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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On one such test, Fulton had cut an outboard engine just before takeoff at 190 knots (218 mph) when the right main gear’s tires—all eight of them—began to disintegrate. Fulton felt nothing in the controls, but noticed rubber fragments spewing out on his right. He continued the takeoff, however, and, after a lookover by a fellow test pilot in an F-100, turned the hobbled B-58 toward home. “Landed at 100 knots,” he remembers, “not the usual 150. Pulled the nose up to slow it down and dropped the nose wheel for steering.”

In September 1962, Fulton flew a B-58 with a payload of 5,000 kilograms (slightly more than 11,000 pounds) to 85,364 feet, setting world records for both 2,000- and 5,000-kilogram payloads. For those flights, and his other work with the B-58, he received the international Harmon Trophy, naming him “the world’s outstanding aviator for 1962.” President Lyndon Johnson awarded him the trophy at the White House in September 1964. In his book, Fulton writes: “During the ceremony, I was standing right behind the President and could read his notes. It was all over so quickly. The Harmon Trophy is big and heavy but I carried it back to the hotel and onto our airplane for the trip back to California.”

That same month saw the first flight of North American Aviation’s XB-70 Valkyrie prototype, a Mach 3-plus strategic bomber intended as a successor to the B-52. Fulton flew chase in a B-58 while he and several colleagues spent a couple of years learning about the radical new bomber—an airplane, he says, that would be a close runner-up to the B-58 in his admiration.

Fulton had by then come to an important decision regarding his career. Offered a posting to the prestigious Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, he declined, fearing it would put him behind a desk. In April 1966, he filed his retirement request, effective at the end of June. Meanwhile, he continued flying the Valkyrie.

On June 8, 1966, Fulton was scheduled to fly the XB-70 in a test run that would segue into a calendar photo shoot for General Electric, showing a close formation of GE-powered aircraft: an F-4B, T-38, F-104N, F-5, and the number-two XB-70 prototype. But word came that a pilot was needed for an X-15 drop from the NB-52, and Fulton was reassigned. The X-15 drop was subsequently canceled, but it was too late to change the pilot roster for the XB-70. Major Carl Cross would pilot the XB-70, with Al White as copilot.

The Valkyrie completed its test program and settled into the photo session. For some 40 minutes, all went well. But then the F-104 drifted in toward the bomber, drawn, perhaps, by the XB-70’s wake vortex. The fighter bumped the larger airplane’s wing, then nosed up and, inverted, raked across the bomber, shearing off all of one vertical stabilizer and most of the other. The F-104 pilot was killed. Seconds later the Valkyrie rolled into a violent spin, losing part of one wing. Al White successfully ejected in his escape capsule. Carl Cross went down with the aircraft.

“I’ve always thought that if I’d been on the flight it wouldn’t have happened,” Fulton says, adding that it wasn’t his abilities that would have prevented the accident. “You change the players, you change the outcome.”

NASA wasn’t quite through with the Valkyrie; it wanted to use the remaining prototype in a high-speed flight research program with the Air Force. Fulton, now a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, came to NASA with the airplane as primary project pilot, working with Donald Mallick, then a research pilot at NASA’s Edwards-based Dryden Flight Research Center. Like everyone in the test pilot community, Mallick had heard of Fulton, but this was the men’s first time working together.

Fulton and Colonel Joe Cotton, who’d been the primary Air Force pilot on the Valkyrie, began a checkout program for Mallick and Lieutenant Colonel Ted Sturmthall. “Flying the XB-70 was quite an experience for me,” says Mallick. “Fitz and Colonel Cotton were the [instructor] pilots. Ted and I flew with one of them on all test flights. A senior pilot and a junior pilot. I flew a total of nine flights. I was able to fly four of these flights from the left seat. I was proud that Fitz did not look on me as just a copilot. He shared the flying and testing.”

Fulton and Mallick would then fly something even hotter: the Lockheed Blackbird, in the form of the YF-12A and the YF-12C, which was actually the highly classified SR-71 in mufti. The pilots each made more than 100 flights in the Blackbird.

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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