Everest, Frank Kendall, Jr. (“Pete”)
Everest, Frank Kendall, Jr. (“Pete”)
(b. 10 August 1920 in Fairmont, West Virginia; d. 1 October 2004 in Tucson, Arizona), brigadier general and test pilot who was, for a short time in the 1950s, the “fastest man alive.”
Everest was the son of Frank Everest, who owned an electrical contracting business. Everest developed a love for flying the way most young men and women in the period between World War I and World War II did: watching and eventually taking a ride in one of the barnstorming biplanes that crisscrossed rural America. Growing up as an only child, Everest was expected to follow his father into the electrical contracting business. He graduated from Fairmont High School in 1938 and began attending classes at Fairmont State Teachers College. But within a few months he applied for admission into the U.S. Army Air Corps. Informed that he would need at least two years of college engineering courses, which were not available at his local college, he transferred after one year to West Virginia University, where he was lucky enough to receive preliminary flying lessons under a new government program. By November 1941 he was in Texas, an aviation cadet. Later in his life he would regret having left college before earning his degree.
Everest was commissioned in July 1942 and five days later married his high school sweetheart, Avis Mason, on 8 July 1942; they would eventually have three children. Within six months Everest was in North Africa, flying the P-40 Warhawk against the retreating Afrika Corps. He flew a total of ninety-four missions and earned promotion to captain before being rotated home as an instructor. His most memorable mission—and his most controversial—occurred in January 1944, when Everest received orders to bomb the abbey at Monte Cassino, Italy. Everest was then sent to China, where he flew sixty-seven additional missions against the Japanese; in May 1945 his luck finally ran out, and he was forced to bail out over enemy-held territory. Eventually he was moved to a prison camp in Beijing, where he was able to negotiate the liberation of Americans held captive since the beginning of the war in the Pacific. The liberated soldiers included six survivors of the famous Doolittle Raid that took place 18 April 1942, when sixteen B-25 bombers launched from the aircraft carrier Hornet bombed targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, and Nagoya, Japan. Having shot down a total of six enemy aircraft, Everest was officially an ace. With World War II ended, Everest was one of the few pilots lucky enough to stay on active duty; he won assignment to the flight testing program at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, in February 1946.
After stints in Ohio and Alaska, Everest transferred to Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of southern California early in 1949. It would be a memorable year for him. In February he flew an F86A Sabre jet—the plane that would later win the air war in Korea—from Dayton to Washington, D.C., in a then-astounding time of thirty-three minutes, three seconds. In August he flew the X-1, a rocket plane in which Chuck Yeager had two years earlier broken the speed of sound, to a height of 71,902 feet, the highest altitude that plane would ever achieve. He followed that feat a month later with a flight to 63,000 feet. Three weeks later, however, Everest nearly died when the X-1 experienced explosive decompression; he survived only because he was wearing an early version of the pressure suit that would eventually become standard issue for high-altitude pilots. Finally, in December he made a test flight in the XF-92A, a delta-wing jet that would prove to be notoriously unstable.
In August 1951 Everest was named chief of flight test operations, and in this capacity he supervised such record-setting flights as Yeager’s reaching Mach 2.42 and Kit Murray’s flight to 90,440 feet. Both records were set in the X-1A, a larger, more powerful version of the original rocket plane. But Everest continued to insist on flying all tested aircraft at least once himself so that he would understand the test reports he had to file on them. In this way Everest became, for a very short time during the 1950s, the “fastest man alive.” In 1953, flying the prototype of the YF-100 fighter, he set a speed record for jet aircraft of 755.149 miles per hour, flying it only seventy-five feet above the ground so that the primitive timers of that era could record his speed. On 30 November 1954 he flew the X-1B to Mach 2.3, or 1,519 miles per hour, matching Colonel Chuck Yeager’s speed in the earlier X-1A model. Then came his greatest achievement. Early in 1954 he was named project pilot for the X-2, the next generation of rocket-powered aircraft. The aircraft appeared to be jinxed since the first completed plane had crashed while landing after an unpowered flight and then, finally repaired, had exploded in midair and killed its pilot. Indeed in Everest’s first three flights with the new X-2, it skidded uncontrollably upon landing, although the damage each time was repairable. Finally, in October 1955 Everest achieved the first powered flight of the X-2; it was still a jinx, its engine cutting out before he had achieved even Mach 1. Nevertheless, he continued to test-fly the aircraft, breaking the sound barrier in April 1956 and a month later reaching Mach 2.5—a new speed record. The X-2’s performance had made ten years of development worthwhile. On 23 July 1956 Everest set a new speed record of Mach 2.87, equivalent to 1,900 miles per hour. His achievement would shortly be exceeded by another test pilot, Milburn Apt, but the plane went out of control and crashed, killing Apt before he could assume the title of “fastest man alive.”
Everest was eventually promoted from his position as chief test pilot to squadron and wing commands; he retired from the air force as a brigadier general in 1973. Everest worked an additional ten years as a test pilot and administrator with Sikorsky Aircraft Company before retiring to Arizona in 1983. By that time he had received many honors: the air force awarded him the Legion of Merit with oak leaf cluster and the Distinguished Flying Cross with two clusters, and the Institute for Aeronautical Sciences awarded him its Octave Chanute Award in 1957. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1989; in 1991 he was inducted into the Aerospace Walk of Honor at Edwards Air Force Base. Everest died at his home in Tucson, where his remains are interred.
By the time he ended his career as a test pilot, Everest had flown in 170 different types and models of aircraft, from the rocket-powered X models, to fighter planes developed for both the air force and the navy, to multiengine bombers, such as the B-47 and the B-52, and finally to commercial aircraft that he flew as a civilian test pilot. Everest was small of stature, a necessity if he were to fit inside a rocket plane; as it was, he used to say that he needed his right hand to grasp the controls on his left, and vice versa, because he could not bend his arms in the X-2 cockpit. But his greatest advantage as a test pilot was his determination to get the required data and bring the aircraft back to a safe landing. There have been few old, bold test pilots; Everest was a master in flying experimental, unstable aircraft and in living to tell the tale.
Everest, Frank K., Jr., as told to John Guenther, The Fastest Man Alive (1958), Everest’s autobiography, written shortly after his record-setting feats, remains the most interesting source for information although not necessarily the most reliable. An obituary is in the Los Angeles Times (29 Oct. 2004).
Hartley S. Spatt