14 August 1979: Air racer Steve Hinton set a new Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) speed record for piston engine, propeller-driven airplanes when he flew his highly-modified North American Aviation P-51 Mustang, Red Baron, to an average 803.138 kilometers per hour (499.047 miles per hour) over a 3 kilometer course at Tonapah, Nevada.¹
Steve Hinton’s Mustang was a Dallas, Texas-built North American Aviation P-51D-25-NT, serial number 44-84961. His company, Fighter Rebuilders, modified the airplane for racing. The most noticeable change is the substitution of the standard Packard V-1650-7 Merlin V-12 engine and its four-bladed propeller with a larger, more powerful, 2,239.33-cubic-inch-displacement (36.695 liter) liquid-cooled, supercharged Rolls-Royce Griffon 57 single overhead cam (SOHC) 60° V-12 engine and dual, three-bladed, counter-rotating propellers from an Avro Shackleton bomber. A revised engine cowling gave Red Baron an appearance similar to the Allison-powered XP-51.
Red Baron crashed 16 September 1979 when an oil pump failure caused the propeller blades to move to flat pitch, dramatically increasing aerodynamic drag. Hinton suffered serious injuries but survived.
3 August 1962: Following his record-setting flight into space aboard an X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane, 17 July 1962, Major Robert M. White, U.S. Air Force, was featured with a cover photograph on the LIFE Magazine issue for the week of 3 August 1962. LIFE was the most prestigious news magazine of its time.
This was the first time that a manned aircraft had gone higher than 300,000 feet (91,440 meters). It was also the first flight above 50 miles (80.47 kilometers). For that achievement, Bob White became the first X-15 pilot to be awarded U.S. Air Force astronaut wings. His 314,750-foot altitude (95,936 meters) also established a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world altitude record, which will probably never be broken.
To qualify, a new record would have to exceed White’s altitude by at least 3%, or more than 324,419 feet (98,882.9 meters). As the FAI-recognized boundary of Space is the Kármán line (100 kilometers, or 328,083.99 feet), any prospective challenger would have to hit a very narrow band of the atmosphere.
Major White had been the first pilot to fly faster than Mach 4, Mach 5 and Mach 6. He was the first to fly over 200,000 feet (60,960 meters), then over 300,000 feet (91,440 meters). He was a graduate of the Air Force Experimental Test Pilot School and flew tests of many aircraft at Edwards before entering the X-15 program. He made at total of sixteen X-15 flights.
A P-51 Mustang fighter pilot in World War II, Bob White was shot down on his 52nd combat mission in February 1945 and captured. He was held as a prisoner of war until the war in Europe came to an end in April 1945. White was recalled to active duty during the Korean War and was assigned to a fighter squadron stationed in Japan. Later, he flew 70 combat missions over North Vietnam in the Republic F-105 Thunderchief supersonic fighter bomber, including leading the attack against the Paul Doumer Bridge at Hanoi, 11 August 1967, for which he was awarded the Air Force Cross.
Colonel White next went to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, where he was director of the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle systems program. He then returned to Edwards Air Force Base, California, as commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center. White was promoted to Major General in 1975.
General White retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1981. He died 17 March 2010.
28 June 1940: A ¼–scale mahogany model of the North American Aviation NA-73X, prototype of the Royal Air Force Mustang Mk.1, was tested in the Ten-Foot Wind Tunnel at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT) in Pasadena, California, from 28 June to 26 July 1940.
The Ten-Foot Tunnel was funded by a $300,000 grant from the Daniel Guggenheim Foundation. Construction of the Laboratory began in 1927 and the wind tunnel became operational in November 1929. A 15 foot (4.572 meter) diameter fan was capable of producing air speeds up to 200 miles per hour (322 kilometers per hour). The first complete scale model airplane to be tested was the Northrop Alpha.
Airships, airplanes, and structures (bridges, buildings) were tested in the tunnel. According to Caltech, the Douglas Aircraft Company used the facility more than any other manufacturer.
During World War II, a staff of sixty worked three shifts, seven days a week. A technician who worked there later said, “We had a tighter schedule than the tightest schedule anyone ever had.”
The wind tunnel’s test equipment was damaged by the Whittier Narrows Earthquake. It was closed in 1997 to be replaced by a new facility.
3 April 1941: North American Aviation test pilot Robert Creed Chilton takes his first flight—a one hour familiarization—in the company’s prototype of a new fighter for the Royal Air Force, the NA-73X, NX19998, at Mines Field. (Mines would later become Los Angeles International Airport, LAX.)
The airplane had first been flown by free-lance test pilot Vance Breese, 26 October 1940, and he had flown it several times. North American’s Chief Test Pilot, Paul Baird Balfour, on his first flight in NX19998, ran out of fuel and crash landed in a plowed field 150 yards (137 meters) west of the airfield, 20 November 1940. The prototype had flown just 3 hours, 20 minutes.
The NA-73X was repaired and Bob Chilton was assigned to complete the testing program. The airplane would become the legendary P-51 Mustang, and Chilton would continue to conduct the majority of flight testing on its improvements and modifications.
Robert Creed Chilton was born 6 February 1912 at Eugene, Oregon, the third of five children of Leo Wesley Chilton, a physician, and Edith Gertrude Gray. He attended Boise High School in Idaho, graduating in 1931. Chilton participated in football, track and basketball, and also competed in the state music contest. After high school, Chilton attended the University of Oregon where he was a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity (ΣΧ). He was also a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC).
