Tag Archives: Transcontinental Speed Record

15 August 1962

An American Airlines Boeing 707-023B Astrojet (720B) at Los Angeles International Airport, 26 December 1962. (Photograph courtesy of Jon Proctor)
An American Airlines Boeing 707-023B Astrojet (720B) at Los Angeles International Airport, 26 December 1962. (Photograph courtesy of Jon Proctor)

15 August 1962: American Airlines’ Captain Eugene M. (“Gene”) Kruse set a National Aeronautic Association Class C-1 record for Speed Over a Commercial Air Route, East to West Transcontinental, when he flew a Boeing 720B Astrojet from New York to Los Angeles, 2,474 miles (3,981.5 kilometers), in 4 hours, 19 minutes, 15 seconds, at an average speed of 572.57 miles per hour (921.46 kilometers per hour). 55 years later, this record still stands.

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The National Aeronautic Association has placed Captain Kruse’ record on its “Most Wanted” list: long-standing flight records that it would like to see challenged. Rules require that a new record exceed the old by at least a 1% margin. The performance needed to establish a new record would be 578.30 miles per hour (930.68 kilometers per hour).

The Boeing 720B was a variant of the Model 707, intended for short to medium range flights. It had 100 inches (2.54 meters) removed from the fuselage length and improvements to the wing which decreased aerodynamic drag. The 720B was the first commercial jet airliner to use more efficient turbofan engines, substituting four Pratt & Whitney JT3D for the 707’s JT3C-6 turbojets. Boeing built 154 Model 720 and 720B airliners from 1959 to 1967.

The Boeing 720 was operated by a flight crew of four and could carry up to 149 passengers. It was 136 feet, 2 inches (41.504 meters) long with a wingspan of 130 feet, 10 inches (39.878 meters) and overall height of 41 feet, 7 inches (12.675 meters). The airplane had an empty weight of 103,145 pounds (46,786 kilograms) and Maximum Takeoff Weight of 220,000 pounds (99,790 kilograms).

The JT3C turbojet engines produced 12,000 pounds of thrust, each, while the more efficient JT3D turbofans used for the 720B produced 17,000 pounds of thrust, each.

The Boeing 720B had a maximum cruise speed was 611 miles per hour (983 kilometers per hour) and its maximum speed was 620 miles per hour (998 kilometers per hour). Range at at maximum payload was 4,370 miles (7,033 kilometers).

The last flight of a Boeing 720B took place on 9 May 2012, when an airliner used by Pratt & Whitney Canada as a test aircraft was placed in the National Air Force Museum of Canada at Trenton, Ontario.

© 2016, 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 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.²

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. 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 Record¹ 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, 1,534.94-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)
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 8748: World Record for Speed Over a 3 Kilometer Course, 567.12 kilometers per hour (352.39 miles per hour)

² FAI Record File Number 13237: World Record for Speed Over a Recognized Course, 417.0 kilometers per hour (259.1 miles per hour)

© 2017, 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 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.

The Northrop Corporation Gamma 2G, NC13761, after modification for the MacRobertson Race, 29 September 1934. (The Northrop Corporation)

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.

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.

The “re-modified” Gamma 2G was now powered by an air-cooled, supercharged, 1,534.94-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). It could be ordered with a 3:2 or 4:3 gear reduction ratio.

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 flew the Gamma in the 1935 Bendix Trophy Race, but did not finish.

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 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 at Newark, New Jersey, 14 Janary 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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