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Always Another Dawn: The Story of a Rocket Test Pilot is the story of NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) and Albert Scott Crossfield's work in the post-war years and beyond pioneering the use of rocket-powered planes. Crossfield and his team paved the path for space exploration making this, his autobiography, essential reading for historians and aviation buffs. This new annotated edition of Always Another Dawn includes footnotes and photographs. *This edition includes original footnotes. *Hand curated images. *Revised text in modern American English.
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Always Another Dawn
Albert Scott Crossfield and Clay Blair
Published by The P-47 Press, 2018.
Always Another Dawn by Albert Scott Crossfield and Clay Blair. First published in 1960.
Annotated edition © Copyright 2018 by The P-47 Press.
This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review or scholarly journal.
All rights reserved.
Published by The P-47 Press, Los Angeles.
First e-book edition 2018.
Always Another Dawn
Chapter 1 | A Modern Day Lindbergh
Chapter 2 | The Gypsy Caravan
Chapter 3 | A Sense of Urgency
Chapter 4 | Excitement and Frustration
Chapter 5 | An Unusual Heritage
Chapter 6 | An Isolated Environment
Chapter 7 | “Take Her Up and Try a Spin”
Chapter 8 | Change and Challenge
Chapter 9 | Manhood and Maturity
Chapter 10 | No Penalty for Being Late
Chapter 11 | How Dark the Clouds
Chapter 12 | A Short Man with Santa Claus Eyebrows
Chapter 13 | Barefoot Boy with Cheek
Chapter 14 | The Need for Speed
Chapter 15 | Disaster on the Race Track
Chapter 16 | Bright Light Under a Bush
Chapter 17 | Light in the Open
Chapter 18 | ‘Fastest Man on Earth’
Chapter 19 | “Leaf in a Tempest”
Chapter 20 | “Please Come to a Complete Stop”
Chapter 21 | End of the Line
Chapter 22 | End of an Era
Chapter 23 | Secrets in the Cafeteria
Chapter 24 | Ullage and Capsules
Chapter 25 | Girdles, Brassieres, and Shattered Sinuses
Chapter 26 | The Agricultural Approach
Chapter 27 | A Tornado Named Stormy
Chapter 28 | Wilting Straws in Plaster of Paris
Chapter 29 | Eyes Toward Space
Chapter 30 | Muting the Cassandras
Chapter 31 | Working in a Fish Bowl
Chapter 32 | Time for Extraordinary Action
Chapter 33 | Circus Day
Chapter 34 | A Carnival at Dawn
Chapter 35 | Smoke in the Cockpit
Chapter 36 | The Reluctant Dragon
Chapter 37 | Engulfed in Disappointment
Chapter 38 | “She Blew Sky High”
Chapter 39 | The Old Pro
Chapter 40 | Bad News with the Good
Chapter 41 | “You Have a Fire!”
Chapter 42 | Minor Miracles
Chapter 43 | ‘The Real Significance’
Chapter 44 | ‘Prophecies of the Next Age’
Further Reading: Thunderbolt!
A Note on Speed
Mach 1.0 is the speed at which sound travels through the air. On an average day at sea level, the speed of sound, or Mach 1.0, is about 760 miles an hour. At higher, colder altitudes on the same day, it is less. For example, at 35,000 feet it might be only 660 miles an hour. Since most of the flying described in this account is at high altitude, Mach 1.0 is, on an average day, about 660 miles an hour.
The speed is also expressed in terms of fractions of a Mach number. Thus Mach .5 is half of Mach 1 or half of 660 miles an hour, about 330 miles an hour. Speeds above Mach 1.0 are also expressed in whole Mach numbers and fractions of Mach numbers. For example, Mach 1.5 is the equivalent of one and a half times the speed of sound, or about 1,000 miles an hour. Mach 2.0, or twice the speed of sound, is twice 660 miles an hour, or about 1,320 miles an hour. Mach 2.5 is about 1,650 miles an hour. Mach 3 is about 2,000 miles an hour.
