Tag Archives: United States National Record for Altitude

24 March 1939

Jackie Cochran with her Beechcraft D17W, NR18562. (FAI)
Jackie Cochran with her Beechcraft D17W, NR18562. (FAI)

24 March 1939: During a 2 hour, 26 minute flight over southern California, Jacqueline Cochran established a U.S. National Altitude Record for Women of 9,160 meters (30,052 feet). She flew a Beechcraft D17W “Staggerwing,” serial number 164, registered NR18562.

A National Aeronautic Association official, Larry Therkelson, took the recording barograph from the airplane and sent it to the N.A.A. headquarters in Washington, D.C., for certification. The record had previously been held by Ruth Rowland Nichols.¹

“Were I to make the simple statement that I climbed to an altitude of thirty-three thousand feet, that statement in and of itself would mean nothing because I have often gone higher than that. But when I add that I did this in 1937 in a fabric-covered biplane without heating, without pressurization and without an oxygen mask, the elements of an accomplishment are added. I nearly froze; the pipestem between my teeth through which I tried to get an oxygen supply from a tank and connecting tube was inadequate for the purpose, and I became so disoriented through lack of oxygen that it took over an hour to get my bearings and make a landing. The difference between the pressure my body was accustomed to on the ground and the atmospheric pressure at 33,000 feet was such that a blood vessel in my sinus ruptured. All this was a part of the cumulative evidence that led up to cabin pressurization and and mandatory use of the oxygen mask above certain altitudes.”

The Stars at Noon, by Jacqueline Cochran, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1954, Chapter IV at Pages 61–62.

According to the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission, Jackie Cochran “. . . set more speed and altitude records than any other pilot.”

Beechcraft D17W Staggerwing NR18562, c/n 164, which Jackie Cochran used to set an altitude record, 24 March 1939. (Unattributed)
Beechcraft D17W Staggerwing NR18562, c/n 164, which Jackie Cochran used to set an altitude record, 24 March 1939, at the Beechcraft factory, Wichita, Kansas, 1937. (Beech Aircraft Corporation)

The Beechcraft Staggerwing got its name because its lower wing was placed ahead of the upper wing (negative stagger). It was a fast airplane for its time and set several speed and altitude records. The Beechcraft D17W was a special version of the D17 production model. Only two were built. Jackie Cochran purchased it from Beech for $20,145, and it had been delivered to her by famed aviator Frank Hawks.

The “Staggerwing” was a single-engine, four-place biplane with an enclosed cabin and retractable landing gear, flown by a single pilot. The basic structure was a welded tubular steel framework, with wood formers and stringers. The wings and tail surfaces were built of wood spars and ribs. The airplane was covered with doped fabric, except the cabin and engine, which were covered in sheet metal.

Beech Aircraft Corporation Model 17 “Staggerwings” under construction. (Beech B-111/U.S. Air Force)

The airplane was 26 feet, 10 inches (8.179 meters) long with a wingspan of 32 feet, 0 inches (9.754 meters) and overall height of 8 feet, 0 inches (2.438 meters). It had an empty weight of 2,540 pounds (1,152.1 kilograms) and loaded weight of 4,250 pounds (1,927.8 kilograms).

While most biplanes had staggered wings, the Staggerwing was unusual in having negative stagger. This not only increased the pilot’s field of vision, but improved the airplane’s stability in a stall. The leading edge of the Model 17 upper wing was 2 feet, 1–19/32 inches (0.65008 meters) aft of the lower wing. The leading edges had 0° 0′ sweep. Both wings had an angle of incidence of 5° 5′. The upper wing had no dihedral, but the lower wing had +1°. The mean vertical gap between the wings was 5 feet (1.52 meters), and the chord of both wings was 5 feet, 0 inches (1.524 meters). The total wing area was 269.5 square feet (25.04 square meters). The horizontal stabilizer had 0° incidence, while the vertical fin was offset 0° 43′ to the left of the airplane’s centerline.

Beech D17W NR18562. (Beechcraft)
Beechcraft D17W NR18562, c/n 164, carrying race number “13.” (Beech Aircraft Corporation)

The Staggerwing was offered with a selection of engines of different displacements and horsepower ratings. The standard Beechcraft D17S was equipped with an air-cooled, supercharged, 986.749-cubic-inch-displacement (16.170 liters) Pratt & Whitney Wasp Jr. A, a nine-cylinder radial engine producing 300 horsepower at 2,000 r.p.m at Sea Level. It had a maximum speed of 212 miles per hour (341 kilometers per hour), 670 mile (1,078 kilometer) range and service ceiling of 25,000 feet (7,620 meters).

The 1,343.804-cubic-inch-displacement (22.021 liter) Pratt & Whitney Wasp SC-G engine installed in Jackie Cochran’s D17W was an experimental version of the Wasp C with 5:4 propeller reduction gearing. It produced 600 horsepower at 2,850 r.p.m. for takeoff, and 525 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m., up to 9,500 feet (2,896 meters). The SC-G never entered production.

Beechcraft D17W c/n 164, was impressed into military service at Tarrant Field, Texas, 12 March 1943. Assigned to the United States Army Air Corps, it was given the designation UC-43K Traveler and Air Corps serial number 42-107277. It was turned over to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, 22 November 1944, for sale to the civil market. The airplane was now powered by a 971.930-cubic-inch displacement (15.927 liter) Wright R-975-5 Whirlwind nine-cylinder radial and was redesignated Beechcraft D17R. The Staggerwing was sold to the Carver Pump Company, Muscatine, Iowa, and registered NC50958.

The record-setting Beechcraft Staggerwing crashed at Avenger Field, Sweetwater, Texas, 15 December 1945.

Jackie Cochran's beechcraft D17W, NV18562, c/n 164, carrying the race number "33" circa 1937. (Unattributed)
Jackie Cochran’s Beechcraft D17W, NX18562, c/n 164, carrying the race number “33” circa 1937. (Unattributed)

¹ FAI Record File Number 12228: 8,761 meters (28,743 feet), 6 March 1931.

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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29 January 1926

Mrs. Macready with her husband, Lieutenant John Arthur Macready, shortly before his altitude record flight, 29 January 1926. (George Rinhart via Daedalians)

29 January 1926: At McCook Field, near Dayton, Ohio, First Lieutenant John Arthur Macready, Air Service, United States Army, took off in an experimental airplane, the Engineering Division XCO-5. Macready was attempting to exceed the existing Fédération Aéronautique Internationale world altitude record of 12,066 meters (39,587 feet), which had been set by Jean Callizo at Villacoublay, France, 21 October 1924.¹

The official observers of the National Aeronautic Association were Orville Wright (co-inventor with his brother Wilbur, of the airplane); George B. Smith of Dayton; and Levitt Luzurne Custer (inventor of the statoscope, the original barometric altimeter).

The Dayton Daily News reported:

     Every part of the plane functioned perfectly. . . with the exception of the supercharging apparatus. The plane climbed to 25,000 feet in less than 45 minutes. The remainder of the flight was a fight against the dropping pressure in the motor.

     In taking off, the altitude plane required approximately 50 feet and immediately began a steep ascent. Throughout the test the several hundred people who had congregated to see the flight start could find the plane by a long line of white vapor, which trailed in the wake of the ship in the rare atmosphere.

     On other tests the plane has shown sea level pressure at approximately 32,000 feet. The super-charger showed a steadily declining pressure after 25,000 feet, indicating its lack of sufficient capacity for the motor. . .

Dayton Daily News, Vol. XL, No. 162, January 29, 1926, Page 1, Column 7, and Page 2, Column 2

Lieutenant John A. Macready, 28 September 1921. “The cold, though a severe drain on the system with the best protection possible, is more easily met. To prepare for it, Lieutenant Macready wears over his uniform, a heavy suit of woollen underwear and over that a thick heavily padded, leather-covered suit of down and feathers. Then, fur-lined gloves, fleece-lined moccasins over the boots, and a leather head mask lined with fur, which, with the oxygen mask, completely covers the face, completes the costume. The goggles are coated on the inside with anti-freezing gelatine supposed to function to 60 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit.” (NASM)

Lieutenant Macready reported, “My watch stopped at 30,000 feet and I believe it was frozen, because just before landing it started again.” He observed a temperature of -62 °C. (-79.6 °F.) at 34,600 feet (10,546 meters), which he said then increased to -56 °C. (-68.8 °F.) at 36,000 feet (10,973 meters).

When the airplane was inspected after landing at McCook Field, it was found that a crack had developed in the supercharger intercooler, allowing the supercharged air to escape. This resulted in a significant loss of power, and prevented Macready from passing Callizo’s record.

Lieutenant Macready reported that the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale altimeter (one of two altimeters in the airplane’s cockpit) had indicated that he had reached a maximum of 36,200 feet (11,034 meters). When the sealed barograph was sent to the Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C., for calibration, it indicated a peak altitude of 38,704 feet (11,797 meters). This was 269 meters (883 feet) lower than the existing world record, but it did establish a new United States national altitude record.

Letter from Orville Wright to the National Aeronautic Association, 11 March 1926.
Engineering Division XCO-5, A.S. 23-1204. (U.S. Air Force)

The XCO-5 was a prototype two-place, single-engine, two-bay biplane, a reconnaissance and observation variant of the TP-1 fighter. It was built by the Engineering Division at McCook Field. The airplane carried project number P305 painted on its rudder.

The XCO-5’s wings were built specifically for flight at very high altitude, using an airfoil (Joukowsky StAe-27A) designed by Professor Nikolay Yegorovich Zhukovsky (Николай Егорович Жуковский), head of the Central AeroHydroDynamics Institute (TsAGI) at Kachino, Russia. The two-bay biplane wings had a significant vertical gap and longitudinal stagger. The lifting surface was 600 square feet (55.742 square meters). The upper wing had dihedral while the lower wing did not.

The XCO-5 was 25 feet, 1 inch long (7.645 meters) with a wingspan of 36 feet (10.973 meters) and height of 10 feet (3.048 meters). The empty weight was 2,748 pounds (1,246 kilograms) and the gross weight was 4,363 pounds (1,979 kilograms).

The XCO-5 was powered by a water-cooled, 1,649.34-cubic-inch-displacement (27.028 liter) Liberty 12 single overhead cam (SOHC) 45° V-12 engine. It produced 408 horsepower at 1,800 r.p.m. The L-12 is a right-hand tractor, direct-drive engine. As installed on A.S. 23-1204, the engine turned a specially-designed, two-bladed, ground-adjustable, forged aluminum propeller with a diameter of 10 feet, 6 inches (3.200 meters). The Liberty 12 was 67.375 inches (1.711 meters) long, 27.0 inches (0.686 meters) wide, and 41.5 inches (1.054 meters) high. It weighed 844 pounds (383 kilograms).

Also installed on A.S. 23-1204 was an experimental supercharger. FLIGHT explained:

     Since the Liberty engine, which delivers 400 h.p. at sea level, has an output of but 50 h.p. at 35,000 feet unsupercharged, a supercharger is a prime requisite of altitude work. The General Electric Form F, 20,000-ft. side type supercharger used in previous tests, with certain modifications, has been installed. The supercharger is an air compressor which keeps the air pressure in the carburettor at sea level pressure at heights where, owing to the natural decrease in the air pressure, the horsepower gradually falls away but to a fraction of its original output. In former supercharger installations, much difficulty was experienced with pre-ignition of the engine. This often became so pronounced that the plane had to be brought to earth. It was suspected that a richer mixture with the supercharger at altitude was necessary. This was found to be true but the principal difficulty was the overheating of the mixture due to the heat generated in the supercharger itself. Due to the increase in temperature created by the compression in the supercharger, it was necessary to interpose an intercooler between the supercharger outlet and the carburettor in order to obtain satisfactory engine performance. The intercooler, in the form of a honeycomb radiator, was placed on the side of the aeroplane. It was also found that the poor conductivity of the air at high altitudes, additional radiating surface for engine cooling was required. This, with the correction of mixture, put an end to pre-ignition.

FLIGHT, The Aircraft Engineer & Airships, No. 893. (No. 5, Vol. XVIII.), 4 February 1926, Page 69, Column 1

The XCO-5 has a maximum of 129 miles per hour (208 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level, and a cruise speed of 117 miles per hour (188 kilometers per hour).

Lieutenant John A. Macready, USAAS, stands in front of the Engineering Division-built XCO-5. (U.S. Air Force)

¹ FAI Record File Number 8384, Gourdou-Leseurre GL.40, 300 c.v. Hispano Suiza

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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