Deep in what the early Spanish settlers called the Colorado Desert, 150 miles east of Los Angeles, the Salton Sea is like nowhere else on Earth.
For one thing it’s not a sea but a lake, the largest in California. It’s 220ft below sea level and so hot that the temperature can top 115 degrees. And sometimes it’s a sea without water as random river flows transform it into a dry desert basin.
Today the guidebooks call the Salton Sea «a crown jewel of avian biodiversity» but 60 years ago it was the scene of quite another form of aerial activity. Four times within 12 months the area rang to the roar and shriek of powerful aero engines as the latest US jet fighters skimmed overhead at full throttle to set new world air speed records.
The record was broken five times in 1953. During that frantic, high-speed summer and autumn the scene would change from the Salton Sea, to England’s south coast, to the baking Libyan desert and back to California. The year opened with the USAF holding the record and that’s how it would end. But in-between two British test pilots would become superheroes, even if they held the record only brief!).
In the early 1950s the North American F-86D Sabre Dog was the USAF’s hottest ship. Although derived from the earlier variants of the F-86, the Sabre Dog was rather different. As an all-weather interceptor it featured a pointed radome over the nose intake and all-missile armament.
An afterburner gave it 40% more power and the USAF was keen to demonstrate its potency. The current airspeed record had been set by an F-86A at 670mph so the first over-700mph mark seemed within the F-86D’s grasp. On November 18, 1952 Capt J Slade Nash whistled F-86D-20-NA (serial 51-2945) along a 3km course over the Salton Sea. Flying at a height of just 125ft, he hoisted the record to 698.505mph.
It was just shy of the 700-mark and seven months later Lt Col William Barnes shattered the record by a satisfying margin. Over the same Salton Sea course he averaged 715.697mph in the first F-86D-35-NA (51-6145).
Both record-breakers were standard production aircraft with full armament and electronics, but Barnes’ margin was mainly due to a higher ambient temperature and the addition of a ceramic liner around the aircraft’s exhaust outlet. Similar liners were fitted to the last 97 D-35 production aircraft.
Meanwhile two British aircraft were demonstrating their potency Neville Duke, Hawker’s chief test pilot, had shown that the sleek Hunter fighter was capable of Mach 1.0 in a dive and Supermarine’s Mike Lithgow had done the same with the bullet-shaped Swift.
«Flying, the thrill and joy of it, have been and are his life,” wrote Alan W Mitchell, who helped Duke with his autobiography Test Pilot, published in 1953. Indeed, even before the Hunter Duke was no stranger to record setting. He’d been a member of the RAF’s High Speed Flight commanded by Group Capt E M Teddy Donaldson who recorded 6l6mph in a modified Meteor F Mk 4 in 1946.
As well as developing the Hunter for RAF service the Hawker Aircraft Company was pushing its latest project. The PI083, also known as the supersonic Hunter, featured a thinner, more steeply swept back wing and a re-heated Avon engine. Accordingly, Hunter WBI88 was grounded in December 1953 to be modified as an F.3 prototype to test systems intended for the PI083.
The first PI083 was under construction when in July 1953 the Air Staff had second thoughts and cancelled it. However, it probably seemed a shame to waste the good work done to WBI88 because an attempt on the air speed record was subsequently sanctioned, The aircraft was modified with a pointed nose and a streamlined outer windscreen. The airbrakes were removed and skimmed over and the aircraft was given an all-over red finish. The Bognor-Littlehampton-Worthing course selected for the attempt had been used by Donaldson and was therefore familiar to Duke.
According to Flight, Duke’s first attempt was abandoned because of problems with the Hunter’s landing gear. The journal reported that, «the pilot had to wait patiently through several maddening days of fine warm weather, at least one of which would have been ideal for the attainment of maximum speed,” Duke tried again the following Sunday, Farnborough show press day. Flight reported: «He went out at 2.30pm but found a I5 knot wind and bumpy conditions; a second try, at 6.00pm, brought success.”
Taking off from Tangmere, Duke made four runs. They were remarkably consistent -716.7, 738.8, 716.5 and 738.6mph — to produce a mean speed of 727.63mph: comfortably ahead of the mark set by Barnes by the necessary 1% margin and 111 mph better than Donaldson’s record just seven years earlier: Duke’s speed, though, could have been higher if conditions had been hotter: Had the Hunter enjoyed the «oven-like temperature» of California, its Mach 0.94 speed would have translated to 750mph. Nevertheless.
The Aeroplane considered that Duke had «demonstrated to the world that there is not much wrong with the capabilities of Britain’s new generation of jet fighters.»
