Milo Burcham

Born at Cadiz IN, May 24, 2020. Died Oct 20, 2020 Born in Cadiz, but grew up in Whittier CA, at that time a Quaker settlement in the eastern Los Angeles basin. Milo Garrett Burcham learned to fly in 1929 at the O'Donnell School of Aviation at Long Beach and became its chief instructor soon afterward. Much more than just a P-38 test pilot, Burcham unfortunately has never received appropriate recognition because of wartime secrecy.

He was an early-bird, with U S License 5274, and established a world's record in December 1933 at Long Beach CA by flying upside-down for 4h:5m:22s in his new Boeing 100, in which he performed acrobatic shows until 1937. He flew a brand-new Lockheed 12A Electra Junior to fifth place in the 1937 Bendix Race from Los Angeles to Cleveland, which was doubly impressive since F C Hall, the plane's owner, and his wife were aboard, and yet they still came in only a few minutes behind Frank Sinclair in his Seversky racer.

Burcham was hired as a production test pilot by Lockheed in 1938 and because of his extensive experience did most of the test flying on the P-38. He became Chief Engineering Test Pilot for Lockheed, and performed the 55-degree dive from 35,000' in the P-38. He made the first test flights of the P-80 at Muroc Dry Lake in January 1944 as Lockheed's Chief Pilot. Killed in the crash of the second YP-80 a few months later due to a flame-out, he was twice a victim of World War II...first it cost him his life, and secondly, because of rigid secrecy surrounding the P-80, upon his death there was no publicity about the accident or his career.  

Milo Burcham article from Lockheed Star Oct. 27, 1944
Milo Burcham took off from Burbank to the west. His P-80 lost power and he crashed into a gravel pit at Victory and Lankershim Blvd. where the Target is today.

Routine Job Takes Burcham Milo

Burcham was mourned ths week by thousands of men and women - and boys - who knew him only as a flash of silver against the California skies and by the roar of his swift flight…

The men and women built the ships he helped to perfect and through the years at Lockheed had thrilled at his wonderfully skillful demonstrations of their handiwork…

The boys rode with him-hundreds of them-whenever his flashing ship crossed high above their playgrounds.

Thus they knew him well, these thousands who only watched, and this week when Milo Burcham was laid to rest in Forest Lawn Memorial Park they mourned their hero.

For all who knew him personally, Milo's death in the crash of an airplane he was testing brought a deep sense of grief, and wherever test pilots gathered the Lockheed Chief Pilot was eulogized. He had a host of friends, a legion of admirers, and no enemies.

The end came when Milo took off from the east-west runway at Lockheed Air Terminal and was forced into a low-altitude, down-wind turn, probably by power failure. This flying procedure meant only one thing to other pilots. It meant that the Chief pilot was thinking of the safety of others, as usual. It was his custom.

"To us who considered him the world's smartest pilot," said one flier, "this procedure meant that Milo wanted to avoid even the remotest possibility of a forced landing in areas thick with people, houses, and automobiles.

No Expected Trouble

"Had he taken off as the air-liners were doing, any crash might have injured others south of the field. As it was, he was the only victim. Not that he expected trouble. He just didn't want to subject town fold to even hypothetical danger."

Such consideration was typical of the popular pilot whose career began with the sale of a home-made burglar alarm in 1928 to buy a flying lesson and carried him to achievement pinnacles scaled by few.

Milo always insisted n doing the most hazardous tests himself. It was his desire to help young Army Air Force flyers that prompted development of a special course of P-38 instruction he conducted this summer for the Fourth Air Force.

Despite the fact that stunting brought him early newspaper headlines, whenever the safety of others was involved, Burcham was painstaking as a pilot.

"But," said a fellow pilot, "when he was alone over the desert, I've seen him do some of the damndest things a man ever did with an airplane…stunts even a bird wouldn't try."

Riding Was Favoured

Milo used to drive his old Ford to the stables, a mile from his home where he kept horses for himself, his wife Peggy, and two sons, Garry, 14, and Vance, 11. From there he would ride "Smokey" 2 ½ miles to a chicken ranch a block or two from the Pilot House where he would tether the horse and complete the journey on a bicycle. Returning, he'd ride the bike to the ranch, the horse to the stables and the Ford to his home.

One of the few injuries this pilot of the worlds fastest airplanes ever had was when "Smokey" slipped on some loose gravel one morning and fell on his master.

To most of the 85 pilots who test Lockheed planes, Burcham displayed the genial personality the public thinks is typical of most fliers. But his intimates knew him as a man of profound depths.

He often took long walks at midnight, pondering some strange problem of flight he had encountered during the day.

Leaned to Science

Burcham was one of the first human beings to peer over the scientific abyss of compressibility…to enter that area of high speed in the air where odd behavior of supposedly immutable laws of physics confounded aviation's ablest minds.

That was in the early days of testing P-38's…when, from 40,000-foot heights, he screamed earthward faster than any other man ever flew.

With the help of Burcham's observations, Lockheed research engineers have overcome flight barriers created by these strange phenomena of super-sonic speed.

Milo's nine years of pre-Lockheed flying experience included barnstorming, competition in national air races, upside-down flying and other stunts.

But, despite the gasps he drew from admiring crowds, Milo never took chances. Every stunt was carefully rehearsed…his plane minutely checked before take-offs.

Though born in Newcastle, Indiana, Burcham considered himself a Californian by adoption. He attended Whittier High School and Whittier College.

'Alarm' Opened Way

The burglar alarm he sold to pay for his first flying lessons was the product of his inventive mind which has created a core f other similar gadgets.

From his well-equipped home workshop Burcham has produced several instruments and devices which engineers have made standard equipment for the Constellation. They were developed on off-hours to answer specific problems he met while conducting engineering test flights of the big transport.

Two of his better-known inventions are a visual oxygen meter that enables a pilot to keep closer check of his oxygen supply in high altitudes and a device, still used, that permits delivery of mail from a plane in flight.

Burcham joined Lockheed in 1937 as a ferry pilot and two years later was sent to England in charge of flight testing at the company's Liverpool division.

Recalled to Burbank, his thoroughness and skill as a pilot brought about his assignment to engineering flight testing where he began testing of P-38 Lightnings.

A visit to the Mayo Clinic to study reactions to high-altitude flying convinced Burcham that decompression of pilots who fly above 30,000 feet was not only desirable, but absolutely necessary. As a result, Lockheed installed decompression equipment for its pilots.

Developed Course

Following his appointment as chief pilot early this year, Burcham developed the unique training course for the Fourth Air Force, flying to bases up and down the Pacific Coast. The same P-38 in which he made the trips was used to demonstrate special flying technique to young pilots of the AAF.

It was a work he loved even better than testing the characteristics of a Lockheed prototype-this teaching others to fly skilfully. His contributions to the science of aviation must be written finally in other chapters at other times, but every pilot knew at that quiet ceremony in Forest Lawn last Tuesday that one of the great fliers of the world had been taken away-too soon.