Tag Archives: Test Pilot

8 August 1946

Convair XB-36 Peacemaker 42-13570 engine run-up
The prototype Consolidated-Vultee XB-36, 42-13570, stands at the end of the runway with all six engines running. (U.S. Air Force)

8 August 1946: At Fort Worth, Texas, the Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft Corporation XB-36 prototype, 42-13570, made its first flight. Convair test pilots Beryl Arthur Erickson and G.S. “Gus” Green, along with Chief Flight Test Engineer James D. “J.D.” McEachern, were in the cockpit. Six other crew members were aboard.

Chief Test Pilot Beryl Arthur Erickson. (Convair)

In a 1992 interview published in Code One Magazine, Erickson said that he and his crew had been ready to take off at 5 a.m., but they didn’t get their release until noon. The Texas summer temperature was 100 degrees (37.8 °C.), but inside the cockpit, the temperature was 140° F. (60 °C.) The engines were overheating and the oil pressure was low. When they pushed the throttles forward, the XB-36 accelerated smoothly and lifted off at 110 knots (126.6 miles per hour, 203.7 kilometers per hour). The retired test pilot said, “The XB-36 controlled nicely in the takeoff run and in the transition to steady climb. We flew conservatively with the gear down. The flight was uneventful and lasted thirty-eight minutes.”

Chief Test Pilot Beryl Arthur Erickson at the aircraft commander’s station of the Consolidated-Vultee XB-36 long-range heavy bomber. (Code One).

The B-36 was the largest and heaviest airplane built up to that time. It was designed as a long-range heavy bomber, able to reach targets on the European continent from the United States and return, should England fall to Nazi Germany during World War II. With the end of the war, its purpose was changed to that of a long range strategic bomber, carrying large nuclear weapons that weren’t even imagined when the design process had begun.

A size comparison between the Convair XB-36 prototype and a Boeing B-29 Superfortress.
A size comparison between a Boeing B-29-55-BA Superfortress, 44-84017, and the Consolidated-Vultee XB-36 prototype, Carswell AFB, June 1948. (U.S. Air Force Historical Research Agency)

The XB-36 had a wing span of 230 feet (70.104 meters), nearly 90 feet longer than that of the B-29 Superfortress that it would replace. It was 162 feet, 1 inch (49.403 meters) long and 46 feet, 8 inches (14.224 meters) to the tip of the vertical fin. The prototype’s empty weight was 131,740 pounds (59,756 kilograms), and it had a maximum gross weight of 276,506 pounds (125,421 kilograms).

The XB-36 was powered by six air-cooled, supercharged, 4,362.49 cubic-inch-displacement (71.489 liter) Pratt & Whitney Wasp Major TSB1P-G (R-4360-25) 28-cylinder four-row radial engines, with a normal power rating of 2,500 horsepower at 2,550 r.p.m. to 5,000 feet (1,524 meters), and 3,000 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m. for takeoff. They were mounted inside the wings. The engines were arranged in a “pusher” configuration with intake and cooling air entering through inlets in the wing leading edge. They drove three-bladed propellers with a diameter of 19 feet (5.8 meters) through a 0.381:1 gear reduction. The R-4360-25 was 9 feet, 1.75 inches (2.788 meters) long 4 feet, 4.50 inches (1.334 meters) in diameter, and weighed 3,483 pounds (1,580 kilograms).

The airplane’s maximum speed was 346 miles per hour (557 kilometers per hour) and cruising speed was 216 miles per hour (348 kilometers per hour). It had an estimated range of 9,500 miles (15,290 kilometers) with a 10,000 pound (4,536 kilogram) bomb load.

The prototype Convair XB-36, 42-13570, lifts off the runway at Fort Worth, Texas. (U.S. Air Force)
The prototype Consolidated-Vultee XB-36, 42-13570, lifts off the runway at Fort Worth, Texas. (U.S. Air Force)

After testing, improvements were incorporated into the second prototype, YB-36 42-13571. In June 1948, the XB-36 was modified with R-4360-41 engines, and the main landing gear was changed from a single-wheel design to a 4-wheel bogie. With these and other changes the XB-36 was redesignated YB-36A. It was used for continued testing for the next several years, but was eventually stripped of its engines and equipment and used for firefighter training at the adjacent Carswell Air Force Base.