Duke and the Hunter were to hold the record for just 17 days and it was never even confirmed before it fell to a fellow Brit.. But Lithgow, who snatched it away, was to see his mark bettered even before he’d packed up for his return trip home! Lithgow was philosophical about it. «We had at least accomplished what we set out to do,» he wrote later.
In his autobiography, appropriately titled Mach One, Lithgow revealed that Supermarine had been considering the possibility of a record attempt since the prototype Swift’s first flight. The arrival of the F.4 (WKI98) with its re-heated Rolls-Royce Avon engine «revived the possibility of making an attempt on the record in the latter part of 1953.» In July, Lithgow used WKI98 to break the London-Paris speed record.
But like the USAF Lithgow and the Supermarine team were well aware that hot conditions delayed the onset of Mach 1.0 and the increase in drag that accompanied it. Libya seemed ideal. «It was within 2.5 hours’ flying time for the Swift and seven to eight hours for the accompanying transport aircraft,» Lithgow explained.
Temperatures up to a scorching I35F were not unknown in Libya but by September the mercury was falling rapidly. However, there seemed little prospect of getting to Libya before the 20th as WKI98 was needed for the Farnborough show.
Even so, Lithgow was hopeful they could be in Libya to take a crack at the record before the temperature slid below the I05F mark. And there were further concerns: not only were the Hawker team known to be planning a record attempt but there were rumours the Americans were about to try again with new high performance fighters.
Lithgow had hoped to make his record runs along the coast but historic temperature statistics weren’t encouraging. It was hotter inland, though, and it seemed that the main road between Azizia and Bur El Gnem, 50 miles from Tripoli and originally built by Marshal Balbo during the Italian occupation, offered an ideal course. It cut a dead straight line through the featureless desert for over ten miles.
There were other problems. Writing in The Aeroplane, John Fricker reported that the Royal Aero Club timing team’s electronic clock with its multitude of valves had to be packed in dry ice to keep it cool. A six-man police guard kept a round-the-clock watch on the equipment «to prevent it straying into the hands of wandering Arabs.»
Fricker also reported that, by special request, Lithgow had planted a sonic boom over the USAF base at Wheelus Field before beating up the RAF station at Idris El Awal. He also explained how the record course was defined.
«A lead-in of 1 km at each end was also fixed with a ceiling of 100m to prevent acceleration by diving,» he wrote. «Outside the total of 5km of the course there was a 500m ceiling for similar reasons with an aircraft flying at that height with observers on board.»
At each end of the 3km course, and 900m back from the road, a concrete observation platform had been erected to house the electronic timing equipment and the officials who would operate it.
The sights were linked to F,24 aircraft cameras. Two observers at each end had to pick the aircraft visually before tracking it through their instruments, «As the aircraft crosses the marker posts.» Fricker explained, «it and they are automatically photographed and, at the same time, the electronic ‘stop clock’ is automatically started and stopped.» To help the timing team the Swift had black bands applied to its nose and tail over its pale blue finish. To keep Lithgow cool in the searing heat he wore a special nylon suit Tubes from the aircraft’s engine compressor blew air over dry ice stored in the aircraft’s port gun bay and passed it to the suit. The ice, Lithgow wrote, «supplied by a famous manufacturer of ice cream, had to be air freighted in special containers from England,» Even so, Lithgow found the i 80F cockpit heat difficult to deal with, Perspiration caused the valve in his oxygen mask to become jammed, «Several times I had to pull this off my face in order to breathe,» he wrote, «Since the R/T microphone fits into the oxygen mask this meant that every time I used the radio I had to hold the mask up with my left hand, I could certainly have used more than the two hands with which God had supplied me.»
Lithgow’s first attempt produced a mean speed of 737,3mph, subsequently reduced to 735,7 after corrections to compensate for equipment malfunction, «We thought this was quite satisfactory for a first effort.»
Lithgow wrote, But he wasn’t to get another chance, There were further equipment problems and it was clear the Swift’s speed would have to be submitted to the officials before the time limit for ratification expired, A further attempt was postponed as temperatures continued falling. Then came the ghibli, the wind blowing straight from the Sarah laden with sand, While the team waited for it blow itself out, news arrived that Lithgow’s record had already been broken, The Swift, though, had shown what it could do. «It had had no special preparation whatsoever;» Lithgow stressed, Mike Lithgow, the former Fleet Air Arm pilot, subsequently became deputy chief test pilot of the British Aircraft Corporation and was on the flight deck of the prototype BAC One-Eleven when it made it first flight in August 1963. Two months later; however; Lithgow was in command of the aircraft when it crashed killing him and all on board.
