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Friday non-sequitir: the fastest man alive August 19, 2011

Posted by Tantumblogo in Admin, awesomeness, Basics, Society.
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Brig. Gen. Frank K. “Pete” Everest, Jr., USAF, Ret., is one of the lesser known greats of US aviation history.  A contemporary of (and severe competitor with) Chuck Yeager, for a period of about 4 years, years when America’s and the world’s eyes focused on aviation and aerospace to a degree we would find almost unbelievable today, Pete Everest was the “fastest man alive.”  A man had actually flown faster than Pete – that man was Capt. Milburn “Mel” Apt, but Capt. Apt did not survive the experience.  I’ll get to that later.

Pete Everest flew two combat tours in WWII, shot down 6 or 7 enemy aircraft, and was shot down himself late in the war and spent a few months in a surely hellish Japanese prison camp.  After the war, he was assigned to the Flight Test Branch at Wright-Patterson AFB, where he began to work on the X-1 program, an effort to try to fly faster than the speed of sound.  Once the Air Force took over the supersonic program from manufacturer Bell Aircraft, it looked like Pete would be a shoe-in as lead project pilot.  But the Flight Test Division’s commander, Maj. Gen. Al Boyd, had taken a liking to a hotshot young fighter pilot who had shot down five Germans in one day, and assigned then Capt. Chuck Yeager to be the lead pilot.  This really torqued Pete Everest off – he was a major, and, of course, he KNEW he was a way better pilot.  He figured Yeager would screw the pooch in some way, and possibly blow the program.  He didn’t.   

But Pete Everest didn’t just go away.  He flew the X-1 aircraft, too, establishing an altitude record of 73,000 ft and then moved on to other programs.  In 1953, he set a speed record for level flight over a 100 km course in the YF-100.  In 1954, he flew the X-1B, a souped up version of the X-1, to 2.3 Mach – about 1500 mph (Yeager had already flown the X-1A out to Mach 2.53 – 2nd place again). And then he was assigned to the X-2, another Bell Aircraft, which was designed to go beyond Mach 3 and to the very edge of space – way above 100,000 ft. 

Kinch

Bell X-2

Unfortunately, the X-2 was a terrible aircraft.  The Curtiss-Wright two-stage rocket engine had huge problems, and, what was not known at the time, the X-2 design was a veritable aerodynamic lesson on how NOT to do Mach 3.  At high altitudes and very high airspeeds, maintaining directional stability is very difficult.  The X-2 was sorrowfully lacking in directional control.  Three men flew the X-2 – Capt. Mel Apt, Col. Pete Everest, and the stunningly handsome Capt. Iven Kincheloe.  But the X-2 was a

X-15A-2

widowmaker – only Everest would survive the program.  While Kincheloe flew the aircraft out to 126,000 ft, Mel Apt and Pete Everest would trade out flights trying to gradually climb above Mach 3.  After Pete pushed the aircraft out to 2.9 Mach, Apt would make the flight trying to go through Mach 3.  He did.  But, after flying an almost flawless profile, Apt, a relatively inexperienced pilot, tried to bank the X-2, which, at his altitude and speed, caused the aircraft to go divergent –  it literally tumbled about all three axes.  He tried to bail out, but the excessive G-forces likely caused unconsciousness and he perished in the crash.  Pete Everest would remain the fastest man alive until May 12, 1960, the day Joe Walker flew the X-15 (the most successful research aircraft ever) out to Mach 3.2 and lived to tell about it.  For a while.  Joe Walker was later killed in a publicity photo shoot with the XB-70 bomber. 

Anyway, Pete Everest went on to a successful career in USAF, commanding a fighter squadron and group and then various USAF agencies until he retired in 1973.  He died 7 years ago, at the age of 83.  By all accounts, Pete Everest was supremely cocky but also pretty well liked – he was an extremely capable pilot, one Chuck Yeager called “probably my closest competitor in terms of natural raw flying ability.”   He made great contributions to the development of America’s aviation supremacy during the 1950s and 60s, a supremacy we have sadly squandered.  He was one of the unsung heroes of the golden age of American aviation.

Here’s a great video of Pete Everest in the X-2. Check out the confident smirk on his face at 0:15.  Supreme self-confidence.

Here’s a nice video about the X-15.  Note the minimal clearance under the X-15 ventral stabilizer at 0:40.  12,000 ft of runway for the B-52 to takeoff!  Think about this – the X-15 was designed in 1955.  This particular flight achieved an altitude of over 60 miles – qualifying the pilot for astronaut wings (flights above 50 miles so qualify).  There was once going to be a more advanced program to take over from where the X-15 left off, called the X-24C, but funding was diverted to that wonderful Space Shuttle.

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