26 April 1948: At Muroc Field (now known as Edwards Air Force Base), in the high desert of southern California, North American Aviation test pilot George Welch put the prototype XP-86 Sabre, 45-59597, into a 40° dive and broke the Sound Barrier. It is only the second U.S. aircraft to fly supersonic. The first was the Bell X-1, piloted by Chuck Yeager, only a few months earlier.
Or, maybe not.
In his book, Aces Wild: The Race For Mach 1, fellow North American Aviation test pilot Albert W. Blackburn makes the case that George Welch had taken the prototype XP-86 Sabre supersonic on its first flight, 1 October 1947, and that he had done so three times before Chuck Yeager first broke the Sound Barrier with the Bell X-1 rocketplane, 14 October 1947. Blackburn described two runs through the NACA radar theodolite with speeds of Mach 1.02 and 1.04 on 13 November 1947.
Mr. Blackburn speculates—convincingly, in my opinion—that Secretary of the Air Force W. Stuart Symington, Jr., ordered that Welch’s excursions beyond Mach 1 were to remain secret. However, during a radio interview, British test pilot Wing Commander Roland Prosper (“Bee”) Beamont, C.B.E, D.S.O. and Bar, D.F.C. and Bar, stated that he had flown through the Sound Barrier in the number two XP-86 Sabre prototype (45-59598). Once that news became public, the U.S. Air Force released a statement that George Welch had flown beyond Mach 1 earlier, but gave the date as 26 April 1948.
It wasn’t long after the first flight of the XP-86 on October 1, 1947, that Welch dropped into Horkey’s[Edward J. Horkey, an aerodynamicist at North American Aviation]office at the Inglewood plant. He wanted to talk about his recent flight and some “funny” readings in the airspeed indicator. He had made a straight-out climb to more than 35,000 feet. Then, turning back toward Muroc Dry Lake, he began a full-power, fairly steep descent.
“I started at about 290 knots,” Welch was explaining to Horkey. “In no time I’m at 350. I’m still going down, and I’m still accelerating but the airspeed indicator seems stuck like there’s some kind of obstruction in the pitot tube. I push over a little steeper and by this time I’m through 30,000 feet. All of a sudden, the airspeed indicator flips to 410 knots. The aircraft feels fine, no funny noises, no vibration. Wanted to roll off to the left, but no big deal. Still, I leveled out at about 25,000 and came back on the power. The airspeed flicked back to 390. What do you think?”
“. . . You may be running into some Mach effects. . . .”
— Aces Wild: The Race For Mach 1, by Al Blackburn, Scholarly Resources Inc., Wilmington, Delaware, 1999, at Pages 147–148.
The “funny” reading of the airspeed indicator became known as the “Mach jump.” George Welch was the first to describe it.
The Sabre became a legendary jet fighter during the Korean War. 9,860 were built by North American, as well as by licensees in Canada, Australia and Japan.
George Welch had been recommended for the Medal of Honor for his actions as a P-40 Warhawk fighter pilot in Hawaii, December 7, 1941. He was killed while testing a North American Aviation F-100A Super Sabre, 12 October 1954.
3 April 1926: Virgil Ivan Grissom was born at Mitchell, Indiana, the second of five children of Dennis David Grissom, an electrician, and Cecil King Grissom. “Gus” Grissom attended Mitchell High School, graduating in 1944. He was a member of the Hi-Y Club, the Camera Club, and the Signal Club.
Upon graduation from high school. Virgil I. Grissom enlisted as an aviation cadet in the Air Corps, United States Army, at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Lawrence, Indiana, 9 August 1944. He was assigned to basic flight training at Sheppard Field, Texas, but the War came to an end before he could graduate as a pilot. Then reassigned as a clerk, he requested to be discharged from the Air Corps, which he was in November 1945.
Grissom married Miss Betty Lavonne Moore at Mitchell, Indiana, 6 July 1945. They wood have two sons, Scott and Mark. (In Korea, Grissom named his F-86 Scotty after his first son.)
