This article was written by Bryan R. Swopes and first published on This Day in Aviation. Read the original article here.


To commemorate the 50th anniversary of United States Naval Aviation, the Navy sponsored a series of record-setting flights, known as Operation SAGEBURNER. The project was designed to set new speed records at low altitudes flying McDonnell F-4A Phantoms (F4H-1).

On August 28, 1961, Lieutenants Huntington Hardisty and Earl De Esch, United States Navy, flew a McDonnell F4H-1F Phantom II to a World Air Sports Federation – Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) – World Speed Record of 902.714 miles per hour (1,452.777 kilometers per hour) over a 1.864 mile (3 kilometer) course at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. They flew BELOW 125 feet (38.1 meters) above the ground.



McDonnell F4H-1F, Bu. No. 145307, flying at extremely low altitude, August 28, 1961. (U.S. Navy)

An earlier speed record attempt, on May 18, 1961, ended tragically when Commander Jack L. Felsman, and Ensign Raymond M. Hite, Jr., were killed and their F4H-1F Phantom II, Bu. No. 145316, destroyed when a pitch damper failed which resulted in Pilot Induced Oscillation. This became so severe that the Phantom’s airframe was subjected to 12 Gs, causing it to break apart in flight. Both engines were torn from the airframe.



McDonnell F4H-1F Phantom II Bu. No. 145316, SAGE BURNER. The object on the centerline hardpoint appears to be a Mark 43 weapon. (U.S. Navy)

The world-record-setting airplane, McDonnell F4H-1F Phantom II, Bureau of Aeronautics Serial Number (Bu. No.) 145307, SAGEBURNER, is at the Paul Garber Restoration Facility of the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum.



McDonnell F4H-1F Phantom II, Bu. No. 145307, SAGEBURNER. (U.S. Navy)