Preface: I received the following from Vicki (Burton) Knepper. Her dad, Gene Burton, worked for North American Aviation for around 30 years starting, I gather, just after WW-II. He set down a few of his memories before he passed on, primarily for his children & grandchildren, but the portions she furnished certainly fall within our "aerospace history" umbrella. I may have missed a few scan-and-convert errors but otherwise it is presented exactly as received, including the personal introduction addressed to his family.
The introduction is important because it touches on a critical point....your memories will not be 100% accurate, and they don't have to be. The objective is simply to get them set down. [JOHN WILSON]
This is not a story. At best, it is a recollection of fragmented – and often unrelated – experiences that seem to be important to me, now that I am … old. I’m sure that other things that happened in my life might be considered more important by others, but my memory of those events has become dim and uncertain … so I write about my remembrances – things I can recall with enough clarity to be somewhat certain that they really happened the way that they are recorded in my failing memory. I must apologize up front for the fact that come details – especially dates and names – simply escape me, and I just don’t have the inclination to research the matter in greater depth. Frankly, precision with respect to dates, names, etc. probably holds no import for the reader, anyway; although I wish, for my own self-respect, that I could recall those facts with greater certainty. With regret, I will not try to recapture such beautiful moments as the births of our children and other such joyful family occasions, because I could never do them justice. I simply don’t have the verbal skills to describe such events, so I leave that opportunity to my beloved Phyllis.
For me, the most difficult part of this endeavor has been to find reasons that justify, in my own mind, why I trouble to commit this material to writing. First of all, I’m afraid that I will continue to forget things until I have no recollection of who I am. That is, I record these events so that I can relive them for my own satisfaction. A second reason for these remembrances is a lifelong feeling of rootlessness. I have almost no knowledge of my own heritage, and that has eaten at me all my life and is probably responsible for the feelings of inadequacies that have always haunted me. For example, my grandfathers both died before I was born, and no one would ever talk to me about them, as though I would be better off not knowing.
Another reason for writing this is an attempt to provide my children with something of me that I may not have given them when they were young. I was a “breadwinner” – a man from a generation that placed the responsibility of providing the material needs of life on the father, leaving the nurturing and caring to the mother. Most of you have found how difficult it is to “provide” for your families, even with both spouses. Please try to remember that, when my children were growing up, their mother was – in accordance with our “old-fashioned” values – at home for them, while I did my best to provide for them. When I missed a school choir performance, I was earning four hours of overtime that meant the new coat one of them needed for the coming winter. When I wasn’t home on weekends to share family activities, that overtime went to pay orthodontist bills. I’m not trying to apologize for not being there for them – I simply acknowledge that my generation’s definition of the father’s role cheated me out of that opportunity. If, as a result, some of you feel that you were never able to get to know me, just a I never got to know about my own heritage, perhaps these remembrances will help fill that void … oh, how I wish I could read about the experiences and thoughts of those that brought me into this world.
Lastly, I write this because some of you have asked me to, and my ego is still too strong to say no to those requests.
NORTH AMERICAN AVIATION, INC.
I received my discharge from the Navy on a Friday. That evening, I visited an old high school chum, Ronald Conrad. We were drinking coffee at his folk's kitchen table, when his father, Raymond Conrad, joined us. Mr. Conrad was the Facilities Manager for Engineering at North American Aviation, Incorporated (NAA). He asked me what I was going to do next. I told him that I wanted to get married eventually, but would probably go back to school at UCLA first, once I figured out how to pay for it. He asked me if I would like a temporary job in the meantime, and I assured him that I would be interested. He made a phone call, put me in his car, and took me to the NAA plant at the Los Angeles Airport. There, I talked with the Engineering Blueprint Night Manager. Finally, he told me to report to personnel on Monday morning for processing. I started work that Monday night as a Blueprinter "C" for $1 per hour Plus six cents Per hour night bonus ‑ a great salary in those days. I operated a blueprint machine that converted engineering drawings on velum material into the white‑on‑blue blueprints used in most shops. That "temporary" job was the beginning of a twenty-six year career with NAA.
The Kindleberger Legend
The President and Chief Executive Officer ‑ (CEO) of NAA was "Dutch" Kindleberger a German immigrant that had started NAA on the East Coast before moving it to California. Many of his key managers were Germans that he recruited out of Germany when Adolph Hitler began to rattle his swords of war. By the time World War II started, Dutch had become the most powerful and most respected man in the world's burgeoning new aerospace industry. By the time that I went to work for NAA, the corporation had built more aircraft than any other corporation in the world. Almost every World War II pilot had learned to fly in NAA's famous trainer, the AT‑6 Tessa. When Billy Mitchell bombed Tokyo, he did it with NAA'S B‑25s. By war's end, the greatest fighter in the world was NAA's P‑51 Mustang. In fact, aviation experts contend that the Mustang was the finest plane ever built for its day. During the Korean War, the "Mig Alley" champion was NAA's F‑86 Sabre Jet. Next, NAA's F‑100 was the mainstay of the U.S. Air Force. NAA built the famous X‑15 rocket ship, the XE‑70 experimental Mach 3 ship, the still‑active B‑1 bomber, and many others. More will be said about some of these classic aircraft a little later in this section. How could one firm have built so many world-class aircraft? The answer was simple – Dutch Kindleberger, who became a legend in his own time.
I had my first meeting with Dutch three days after I started to work for NAA. I was working at my blueprint machine, concentrating on learning how to make the big thing work properly when a man tapped me on the shoulder and asked me how I was doing. I was somewhat annoyed at the interruption ‑ a novice operator simply could not take his eyes off the machine while it was in operation. I recall giving him a gruff "OK." He uttered a few pleasantries to which I barely responded, and then he left. My boss came running over and congratulated me on having met Dutch, I was mortified at the terse and unfriendly way I had acted toward the CEO and told my boss so. He assured me that Dutch understood and would most certainly talk to me again … which he did many times. It seems that Dutch spent much of his time meeting with and talking to his employees. Most of his time was spend memorizing names and other pertinent information about his people. It was rumored that he knew the first names of all employees, as well as the names of spouses and children. Every time that I talked to him, he always know the names of my family and never failed to ask about them. Every time we had a child, Dutch came around immediately to congratulate me. On family birthdays, there was always a personal card from Dutch. I have no idea how he managed it, because NAA employed between 30,000 and 40,000 people during those days. Obviously, his workers adored him and would do anything for him, and that was the secret to his success. Twenty years after Dutch's death, Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman, Jr. became famous by writing the best-seller In Search of Excellence, in which they advised executives to maximize subordinates' performance through the process of "Managing by Walking Around." I wonder if they first formed that now famous concept after hearing some of the raise told about the legendary Dutch Kindleberger.
Probably the greatest testimony to Dutch's leadership and the loyal commitment of his employees is the legend surrounding the P‑51 Mustang. The time was 1943, and the war in Europe was not going well. Germany and its ally, Italy, controlled virtually all of Europe. British and French troops had been pushed into the sea in the dramatic defeat at Dunkirk. Now, Germany and Italy controlled almost all of Europe, and Great Britain was under threat of invasion because it was the last outpost facing Hitler on the Western front. The only defensive recourse open to the allies was to slow down the development of German military power by bombing the plants that produced its military equipment. So a huge bombing campaign was agreed to by British Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt. The British Air Force would bomb those plants at night while the U.S. Air Force would assume the more dangerous, but more effective task of day‑light bombing.
