Tag Archives: Transcontinental Flight

26 January 1946

Colonel William H. Council, U.S. Army Air Corps, in teh cockpit of his record-setting Lockheed P-80A-1-LO Shooting Star. (San Diego Air and Space Museum)
Colonel William H. Councill, U.S. Army Air Forces, in the cockpit of his record-setting Lockheed P-80A-1-LO Shooting Star. (San Diego Air & Space Museum Archive)

26 January 1946: Colonel William Haldane Councill, U.S. Army Air Forces, a test pilot at the Flight Test Division, Wright Field, Ohio, made a record-breaking flight from Daugherty Field (Long Beach Airport), California, to overhead LaGuardia Airport, New York, in 4 hours, 13 minutes, 26 seconds. He was piloting a Lockheed P-80A-1-LO Shooting Star, serial number 44-85123. Colonel Councill flew  as high as 41,000 feet (12,497 meters), but stayed at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters) for most of the flight. This flight set a new transcontinental speed record for the 2,457 miles (3,954 kilometers), averaging 584.82 miles per hour (941.18 kilometers per hour).

John Paul Virgil Heinmuller (Smithsonian Institution)

The National Aeronautic Association representative, John P. V. Heinmuller, was the official timer. (Mr. Heinmuller was the Chief Timer of both the N.A.A. and the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. He was president of the Longines-Wittnauer Watch Co., inc. He had also timed Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight in 1927. Mr. Heinmuller was the author of Man’s Fight to Fly: Famous World-Record Flights and a Chronology of Aviation, 1944).

Colonel Councill was accompanied by two other P-80s flown by Captain John S. Babel and Captain Martin I. Smith. This was the longest non-stop flight by a jet aircraft up to that time.

Colonel Councill’s P-80A had been modified with the installation of a 100-gallon (379 liters) fuel tank in the nose in place of the standard armament of six machine guns. Along with 300-gallon (1,135 liters) wing tip tanks, the Shooting Star’s maximum fuel load had been increased to 1,165 gallons (4,410 liters).¹

The P-80s flown by Captains Babel and Smith also had the nose fuel tank installed, but carried 150-gallon (569 liters) wing tip tanks. They had to stop at Topeka, Kansas, to refuel. Ground crews met them with four fuel trucks, and they were airborne in 4 minutes and 6 minutes, respectively.

Colonel William H. Councill, U.S. Air force, waves from the cockpit of his record-setting Lockheed P-80A-1-LO Shooting Star, 44-85123. (AP Wirephoto, Oklahoma Historical Society)
Colonel William H. Councill, U.S. Air Force, waves from the cockpit of his record-setting Lockheed P-80A-1-LO Shooting Star, 44-85123. (AP Wirephoto, Photograph 2012.201.B0243.0237, Oklahoma Historical Society)

William Haldane Councill was born 5 October 1911 at Bellevue, Pennsylvania. He was the second of four children of William Mansfield Councill, a manager for a fireproofing company, and Bertha Etta Wing Councill. He attended Perry High School, where he was a member of the Aero Club.

William H. Councill. (The Thistle of 1933)

Bill Councill studied at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (R.O.T.C.), and the Delta Upsilon (ΔΥ) fraternity. He was also a member of the Scabbard and Blade, and co-chairman of the Military Ball. Councill graduated in 1933 with the degree of Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (B.S.M.E.).

William H. Councill was commissioned as a second lieutenant, Engineer Reserve, 1 June 1933. He was appointed a flying cadet and trained as a pilot, 1 October 1933 to 14 October 1935. He then received a commission as a second lieutenant, Air Reserve.

Lieutenant Councill married Miss Lillie Louise Slay at Wahiawa Heights, Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, 18 April 1936. They would have one daughter, Frances, born in 1943.

On 1 October 1938, Councill’s reserve commission was converted to second lieutenant, Air Corps, United States Army. Councill was promoted to first lieutenant, 1 October 1941.

During this time William Councill held a parallel commission in the Army of the United States. He was promoted to first lieutenant, A.U.S., 9 September 1940, and captain, A.U.S., 1 February 1942. On 1 March 1942, he was promoted to the rank of major, A.U.S. (A.C.), and to lieutenant colonel, 19 December 1942. On 3 July 1945, Councill advanced to the rank of colonel, A.U.S.