After the war, Grissom enrolled at Purdue University, Lafayette, Indiana, and in 1950, graduated with the degree of Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering.
He then re-joined the U.S. Air Force in 1950 and was trained at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, and Williams Air Base, Arizona, where he specialized as a fighter pilot. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant, U.S. Air Force, in March 1952.
Lieutenant Grissom was assigned to he 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, based at Kenpo Air Base (K-14), in the Republic of South Korea. He flew 100 combat missions in the North American Aviation F-86 Sabre. Grissom was promoted to first lieutenant, 11 March 1952. he requested to fly another 25 combat missions, but that was declined and he returned to the United States. Lieutenant Grissom was then assigned as a flight instructor at Bryan Air Force Base, Texas.
Grissom attended a one year program at the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio, and earned a second bachelor’s degree in aircraft engineering. He was then sent to the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California (Class 56D). After completion, he was assigned as a fighter test pilot back at Wright-Patterson.
One of 508 pilots who were considered by NASA for Project Mercury, Gus Grissom was in the group of 110 that were asked to attend secret meetings for further evaluation. From that group, 32 went on with the selection process and finally 18 were recommended for the program. Grissom was one of the seven selected.
Major Grissom was the second American to “ride the rocket” aboard Mercury-Redstone 4. He named his space capsule Liberty Bell 7. The spacecraft reached a maximum altitude of 102.8 nautical miles (118.3 statute miles, 190.4 kilometers) and traveled 262.5 nautical miles (302.1 statute miles, 486.2 kilometers) down range. During the 15 minute, 37 second, flight, Grissom was weightless for 5:00 minutes.
Next he orbited Earth as commander of Gemini III along with fellow astronaut John Young. He was back-up commander for Gemini VI-A, then went on to the Apollo Program.
Gus Grissom was selected as the commander for Apollo I in January 1968. This was to be the first manned flight of the Apollo spacecraft. Ed White and Roger Chaffee were the other members of the flight crew.
As commander of AS-204 (Apollo I), LCOL Virgil I. Grissom, USAF was killed along with Ed White and Roger Chafee during a test on the launchpad, 27 January 1967.
Gus Grissom was an Air Force Command Astronaut with over 4,600 hours flight time. He was the first American astronaut to fly into space twice, and logged 5 hours, 7 minutes of space flight. For his military service, Grissom was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross; the Air Medal with one bronze oak leaf cluster (two awards); the American Campaign medal; the World War II Victory Medal; teh Korean Service Medal; the United Nations Korea medal, and the Korean War Service Medal of the Republic of South Korea. For his NASA service, he was awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor (posthumous); the NASA Distinguished Service Medal (two awards); and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal.
Had he lived, it is very possible that Grissom would have commanded the first Apollo mission to land on The Moon.
The remains of Lieutenant Colonel Virgil Ivan Grissom, United States Air Force, NASA Astronaut, are buried at the Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.
20 January 1930: Colonel Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., Sc.D., United States Air Force (Retired), was born at Glen Ridge, New Jersey, the second child of Edwin Eugene Aldrin, Aviation Director of Standard Oil of New Jersey, and Marion Gaddys Moon Aldrin.
The family resided in Montclair, New Jersey. “Buzz” Aldrin attended Montclair High School, and participated in football and track and field (pole vault). He graduated in 1947.
After high school, Aldrin turned down a full scholarship to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) and instead went to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. During his Plebe Year (freshman), he placed first in academics and physical education. He was a member of the French Club, and the track and swim team. In his third year, he was a cadet corporal, and was designated as “distinguished.” He served as a cadet lieutenant during his final year.
Aldrin graduated 5 June 1951with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mechanical Engineering (B.S.M.E.). He was ranked third in his class. A notation in the class yearbook states,
“As is evidenced by his fine record at the Academy, Buzz should make a capable, dependable and efficient officer in the U.S. Air Force.”
—The Howitzer 1951, at Page 98
He accepted a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force with the date of rank retroactive to 1 June 1951. Second Lieutenant Aldrin was assigned to basic flight training at Bartow Air Force Base, Florida. Advanced training took place at Bryan Air Force Base, Texas. He trained as a fighter pilot and transitioned to the North American Aviation F-86 Sabre at Nellis Air Force Base, near Las Vegas, Nevada.
