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Test pilots – George Welch and Al Blackburn

The Spirit of Tehachapi


April 11, 2020

Photo provided

Runways of Fire – F-100 with rocket firing off the back of a truck!

I want to give recognition and great appreciation to George Welch, a U.S. Army Air Corps Second Lieutenant. You may not recognize his name, so I'll let you know some of his history.

Born George Louis Schwartz, Jr., Welch's name was changed due to anti-German sentiments from World War I. His parents gave George and his brother their mother's maiden name of Welch but retained Schwartz as George's middle name.

Welch received his wings and commission in January 1941 and was posted to the 47th Pursuit Squadron, 15th Pursuit Group, at Wheeler Field, Oahu, Hawaii in February 1941.

He flew one of the two P-40B Warhawk's that got into the air during the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 and shot down four Japanese aircraft during the attack. Second Lieutenant Kenneth M. Taylor was the pilot flying the second P-40. They were able to attack Japanese aircraft of the second attack wave. Both Welch and Taylor were nominated for the Medal of Honor by General Henry H. Arnold, but were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest US Army medal for valor.

Welch was a World War II Ace and between June 21 and Sept. 2, 1943, flying a P-38H, Welch shot down nine more Japanese aircraft: two Zeros, three Ki-61 Tonys, three Ki-43 Oscars and one Ki-46 Dinah. Welch flew three combat tours. He flew a total of 348 combat missions with 16 confirmed victories before malaria retired him from the war.

Welch received the nickname, "Wheaties," because he was the first military officer to be featured on a box of Wheaties cereal.

In the spring of 1944, Welch was approached by North American Aviation to become a company test pilot. With the recommendation of General Hap Arnold, he resigned his commission and accepted the job with North American. He flew the prototypes of the FJ-1 and P-86.

In September 1947, the first of three XP-86 prototypes (s/n 45-59597) was moved from North American's Mines Field (now LAX) to the Muroc North Base test facility (now Edwards AFB). The maiden flight of the XP-86 was on Oct. 1, 1947, flown by Welch. This was the flight that Welch and others, including Al Blackburn claim he broke the sound barrier in a dive.

Blackburn was an engineer and test pilot who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy as a Marine, fought at Okinawa, returned to the States and became a carrier-based fighter pilot and flew F4U Corsairs. After leaving the service in 1949, he got a master's degree in aeronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then was recalled during the Korean War and spent a couple of years test flying for the Navy at the Naval Air Test Center at Patuxent River, Maryland.

In 1954, he became an engineering test pilot for North American Aviation in Los Angeles. At the company's Palmdale flight test facility, he earned the title of Glider King when, within one two-week period, he experienced unrelightable flame-outs in three successive F-86 Sabrejet flights and managed to land all three craft. In 1957, he was asked to participate in the resurrected zero-length-launch project, and flew the maiden flight of the F100ZEL.

Blackburn wrote a book titled, "Aces Wild: The Race for Mach 1" and he believes both George Welch and Chuck Yeagar broke the sound barrier. He claims that Welch broke the sound barrier while flying the XF-86 prototype in a dive on Oct. 1, 1947 and Chuck Yeager, of course, broke the sound barrier in the X-1 while flying straight and level.

In a written review of the book, Terry White wrote, "After you consider the case presented by Al Blackburn in 'Aces Wild,' perhaps you will agree with me that the historical record should be amended to read: Chuck Yeager and the Bell XS-1 were the first to exceed Mach 1 in level flight.  George Welch and the North American XF-86 was the first to exceed Mach 1; which exceedance was accomplished in a dive."

Blackburn passed away in 2011, but I have an old VHS tape called "Runways of Fire" that shows him flying the F-100 off of a truck with the rocket!

Welch went on to work as chief test pilot, engineer and instructor with North American Aviation during the Korean War  where he reportedly downed several enemy MiG-15 "Fagots" while "supervising" his students. However, Welch's kills were in disobedience of direct orders for him to not to engage, and credits for the kills were thus distributed among his students.

Welch returned to flight testing; this time in the F-100 Super Sabre with Yeager flying the chase plane. Welch became the first man to break the sound barrier in level flight with this type of aircraft on May 25, 1953. However, stability problems were encountered in the flight test program, and on Columbus Day, Oct. 12, 1954, Welch was killed when his F-100A-1-NA Super Sabre, 52-5764, disintegrated during a 7g pullout at Mach 1.55. The Super Sabre had encountered Inertial Roll Coupling. It went out of control and then disintegrated.

A terrible sad ending to an incredible life of a true patriot with a willingness to give his all while serving in the military and as a test pilot at North American Aviation. Thank you Major George Welch, you are not forgotten and thank you Al Blackburn for your great service to America in the USMC and the extraordinary work you did as a test pilot. You wrote a great book too! I encourage all aviation buffs to get a copy and sit back and experience thrilling flights!

See you on our next flight!


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