2012-08-08 / Front Page

Early County’s highest, fastest native

Fitz Fulton with one of the S71 Blackbirds, still the world’s fasted manned aircraft. Fitz Fulton with one of the S71 Blackbirds, still the world’s fasted manned aircraft. Remember news video of the Space Shuttle’s first piggyback ride atop a 747 as it landed at Robbins AFB in the early 1980s?

The pilot of the 747 was Early County native Fitzhugh “Fitz” Fulton — Early County’s highest flying native.

He wasn’t just the pilot, he was NASA’s project pilot on all early tests of the 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft used to air launch the Space Shuttle prototype Enterprise in the approach and landing tests in 1977.

During those flights, the SCA carried the unpowered Enterprise to an altitude of 25,000 feet, where it separated from the 747 and flew to a landing by the Shuttle test crew. The space shuttle, while possibly the most visible achievement, it was just one of a long list of aviation achievements that landed him in the Georgia, Alabama and National Aviation Halls of Fame.

Fitz Fulton with flight crewmembers of Enterprise and the host NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier. (NASA Photo) Fitz Fulton with flight crewmembers of Enterprise and the host NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier. (NASA Photo)

“Fitz” Fulton took his first airplane ride in a Ford Tri-motor in his hometown of Blakely and worked part-time at the Columbus, Ga., airport while in high school, and soloed at 17 in a J-3 Cub.

He attended Auburn University and joined the Army Air Forces as an aviation cadet, earning his commission and pilot wings in 1944.

Fulton trained in the B-24 Liberator and the B-29 Superfortress, but World War II ended before he entered combat. He made the transition to transport aircraft, and in 1948, participated in the Berlin Airlift, flying 225 missions in the C- 54 Skymaster. Assigned to the 13th Bomb Squadron in Korea, he flew 55 night combat missions in the B-26 Invader.

Fulton completed the USAF Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB, Calif., in 1952 and flew the B-29 and B-50 Superfortress “motherships” used to launch the X-I and X-2 rocket planes.

He tested many other bomber, transport, and fighter aircraft, including the B-58 Hustler. In 1962, Fulton flew a B-58 with a 5,000 kilogram payload to an altitude of 85,360 feet, breaking the record held by a Soviet pilot.

He won the Harmon International Aviation Trophy for “Outstanding Individual Achievement” that year; this record remained unchallenged as of May, 1995 when he was enshrined into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame.

Fulton retired from the Air Force in 1966 as a lieutenant colonel. He then joined the NASA Dryden Flight Research Facility as a civilian, where he was project pilot on NASA’s B-52 launch aircraft used to air launch a variety of piloted and unpiloted research aircraft. Fulton flew 63 of the 129 flights of the XB-70 prototype supersonic bomber during the late 1960s, attaining speeds exceeding Mach 3.

For his work in the Shuttle approach and landing tests, Fulton received NASA’s Exceptional Service Medal and the Society of Experimental Test Pilots’ Iven C. Kincheloe Award as Test Pilot of the Year in 1977.

While at NASA, Fitz continued to fly numerous aircraft for a variety of tests. He was a project pilot on a specially modified C-140 Jetstar testing eight and ten blades propellers. He also flew evaluation flights of the Concorde.

During the mid 1970’s, Fulton continued to expand the limits of aeronautical knowledge, flying the YF-12 Blackbird to speeds and altitudes exceeding 2,000 mph and 80,000 feet. He was project pilot for the Boeing 747 used for space shuttle approach and landing tests, and flew all five 747 flights in which the shuttle proof-of-concept vehicle was launched from the top of the aircraft. Retiring from NASA in 1986, he continued to work as a flight test consultant.

Awards and recognitions included: five Air Medals, seven Distinguished Flying Crosses, two NASA Exceptional Service Medals, the Arthur Godfrey Aviation Trophy, Ivan C. Kincheloe Trophy, Harmon International Aviation Trophy, Fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, and Outstanding Aviator in 1989 and again in 1991 by the USAF Air Command and Staff School.

Fulton then became the flight operations director and chief research pilot for Scaled Composites Company where he was responsible for developmental test flying of planes powered by the FJ-44 engines. Fulton again retired in 1989.

After retirement he continued as a flight test consultant. In his spare time, he flew his personal planes, a Cessna 172 and a Meyers “Little Toot.” He and his wife Erma live in Lancaster, Calif.

Return to top