A MISTY RAIN, TYPICAL of Seattle in the spring, fell across the lush green campus of the University of Washington that afternoon. It was 1947. I don’t recall the exact date because that whole period of my life remains fixed in my mind as a steady, uninterrupted blur of work and study. I do remember that as I drove through the narrow streets setting apart the ivy-smothered Tudor-Gothic buildings, I proceeded with caution. My car was a veteran of many campaigns in Seattle weather and traffic. It was barely hanging together. When I pulled into my special parking place behind the University’s wind tunnel, I was quietly angry.
I had just come from an advanced class in aeronautical engineering under Professor Frank K. Kirsten, a brilliant but crotchety old martinet. He had devoted the lecture to a discourse on the jet engine, which, he held, had no future because its fuel consumption was too great. I had challenged his assertions and argued forcibly, concluding, with some heat, that other experts in aviation had made such dogmatic statements, only to have them later completely disproved.
“Take Monteith,”* I had said actually quoting the Professor. “He predicted the cantilever wing would not be practicable. Yet almost every airplane flying today has a cantilever wing.”
*Charles Norton ‘Monty’ Monteith (1893-1940) was Chief Designer of Boeing in the late 1920’s and led the company into the commercial aviation business. He is the author of Simple Aerodynamics and the Airplane, published in 1929.
In the aviation world, as anywhere, I concluded, everything is subject to change. We must believe this. I walked through the power room to a door marked: CHIEF WIND TUNNEL OPERATOR, stashed my textbook and notes in a desk drawer, and then scanned the bulletin board. Posted over the tunnel’s Schedule-of-Operations sheet was a photograph of a smashed-up automobile, with ‘Guess Who?’ scrawled underneath. It was an earlier car I owned, a veteran of several brief but devastating engagements. It occurred to me then, for the first time, that both my problem cars had been painted green. I recalled an old race-track superstition against green cars. That was the trouble, I was sure. Overdriving my car and its brakes in Seattle streets couldn’t be the reason, of course.
The wind tunnel of the University of Washington was one of the first (and finest) modern wind tunnels built in the United States. Many major aircraft companies, such as Boeing and McDonnell, contracted work to the tunnel. The tunnel tests and analyses were carried out by students under faculty supervision. I had worked in the tunnel part-time since returning to the University in the spring of 1946. We were then engaged in tests on the Boeing B-47 bomber. Many years later the plane, bought in vast quantity, would become the backbone of the Strategic Air Command, and a direct descendant, the Boeing 707, would become the first U.S. commercial jet airliner. In 1947 the plane’s concept—sharply swept cantilever wings, six jet engines slung on pods beneath the wing—was controversial and exciting.
I joined a fellow student, Joe Tymczyszyn, near the tunnel control panel and greeted him above the noise, the great rushing of wind, and the steady humming of electric generators. Through a glass port mounted on the bottom of the big wind tube, I could see a silvery model of the B-47 rigidly fixed on a pylon. Sensitive force-measuring devices supporting the pylon below the chamber showed the effects of the blast on a row of meters on the control panel. ‘Tym’ photographed the meter readings every few moments on a special recorder. The panel was marked SECRET since Boeing and the Air Force considered the data classified.
I plopped into a chair and lighted a cigarette. Then Tym and I fell into avid conversation on the topic that bound us as friends and co-workers: aviation. Tym had a wide acquaintance in aviation. He always had some bit of gossip or vital news to impart.
“Did you hear about Slick Goodlin?” he began. “They say he’s reluctant to fly the X-1.”
Slick was a Bell Aircraft test pilot. The X-1 was then the sensation of the aviation world—a tiny, bullet-shaped craft fitted with a rocket engine. It was built for research purposes, to provide high-speed flight data so that we, and others in aviation, could get information we then could not get from wind tunnels. In those days, when we pumped air through a tunnel close to the speed of sound, strange things happened. The air ‘choked’ and the flow was distorted. As a result, most wind-tunnel data near the speed of sound were suspect at a time when they were vitally needed. The X-1 had sufficient power to fly faster than the speed of sound.
“He’s reluctant to fly it?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Tym said. “They say he wants a lot more money.”
