Tag Archives: World Speed Record

3 September 1954

Major John L. Armstrong, U.S. Air Force, standing on the wing of his record-setting F-86H-1-NH  Sabre. (Jet Pilot Overseas)

3 September 1954: At the Dayton Air Show, being held for the first time at the James M. Cox Municipal Airport, Major John L. (“Jack”) Armstrong, U.S. Air Force, flew his North American Aviation F-86H-1-NH Sabre, 52-1998, to a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Speed Over a Closed Circuit of 500 Kilometers Without Payload, averaging 1,045.206 kilometers per hour (649.461 miles per hour).¹

Similar to the F-86H-1-NA Sabre flown by Captain Armstrong, this is F-86H-10-NH 53-1298. (U.S. Air Force)
Similar to the F-86H-1-NH Sabre flown by Captain Armstrong, this is F-86H-10-NH 53-1298. (U.S. Air Force)

The F-86H was a fighter-bomber variant of the famous Sabre Jet day fighter. It was equipped with a much more powerful General Electric J73-GE-3 turbojet engine. The engine was larger that the J47 used in previous F-86 models, and this required a much larger air intake and airframe modifications. The fuselage was 6 inches deeper and two feet longer than the F-86F. This accommodated the new engine and an increase in fuel load. The tail surfaces were changed with an increase in the height of the vertical fin and the elevators were changed to an “all-flying” horizontal stabilizer. The first F-86Hs built retained the six Browning AN-M3 .50 caliber machine guns of the F-86F, but this was quickly changed to four Pontiac M39 20 millimeter revolver cannon.

Another view of North American Aviation F-86-10-NH Sabre 53-1298. This fighter bomber i similar to the airplane flown by Colonel Armstrong to set a world speed record. (U.S. Air Force)
Another view of North American Aviation F-86-10-NH Sabre 53-1298. This fighter bomber is similar to the airplane flown by Major Armstrong to set a world speed record. (U.S. Air Force)

The North American Aviation F-86H Sabre was 38 feet, 10 inches (11.836 meters) long with a wingspan of 39 feet, 1 inch (11.913 meters) and overall height of 14 feet, 11 inches (4.547 meters). Empty weight was 13,836 pounds (6,276 kilograms) and gross weight was 24,296 pounds (11,021 kilograms).

The F-86H was powered by a General Electric J73-GE-3D or -3E engine, a single-spool, axial-flow, turbojet engine, which used a 12-stage compressor section with variable inlet vanes, 10 combustion chambers and 2-stage turbine section. It produced 8,920 pounds of thrust (39.68 kilonewtons) at 7,950 r.p.m. The J73 was 16 feet, 8 inches (5.08 meters) long, 3 feet, 3.5 inches (1.03 meters) in diameter and weighed 3,650 pounds (1,656 kilograms).

The F-86H had a maximum speed of 692 miles per hour (1,114 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level and 617 miles per hour (993 kilometers) at 30,000 feet (9,144 meters). The fighter bomber had an initial rate of climb of 12,900 feet per minute (65.53 meters per second) and it could reach 30,000 feet in 5.7 minutes. The service ceiling was 50,800 feet (15,484 meters). With bombs, the F-86H had a combat radius of 403 miles (649 kilometers) at 552 miles per hour (888 kilometers per hour). The maximum ferry range was 1,810 miles (2,913 kilometers).

F-86H Sabres (after the first ten production airplanes) were armed with four Pontiac M39 20 mm autocannon with 600 rounds of ammunition. In ground attack configuration, they could carry rockets and bombs or “Special Store” that would be delivered by “toss bombing.” 473 F-86H Sabres were built before production ended.

The F-86H Sabre became operational in 1954, but by 1958 all that remained in the U.S. Air Force Inventory were reassigned to the Air National Guard. The last one was retired in 1972.

North American Aviation F-86H Sabre. (U.S. Air Force)

John L. Armstrong was born in Orange County, California, 19 July 1922. He was the fourth child of Milton Williams Armstrong, an engineer, and Olive M. Meyer Armstrong. As a child, he was called “Jake.”

Major Armstrong had been a fighter pilot during World War II, flying Lockheed P-38 Lightnings, initially with the 554 Fighter Training Squadron, 496th Fighter Training Group.

On 13 March 1944, Armstrong made a forced landing at North Killingholme when his fighter ran out of fuel.

2nd Lieutenant Armstrong was assigned to the 79th Fighter Squadron, 20th Fighter Group based at RAF Kings Cliffe, Northamptonshire, England, 26 March 1944. He flew the Lockheed P-38 Lightning.

Lt. John L. Armstrong, 79th Fighter Squadron, 20th Fighter Group, with a Lockheed P-38 Lightning,1944. (The 20th Fighter Group Project)

The 79th transitioned to the P-51 Mustang. Armstrong was promoted to first lieutenant 26 June 1944. He was officially credited with having destroyed one enemy Focke-Wulf Fw 190. On 28 August 1944, while flying his 30th combat mission, his North American Aviation P-51D-5-NA Mustang, 44-13791, Guardian Angel,  was shot down by anti-aircraft gunfire while he was attacking a railway roundhouse at Bad Greuznach, Germany. Armstrong bailed out but was captured and held at Stalag Luft I at Barth, Western Pomerania. He was returned to U.S. military control in June 1945.

