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Captain Iven C. Kincheloe Jr.
Captain Iven C. Kincheloe Jr.
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1950's -- Captain Iven C. Kincheloe Jr. seated in the cockpit of an F-104. Kincheloe, the personification of the "born pilot," went from flying model airplanes at age 5 to soloing on his 16th birthday to becoming America's "first spaceman."
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Iven Carl Kincheloe Jr., the personification of the "born pilot," went from flying model airplanes at age 5 to soloing on his 16th birthday to becoming America's "first spaceman."

Kincheloe was born in July 1928 in Detroit, but grew up on a farm in Cassopolis, Mich. By the time he entered high school, he knew his life ambitions were in the sky, not on the ground. Although his parents wanted him to be a doctor or lawyer, they never tried to dissuade him. When he wanted to take flying lessons at age 14, his father not only approved, but took flying lessons himself.

From the beginning, Kincheloe was a flying prodigy. After only two hours of instruction, he was ready to solo, but the law required him to wait until he turned 16. He waited and practiced for the next two years, and by the time he finally soloed on his 16th birthday, he was as proficient at acrobatics as his instructor and had logged more than 200 hours.

After graduating from high school, young Kincheloe enrolled in Purdue University because he felt it had the best school or aeronautical engineering. Purdue also had an ROTC program, and he entered it enthusiastically. After attending an ROTC encampment at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and meeting test pilot Chuck Yeager, he knew what he wanted. He wrote to his parents and said, "I think I have found what I really want to do now."

Kincheloe graduated from Purdue in June 1949 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve. He was assigned to Perrin AFB, Texas, as a student pilot. While he was taking advanced jet training at Williams AFB, Ariz., war broke out in Korea. Test piloting would have to wait.

After checking out new armament and other equipment in the F-86E Sabre, he finally arrived in Korea in the 325th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, whose primary job was flying escort for B-29s and RF-80 reconnaissance planes. The squadron also flew fighter sweeps and shot down as many enemy aircraft as they could. But after 16 flights, he had seen only one MiG-15, and hadn't entered into combat.

After he transferred to the 25th Fighter Squadron, he shot down his first MiG. A week later he received a spot promotion to captain. On Feb. 2, he got his second MiG. On April 1, he shot down two MiGs within a few minutes. He became an ace a few days later, ultimately becoming a double ace, flying 101 sorties in F-86s and 30 in F-80s. But he still wanted to be a test pilot.

Kincheloe put in for an assignment at the test pilot school at Edwards AFB, Calif., but nothing happened. He kept flying, even considering resigning from the Air Force to take a civilian test pilot job. A friend of his in the Pentagon told him about an exchange program in which two American pilots would attend the Empire Test Pilot's School in England. In February 1954, the 10-month course began. When it ended, Kincheloe found himself with his dream assignment: the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards AFB.

He did his job so well at Edwards that he flew new fighters like the McDonnell F-101, Convair F-102, Lockheed F-104 and Republic F-105. One day he saw the new research plane, the Bell X-2. Kincheloe made his first check-out fight in the X-2 on May 25. The X-2 was now his.

The goal of the program was to reach an altitude of 100,000 feet or higher. On Sept. 7, 1956, Kincheloe started his record-setting journey upwards. He was carried on the belly of a B-50 to 29,500 feet, and then dropped. The X-2 shot upward, finally passing 90,000 feet. Two minutes and 13 seconds after he started the climb, the rocket engines ran out of fuel, but the X-2's momentum carried it past 100,000 feet, reaching the top of its curve at 126,500 feet, above the earth's atmosphere. Kincheloe was the first man in space.

A faster and more powerful rocket plane, the X-15, was in development. Kincheloe was selected to be its pilot, but never lived to see it fly. On July 26, 1958, he lost his life when his F-104 suffered an engine failure on takeoff at Edwards AFB. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

To perpetuate his memory, Purdue University established the Kincheloe Scholarship Fund to aid undergraduates in the study of aeronautics and astronautics. The Society of Experimental Test Pilots also named its yearly trophy after him.

In 1959, Kinross AFB, Mich. was renamed Kincheloe AFB in his honor. The man who many had thought destined to be America's first man on the moon finally made it to deep space, in a way. A CD/ROM biography of Kincheloe flew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in the summer of 1995.

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