Few could blame him. The rocket engine of the X-1, a complex device which burned a fuel combination almost as explosive as dynamite, had never been flown wide open. Engineers were split about fifty-fifty over what would happen structurally when the X-1 reached the speed of sound. Some said the plane would disintegrate; others, especially engineers at Bell, said it would not. In any case, it might be a risky flight. But the rewards, other than money, would be great.
“Hell,” I said. “The man who flies that plane through the sonic barrier will be a modern-day Lindbergh.” Tym nodded agreement and returned to his log.
For the rest of the afternoon I was busy putting together the data from the wind-tunnel meters. But my mind was fixed on the X-1 and I let my imagination soar. For a test pilot, the X-1 was the absolute ultimate. There was nothing like it in the past; it would be years before anything else surpassed it.
I was still thinking about the plane when I got home that evening. Before dinner, when my wife, Alice, and I sat down for our usual martini, I was lost in thought.
“What’s eating you?” she asked. Alice is a native of Seattle. Like many people from that part of the country, typical of Norwegian descent, she is usually quiet and straight to the point. After four years of marriage she had come to terms with my obsession for aviation and rarely questioned either my progress or my mood. I didn’t encourage it.
“Oh, nothing,” I said. I was mentally composing a letter I intended to write to Bell Aircraft proposing that I be named the new test pilot of the X-1. After dinner, while Alice was washing the dishes, I sat down to my battered portable typewriter and carefully pecked out the letter, stressing my qualifications: Age: 26. Flying time: 2500 hours, single-engine, World War II Navy instructor and fighter-pilot. Special flying: lead pilot, Seattle Naval Reserve stunt team (which could be matched against any stunt team in the country, I added). Education: Prewar: three quarters, University of Washington, basic freshman engineering. Postwar: five semesters, aeronautical engineering (aimed at a Master’s degree). Practical experience: prewar, production expediter, Boeing plant, Seattle; postwar, partner in aircraft accessories firm (ashtrays; serving tables); University of Washington wind tunnel. Temperament: reliable, family-man type; even disposition, cool in emergencies. Salary? I would fly the X-1 for nothing, if necessary.
It occurred to me, as I reflected on this letter, that anyone outside the aviation world would have viewed this brief summary of my life as the work of a single-minded zealot. This was not precisely so. My interests ranged wide enough, from philosophy to farming. Yet it was a fact that, since boyhood, almost every waking moment had been devoted, directly or indirectly, to the single purpose of scoring a mark in the aviation world. It was not a spectacular record I sought; around the world flight, a speed dash, or a new altitude. Mine was a more serious bent. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the aviation giants: Boeing’s Edmund (‘Eddie’) Allen* and the Air Force’s James H. (‘Jimmy’) Doolittle,** and the like. They were both serious scientists and superb pilots, a rare combination and, in these days of specialization, a rapidly disappearing breed. More specifically, my goal was to participate in the design and construction of the most advanced craft man could conceive and then take it into the air and fly it.
*Aeronautic pioneer Edmund Turney Allen (1896-1943), an inspiration to many young pilots, designed cutting-edge planes and test-piloted the prototypes himself. Ironically, and tragically, Allen was on the ground when he died in an airplane crash. The second version of the XB-29 exploded in a fireball on take-off, causing an inferno at a Boeing installation which killed Allen and 27 others.
Image: Edmund T. Allen (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive).
**Aeronautics genius James Harold Doolittle (1896-1993) was a celebrity aviator in the interwar years whose knowledge of aircraft only increased after he served as an army pilot in World War 2. Called up from the reserves, Doolittle distinguished himself as a flier over the Pacific, receiving many decorations, including the Medal of Honor for valor during a raid on the Japanese islands.
Image: Lt. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle (left) with Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay before a Lockheed P-38, 1944.
THIS MAY STRIKE MANY as a heady ambition for so young a man. It never seemed that way to me. On this earth, at least, I believe man is master of his own fate. Within his God-given physical and mental limitations, he can do what he wants to do. I believe the secret is to work intelligently, economically, and steadily toward a set goal. I must have been about six years old when I made up my mind what I wanted. Shortly after that, I was struck by a disease that kept me bed-ridden, off and on, for almost five years. As a result, I was told I would never fly. My mind shut out these predictions and stubbornly plotted the future. There are many hurdles along the way. I am scaling them, one way or another. Anyone with determination can do the same, I think.
