Eagle Profile

Fitzhugh L. “Fitz” Fulton is one of America’s most accomplished test pilots having flown more than 15,000 hours in over 225 different types of aircraft. After attending Auburn University, he enlisted in the Army as an aviation cadet and was awarded his commission and pilot wings in December 1944. Fulton was trained in the B-24 Liberator and B-29 Superfortress, but World War II ended before he could enter combat.

Following the war, he transitioned to transport aircraft and in 1948 flew 225 missions in the C-54 Skymaster during the Berlin Airlift. Fulton did see combat in Korea, logging 55 combat missions in the A-26 Invader with the 13th Bombardment Squadron. In 1952, he completed the Air Force Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB, California. Initially he flew the B-29 and B-50 Superfortresses used in launching the Bell X-1 and X-2 experimental rocket planes. Assigned to the B-58 Hustler test program, he was a member of the first all-Air-Force test crew. In addition to testing numerous bomber and fighter aircraft, Fulton continued B-58 testing into the early 1960s.

In 1962, while Chief of the Bomber Flight Test Section and B-58 project pilot, he set an international altitude record for carrying a 5,000 kilogram (11,023 pounds) payload to a height of 85,360 feet. For this feat, he was awarded the Harmon International Trophy by President Johnson. This record, which was previously held by the Soviet Union, still stands today after more than 27 years. Fulton retired from the Air Force in 1966 to join NASA at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB. As NASA Chief Test Pilot, he flew research flights in the supersonic XB-70 Valkyrie and piloted the B-52 Stratofortress carrier aircraft used to launch experimental lifting bodies–predecessors to the space shuttle.

During the mid-70s, Fulton flew the YF-12 Blackbird to speeds and altitudes in excess of 2,000 mph and 70,000 feet to acquire new data for NASA research. In 1977, he was the project pilot of the Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft used during space shuttle approach and landing tests. That year, he received the Ivan C. Kincheloe Award and NASA’s Exceptional Service Medal for his test work. Fulton retired from NASA in 1986 and was the Flight Operations Director and Chief Research Pilot for Scaled Composites Incorporated.

Lieutenant Colonel Fulton was first selected as an Eagle by Air Command and Staff College’s Gathering of Eagles in 1989 and subsequently honored in 1991 and 2000.

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1989 Lithograph
1991 Lithograph
2000 Lithograph

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On 12 October 1977, at the Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards AFB, California, the Space Shuttle Enterprise, with astronaut Joe Engle in command, was poised for its fourth free flight from the NASA Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, piloted by "Fitz" Fulton. Adding uncertainty and danger to this particular portion of the shuttle approach and landing tests, engineers had removed the streamlined tailcone from the Enterprise and exposed three dummy rocket engines. In the absence of the shuttle's tailcone, it was uncertain if Fulton and his crew could withstand the buffeting and noise created by the shuttle's high drag configuration. Without this critical test, the shuttle's first landing in this configuration would have been on return from its first space mission. Separating from Fulton's 747 at 25,000 feet, 2 minutes and 34 seconds later, Engle landed the Enterprise precisely as planned on the dry-lake runway at Edwards AFB. Fulton and Engle had flawlessly accomplished the complex flight profile and the mission was a total success. Aerodynamic buffeting on the 747 did not prove to be a major problem, and removal of the tailcone did not dramatically change the shuttle's approach and landing performance.

High above the Mojave Desert at 70,000 feet, test missions are hardly routine. For Lieutenant Colonel "Fitz" Fulton, this day in July 1977 was going to be a hard one to forget. On-speed and on-altitude at Mach 3.0, Fulton jettisoned the experimental payload from his YF-12A. Immediately there was severe buffeting as both inlets "unstarted" from ingested debris. With left engine flame-out, the YF-12A lost speed and altitude. Thirty thousand feet later, he got the engine back and returned home--all in a day's work at NASA.

The XB-70 began as a late 1950's USAF requirement for a high-altitude bomber to carry a heavy warload and cruise at over Mach 3. North American rolled out "Air Vehicle 1" in May 1964. A second prototype, AV-2, followed in 1965. Surface-to-air missiles and high altitude Soviet interceptors made the bomber obsolete before it rolled out. Fulton flew 63 of the 129 XB-70 flights to study supersonic aerodynamics, propulsion, and other subjects. In early 1969, he piloted the last flight of the XB-70 and delivered AV-1 to the Air Force Museum.