14 December 1959: Air Force test pilot Captain Joe Bailey Jordan, United States Air Force, established a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Altitude in a Turbojet Aircraft, breaking a record set only 8 days before by Commander Lawrence E. Flint, Jr., U.S. Navy, flying the number two prototype McDonnell YF4H-1 Phantom II, Bu. No. 142260.¹
Flying a slightly modified Lockheed F-104C-5-LO Starfighter, 56-885, (the aft fuselage had been replaced by one from a two-place F-104B, which had larger tail surfaces), Jordan released the brakes at Edwards Air Force Base, and 15 minutes, 4.92 seconds later he reached 30,000 meters (98,425 feet) establishing an Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world record for time-to-altitude.² The Starfighter continued the zoom climb profile, peaking at 103,389 feet (31,513 meters) ³ and going over the top at 455 knots (843 kilometers per hour). While accelerating for the zoom maneuver, Jordan’s F-104 reached Mach 2.36.
Fédération Aéronautique Internationale rules required that a new record must exceed the previous record by 3%. The Starfighter beat the Phantom II’s peak altitude by 4.95%. Captain Jordan was credited for his very precise flying and energy efficiency. For this flight, Captain Jordan was awarded the Harmon International Trophy.
Joe Bailey Jordan was born at Huntsville, Texas, 12 June 1929, the son of James Broughtan Jordan, a track foreman, and Mattie Lee Simms Jordan. He entered the Air Force in 1949, trained as a pilot and received his pilot’s wings 15 September 1950. He flew the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star during the Korean War, and served as a flight instructor after his return to the United States. He was a graduate of both the Air Force Test Pilot School and the Air Force Fighter Weapons School. He became a project test pilot on the F-104 in 1956.
Jordan married Dolores Ann Craig of Spokane, Washington, 8 February 1958, at Santa Monica, California. They had two children, Carrie and Ken.
Colonel Jordan was the first Western pilot to fly the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 interceptor and his evaluations allowed U.S. pilots to exploit the MiG’s weaknesses during the Vietnam War.
While testing General Dynamics F-111A 65-5701, Jordan and his co-pilot were forced to eject in the fighter’s escape capsule when the aircraft caught fire during a gunnery exercise at Edwards AFB, 2 January 1968. His back was injured in the ejection.
After Jordan retired from the Air Force in 1972, he became an engineering test pilot for the Northrop Corporation’s YF-17 flight test program.
Lieutenant Colonel Joe Bailey Jordan died at Oceanside, California, 22 April 1990, at the age of 60 years. His ashes were spread at Edwards Air Force Base. Jordan Street on the air base is named in his honor.
The Lockheed F-104C Starfighter was a tactical strike variant of the F-104A interceptor. The F-104C shared the external dimensions of the F-104A, but weighed slightly less.
The F-104C was powered by a single General Electric J79-GE-7 engine, a single-spool axial-flow afterburning turbojet, which used a 17-stage compressor and 3-stage turbine. The J79-GE-7 is rated at 10,000 pounds of thrust (44.482 kilonewtons), and 15,800 pounds (70.282 kilonewtons) with afterburner. The engine is 17 feet, 4 inches (5.283 meters) long, 3 feet, 2.3 inches (0.973 meters) in diameter, and weighs 3,575 pounds (1,622 kilograms).
The F-104C could carry a 2,000 pound weapon on a centerline hardpoint. It could carry up to four AIM-9B Sidewinder missiles.
On 9 May 1961, near Moron AFB, Spain, Starfighter 56-885 had a flight control failure with stick moving full aft. The pilot was unable to move it forward, resulting in an initial zoom climb followed by unrecoverable tumble. The pilot safely ejected but the airplane crashed and was destroyed.
A short Air Force film of Joe Jordan’s record flight can be seen at:
6 December 1959: Project Top Flight. At Edwards Air Force Base, California, Commander Lawrence Earl Flint, Jr., United States Navy, set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Altitude with McDonnell YF4H-1 Phantom II, Bu. No. 142260.