That night when I drafted the letter to Bell I was still far from completing what I believed to be an adequate foundation. For one thing, my education, interrupted by the war, was considerably short of my design. Yet I must admit that at heart I am also a gambler. If I were lucky enough, I knew, the X-1 could catapult me directly toward the very position I sought. The advanced education could come later, with experience. Besides, who could resist the temptation to fly the X-1, if there was a chance?
Bell must have received many such letters from adventurous pilots. I imagine they were all passed on to the public relations department and from there to a handy waste-paper basket. I never received a reply. Unknown to me, and to others who may have written, the Air Force had already picked Goodlin’s replacement. Shortly after I mailed my application, I read in the papers that Air Force Captain Charles Yeager was assigned the job. In October, 1947, he flew the X-1 through the sonic barrier with ease—and overnight became the new Lindbergh of the aviation world.
I felt not the slightest tinge of envy over Yeager’s feat. On reflection I considered it just as well that my letter had not been answered. My time had obviously not come. Not for one minute, however, did I doubt that it would. I buckled down at the University, working doggedly toward my Master’s degree. I supplemented my meager G.I. stipend with the small returns from the aircraft accessories business and my work in the wind tunnel, where, in time, I was named student boss of operations. I kept my flying sharply honed in exercises with my Naval Reserve unit. So as not to tempt fate further on the streets, I painted my battered car bright blue with gratifying results.
IN THE SPRING OF 1950, a few months before Commencement, I began to lay final plans for my move into the aviation world. The way the deck was stacked, it did not appear a ripe time for aspiring aeronautical engineers. The Pentagon’s post-World War II economy drive had severely deflated the giant aviation industry. There were a few jets in production—Boeing’s B-47, North American’s F-86, Lockheed’s F-80, Republic’s F-84, McDonnell’s ‘Banshee’—and many others in the experimental test stage. Crack aeronautical engineers were, as usual, rare; but new graduates were a dime a dozen, breaking into the industry at less than $300 a month. Many able experimental test pilots were killing time in routine jobs. But as the cards were played out, my timing couldn’t have been better. No one could then foresee the outbreak of the Korean War. In a few months this war changed the atmosphere in the aviation industry one hundred and eighty degrees. This change provided me with my great opportunity.
That spring, as I reviewed the chances open to me, I concluded the best stepping stone was a Civil Service job with the government as an ‘aeronautical research pilot’ for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Unknown to the general public, NACA had for years been the vital cauldron in which new ideas in aeronautical engineering were brewed and sampled. The agency was founded in 1915 by President Wilson, after the U.S. had lagged considerably behind Europe in the exploitation of the airplane for civilian and military purposes.
The members of the committee, then the grandees of the U.S. aviation world, were charged with keeping close tabs on all domestic and foreign aviation developments, and to serve as a kind of clearing house for U.S. engineers. The committee was supposed to encourage officially any U.S. aviation development which held promise. As the airplane grew in importance and complexity, NACA grew in size. Langley Laboratory was founded at Hampton, Virginia, to test seaplane hulls, new propeller designs, and important airfoils. It was soon equipped with wind tunnels and other tools of the aeronautical engineers. Much later, in 1940, NACA founded a second aeronautical research laboratory—Ames—at Moffett Field, near San Francisco. Shortly before World War II, a third laboratory, Lewis, was built in Cleveland, Ohio, to work on problems of propulsion. While some NACA engineers dealt with hardware, much new basic theory—some of it sound, some of it impractical—emanated from the ivy-covered, college-like atmosphere of its laboratories. This theory, combined with that from universities such as Washington, and considerably more theory generated by the highly competitive aviation industry, served to keep the U.S. abreast.
