Fred J. Ascani, 92

Air Force test pilot Fred J. Ascani, 92, set airspeed record in 1951

Maj. Gen. Ascani flew 53 bombing missions in World War II.
Maj. Gen. Ascani flew 53 bombing missions in World War II. (National Aeronautic Association)
By Timothy R. Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Fred J. Ascani, 92, a retired Air Force major general and test pilot who set an airspeed record and helped develop a long-range supersonic bomber, died March 28 at his home in Alexandria. He had lung cancer.

During the jet age of the 1950s, when test pilots with the right stuff and guts of steel vied for records, Maj. Gen. Ascani set one of his own. In August 1951 during a trial run at the National Air Races in Detroit, he flew an F-86E aircraft 635 mph on a 100-kilometer closed course.

Two days later, during the official run, he flew 628 miles per hour. The speed record was surpassed in 1953 by pilot Jackie Cochran, the first woman to break the sound barrier.

In 1961, Maj. Gen. Ascani became program director for the XB-70 Valkyrie, an experimental Air Force bomber that could exceed 2,000 mph and fly at 70,000 feet, beyond the range of missile interceptors, which posed a problem to nuclear-armed bombers.

The bomber's design was strange. "Some said it looked like a hooded cobra; to others it was a praying mantis, a flying anteater, a banana split towing an orange crate," reported Time magazine.

"It looks like it's doing Mach 3 just sitting on the ground," Maj. Gen. Ascani said.

Just two prototypes were built, but the Valkyrie's technological advances led to the SR-71 Blackbird, the Concorde passenger jet and the space shuttle. The bomber revolutionized the use of metal alloys and fuel mixtures to handle the extreme friction of Mach 3 flight, which heats aircraft to 650 degrees, high enough to melt aluminum and combust fuel. The project cost $1.3 billion.

Maj. Gen. Ascani later was vice commander of the Fifth Air Force, based in Japan, and was the senior Air Force member of a weapons systems evaluation group reporting in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He retired in 1973.

Alfredo John Ascani was born in 1917 in Beloit, Wis. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in 1941 and flew B-17 bombers for the Army Air Forces during World War II.

In October 1944, Maj. Gen. Ascani was the deputy leader of a daring aerial mission into German-occupied Czechoslovakia. Six B-17 bombers were sent from Italy to supply partisans and evacuate downed air crews and Czech political leaders.

The bombers flew with P-51 escorts. Dense fog and enemy fire nearly thwarted the mission, yet the bombers landed on an airfield held by Czech partisans. While partisans unloaded the planes, Germans lobbed mortars onto the field.

The extended flight path strained fuel reserves, which gave the bombers 20 minutes on the ground. They unloaded supplies, uploaded people and left quickly.

Maj. Gen. Ascani flew 53 bombing missions during the war. Afterward, he flew experimental planes, including the Bell X-1, which eventually broke the sound barrier. He flew more than 50 different types of research planes.

His military decorations included the Distinguished Service Medal, two awards of the Legion of Merit, two awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross, five awards of the Air Medal and two awards of the Army Commendation Medal.

His wife of 61 years, Catherine Hanretta Ascani, died in 2003.

Survivors include eight children, John Ascani of Littleton, Colo., Bill Ascani of Alexandria, Carole Jo McDaniel of Schaumburg, Ill., Susan Ascani of Dayton, Ohio, Stephen Ascani of Murrieta, Calif., Clare Ascani of Pittsburgh, Betsy Henderson of Austin and Dave Ascani of Valrico, Fla.; 10 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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