EDWARDS AFB – Aviation pioneer and test pilot Fitzhugh (Fitz) L. Fulton Jr., who tested numerous supersonic bombers and flew various launch planes for the famed “X planes” and the Space Shuttle, died Feb. 4 in his home. The former U.S. Air Force and NASA research pilot was 89.
During a career in the military, civil service and industry, he logged over 16,000 flying hours in more than 240 types of aircraft.
Fulton was born and raised in Georgia. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet in 1943 and received his pilot wings and commission in December 1944.
While he qualified on both the B-24 and B-29 bombers , the war ended before he received orders to a combat unit. Following the war, he was transferred to C-54s and flew support for the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests and subsequently completed 225 missions during the Berlin Airlift.
He was first assigned to the flight test section at Edwards Air Force Base in 1950. A year later, he went to Korea where he flew 55 combat missions with a night intruder B-26 squadron. Returning to Edwards, he graduated from the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School in 1952.
Apart from a year dedicated to university studies, he spent the rest of his military career as a test pilot at Edwards. While he frequently flew fighters, he specialized in multiengine aircraft such as the B-45, B-47 , B-36, B-52 , B-57, B-66 and the Mach 2 B-58 Hustler . In 1962, he set a world record that still stands, as he piloted a B-58 to 85,360 feet while carrying a payload of 11,023 pounds.
He subsequently served as one of the principal project pilots for the triple-sonic XB-70 program during which he routinely flew the Valkyrie at altitudes above 70,000 feet and at speeds in excess of 2,000 mph. Throughout these years, he was also almost continually engaged as a launch pilot for the famous rocketplanes that were probing the frontiers of flight. Flying first the B-29 and then the B-50, he launched the X-1, X-l A, X-l B, D-558-11, and the X-2 .
He flew in support of the X-15 program from start to finish, serving as the B-52 launch pilot for 94 of the rocketplane’ s 199 flights.
He retired from the Air Force in 1966 and went to work as primary research pilot on the XB-70 for NASA’s Flight Research Center at Edwards (now the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center).
While continuing to launch the X-15 , he also served as a primary launch pilot for all of the rocket-powered Lifting Bodies and, by the end of this program , he had – by a wide margin – more rocketplane launch experience than any other pilot in the world.
From 1970-79, he served as one of NASA’s two principal project pilots on a major highspeed flight research program employing the Mach 3 YF-12 Blackbird.
Flying the modified Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft in 1977, he was the project pilot for all of the captive carry and launch missions of the Enterprise during the Space Shuttle Approach and Landing test program. These critical tests validated the approach and landing profiles that would subsequently be employed by space shuttles returning from orbital space flights.
Over the next decade, he served as project pilot for a wide range of flight research projects, among them the C-140 JetStar Laminar Flow Control Leading Edge Program, B-57 air turbulence research and the Boeing 720 Controlled Impact Demonstration program.
When he retired as NASA Dryden’s chief pilot in 1986, Fulton had achieved a distinction that no other pilot was likely to ever match. For all but two of the previous 37 years, he had served as an active test pilot at Edwards AFB where he logged more flights at the base than any other pilot in history.
Among his many honors, Fitz Fulton has been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with three Oak Leaf Clusters, five Air Medals, two NASA Exceptional Service Awards, the Harmon International Trophy , and the lven C. Kinchloe Award. He has been inducted into the Aerospace Walk of Honor (1991) and the National Aviation Hall of Fame (1999).
In 2013, Fulton wrote an autobiography entitled “Father of the Mother Planes,” in which he detailed his career. He was always willing to speak to aviation enthusiasts, no matter their age or expertise. He struggled with Parkinson’s disease during the last years of his life, but continued with unfailing good humor.
Fulton is survived by his wife Erma, his daughters Ginger Terry (Stan), of Denver, Colorado; son James Fulton (Judy) of Sacramento, California; daughter Nancy Grover of Livermore, California; sister Louise Fulton, of Santa Monica; six grandchildren; three great-grandchildren and several nieces and nephews.