Major William Haldane Councill with his younger brother, 2nd Lieutenant David Elihu Councill, circa 1942. David Councill was killed when his B-24 bomber crashed in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, December 8, 1943. (Frances Councill/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Colonel Councill was rated as a command pilot. During World War II, he flew 130 combat missions with the the Lockheed P-38 Lightning .Thirteenth Air Force in the southwest Pacific area. He is credited with shooting down three enemy aircraft, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions in an air battle over the Solomons, 15 January 1943.

At 10:54 a.m., 5 April 1954, Colonel Councill took off from the Republic Aviation Company plant at Farmingdale, New York, in a Lockheed T-33A Shooting Star, en route to Langley Field, Virginia. He never arrived. An extensive search, other than locating a single wing tank, was unsuccessful. It was presumed that Councill went down in the Atlantic Ocean.

According to his commanding officer, Major General Earl W. Barnes,

“. . . He was a most capable, dependable and responsible officer who was conscientiously devoted to his tasks. His opinions on military matters were highly regarded by his superior officers. His pleasant personality, genial manner, and dry wit endeared him to the hearts of the many friends he had won during approximately twenty-one years of service in the United States Air Force. He was greatly beloved by those with whom he associated. . . I feel that our Country and the Air Force have lost an irreplaceable asset and a great leader.”

Wing Family Annals, Wing Family of America, Inc., Des Moines, Iowa. Vol. 54, No. 1, at Pages 7 and 8

Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson with a scale model of a Lockheed P-80A-1-LO Shooting Star. Johnson’s “Skunk Works” also designed the F-104 Starfighter, U-2, A-12 Oxcart and SR-71A Blackbird. (Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Company, AD-8317)

The Lockheed P-80-1-LO was the United States’ first operational jet fighter. It was a single-seat, single engine airplane, 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.

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) ² 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 -1° 30′ twist. 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).

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).

Colonel Council's record-setting P-80A-1-LO in squadron markings. (U.S. Air Force)
Colonel Councill’s record-setting P-80A-1-LO 44-85123, in squadron markings at the National Air Races, Cleveland, Ohio, September 1946. (Unattributed)

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). The service ceiling was 45,000 feet (13,716 meters).

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

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.

Lieutenant Howard A. Johnson, USAAF, with Lockheed P-80A-1-LO Shooting Star 44-85123. (FAI)

On 3 June 1946, Lockheed P-80A-1-LO Shooting Star 44-85123, flown by Lieutenant Henry A. Johnson, set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Speed Over a Closed Circuit of 1,000 Kilometers with an average speed of 745.08 kilometers per hour (462.97 miles per hour).³

Lockheed P-80A-1-LO 44-85123, photographed 22 June 1946 at the General Electric Air Research Laboratory, Schenectady, New York, by Richard Lockett. (Brian Lockett, Air-and-Space.com)

On 2 September 1946, Major Gustav Lindquist won the Thompson Trophy Race, J Division, at the National Air Races, Cleveland, Ohio, 1946, with the same airplane, averaging 515.853 miles per hour (830.185 kilometers per hour) over a 180-kilometer (111.85-mile) course.

Today, 44-85123 is in the collection of the Air Force Flight Test Museum, Edwards Air Force Base.

Lockheed test pilots Anthony W. ("Tony") LeVier and David L. Ferguson stand in front of P-80A 44-85123 and an F-117A Nighthawk at the Lockheed Skunk Works, Palmdale, California, 17 June 1993. (Denny Lombard, Lockheed Martin)
Lockheed test pilots Anthony W. (“Tony”) LeVier and David L. Ferguson stand in front of P-80A Shooting Star 44-85123 and an F-117A Nighthawk at the Lockheed Skunk Works, Palmdale, California, 17 June 1993. (Denny Lombard, Lockheed Martin)

¹ Thanks to Jeffrey P. Rhodes of Lockheed Martin for additional information on Colonel Councill’s Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star.

² 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).

³ FAI Record File Number 10973

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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25 January 1959

Boeing 707-123 N7501A, American Airlines Astrojet, Flagship Michigan, at Seattle. This airplane is the same type as Flagship California. (Boeing)
Boeing 707-123 N7501A, American Airlines Astrojet, Flagship Michigan, at Seattle. This airplane is the same type as Flagship California. (Boeing)

25 January 1959: “The Jet Age” opened when American Airlines began the first scheduled transcontinental passenger service with its new Boeing 707-123 Astrojet. Captain Charles A. Macatee III flew Flagship California, N7503A, from Los Angeles International Airport on the coast of southern California, to New York International Airport ¹ in New York City, in 4 hours and 3 minutes.

