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15 DECEMBER 2009


Fifty Years and Counting 

F-106 is still the Fastest

Major Joe Rogers prepares to board the Museums F-106A, S/N 56-0459, before their next flight during "Operation Firewall"

December of this year marks the 50th anniversary of McChord Museums F-106's brush with history. In 1959 F-106A S/N 56-0459 was selected as the primary aircraft in the Air Forces attempt at the Worlds Absolute Speed Record. The aircraft flew all flights in the project - except for the last, a flight that ultimately became the record setting flight.


During the decade of the 50’s, considerable advances in jet turbine engine power and efficiency led to history's largest increase in aircraft speed. These advances led to the escalation of the worldwide competition to design and build the World’s fastest production airplane, the winner of this competition would own aviation’s Absolute Speed Record.


Not to be out done, the U.S. Air Force used its newest and fastest jet fighters in attempts to capture the speed record for America. These record setting flights were to be flown in a program code-named Operation Firewall. Historic fighters such as the McDonnell F-101A VooDoo (in 1957) and the Lockheed F-104A Starfighter (in 1958) achieved record speeds in their flights in this program.


In 1959, USAF planned to use their newest and most advanced weapons  in attempts to break some of the Worlds most sought after aviation records. Attempts at a speed record (with the F-106), a close – course speed record (with the Republic F-105B Thunderchief), and a Helicopter altitude record (with the Kaman HH-43A Huskie) were all to be flown in the early weeks of December of that year. These aeronautical achievements were to be highlighted at the annual Wright (Brothers) Memorial Dinner in Washington D.C. on December 16.


Convair and USAF Officials believed that their new interceptor, the F-106 Delta Dart, possessed the performance necessary to surpass the record speed of the F-104. A pilot to fly this mission was nearly an unanimous decision, program officials called upon Major Joe Rogers who at the time was overseeing the integration of the F-106 into active service at Air Defense Command Headquarters, Ent AFB, CO. Major Rogers, a combat seasoned Fighter Pilot, had been deeply involved with the early development of the F-106 and F-102 Delta Dagger with many flight test hours in both programs.


Selecting a F-106 for Firewall flights was almost as easy, program officials dipped into the  F-106 test fleet and selected S/N 56-0459, which was considered by most F-106 Test pilots to be the “Hot Jet”, in other words, the Delta Dart that had flown the fastest with the best handling qualities, a perfect combination for this record attempt. Although the standard engine found in production F-106 Interceptors (Pratt & Whitney J75-P17 turbojet) possessed all of the power needed for this attempt, officials made plans to install a “gold plate” engine (a standard engine modified to produce 9% extra thrust) inside –0459 for all Operation Firewall flights.


Guidelines for all aviation record attempts are established by The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI); a Paris based International Aviation organization founded in 1905. During the Firewall project the FAI was represented in the United States by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), forerunner to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).


During early planning stages of Operation Firewall, the United States lost its two-year possession of the World Speed Record on October 31, 1959 to a jet fighter from the Soviet Union. Pilot Georgii Mossolov flew Mikoyan Design Bureau's Ye-6T/1 (a prototype of the MiG-21 Fishbed), to an unofficial speed of 1483.83 mph, breaking the record of the F-104A. Per FAI a new record must exceed the old by 1%; the new goal for the F-106 was to reach a speed of 1497.83 or greater. At the time many thought the Soviets successfully raised the bar, it was later discovered that the Ye-6T/1 flew its record setting speed with the assistance of a 6,615 lb thrust rocket engine, violating the FAI rules.


Electronic measuring instruments were installed in area within Edwards AFB, CA. to create the boundaries of the course, basically an “electronic tube” that measured 10 miles long, 2 miles wide, and 328 feet in height. The F-106 must fly two passes through the “electronic tube” or "trap", with the second pass flying in the opposite direction from the first. The two flights are required to diminish any chances that the aircraft speed could be affected by favorable or unfavorable wind conditions. While making these flights no part of the aircraft can touch edges of the "trap". The final figure is derived from the average speed from the two passes.


