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This Day in History: The First Mach 3 Flight

On this day in 1956, Captain Milburn “Mel” Apt becomes the first to fly faster than Mach 3. Sadly, his Bell X-2 supersonic aircraft went into a spin mere seconds later. The intrepid pilot was unable to eject in time.

“These are powerful rocket planes,” Air Force Magazine described, “each icebox white, small, and more powerful than any engine man has ever built. They are rapier-nosed guided missiles, guided by men who are a new breed of pilots. . . . Probing the unknown, their missions are dangerous.”

Apt was among the best test pilots of his day, and he was known for his dogged determination to save any plane that he was flying. He once brought a plane back with its engine on fire. “He hated to lose the airplane,” another test pilot said. “And, as a result of getting it back, the plane was extensively redesigned.”

On another occasion, Apt saved a fellow test pilot from a burning Lockheed F-94C. Apt ran toward danger, hitting the Lockheed’s cockpit canopy repeatedly until he got it open and pulled the trapped pilot to safety.

Apt’s record-breaking X-2 flight came on September 27, 1956. His X-2 would be air-launched from the belly of a bomber, flying like a glider until it cleared the bigger plane. He’d then fire the rocket engines, pushing the X-2 forward in an explosive drive for just over two minutes.

The base commander, Brig. Gen. J.S. Holtoner, thought about giving Apt a speed limit for the flight—but he didn’t. He regrets the decision.

“I think that every supervisory guy from me on down has criticized himself because if we had told this boy to stop at a specific speed this wouldn’t have happened,” he says.

Part of the problem? It had been deemed “one chance in a thousand to fly a perfect flight pattern.” But Apt surprised everyone, hitting his marks more precisely than previous pilots had done. As a result, he accelerated more quickly, too, ultimately hitting Mach 3.196 (2094 mph) at an altitude of 65,500 feet before the rocket engines burnt out.

He'd set an astonishing speed record.

At this point, Apt was to turn the plane and return to base. Unfortunately, the plane could not handle the maneuver at such a high speed. In the moment, no one was quite sure what had happened to Apt. However, a later investigation sheds light on what must have occurred.

“Suddenly the plane dipped and rolled,” Apt’s daughter describes in an open letter to her father. “You were knocked unconscious. The X-2 went into an inverted spin. You woke and tried to regain control. Finally you jettisoned the cone of the plane, which also served as an escape capsule. The capsule pitched forward and you were battered again into unconsciousness. Again you woke (all of this recorded by the cockpit’s camera) and tried but failed to release your parachute.”

The X-2’s wreckage was found about half an hour later. It was about 5 miles from the wreckage of the escape capsule, with Apt’s lifeless form inside.

He’d been an American pioneer, pushing the boundaries of what is possible. And NASA learned. “Apt’s fatal accident,” a NASA website explains, “provided valuable lessons about aerodynamic design problems for supersonic airplanes, including the inertial coupling problem that resulted in Apt’s loss of control and cost him his life.”

Easy for NASA to say, but surely much harder for the wife and two daughters he left behind.

“You are the old story,” one of Apt’s daughter concluded decades later. “Send out the young men. See what they discover. See what they can do. We can fly, and so we have to fly. We can go high, and so we have to go higher. You were young and brave and optimistic. . . . How could I stay angry with you? I forgive you for dying.”

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