The YB-36 was selected for production as the B-36A Peacemaker. The B-36 series was produced in both bomber and reconnaissance versions and was in front line service from 1949 to 1959. Beginning with the B-36D, four turbojet engines were mounted beneath the wings in pods similar to those on the Boeing B-47 Stratojet, greatly increasing the bomber’s performance. A total of 384 were built. Only five still exist. The Peacemaker was never used in combat.

The Convair XB-36 in flight. (U.S. Air Force)
The Consolidated-Vultee XB-36 prototype, 42-13570, in flight. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2020, Bryan R. Swopes

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7 August 1963

The first Lockheed YF-12A interceptor, 60-6934, flown by James D. Eastham, lands at Groom Lake, Nevada, after its first flight, 7 August 1963. (U.S. Air Force)
James D. Eastham
James D. Eastham (1918–2016)

7 August 1963: The first Lockheed YF-12A interceptor, 60-6934, took off from a top secret air base at Groom Lake, Nevada, on its first flight. Lockheed test pilot James D. Eastham was at the controls.

Three YF-12A prototypes s were built. They were Mach 3+ interceptors developed from the Central Intelligence Agency “Oxcart” Lockheed A-12 reconnaissance airplane.

The interceptors were equipped with a very effective Hughes fire control system and armed with three Hughes AIM-47 Falcon air-to-air missiles. In 1965 the U.S. Air Force placed an order for 93 F-12B interceptors for the Air Defense Command, but Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara continually refused to release the funds which Congress had appropriated. Eventually the contract was cancelled.

In testing, a YF-12A launched a Falcon missile while flying at Mach 3.2 at 74,000 feet (22,555 meters). It successfully intercepted and destroyed a target drone flying at only 500 feet (152 meters).

Lockheed YF-12A 60-6934 at Groom Lake, Nevada. (Central Intelligence Agency)
Lockheed YF-12A 60-6934 at Groom Lake, Nevada. (Central Intelligence Agency)

On 1 May 1965, YF-12A 60-6936, flown by Colonel Robert L. Stephens and Lieutenant Colonel David Andre, set a world speed record of 2,070.101 miles per hour (3,331.505 kilometers per hour) and a sustained altitude record of 80,257.86 feet (22,677 meters).

Lockheed YF-12A 60-6934 in flight. (U.S. Air Force)
Lockheed YF-12A 60-6934 in flight. (U.S. Air Force)

60-6934 was damaged beyond repair in a runway accident at Edwards Air Force Base, 14 August 1966. Part of the airplane was salvaged and used to construct the only SR-71C, 64-17981, a two-seat trainer. The third YF-12A, 60-6936, was destroyed when the crew ejected during an inflight fire near Edwards AFB, 24 June 1971. The only remaining YF-12A, 60-6935, is in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.

Lockheed YF-12A 60-6934. (U.S. Air Force)
Lockheed YF-12A 60-6934. (U.S. Air Force)
Clarence L. (“Kelly”) Johnson, Director of Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects (“the Skunk Works”) with the first YF-12A interceptor, 60-6934. (Lockheed Martin)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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7 August 1951

William Barton Bridgeman. (Boris Artzybasheff/TIME Magazine)

7 August 1951: Douglas Aircraft Company test pilot William Barton Bridgeman flew the rocket-powered U.S. Navy/NACA/Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974 (NACA 144), to a record speed of Mach 1.88 (1,245 miles per hour/2,034 kilometers per hour) at Muroc Dry Lake (later Edwards Air Force Base) in the high desert of southern California.

The D-558-2 was airdropped at 34,000 feet (10,363 meters) from a Navy P2B-1S Superfortress, Bu. No. 84029 (a U.S. Air Force Boeing B-29-95-BW Superfortress, 45-21787, transferred to the Navy and heavily modified as a drop ship) flown by another Douglas test pilot, George Jansen.

Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, Bu. No., 37974, NACA 144, is dropped from the Boeing P2B-1S Superfortress, Bu. No. 84029, NACA 137. (NASA)

In his autobiography, Bridgeman described the flight:

We are at 34,000 feet. My cue. Ten cold minutes preparing the ship for flight. The trap door springs and releases the captive Skyrocket swollen with explosive propellants. She blasts into flight.