At 47,000 feet (14,326 meters), Commander Flint accelerated in level flight with afterburner to Mach 2.5, then pulled up into a 45° climb and continued to 90,000 feet (27,432 meters). He had to shut down the Phantom’s two General Electric J79 jet engines to prevent them from overheating in the thin atmosphere. He continued on a ballistic trajectory to 30,040 meters (98,556 feet). This was just short of the arbitrary 100,000 feet (30,480 meters) that delineated the beginning of space at the time. Diving back through 70,000 feet (21,336 meters), Flint restarted the engines and flew back to Edwards.
This was the first of three FAI World Records set by 142260.¹
McDonnell Aircraft Corporation test pilot Gerald (“Zeke”) Huelsbeck had been conducting test flights to determine the best profile for the record attempt.
“Huelsbeck was flying the very first F4H prototype when an engine access door blew loose, flames shot through the engine compartment, and the F4H crashed, killing Huelsbeck.”
—Engineering the F-4 Phantom II: Parts Into Systems, by Glenn E. Bugos, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1996, Chapter 5 at Page 101. (The accident occurred 21 October 1959.)
Commander Flint flew twelve zoom climbs between October and December, five times climbing past 95,000 feet (28,956 meters), but not exceeding the previous record, 28,852 meters, set by Vladimir Sergeyevich Ilyushin ² with a Sukhoi T 431 (a modified Su-9 interceptor), 14 July 1959, by the FAI-required 3% margin. During the first week of December, with National Aeronautic Association personnel at Edwards to monitor and certify the record for the FAI, he flew three flights each day.
Commander Flint was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for this flight.
General Orders: All Hands (August 1960)
Action Date: December 6, 1959
“The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Flying Cross to Commander Lawrence E. Flint, Jr., United States Navy, for extraordinary achievement in aerial flight on 6 December 1959. As pilot of a Navy all-weather fighter aircraft, Commander Flint succeeded in establishing a new world jet aircraft altitude record of 98,560 feet. Exercising brilliant airmanship, initiative and planning ability, he clearly demonstrated the inherent capabilities and the maximum performance of an extremely important Naval aircraft, and was instrumental in focusing world attention on the continuing and significant development of the science of aviation in the United States.”
Commander Flint’s world altitude record would fall 8 days later when Captain Joe B. Jordan, United States Air Force, flew a Lockheed F-104C Starfighter to 31,513 meters (103,389.11 feet ).³
Lawrence Earl Flint, Jr., was born at Sophia, West Virginia, 24 June 1920. He was the first of three children of Lawrence Earl Flint, a salesman, and Rosetta M. Richmond Flint. He attended Woodrow Wilson High School at Beckley, West Virginia, graduating in 1938. He then attended Beckley College (now, Mountain State University), and Emory & Henry College at Emory, Virginia.
Flint entered the United States Navy as an aviation cadet under the V-5 Program, 30 July 1940. He was trained as a pilot at NAS Pensacola and NAS Jacksonville. He was commissioned as an Ensign, United States Naval Reserve, 10 October 1941, and designated a Naval Aviator, 5 December 1941, two days before the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaiian Islands.
Ensign Flint was assigned to Scouting Squadron Two (VS-2), flying the Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive bomber. He was promoted to Lieutenant, Junior Grade (j.g.), 1 October 1942. In 1943 he transitioned to the Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat fighter with Fighting Squadron Eighteen (VF-18) aboard USS Bunker Hill (CV-18). Flint was promoted to Lieutenant (Temporary), 1 October 1943. This rank was made permanent on 30 October 1944.
In 1944, Lieutenant Flint was assigned to Flight Test and NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, flying the earliest American jet aircraft. Flint was promoted to Lieutenant Commander, United States Navy, 3 October 1945.