Other members of the inaugural flight crew were Captain Lou Szabo, Flight Engineer Bill Duncan, Flight Engineer Norman Rice, Stewardess Claire Bullock, Stewardess Edna Garrett, Stewardess Argie Hoskins and Stewardess Marilyn Rutkowski. Cyrus Rowlett Smith, president of the airline, was also aboard as a passenger.

The flight departed LAX via Runway 25 at 9:05 a.m., Pacific Standard Time. Ceremonies at the airport, with as many as 25,000 spectators, delayed the flight by twenty minutes, but a 150 knot (278 kilometers per hour) tailwind allowed the flight to make up for the lost time and they arrived at Idlewild Airport on schedule.

Flagship California returned to Los Angeles the same day. Flown by Captain Hamilton C. Smith, the 707 departed Idlewild at 6:26 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, arriving at LAX 6 hours, 33 minutes later.

This flight was so significant that rival airlines, such as B.O.A.C. and Pan Am took out full-page newspaper advertisements congratulating American Airlines on its inaugural jet flight.

Ticket prices for one-way, First Class, were $198.88, and $124.40 for coach. Eastbound passengers included actress Jane Wyman and World War II fighter pilot, Brigadier General Robert Lee Scott, Jr., author of God is My Co-Pilot. Poet Carl Sandburg flew on the westbound return flight.

Prior to the first passenger flight, Captain Macatee and Captain Smith had flown the Boeing 707 for 200 hours. In an interview thirty years later, Macatee remarked, “But those four hours three minutes were the big ones for me. They always will be.”

 American Airlines' inaugural flight crew with Boeing 707 Flagship California, at LAX, 25 January 1959. Left to right: Flight Engineer Norman Rice, Stewardess Marilyn Rutkowski, Stewardess Edna Garrett, Captain Charles Macatee, Stewardess Argie Hoskins, Captain Lou Szabo, Stewardess Claire Bullock, Flight Engineer Bill Duncan. (American Airlines photograph via Miss Argie Hoskins' AMERICAN AIRLINES 707 JET STEWARDESS)
American Airlines’ inaugural flight crew with Boeing 707 Flagship California, at LAX, 25 January 1959. Left to right: Flight Engineer Norman Rice, Stewardess Marilyn Rutkowski, Stewardess Edna Garrett, Captain Charles A. Macatee III, Stewardess Argie Hoskins, Captain Lou Szabo, Stewardess Claire Bullock, Flight Engineer Bill Duncan. (American Airlines photograph via Miss Argie Hoskins’ “American Airlines 707 Jet Stewardess”)

The Boeing 707 was developed from the earlier Model 367–80, the “Dash Eighty.” It is a four-engine jet transport with swept wings and tail surfaces. The leading edge of the wings are swept at a 35° angle. The airliner had a flight crew of four: pilot, co-pilot, navigator and flight engineer. The airliner could carry a maximum of 189 passengers.

The 707-123 was 145 feet, 1 inch (44.221 meters) long with a wing span of 130 feet, 10 inches (39.878 meters). The top of the vertical fin stood 42 feet, 5 inches (12.929 meters) high. The 707 pre-dated the ”wide-body” airliners, having a fuselage width of 12 feet, 4 inches (3.759 meters). The airliner’s empty weight is 122,533 pounds (55,580 kilograms). Maximum take off weight is 257,000 pounds (116,573 kilograms).

American Airlines’ Boeing 707-123 N7503A at LAX, 1960. (Ed Coates Collection)

The first versions were powered by four Pratt & Whitney Turbo Wasp JT3C-6 turbojet engines, producing 11,200 pounds of thrust (49,820 kilonewtons), and 13,500 pounds (60.051 kilonewtons) with water injection. This engine was a civil variant of the military J57 series. It was a two-spool axial-flow turbojet engine with a 16-stage compressor and 2 stage turbine. The JT3C-6 was 11 feet, 6.6 inches (3.520 meters) long, 3 feet, 2.9 inches (0.988 meters) in diameter, and weighed 4,235 pounds (1,921 kilograms).

At MTOW, the 707 required 11,000 feet (3,353 meters) of runway to take off.

The 707-121 had a maximum speed of 540 knots (1,000 kilometers per hour). It’s range was 2,800 nautical miles (5,186 kilometers).

The Boeing 707 was in production from 1958 to 1979. 1,010 were built. Production of 707 airframes continued at Renton until the final one was completed in April 1991.

