Aviation History

The story of how the iconic F-4 Phantom II set a New Absolute Altitude record during Project Top Flight

The second prototype of the F-4 Phantom II was equipped with water injection and flown by CDR Lawrence E. Flint in a series of twelve ballistic zoom climbs from 50,000ft at maximum power between October and December 1959.

In response to Navy requirements for a high-altitude interceptor to defend carriers with long-range air-to-air missiles against attacking aircraft, McDonnell Aircraft Company delivered the F4H (later redesignated F-4) Phantom II. The aircraft’s maiden flight occurred in 1958 with deliveries to Navy and Marine Corps squadrons beginning in 1960. Its performance and versatility eventually attracted the interest of not only the US Air Force, but also the air forces of ten foreign nations, making it one of the most widely-employed aircraft in the history of aviation.

The F-4 first flew May 27, 1958, and entered service in 1961.

The Phantom II quickly demonstrated that it was a special aircraft, establishing twelve world speed, altitude, and time-to-climb records in the space of just 28 months.

The twelfth aircraft off the line (BuNo 145311) was officially devoted to Aircraft and Engine Performance. In practice this meant the World Speed Record program. Spurred by the results of the second stage of NPE (Navy Preliminary Evaluation) from July 1959, the Navy naturally wanted to put the F4H-1’s spectacular performance in the record books.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-4J Phantom II VF-31 Tomcatters, AC106 / 157307 / Mig Kill – 1972

Tragically, the first attempt at a world altitude record, Project Top Flight, cost the life of a company test pilot, Gerald Huelsbeck, when on its 295th flight the first prototype shed an engine access door in a high altitude zoom climb above Mach 2, and the subsequent fire destroyed the aircraft. “Zeke” Huelsbeck was imprisoned in the cock pit by unsurvivable g-forces.

As explained by Peter E. Davies in his book Gray Ghosts, U.S. Navy and Marine Corps F-4 Phantoms, the second prototype (BuNo 142260) was equipped with water injection and flown by CDR Lawrence E. Flint in a series of twelve ballistic zoom climbs from 50,000ft at maximum power between October and December 1959. The aircraft was stripped of radar and other non-essentials, including rear seat. Engine rpm, fuel flow rates, and afterburner nozzle settings were all tweaked for higher thrust. CDR Flint reached speeds up to Mach 2.41 just before reaching Edwards AFB air space and pulling up for the 3.5g, fifty degree zoom climb to be measured.

Towards the peak of each vertical climb fuel flow was cut to prevent overheating as the afterburners “blew out” from lack of oxygen above 65,000 ft. In the pure, unpolluted atmosphere, darkness was so intense that when Flint’s shadow fell on the instrument panel he could not see the dials at all. At the top of the zoom the engines were shut off, speed dropped back to around 45 mph, and the aircraft entered a dive to 45,000 ft for an engine re-light and pull-out to controlled flight.

When the aircraft landed much of its orange paint had been stripped off by the heat generated on Flint’s low altitude run-in. The outer windscreen panels were also distorted by the heat.

On one flight CDR Flint was unable to shut off the right engine as he neared the apex of his climb until it had exceeded 120 per cent rpm and the TOT had gone off the scale. Luckily it held together, and on post-flight inspection it was found that up to half an inch had melted off the outer end of each turbine blade.

CDR Lawrence E. Flint with the World Record-setting McDonnell YF4H-1 Phantom II, Bu. No. 142260

The highest altitude reached during the Project was 98,557 ft on Dec. 6, 1959, though this new record was broken by a USAF F- 104C before the end of the year.

To a potential enemy these spectacular flights were a dramatic proof of the new aircraft’s potential as a high-altitude interceptor.

Larry Flint, who had commanded VF-11 Red Rippers in the Korean War, had been a test pilot since 1944 and he went on to become Chief Test Conductor for the Apollo space program and manager of the F-14 Tomcat Aircrew Training Program for the USN and Iranian Air Force.

Gray Ghosts, U.S. Navy and Marine Corps F-4 Phantoms is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

This model is available in multiple sizes from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.
Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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