Bob Chilton enlisted as an Aviation Cadet in the U.S. Army Air Corps, 25 June 1937. He was trained as a fighter pilot at Randolph Field and Kelly Field in Texas, and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1938. Lieutenant Chilton was assigned to fly the Curtiss P-36 Hawk with the 79th Pursuit Squadron, 20th Pursuit Group, at Barksdale Field, Louisiana. Because of a medical condition, he was released from active duty, 1 April 1939.
At some time prior to 1940, Bob Chilton, married his first wife, Catherine. They lived in Santa Maria, California, where he worked as a pilot at the local airport.
In January 1941, Chilton went to work as a production test pilot for North American Aviation, Inc., Inglewood, California. After just a few months, he was assigned to the NA-73X.
Chilton married his second wife, Betty W. Shoemaker, 15 November 1951.
On 10 April 1952, Bob Chilton returned to active duty with the U.S. Air Force, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He served as Chief of the Repulic F-84 and F-105 Weapons System Project Office, Air Material Command, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio, until 9 March 1957.
From 1958, Chilton was a vice president for Horkey-Moore Associates, an engineering research and development company in Torrance, California, founded by former North American aerodynamacist Edward J. Horkey. In 1961, he followed Horkey to the Space Equipment Corporation, parent company of Thompson Industries and Kerr Products, also located in Torrance. Chilton served as corporate secretary and contracts administrator.
Chilton married his third wife, Wilhelmina E. Redding (Billie E. Johnson) at Los Angeles, 26 July 1964. They divorced in 1972.
In 1965, Bob Chilton returned to North American Aviation as a flight test program manager. He retired in 1977.
Robert Creed Chilton died at Eugene, Oregon, 31 December 1994, at the age of 82 years.
20 November 1940: North American Aviation’s Chief Test Pilot, Paul Baird Balfour, made his first flight in the NA-73X, NX19998, prototype for a Royal Air Force fighter, the Mustang Mk.I.
Vance Breese was the free-lance test pilot who made the first seven flights in the new airplane. Breese claimed to have made a bet with North American executives that Balfour would crash the prototype on his first flight.
This flight was scheduled to be a high speed test. Edgar Schmued, the designer, offered to show Balfour around the airplane. “Before this flight, I asked Balfour to get into the airplane and go through the routine of a takeoff and flight. He responded that one airplane is like another and he would not need the routine checkout.”
The ground crew started the NA-73X’s 1,150 horsepower Allison V-1710-39 liquid-cooled V-12 engine at 5:40 a.m. and let it warm up to normal operating temperature. When it was restarted just prior to Paul Balfour’s flight, “it was a little hard to start,” according to Olaf Anderson, the airplane’s mechanic.
Balfour took off from Mines Field at about 7:10 a.m. After about twelve minutes of flight, the Allison stopped running. Balfour was too far from Mines Field to make it back to the runway. He landed in a plowed field west of Lincoln Boulevard. When the tires hit the soft surface, the prototype flipped over. Balfour was not hurt and was able to crawl out of the upside-down wreck.
The Civil Aeronautics Board report described the damage as “engine housing broken, both wingtips damaged, tail surfaces damaged, top of fuselage damaged, and other miscellaneous damage.” The NA-73X had accumulated just 3 hours, 20 minutes of flight.
Vance Breese won his bet.
According to the C.A.B. investigation, the engine had stopped due to fuel starvation when Balfour neglected to select another tank.
The prototype was taken back to the factory and rebuilt. It would become the famous Mustang, one of the most significant aircraft of World War II.
Robert C. Chilton was hired as the new Chief Test Pilot. He would continue testing the Mustang developments throughout the war. Chilton made his first flight in NA-73X on 3 April 1941.
Paul Balfour continued to work for North American Aviation, testing the NA-40 and NA-40B prototypes and the B-25 Mitchell medium bomber. He later served in the United States Air Force.
Paul Baird Balfour was born 5 July 1908 in Washington State. He was the son of Fred Patrick Balfour and Edna May Baird Balfour. Balfour attended two years of college.
Paul Balfour entered the U.S. Army Air Corps (prior to 1930). He was stationed at Rockwell Field, San Diego, California.
Balfour married Martha Lillette Cushman of Coronado, California, at Yuma, Arizona, 6 June 1930.
Balfour began working as a test pilot for North American Aviation, Inc., 1 March 1936.
On 2 July 1938, he married Lois Tresa Watchman at Kingman, Arizona. They would have two children.
On 9 November 1951, Major Paul B. Balfour, U.S. Air Force, attached to the 1002nd Inspector General Group at Norton Air Force Base, California, was flying a North American VB-25J, 44-30955, a transport conversion of a B-25J-30-NC Mitchell medium bomber.
Shortly after takeoff, at about 10:00 a.m., the airplane developed engine trouble. Unable to return to Norton, Balfour attempted a belly landing at a small private airfield. Witness saw that the airplane’s left engine was idling, and its propeller was feathered. As he approached, the airplane was blocked by a windbreak of eucalyptus trees bordering U.S. Route 66. Balfour banked away from the trees but the B-25 crashed in an orange grove along Bloomington Avenue in Rialto, approximately 7 miles (11 kilometers) north of Norton.
Balfour, still buckled in his seat, was thrown clear of the burning wreck and landed in the street. One man on board was killed and two others seriously injured. Balfour died in a hospital three hours later. He was 41 years old. Major Balfour was buried at the Inglewood Park Cemetery, Inglewood, California.