American Airlines’ first Boeing 707 was this 707-123B, N7501A, photographed by Jon Proctor at Chicago O’Hare, 30 July 1961. (Jon Proctor/Wikipedia)

In 1961, N7503A was upgraded to the 707-123B standard. This included a change from the turbojet engines to quieter, more powerful and efficient Pratt & Whitney JT3D-1. The JT3D-1 was a dual spool axial-flow turbofan engine, with a 2-stage fan section, 13-stage compressor (6 low- and 7 high pressure stages), 8 combustion chambers and a 4-stage turbine (1 high- and 3 low-pressure stages). This engine was rated at 14,500 pounds of static thrust (64.499 kilonewtons) at Sea Level, and 17,000 pounds (75.620 kilonewtons), with water injection, for takeoff (2½ minute limit). Almost half of the engine’s thrust was produced by the fans. Maximum engine speed was 6,800 r.p.m. (N1) and 10,200 r.p.m. (N2). It was 11 feet, 4.64 inches (3.471 meters) long, 4 feet, 5.00 inches (1.346 meters) wide and 4 feet, 10.00 inches (1.422 meters) high. It weighed 4,165 pounds (1,889 kilograms). The JT3C could be converted to the JT3D configuration during overhaul.

The 707-123B wings were modified to incorporate changes introduced with the Boeing 720, and a longer tailplane installed.

An American Airlines’ Boeing 707-123B, N7523A, in the original Astrojet livery, at LAX, 26 December 1962. (Photograph © Jon Proctor, used with permission)
An American Airlines’ Boeing 707-123B, N7523A, in the original Astrojet livery, at LAX, 26 December 1962. (Photograph © Jon Proctor, used with permission)

N7503A was substantially damaged at Mineral Wells, Texas, 9 May 1965. It had flown through a violent thunderstorm and suffered hail damage. The crew made a precautionary landing, however the windshield had been crazed so badly by the impact of hail that it was opaque. The 707 made a hard landing and its gear collapsed. There were no injuries among the 89 passengers and 7 crewmembers. It was repaired and returned to service.

After 28 years, American Airlines’ inaugural Astro Jet was scrapped.

American Airlines’ Boeing 707-123B N7503A, Flagship California. (Brian Lockett via Miss Argie Hoskins’ AMERICAN AIRLINES 707 JET STEWARDESS)

¹ New York International Airport, located in Queens, a borough of New York City,  was commonly called Idlewild Airport. In 1963, the name was changed to John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK).

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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19 January 1937

Howard Hughes in the cockpit of the H-1 Racer, NX258Y, 19 January 1937. (LIFE Magazine)
Howard Hughes climbs out of the cockpit of the H-1 Racer, NX258Y, at Newark Metropolitan Airport, 19 January 1937. “Grimy from the smoke of his exhaust stacks the lanky pilot climbed out of his cramped cockpit and grinned.” (LIFE Magazine)

19 January 1937: Howard Robard Hughes, Jr., departed Union Air Terminal, Burbank, California, at 2:14 a.m., Pacific Standard Time (10:14 UTC) aboard his Hughes Aircraft Company H-1 Racer, NR258Y. He flew non-stop across the North American continent to Newark Metropolitan Airport, Newark, New Jersey, and arrived overhead at 12:42:25 p.m., Eastern Standard Time (17:42:25 UTC).

Hughes completed the 2,490-mile (4,007.3 kilometer) flight in 7 hours, 28 minutes, 25 seconds, at an average speed of 332 miles per hour (534 kilometers per hour). He broke the existing record, which he himself had set just over one year previously in a Northrop Gamma, by more than two hours.¹ (The 1937 flight is not recognized as an FAI record.)

Hughes H-1 NX258Y
Hughes H-1 NX258Y. (Hughes Aircraft Company)

The New York Times reported:

     All landplane distance speed records were broken yesterday by Howard Hughes, millionaire sportsman pilot, who reached Newark Airport 7 hours 28 minutes and 25 seconds after he took off from Los Angeles, Calif. He was forced to stay aloft until the runway at the field was clear and landed at 1:03 P.M. His average speed was 332 miles an  hour for the 2,490 miles he traveled.

     Grimy from the smoke of his exhaust stacks the lanky pilot climbed out of his cramped cockpit and grinned. In recounting his experiences on the flight he said that the skies were overcast all the way and he had to fly on top of the clouds . . .

     It was 2:14 o’clock in the morning and pitch dark when he opened the throttle at the Union Air Terminal at Burbank and released the 1,100 horsepower sealed in the fourteen cylinders of his supercharged Twin Row Wasp engine. The sleek gray and ble low-winged monoplane, designed and built under his own direction, staggered, accelerated and then literally vaulted into the air. Within a few seconds Hughes climbed into the low-hanging clouds and swung eastward . . .

