The Greatest Test Pilot You’ve Never Heard Of

Meet Fitz Fulton.

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)
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During central Europe’s formidable winter, Allied aircraft operated into and out of Rhein Main, Tempelhof, and Wiesbaden only a few minutes apart, undeterred by severe icing conditions, low ceilings, and zero visibility. Sometimes, Fulton remembers, you didn’t know you’d landed until you felt the tires on the runway. “It built up my confidence,” he says. “I’ve always considered myself a pretty strong instrument pilot. But weather was a big problem.”

When the airlift ended, Fulton headed back to the United States, this time to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where B-29s were testing new instruments. But the heat and humidity of Florida’s panhandle proved more than Ginger Fulton’s lungs could tolerate. Her asthma attacks got so bad Fulton and Erma feared they might lose their little girl.

A sympathetic commanding officer stepped in, and Fulton was offered a slot in southern California at what would soon be called Edwards Air Force Base. He didn’t know much about what went on there, but, certain that the change in climate would help his daughter, Fulton took the transfer. After settling in California’s high desert, Ginger’s health quickly improved.

Once jet-rated, Fulton began expanding his repertoire. In the early 1950s, borrowing an airplane was as easy as borrowing a Jeep from the motor pool. And when he wasn’t at the controls of a test aircraft, Fulton sat in as copilot or flew the chase aircraft.

Much of test piloting is the repetitive, rather humdrum stuff that makes its way into manuals as performance parameters—an airplane’s maxima and minima. Of course, nobody became a test pilot to generate data; they joined for the moments. One of those moments was a night flight Fulton made in a Lockheed F-94A, which, as he turned back toward Edwards, lost all electrical power, rendering the aircraft’s flaps, lights, and some critical instruments inoperable. Unable to set up a normal night landing, Fulton improvised. He stalled the airplane, which gave him a known airspeed, and from there worked out a letdown approach.

Asked today if that flight, or any flight, constituted a really bad moment for him, he says: “To me, troubles were opportunities. The best pilot in the world can get in trouble. I’m not a defeatist. I like to work on problems that are solvable.”

Barely two weeks into his term as a student in the test pilot school at Edwards, Fulton learned he was headed for Korea, where the conflict was entering its second year. Unlike some of the older test pilots, he had never flown in combat. On September 18, 1951, he arrived at K-8, the air base at Kunsan, South Korea. A day later, he began combat missions in the Douglas B-26 Invader.

His commander at Edwards had promised Fulton he would try to retrieve him when he finished his 55 missions in Korea, and the promise was kept. By May 1952, Fulton was back in test pilot school, which he completed that November. Not quite 27 years old, the unflappable, soft-spoken Air Force captain resumed his career as a pilot of all work.

He was soon shuttling between Edwards and the Convair plant in Fort Worth, Texas, to test-fly the company’s mammoth B-36. “My learning was rapid,” he wrote of the bomber in his autobiography, Father of the Mother Planes. “It had to be, because the B-36 was a high-maintenance airplane. We seldom completed a flight without having to shut down one or more engines. With rear-mounted propellers, engine oil leaking at high altitude would freeze and hit the props and then be thrown into the fuselage, sometimes even penetrating the airplane’s skin.”

After that, it was back to Edwards for bomb-drop tests from B-36s and tests of what now sounds like a harebrained scheme: a B-36 carrying an RF-84F Thunderflash, which would be deployed from and recovered on a retractable trapeze-like device extended from the bomber’s belly. The project was the first of many encounters Fulton would have with big ships carrying small ones.

About Carl A. Posey

Novelist and award-winning science writer Carl A. Posey was the author of seven published novels, a number of non-fiction books, and dozens of magazine articles. He was a licensed pilot and an Air & Space magazine contributor for more than 30 years, beginning with its second issue in 1986. Posey died on February 9, 2018.

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