George Welch (pilot)
May 10, 1918|
Wawaset Park, Wilmington, Delaware
|Died||October 12, 1954(aged 36)|
|Allegiance||United States of America|
|Service/branch||United States Army Air Corps
United States Army Air Forces
|Years of service||1939-1944|
|Unit||47th Fighter Squadron
36th Fighter Squadron
80th Fighter Squadron
|Awards||Distinguished Service Cross
Distinguished Flying Cross
American Defense Medal
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with four battle stars
Presidential Unit Citation
George Welch (May 10, 1918 – October 12, 1954) was a World War II flying ace, a Medal of Honor nominee, and an experimental aircraft pilot after the war. Welch is best known for being one of the few United States Army Air Corps fighter pilots able to get airborne to engage Japanese forces in the attack on Pearl Harbor and for his work as a test pilot.
Welch retired from the United States Army Air Forces as a major in 1944, and became a test pilot for North American Aviation, receiving some notoriety for reportedly being the first pilot to exceed Mach 1 in the prototype XP-86 Sabre (two weeks before Chuck Yeager's record flight). Controversy exists as to the actual details of the flight and if this flight took place, it is generally not recognized as a record because of a lack of verifiable speed measurement and because the aircraft's highest speeds were attained while diving. In 1954, Welch died following a crash in a test flight in a North American F-100 Super Sabre.
George Welch was born George Lewis Schwartz, but his parents changed his name to avoid the anti-German sentiment surrounding World War I. His father was a senior research chemist for Dupont Experimental Test Station at Wilmington, Delaware. He attended St. Andrew's School (1936). He completed three years of a mechanical engineering degree from Purdue University, before joining the Army Air Corps in 1939. While attending Purdue, he was initiated as a brother of Delta Upsilon. USAAC flight training schools that he attended included: Brooks, Kelley and Randolph Fields, San Antonio, Texas as well as Hamilton Field, Novato, California.
World War II
At dawn on December 7, 1941, 2nd Lt. Welch and another pilot, 2nd Lt. Ken Taylor, were coming back from a Christmas dinner and dance party (with big band orchestra) at a rooftop hotel in Waikiki, that ended in an all-night poker game. They were still wearing mess dress when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Welch telephoned an auxiliary Haleiwa Fighter Strip on Oahu's North Shore to have two Curtiss P-40B Tomahawk fighters prepared for takeoff. He and Taylor immediately drove his Buick at high speed to Haleiwa in order to join the air battle.
Taking off with only 30 cal ammo in the wing guns, Welch claimed two kills of Aichi D3A Val dive bombers over Ewa Mooring Mast Field. The first Japanese aircraft was only damaged and it made it back to its carrier while the second was finished off by Ken Taylor, shortly before he landed at Wheeler Field to get 50 cal ammo for his two cowl guns. On his second sortie, Welch shot down a Val (which was behind Ken Taylor, and crashed in the community of Wahiawa) then one Mitsubishi Zero fighter about five miles west of Barbers Point.
After Pearl Harbor, Welch returned to the continental U.S. to give war bond speeches until being assigned to the 36th Fighter Squadron of the 8th Fighter Group in New Guinea. Despite his aerial victories on December 7, 1941, Welch was dissatisfied with flying the poorly performing Bell P-39 Airacobra. When asked by a journalist what aspect of the P-39 he liked, then seven-victory ace George Welch said, "Well, it's got twelve hundred pounds of Allison armor plate." This was a reference to the center-mounted engine (i.e.: behind the cockpit) rather than to actual armor plating. When Welch inquired as to when his squadron (the 36th FS) would receive P-38s, he was told, "When we run out of P-39s." He repeatedly appealed to be assigned to the 80th Fighter Squadron (which flew the Lockheed P-38 Lightning) until he was granted a transfer. Between June 21 and September 2, 1943, flying a P-38H, Welch shot down nine more Japanese aircraft: two Zeros, three Ki-61 Tonys, three Ki-43 Oscars and one Ki-46 Dinah. Welch flew three combat tours (a total of 348 combat missions with 16 confirmed victories, all achieved in multiples) before malaria retired him from the war.
Mach 1 claim
In the spring of 1944, Welch was approached by North American Aviation to become a company test pilot. With the recommendation of General Arnold, Welch resigned his commission and accepted the job. He went on to fly the prototypes of the Navy’s North American FJ-1 and later the P-86. North American originally proposed a straight wing version of the XP-86 and the Army Air Force accepted this on May 1, 1945. On November 1, North American, with the aid of captured German technology, proposed and was given permission for a major redesign of the XP-86 to a 35-degree swept-wing configuration. This was new technology and the USA’s first high-speed swept-wing airplane and a significant advance over Republic Aviation’s XP-84. Welch was chosen as chief test pilot for the project.