Lieutenant Commander Flint then attended the U.S. Navy General Line School at Newport, Rhode Island. In 1947, Flint went to Attack Squadron Fourteen (VA-14, “Tophatters) as the squadron’s executive officer. VA-14 flew the Chance Vought F4U-4 Corsair.
In 1949, Lieutenant Commander Flint married Miss Betty Alice Noble of Salt Lake City, Utah. Mrs. Flint had served in the United States Navy during World War II.
After a staff assignment in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, in 1951, Lieutenant Commander Flint was sent to the Empire Test Pilot School at Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, England.
Flint returned to combat operations during the Korean War, as executive officer, and then commanding officer, of Fighter Squadron Eleven (VF-11, “Red Rippers”), flying the McDonnell F2H-2 Banshee from USS Kearsarge (CVA-33 ).
Following the Korean War, Flint was assigned as Assistant Experimental Officer at the Naval Ordnance Test Station, China Lake, California, and then went back to sea as Air Operations Officer on board USS Lake Champlain (CVA-39 ). He was promoted to Commander, 1 January 1954.
From 1957 to 1959, Commander Flint was once again in flight test operations at NATC Patuxent River. In 1959, he was assigned as Chief of Staff to the commanding officer of Readiness Air Wing Twelve (RCVW-12) at NAS Miramar, San Diego, California. It was while in this assignment that he set the World Altitude Record with the YF4H-1. On 1 July 1962, Flint was promoted to the rank of Captain and took command of RCVW-12.
Captain Flint took command of USS Merrick (AKA-97), an Andromeda-class attack cargo transport, 16 July 1966. (A “deep-draft command,” that is command of a large naval ship, is generally considered a prerequisite to being selected for command of an aircraft carrier.) Merrick was operating in the western Pacific and Vietnam. Captain Flint remained in command until 13 May 1967.
Captain Lawrence Earl Flint, Jr., retired from the United States Navy in March 1968. He and Mrs. Flint resided in La Jolla, a seaside community within the city of San Diego, California, until his death, 16 November 1993. She passed away 20 December 1996.
¹ FAI Record File Number 10352: 30,040 meters (98,557 feet), 6 December 1959; FAI Record File Number 9060: 2,585.425 kilometers per hour (1,606.509 miles per hour), 22 November 1961; and FAI Record File Number 8535: 20,252 meters (66,444 feet), 5 December 1961.
4 November 1927: Captain Hawthorne C. Gray, United States Army Air Corps, a balloon pilot since 1921, has carried out a series of ascents to study the effects of very high altitude on air crews.
Gray lifted off from Scott Field, Belleville, Illinois, at 2:13 p.m., in a helium-filled balloon with an open wicker gondola suspended below. The balloon, Air Corps serial number S 30-241, was constructed of rubberized silk and coated with aluminum paint. It had a volume of 70,000 cubic feet (1,982.2 cubic meters). In the gondola were instruments for measuring altitude and temperature, as well as two sealed recording barographs provided by the National Aeronautic Association (NAA). Captain Gray was dressed in heavy leather clothing for protection against the cold. Three gas cylinders of oxygen were provided for breathing at altitude.
Early in the ascent, high winds carried him to the south, and though he was accompanied by four airplanes, their pilots quickly lost sight of Gray’s balloon. It disappeared into a heavy overcast 20 minutes after takeoff and rose to a peak altitude of 42,470 feet (12,944.9 meters) at 4:05 p.m.
Based on Captain Gray’s notes and data from the barographs, it was concluded that his ascent was at a much slower rate than his previous altitude flights. At 3:17 p.m., he wrote “Clock frozen.” Without the clock, Gray was unable to calculate his time aloft and the amount of breathing oxygen remaining. Estimates prior to lift off were that the supply would run out at 4:38 p.m. The balloon had only descended to 39,000 feet (11,887 meters) by 4:28 p.m. The barographs showed an increase in rate of descent at this time, indicating that Captain Gray was venting helium from the balloon to try to descend faster. The descent slowed, however, suggesting that Gray had lost consciousness.
