‘Fastest Man on Earth’ started out as aeromedical researcher

Col. John P. Stapp

Col. John P. Stapp

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- After a run down a high speed test track aboard the Sonic Wind Rocket Sled 1 on Dec. 10, 1954, during which he reached a speed of 632 miles per, Col. John P. Stapp was dubbed the “Fastest Man on Earth.”

The sled was stopped in 1.4 seconds, subjecting Stapp to 46.2 Gs -- equivalent to hitting a brick wall at 50 miles per hour. Stapp suffered bruising, blisters, and even temporary blindness. He was an instant celebrity, appearing on magazine covers and on television. But the purpose of that test run, and nearly 30 others, wasn’t to gain fame or glory. It was to study the effects of acceleration -- and deceleration -- on the human body. Stapp wanted to discover at what speed pilots could safely eject and then find ways to keep them safe. Indeed, the high-speed test runs were part of Stapp’s lifelong mission of testing the limits of human tissue to make transportation safer. 

Stapp used the results of his research, and his celebrity status, to make the case for many now-standard safety features in American cars, including seat belts. In fact, he was present when the Highway Safety Act of 1966 was signed. 

Stapp’s career in safety started with medical school and took off once he entered military service in 1944. He attended the School of Aviation Medicine and in 1946 became a research officer at the Aero Medical Laboratory at Wright Field. Stapp was certain there was a reason some Air Force pilots survived crashes and others did not, and he made it his mission to figure it out. After more than 10 years working on the test tracks, Stapp returned to the Aero Medical Laboratory as the Chief, directing research and development in aviation and space life sciences. He started working with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as a medical scientist in 1967 and retired from the Air Force in 1970. He worked as a professor at the University of California’s Safety and Systems Management Center and later served as a consultant to the Surgeon General and to NASA. Stapp died in 1999. 

Thousands of lives have been saved thanks to Stapp’s research and the causes he championed. His ties to what are now the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine and the 711th Human Performance Wing make him a fitting exemplar and an inspiration to all those who continue his mission of improving human safety. 

To mark a century of operation, USAFSAM will celebrate throughout 2018. The year will include special heritage events as well as a monthly article highlighting a key “exemplar” from the School’s rich history.