The British night raids were somewhat successful, given the problems of night bombing and the bad weather often found over Western Europe. The U.S. daylight bombing delivered a great deal more damage to the Germans, but at a horrible price. Most of the U.S. attacks were carried out by B-17 and B-24 bombers, with crews averaging about eight or ten men per aircraft. Each day, the U.S. Air Force lost twenty to thirty bombers over German targets. This meant a daily loss of up to 300 highly-trained men. Indeed, the U.S. Air force was being slowly destroyed. Our production plants were able to keep up with the aircraft losses pretty well, but it was impossible to train crews at that rate. Finally, the Defense Department advised President Roosevelt that the daylight bombing had to be stopped. Roosevelt knew that such a decision would alter the war significantly, so he decided to discuss the problem with the leaders of the U.S. aerospace industry. The details of tha meeting and its consequences were told to me years later by an Air Force general who had attended the meeting as a combat advisor with the rank of Colonel. I can’t recall his name, so let’s just call him “The Colonel.” At the meeting, Defense officials explained that the problem revolved around the fact that our fighter planes did not have the range to escort the bombers on the entire mission. The German Luftwaffe fighter squadrons simply stayed away from our bomber formations until the fighter escorts had to return to the base because of fuel limitations. Once the fighter cover was gone, the Germans swooped down and literally chewed up the unprotected bombers. Now, our bomber’s gunners shot down a lot of the German fighters, but the German pilots often parachuted safely over German-controlled land and lived to fight again. Even if the pilot were killed, the Germans had to replace only one person per plane loss. When one of our bombers went down, we usually lost eight or more men – killed or captured. When we lost thirty bombers in a day, we lost about 300 trained men. Defense officials contended that we simply could not continue absorbing such losses much longer.
The Colonel said that Dutch rose and asked permission to address the group. Dutch reached into a trash can and pulled out an empty lunch sack, flattened it, and drew on it a sketch of the P-51 Mustang that his designer, Lee Atwood, wanted to build. On the sketch, he drew in a new concept – external wing-tip fuel tanks that would extend the range of the fighters to provide bomber cover for a complete mission and which could be jettisoned before going into combat with German fighters. He said that the plane would utilize the latest Rolls-Royce engine and be the fastest, most maneuverable fighter in the world. The Defense officials responded that they knew about Atwood's now design concept, but they couldn't wait for the two or three years that it would take to build, test, and develop a new fighter aircraft. They contended that, at the current rate of losses, daylight bombing in Europe could not go on for more than four months. Dutch then turned to President Roosevelt and promised him that he could build the prototype and fly it in thirty days and deliver a combat squadron to Great Britain in four months. Of course everyone in the room was dumbfounded! Dutch was highly respected, but the experts insisted that a new fighter could not be built in a month, let alone a squadron of them delivered in just four months ‑it was impossible. Dutch reportedly replied, "Mr. President, you have my personal promise that my people can do this. Don't end daylight bombing, because it would surely mean that Germany would win the war. I ask only that you continue the bombing for four more months, at which time my Mustang will turn the war around." Roosevelt was so taken with Dutch's confidence that he did indeed give Dutch the go‑ahead and instructed the Defense officials to continue the daylight bombing of Hitler's war machine.
Dutch quickly left the meeting room, used a telephone an a secretary's desk to call I" Atwood in Los Angeles, and told him to "Vacate the Department 9 building and select a crew ‑ I just promised the President that we could build a Mustang in 30 days. I'll be there to start the job tomorrow morning." Lee Atwood hand‑picked a crew and they met with Dutch the next morning. Dutch ordered cots and a field kitchen to be brought into the building, and he admonished his men to "Get busy, because I promised the President that you could build a Mustang in 30 days, and no one is leaving this building until we've done just that." One month later, the first Mustang rolled out of the building and had not one, but three successful test flights. Four months later, the promised Mustang squadron was in Great Britain, poised to confront the German Luftwaffe.
The Colonel had the good fortune of flying a B‑17 for the first three missions that utilized the Mustang for cover. He said that, on the first mission, when the Mustangs continued past what had been the range limitation of other fighters and followed the bombers all the way to the target and out again, the German fighters just stayed high in the clouds and watched ‑ surely in amazement. The next day, the German fighters again just watched and made no attempt to attack the formation. On the third day, the Luftwaffe accepted the challenge and dove at the Mustangs. The latter jettisoned their tanks, turned on the enemy and enjoyed the greatest day in the history of the U.S. Air Force. I don't recall the exact number, but I believe that the Mustangs shot down over 70 German fighters that day, while losing only one Mustang but no bombers! Over the next week, the Mustangs shot down several hundred German fighters, ripping the heart out of the German Luftwaffe, which never again was a force to be reckoned with in the war. That is, in only one week, the Mustang literally put the German fighters out of business. The Mustang turned the war around and made the eventual victory possible at a time when it appeared that the war was lost. And all this was possible because one man, Dutch Kindleberger, was so deeply respected ‑ by a President who gambled the war effort an his word and by a team of workers who would do anything for the man who, in turn, had shown such empathy and devotion to them. The Dutch Kindleberger legend is a great example of leadership at its best.
You Can’t Follow a Legend.
It should be noted that NAA continued its leadership role in the aerospace industry until the death of Dutch Kindleberger in the early 1960s. It seemed quite natural that Dutch's chief designer, Lee Atwood, who had designed all of those marvelous aircraft, should succeed him as President. However, the magic was gone. Atwood was a good man, but nobody can follow a legend. For the employees, their champion was gone. For the military, the absolute trust they had in Dutch was no longer a factor. NAA fell onto hard times, losing millions of dollars, and failing to capture any major aerospace contracts. Finally, in an effort to turn the company around, NAA merged with the Rockwell Company, a manufacturer that was many times smaller than NAA. The reasoning behind the merger was that Rockwell could, hopefully, provide commercial outlets for NAA's high-tech capacity. The new corporation was named North American Rockwell. However, the unthinkable happened. Rather than the small firm being consumed by the giant, just the opposite occurred. Mr. Rockwell had an outgoing personality much like that of Dutch Kindleberger, and the NAA employees quickly warmed to his people‑oriented approach to management. In less than two years, Rockwell became CEO, and the huge aerospace corporation changed its name to Rockwell International. The name, North American Aviation, ceased to exist simply because a group of employees sought to fill the leadership void in their working environment.
One of the reasons that NAA hired me, at a time when the firm was still downsizing because of the war’s end, was that I had agreed to play for their basketball team that competed under the jurisdiction of the Amateur Athletics Union of the United States – better known as the AAU. I will never forget my first game. I was a bit nervous and had just committed a turnover, so a time out was called. Now, after making a mistake on the court, you really hate to move toward the bench, where everyone is going to focus on you. To make matters worse, I still didn't know the members of the team and felt like an outsider. And to make matters doubly worse, as I headed for the bench, I saw Dutch Kindleberger looking directly at me as he rose from the bench. This was before I found out what a great guy he was, and his presence made me even more nervous. However, I soon got used to his being on the bench, because he came to the games as often as his busy schedule would allow.