     At 14,000 feet, at which altitude he flew most of the way, he passed over the clouds, set his course and leveled off. He throttled his engine back until it was delivering only 375 horsepower and hunched himself over his instrument panel . . .

     His arrival at Newark was unheralded and a surprise. It was thought that he was going to land at Chicago. The new United Air Lines extra-fare plane was loaded for its initial run and already had its door locked when the propeller whir of the hurling racer apparently made the buildings tremble from sound vibration as Hughes swept low across the field. William Zint of the Longines Watch Company, official timer for the National Aeronautic Association, noted the time. It was exactly 42 minutes and 25 seconds after noon.

     Hughes pulled up in a sweeping chandelle maneuver and circled. The United Air Liner was already on the runway when Hughes swung back toward the flaps on his wing to slacken speed for landing . . . and the plane settled fast toward the earth. Still the pilot had no signal from the control tower where the dispatchers act as traffic patrols at the busiest airport in the world. Hughes had to open his throttle again and cruise around the field for some time before the green light at last came on. The United plane was then well on its course toward Chicago. Hughes’s plane slid in over the airport boundary, dropped it’s retractable undercarriage and tail wheel and touched both wheels and tail wheel in a perfect three-point landing at 1:02:30 P.M. . . .

— Excerpted from an article in The New York Times, Wednesday, 20 January 1937, Page 1 at Columns 6 and 7.

After landing at Newark, Hughes told newspaper reporters, “I flew at 14,000 feet most of the way,” Hughes said, “with my highest speed 370 miles an hour. I used about 200 of the 280-gallon load. I am very tired—a bit shaky.”

[Richard W.] Palmer met Hughes at Newark Airport. The two men shook their heads at each other. “I knew she was fast,” Hughes told his chief engineer, “but I didn’t know she was that fast.”

Newark, N.J., Tuesday, Jan. 19.—(AP)

Howard Hughes with his H-1 Racer, NR258Y.
Howard Hughes with his H-1 Racer, NR258Y.

The Hughes H-1 (FAA records describe the airplane as a Hughes Model 1B, serial number 1) was a single-seat, single-engine low wing monoplane with retractable landing gear, designed by Richard W. Palmer. Emphasis had been placed on an aerodynamically clean design and featured flush riveting on the aluminum skin of the fuselage. The airplane is 27 feet, 0 inches long (8.230 meters) with a wingspan of 31 feet, 9 inches (9.677 meters) and height of 8 feet (2.438 meters). (A second set of wings with a span of 25 feet (7.6 meters) was used on Hughes’ World Speed Record ² flight, 13 September 1935.) The H-1 has an empty weight of 3,565 pounds (1,617 kilograms) and gross weight of 5,492 pounds (2,491 kilograms).

The H-1 was powered by an air-cooled, supercharged, 1,534.943-cubic-inch-displacement (25.153 liter) Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp Jr., a two-row, fourteen-cylinder radial engine. Pratt & Whitney produced 18 civil and 22 military versions of the Twin Wasp Jr., in both direct drive and geared configurations, rated from 650 to 950 horsepower. It is not known which version powered the H-1, but various sources report that it was rated from 700 to 1,000 horsepower. The engine drove a two-bladed Hamilton Standard controllable-pitch propeller.

Hughes H-1 NX258Y at Hughes Airport, Culver City, California. (Hughes Aircraft Company)
Hughes H-1 NX258Y, left front quarter, at Hughes Airport, Culver City, California. (Hughes Aircraft Company)
Hughes H-1 NX258Y, right profile. (Hughes Aircraft Company)
Hughes H-1 NX258Y, right profile, at Hughes Airport, Culver City, California. (Hughes Aircraft Company)
Hughes  H-1 NX258Y. (Ray Wagner Collection, San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives)
The Hughes Aircraft Co. H-1 Racer, NR258Y at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)
The Hughes Aircraft Co. H-1 Racer, NR258Y at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)

¹ FAI Record File Number 13237: World Record for Speed Over a Recognized Course, 417.0 kilometers per hour (259.1 miles per hour)

² FAI Record File Number 8748: World Record for Speed Over a 3 Kilometer Course, 567.12 kilometers per hour (352.39 miles per hour)

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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14 January 1936

Hoard Hughes with his record-setting Northrop Gamma. (Unattributed)
Howard Hughes with the record-setting Northrop Gamma. (UNLV Special Collections)

14 January 1936: Flying a Northrop Gamma 2G, serial number 11, which he had leased from Jackie Cochran, Howard Robard Hughes, Jr., set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Speed Over a Recognized Course (Los Angeles, California, to New York) in 9 hours, 26 minutes, 10 seconds, at an average speed of 417.0 kilometers per hour (259.1 miles per hour).¹ Most of the flight was made at altitudes of  15,000–18,000 feet (4,572–5,486 meters), and Hughes used supplemental breathing oxygen.