Major Armstrong had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with five oak leaf clusters (six awards), the Purple Heart, the Prisoner of War Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal.

Two days after setting the speed record, Jack Armstrong was attempting to increase it. His Sabre broke up in flight and Major Armstrong was killed. His remains were buried at the Loma Vista Memorial Park, Fullerton, California, 11 September 1954.

This exhibit at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson AFB, ohio, commemorates Major Armstrong's record-setting flight. His flight helmet is included in the display. (U.S. Air Force)
This exhibit at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, commemorates Major Armstrong’s record-setting flight. His flight helmet is included in the display. Visible behind the display case is North American Aviation F-86H-10-NH Sabre 53-1352.  (U.S. Air Force)

¹ FAI Record File Number 8860

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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7 November 1945

The Gloster Meteor F Mk.IV, EE455, 1945. (Gloster Aircraft Co., Ltd.)

7 November 1945: Wing Commander Hugh Joseph Wilson, AFC and Two Bars, Royal Air Force, Commandant of the Empire Test Pilots’ School at RAF Cranfield, set the first world speed record with a jet-propelled airplane, and the first speed record by an airplane in excess of 600 miles per hour (965.606 kilometers per hour), when he flew the Gloster Meteor F Mk.IV, EE454, to 975.68 kilometers per hour (606.26 miles per hour)—0.80 Mach—at an altitude of 250 feet (76.2 meters). The course was an 8 mile (12.9 kilometers) straight away from the Herne Bay Pier to Reculver Point, along the south coast of the Thames Estuary. This was a new Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) record for speed over a 3 kilometer course.

FAI Record File Num #9847 [Direct Link]
Status: ratified – retired by changes of the sporting code
Region: World
Class: C (Powered Aeroplanes)
Sub-Class: C-1 (Landplanes)
Category: Not applicable
Group: 3 : turbo-jet
Type of record: Speed over a 3 km course
Performance: 975.68 km/h
Date: 1945-11-07
Course/Location: Manston, KT (UK)
Claimant H.J. Wilson (GBR)
Aeroplane: Gloster Mk IV “Meteor”
Engines: 2 Rolls Royce Derwent

Gloster Meteor Mk.III EE457, sistership of the two record-setting Mk.IV prototypes. (Unattributed)
Gloster Meteor F Mk.III EE457, sistership of the two record-setting Mk.IV prototypes. (Unattributed)

Months of preparation by both the Royal Air Force, which formed a special “flight,” and Gloster Aviation Co., Ltd., went into the speed record effort. Two Meteor F Mk.III fighters, EE454 and EE455, were modified on the production line to the new Mk.IV version to attempt the speed record. The standard B.37 Rolls-Royce Derwent Series I turbojet engines were replaced with Derwent Series V turbojets and lengthened jet nacelles. The wings were shortened, the tips reshaped and the canopy was cut down and strengthened. All trim tabs on flight control surfaces were disabled and their edges sealed. Landing gear and gear door up-latches were strengthened to prevent them from being sucked open at high speed. The airplanes were lightened and all armament deleted. The surfaces were smoothed and painted in a gloss finish. EE454 retained the standard camouflage pattern, while EE455 was painted in a distinctive yellow-gold color.

Many hours of flight testing were performed to ensure that the airplanes would be stable enough at high speeds while flying at the very low altitude required by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale‘s rules. The slightest deviation from smooth flight would have disastrous results.

Group Captain Hugh J. Wilson CBE AFC with Gloster Chief Test Pilot Eric Stanley Greenwood OBE. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test & Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)
Wing Commander Hugh Joseph Wilson, AFC and Two Bars, with Gloster Chief Test Pilot Eric Stanley Greenwood. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test & Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)

EE454 was flown by Wing Commander Hugh Joseph Wilson, AFC and Two Bars (three awards), and EE455 by Gloster Chief Test Pilot Eric Stanley Greenwood OBE. Each airplane was required to make four passes over the course, with two in each direction. The airplanes were required to remain at or below 250 feet during the runs over the course, and during the turns at the end of each run, below 1,300 feet.

On the day of the speed runs, the weather was marginal. It was cold and overcast, and visibility varied from 7 to 12 miles along the course. The wind was 8–12 m.p.h. from the north west.

Wilson made four passes over the course. His speeds for each run were 604, 608, 602 and 611 miles per hour (972, 978, 969, and 983 kilometers per hour). Greenwood made his speed runs an hour later. His runs were 599, 608, 598 and 607 miles per hour (964, 978, 962 and 977 kilometers per hour).

Wilson’s average speed was the higher of the two. His official homologated record speed is 975.68 kilometers per hour (606.26 miles per hour).