The balloon and gondola were found near Sparta, Tennessee at 5:20 p.m., with Hawthorne Gray’s body curled in the bottom of the gondola. Captain Gray suffered a loss of oxygen which resulted in his death.
Captain Gray was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, posthumously, and is buried at the Arlington National Cemetery.
His citation reads:
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 2, 1926, takes pride in presenting the Distinguished Flying Cross (Posthumously) to Captain (Air Corps) Hawthorne C. Gray, U.S. Army Air Corps, for heroism while participating in an aerial flight. On 9 March 1927, Capitan Gray attempted to establish the World’s altitude record for aircraft, but due to the faulty oxygen apparatus he fainted at an altitude of 27,000 feet recovering consciousness after 52 minute, when his balloon, having over shot its equilibrium point, descended to an atmosphere low enough to sustain life. Undaunted by this experience, Captain Gray on 4 May 1927, made a record attempt when he attained an altitude of 42,470 feet, higher than any other Earth creature has ever gone. On his descent, however, his balloon failed to parachute, and it was necessary for him to descend from 8,000 feet in a parachute. With faith unshaken, and still displaying great courage and self reliance, Capitan Gray, on 4 November 1927, made the third attempt, which resulted in his making the supreme sacrifice. Having attained an altitude of 42,000 feet he waited for ten minutes, testing his reactions, before making a last rapid climb to his ceiling and a more rapid descent to safe atmosphere. Undoubtedly his courage was greater than his supply of oxygen, which gave out at about 37,000 feet.
War Department, General Orders No. 5 (1928)
Hawthorne Charles Gray was born at Pasco, Washington, 16 February 1889. He was the fourth of six children of William Polk Gray, a river steamboat pilot, and Oceanna (“Ocia”) Falkland Gray.
In 1913, Gray was employed as a baggageman for the Northern Pacific Railway at the Pasco Station. Gray attended University of Idaho at Moscow, Idaho, as a member of the Class of 1913. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering, B.S.(E.E.)
Hawthorne C. Gray served as an enlisted soldier with the 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry, Idaho National Guard, 1911–1912, a second lieutenant, 25th Infantry, Idaho National Guard, from 7 March 1912 to 23 April 1913. He was qualified as an Expert Rifleman. Gray enlisted in the United States Army, serving in the Hospital Corps and Quartermaster Corps from 19 January 1915 to 25 June 1917. He participated in the Mexican Expedition, under General John J. Pershing.
Sergeant Senior Grade Gray was commissioned as a second lieutenant, 32nd Infantry, 3 June 1917, and promoted to 1st lieutenant on the same day. Lieutenant Gray was promoted to captain (temporary), 34th Infantry, on 5 August. The rank of captain became permanent on 24 February 1920.
Captain Gray was assigned to duty with the Air Service from 9 August 1920, and was transferred to that branch was transferred on 29 August 1921. His date of rank was retroactive to 21 February 1920. Gray graduated from the Army’s Balloon School, Ross Field, in 1921. In 1923 graduated from the Air Service Primary Flying School at Brooks Field, Texas, in 1923, and from the Balloon and Airship School at Scott Field in 1924.
Captain Gray and Mrs. Gray traveled to Europe to participate in the 15th Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett (the Gordon Bennett Cup balloon race), held 30 May 1926 at Wilrijck, a small city near Antwerp, Belgium. Gray and his team mate, Lieutenant Douglas Johnson, placed second out of eighteen competitors, and behind another American team. Gray and Johnson traveled 599 kilometers (964 statute miles) in 12:00 hours, landing in the Duchy of Meklenburgia, a free state of the Weimar Republic (northern Germany), at about 4:00 a.m., 31 May. The Grays returned to the United States, arriving aboard S.S. President Harding at New York City after an eight-day voyage from Cherbourg, on 23 July 1926.
