When Slower Was Faster

The brains—and the physics—behind the 1955 Bendix win.

The F-100 was the first fighter to exceed Mach 1 in level flight. (USAF)
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At dawn on race day, an offshore frontal system kept the ceilings over Philadelphia low. Newspapers ran stories about “hot-shot pilots cooling their heels” during the one-day delay. The next morning the weather was better, but the frontal system had produced headwinds out of the east. The racers knew there would be no records.

Because the winner would be the aircraft that achieved the fastest time en route, not the first to cross the finish line, race officials at George called counterparts in Philadelphia to relay start times as each pilot took off. Alvin Moorman took off first; his ground crew removed his drop tanks right before takeoff, causing Dad’s heart to leap. Talbott departed second, flying Lucky 777, serial number 53-1777.

As he saw the tanks removed from the remaining George aircraft, Dad’s hopes continued to soar. “I think they were just messing with us,” he says of the aircraft initially fitted with tanks.

The remaining four pilots were soon airborne, with First Lieutenant Herbert Ferlmann replacing Major Charles Jones, who dropped out after his afterburner failed to light on takeoff.

Dad was now confident that Foster would win, as long as the team didn’t do anything stupid en route. But at McConnell, things went awry. Talbott landed, refueled in five minutes, and got airborne again, but the other two Foster pilots blew tires and dropped from the race.

The unflappable Talbott pressed on. “I flew…whatever Mach I could get…at full military power, but if I found myself a little ahead on fuel, I would whack afterburner” to fly faster, he recalled. It worked.

Talbott had taken off second but he arrived first, roaring past the finish pylon at the obligatory 100 feet above the ground. His elapsed time: three hours, 48 minutes, and four seconds (average: 610.7 mph).

Despite the lackluster time, the Foster public affairs officer must have swooned when he saw the photograph of Talbott on the front page of the New York Times: canopy open, hair tousled by his helmet as he taxied to the ramp, beaming and waving to the crowd.

The George pilots had their own problems. Moorman’s refueling team was waiting in the wrong place and Maurice Long had a fuel-flow glitch. In an interview with Brigadier General Art Cornelius, Long recalled that, due to the fuel shortage, “I didn’t know what power settings to use, what altitude to go to, and after working on this thing for weeks and weeks and weeks, getting all these things right down to pounds and minutes…I spent the last half of it just sort of by guess.” He landed third, with 140 pounds of fuel—not even enough for a go-around.

Moorman fared somewhat better, but still slowed to conserve fuel. A reporter from the British magazine Flight wrote that Moorman “coasted in from Harrisburg, so dire was his fuel situation.” He finished second, in 3:50:04. McCafferty, knowing that a short maintenance delay had cost him the win, flew a conservative profile and finished fourth.

Talbott told Dad to take an overnight flight from Los Angeles to Philadelphia to participate in the Monday celebration. The next day, Dad also had the privilege of flying Lucky 777 back to Foster. The plan was for the four race-finishing F-100s to depart together, and as the pilots waited for the ground crews to ready their airplanes, the rivalry rose again.

Dad remembers, “Moorman was still stewing over losing the race. He complained that it was a fluke that Foster won, and he kept arguing about what he could-a, or should-a, or would-a done to win the race. I finally got tired of hearing it and told him the only way he would have won was to use the drop tanks.” As the red-faced Moorman stomped off, McCafferty grinned and asked if Dad would let him in on the secret, now that the race was over. This time, he obliged.

Talbott retired as a three-star general, McCafferty was elected to the Delaware Aviation Hall of Fame, and, 55 years later, Dad used his engineering and piloting skills to set a world distance record in an airplane of his own design, flying non-stop from Everett, Washington, to Fredricksburg, Virginia, nearly the same distance as the 1955 race. Lucky 777 was damaged in an accident a few weeks after the race. It was repaired, then, while assigned to the Colorado Air National Guard, destroyed in another accident in 1961.

About Eileen Bjorkman

Eileen Bjorkman, a retired U.S. Air Force flight test engineer, is working on a book about the history of homebuilt aircraft.

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