Lieutenant Aldrin flew the North American Aviation F-86E Sabre with the 16th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, located at Suwon Air Base (K-13). He shot down an enemy Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG 15 fighter, 14 May 1953, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.¹ Three weeks later, 7 June, he shot down a second MiG 15.
Buzz Aldrin flew 66 combat missions during the Korean War. After returning to the United States, he served as a flight instructor at Bryan AFB, Texas, and then a gunnery instructor at Nellis AFB, Nevada.
1st Lieutenant Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., married Miss Joan Ann Archer at the Episcopal Church in Ho-ho-kus, New Jersey, 29 December 1954. They would have three children.
Lieutenant Aldrin’s next assignment was to the three-month Squadron officer School at Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama. Aldrin then served as an aide to Brigadier General Don Zabriskie Zimmerman, Dean of Faculty at the newly-established United States Air Force Academy, which was then located at Lowry Air Force Base, Denver, Colorado.
In 1955, Captain Aldrin was assigned to the 22nd Fighter Day Squadron, 36th Fighter Day Wing, at Bitberg Air Base, Germany, flying the North American Aviation F-100 Super Sabre. The squadron trained at Wheelus Air Base in North Africa.
In 1959 Captain Aldrin returned to the United States to enter a masters degree program in Aeronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), Cambridge, Massachusetts. Aldrin and his wife were both very seriously ill at this time, and he was in a military hospital for the first six months. With nothing to do but study, he finished first among the other Air Force officers in the program.
Aldrin remained at M.I.T. to earn a Doctorate in Science in Astronautics (Sc.D.) by devising orbital navigation techniques. His thesis on Manned Orbital Rendezvous, earned Buzz another nickname: “Dr. Rendezvous.”
In October 1963, Major Aldrin was selected as an astronaut for the Gemini Program. He was one of 14 members of NASA Astronaut Group 3, which was announced 18 October 1963. He flew with James A. Lovell, Jr., aboard Gemini XII, 11–15 November 1966. They made 59 orbits of the Earth in 3 days, 22 hours, 34 minutes, 31 seconds. Aldrin performed the first successful “space walk.” He was outside the spacecraft for three “EVAs,” of 2 hours, 29 minutes; 2 hours, 6 minutes; and 55 minutes.He then went on to the Apollo Program. A rendezvous and docking with an Agena target vehicle was also successful.
Gemini XII was the final manned flight of the Gemini Program. Buzz Aldrin moved on to the Apollo Program.
Along with Neil Alden Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon, 20 July 1969.
Aldrin resigned from NASA in July 1971. Returning to operational service with the Air Force, Colonel Aldrin was assigned as Commandant of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California. He retired in March 1972.
In Return To Earth, (Random House, Inc., New York, 1973) Buzz Aldrin wrote about the depression he suffered: After you’ve been to the Moon, what else is there?
Aldrin has been married three times. He and his first wife, Joan, divorced in December 1974. He married Mrs. Beverly I. Handelsman Van Zile, 19 December 1975. They divorced 10 April 1978. On Valentine’s Day, 14 February 1988, Aldrin married his third wife, Mrs. Lois Driggs Cannon. They divorced 28 December 2012.
Buzz Aldrin has written several books and he continues to advocate manned space exploration.
HAPPY 88th BIRTHDAY, Colonel Aldrin!
¹ Soviet records indicate that a MiG 15 of 913 IAP (Istrebitel’nyy Aviatsionnyy Polk, Fighter Aviation Regiment), 32nd IAD (Istrebitel’naya Aviatsionnyy Diveeziya, Fighter Aviation Division), based at Antung Air Base, China, was shot down by an F-86 on 13 May 1953. The pilot, Senior Lieutenant Hristoforov, ejected safely. There were three MiG 15 losses that occurred on 14 May 1953. Two MiGs of 224 IAP collided and both pilots, Senior Lieutenant Odintsov and Lieutenant Evgeny Stroliikov, ejected. Odintsov was seriously hurt. A third MiG 15 crash landed at Myagoy Air Base. Its pilot, Senior Lieutenant Vladimir Sedashev, 518 IAP, was killed.
