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Operation SKYBURNER Aircraft

Fifty-two years ago this month, a United States Navy YF4H-1 Phantom II set a world absolute speed record of 1,606.342 mph.  Piloting the aircraft for this record flight was United States Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Robert B. Robinson.

The McDonnell Douglas YF4H-1 Phantom II was first flown in May 1958.  The aircraft measured 58 feet length with a wing span of 38 feet.  Gross take-off weight was 44,000 pounds.  A pair of General Electric J79-GE-8 turbojets produced a total of 34,000 pounds of thrust in afterburner.

The YF4H-1 was the first in a long line of Phantom II variants that would eventually see a production run of 5,195 aircraft.  Second only to the nearly 10,000 production units of the multi-variant North American F-86 Sabre.

Since 1961 marked the 50th anniversary of Naval Aviation, the US Navy planned to celebrate by establishing a series of speed records.  The aircraft of choice was their super-powered Phantom II.  Operation SAGEBURNER was the low altitude speed program (i.e., 125 feet off the deck) while Operation SKYBURNER was the high altitude speed component.

On Wednesday, 22 November 1961, the second YF4H-1 (S/N 142260) took-off from Edwards Air Force Base, California in an attempt to surpass the existing world absolute speed record.  A United States Air Force F-106 Delta Dart, piloted by Major Joseph W. Rogers, held the existing record of 1,525.96 mph which was set on Tuesday, 15 December 1959.

Robinson had to fly a precisely-timed and positioned flight profile to extract maximum performance from his YF4H-1.  FAI rules required the aircraft to enter the Edwards speed course in level flight and to make two runs.  The final speed mark would be the average of the two runs.

The Phantom II was a big airplane and had to carry a lot of fuel.  In addition to a full internal fuel load, the aircraft carried a 600-gallon centerline tank and a pair of 370-gallon wing tanks.  Following take-off to the east, climb-out was made to the south toward El Centro, California.  Arriving in the area, Robinson made a sweeping left-hand turn over the Salton Sea and accelerated the aircraft north back towards Edwards.

As the aircraft gained speed, Robinson dropped the empty centerline fuel tank over the Chocolate Mountains gunnery range.  Then, arriving over the Bristol Dry Lake range, he punched-off the empty wing tanks.  The aircraft was now lighter and aerodynamically cleaner.

Robinson approached the Edwards speed course from the east in full afterburner.  The Phantom II exited the 20-mile course quickly.  Following his first pass, Robinson came out of afterburner, made a Mach 0.9 turn to the south, cruised 105 miles out and then made the turn back to Edwards for the second speed pass.

His aircraft lighter now and not having to concern himself with the logistics of dropping empty fuel tanks, Robinson was clocked at over 1,700 mph on his second time through the Edwards speed course.  The two-run average was 1,606.342 mph; a new world absolute speed record.

The F-4 Phantom II would go on to a legendary combat career in both the United States Navy and United States Air Force.  Among many distinctions, the McDonnel Douglas F-4 Phantom II is the only aircraft to have seen service with both the USAF Thunderbirds (1969-1973) and the US Navy Blue Angels (1969-1974) flight demonstration squadrons.

For setting the world absolute speed record in 1961, Operation SKYBURNER pilot Bob Robinson was presented with the Distinguished Flying Cross by the then-Secretary of the Navy, John B. Connally.

Posted in Aerospace, History

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