The photograph shows a boy of five or six, jug-eared and happy, holding on to the wing strut of a biplane. Taken in rural Blakely, Georgia, in the early 1930s, the image captures the joy afforded by small pleasures during hard times. But what boy would not be cheered by being close to a real, honest-to-goodness airplane? His mother evidently sensed the effect on her son, for she labeled the photo “1st. Love.”
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The first of many. The boy would spend his working life in the close, sometimes perilous company of aircraft, taking them to war and exploring the extremes of their performance. His logbooks, with 17,000 or so hours of flight in more than 200 types, would tell the story of how aviation evolved from the 1940s onward. For this Georgia boy would be present at every crucial branching of that evolutionary path—from pistons to jets, subsonic to supersonic. He would fly everywhere and everything, all aircraft great and small.
Now 88, Fitzhugh L. Fulton Jr.—Fitz to family and friends—still has his mother’s photo. “I liked that photograph,” he says. “We protected it.” He thinks the airplane was a Kinner-powered Bird. He never flew in it. He got his first flight several years later, when a cousin sprang for a dollar ride in a Ford Tri-motor.
After his parents separated, Fulton and his two siblings moved with their mother to the larger Georgia town of Columbus, where, among other things, there was what he called a “real airport.” It had a 4,000-foot grass runway, and a fixed-base operation that flew J-3 Cubs and Taylorcrafts. In the time-honored way of air-minded youngsters, he began hanging out at the field, doing occasional chores and reaping occasional rides. Eventually, he settled into a more organized barter system: sweeping the hangar, washing and fueling the airplanes, pushing the airplanes in and out of the hangar—each was good for five minutes of flight, which he hoarded, then spent 20 minutes at a time. In June 1942, 17 years old, just out of high school, and not yet driving a car, he soloed in a J-3 Cub.
In 1943, with the U.S. armed services needing pilots to serve in World War II, he entered the U.S. Army Air Forces air cadet program. Fledgling pilots of movies and myth invariably opt for single-engine training, with an eye to becoming fighter aces. Fulton wanted to fly the twin-engine Lockheed P-38, though, so he chose multi-engine training. But when the P-38 failed to materialize, he followed the less glamorous road to transports and bombers.
It was one of those less traveled roads that would make all the difference. A career pilot of big airplanes, Fulton would fly the bombers that dropped the X-15 and other experimental speedsters at Edwards Air Force Base in California during the time now regarded as the golden age of flight test. And that experience led to opportunities in the space shuttle program. “I certainly welcomed the opportunity to drop the X-planes,” he says. Not, he quickly adds, that he was uniquely qualified. “Anybody could have flown the mother airplanes. But I had a lot of experience by then. I like to think I helped train some of the people.”
In 1945, his own training led him to Davis-Monthan Army Air Field in Tucson, Arizona. He reported for duty on August 14, but the officer checking him in the next day wondered why he’d bothered to show up. The war was over.
Although somewhat devoid of flight, the Tucson assignment had an unexpected reward. It was there that Fulton met Erma Beck, to whom he has now been married for almost 70 years.
Fulton was then sent to Roswell, New Mexico, where the 320th Troop Carrier Squadron was based. After winning a slot as copilot on Douglas C-54s, Fulton played a supporting role in Operation Crossroads, an atomic weapons project for which an armada of captured and surplus warships had been assembled in the lagoon of the Bikini atoll in the Marshall Islands. The first test, on July 1, 1946, would detonate a Fat Man plutonium bomb a few hundred feet above the lagoon to see what a 20-kiloton airburst would do to the ships and tethered animals below. A few weeks later, a second bomb would be detonated underwater.
For Fulton, Crossroads meant long hauls from Roswell to Kwajalein, the largest of the Marshall islands, ferrying the accoutrements of nuclear warfare. But the flight that stands out for him took place the day after the first bomb test, when he flew a C-54 carrying scientists and Air Force brass out to see what the bomb had done. Flying over the lagoon at about 200 feet, Fulton toured the affected area. It hadn’t occurred to him that the flight might expose him and his passengers to harmful levels of radiation. His attention was fully on the fleet of ruined warships.
In June 1948, in what became the opening political salvo in the cold war, the Soviets blockaded road, rail, and river access to the Allied-controlled sectors of Berlin, then a divided city. As the Allies mounted an impossibly difficult relief effort—the Berlin Airlift—Western aircrews with transport experience were suddenly very much in demand.