The X-1 rocket plane was, in a way, a product of NACA. During World War II, NACA was frantically busy ‘fixing’ design shortcomings on production military airplanes. In 1944, when the country stood on the threshold of the jet age, NACA engineers came face-to-face with the problem of the suspect data provided by wind tunnels near the speed of sound. Seeking a substitute solution, the Air Force’s Ezra Kotcher and a few NACA engineers, including Hartley Soule and John Stack, together with Bell engineer Robert Woods, conceived the idea of building a full-scale rocket-powered research plane that could actually be flown through the speed of sound to get the necessary data. It was a bold, indeed, daring move for the conservative agency, and it paid handsome dividends in the long run.
During the course of modern aviation history, NACA has been alternately praised and damned. In 1935 the British Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society huffed: “It is notorious that many of our most capable design staffs prefer to base their technical work on the results of the NACA.” After World War II, when the complete picture of the astounding Nazi achievements in the field of aeronautics came to light, NACA was severely criticized for the U.S. lag. Much later it was blamed for permitting the U.S. to fall behind in the field of ballistic missiles. These shortcomings, I believe, were more the result of a national attitude than a specific research or policy failure on NACA’s part. By and large, considering its shoestring budget, NACA had performed ably. With only occasional exceptions, the U.S. aviation industry has held NACA in high regard. One reason is that the agency served as a training ground for many U.S. aeronautical engineers. For example, my childhood hero, Eddie Allen, was one of NACA’s first and best test pilots.
From my point of view in 1950, NACA seemed a likely starting point. I knew that NACA kept a small stable of test pilots at each of its three major laboratories. Most of them were engineers, too; able to translate a deficiency encountered in the air into precise engineering terminology. A close association with these men for a period would be valuable experience. Thus, without knowledge of a specific vacancy, I mailed off a general application form to the government.
There were no openings, the government replied. I wrote again and again without results. When graduation exercises were only a few weeks away, I felt I had to take some kind of direct action. I decided to pay an unannounced visit to Lawrence Clousing, NACA’s chief test pilot at Ames. Clousing, I knew, was one of the best in the business. If he did not know of a job, his advice alone would make my trip worthwhile.
I remember everything about that day. It was remarkable not only because it was a turning point in my life, but also because it was filled with coincidences, minor but eerie. The first of the latter happened the moment I walked into Clousing’s office—unexpectedly, so I thought.
“Hello, Crossfield,” Clousing said. He was a tall man with a deceptively shy manner. He seemed to me more like a college professor than a test pilot. He thrust a friendly hand toward me.
“We’ve been waiting for you. Your wife called a few minutes ago.”
I was very surprised by his greeting. I had told Alice only that I was going to see a “guy named Clousing down near San Francisco.” That she had been able to track me down to his office at the big NACA facility amazed me. This feeling soon gave way to concern. I was sure Alice would not call unless there was urgent news.
“Is somebody ill?” I asked Clousing.
“No,” he said. “She wanted to pass along the word that you received a reply this morning to your civil service application. You’re invited to Edwards for an interview. We have no openings here at all.”
The most surprising fact of all in this news was that Alice had opened the letter. Not in seven years of marriage had she so much as touched a letter addressed to me. Well, I thought, it’s lucky she did. I turned to Clousing.
“Edwards?” I asked. “Isn’t that Air Force?” At that time I knew only that Edwards was a desert test-center for experimental airplanes in Southern California. It was at Edwards that Chuck Yeager had flown the X-1 through the sonic barrier. Industry test pilots from the Los Angeles area used the base for first flights of new planes.
“NACA has a small experimental test group at Edwards,” Clousing said. “Two or three pilots and a few engineers and mechanics. They came out with the X-1 back in ‘46. They’re doing some work there with other planes. It was supposed to be a temporary group but they’ve made it a permanent station now. Walt Williams runs the unit. The chief test pilot is John Griffith. Do you want to go down and see them?”