In September 1947, the first of three XP-86 prototypes (s/n 45-59597) was moved from North American’s Mines Field (later Los Angeles International Airport) to the Muroc North Base test facility (now Edwards AFB), the same base at which the Bell X-1 was being tested. The maiden flight[N 1] of the XP-86 was on October 1, 1947, flown by Welch.
After about a 30-minute flight, it was time to land and Welch lowered the flaps and gear. At this point, the nose gear would not extend completely. For 40 minutes, Welch unsuccessfully tried everything to extend the nose gear. When he reached a low fuel state, he elected to land on Muroc Lake Bed without a fully extended nose gear. Upon touchdown, in a nose-high attitude, Welch cut the engine and as the XP-86 slowed the nose gear snapped down and locked. The aircraft was undamaged.
Secretary of the Air Force[N 2] Stuart Symington had instructed North American that they were not, under any circumstances, to break the sound barrier before the X-1 achieved this milestone. He could exercise his authority in this regard because both the XP-86 and X-1 were Air Force programs. Welch’s only complaints about the aircraft was the J35 engine lacked power and the rate of climb was only a disappointing 4,000 ft (1,200 m) per minute. North American, however, had already contracted with General Electric for more powerful J47 engines for the production P-86As.
In his Aces Wild: The Race for Mach 1 (1998), test pilot and author Al Blackburn claimed Welch broke the sound barrier two weeks before Yeager. Blackburn bases his contention on interviews of eyewitnesses, former North American employees and access to contemporary historical accounts. The story had also circulated at the time, amongst the Muroc personnel. Robert Kempel, author of The Race For Mach 1 contradicts the claim, contending it was impossible for Welch's aircraft to break the sound barrier with an underpowered engine. Bob Hoover, chase pilot for Welch and Yeager, has also gone on record to debunk the Welch story. Kempel contends that due to the very early stage of North American’s flight test program, the aircraft was simply not ready for high-speed flight due to the limited airframe flight time and clearance. He notes that the XP-86 airframe was capable of transonic flight, but the interim low-power J35-C-3 limited its performance. The highest Mach number reached by Welch in 1947, as indicated by official flight test records, was about 0.93, in a maximum power dive from 45,114 ft (13,751 m) with the engine at 100.8-percent Military RPM (i.e. maximum power). North American conducted this test, their “High Mach Number Investigation”, on November 13. The USAF verified all North American results and this test Mach number in their own Phase II tests conducted in December 1947.
By the end of 1947, the XP-86 had logged 29 hours and 23 minutes of flight test time, most flown by Welch. On October 14, 1947, Captain Charles Yeager exceeded Mach 1 in the Bell X-1. The claim of the XP-86 passing Mach 1, with Welch at the controls, was not made until April 26, 1948. Blackburn, however, maintains that a record on the Muroc radar theodolite, of the two flights Welch made on November 13, 1947 indicated supersonic flights, as well, noting 20 minutes before the X-1 broke the record, a sonic boom was heard over the desert, centered on the Happy Bottom Riding Club,[N 3] dude ranch restaurant and hotel operated by Pancho Barnes.
Later career and death
Welch went on to work as chief test pilot, engineer and instructor with North American Aviation during the Korean War where he reportedly downed several enemy MiG-15 "Fagots" while "supervising" his students. However, Welch's kills were in disobedience of direct orders for him to not engage, and credits for the kills were thus distributed among his students.
After the war, Welch returned to flight testing; this time in the F-100 Super Sabre with Yeager flying the chase plane. Welch became the first man to break the sound barrier in level flight with this type of aircraft on May 25, 1953. However, stability problems were encountered in the flight test program, and on Columbus Day, October 12, 1954, Welch's F-100A-1-NA Super Sabre, 52-5764, disintegrated during a 7g pullout at Mach 1.55. When found, Welch was still in the ejection seat, critically injured, and was aided by NAA test Navion pilots Robert "Bob" Baker and Bud Pogue. Welch was evacuated by helicopter, but was pronounced dead on arrival at the Army hospital. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
In the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora!, Welch was portrayed by Rick Cooper.
- See Sabre Pilots Association web site for this and other articles related to the XP-86 and F-86 aircraft.
- The United States Air Force became an independent branch of the U. S. military on September 18, 1947.
- The Happy Bottom Riding Club was more formally known as the Rancho Oro Verde Fly-Inn Dude Ranch.
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