Thirty seconds and I am supersonic. Sixty-eight thousand feet and this is it. Over the rim. Easy. The electrically controlled stabilizer flies her now. It takes over for me. At .6 G I push over just enough to get my speed. I am on the ragged edge between .6 G and .8 G. It is working! Everything is going according to my plan. It is so easy this time. Surely I cannot be breaking my last record without having to pay for it. The Machmeter is moving up, fluttering toward the Number 2. . . the rockets sputter and the fuel is gone. That’s all she wrote.

Late that afternoon the official speed attained by the Skyrocket reduced from data and film came out  of the aerodynamicists’ office. Mach 1.88.

The Lonely Sky, William Bridgeman, Castle and Company LTD, London, 1956, Chapter XXII at Page 260.

NACA 144, a Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, Bu. No. 37974, parked on Muroc Dry Lake. (NACA E-1441)

Bill Bridgeman had been a Naval Aviator during World War II, flying the Consolidated PBY Catalina and PB4Y (B-24) Liberator long range bombers with Bombing Squadron 109 (VB-109), “The Reluctant Raiders.” Bridgeman stayed in the Navy for two years after the end of the war, then he flew for Trans-Pacific Air Lines in the Hawaiian Islands and Southwest Airlines in San Francisco, before joining the Douglas Aircraft Company as a production test pilot. He flew new AD Skyraiders as they came off the assembly line at El Segundo, California. Bridgeman soon was asked to take over test flying the D-558-2 Skyrocket test program at Muroc Air Force Base.

Screen Shot 2016-08-07 at 11.13.14

The D-558-II Skyrocket was Phase II of a planned three phase experimental flight program. It was designed to investigate flight in the transonic and supersonic range. It was 46 feet, 9 inches (14.249 meters) long with a 25 foot (7.62 meter) wing span. The wings were swept back to a 35° angle. The Skyrocket was powered by a Westinghouse J34-WE-40 11-stage axial-flow turbojet engine, producing 3,000 pounds of thrust, and a Reaction Motors LR8-RM-6 four-chamber rocket engine, which produced 6,000 pounds of thrust. The rocket engine burned alcohol and liquid oxygen.

There were three D-558-2 Skyrockets. Between 4 February 1948 and 28 August 1956, they made a total of 313 flights. The Skyrocket flown by Bill Bridgeman to Mach 1.88 is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum.

NACA 144, a Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, on display at the National Mall Building, Smithsonian Institution. (NASM)
NACA 144, a Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, on display at the National Mall Building, Smithsonian Institution. (NASM)

© 2020, Bryan R. Swopes

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6 August 1955

Looking out across the right wing of the Boeing 367–80, inverted, at the city of Seattle, 6 August 1955. (Bill Whitehead/Boeing)

6 August 1955: Boeing’s Chief of Flight Test, Alvin M. “Tex” Johnston, barrel-rolled the Model 367-80, prototype of the KC-135 Stratotanker and 707 Stratoliner, over Lake Washington.

Twice.

This photograph was taken by the flight test engineer, Bill Whitehead.

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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6 August 1945

Major Richard Ira Bong, United States Army Air Forces. (U.S. Air Force)

6 August 1945: After serving three combat tours flying the Lockheed P-38 Lightning in the Southwest Pacific, Major Richard Ira Bong, Air Corps, United States Army, was assigned as an Air Force acceptance test pilot for new Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star jet fighters at the Lockheed Air Terminal, Burbank, California.

The P-80A was a brand new jet fighter, and Major Bong had flown just 4 hours, 15 minutes in the type during 12 flights.

Shortly after takeoff in P-80A-1-LO 44-85048, the primary fuel pump for the turbojet engine failed. A back-up fuel pump was not turned on. The Shooting Star rolled upside down and Bong bailed out, but he was too low for his parachute to open and he was killed. The jet crashed at the intersection of Oxnard Street and Satsuma Avenue, North Hollywood, California, and exploded.

Site of the crash of Major Richard I. Bong’s Lockheed P-80A-1-LO fighter, 44-85048, at Oxnard Street and Satsuma Avenue, North Hollywood, California. (Contemporary news photograph)
This graphic appeared in the Los Angles Times, 7 August 1945, at Page 3. (Los Angeles Times)
General Douglas MacArthur with Major Richard I. Bong.
General Douglas MacArthur with Major Richard I. Bong.

