He also began testing a new family of light jet bombers, among them the Glenn L. Martin Company’s XB-51. One of Fulton’s closest friends, Air Force Major Neil Lathrop, was killed during a low-altitude roll in the experimental aircraft. Fulton, flying a B-29 bomb drop test that day, saw the coil of black smoke rising from the dry lake. It was the first time Fulton lost a good friend to a new airplane; it would not be the last.
The Air Force had also become interested in the Royal Air Force’s English Electric Canberra twin-jet, which Martin was bringing out in the United States as the B-57. Fulton was assigned to the test flights.
On one B-57 flight, as he came out of a loop, he discovered that the control wheel had decoupled from the flight control system: Pushing the wheel full forward had no effect on the airplane. When things go wrong, some pilots yell on the radio. “That’s not my style,” says Fitz. “You have procedures. If you have a problem, then you call in and they offer suggestions.”
When Fulton reported the problem, the consensus on the ground was that he should bail out. But he thought if he used the elevator trim for pitch control, he might be able to save the airplane. He managed a fast, straight-in landing on the dry lake, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The B-57 would become his favorite airplane for traveling, and for several years he flew it in airshows.
The XB-52 and YB-52, the first prototypes of Boeing’s latest entry in the strategic bomber sweepstakes, were ready for testing in 1953, and Fulton was assigned to the project, which operated out of Moses Lake, Washington. Most of the time, he flew the F-86A pace airplane, to calibrate the new aircraft’s speed and altitude readings, or the chase aircraft. When the F-86 wasn’t needed, he flew on the bomber, and before long, he was checked out in the XB-52 itself.
The experience with the B-52 prototype would serve Fulton well in the years to come. Through the 1960s, the NB-52 was the airplane he flew with an X-15 or an experimental lifting body tucked under the bomber’s starboard wing. He flew the mothership for 92 of the 199 X-15 launches. In all, he was pilot for some 150 launches of manned aircraft.
The first age of the X-planes had begun at Edwards in the late 1940s, when the Air Force and what is now NASA began exploring the terra incognita of transonic and supersonic flight. B-29s and their descendants, B-50s, took off with small rocket-powered aircraft on their bellies. After release, the X-plane pilot lit the engine for a minutes-long powered flight to—and eventually well beyond—Mach 1. Then, on empty, the little ship, equipped with skids, would glide to a dry-lake landing.
Fulton was a natural choice for piloting the motherships. He flew as copilot on his first two X-1 drops, and as pilot on all his subsequent motherplane flights.
He flew the B-29s for the slightly larger and more powerful X-1A and B and the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket. Fulton flew a B-50 for the Bell X-2, a hotter, swept-wing variant of the X-1. In September 1956, the new design made Fulton’s colleague Milburn “Mel” Apt the first man to fly faster than Mach 3. It was Apt’s first flight in a rocket-powered airplane—and his last. Tumbling out of control in a supersonic turn, the X-2 killed him. “It was a sad day for all of us,” wrote Fulton, “and that same high-speed instability later showed up on other new high-performance airplanes.”
The late 1940s was also the era of the Right Stuff, the term coined by author Tom Wolfe to describe the amalgam of courage, cockiness, patriotism, airmanship, and rowdiness required to be a test pilot. Fulton, although endowed with everything but the rowdy part—he drinks no alcohol, coffee, or tea—was not really conscious that this was going to become another of aviation’s golden ages. “I didn’t recognize it until later,” he says.