Howard Hughes climbs out of the Northrop Gamma at Newark, New Jersey. (UNLV Digital Collection)
Howard Hughes climbs out of the Northrop Gamma at Newark, New Jersey. (UNLV Digital Collection)

Jack Northrop had designed and built the Gamma as a long-range cargo and mail plane for Transcontinental and Western Air, Inc. The contract was cancelled, though, and several airplanes became available to other customers. Jackie Cochran purchased s/n 11, which had been completed 15 August 1934, and had it modified by Northrop as a two-place long-distance racer for the 1934 MacRobertson London-to-Australia air race, which she planned to fly with her friend Ted Marshall.

The length of the Gamma varied from 29’10” to 31’0″, depending on engine and cockpit configuration. The wingspan was 48’0″.

The Northrop Gamma 2G, NC13761, after modification to install a liquid-cooled Wright SGV1570F4 V-12 engine, 9 September 1934. (SDASM Archives)
The Northrop Corporation Gamma 2G, NC13761, after modification for the MacRobertson Race, 29 September 1934. (The Northrop Corporation)
The Northrop Gamma 2G, NC13761, after modification to install a liquid-cooled Wright SGV1570F4 V-12 engine. (SDASM Archives)

The Gamma’s original engine was replaced with a liquid-cooled, supercharged, 1,570.381-cubic-inch-displacement (25.734 liters) Wright Aeronautical Division Conqueror SGV1570F4 (also known as the Curtiss Conqueror), a DOHC 60° V-12 engine rated at 745 horsepower at Sea Level. The engine drove a two-bladed propeller. The Gamma had 7 fuel tanks: 3 in each wing and 1 in the fuselage. Total capacity was 486 gallons (1,840 liters) of gasoline and 29 gallons (110 liters)of lubricating oil. A second fuselage tank was later added, bring the total fuel capacity to 586 gallons (2,218 liters). The Gamma 2G had an empty weight of 4,727 pounds (2,144 kilograms) and a maximum gross weight of 8,037 pounds (3,646 kilograms). The modified airplane was inspected and a temporary commercial registration, NC13671, was approved 29 September 1934.

While being ferried to New York by Jackie and her new copilot, Royal Leonard, problems with the engine’s supercharger forced them to land in Arizona. Cochran continued east by airliner while Leonard and a Curtiss-Wright mechanic continued east in the Gamma. Flying on the night of 1 October 1934, a continuing problem with the supercharger forced them to make an off-field landing near Tucumcari, New Mexico, using light from dropped flares. The Gamma was seriously damaged and had to be returned to Northrop for repair.

Northrop Gamma 2G NX13761 after installation of the air-cooled Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp, Jr. SA1-G 14-cylinder radial engine. (SDASM Archives)

The airplane’s temporary registration was suspended. A section of the wing and the forward lower half of the fuselage were replaced, provisions for installing a Pratt & Whitney radial engine were made, and the rear cockpit was removed. (Cochran’s plans for the MacRobertson Race had to be revised,² so she had the airplane modified for the Bendix Trophy Race.) The repairs and modifications were completed 30 November 1934.

Jackie Cochran’s Northrop Gamma NX13761 after radial engine installation, photographed at Clemenceau, near Cottonwood, Arizona, circa 1935. (Ruth Reinhold Aviation Collection, Arizona Memory Project RRA-AMP107)

The “re-modified” Gamma 2G was now powered by an air-cooled, supercharged, 1,534.943-cubic-inch-displacement (25.153 liters) Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp Jr. SA1-G 14-cylinder radial engine with a three-bladed Hamilton Standard controllable-pitch propeller. The SA1-G was rated at 700 horsepower at 2,500 r.p.m. at 6,500 feet (1,981 meters). The engine could be ordered with a 3:2 or 4:3 gear reduction ratio.

Jackie Cochran flew the Gamma in the 1935 Bendix Trophy Race, but, approaching severe weather over the Grand Canyon, landed the airplane and did not finish the race.