Major Rodgers and F-106A S/N 56-0459 are pictured on takeoff during Operation Firewall


In early December 1959, Firewall flights began at a feverish pace, but problems with measuring instruments installed F-106 -0459 slowed the programs progress. Special altimeters used to measure and maintain proper altitude were found not to be as precise as needed. To correct this problem, a more sensitive Vertical Speed Indicator was installed, but Rogers needed a better option. To keep -0459 level though the course, Rogers manufactured what was to be known as a “horizon indexer” which was a small piece of metal fixed to the canopy splitter that could be moved to match the horizon upon course entry, simple but effective. The problems with the aircraft were much more difficult to diagnose.


Throughout its involvement in Operation Firewall –0459 experienced seemingly uncorrectable compressor stalls as the F-106 reached speeds below Mach 2. The violent yawing (side to side twisting motion) continually pushed the aircraft out of the course boundaries, and on one of the last flights nearly costing Major Rogers his life if not for his expert airmanship. During the two weeks of flying a number of quick fixes were employed to correct the issues with the F-106 without success. With the deadline approaching, a discouraged Firewall team was forced to pull -0459 out of the program; hopes for a record were seemingly gone.


Without a plane, or a record a disheartened Rogers bordered a T-33 T-Bird on a flight to Washington D.C., Rodgers and the record setting HH-43 and F-105 Pilots were to have their records featured at the Wright Memorial Dinner on the December 16. Rodgers would have to face his colleagues without his prize, but there was still hope.

Back-up pilot and close friend to Major Rogers,  Major Bob Rushworth found a replacement for -0459 from Convair’s structural & loads testing program at Edwards - F-106A S/N 56-0467. As the back-up pilot, Rushworth could have flown #0467 in this new attempt for the record, but out of friendship and respect, Major Rushworth insisted that Major Rogers should be the pilot to set this record in the new aircraft. Within hours Joe was on his way back to California to make a new attempt at the record.


On the morning of December 15, F-106A #0467 pulled from its F-106 test duties and readied by Convair Test Pilot James Stewart, months of preparation had come down to this one flight.  Within hours Major Rogers had climbed aboard –0467 and prepared the jet for flight.  In this unfamiliar aircraft, Rogers leapt into the air, aiming his new mount through the center of the course. The pair pushed though the first leg of the flight well beyond Mach 2. Joe reduced the jets speed to an idle, and looped around for another pass. Approaching the “trap” Rogers lit the afterburner, -0467 traveled through the course without any of the problems experienced in the earlier flights in #0459. A little more than 25 seconds later Joe and –0467 accelerated out of the course flying 1,515.45 mph. On his last pass, Joe and –0467 was clocked at 1536.43 mph with his speed still climbing as he flew through the end of the "trap". An early analysis of the flight data showed the average speed of the two passes at 1520.9 mph but within a few hours a more detail study recorded the official speed at 1525.95, setting a new World Absolute Speed Record.


The F-106 would hold the record for two years until a heavily modified U.S. Navy F-4 Phantom prototype set a new mark of 1,606.342 by Lt. Col. Robert Robinson (USMC Ret) on 22 December 1961. Even though the F-106 lost its hold on the absolute speed record, it is still recognized as the fastest single-engine aircraft.


After her release from the F-106 testing program, F-106A #0459 served four years with the 11th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron at Duluth AFB, MN and another eighteen with McChord's 318th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron. After the interceptors retirement on 06 October 1983, the F-106 was the second aircraft to enter the Museum collection on 01 November 1983.    


The McChord Air Museum's "Firewall" exhibit (located next to the F-106 simulator) is a popular display in the museums gallery.    

Click here for Col. Joe Rogers Biography 
Click here for F-106A -0459's last pilot, Col. Randy Neville's Biography
Click here for the Museums F-106A page   
Click here for the Museums F-106 Simulator page 
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The McChord Air Museum Foundation
P.O. Box 4205
JBLM-McChord Field, WA. 98438-0205
e-mail - mamfound@mcchordairmuseum.org