I wasn’t too keen on Edwards. Clousing’s brief comments brought to mind a picture of a gypsy caravan from NACA camping in tents on the edge of the Air Force base. What a contrast to the scholarly atmosphere of the massive Ames installation! To me Ames was a known quantity but Edwards a big question. But Clousing had made it clear he was not hiring. Edwards, at least, was a foot in the door. I thought it might be worth a gamble. When I said yes, Clousing put through a call to Walt Williams to arrange a rendezvous. Soon I was on a train, chuffing slowly over the coastal mountains toward the great, desolate Mojave Desert. Today Edwards, like the rest of Southern California, has grown to spectacular proportions. It is a well-organized military base, manned by some 10,000 men, with a neat base-housing area, cross-hatched by streets named for pilots who have died in the course of duty at Edwards. It has a Base Exchange, an Officers’ Club, gigantic hangars, and all the rest. But on that day when I saw it for the first time, it was little more than a runway scratched out of the desert. The handful of pilots lived in “tar-paper” shacks and drank whiskey in a roadhouse run by an aging but colorful aviatrix named Pancho Barnes.
John Griffith met my train in Mojave, a frontier town not far from Death Valley, once a stopping-off place for the famous twenty-mule teams which labored across the desert hauling borax. The brown wastes of the desert were harsh to my eyes, which had looked for so long on the green of the Northwest. I was not sure Alice would like it. Even in May the heat was stifling. Griffith, a stocky, powerfully built man about thirty-one years old, was appropriately dressed for the climate—slacks, sport shirt, dark glasses. I felt out of place in my blue serge suit, but John quickly put me at ease with his friendly smile and easy manner. We climbed into his car and drove along an arrow-straight, black-top road toward the base. It was hard to believe that this primeval environment was the center of aviation’s most advanced flying.
On the way to the field I learned a little of the history of the NACA pilots at Edwards. The original group had consisted of Herbert Hoover, and Howard Lilly, both fine pilots. Lilly was killed when an experimental plane blew up on take-off. Hoover was killed later, when a B-45 jet exploded in the air; his co-pilot, John Harper, escaped. He subsequently went to work for Lear, Inc. To replace them, Griffith came from Lewis Lab and Bob Champine from the Langley Lab to be number two man. An able, sharp-eyed pilot, but not a very experienced one, Champine soon developed a distaste for experimental flight tests. He transferred back to Langley, leaving the opening for which I was to be interviewed. Griffith was the sole pilot, a World War II veteran. He flew for the Air Force in the Solomons and later joined NACA. Superior to him was Joe Vensel, chief of Flight Operations, then came Walt Williams, chief of the station.
The NACA High Speed Flight Test Station occupied one of two small hangars in the sand bordering the runway. As we drew closer, I saw there was just one building, a combination hangar and office. I was soon to learn that the NACA operation was, as I had envisioned it, completely parasitic. It leaned on the Air Force for water, communications, fuel, fire protection—everything but salaries, pilots, and engineers. But the primitive facade was deceptive. Inside there was a highly contagious, pioneering spirit. The NACA group at Edwards was ready to perform big deeds; even more spectacular plans were in the works. The principal reason for this spirit, I soon found, was the boss, Walt Williams, a thirty-one-year-old engineer from New Orleans. A cocky, hard-working operator, Williams had cut his teeth in NACA’s Langley Laboratory during the war. In 1946 he had come to Edwards with twelve men under his command, to supervise the research phase of the X-1 program. The plan then was that when Bell had finished the initial flight tests of the plane, Williams and his group would move in. They would fit the ship with instruments and begin recording scientific data on each flight. This scheme had been unavoidably delayed when Goodlin bowed out.
After Chuck Yeager flew the plane through the sound barrier, other Air Force pilots moved in to take the controls and set new records. One of these was Major Frank K. (‘Pete’) Everest, who zoomed to an altitude of 73,000 feet. Others followed: Captain Jack Ridley and Colonel Albert Boyd, who was then commander of the Edwards outpost, and the epitome of a service test pilot. Herbert Hoover of NACA flew the X-1 and became the first civilian to penetrate the sound barrier.
There were actually three X-1s, I discovered. The first, Yeager’s plane, which he nicknamed Glamorous Glennis after his beautiful wife, had been shipped off to the Smithsonian Institution. The second X-1 had been turned over to NACA. The third X-1 was still at the Bell plant in Buffalo, New York, being fitted with a new low-pressure fuel system which would enable it to go higher and faster. But many, many months would pass before X-1 number three was ready for flight. It held a grim surprise. I talked first with Joe Vensel, chief of Flight Operations. He was a man cautious in decision but quick in physical movement. He bore the scars of a rough life of flying: shattered sinuses. At 40, he wore a hearing aid. Vensel had little to say or to ask.