The official ownership history of the Gamma is murky. The original application for a Department of Commerce Aeronautics Branch license specified the owner as The Northrop Corporation. On 4 January 1935, Northrop’s registration was cancelled by the Department of Commerce because, “Aircraft not inspected for relicensing.”

Jackie Cochran with the Northrop Gamma 2G, circa 1936. Photographed by Toni Frissell)

When Jackie Cochran requested registration in her name, she failed to submit a Bill of Sale with her application. After repeated written requests by the Bureau of Air Commerce to submit a bill of sale went unanswered, her application for a restricted registration for the airplane was cancelled, 9 January 1936. J Carroll Cone, Assistant Director of Air Commerce (Air Regulation) informed her in writing: “The status of this aircraft is unlicensed and unidentified, according to our records. Any operation thereof would be in violation of the Air Commerce Regulations and subject the offender to the civil penalty provided therefor.”

Finally, a Bill of Sale from The Northrop Corporation, dated 30 November 1935, was provided to the Aeronautics Bureau. It said that Northrop had sold the airplane to Cochran, “for and in consideration of ten dollars ($10.00)”.

Meanwhile, Howard Hughes had seen the Gamma and wanted to buy it. Jackie Cochran tells how Howard Hughes acquired the airplane:

One night about 11:30 I was exhausted in my hotel room and the telephone rang. . .

“Jackie,” the voice says, “this is Howard.”

“Howard who?” I say, still sleepy and getting frustrated.

“Howard Hughes,” the man says.

“Howard who?” I ask again.

“Howard Hughes,” he repeats.

. . . We argued about who he was a bit more. Finally, he says, “I want to buy your airplane.”

I’m thinking that this is an incredible conversation. “It’s not for sale, Howard,” I reply. “I’m going to fly it in the Bendix.”

“I don’t want to fly it in the Bendix,” he answers. “I want to fly it cross-continental.”

“So do I,” I say.

Howard Hughes and I negotiated over the Northrop Gamma for about four weeks. . . Howard wanted my Northrop so badly, but it would break my heart to consider handing over my rights to it. . . when he offered to rent it, with an option to buy, I caved in. . . .

Jackie Cochran: An Autobiography, by Jacqueline Cochran and Maryann Bucknum Brinley, Bantam Books, New York, 1987, at 152–153.

When Hughes took possession of the Gamma 2G, he had the Pratt & Whitney engine replaced with a 1,823.129 cubic-inch (29.785 liter) Wright Cyclone SGR-1820-G5 nine-cylinder radial engine, and a three bladed-Hamilton Standard constant-speed propeller with a diameter of 11 feet, 3 inches (3.429 meters). The engine used a bell-shaped cowling similar to that of Hughes’ H-1 Racer. The engine had a Normal Power rating of 830 horsepower at 2,100 r.p.m to 4,300 feet (1,311 meters), and 930 horsepower for Takeoff. This engine did not yet have government certification. Three additional fuselage tanks were installed, increasing the Gamma’s fuel capacity to 690 gallons. Hughes did not submit the Gamma for Department of Commerce inspection and licensing. It was not approved in the new configuration.

Jackie Cochran took the Gamma back from Hughes and had the Twin Wasp Jr. reinstalled, and submitted a new application for registration 31 March 1936. This was approved 28 April 1936, and the Gamma received a restricted registration, NR13761. It was damaged beyond repair after an emergency landing, 10 July 1936.

The Northrop Gamma 2G, NR13761, at Newark, New Jersey, 14 January 1936. (UNLV Libraries Digital Collection)

¹ FAI Record File Number 13237

² With Northrop unable to repair the airplane in time for the MacRobertson Race, at the last minute Jackie Cochran entered with a different airplane (a Granville Brothers Gee Bee R-6H).

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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7 January 1980

A Mooney M20K, similar to the one flown by Alan Gerharter from San Francsico to Washinto, D.C., taking off at San Jose, California. The landing gear is retracting. (Rich Snyder — Jetarazzi Photography)
A Mooney M20K, similar to the one flown by Alan Gerharter from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., taking off at San Jose, California. The landing gear is retracting. (Rich Snyder — Jetarazzi Photography)
Alan W. Gerharter, ATP, CFI. (AOPA)
Alan W. Gerharter, ATP, CFI. (AOPA)

7 January 1980: In response to a challenge, Alan W. Gerhartner, Chief Flight Instructor of Logan and Reavis Air, Inc., Medford, Oregon, flew a four-place, single-engine Mooney M20K, N231LR, serial number 25-0025, from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Washington National Airport (DCA) in 8 hours, 4 minutes, 25 seconds.

