 47-611, is seen suspended from a crane while it conducts armament tests. It has just launched a 5-inch High Velocity Aerial Rocket. (U.S. Air Force)

Richard Lowe Johnson ² was born at Cooperstown, North Dakota, 21 September 1917. He was the eighth of nine children of Swedish immigrants, John N. Johnson, a farmer, and Elna Kristina Helgesten Johnson, a seamstress.

Richard Johnson, 1940. (The Beaver)

Dick Johnson attended Oregon State College at Corvallis, Oregon, as a member of the Class of 1943. He was a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (ΣΑΕ) fraternity.

Dick Johnson was a pitcher for the college baseball team, and later, played for the Boston Red Sox “farm” (minor league) system.

On 18 June 1942, Johnson enlisted as a private in the Air Corps, United States Army. On 5 November, he was appointed an aviation cadet and assigned to flight training.

Aviation Cadet Johnson married Miss Juanita Blanche Carter, 17 April 1943, at Ocala, Florida. The civil ceremony was officiated by Judge D. R. Smith.

After completing  flight training, on 1 October 1943, Richard L. Johnson was commissioned as a second lieutenant, Army of the United States (A.U.S.).

Lieutenant Johnson was assigned to the 66th Fighter Squadron, 57th Fighter Group, Twelfth Air Force, in North Africa, Corsica, and Italy, flying the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. He was promoted to first lieutenant, A.U.S., 9 August 1944, and just over three months later, 26 November 1944, to the rank of captain, A.U.S. On 14 May 1945, Captain Johnson was promoted to the rank of major, A.U.S. (Major Johnson was assigned a permanent rank of first lieutenant, Air Corps, United States Army, on 5 July 1946, with a date of rank retroactive to 21 September 1945.)

Republic P-47D-25-RE Thunderbolt 42-26421, assigned to the 66th Fighter Squadron, 57th Fighter group, Twelfth Air Force. This airplane was purchased by the employees of Republic Aviation. (American Air Museum in Britain UPL 25505)

During World War II, Major Johnson flew 180 combat missions with the 66th Fighter Squadron. He is officially credited with one air-to-air victory, 1 July 1944. Johnson was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters (3 awards), and the Air Medal with twelve oak leaf clusters (thirteen awards).

In 1946, was assigned to the Air Materiel Command Engineering Test Pilot School at the Army Air Forces Technical Base, Dayton, Ohio (Wright-Patterson Air Force Base). He was the second U.S. Air Force pilot to be publicly acknowledged for breaking the “sound barrier.”

A few weeks after arriving at Dayton, Major Johnson met Miss Alvina Conway Huester, the daughter of an officer in the U.S. Navy. Dick Johnson and his wife Juanita were divorced 8 January 1947, and he married Miss Huester in a ceremony in Henry County, Indiana, 10 January 1947. They would have three children, Kristie, Lisa and Richard.

During the Korean War, Major Johnson was sent to the war zone to supervise field installations of improvements to the F-86 Sabre. He was “caught” flying “unauthorized” combat missions and was sent home.

Lieutenant Colonel Johnson resigned from the Air Force in 1953 to become the Chief Test Pilot for the Convair Division of General Dynamics. He made the first flights of the YF-102 on 24 October 1953, the F-106A Delta Dart, 26 December 1956. He made the first flight of the F-111 on 21 December 1964.

Chief Test Pilot Dick Johnson in the cockpit of a Convair B-58A Hustler, a Mach 2 strategic bomber. (Courtesy if Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)

in 1955, Johnson was one of the six founding members of the Society of Experimental test Pilots.

Dick Johnson was Chief Engineering Test Pilot for the General Dynamics F-111 “Aardvark.” In 1967, the Society of Experimental Test Pilots awarded Johnson its Iven C. Kincheloe Award for his work on the F-111 program. In 1977, Dick Johnson, now the Director of Flight and Quality Assurance at General Dynamics, retired.

In 1998, Dick Johnson was inducted into the Aerospace Walk of Honor at Lancaster, California. His commemorative monument is located in front of the Lancaster Public Library on W. Lancaster Boulevard, just West of Cedar Avenue. ³

Lieutenant Colonel Richard Lowe Johnson, United States Air Force, (Retired), died 9 November 2002 at Fort Worth, Texas. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, on 7 January 2003.

Richard L. Johnson waves from the cockpit of the record-setting North American Aviation F-86A-1-NA Sabre, 47-611.

¹ FAI Record File Number 9866

² Several sources spell Johnson’s middle name as “Loe.”

³ Various Internet sources repeat the statement that “Richard Johnson has been honored with. . . the Thompson Trophy, Mackay Trophy, Flying Tiger Trophy, Federation Aeronautique Internationale Gold Medal and Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement. . . .” TDiA has checked the lists of awardees of each of the appropriate organizations and has not found any support for the statement.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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16 August 1948

Prototype Northrop XF-89, 46-678, parked on the dry lake bed at Muroc Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force)
Prototype Northrop XF-89, 46-678, parked on the dry lake bed at Muroc Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force)

16 August 1948: The prototype Northrop XF-89 all-weather interceptor, 46-678, made its first flight at Muroc Air Force Base (later, Edwards Air Force Base). Company test pilot Fred Charles Bretcher, Jr., was at the controls.

