Tuesday, November 21, 2006

George S. 'Wheaties' Welch 1918-1954

George Schwartz Welch became the first civilian pilot to exceed Mach 1 in a jet-powered plane while flying the XF-86 on April 26, 1948. Among his many other pioneering test flights at Edwards Air Force Base were the first flights of the North American XF-86 on October 1, 1947 and the YF-100 Super Sabre in May 1953.

Born May 10, 1918 in Wilmington, DE, Welch became interested in aerospace as a young boy, spending much of his time building model airplanes. He joined the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1939, where he acquired the nickname “Wheaties” for his ability to generate quick energy. On December 7, 1941, Welch was one of the first pilots to shoot down a Japanese plane at Pearl Harbor; the first of four victories he scored that day. Welch was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for these actions, which were portrayed in the 1970 Rick Cooper film, Tora! Tora! Tora! Welch flew three combat tours before malaria retired him from the war. By the time he ended his combat career, he was credited with 16 confirmed victories- ranking him among the top 35 U.S. Army Air Forces aces of World War II.

Welch left the USAAF in July 1944 and became Chief Test Pilot for North American Aviation. From 1944-1947, he flew engineering tests on P-51, P-82, XSNJ-1, FJ-1 and AJ-1 aircraft. In September 1947, he was sent to Muroc (now Edwards Air Force Base), to become NAA’s Chief Test Pilot for the F-86 test program. Welch piloted the first flights of the F-86D and XF-93A. In addition, he made the first flight of the YF-100A Super Sabre on May 25, 1953, when this airplane became the first in history to exceed Mach 1 on its maiden flight. During the Korean War, Welch was a Chief Test Pilot, engineer and instructor for North American Aviation. He returned to flight testing after the war.

Welch’s life was tragically cut short on October 12, 1954 at EAFB during a structural demonstration flight of the F-100A Super Sabre when the aircraft tumbled out of control during a Mach 1.5 dive, due to a design flaw in its vertical tail. He ejected, but later died from injuries. Welch is buried in Arlington Cemetery.