80th Anniversary of First US Rocket Powered Flight

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1st Lieutenant
May 30, 2011
Cape Canaveral
80th​ Anniversary of First US Rocket Powered Flight

6 August 2021 marks the 80th​ Anniversary of the first manned rocket powered flights in the United States.

Capt Homer A. Boushey, Jr,m USAAC, was a rocket enthusiast. He corresponded with Dr Robert Goddard and pushed for the use of rockets by the Air Corps. Meanwhile, Frank J, Malina, a graduate student at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT) became interested in rockets and made proposals to the Air Corps and the National Academy of Sciences. In the summer of 1939 NAS awarded a contract for GALCIT for Jet Assisted Take Off Performance Research, for not only powered aircraft but for gliders as well.

An early problem was that the solid rocket motors they developed tended to explode for no obvious reason. They eventually noted that they tended to blow up less often if they were fired soon after they were cast. Unknown to them, when the propellant dried out the ignition process caused it to fragment and burn far more rapidly, leading to much higher pressures and rupture of the case. The problem finally was partially resolved by using asphalt in the motors. The problem continued in lesser degrees for over 40 years before improved propellant components almost eliminated it.

For the JATO tests they chose a new production light aircraft, the ERCO Ercoupe 415C. The Ercoupe was almost unique for its day in that it had an all-metal fuselage in which not even the control surfaces were fabric covered, combined with very gentle stall characteristics and incredible ease of handling. The Ercoupe also offered a broad area under the center section where the rocket motors could be mounted and secured to the main spar. The rocket motors each produced 28 pounds of thrust for 12 seconds and weighed about 10 pounds, loaded.

Capt Boushey was designated as the pilot and the first test flight was made on 6 August 1941. Initial tests consisted of climbs to altitude followed by firing the rocket motors. Although they addressed the explosion problem by casting the motors early in the morning and running them out to March Field for the test flights they did have one motor explode during a test flight.

On 12 Aug 1941 they were ready for the first JATO take offs, using six rocket motors. A Porterfield CP-65 Collegiate served as a chase plane, but its real purpose was to compare a similar powered airplane to the rocket boosted Ercoupe. The result was that the Ercoupe reached an altitude of several hundred feet before the CP-65 even broke ground. The takeoff roll was reduced form 580 feet to about 300 feet and take-off time went from 13.1 sec to 7.5 sec.

Then on 12 Aug they installed twelve rocket motors, removed the propeller from the Ercoupe, covered over the front cowling, towed the airplane a short distance and then fired the rockets. The Ercoupe took off and then glided back down to the runway.

In the years that followed the Bell X-1 broke the sound barrier, the Bell X-2 pushed the limits out to Mach 3, and the North American X-15 hit 4500 mph. Americans rode rockets into space, into orbit, and to the Moon; they still do. And it all started with that little Ercoupe, 80 years ago this week.

Video at:
GPN-2000-001537 JATO CREW.jpg
GPN-2000-001538 Ercoupe JATO.jpg

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