This qualified as a new Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) and U.S. National Speed Record of 486.20 kilometers per hour (302.11 miles per hour).¹

Gerharter had beaten the previous record held by a Malvern Gross, Jr., ² flying a Cessna T210, N5119V, by 3 hours, 3 minutes, 23 seconds. When Gerharter arrived at DCA, Gross was there to meet him.

Gerharter had made temporary modifications to the Mooney for this flight. He had two 25 gallon (94.6 liter) fuel tanks mounted in place of the rear seats, bringing the airplane’s total fuel capacity to 122 gallons (462 liters). The right front seat was removed and two oxygen tanks installed. In an effort to reduce aerodynamic drag, he removed the boarding step at the trailing edge of the right wing.

Waiting for advantageous weather, Alan Gerharter took off from SFO at 6:49 a.m., Pacific Standard Time, 7 January 1980. He climbed to 25,000 feet (7,620 meters) and adjusted his power settings to 75%. Though he had meticulously planned a Great Circle Route, electrical problems caused his primary navigation system and autopilot to fail, so he had to navigate by magnetic compass and clock as he made his way across the country. The airplane used 103 gallons (390 liters) of fuel during the flight.Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 08.56.45Alan Gerharter’s World and National Records still stand.

A flight of four Mooney M20Ks. The lead airplane is teh world and national record holder Mooney 231 N231LR. (Photograph courtesy of Al Gerharter)
A flight of four Mooney M20Ks. The lead airplane is the world and national record holder, Mooney 231 N231LR. (Photograph courtesy of Alan W. Gerharter)

The Mooney M20K is an all-metal, low-wing monoplane with retractable tricycle landing gear. The airplane is 25 feet, 5 inches (7.747 meters) long with a wingspan of 36 feet, 1 inch (10.998 meters) and overall height of 8 feet, 3 inches (2.516 meters). Its empty weight is 1,800 pounds (816.5 kilograms) and gross weight is 2,900 pounds (1,315 kilograms).

The M20K is powered by an air-cooled, fuel-injected and turbocharged, 359.656-cubic-inch-displacement (5.894 liter) Teledyne Continental TSIO-360-GB-1 horizontally-opposed six-cylinder direct-drive engine. It has a compression ration of 7.5:1 and is rated at 210 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m. with 40.0 inches manifold pressure (1.365 Bar). The engine turns a two-bladed McCauley constant-speed propeller with a diameter of 6 feet, 2 inches (1.879 meters). Most TSIO-360-GB engines still in service have been converted to the TSIO-360-LB configuration. The -LB is 2 feet, 3.53 inches (0.699 meters) high, 2 feet, 7.38 inches (0.797 meters) wide and 4 feet, 8.97 inches (1.447 meters) long. It has a dry weight of 343.35 pounds (155.74 kilograms).

The Mooney M20K was marketed as the Mooney 231, a reference to its top speed of 201 knots at 16,000 feet (4,877 meters), or 231.3 miles per hour (372.25 kilometers per hour). The M20K has a Maximum Structural Cruising Speed (VNO) of 200 miles per hour (321.9 kilometers per hour), and a Never Exceed Speed (VNE) of 225 miles per hour (362.1 kilometers per hour). The airplane has a maximum operating altitude of 24,000 feet (7,315 meters).

The M20K was certified in 1979, 24 years after the original M20 entered production, and it was produced until 1998. The M20 series continued in production with follow-on models until 2008.

The transcontinental speed record Mooney 231, N231LR, covered with dust in a hangar at Clovis Municipal Airport, New Mexico, 7 January 2012. (D&D Aircraft)
The transcontinental speed record-setting Mooney 231, N231LR, covered with dust in a hangar at Clovis Municipal Airport (CVN), Texico, New Mexico, 7 January 2012. (D&D Aviation)

Mooney M20K N231LR was issued an Airworthiness Certificate on 27 December 1978. It is currently registered to a management corporation in Wilmington, Delaware.

¹ FAI Record File Number 13854: Speed Over a Recognised Course, 486.20 kilometers per hour (302.11 miles per hour), 7 January 1980. Current Record.

² FAI Record File Number 965: Speed Over a Recognised Course, 352.36 kilometers per hour (218.95 miles per hour). FAI Record File Number 966: Speed Over a Recognised Course, 384.03 kilometers per hour (238.63 miles per hour). Both records were set 1 January 1977.

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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