Captain Gray reached an altitude of 8,690 meters (28,510.5 feet) over Scott Field on 9 March 1927. This ascent set three Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Records for Altitude. ¹ On 4 May 1927, Captain Gray reached approximately 42,240 feet (12,875 meters). Because of a high rate of descent, he parachuted from the gondola at about 8,000 feet (2,438 meters). Because he was not on board at the landing, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) did not recognize the flight as an official altitude record.
Captain Gray was married to the former Miss Miriam Lorette Maddux of Santa Rosa, California. They would have four children. Their first died at the age of 1 year, 3 months.
¹ FAI Record File Numbers: 10614, Ballooning, Subclass A-6th; 10615, Ballooning, Subclass A-7th; Ballooning, Subclass A-8th.
22 October 1938: Lieutenant Colonel Mario Pezzi, Regia Aeronautica, set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for altitude when he flew an experimental Società Italiana Caproni Ca.161bis to an altitude of 17,083 meters (56,047 feet).¹
Pezzi was awarded the Medaglia d’oro al Valore Aeronautico and promoted to the rank of colonel.
The Caproni Ca.161bis was an experimental single-seat, single engine, two-bay biplane developed from the earlier Ca.113. It was 27 feet, ¾ inch (8.249 meters) long with a wingspan of 46 feet, 9 inches (14.249 meters) and height of 11 feet, 5¾ inches (3.500 meters). The airplane’s empty weight was 1,205 kilograms (2,657 pounds) and gross weight was 1,650 kilograms (3,638 pounds).
ub The Ca.161bis was powered by an air-cooled, supercharged, 38.673 liter (2,359.97 cubic inch) Piaggio P.XI R.C.100/2v two-row 14-cylinder radial engine which produced 700 horsepower and drove a four-bladed propeller through a 0.62:1 reduction gear. This engine was a license-built version of the French Gnome-Rhône 14K Mistral Major.
¹ FAI Record File Number 11713. This record was retired by changes of the sporting code.
12 October 1961: From August to October 1961, Jackie Cochran, a consultant to Northrop Corporation, set a series of speed, distance and altitude records while flying a Northrop T-38A-30-NO Talon supersonic trainer, serial number 60-0551. On the final day of the record series, she set two Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world records, taking the T-38 to altitudes of 16,841 meters (55,253 feet) in horizontal flight ¹ and reaching a peak altitude of 17,091 meters 56,073 feet). ²
Famed U.S. Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager, a close friend of Jackie Cochran, kept notes during the record series:
“October 12 Jackie took off at 9 am in the T-38 using afterburner. Bud Anderson and I chased her in the F-100. It was an excellent flight with everything working perfect. Jackie entered the course at 55,800 feet at .93 Mach and accelerated to radar. At the end of the run Jackie pulled up to 56,800 and then pushed over. She cut the right afterburner at 52,000 feet and the left one at 50,000. At 12,000 feet she removed the face piece from her pressure suit and made a perfect landing on the lake bed.
“Northrop-Air (Norair) presented Miss Cochran with one dozen yellow roses.
“A very tender ending to a wonderful program and a fitting token to a wonderful lady—a pilot who gave Norair much more than they expected.”
— Brigadier General Charles Elwood (“Chuck”) Yeager, U.S. Air Force, quoted in Jackie Cochran: An Autobiography, by Jacqueline Cochran and Maryann Bucknum Brinley, Bantam Books, New York, 1987, Pages 307–308.
The T-38A is a two-seat, twin-engine jet trainer capable of supersonic speed. It is powered by two General Electric J85-5A turbojet engines producing 2,050 pounds of thrust (3,850 with afterburner). Jackie Cochran demonstrated its maximum speed, Mach 1.3. It has a service ceiling of 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) and a range of 1,140 miles (1,835 kilometers). In production from 1961 to 1972, Northrop has produced nearly 1,200 T-38s. It remains in service with the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Jackie Cochran’s record-setting T-38 is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum.