Who holds the altitude record for an airplane?

Depends on the category—and on who was watching.

The X-15: A different kind of high. USAF

A reader wonders, “Why is a MiG credited with the Absolute Altitude Record when the X-15 flew approximately 200,000 feet higher?”

It doesn’t seem fair. On July 17, 1962, American test pilot Robert White took the X-15 to an altitude of 314,688 feet. But it’s Russian pilot Alexandr Fedotov who holds the world altitude record, set on August 31, 1977, when his MiG E-266M reached a mere 123,523 feet. What gives?

The answer is simple: The way in which the two aircraft were launched puts them in different categories. The X-15 was never intended to take off under its own power; it was carried aloft by a modified B-52. So White’s record fell under the “Altitude Gain, Aeroplane Launched from a Carrier Aircraft” category (and has since been broken by Michael Melvill during his June 21, 2004 SpaceShipOne flight). Fedotov’s absolute record for altitude is for a ground-launched airplane.

Another requirement for setting an official record is that an observer from either the National Aeronautic Association (NAA) or its umbrella organization, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), be present during the record-setting attempt.

But as Phil Scott wrote in our February 1996 issue, “Record books don’t always give the whole story. The first powered flight was 120 feet, made by Orville Wright on December 17, 1903, right? Well, back then there was no FAI and thus no trained FAI observers—just a bunch of guys helping out from the Kitty Hawk lifesaving station. As far as the FAI is concerned, the first confirmed, sustained flight was 197 feet, made by Alberto Santos-Dumont in 14-bis on October 23, 1906. The Wrights also get no official credit for being first to fly a circuit of one kilometer or more. Again: no official FAI-approved observers. That honor went to Henri Farman, flying a Voisin biplane in 1908—more than two years after the Wrights had accomplished the same thing.”

The FAI was conceived in 1905, when the presidents of the Aero Club of France, the German Airship League and the Aero Club of Belgium proposed an organization that would “regulate the sport of flying…[and] advance the science and sport of Aeronautics.” At its inception, the FAI decided to “methodically catalogue the best performances achieved, so that they be known to everybody; to identify their distinguishing features so as to permit comparisons to be made; and to verify evidence and thus ensure that record-holders have undisputed claims to their titles.”

Marcel Meyer, executive director of the FAI, wrote us by email: “Absolute World Records represent the best performances from all classes of aeroplanes, regardless of weight classifications or method of propulsion. There are four absolute world record [categories]: absolute altitude (the greatest altitude achieved for a flight performance for altitude, altitude with payload, or altitude in horizontal flight); absolute distance (the greatest distance achieved for a flight performance for distance or distance over a closed course); absolute greatest payload (the greatest payload achieved for a flight performance for greatest payload); absolute speed (the greatest speed achieved for a flight performance for speed over a 3 kilometer course or speed over a 15 kilometer course).”

The NAA has been certifying U.S. aviation records since 1905; their web site lists the record categories recognized, and explains how to make a record attempt.

What about other disputed records, like the one Irvin Lush, of Louisville, Kentucky, asks about: “Who was the first person to break the sound barrier in an airplane? The X-1 was a rocket.”

As writer Al Blackburn wrote in our January 1999 issue, George Welch, in a North American XP-86, the prototype for the U.S. Air Force’s first swept-wing fighter, reached Mach 1 during the same time period as Chuck Yeager. Yeager was able to claim an official record because all airspeed, Mach number, pressure, and temperature data from test flights were tracked, recorded, and documented, wrote Blackburn. But there was another high-speed experimental aircraft flying over the desert that autumn. And although claims that the North American XP-86 achieved Mach 1 are merely anecdotal,  Blackburn, a former North American test pilot, interviewed eyewitnesses, researched historical accounts, and reconstructed the events of those memorable months in the book Aces Wild: The Race for Mach 1. He concluded: “Looking at the record, it could have been Welch by a fortnight or Yeager by four weeks….”

The first flight of the XP-86 took place on Wednesday, October 1. Welch took his aircraft to 320 knots, which he estimated should be Mach 0.90. He accelerated to 450 knots, whereupon Millie Palmer, a resident of Muroc, “reported that a big ‘ba-boom’ had nearly bounced her out of bed. She added that Pancho [Barnes], a big Yeager supporter, had heard it too but attributed it to some mining operation up in the hills.” Was it the first sonic boom from a jet? No FAI observer was there, so the arguments continue today.