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Maj. Chuck Yeager and the delta-wing Convair XF-92A. As an experimental test pilot, Major Yeager flew up to 50 hours per month in 37 different aircraft types and models in 1951. (Air Force photo)
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Happy 60th birthday Air Force Flight Test Center

Posted 6/22/2011   Updated 6/22/2011 Email story   Print story


by Air Force Flight Test Center History Office

6/22/2011 - EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Sixty years ago, an organization was born out of a need for innovation, knowledge and the capability of proving the systems and flying qualities of aircraft. "Ad Inexplorata" - Toward the Unexplored - was, and still is, the motto of the Air Force Flight Test Center, born June 25, 1951.

This is a look at that year, with a focus on those events that lead to the birth of the AFFTC at Edwards AFB.

In 1951, the first commercial, pressurized jet aircraft made its first flight. Chrysler introduced the first passenger car with power steering. The U.S. Census Bureau took delivery of the first commercial computer, the UNIVAC, which cost $1 million and weighed eight tons. To most people at that time a computer was still a person with a slide rule, such as the GS-5 engineering aides (called grunts) assigned to crunch numbers for flight test teams, or the women who worked as "computers" at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics at Edwards Air Force Base.

1951 also marked several important highlights for flight test at Edwards. In April, a new command, the Air Research and Development Command, was established to oversee Air Force research and development, including activities at Edwards. On May 1 the Experimental Test Pilot School opened its first classes at Edwards, having recently transferred from Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio.

June 25 marked another significant milestone. Under ARDC General Order 15, the Air Force Flight Test Center was established. Brig. Gen. Al Boyd, who had served as the chief of the Flight Test Division at Wright Field and commander of Edwards, became the first commander of the new AFFTC. General Boyd had worked hard to ensure that the center of Air Force flight test operations moved to the high desert of California.

ARDC regulation 2-24 outlined the new center's flight test mission: "to accomplish flight tests of aircraft, power plants, components, and allied development, and research and development related to such tests; to plan for, control and operate special test facilities for contractors and for other government agencies."

Edwards was already the de facto center for flight research, developmental test and evaluation well before June 1951. The first flight of an American jet aircraft, the Bell XP-59, took place at Edwards in 1942. Virtually every first-generation jet aircraft, both Air Force and Navy, made its first flight and completed initial flight tests at Edwards as the United States began to harness the potential of the turbojet revolution. And of course, it was at Edwards that Capt. Chuck Yeager became the first pilot to break the sound barrier in the experimental Bell X-1, October 1947. By June 1951, 41 distinct aircraft had made their first flights here, such as the XFJ-1, the P-80, the YB-49 and XB-45, and the aircraft under test included the B-36D, the C-124, the F-84F, the F-86D and -E, F-89, XF-92A, XF4D, C-124, X-4 and X-5.

The list of experimental flight test personnel at Edwards in 1951 reads like a Who's Who of the golden age of post-World War II American aviation. General Boyd, widely regarded as the father of modern Air Force flight testing, made it a practice to fly and evaluate every aircraft under test at the center. He personally approved every aircraft type in the Air Force inventory between 1945 and 1956.

Now a major, Chuck Yeager, who had already achieved iconic status with the X-1 under General Boyd, praised him as an outstanding pilot. Major Yeager became the chief of the Flight Test Operations Laboratory in mid-1951. Maj. Jackie L. Ridley, once the flight test engineer for the X-1 test team, was chief of the Flight Engineering Section, and Lt. Col. Frank K. "Pete" Everest, Jr. who would go on to set speed records in the YF-100 and X-2, was assistant to the flight test director.

Capt. Fitzhugh L. "Fitz" Fulton, an Air Force test pilot just beginning his career, soon departed to fly combat in Korea, and would become perhaps the greatest multi-engine test pilot of his generation. Maj. John P. Stapp was chief of the Deceleration Track Unit in 1951 and had just survived 48 Gs in tests on Edwards' 2,000-foot deceleration track.

In contrast to today's combined test forces, a typical flight test team for a fighter project consisted of one test pilot, one flight test engineer, and if they were lucky, a grunt to perform data reduction. A test team for a large, multi-engine bomber or transport aircraft test program might include one test pilot, a co-pilot, other required aircrew such as a navigator, bombardier, or loadmaster, one performance qualities flight test engineer, one flying qualities flight test engineer and one or two grunts.

In a 2001 symposium to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the AFFTC, Frederick N. "Fred" Stolicker, the AFFTC's 7th technical director, discussed arriving with "some trepidation" at Edwards in 1951 from Wright-Patterson to work as a grunt on the F-86E test team. The incentive he was offered was his own jet fighter project within the year, and in 1952 he was made project engineer for performance testing of the F-84G. Within three and a half years, he was promoted from a GS-5 to GS-11.

General Yeager described the early days at Edwards as a "golden age" and "a pilot's dream" due to the number and variety of aircraft experimental test pilots were able to fly. His Individual Flight Records for 1951 list up to 50 flying hours a month in a wide variety of different aircraft types and models under test at Edwards, from bombers and transports to fighters. These included the Republic YF-84F Thunderstreak, the North American XF-86, the North American F-86A, -D, and -E models, the Northrop F-89A, the B-47B Stratojet, and the newly-delivered Convair delta-wing XF-92A. Altogether, then-Major Yeager flew 37 different aircraft types and models in 1951 at Edwards. "Man," he once said of Edwards, "we were at the center of the world, the only place to be if you loved to fly."

Part of what made Edwards special, according to NACA research pilot A. Scott Crossfield, was that when he arrived in 1950, he saw "airplanes that Howard Hughes couldn't afford to fly." He called Edwards "an Indianapolis of the air...an Indianapolis without rules," where he and other experimental test pilots "lived with the feeling that everything we were doing was something that had probably never been attempted or even thought of before." Mr. Crossfield would go on to become the first man to fly at twice the speed of sound as he piloted the Skyrocket to a speed of 1,291 mph on Nov. 20, 1953.

In his interview marking the 50th anniversary of the AFFTC, Richard E. "Dick" Horner, the AFFTC's first technical director, called the early 1950s at Edwards "the gestation period of the new Air Force." This was also a "very important" period at Edwards "in terms of the numbers and the quality of the airplanes being tested because by and large they were...the beginnings of new families of aircraft."

In his farewell message to AFFTC personnel as he departed for a new assignment on January 28, 1952, General Boyd - who had worked so hard to make it happen - wrote with pride, "We have at long last achieved the goal toward which we have been working - that of establishing at Edwards Air Force Base, an Air Force Flight Test Center."

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