The Northrop XF-89 was a two-place, twin-engine, mid-wing monoplane with retractable tricycle landing gear, designed as an all-weather interceptor. The pilot and radar intercept officer sat in tandem in the pressurized cockpit. Similar to Northrop’s World War II-era P-61 Black Widow night fighter, the XF-89 was painted gloss black.

Northrop XF-89 prototype, 46-678, near Edwards Air Force Base, California. (U.S. Air Force)

The XF-89 was 50 feet, 6 inches (15.392 meters) long, with a wingspan of 52 feet, 0 inches (15.847 meters). The wing had a 1.5° angle of incident, and1° dihedral. The total wing area was 606.2 square feet (56.32 square meters). The prototype had an empty weight of 23,010 pounds (10,437 kilograms), gross weight of 31,000 pounds (14,061 kilograms), and maximum takeoff weight of 43,000 pounds (19,505 kilograms).

The XF-89 was powered by two Allison J35-A-9 single-spool, axial-flow turbojet engines. The J35 had an 11-stage compressor section and single-stage turbine. The J35-A-9 was rated at 3,750 pounds of thrust (16.68 kilonewtons). The engine was 12 feet, 1.0 inches (3.683 meters) long, 3 feet, 4.0 inches (1.016 meters) in diameter, and weighed 2,455 pounds (1,114 kilograms).

Northrop XF-89 46-678. (U.S. Air Force)
Northrop XF-89 46-678. (U.S. Air Force)

The prototype crashed during a demonstration flight, its 102nd, at Hawthorne Airport, 22 February 1950. Vibrations caused by the engines’ exhaust caused the tail to separate. The pilot, Charles Tucker, escaped, but flight test engineer Arthur Turton was killed.

The F-89 went into production as the F-89A Scorpion. 1,050 were produced in eight variants. The final series, F-89J, remained in service with the Air National Guard until 1969.

Northrop F-89J Scorpion 53-2509 (converted from F-89D-55-NO) at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. The interceptor is carrying two AIR-2 Genie rockets on its underwing pylons. (U.S. Air Force)

Fred Charles Bretcher, Jr., was born 22 September 1920, at Cincinnati, Ohio. He was the son of Fred Charles Bretcher, a pharmacist, and Frieda Juliana Emma Poggenbeck Bretcher. His father, Sergeant Bretcher (or Bretscher), had served in an ambulance company at Ypres and the Meuse-Argonne during World War I, and had been honorably discharged, 18 April 1919.

The younger Bretcher attended Western Hills High School in Cincinnati. He played with the golf team and worked on the school newspaper. Bretcher graduated in 1938. He then worked as a sales clerk while attending college.

Bretcher enlisted as an aviation cadet in the U.S. Army Air Corps at Fort Thomas, Kentucky, 29 May 1941. He was sent to the Southeast Air Corps Training Center, Maxwell Field, Alabama, as a member of Class 42A. He graduated 8 January 1942, and was released from his enlistment to accept a commission as a second lieutenant, effective 9 January 1942. Lieutenant Bretcher was then assigned to Wright Field, Ohio, as a trainee test pilot. While at Wright, he flew every aircraft in the Air Corps inventory.

Lieutenant Bretcher flew combat missions in the European Theater in the Curtiss-Wright P-40 Warhawk, Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and North American P-51 Mustang. Temporarily assigned to the Royal Air Force, he flew the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Tempest fighters and the Avro Lancaster long-range heavy bomber. While serving in Europe, Bretcher was promoted to the rank of captain.

Captain Bretcher returned to Wright Field in May 1944. Promoted to major, he was assigned as the Chief of the Bomber Test Section, working on the Boeing B-29 Superfortress and Consolidated B-32 Dominator heavy bomber projects.

Major Bretcher also flew at Muroc Army Airfield in California, testing the Bell YP-59 Airacomet, Lockheed YP-80A Shooting Star, and the experimental Northrop N-9M flying wing proof-of-concept airplane. Major Bretcher was released from active duty, 13 January 1946.

Fred Charles Bretcher, Jr.

Fred Bretscher went to work for the Northrop Corporation, Hawthorne, California, as a civilian test pilot. He flew as co-pilot to Chief Test Pilot Max R. Stanley on the first flight of the Northrop YB-35, 15 May 1948.

In 1950, Bretcher was assigned to the flight test program of Northrop’s N-25 Snark cruise missile (which would be developed into the SM-62 Snark) at Holloman Air Force Base, near Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Bretcher married Miss Jean Taylor at Albuquerque, New Mexico, 18 December 1951. He retired from the Northrop Corporation in 1952.

Fred Charles Bretcher, Jr., died at Sedona, Arizona, 2 June 2004. He was 83 years old.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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