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Col. Joseph Rogers, 81; Pilot Set Speed Record, Flew in Korean, Vietnam Wars

August 13, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Col. Joseph "Whistlin' Joe" Rogers, a fighter pilot in three wars who retains the world record for flying the fastest single-engine jet, has died. He was 81.

Rogers died Aug. 6 of congestive heart failure at his Northern California ranch near Healdsburg.

As an Air Force test pilot, then-Maj. Rogers broke a Soviet speed record in 1959 when he flew an F-106 Delta Dart at 1,525.95 mph over Edwards Air Force Base. The record, verified by national and international aeronautics agencies, has never been broken.

"Rogers was required to make two runs -- one in each direction to offset winds -- and his speed was an average of both runs over an 18-kilometer track," former space and aviation editor Marvin Miles wrote in The Times. Rogers flew at 1,515.45 mph on his west-east run and 1,536.46 mph on his east-west run, Miles wrote.

Rogers chose the altitude -- 40,000 feet -- but had to maintain it with less than a 150-foot variation.

"Convair's Delta Dart," Miles wrote, "is a working interceptor with the North American Air Defense Command, charged with stopping enemy bomber attacks at any time, day or night, in any kind of weather."

Rogers, who earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for his record-setting run, was instrumental in helping bring his plane to the Pacific Coast Air Museum at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa.

Gen. John P. Jumper, Air Force chief of staff, who attended the dedication of the restored plane as a museum exhibit last year, credited Rogers with getting him hooked on flying. Jumper, the son of the late Maj. Gen. Jimmy J. Jumper, said that as a child he sat on Rogers' lap while the test pilot taxied him around an airfield in a P-51 Mustang.

"Col. Joe Rogers was one of our heroes that grew up in the early days of our Air Force with the likes of Chuck Yeager [test pilot who first broke the sound barrier] and other aviation pioneers," Jumper told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat after Rogers' death.

"The Air Force and the nation owe him and his generation a great debt of gratitude," Jumper said.

Rogers grew up on a farm near Chillicothe, Ohio, dreaming of flying.

At 17, he joined the Army Air Forces and climbed into an airplane for the first time. To his disappointment, his assignment during World War II was teaching other men how to fly fighter planes.

He more than made up for his lack of combat in the Korean War -- flying 170 missions in a P-51 Mustang, a piston-engine plane in which he shot down a Soviet MIG jet.

In Korea, Rogers earned his nickname "Whistlin' Joe" when he attached a whistle to one of his wings to scare enemy ground troops as he came in for a strafing run.

A hero well before he set the single-engine jet speed record, Rogers was one of a dozen or so American fighting men Time magazine designated collectively as Man of the Year for 1950.

As a test pilot, Rogers flew the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, among many others. He narrowly escaped death in 1969 when his SR-71A suffered an in-flight explosion and he and his reconnaissance systems officer parachuted to safety near Shoshone, Calif., east of Death Valley.

Rogers, who earned the Air Force's Top Gun award in 1963 in an air-to-air weapons contest, returned to combat flying during the Vietnam War. As vice commander of a fighter wing, he flew 100 more missions.

After retiring from the Air Force in 1975, Rogers spent 14 years selling planes in Asia for Northrop Aerospace Co.

In 1989, Rogers moved with his late wife, Charis, to Healdsburg to raise water buffalo.

The veteran pilot was honored last year with a plaque on Lancaster's Aerospace Walk of Honor.

Rogers is survived by sons Joe Jr. of Healdsburg and Garrett of Oakland, daughter Georgia Carver of Rancho Cordova, two grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

The family has asked that memorial donations be made to the Pacific Coast Air Museum, 2330 Airport Blvd., Santa Rosa, CA 95403.

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