Post-flight inspections revealed that the sheet metal of the Meteors’ engine intakes had significantly distorted by the intense pressure differentials experienced during the speed runs.

The B.37 Rolls-Royce Derwent Series V, interestingly, was not a direct developent of the preceding Derwent Series I–IV engines. Instead, it was a scaled-down version of the RB.41 Nene, which was in turn, a scaled-up and improved Derwent I. The Derwent V had a single-stage, two-sided, centrifugal-flow compressor and a single-stage axial-flow turbine. The compressor impeller and turbine rotor were mounted on a single shaft which was supported on each end by roller bearings, and in the center by a ball bearing. The Derwent V used nine combustion chambers, and burned aviation kerosene. Engine lubricating oil was added to the fuel at a 1:100 ratio, by volume. The Series V had a Normal Power rating of 3,000 pounds of thrust (13.345 kilonewtons) at 14,000 r.p.m., and a Take-off or Military Power rating of 3,500 pounds of thrust (15.569 kilonewtons) at 14,600 r.p.m. (There was no time limit for this power setting.) The engine produced a maximum 4,000 pounds of thrust (17.793 kilonewtons) at 15,000 r.p.m. at Sea Level. During the speed runs, thrust was restricted to 3,600 pounds (16.014 kilonewtons) on both Meteors. The Derwent V engine was 7 feet, 4.5 inches (2.248 meters) long, 3 feet, 7 inches (1.092 meters) in diameter and weighed 1,280 pounds (581 kilograms).

(Rolls-Royce named its piston aircraft engines after predatory birds, e.g., Kestrel, Merlin, but its turbine engines were named after rivers.)

Gloster Meteor Mk. IV EE455 on jack stands. (Unattributed)
Gloster Meteor F Mk. IV EE455 on jack stands. (Unattributed)

British Pathé news film of the speed runs can be seen at:

Group Captain Wilson was born at Westminster, London, England, 28 May 1908, the only son of Alfred Wilson and Jessie Wood Young Wilson. He was educated at the University School, Hastings, and the Merchant Taylors’ School, London.

Wilson received a short service commission as a Pilot Officer in the Royal Air Force, 13 September 1929 and was assigned to the No. 5 Flight Training School, at RAF Sealand, Flintshire, Wales. Pilot Officer Wilson was then assigned to 111 Squadron at Hornchurch, Essex, 1930–1932. He was promoted to Flying Officer, 13 March 1931. From 1932 to to 1934, “Willie” Wilson was assigned to the School of Naval Co-operation and Air Navigation at Lee-on-Solent, Hampshire.

On the completion of his five-year short service, Wilson was transferred to the Reserve Air Force Officers list. He qualified in flying boats and acted as a flight instructor for the RAF Reserve School. Wilson was promoted to Flight Lieutenant 1 April 1937, with seniority retroactive to 1 April 1936.

Flying Officer Wilson in the cockpit of a Blackburn Roc fighter.
Flying Officer Hugh Wilson in the cockpit of a prototype Blackburn Roc fighter, RAF Northolt, 22 May 1939.

While a reserve officer, Wilson was a test pilot for Blackburn Aircraft Ltd., and made the first flight of the Blackburn Roc. He then became a civil test pilot at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough.

In 1939 Flight Lieutenant Wilson was recalled to active duty. He was assigned as Commanding Officer, Aerodynamic Flight, RAE Farnborough, and also flew with No. 74 Fighter Squadron at Biggin Hill. On 1 September 1940, Wilson was promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader. In 1941, Wilson was appointed chief test pilot at the Royal Aircraft Establishment and was responsible for testing all captured enemy aircraft. He was promoted to Wing Commander, 20 August 1945.

Squadron Leader Hugh J. Wilson, AFC and Bar, in teh cocpit of a captured Focke-Wulf Fw 190A3, Werke Number 313, in RAF markings as MP499. (Royal Air Force)
Squadron Leader Hugh J. Wilson, AFC and Bar, in the cockpit of a captured Focke-Wulf Fw 190A 3, W.Nr. 313, in RAF markings as MP499, August 1942. (Detail from Imperial War Museum photograph)
CBE medal with Military ribbon.
Commander of the Order of the British Empire Medal with Military Division Ribbon. (Wikipedia)

Wing Commander Hugh Joseph Wilson, AFC and Two Bars, Royal Air Force, was named Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the King’s Birthday Honours List, 13 June 1946.

On 22 February 1947, Wing Commander Wilson married the former Thom Isobel Moira Sergeant (Mrs. Moira Garnham). They had one son. On 4 December 1959, he married Miss Patricia Frances Stanley Warren. They had two children.

Wing Commander Hugh J. Wilson retired from the Royal Air Force at his request 20 June 1948, with the rank of Group Captain. He died at Westminster, London 5 September 1990 at the age of 82 years.

Gloster Chief Test Pilot Eric Stanley “Terry” Greenwood (29 November 1908–February 1979) was the first pilot to exceed 600 miles per hour, while test flying the Meteors. He was appointed an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the King’s Birthday Honours List, 13 June 1946.

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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