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In the spring of 1951, Fulton (in the cockpit of a Douglas B-26) was called to Korea, where he flew the B-26 on night bombing runs against North Korean trucks. (USAF)

The Greatest Test Pilot You’ve Never Heard Of

Meet Fitz Fulton.

“Fitz and I alternated flights for almost 10 years, from 1970 to 1979,” says Mallick. “I always had the feeling that I was a better pilot because I was able to fly with him and share programs like the Blackbirds.” As the Blackbird research ended, they arranged an unforgettable going-away present for their comrades. Just before the last YF-12 was returned to the Air Force, they let each pilot in the office fly the Blackbird to Mach 3.

***

A key element in developing NASA’s space shuttle was finding a way to airlift the orbiter. NASA chose a stock 747-100. Named primary NASA project pilot, Fulton checked out in the 747. “I felt fully qualified but was surprised that so little time in the airplane was needed to make me legal to fly it,” Fulton writes in his book. All he needed was a 30-minute flight and one landing.

NASA 905, as the first shuttle carrier was called, was flown to Seattle for nine months of modifications at the Boeing factory. Its first flight with a shuttle was made in February 1977, with Enterprise attached to struts on the 747’s upper fuselage. A few months later, the seven explosive bolts tethering the shuttle were triggered, and Enterprise soared away on its historic glide to the Edwards runway. “The 747 had a strong pitch-down when the release occurred,” writes Fulton in his book. “I had to pull the control column aft with about 90 to 100 pounds of force. There was still a slight increase in the nose-down pitch trim. The indicated airspeed increased to approximately 320 knots for a few seconds. Just like a glider releasing from its towplane, the shuttle turned to the right after launch and we turned left.”

The shuttle-747 combos—NASA operated two of them—remained an amazing sight to the end, and never more so than on the final flight across the United States in 2012. By then, they’d taken many a star turn, not least the one at the 1983 Paris Air Show, where Fulton flew the motherplane with orbiter for the crowds every day.

Fulton retired from NASA in 1986, then spent three years as a test pilot for Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites in Mojave, California. He and Erma live in Thousand Oaks, California, barely an hour’s drive from Edwards. Grounded by Parkinson’s disease, he misses having an airplane in his life. “I’d still be flying if I could pass the physical,” he says.

Although he flew transports and bombers throughout his career, Fulton never quite got over the glove-like fit of smaller aircraft. He owned a Fairchild 24 and, because he wanted a four-seater in which he could teach his family to fly, a Cessna 172.

His last airplane was a Meyer Little Toot homebuilt, a tiny biplane he saw after delivering the first shuttle to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. While technicians practiced loading the orbiter onto the carrier and unloading it, Fulton wandered off to a nearby airfield, where he saw the Little Toot. He thought it was a good-looking airplane that would be fun to fly. Back at Edwards, he and Erma decided to buy it. He returned and picked up the Little Toot for a five-day ferry back to California. The Georgia boy and his biplane.

Longtime contributor Carl Posey is a writer-of-all-work in Alexandria, Virginia.

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