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Mig Alley Legend

Sixty-eight years ago this month, the swept-wing XP-86, the initial version of the famed USAF/North America F-86 Sabre, began flight testing at what is now Edwards Air Force Base. The popular Mig Alley legend would be produced in numerous variants and ultimately rack-up a total production run of nearly 10,000 aircraft worldwide.

In the waning days of World War II, the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) issued the requirements for a new high-speed, jet-powered fighter/interceptor aircraft. North American Aviation (NAA) captured the USAAF’s attention with a prototype swept-wing aircraft known as the XP-86. The “X” designation was shorthand for Experimental while the “P” stood for Pursuit.

The XP-86 (later designated as the XF-86 where “F” stood for Fighter) was the first United States fighter to incorporate wing sweep. The key benefit derived from sweeping the wings was to greatly reduce transonic wave drag. Based on aerodynamics data captured from the defeated Third Reich, NAA engineers designed the XF-86 with a wing sweep of 35 degrees.

A drawback to using wing sweep is that low-speed flight characteristics are adversely affected. The principal detrimental effect being a reduction in lift. However, NAA solved this problem by the incorporation of leading edge slats to enhance lift production at low speed.

The XF-86 measured roughly 37-feet both in length and wingspan. Empty weight was some 12,000 lbs. Power was provided by a Chevrolet J35-C-3 turbojet that generated a paltry 3,750 pounds of thrust. Later variants of the Sabre would be powered by jet engines generating nearly 10,000 pounds of thrust.

On Wednesday, 01 October 1947, XF-86 No. 1 took to the air for the first time from Muroc Army Air Field, California. USAAF Major and WW II 16-kill ace George S. “Wheaties” Welch was at the controls of the XF-86. Intestingly, the historical record strongly suggests that Welch exceeded the speed of sound during a dive on that first flight test.

The case of George Welch is an intriguing sub-plot of the F-86 Sabre story. Welch was stationed at Pearl Harbor on 07 December 1941. He was one of the very few American pilots to get in the air and fight the attacking Japanese forces. Numerically overwhelmed, he nontheless splashed four (4) enemy aircraft and lived to fly and fight another day.

Welch served three (3) combat tours in WW II for a total of 348 combat missions. After leaving the service in 1944, he joined North American Aviation as a test pilot. Welch progressed quickly and became NAA’s Chief Test Pilot. This path ultimately led to Welch flight testing the XP-86 Sabre.

Although denied verification in official Air Force records, both oral history and strong circumstantial evidence points to the high likelihood that Welch exceeded Mach 1 at least twice before the Bell XS-1 did so on Tuesday, 14 October 1947.

Incredibly, the first instance of Welch and the XF-86 exceeding Mach 1 was on the occasion of its first flight test! Welch dove the aircraft from 35,000 feet and reportedly generated a weak sonic boom.

The second instance of Mach 1 exceedance reportedly occurred on Tuesday, 14 October 1947. This time Welch dove the XF-86 from 37,000 feet and generated a stronger sonic boom. Apparently, this event took place just before the Bell XS-1, with USAAF Major Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager at the controls, achieved Mach 1.06 later that same morning.

Welch was never officially credited with being the first to achieve supesonic flight. A number of reasons account for this circumstance. First, his aircraft was not instrumented properly to verify flight performance at quasi-supersonic speeds. Additionally, Welch’s aircraft was not tracked by radar.

In addition to the technical reasons cited above, there was political intrigue surrounding Welch’s supersonic dive flights as well. NAA (and thus Welch) had been ordered not to exceed Mach 1 before the rocket-powered Bell XS-1 did so. Perhaps the only concession accorded Welch was that USAF later referred to Yeager’s historic superonic flight as the first time the sound barrier was broken in level flight.

George Welch went on to a distinguished, but all too brief flight test career. On Monday, 25 May 1953, he became the first man to exceed Mach 1 in level flight in a jet-powered production aircraft. That aircraft was the North American F-100 Super Sabre. Welch perished on Tuesday, 12 October 1954 when his YF-100A went out of control and distintegrated during a 7-g pull-up at Mach 1.55.

For its part, the F-86 Sabre ultimately served long and well in the air forces of the United States and a host of other western-friendly nations. Perhaps its greatest claim to fame accrues from the type’s remarkable aerial combat perfromance in the Korean War. Indeed, despite being numerically bested by Soviet-built MIG-15 aircraft, the official record shows that USAF pilots made 792 kills flying the Sabre. Compared with 76 kills made by the opposition, the Sabre registered a phenomenal 10:1 kill ratio.