Richard I. Bong was known as the “Ace of Aces” for scoring 40 aerial victories over Japanese airplanes between 27 December 1942 and 17 December 1944 while flying the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. He was awarded the Medal of Honor, which was presented by General Douglas MacArthur, 12 December 1944. [The following day, General MacArthur was promoted to General of the Army.]

The citation for Major Bong’s Medal of Honor reads: “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty in the Southwest Pacific area from 10 October to 15 November 1944. Though assigned to duty as gunnery instructor and neither required nor expected to perform combat duty, Major Bong voluntarily and at his own urgent request engaged in repeated combat missions, including unusually hazardous sorties over Balikpapan, Borneo, and in the Leyte area of the Philippines. His aggressiveness and daring resulted in his shooting down eight enemy airplanes during this period.”

General of the Army Henry H. (“Hap”) Arnold and Major Richard I. Bong, circa 1945.

The Lockheed P-80-1-LO was the United States’ first operational jet fighter. It was a single-seat, single-engine low-wing monoplane powered by a turbojet engine. The fighter was designed by a team of engineers led by Clarence L. (“Kelly”) Johnson. The prototype XP-80A, 44-83020, nicknamed Lulu-Belle, was first flown by test pilot Tony LeVier at Muroc Army Air Field (now known as Edwards Air Force Base), 8 January 1944.

Lockheed P-80A-1-LO shooting Star 44-85004, similar to the fighter being test flown by Richard I. Bong, 6 August 1945. (U.S. Air Force)

The P-80A was a day fighter, and was not equipped for night or all-weather combat operations. The P-80A was 34 feet, 6 inches (10.516 meters) long with a wingspan of 38 feet, 10.5037 inches (11.84919 meters) ¹ and overall height of 11 feet, 4 inches (3.454 meters).

The leading edges of the P-80A’s wings were swept aft 9° 18′ 33″. They had an angle of incidence of +1° at the root and -0° 30′ at the tip. There was 3° 50′ dihedral. The total wing area was 237.70 square feet (22.083 square meters).

The fighter had an empty weight of 7,920 pounds (3,592 kilograms) and a gross weight of 11,700 pounds (5,307 kilograms). The maximum takeoff weight was 14,000 pounds (6,350 kilograms).

Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star production, alongside P-38 Lightnings. (SDASM)

Early production P-80As were powered by either an Allison J33-A-9 or a General Electric J33-GE-11 turbojet engine. The J33 was a licensed version of the Rolls-Royce Derwent. It was a single-shaft turbojet with a 1-stage centrifugal compressor section and a 1-stage axial-flow turbine. The -9 and -11 engines were rated at 3,825 pounds of thrust (17.014 kilonewtons). The J33s were 8 feet, 6.9 inches (2.614 meters) long, 4 feet, 2.5 inches (1.283 meters) in diameter and weighed 1,775 pounds (805 kilograms).

The P-80A had a cruising speed of 445 miles per hour (716 kilometers per hour) at 20,000 feet (6,096 meters). Its maximum speed was 548 miles per hour (882 kilometers per hour) at 2,700 feet (823 meters) and and 501 miles per hour (806 kilometers per hour) at 34,700 feet (10,577 meters).² The service ceiling was 45,000 feet (13,716 meters).

Lockheed P-80A-1-LO Shooting Star 44-85155, similar to the jet fighter which Major Bong was flying, 6 August 1945. (U.S. Air Force)

The P-80A Shooting Star was armed with six air-cooled Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber aircraft machine guns mounted in the nose.

Dick Bong poses with “Marge,” his Lockheed P-38J Lightning. A large photograph of his fiancee, Miss Marjorie Vattendahl, is glued to the fighter’s nose.

¹ Wing span with rounded wing tips. P-80As with squared (“clipped”) tips had a wing span of 37 feet, 7.5037 inches (11.46819 meters).

² Several hundred of the early production P-80 Shooting stars had all of their surface seams filled, and the airplanes were primed and painted. Although this process added 60 pounds (27.2 kilograms) to the empty weight, the decrease in drag allowed a 10 mile per hour (16 kilometers per hour) increase in top speed. The painted surface was difficult to maintain in the field and the process was discontinued.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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