Lithgow’s short-lived record was broken by Lt Cdr James Verdin of the US Navy, Flying Douglas XF4D Skyray (BuNo 587) over the Salton Sea on October 3, Verdin achieved 753,4mph, The bat-winged Skyray had been designed by Douglas’ Ed Heinemann and the prototype (BuNo 586) first flew in January i 95 i and the evaluation team, which included Maj Marion Carl USMC who’d flown the Douglas D-558- i Skystreak to a record 650mph in August i 947, was impressed by the Skyray.
Its performance was enhanced further by the afterburning Westinghouse J40 engine and BuNo 587, the second prototype, received this unit. Its performance so enthused its manufacturers that they proposed an attempt on the speed record. Although Verdin was assigned the task, test pilot Bob Rahn had the job of preparing the aircraft. «Flight test personnel are usually considered pessimistic,» he said later; «but for this project we were extremely optimistic with the Skyray,»
On September 20, Rahn made the first flight with unrestricted afterburner; «To everyone’s surprise,» he noted, «the engine worked flawlessly,» Rahn streaked across the record course close to Mach 1,0 and at an altitude of just 100ft.
The aircraft was then stripped of its tail hook and tail wheel. The hook fairing was sealed as was every other inlet and all protuberances on the airframe were also faired over: The leading edge slats were fixed in the retracted position and the white-painted aircraft was carefully waxed and polished. Verdin made several familiarisation flights on the 25th but high winds and turbulence meant the next day’s attempt had to be postponed. Continuing bad weather and equipment repairs meant nothing further could be done for a week, but on October 3 Verdin was able to make four runs over the Salton Sea course to record 745,075, 761,414, 746,053 and 759,499mph. The mean was comfortably ahead of Lithgow’s speed. It also meant that a carrier-borne aircraft held the record for the first time.
But again, it was to be short-lived, Less than a month later the record was back with the USAF. The new North American F-100 Super Sabre had flown for the first time in January 1953 and it exceeded Mach 1,0 on both of its first two flights.
Clearly it was capable of taking the record but was proving tricky to handle and among the critics was Lt Col Frank ‘Pete’ Everest Jr chief of the air force’s flight test operations laboratory Accordingly, he recommended that it shouldn’t be delivered to operational units until fixes had been applied.
But Tactical Air Command pilots only complained that the Super Sabre wasn’t fast enough and USAF top brass, anxious to get the new fighter into service as soon as possible, sat on Everest’s report, Stability problems would later become apparent and the ninth production aircraft, together with North American test pilot George Welch, would be lost, making aerodynamic improvements essential.
However in October 1953 the first prototype, YF-I00A (52-5754), was prepared for the attempt by a gung-ho North American team actively encouraged by the USAF, which was irked that the Navy now held the record.
Ironically,, in view of his reservations about the aircraft. Everest was assigned the task of getting the record back. He was, however; the USAF’s most experienced Super Sabre pilot, Because Everest had to improve the record by one percent he would have to average over 760mph, but his first attempt yielded just 757mph. Then somebody at North American suggested that another attempt should be made but over a 15km course. For that distance the record was held by an F-86 at 707mph and it was assumed the F-100 would have no trouble beating that. And if the speed bettered the 3km mark by any margin it would count as a new world record.
On the 29th Everest and his team waited until the temperature had topped 85F. Old car tyres had been piled up beyond the course at both ends and they were set on fire to guide Everest. He took off, lined up on the smoke from the tyres and lit the afterburner; Flying at just 75ft and buffeted by turbulence he made his four runs, making a wide flat turn at the end of each one.
By the time Everest sat down to dinner that evening it was official: he’d set a new record of 755,I49mph, One run had exceeded 767mph. But Douglas and the Navy felt cheated by his use of what they considered a loophole in the rules. A Douglas spokesman was quoted in Aviation
Week as insisting that the F4D was still faster than the F-100. «They tried to top our F4D mark by the required one percent and couldn’t do it,» he said, «All previous records have been set on the 3km course, How come all of a sudden it’s the 15km course?»
The air force was able to show that the F-100’s record was no fluke though and on August 20, 1955 Col Horace A Hanes hoisted the record to over 822mph at Palmdale. It was the first to be set at altitude rather than at sea level. Then in February 1956 it was comprehensively shattered by Peter Twiss in the Fairey FD2 at I,I32mph.
It was the first I,000mph record and a huge boost to British aviation, But it was a far cry from the heady record-fest of autumn I953, There would never be anything like it again.