Googling “first American in space” leads you to Alan Shepard’s May 5, 1961, flight into space. But five years earlier, a Michigan native piloted a supersonic plane to a record height of 126,200 feet above the surface of the earth. As a result of his historic flight on September 7, 1956, Captain Iven Kincheloe was quickly labeled “the first of America’s spacemen.” One of Kincheloe’s buddies put it more succinctly; he had gone “where no man ever went before.”
Iven Carl Kincheloe, Jr. was born in Detroit on July 2, 1928. His family soon moved to the other side of the state, settling near Cassopolis. Fascinated with planes at an early age, Kincheloe decided his future was in the air. He took airplane lessons as a teenager, earning his pilot’s license on his sixteenth birthday.
After receiving a degree in aeronautical engineering at Purdue University, Kincheloe joined the U.S. Air Force. He completed pilot training and flew one of America’s newest jets, the F-86 Sabre, during the Korean War. Kincheloe’s success in shooting down enemy planes left him one of this country’s most celebrated wartime aces.
After the war, well-paying jobs awaited capable pilots, but Kincheloe wanted to become a test pilot. In 1955, he began testing experimental aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The following year, he piloted the X-2, an experimental rocket plane that was carried aloft by a much-larger plane. During Kincheloe’s record flight 24 miles above the surface of the earth, he saw the curve of the earth and briefly experienced weightlessness. Kincheloe’s flight made him a national celebrity, and he appeared in so many magazines and on television programs that even third-graders knew his name.
On July 26, 1958, Kincheloe piloted the F-104 Starfighter, a supersonic jet better known as “a missile-with-a-man-in-it.” As his engines flamed out, Kincheloe ejected, but he was too low for his parachute to unfurl. The man who had braved death on many previous occasions died.
Shortly after Kincheloe’s death, the U. S. Air Force renamed its air base south of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, after the famed test pilot. Today, a memorial to America’s first spaceman can be visited in his hometown of Cassopolis.
There is a great tribute program on Captain Iven Kinchloe available from National Public Radio that includes links to newsreel footage.
Photo courtesy Michigan’s Own Military and Space Museum in Frankenmuth.
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