The NAA team played other corporation‑sponsored teams. In Los Angeles, there was a large branch of the AAU composed mostly of teams sponsored by aerospace firms. At the end of the year, there would be an AAU tournament of the various league champions to determine the national AAU champion. That year, it was rumored that the AAU champion would represent the U.S. in the coming Olympic Games, so there was extra pressure on us to win. Our team wasn't very big. By today's standard, we were tiny. We had only one big man by the name of Paul Work, three guys about six foot tall, and the rest were under six foot. Paul was really big for his day ‑ about six foot, six inches, 250 pounds ‑ but he was over thirty years old and not in very good condition. However, when he plugged up the middle with his bulk, we were a very good team. Our biggest problem was that Paul was the company's senior contracts negotiator, who often had to go to Washington, D.C., missing games. The three of us who were six foot tall drew straws to see who would play center when Paul was not there, and I was the unlucky one. However, we were able to scrape by, even without Paul, except for one team ‑ Lockheed Aircraft ‑ which was the one team that Dutch really wanted to beat, as he did not like the Lockheed management People. We played Lockheed twice during the year. With Paul playing a great game, we barely beat them the first time we met. The next time, without Paul, they beat us pretty bad. NAA and Lockheed wound up in a tie for the league championship, and a play‑off game was scheduled to be played at the big Manual Arts High School gymnasium in downtown Los Angeles. The star of the Lockheed team was a six foot, eight inch center that had just graduated as an all West‑Coast performer at Loyola University (now called Loyola Marymount University and always noted for its fine basketball teams). The first time we played then, Paul had managed to hold their star to about 20 points. But, without Paul in the second game, they dominated us. The day before the playoff game, both Paul and Dutch were called to Washington to deal with a major contract emergency, and we faced Lockheed with me, not Paul, at center.
Two referees always worked the LAU games, but one of the referees didn't show for this game for some reason. After considerable discussion, it was decided that the game would proceed with only one referee ‑ Emmett Ashford. Later to become the first African American umpire in the Pacific Coast Baseball League, Emmett was a very animated official, making his calls in a booming voice with a lot of body language. We knew that the only way to beat Lockheed was to somehow hold down their big man. Since there was only one referee, we decided to work their center over as much as possible, to harass him any way we could; and maybe the lone official wouldn't catch us too often. If I fouled out, another of our six‑footers would take over. So the game began with my doing everything I could to check this big guy. I stood on his feet, held onto his shirt and pants, pushed him, elbowed him, and talked to him. When my teammates were close to him, they joined in the harassment.
By halftime, despite our efforts, Lockheed was slowly pulling away from us. However, our running game and our harassing tactics were having an effect on their star ... the big guy was getting tired and very angry with me. Sometimes, when we rebounded and started our fast break, he would stay ander his own basket to rest. Of course, I had to stay with him. And, being away from the eyes of Emmett Ashford, I became even more aggressive with my harassment tactics. Then came the turning point of the game. We started on a fast break, but I stayed behind with their big man. Since Emmett was running the other way, I took a strong hold on the bottom of the big guy's trunks. We missed our shot, they rebounded and threw a long "Rail Mary" pass to their star. He jumped high to catch it ‑ with me banging onto the bottom of his pants. He went up so strong for the ball that I pulled his pants down around his knees. He missed the pass, came down and tried to pull his pants back on. But for some strange reason, I forgot to let go and look innocent, as I bad done successfully all night. Instead, I seemed to be traumatized, standing there holding on to his pants, preventing him from pulling them back up. Now, the big guy really got mad, but my attention was on Emmett, running as hard as he could from the other end of the court, windmilling his arm and shouting, "You... you... ah ... pulled that man's pants off!" It was the funniest thing I had ever seen, and I literally fell to the floor in laughter, The big guy was now enraged, and he threw a haymaker at me, but missed. Don Whitman, my best friend on the team, got to us first. Don grabbed him, trying to keep the big guy from hitting me. For his efforts, Don was thrown to the floor. By now, Emmett and others had grabbed their star, restraining him from further violence. But Don and I lay side by side on the floor laughing so hard we almost became sick. Their man refused to calm down, pushed Emmett, and was thrown out Of game. I drew a foul, but their substitute missed both shots. Without their big gunner, we steadily caught them and finally beat them by six points.
When Dutch heard about the incident, he admonished me for unfair play but decided that, since it resulted in the defeat of the Lockheed team that he hated so, mine was a forgivable offense At that moment, I felt that Dutch and I became friends for life. A few weeks later, we played for the championship in that same Manual Arts High gymnasium. Our opponent was the Bartlesville, Oklahoma Oilers, sponsored by the Phillips Oil Corporation. The Oilers had been national champions for several years in a row. We gave the game our best shot. Paul was back at center, Dutch was back on the beach, and I played the game of ay life leading all scorers. But it wasn't quite enough. They beat us by three points in overtime. Later, the Oilers, national AAU champions, represented the U.S. in the Olympics, bringing home the gold medal with ease. We came so close, but ... well, that's life ‑ and I wouldn't give up done memories for all the tea in Boston Harbor!
Engineering Flight Test
As a Blueprinter, I felt I had learned just about all I ever wanted to know about making blueprints. I also wanted to get off the night shift and onto the day shift. Then I heard about the formation of a new department, Engineering Flight Test (EFT). I transferred to that operation as a daytime expediter with a raise of one cent per hour. In this day and age, when most people won’t even bend over to pick a penny off the sidewalk, it’s hard to believe that a person would transfer into a new job for one cent an hour – that’s just 40 cents a week … before taxes. It was the responsibility of EFT to flight test aircraft, perfecting systems and identifying flight parameters for the flight manuals that would be used to train military pilots. We didn’t have exotic wind tunnels and weight labs in those days, so we set flight limits by breaking things. That is, if the wings came off in a dive at 600 miles per hour, the pilot’s handbook would contain a red line statement to the effect that the aircraft should not be put into a dive at speeds in excess of 590 miles per hour. We used the Los Angeles Airport as our testing ground. Commercial flights were often delayed when we created some sort of emergency on the field. Of course, the Los Angeles Airport was not the complexity that you see there today.
Once we started flying jets, EFT was forced to rid the Los Angeles Airport of its greatest hazard – jackrabbits. The field, which ran all the way to the Playa Del Rey sand dunes on the beach, was thick with jackrabbits that ran scared ahead of and between aircraft. The danger of sucking them into jet engines forced us to get rid of them. Some of our mechanics carried shotguns and shot rabbits when they got close to our hangar. On weekends, there were few flights at the airport, so selected families were allowed to a on the field with their dogs and hunt the rabbits. I Id drive one of those yellow trucks on the runway, chasing term off when a plane needed to take off or land.
Finally, as airport traffic increased and our flight testing became more dangerous, we were banned from making test flights out of the Los Angeles Airport. Our testing was transferred to two locations in the Mojave Desert. Routine flights were to be conducted out Of Air Force Plant #42 at Palmdale, California, while more dangerous or secret testing was to be done at nearby Edwards Air Force Base, California. About this time, David began to suffer from serious ear infections and a broken eardrum. The doctors told us that he couldn't survive in the damp climate so close to the beach. So, I went to my superiors and volunteered to move to the new testing facilities in the desert area. In late 1959, I was transferred to the desert area and promoted to Flight Test Supervisor. We bought a home in Lancaster, California, the nicest place to live in a area. However, soon after we moved into that home, our program was delayed for a little over a year. We were scheduled to take over the hangar facilities being used by Douglas Aircraft and Lockheed Aircraft. However, they each received one-year extensions to their programs. Rather than asking me to move David back to the coast, my superiors let stay in Lancaster. Since NAA was scheduled to become the largest employer in the area within a year, it was decided hat I should spend that time doing public relations work. a such, the Company used its political clout to have me named to the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, the most powerful organization in the desert area. This gave me a chance to give the company good visibility and a find a niche in the community ‑ one to be discussed later.
Test Pilot Legends:
In late 1960, we moved into our new desert testing facilities, began transferring people from the Los Angeles plant and hiring locals. Now that we were not limited by the obvious problems involved in conducting test lights from a commercial airport, we really began testing in earnest. We started with 14 flight test pilots, all World War II veterans. In my first two years in the desert, nine of them were killed identifying flight limits and standards. But we kept building new planes and losing pilots at an exhausting rate. I idolized those pilots. Each of them was special blend of John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. They wore he old‑fashioned leather flight caps, with goggles; and some even wore white scarves around their necks. They had a crazy, devil‑may‑care attitude toward life. They lived to fly, ignoring the dangers and focusing on the thrill of each new test parameter. I often felt more like a house mother than a supervisor trying to keep them in line. They worked hard, and they played hard because they knew that the next mission could well be their last! I wish I had a dollar for each time I had to drag one of them out of a motel bad, force coffee down them while walking them in circles in a frantic effort to sober them up enough to take the next mission on schedule. They were the bravest men I ever knew, and I considered it an overpowering honor to be associated with them, despite the problems they caused me. I can't recall all of their names, but there are a few tales I would like to relate to help explain the strong bond that developed between me and those wonderfully wild men,
Wheaties Welch was our first Chief Test Pilot. He was the heir to the Welch's Grapejuice fortune and a heavily decorated ace from World War 11. You may recall that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor at down on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. Most of our military people were sleeping off Saturday night hangovers, and we were caught completely unprepared. Only three fighters were able to get off the ground in an effort to slow the Japanese onslaught. Wheaties was one of those three Pilots, flying in the nude because he didn't take the time to put on his clothes. He had three confirmed kills that morning, although he claims that he got five before running out of ammunition. He was a fearless pilot, but he resembled a cocky little bantam rooster. He was very difficult to get along with and was the only one of our test pilots with when I never felt comfortable. During the early stages of developing the F‑86 Sabre Jet, the Air Force lost a number of planes (and pilots) when the wings came off as a result of aileron chatter in certain dive configurations, Wheaties assigned himself the task Of identifying exactly what that dive speed limitation Should be He did so by putting a plane in a dive, counting off the air speed over the radio, and bailing out when the wings came off. Twice he did this successfully. However on his third flight, diving at extreme altitude, he didn't survive. First of all, when he was thrown from the aircraft, his chute deployed at such a high altitude, that he probably froze to death, Secondly, when his chute deployed, the shrouds tangled and wrapped around his throat, strangling him and Probably breaking his neck. Finally, he landed head down in an alfalfa field near Palmdale. The crash was made more traumatic for me, as the rescue plane that I was in also crashed on landing near the accident scene. We hit an irrigation ditch and flipped upside down. Obviously, rescuing us had a rather low priority at the time, as all efforts were expended trying to save Wheaties. The one positive aspect of the crash was that Wheaties had given critical information to our engineers over the radio before he was thrown out of the falling aircraft. Based on that information, the aileron chatter problem was eventually resolved.
Bob Hoover was my favorite test pilot. He was a tall, thin drink of water who had a shy, boyish style that made women love him and men admire him. Of all our test pilots, Bob was, by far, the most skilled. He was a natural pilot who could walk away from a crash with a nonchalant and casual gait as if nothing had happened He crashed two F‑100s in one day and completed another mission after that. The company was bringing F‑86s back from the Korean conflict and putting them through a major rehab operation at the Palmdale plant. After the rehab was complete, but before allowing an Air Force Pilot to ferry a plane back to an air base, one of a select group of Air Force aces would give the ship a thorough shake‑down flight. About once a week, Hoover would stop in and conduct one of the shake‑down flights. He was known throughout the Air Force as a dare‑devil pilot and his most famous trick was the way be took off, simply by raising the landing gear. He would generate such high ground speed that the plane would lift just enough that he could pull up the landing gear, but continue to fly about three feet off the ground. Then, he would pull up the nose and fly straight up while spinning the aircraft. I was once escorting a group of visiting German scientists, who were allowed to watch a Hoover take‑off, and one of the Germans remarked, "No vunder he goes up so high, he screws his vay up." Ferry pilots, who stayed in the nearby Desert Inn motel until an aircraft was ready to be ferried out, left standing orders to be called when Hoover showed up, so they could come out to the field and watch him. He was indeed a legend in his own time.
You may recall that, during the Korean conflict, the Truman administration would not allow our pilots to fly across the Yalu River into China to hit the Chinese forces that were permitted to mobilize there without fear of attack. It was an absurd limitation on our military, so a way had to be found to hit their military build‑ups without flying over the Yalu. At Edwards Air Force Base we came up with the answer ‑ skip bombing. Its concept called for flying directly at the border, then going into a steep climb while releasing bombs that would be thrown ahead and over the river at the enemy. Hoover turned out to be the best skip bomber around. When pilots in Korea seemed to be a bit slow in learning the new technique, he was sent to Korea to train the pilots in the field. Now, Bob was reminded over and over that he was a civilian and was not to get involved in the war. He could help train pilots, but contact with the enemy was an absolute "no‑no." Well, it seems that Bob became bored with his instructional duties and, on more than one occasion, flew across the Yalu and shot down Chinese MIGs. We finally had to bring him home when President Truman blew a cork ‑ because no one violated Truman's orders. You may recall that Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur of his command over the same issue ‑ and MacArthur was one of the biggest heros of the War against Japan.
Upon Truman's insistence, Hoover was brought home and relieved of all flight testing duties. He was put in charge of public relations and given a wardrobe of three‑piece suits ‑ he was never again to don a flight suit. Yet, he continued to sneak up to Palmdale about once a month to conduct an F‑86 shake‑down flight in his three‑piece suit (no flight suit). This only made him an even greater hero to us and to all pilots, The company gave him a P‑51 Mustang that had been modified to carry a guest in a back seat. He used to take dignitaries, such as our new President Rockwell, on Mustang flights with acrobatics such as no other pilot could perform. Every year at the Bendix National Air Races, Bob flew his Mustang as the pace plane, He was probably the most famous Pilot since Lindberg, but he never lost that shy, unassuming boyish charm. I was asked to introduce him as a banquet speaker at an aerospace management conference. In the introduction, I informed the audience of a few of his achievements. When he came to the podium, he said, "Thanks, Gene, ole buddy ... whew. gosh, there for a minute, I ... I... thought I was d‑dead." The audience (and I) loved him!
Joe Lynch was the family man of the group, and I believe he had seven children. He was a quiet, heavy-set man who was at his best doing acrobatics. There was an air show at the low Angeles Airport on Armed Forces Day (now called Veterans Day). I was sitting in the temporary grandstands right behind Joe's wife and kids when he made a low level (about twenty feet off the ground) inverted (upside down) pass down the main East‑West runway. For some inexplicable reason, he was ejected downward, head‑first onto the runway. He slid down the runway upside down in his seat for about half a mile, while the plane (an F‑100A, I believe) cart-wheeled off to the north and exploded. It was a horrible sight for his family to witness.
“Blackie” Blackburn (I cannot recall his proper given name) was a short, stocky man whose only fear was of bailing out of an airplane. In fact, he often commented that, faced with the necessity of bailing out, hw would take his chances in a crash. He was named chief pilot for an experimental version of the F-100 that would have “zero-launch” capabilities. The aircraft was outfitted with a huge rocket on its belly and placed on a launching platform that was tilted back to about 60 degrees. The rocket was designed to launch the plane into the air at such a speed that the jet engines could take over and maintain air speed, and then the rocket would be jettisoned. The idea was to place such F-100s on launching platforms near enemy lines to achieve a faster response to attack. On the first flight, the launch was successful, but the rocket hung up and could not be jettisoned. With the large rocket still attached to the plane's underside, landing was impossible. Blackie was instructed to fly around until the ship's fuel had been consumed, then aim it at an empty spot in the desert and bail out. Blackie informed the tower that he would burn out the fuel, but he couldn't bail out. Gage Mace, a good friend of Blackie's, was flying the spotter plane, and he spent the some ninety minutes it took to burn off his fuel convincing Blackie that he had to bail out. Finally, the moment of truth arrived. Fuel was about gone, and the aircraft was nosed out into an uninhabited part of the desert. Blackie finally responded to the pleadings of Gage Mace, and successfully bailed out. The whole episode upset Blackie so that he almost resigned ‑ but he eventually decided that, if you fall off a horse, you have to get right back on. Assured that the jettison mechanism had been properly redesigned, Blackie agreed to a second try. Again, lift‑off was achieved, but the rocket would not release. As before, it took all of Gage Mace's persuasion to get Blackie to bail out. On the third mission, an apprehensive Blackie achieved lift‑off ‑ only this time, the rocket released without incident. Over the next few months, Blackie conducted a thorough test of the zero‑launch weapon, but the Air Force decided not to use it.
Al "Cowboy" Shepherd got his nickname from the herky-jerky way he flew an aircraft. Many times, I sat in the pilot seat with Cowboy at the controls of our transport airplanes as we flew back and forth between the Los Angeles Airport and the fields at Palmdale and Edwards Air Force Base. Cowboy always flew the same way ‑ as soon as the engines turned over, he slammed the throttles full forward and they stayed there until time to turn the engines off. He didn't land a plane in a glide, he aimed it in a dive. The maintenance crews grimaced every time Cowboy flew one of the transport planes. We were the first to develop in‑flight fueling techniques needed to extend the range of our fighters. For the uninformed, let me assure you that, until present‑day equipment and techniques were developed, in-flight refueling was an unpredictable and dangerous venture. We recorded all the in‑flight communications, and a of the funniest exchanges were between Cowboy (flying an F‑100) and Gage Mace flying the tanker. After many misses and a couple near collisions Mace radioed to Cowboy, “Dammit, Cowboy, if you'll just try to hold still, I'll back into you."
Scott Crossfield was a slender intellectual, and I believe that he was the first engineer to serve as a test pilot. With the increasing technology of aviation, having an engineer at the controls provided great insight into the technological problems encountered during flight. Scott was named Chief Test Pilot for the X‑15 project. The X‑15 was an experimental rocket ship that was launched at an altitude of about 50,000 feet from the belly of a B-52. The rockets would then boost the vehicle’s speed for a brief sling-shot into outer space. The rocket would then lose altitude at a rapid rate and was designed to land on "dry lake" desert flats at very high speeds using landing rails or skids that were affixed to the bottom of the rocket. With each succeeding flight, the X‑15 went faster and further into space, coming down faster and harder. On one flight, while landing at Rosamond Dry Lake at very high speed, Scott had the nose a bit too high and the X‑15 actually broke in two. Scott was hospitalized for a while with broken bones and bruises. It took the crew several months to repair the ship, On the next mission, as soon as the X‑15 dropped from the mother chip and its rockets engaged, the usually quiet and unemotional Scott broke out singing, "Oh, I'm back in the saddle, again!" The X‑15 had captured the imagination of the public, so Hollywood came to Edwards Air Force Base and made a movie, "X‑15," starring Frank Sinatra in the role of Scott Crossfield. We built a special mockup in the hangar for filming scenes of old Frankie in the cockpit. During shooting, I was given the responsibility of taking care of Sinatra. We put him up in the Desert Inn Motel in Lancaster, about 30 miles from the base, and I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to get to know old "blue eyes." When the X‑15 program was completed, the company assigned Scott Crossfield to assume the position of Quality control Chief for the Apollo space tests out of Cape Kennedy (then called Cape Canaveral). A few weeks after his arrival at the Cape, while he was still unpacking, a terrible fire caused the death of four astronauts during some ground tests. In need of a scapegoat, the firm fired Scott, even though he hadn't had a chance to settle into his job ‑ let alone be responsible for the tragedy. Scott had been my friend, and he was being discarded for political reasons. This event had a profound affect on me, demonstrating that flight test was no longer the great adventure that it had once been ‑ it was now political and the people involved didn't count. One more similar tragedy involving the XB‑70A, to be discussed later, was the final straw ‑ I wanted out.
Al White was the second engineer to serve as a test pilot the first one to be named Chief Test Pilot. At was a husky blonds with a quiet and thoughtful manner. Shortly after he assumed the Chief's job, he and I were asked to attend a planning meeting in the front office at the Los Angeles plant. We were flying there from Palmdale in a twin‑engine Piper Apache. Al was flying, and I was in the copilot seat. As we approached LAX (Los Angeles Airport) for a landing, the LAX tower instructed us to follow a super-constellation ‑ a big four‑engine propeller‑driven aircraft that had a turbulent prop wash that was dangerous for small planes. Al told the tower that we were too close to the prop wash of the "Super Connie" and needed to pull out of the pattern. The tower assured us that we were within acceptable tolerances and everything would be OK. We were very low (about 300 feet) with flaps and gear down, about a mile from touchdown when a sea gull came directly at us. Now, hitting a sea gull in a Piper Apache would have smashed the canopy and probably killed us both. Al did a fast wing‑over to miss the bird and, as he was trying to get back into his landing pattern, we began to feel the Prop‑wash from the preceding plane. Al grabbed the hand mike and told the tower, "#@*&@, I've got 9&%@ sea gulls, super‑connies, and every other @#%$ thing up here!" About that time, the prop‑wash flipped us on our side with such a force that Al hit his head on the canopy side molding and drooped over unconscious with blood gushing sit of his head. I was so disoriented that I couldn't grasp the real seriousness of the situation (that is, I wasn't scared until it was over). I took the controls in front of me, righted the plane, pulled up the nose, and increased the throttle. I flew around to my left in large circles while trying to revive Al. The tower kept asking me a lot of fool questions, which I didn't bother to answer. Al was holding the mike in his hand when the plane flipped, and I don't think I even thought about where the mike was after he went unconscious. In fact, I was busy enough just staying airborne and avoiding the other planes in the LAX pattern. Al finally came around, wiped the blood out of his eyes, got back on the radio and expressed a few emotional opinions enroute to our landing. I took Al to the company's hospital at the airport where he received six stitches. To make our day complete, we were criticized for arriving a bit late for the planning meeting, and the next day the LAX tower authority filed an official complaint against the company for what they called, "Al White's inexcusably bad language." Yes, I wanted out!
Momma’s in Boron: In those days, most of the military's secret aircraft testing was done at what was called the “North Base," at the extreme Northeast corner of Edwards Air Force Base. The nearest town was Boron, which could he reached by a little two‑lane road that led out of North Bass. All the test pilots and flight test supervisors ‑ both military and commercial ‑ hung out at a legendary place in Boron called “Momma's." Anything a pilot between flights might want was available at Momma's. I wish I had a dollar for every pilot I've half‑carried out of Momma's to meet a test flight schedule. To people in the business of testing and breaking aircraft, Momma's had a special magic to it. Anybody who was anybody in the business hung out at Momma's.
Pappy Boyington was a frequent guest at Momma's, and he had been a special Marine ace during World War II. Throughout the war in the South Pacific, it seemed that Pappy was always just one step from being court marshaled. Despite his apparent lack of respect for higher authority and military regulations, the Marine Air Corps command knew that no mission was too tough for him. As a result, they made him commander of the Black Sheep Squadron ‑ a group of misfits and hell‑raisers that could out-fly any other group in the world. Most of his men became aces and were amongst the most‑decorated pilots from the war. Peppy was finally shot down and spent the rest of World War 11 in a Japanese prison camp. I have fond memories of Pappy telling some of the tales for which he became famous. I also have an autographed picture of him in his Corsair. After the war, there was a television series called "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep," which depicted the daring feats of the Black Sheep Squadron, with Robert Conrad playing the role of Pappy.
Bruce Porter was another World War II ace that I learned to respect. He told exciting stories about his experiences as a Marine night‑fighter Pilot and the first uses of radar to help fighter pilots locate attack bombers. I met him many years later when he spoke to our East Fresno Rotary Club. He gave me an autographed copy of his book, Ace, but spelled my name "Jean”.
Chuck Yeager was another famous test pilot that could be found at Momma's. He gained fame mostly as a test pilot, but younger generations might know him for his television commercials. Chuck was a tall, raw‑boned outdoorsman who loved to fish and hunt. He also liked to tell tall stories about his flying experiences.
Major Waski (I cannot recall his given name) was a great natural pilot. I’d have to rank him right behind Bob Hoover with respect to getting the maximum performance from an aircraft. There was a movie made in Hollywood about the role of the F-86 and its dominance over the Russian-built MIGs in a combat area known as MIG alley during the Korean conflict. I don’t recall the actual kill figures, but the F-86 had a kill ration over the MIGs of almost 100 to 1 in that war. In the movie, they shot what was, at that time, the greatest dogfight sequences ever filmed. Major Waski and Colonel Fulton (who went on to fly a B-58 chase aircraft as part of the XB-70A program) were the pilots, and the acrobatics they performed were sensational. At that time, as Logistics Officer for the company’s flight Test Operations, I had top priority on parts procurement. For example, I could have parts taken off aircraft on the assembly line when I needed them. I was also placed in charge of logistical support of the movie’s dogfight sequences, supplying whatever aircraft parts were needed by the planes flying in the film. That's where I met both of these great pilots. Major Waski was flying F‑100s at George Air Force Base, where he also doubled as base Maintenance Officer for the fighter squadrons. As such, he was rated by the efficiency with which the fighters were maintained. That is, it was his job to keep the aircraft on flight status. He wanted to win the Air Force Maintenance Officer of the Year Award and used his friendship with me to obtain the "loan" of critical parts needed to keep his people airborne. Also, on occasion, Major Waski ferried rehab F‑100s to an Air Force Base in Italy. Now, he knew that my son David and I needed some new fishing gear. That year, for Xmas, he brought us two of the best Garcia fishing reels you can buy. He picked them up in Italy, and flew them to the U.S. in the thigh pockets of his flight suit. He was a good friend.
Near Misses. Anyone who flies will tell you that crash survivors don't like to talk about the times that they have crashed. I was no different and, as a result, my own children are probably not aware that I was involved in, not one, but three crashes. The first crash occurred while I was still stationed at the Los Angeles plant on the South side of the Los Angeles airport (LAX). We flew a number of transport aircraft to move pilots, technicians, and engineers to various fields in the Southern California area. Most of our passengers were flown in one of our twin‑engine Piper Apaches. One evening about dusk, one of our Apaches, carrying its pilot and three engineers, crashed into the ocean shortly after take‑off from LAX. Reports came in from people who thought they saw a plane go down near Santa Monica Beach. It was too dark to search from the air, so Coast Guard vessels searched the area that night to no avail. Early the next morning, we instituted an aerial search using our other Apaches. On the first search flight, the only positive report was of some debris on the beach at Playa Del Rey. I went out as spotter on the next mission to search the ocean near the Playa Del Rey Beach, Our search pattern called for flying in tight circles, wing down, at low altitudes (just above wave tops), staring straight down into the water trying to catch a glimpse of the flaming red color of our Apaches. While in this precarious position, we lost an engine, and it was all that pilot Andy Jordan could do to keep us from diving straight into the ocean. Finally, he leveled us out about twenty feet over the water, heading for shore. There was no way to recover, so he decided to belly it in as close to the beach as Possible. He yelled at me that impact might jam the door leaving US to drawn in the aircraft. He told me to get the door open and hold it open during the crash. How, the door is right next to the copilot seat where I was sitting. The door was opened by a handle much the way a car door is operated. I got the latch released, but aar resistance wouldn't allow the door to open. I undid me seat belt, turned sideways and pushed with all my might … and it opened a bit, but I couldn't hold it. So, I pushed again as hard as I could, got it open about a foot, and stuck my leg through the opening as a doorstop. I looked up just in time to see people on the beach running for their lives away from this aircraft coming right for them. Then the ocean spray took away my view as we pancaked on the water. I really don't remember what happened next. I recall Andy yelling for me to get out so he could get out. I opened the door the rest of the way, stepped out onto the wing just as it fell below the water's surface, and dove into the surf. I let the surf carry me to shore, while I tried in vain to spot Andy. However, the surf was so rough that I couldn't see a thing. By the time that I was in water shallow enough to plant my feet, I stood up and spotted Andy just a few feet behind me. Neither one of us was injured, thank goodness. During the crash debriefing, I was informed by the Piper engineers that I should not have propped open the Apache's door with my leg, because the impact would usually result in amputation. My only reaction to them was that they should provide some sort of door jam. At that moment, I decided to work on a solution to that problem. Unfortunately, I forgot to pursue it, and that omission was almost fatal during another crash.
While we were testing at Edwards Air force Base (EAFB), flying our transport aircraft in and out of the base was always a problem. Our transport aircraft were never allowed to use their main runways, which were reserved for official military and flight test missions. Thus, we had to take‑off and land on the dry lake to the Northeast of the EAFB tower. In so doing, we had to cross over the end of the main runway at a ninety‑degree angle. The base was constantly being tested for preparedness by simulated strike‑bomber attacks from Carswell Air Force Base, so our traffic was tightly controlled. When we did get clearance from the tower, we had to cross their main runway area at no more than fifty feet off the ground. We would taxi out onto the proper end of the dry lake and ask the tower for permission to take off. Their policy was never to communicate with us verbally. When it was clear for take‑off, they would simply flesh a green light. We would then take‑off and stay flat on the deck until we passed the runway area. One extremely hot summer day, Pappy Bryson was at the Apache controls, I was again in the co-pilot’s seat, and there were two engineers in the back. We taxied out to the Northeast end of the dry lake. The temperature on the dry lake was probably 120 degrees or more, so I held the door open with the weight of my shoulder. Pappy requested take-off clearance, and we waited for the green light. After a long and very unpleasant wait, Pappy again requested permission to take off knowing that a second request would only make the tower people angry. Finally, Pappy became so mad about our sitting there ignored in the intense heat, that he thrust forward on the throttles, and I closed the door. Once airborne, Pappy pulled up the gear, and almost immediately we slammed down onto the dry lake. We skidded for about a quarter‑mile throwing sand and debris all over. When we finally came to a halt, Pappy tried unsuccessfully to get the tower's attention on the radio. In the meantime, I found that the crash had buckled the door frame and the door would not open. There we sat ... not knowing if the tower were aware of our problem .... not knowing if rescue services were on the way. And in the meantime, the cockpit was scorching hot and filled with the smell of fuel. Pappy was on the radio telling them that we were going to explode, but he received no acknowledgment from the tower. I was sitting there wishing I had some way to smash my way out of the cockpit. Help finally came, the canopy was broken open with a fire axe, and we were freed from the aircraft unharmed. Pappy was sanctioned for taking off without permission. It seems that the tower deliberately held us, not from normal harassment behavior, but because some of those big heavy‑lift Army helicopters had been testing in that area. These craft leave "holes" in the air that will not support flight for almost an hour. The tower was trying to make us wait until those holes dissipated. That night, I relived the feeling of utter helplessness from having no tool with which to escape the aircraft. Then, I remembered not having a tool to hold the door open in the earlier crash. The next day, I had short fire axes installed under the fire walls in front of the cc‑pilot seats in all our Apaches. I wasn't going through that sort of helpless experience again. One of my engineering friends asked me, "Even if there had been a fire axe under the fire wall in that dry lake crash, do you really think you could have chopped your way out with so little room?" I replied, "I don't know, but people on the outside would sure know that I had been trying."
As described earlier, during the rescue attempt for Wheaties Welch, I was flying copilot in the first Navion (single-engine transport aircraft) to touch down at the crash site. Unfortunately, we hit an irrigation ditch that flipped us upside down. In the process, our radio went out, so we were not able to report our situation. As usual with me, the door was damaged in the locked position, so we sat upside down waiting for someone to extricate us from a most embarrassing situation. The next Navion to land was so focused on Wheaties that they didn’t even see us. It was somewhat later that we were set free. Everyone was so concerned with Welch’s death, that our Navion adventure received little attention.
Mach 1, 2, 3. The highlights of my aerospace career seem to center on the progression of man's efforts to increase his airspeed through the magical mach numbers ‑ mach 1, mach 2, and mach 3 ‑which deal with the speed of sound at sea level. That is, mach 1 is the speed of sound at sea level, mach 2 is twice the speed of sound, and mach 3 is three times the speed of sound. There were all sorts of predictions of the disastrous events that would take place when man broke one of those barriers. I had the rare privilege of serving on the teams that broke all three of those sound barriers ‑ without any of the terrible repercussions that had been predicted. We used an F‑86 Sabre Jet to break the mach I barrier, but it took several runs over three days to achieve it due to excessive desert heat. A few years later, an F‑100 Super Sabre achieved mach 2 on its first try. Later, the mach 3 barrier was broken by the XB‑70A on October 5, 1965. For each of these milestone achievements, I can still recall the great sense of pride, achievement, and camaraderie that I shared with my flight test team members.
The XB‑70A. The unquestioned pinnacle of my flight test endeavors was the testing of the XB-70A. Dealing with the world's first mach 3 aircraft was my greatest aerospace challenge and, ultimately, it proved to he my greatest disappointment. In its day, the XB‑70A was an incredibly complex weapon that required around‑the‑clock maintenance. It was like a battleship, in that you couldn't just turn it off after a flight, go home for some sleep, and turn it back on in a day or so. Therefore, our crews worked three shifts seven days a week, including holidays. A typical work day for me was 16 to 18 hours, and there were times when we would work 48 hours or more in one stretch. I never took a day off during the entire testing program. The XB‑70A program was under the direction of Vice President Walter Spivak, a small man whose left leg had been withered by polio. He was a crusty, cantankerous old cuss who couldn't complete a sentence without raw profanity. He had been the company's Chief Engineer stationed at the Los Angeles. However, women's rights were beginning to be championed about this time, and a number of women filed complaints against the company because of his terrible language. Walter agreed with the company that he probably couldn't change his ways, so he was "exiled" to the desert to personally ramrod the XB‑70A program ‑ and that's exactly what he did ‑ ramrod it twenty-four hours a day! He only slept about three hours a day, and he caught that sleep on a cot he put in the hangar's small lunch room. He would pop in and out on you at all hours and usually just when something was going wrong. He had an uncanny knack of knowing when to catch you at your worst. I can recall times when I had been on the job for 36 to 48 hours, and would lean back in my chair to close my eyes for just a brief moment … and he would barge in yelling “Is that all you've got to do... sit around asleep while *#$@*‑# things go to &%**$?? One morning, I came to work about 02:00 a.m. to fix a problem. Then about dawn, I became hungry and remembered that I had left my lunch in the car. so I went to my car, got my lunch and, as I came back through the guard gate, Walter yelled at Me, "It's about time you got your #@*&~# on the job!" The man was incredible, but we all admired him and, behind his back, we affectionately called him "Uncle Walt."
The XB‑70A was 180 feet long, with a wing span of 105 feet and a wing area of 6,300 square feet. The Pilot and copilot sat in a cockpit at the nose that was perched 45 feet forward of the nose gear and 30 feet off the ground. The aircraft was powered by six YJ‑93 engines built by General Electric. The ship had wing tips that folded down so that it could ride its own shock wave at three times the speed of sound at altitudes above 70,000 feet. The aircraft was a flying gas tank. The huge wing was a network of fuel tanks. The wing's skim was a one‑inch layer of honeycomb material faced with a thin sheet of titanium. During a Mach 3 flight, the leading edges of the wing heated to a cherry red, and the fuel, just one inch below the red surface, would boil. Therefore, it was an absolute essential that the honeycomb/titanium panel never leak ‑ and the wing surface was the biggest weakness of the test craft. It seems strange that this weapon, which had anti‑missle missles and other defensive systems that made it virtually impregnable, could be destroyed by a simple act of nature ‑ a hail storm that could damage critical wing surfaces. That wing surface weakness and the legend of Uncle Walt's meanness were both demonstrated the first time we took ship #1 outdoors to fuel it and test the engines. The aircraft was battened down to an engine run-up stand about a mile from its hangar. The ship’s huge wing tanks were filled for the first time. But, before we could turn on the engines, a huge black storm cloud emerged from the North end of the Antelope Valley add headed straight for us. We were informed that the Storm contained one‑inch hail stones ‑ big enough to destroy the sip's wing surfaces. Uncle Walt ordered buses to bring all he people from the hangar and the office areas and have them lie down on the wings to try to protect the wing surfaces from the hail with their bodies. It soon became apparent that we didn't have enough people to cover all the wing, and there wasn't time to move the aircraft back into the hangar. As the storm cloud came closer, Uncle Walt, with his bad log, climbed up a 30 foot ladder that was used to get in and out of the cockpit. Once on top, he shook his fist at that black clued and gave it a cussing that the cloud will never forget. Almost immediately, the cloud turned abruptly to the East aid disappeared over the Tehachapi Mountains. When Uncle Walt managed to climb down off that ladder, everyone viewed with a new sense of respect and fear.