13 December 1951: Major George Andrew Davis, Jr., United States Air Force, commanding officer of the 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, flying a North American F-86E-10-NA Sabre, serial number 51-2752, led his unit on two “MiG Sweeps.”
During the mid-day fighter sweep, the 334th encountered Mikoyan Gurevich MiG 15 fighters of the 18th GIAP, 303rd IAD, Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily (the Soviet Air Force), and an air battle ensued. Major Davis was credited with shooting down two of the Russian fighters. The pilot of one of the MiGs, I.A. Gorsky, was killed. The identity and fate of the second Soviet pilot is not known.
During a second sweep in mid-afternoon, George Davis and the 334th again encountered enemy MiG 15s of the 40th Regiment, 14th Division, of the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (Chinese Air Force). At 3:52 p.m. (1352) Davis shot down one of the Chinese MiG 15s. One minute later, he shot down another, his fourth aerial victory for the day.
These frames of film from the gun camera of Davis’ F-86 Sabre show a MiG 15 trailing smoke after being hit by the Sabre’s six .50-caliber machine guns. Chinese sources confirmed the loss of two MiG 15s, but again, the identities of the pilots and whether or not they survived is not known.
30 November 1951: Major George Andrew Davis, Jr., commanding the 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, based at Kimpo Air Base, South Korea, led a patrol of eight North American Aviation F-86 Sabre fighters near the Yalu River, dividing Korea from China. This area was known as “MiG Alley” because of the large numbers of Russian-built Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 fighters which were based on the Chinese side of the river.
At about 4:00 p.m., the American pilots saw a group of nine Russian Tupolev Tu-2 twin-engine medium bombers, escorted by 16 Lavochkin La-11 fighters. The bombers were on a mission to attack Taewa-do Island.
Davis led his fighters in an attack, making four firing passes on the bombers. He shot down three of the Tu-2s, when one of his pilots, Captain Raymond O. Barton, Jr., called for help. Barton’s Sabre, F-86A-5-NA 49-292, was under attack by 24 MiG-15s which had arrived to reinforce the bombing mission. Barton later described the battle:
“. . . I broke left again and was going to make another pass when I checked my ‘six o’clock’ to clear for my wingman. All of the sudden the SOB started shooting at me, and only then did I realize that I had attracted far more than one MiG. I turned into them. . . I called for help, and the only response I got was from my roommate, Major George Davis. I’ll never forget his reply. ‘I don’t have enough fuel left either but I’m on the way.’ All the MiGs except one had left the area. I had a huge hole where my left fuel cap had been, but I was still flying. When George reached me, he asked me to make a couple of identifying turn reversals. I reluctantly did and he shot that SOB right off my butt.“
—F-86 Sabre Aces of the 4th Fighter Wing, by Warren Thompson, Osprey Publishing Ltd., Oxford, 2006, Chapter 2 at Page 32.
Major Davis escorted Captain Barton back to their base, landing with just five gallons of fuel remaining in his tanks.
For his actions, Major George A. Davis, Jr., was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Having shot down four enemy aircraft during one fighter patrol, Davis’ score of aerial victories during his short time in Korea rose to six, making him an ace for the Korean War. Davis had previously shot down seven enemy airplanes during World War II with his Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. Davis was the first American pilot to become an ace in two wars.
George Davis would soon be credited with another eight victories, making him the leading American ace up to that time. He was killed in action 10 February 1952 in an air battle for which he would be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Raymond Oscar (“R.O.”) Barton, Jr., was born at Omaha, Nebraska, 8 March 1927. he was the son of Major General Raymond O. Barton and Clare Fitzpatrick Barton. He was a 1948 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Barton flew 100 combat missions during the Korean War. He is credited with three MiG 15s destroyed and another 7 damaged. R.O. Barton died at Augusta, Georgia, in 2003.