August 16, 2010

Test pilot from Kansas first to fly at Mach 3

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: “To the stars through difficulties.”

In the movie “The Right Stuff,” Chuck Yeager is featured as the first pilot to break the sound barrier. What isn’t featured is the first pilot to achieve Mach 3. He was Capt. Milburn Apt, a U.S. test pilot from Kansas who was killed on Sept. 27, 1956, as he tested the Bell X-2 — the world’s fastest plane at the time.

Apt flew 2,200 mph, or more than 3 times the speed of sound.

The engine cut out as Apt tried to turn the plane back to Edwards Air Force Base, and the plane went through a series of rolls and tumbled out of control, crashing into the Mojave Desert in California. He was 32 years old. Apt was born April 9, 1924, in Buffalo, a town west of Chanute in Wilson County in southeast Kansas. He was a 1942 graduate of Buffalo High School and a 1951 graduate of the University of Kansas. During World War II, he graduated from pilot training and was commissioned in the Army Air Forces in February 1944. He also graduated from the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and became part of the U.S. Air Force Experimental Flight Test Pilot School at Edwards.

On Sept. 27, 1956, Apt piloted a rocket-powered X-2 launched from a modified Boeing B-50 at 31,800 feet. Apt flew the plane up to 70,000 feet.

On Nov. 12, 1956, Time magazine published an account of what happened during the flight.

Apt was new on the job, the magazine reported. He had never flown the rocket plane and had been instructed to “follow an ‘optimum’ flight plan.”

According to the Time article:

“This meant that if he made no errors and if everything about the X-2 worked perfectly, he would attain the maximum speed of which the airplane was capable at the assigned altitude. No one expected him to do as well as that. The chances were as heavily against it as if he had scheduled a record-breaking auto tour from New York to Los Angeles that depended on reaching every traffic light just when it turned green.”

He did everything perfectly, the article reported, but then things went horribly wrong.

Apt temporarily lost consciousness as the plane spun out of control. When he came to, he separated the plane’s escape capsule, but it was too late.

Apt was killed when the capsule hit the desert.

The X-planes contributed to the development of some of the technology for the space age — for planes such as the SR-71 spy plane and the space shuttle.

In Apt’s honor, the sports teams for Altoona-Midway High School in Wilson County are named the Jets.

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