What would a test pilot have to say after testing, the newest, most innovative aircraft, in America’s arsenal at that time? This is test pilot, Andrew Charles McDonough’s personal account of what it was like. A story suggested by a friend–who happened to, also be a pilot, and a relative of Mr. McDonough. We frequently have discussions about WWII–many times about battles and legendary aircraft.
1941 P-39 Flying Faster Than a Bullet
By this time you are so intimately acquainted with your craft, you have come to believe yourself a part of it. (And, by the way, this is not exaggeration. No pilot ever achieved anything in precision flying without attaining this relationship between himself and his craft.)
By Andrew Charles McDonough
Test Pilot & Eastern Air Lines Pilot
“I have traveled faster than any man on earth, and above it 620 miles an hour, almost 75 miles per hour faster than a bullet fired from a .45 caliber automatic. My adventure in super-speed happened while I was dive-testing a Bell P-39, the Airacobra, on a sort of “busman’s holiday” from my job as a commercial air line pilot.
Because no special preparation had been made, it was a complete surprise when I was told long after landing that I had set a record, hitting a pace of 909 feet a second. There were no extraordinary sensations–to tell me that this dive was any faster than others I had made. As I rode along with the plane’s nose pointed to earth, I felt no different than I did on level keel. The ride was better than you can get in a jalopy on the ground at 50 miles per hour. Not until I pulled out of the dive did I realize how fast I was going, and even then it wasn’t so bad. When I pulled out, it was as though I suddenly had sat down hard on the floor, or, maybe, like I had been kicked by a mule, but not so sudden. And after it was all over, and I found out how fast the P-39 had dived without help from its powerful engine, I wondered what would have happened if I could have fired a pistol back over the tail, or if I could have fired it ahead and parallel to the plane’s course. Since I was traveling 107 feet per second faster than a .45 caliber bullet moves when first discharged, would the bullet have rolled out of the barrel and fallen straight down, or would it have stayed in the barrel, or what?
Dive testing planes was not new to me. After all, I had run many tests on planes during my two years at the U. S. Navy’s flying station at Pensacola. So when the chief engineer of the Bell Aircraft Corporation asked me if I would test the P-39, I said: “Count me in!” and I obtained a brief leave of absence from my regular job. Test-flying an airplane of a brand new design is something like breaking in a horse. You learn all you can about the critter before you assay that real test to determine whether it or you are the boss. In case of the airplane, you find out all you can about the airplane by talking with the designer and the engineers who created it: what flight characteristics are likely to be dominant and why. When, at last, you have absorbed all of the technical background on the craft you need, you slip into the cockpit, and take off for a brief flight. You climb and ease it through fundamental maneuvers, feeling out the controls and acquiring confidence in the plane to do the job for which it was built. During this process, dives at comparatively low speeds may be performed to determine the plane’s flight characteristics. This process may go on for several days until you feel that you understand the plane completely and that it understands you. By this time you are so intimately acquainted with your craft that, indeed, you have come to believe yourself a part of it. (And by the way, this is not exaggeration. No pilot ever achieved anything in precision flying without attaining this relationship between himself and his craft.) That is just what I did with the P-39 the day of the final test flight.”
Tomorrow: (PART 2) P-39 BELL AEROCOBRA: RIDING A SILVER BULLET–SETTING A RECORD
*Story from “1941 P-39 Flying Faster Than a Bullet/Machine-History.Com”