Posted in Aerospace, History

X-15 Max Speed Mission

Forty-eight years ago this month, USAF Major William J. “Pete” Knight piloted the fabled USAF/North American X-15A-2 hypersonic research aircraft to a record speed of 4,520 mph – about a mile and a quarter per second.

North American’s original X-15 production run consisted of three (3) aircraft. The X-15A-2 was a rebuild of the 2nd airframe (S/N 56-6671) which had been severely damaged during an emergency landing at Mud Lake, Nevada in November of 1962.

The rebuilt aircraft was configured with a pair of droppable propellant tanks that allowed the type’s XLR-99 rocket engine to operate 60 seconds beyond the stock X-15’s 80-second burn time. Among other modifications, the aircraft also carried a pylon-mounted dummy ramjet in the ventral region of the aft fuselage.

With the addition of the external propellant tanks, the X-15A-2 was really a three-stage vehicle. The first stage was the NASA NB-52B mothership which launched the X-15 at Mach 0.82 and 45,000 feet. The second stage consisted of the propellant-laden external tanks which were jettisoned at Mach 2.0 and 70,000 feet. The third stage was the X-15A-2 with its entire internal propellant load.

Due to the increased speed of the X-15A-2, the aircraft was covered with Martin MA-25S ablator to protect it from the higher aerodynamic heating loads. The baseline ablator was pink in color and gave the X-15A-2 a rather odd appearance. Fortunately, application of a white wear/sealer over the ablator gave the aircraft a more dignified look.

On Tuesday, 03 October 1967, Pete Knight and the X-15A-2 dropped away from the NB-52B (S/N 52-008) at the start of the X-15 Program’s 188th mission. Knight ignited the XLR-99 rocket engine and excuted a pull-up followed by a pushover to level flight at a little over 102,000 feet. Aircraft speed at XLR-99 burnout was 4,520 mph (Mach 6.7).

As the aircraft decelerated following burnout, Knight executed a series of pre-planned flight maneuvers to acquire vital aerodynamics data. However, passing through Mach 5.5, he received an indication in the cockpit that a high temperature condition existed in the XLR-99 engine bay.

Knight attempted to jettison the aircraft’s remaining propellants, but to no avail. The jettison tubes were welded shut by whatever was happening in the engine bay. This meant he would land heavier and faster than usual. Fortunately, Knight’s piloting skills allowed him to get the X-15A-2 on to Rogers Dry Lake in one piece.

As flight support personnel inspected the X-15A-2 airframe following Knight’s emergency landing, they were alarmed at what they found. The aft ventral region of the aircraft had incurred significant thermal damage. Further, the dummy ramjet was gone.

As reported in the classic NASA document, TM-X-1669, higher-than-expected aerodynamic heating levels were responsible for the damage to the X-15A-2.

First, shock wave/boundary layer interaction heating on the lower fuselage just ahead of the pylon (1) completely destroyed the ablator in that region and (2) penetrated the Inconel-X airframe structure. This introduced very high temperature air into the X-15 engine bay.

Second, impingement of the dummy ramjet nose shock on the detached bow shock coming off of the pylon produced a shear layer that focused on the pylon leading edge. The resulting heating rates were of sufficient magnitude and duration to both burn away the pylon ablator and burn through the pylon structure. The weakened pylon structural attachment eventually failed and the dummy ramjet departed the main airframe.

Pete Knight will forever hold the record for the fastest X-15 flight. However, the X-15A-2 never flew again. Only 11 more flights remained in the X-15 Program at the time. A lack of time and funding meant that little was to be gained by repairing the thermally-damaged aircraft.

As for the final disposition of the X-15A-2 (S/N 56-6671), the aircraft’s remaining ablator was removed with its external surface cleaned-up and original markings restored. The aircraft now resides in a place of honor at the National Museum of the United States Air Force located at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio.

Posted in Aerospace, History

Through the Sonic Wall

Sixty-eight years ago this week, the legendary USAF/Bell XS-1 experimental aircraft exceeded the speed of sound when it reached a maximum speed of 700 mph (Mach 1.06) at 45,000 feet.

Bell Aircraft Corporation of Buffalo, New York built three copies of the XS-1 under contract to the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF). The aircraft were designed to approach and then fly beyond the speed of sound.

The Bell XS-1 was 31-feet in length and had a wing span of 28 feet. Gross take-off weight was around 12,500 lbs. The aircraft had an empty weight of about 7,000 lbs. Propulsion was provided by a Reaction Motors XLR-11 rocket motor capable of generating a maximum thrust of 6,000 lbs.