Initially, we were to build three plazas. Shortly after finishing ship #1, it was discovered that there was a serious wing design flaw which would limit its use at mach 3. However, the problem was corrected for ship #2. Then, because of funding problems, ship #3 was never assembled, but components that had been built were used as spare parts. Thus, the program was conducted with two ships, and ship #1 could fly each 3 for only brief periods. After every mach 3 run for ship #1, we would find that titanium panels had been ripped off the wings, but a fuel leak/explosion never occurred. Consequently, serious mach 3 flights were possible only with ship #2.
Initially, we were to build three plazas. Shortly after finishing ship #1, it was discovered that there was a serious wing design flaw which would limit its use at mach 3. However, the problem was corrected for ship #2. Then, because of funding problems, ship #3 was never assembled, but components that had been built were used as spare parts. Thus, the program was conducted with two ships, and ship #1 could fly mach 3 for only brief periods. After every mach 3 run for ship #1, we would find that titanium panels had been ripped off the wings, but a fuel leak/explosion never occurred. Consequently, serious mach 3 flights were possible only with ship AT.
The XR‑70A usually took off from Edwards Air Force Base (EAFB) with about 500,000 pounds of JP4 jet fuel. On most of our mach 3 test flights, the ship headed North as it gained altitude and speed. The craft would reach 60,000 feet altitude and mach 2.9 before turning back to the South at about the middle of Idaho. Then around 70,000 feet up, mach 3 would be achieved for only a short period of time before it was time to circle EAFB and land, Our first prolonged mach 3 flight was planned a bit differently because we needed more flight space. First, we flew to the Canadian border before turning South at mach 3. The Pilot, Al White, had three essential parameters for the flight: (1) do not overfly Las Vegas because the sonic boom would destroy too much glass and crystal; (2) do not fly over the Mexican border; and (3) when turning out to sea on the landing pattern, do not fly through the Point Mugu Naval Missile range (North of Los Angeles), which was under orders to shoot down anything that crosses its range. Shortly after reaching much 3, things began to unravel. First, the ship flew over Las Vegas causing a huge amount Of damage to the casinos. This flustered Al and the next thing he knew, he was in Mexico, trying to both slow down add get out to sea before a major international incident created. Once out of Mexico and over the Pacific Ocean, he flew directly across the Mugu missile range, putting them on a confused alert, because they had no idea what had penetrated their airspace or where it had gone. Later, in the debriefing, Al could only say that, when you are flying three times the speed of sound and stop to think about what you are doing, it is already too late to act. Mach 3 flight must be totally preplanned and not based on reactions to events already passed.
On one of the more memorable flights, Al White was in the pilot's seat, and Colonel Joseph Cotton, commander of the Air Force task force was in the co‑pilot's seat. After takeoff, the right main gear failed to completely fold away in the landing gear bay. With pace ships observing, the gear was cycled back down, and the same right hand gear would not unfold properly. The gear folding mechanism was very complicated, but the result was that the aircraft could not land with the right hand gear in its present position. Again and again the gear was cycled and the aircraft "bounced" in the sky, but the right hand gear would not position correctly. It was decided that the aircraft should be flown circles around the field until the fuel was consumed. In a meantime, the engineers were trying to figure out a way save the aircraft. After about two hours of study, engineering decided that an electrical switch had failed, but switch might be bypassed by manually connecting two electrical terminals in the ship's equipment bay. Colonel Cotton couldn't find a piece of wire to use, so he took a paper clip off the pages Of his flight plan. He left his seat went back into the equipment bay, which was an area at twenty feet long with thousands of electrical connections. He plugged in the equipment bay radio and the engineers talked him to the right column of terminals and then down to the right low of terminals. He was told to put end of the paper clip on one particular terminal and the at end of the paper clip on another terminal. If he was column or one row off, the ship could be destroyed and crew killed. To make matters worse, the air was turbulent and Al was having trouble keeping the aircraft on smooth course. If the ship's motion caused Cotton to touch the paper clip to a wrong terminal, anything could happen. Finally Cotton braced himself, counted down, touched the clip to the two terminals ... and the right hand gear moved down to its appropriate position far a safe landing.
Then, in June of 1966 we were instructed by the Air Force to do a photo ops for the General Electric Company in which other planes that use GE engines would join in behind the XB‑70A (ship #2) for some in‑flight pictures that GE would use to help sell Lear Jets. At first, Al White refused to fly the mission because of the danger involved. In a low altitude, low‑speed flight configuration, the XB‑70A was very unstable ‑ like trying to drive a race car in city traffic. When the Air Force insisted, Al went along but he was in a very bad mood, as attested to his bad language during the photo ops maneuvering. Al’s copilot was Major Carl Cross, making his first flight in the XB‑70A. As the smaller planes began to form up on the XB‑70A, the plane that was to fly on the XB‑70A's right wing tip was an F‑104 Starfighter flown by astronaut Joe Walker. At that time, Joe held the world's altitude flying record and was a great test pilot as well as the chief umpire for the Monte Vista Little League, where I was President. Twice Al was heard telling Joe Walker to “get off my #@*# wing!” Suddenly, Joe got caught in an up‑draft under the XB‑70A's right wing tip. The F‑104 rolled up and over the top Of the XB‑70A, damaging one of the ship's vertical stabilizers. The Starfighter cartwheeled and exploded. Colonel Cotton, flying in a T‑38, radioed, "Midair! Midair!" Next, Cotton was telling the XB‑70A crew, “O.K., it looks like your tail is gone. You'll probably spin ... Bail out!" The ship did spin and cartwheel for 25,000 feet before it crashed am the desert floor. Al White's capsule ejected, but its inflatable bottom cushion didn't open, and Al's back was badly damaged when the capsule landed in a pile of rocks. Major Cross never got out of the plane. During a debriefing at the EAFB hospital, Al explained that he had encapsulated and was set to eject when he looked over to see that Cross was not properly preparing for ejection. He was pushing on the panel trying to force his seat back into the capsule which was the correct procedure in a B‑58 which Cross had been flying prior to his assignment to the XB‑70A. Al said that he opened his capsule and was trying to show Cross what to do when the ship went out of control. Al had no choice but to eject. However, he did it so fast that he failed to got his right arm back inside the capsule. As a result, his right elbow was injured during ejection. We couldn't believe that Major Cross hadn't learned the ejection process. We went to the seat ejection simulator where all XB‑70A Pilots were supposed to spend so many hours a week (I can't recall how many) practicing seat ejection. According to the log book, Major Cross had initialed the required practice time. However, the simulation crew told us that he never got in the seat ‑ he just came, initialed the log book, and left. That deception cost him his life. In all, the crash took two lives and caused injuries that ended the career of another. I didn't know Major Cross that well, but Joe Walker was a good friend, and I miss him even to this day.
Following the crash, there was a large hue and try from media and politicians about the loss of a billion dollar weapon for some advertising venture. To make the tragedy worse, it was ship #2 that was lost ‑ the only ship that could really be used to test mach 3 flight conditions. Ship #1 was given a six‑month modification in an effort to increase its mach 3 performance, but the handwriting was on the wall ‑ the XB‑70A program was coming to an end and, with it, the end of an era. What is more, I had had enough crashes, enough dead pilots .... I wanted out, and I immediately began looking for another job.