Marine Corps Major John Glenn got up on the morning of July 16, 1957, strapped into a Vought F8U Crusader, and took off from Los Alamitos Naval Air Station in California like a cannon shot. Three hours, 23 minutes, and 8.4 seconds later (a time based on a National Aeronautic Association formula for records), he touched down at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York, setting a transcontinental speed record: 725.55 mph. At a time when aviation records were still a big deal in both the media and in geopolitics, the feat put Glenn on the radar just before selections would be made for the first class of astronauts and served notice that carrier-based aircraft could match speeds with anyone.
Most brief accounts of the record attempt leave out some details that Glenn graciously agreed to fill in during a recent conversation. Far from being a publicity stunt, he says, the flight was intended to prove that the Pratt & Whitney J-57 would tolerate an extended period at combat power—full afterburner—without damage. After the flight, the engine maker tore the J-57 down and, based on the examination, lifted all power limitations on J-57s from that day forth. The airplane was a photo-reconnaissance version, an F8U-1P, which carried more fuel than the armed fighter. On this flight, it was loaded with enough film so its cameras would run continuously for the entire trip. The Crusader, sometimes called “the last gunfighter,” had no search radar, so for his three refuelings, Glenn had to find the AJ Savage tankers—North American’s converted twin-recip-engine bombers sent up in pairs for redundancy—using a direction finder to home on the tankers’ beacons.
During a practice refueling over Texas before the record flight, he recalls, “I was plugged in and taking fuel when the tanker’s right engine started belching black smoke. Then the left engine started doing the same thing. I pulled out the [refueling] drogue and flew wing on him, and he couldn’t hold altitude. He got down to around 3,500 feet and ordered a bailout.” Glenn watched the crew get out with three good chutes as the airplane descended and crashed in an open area. “It was full of fuel and went off like an atomic bomb,” he says. An investigation later revealed that the ground crew had mistakenly put jet fuel in the AJ’s gasoline tanks.
After each refueling, Glenn applied full afterburner and climbed to about 30,000 feet, drifting up to 50,000 for maximum range as fuel burned off. Inversion layers in the western air mass muffled the sonic boom reaching the ground, but at Indianapolis the inversion layers disappeared and booms began rattling windows. In Glenn’s hometown of New Concord, Ohio, the pilot’s mother had told a neighbor that her son would be flying over at a certain time that morning, and when the boom hit, the woman came running to the Glenn house yelling, “Johnny dropped a bomb!”
Glenn came up with the name Project Bullet for the flight because he would fly faster than a round from a .45-caliber pistol. Somebody eventually affixed a small plaque to the airplane, and “I got notes for years from people who flew it,” he says. One version of its story says it was shot down over Vietnam, while another says it was damaged on landing on a carrier in the Indian Ocean and went over the side. Glenn, of course, went on to orbit Earth in Friendship 7 and later got elected to the Senate, but for one day in 1957, he was the fastest man in the Marine Corps.