George Welch (pilot) : biography
George Welch (May 10, 1918–October 12, 1954) was a World War II flying ace, a Medal of Honor nominee, and an experimental aircraft pilot after the war. Welch is best known for being one of the few United States Army Air Forces fighter pilots able to get airborne to engage Japanese forces in the attack on Pearl Harbor and for his work as a test pilot.
Welch retired from the United States Air Force as a major in 1944, and became a test pilot for North American Aviation, receiving some notoriety for reportedly being the first pilot to exceed Mach 1 in the prototype XP-86 Sabre (two weeks before Chuck Yeager's record flight). Controversy exists as to the actual details of the flight and if this flight took place, it is generally not recognized as a record because of a lack of verifiable speed measurement and because the aircraft's highest speeds were attained while diving, whereas Yeager's X-1 completed the feat in level flight. In 1954, Welch died following a crash in a test flight in a North American F-100 Super Sabre.
Mach 1 claim
In the spring of 1944, Welch was approached by North American Aviation to become a company test pilot. With the recommendation of General Arnold, Welch resigned his commission and accepted the job. He went on to fly the prototypes of the Navy’s North American FJ-1 and later the P-86. North American originally proposed a straight wing version of the XP-86 and the Army Air Force accepted this on May 1, 1945. On November 1, North American, with the aid of captured German technology, proposed and was given permission for a major redesign of the XP-86 to a 35-degree swept-wing configuration. This was new technology and the USA’s first high-speed swept-wing airplane and a significant advance over Republic Aviation’s XP-84. Welch was chosen as Chief Test Pilot for the project.
In September 1947, the first of three XP-86 prototypes (s/n 45-59597) was moved from North American’s Mines Field (later Los Angeles International Airport) to the Muroc North Base test facility (now Edwards AFB), the same base at which the Bell X-1 was being tested. The maiden flight of the XP-86 was on October 1, 1947, flown by Welch.
After about a 30-minute flight, it was time to land and Welch lowered the flaps and gear. At this point, the nose gear refused to extend completely. Welch tried everything and 40 minutesHallion 1981, p. 218. more flight time was devoted to attempting to extend the reluctant nose landing gear. All attempts were unsuccessful and due to low fuel, he elected to land on Muroc Lake Bed without a fully extended nose gear. Upon touchdown, in a nose-high attitude, Welch cut the engine and as the XP-86 slowed the nose gear snapped down and locked. The aircraft was undamaged.Jordan, Corey C. Planes and Pilots Of World War Two, 1998–2000. Retrieved: July 13, 2011.
Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington had instructed North American that they were not, under any circumstances, to break the sound barrier before the X-1 achieved this milestone. He could exercise his authority in this regard because both the XP-86 and X-1 were Air Force programs.Hallion, Richard P. "On the Frontier, Flight Research at Dryden, 1946–1981." NASA History Series, NASA SP-4303. Welch’s only complaints about the aircraft was the J35 engine lacked power and the rate of climb was only a disappointing per minute. North American, however, had already contracted with General Electric for more powerful J47 engines for the production P-86As.
In his Aces Wild: The Race for Mach 1 (1998), test pilot and author Al Blackburn claimed Welch broke the sound barrier two weeks before Yeager. Blackburn bases his contention on interviews of eyewitnesses, former North American employees and access to contemporary historical accounts.Blackburn 1998, p. 132, 133–134. The story had also circulated at the time, amongst the Muroc personnel.O'Sullivan, Bill. The Newark Air Museum. Retrieved: July 13, 2011. Robert Kempel, author of The Race For Mach 1 contradicts the claim, contending it was impossible for Welch's aircraft to break the sound barrier with an underpowered engine. Bob Hoover, chase pilot for Welch and Yeager, has also gone on record to debunk the Welch story.Blackburn, Al. Air & Space Magazine, January 1, 1999. Retrieved: July 8, 2011. Kempel contends that due to the very early stage of North American’s flight test program, the aircraft was simply not ready for high-speed flight due to the limited airframe flight time and clearance. He notes that the XP-86 airframe was capable of transonic flight, but the interim low-power J35-C-3 limited its performance. The highest Mach number reached by Welch in 1947, as indicated by official flight test records, was about 0.93, in a maximum power dive from with the engine at 100.8-percent Military RPM (i.e. maximum power). North American conducted this test, their “High Mach Number Investigation”, on November 13. The USAF verified all North American results and this test Mach number in their own Phase II tests conducted in December 1947.Kempel, Robert W. "The Conquest of the Sound Barrier." X-Planes, Book 7. HPM Publications, 2007.
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