On the morning of Tuesday, 14 October 1947, the XS-1 (S/N 46-062) dropped away from its B-29 mothership (S/N 45-21800 ) as the pair flew at 220 mph and 20,000 feet. In the XS-1 cockpit was USAAF Captain and World War II ace Charles E. Yeager. The young test pilot had named the aircraft Glamorous Glennis in honor of his wife.

Following drop, Yeager sequentially-lit all four XLR-11 rocket chambers during a climb and push-over that ultimately brought him to level flight around 45,000 feet. The resulting acceleration profile propelled the XS-1 slightly beyond Mach 1 for about 20 seconds. Yeager then shutdown the rocket, decelerated to subsonic speeds, and landed the XS-1 on Muroc Dry Lake at Muroc Army Airfield, California.

The world would not find out about the daring exploits of 14 October 1947 until December of the same year. As it was, the announcement came from a trade magazine that even today is sometimes referred to as “Aviation Leak”.

Today, Glamorous Glennis is prominently displayed in the Milestones of Flight hall of the National Air and Space Museum located in Washington, DC. For his intrepid piloting efforts in breaking the sound barrier, Chuck Yeager was a co-recipient of the 1948 Collier Trophy.

Posted in Aerospace, History

Bold Orion’s ASAT Mission

Fifty-six years ago this month, the USAF Bold Orion air-launched ballistic missile performed a successful intercept of the Explorer VI satellite. This event marked the first time in history that a endoatmospherically-launched missile intercepted a target vehicle in space.

Bold Orion was a 1950’s-era air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) prototype developed by Martin Aircraft for the United States Air Force (USAF). It was part of USAF’s Weapons System 199 (WS-199) research and development program. The goal of WS-199 was to develop technology to be used in emerging strategic weapons systems by the Strategic Air Command (SAC).

The Bold Orion was developed using components obtained from existing missile systems as a cost savings measure. The missile was initially configured as a single stage vehicle. Power was provided by a Thiokol TX-20 Sergeant solid rocket motor. However, preliminary flight tests showed that the vehicle lacked sufficient kinematic performance. The addition of an ABL X-248 Altair solid rocket motor made Bold Orion a two-stage vehicle.

The two-stage Bold Orion configuration was 37 feet in length and had a maximum diameter of 31 inches. The vehicle was air-launched from a USAF/Boeing B-47 Stratojet aircraft. Missile launch occurred while the carrier aircraft executed a zoom climb maneuver. The option was available to fly either a maximum range endoatmospheric mission (about 1,000 nm) or achieve exoatmospheric altitudes as high as 150 nm.

The Bold Orion flight test program consisted of a dozen missions. The first six of these were single-stage vehicles which were flown between May and November of 1958. The remaining rounds were two-stage configurations which were tested between December of 1958 and October of 1959. All missions were air-launched off the coast of Florida and flown down the Eastern Test Range.

Bold Orion’s grandest moment came on the occasion of its final flight. The goal was to test the vehicle’s ability to perform in the anti-satellite (ASAT) role. The Explorer VI satellite served as the mission target. A direct hit was not required since a tactical interceptor would be configured with a nuclear warhead. Detonation of the nuclear device within several miles of the target would be sufficient to destroy it.

Bold Orion’s ASAT mission occurred on Tuesday, 13 October 1959. Launch took place within the Atlantic Missile Range Drop Zone (AMR DZ). The altitude, latitude and longitude of the drop point were 35,000 feet, 29 deg North and 79 deg West, respectively. Bold Orion successfully intercepted the Explorer VI satellite, passing its target at a range of less than 3.5 nm and an altitude of 136 nm.

The Bold Orion ASAT test marked the first interception of a satellite in space and verified the feasibility of an ASAT system. However, negative political ramifications came along with technical success. Specifically, the Eisenhower Administration intended to keep space neutral. Bold Orion’s overtones of hostile intent did not play well with that mandate. As a result, ASAT development within the United States was halted not long after Bold Orion’s final mission.

Bold Orion’s success gave USAF the flight experience and technology to develop the Skybolt ALBM. Known as GAM-87, this two-stage missile sported a W59 thermonuclear warhead with a yield of 1.2 megatons. A quartet of pylon-mounted Skybolt missiles would be carried by and air-launched from a USAF/Boeing B-52H Stratofortress. While Skybolt’s kinematic performance was impressive, test problems and the development of the Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) ultimately led to its cancellation.

Posted in Aerospace, History