Griffith then took me directly to Williams’ office, a makeshift area in one end of the hangar. Williams met me with a firm and enthusiastic handshake. He bounced around the room impatiently, pausing frequently to run his hand through his crew-cut brown hair, or to doodle violently on a scratch pad. It was immediately clear that Williams was a man of action. I liked him on first sight. He and Griffith probed my background.
“How is it you have so much single-engine time?” Griffith asked.
“I like to fly,” I said. “I got my private license before the war. During the war I was an instructor at Corpus Christi, Texas. We were very busy. Lot of students. Lot of hours. I took extra students when I could. After the war I was active in the Naval Reserve.”
“What about this stunt team?” Williams asked.
And so it went. As the interview progressed, I learned there were two other pilots being considered for the opening, each with about half my flying experience. This competition, unsuspected until then, sharpened my senses. I talked earnestly about my desire to make a serious contribution to aeronautical science.
Before the session drew to a close, Williams made it clear that the job was mine if I wanted it. I didn’t want to appear overly eager. I parried for a while, seeking answers to a few questions of my own.
“What kind of flying would I be doing here?” I asked. “It looks to me as though Chuck Yeager and Pete Everest and the other Air Force pilots have a corner on the market.” It was a deliberate needle and it obviously touched Williams on a sore spot. He responded with a spiel which sounded as though it had been drafted for a congressional committee.
“The research airplane was conceived at NACA’s Langley Laboratory. The funds are provided principally by the Air Force and the Navy. NACA has technical jurisdiction over the flight programs, which are designed to provide maximum data within a given time. Under the new concept, civilian test pilots of the companies concerned in the design and construction of the research airplanes make initial test flights, verifying established design and structural points, engine reliability, and so on. The Air Force pilots then take over and fly them with an eye to military application, under NACA cognizance. After that, so the plan goes, the ships are turned over to us here at NACA for detailed flight research. The ... ah ... the Air Force has been somewhat slow in turning over the planes, that’s true, but we have encountered one unpredicted technical problem after the other ...”
“I suppose ...” I broke in. But Williams had not finished. He lunged out of his chair and paced back and forth, warming to his subject.
“We are blazing new trails in aeronautical science out here. The data we are producing are fed directly into the aviation industry through NACA reports available to all. Industry engineers are applying the data to concepts for the next generation of jet fighters, a family of supersonic fighters. We’re testing everything here: straight wing, swept wing, tailless jobs. We’re running into all kinds of phenomena. Some of them have been predicted in theory and tunnel test; some are brand-new.”
“What planes are you working with now?” I asked.
“We’ve got an X-1 out there in the hangar now, and the X-4. Hell, come on out and I’ll show you.”
Williams boomed out of the office into the hangar space. I followed, looking in detail for the first time at the collection of weird and fascinating planes. The hangar was busy. Mechanics swarmed over the little hot-rods, removing plates, pulling long snarls of wire from their insides, shoving calibration carts here and there. The whine of a pneumatic drill, accompanied by the staccato of a rivet gun, echoed through the high-beamed, arched ceiling. The scene reminded me of the feverishly busy pits at the Indianapolis race track a few hours before the 500-mile Speedway race on Memorial Day. The analogy is not far-fetched. These planes were nearly comparable to temperamental, overpowered, dangerous, finely-tuned racing cars. Edwards, in reality, was an Indianapolis of the air.
A few of the planes, such as the X-1, were familiar to me; others were new. We stopped alongside the X-4, a tailless plane powered by two jet engines. It had just been turned over to NACA by the Air Force, Williams said, patting the side of the ship. It was a metallic white, like an icebox.
“She was supposed to go Mach 1,” he said. “But she can’t make it. It’s a little tricky to fly. The engines flame out at altitude. She pitches a bit at Mach .9. British lost a couple of DeHavilland Swallows of similar design. Mystery why they crashed. Maybe we can find out with this baby.”
Williams rattled on in this fashion as we moved about the hangar. We came to another beautiful ship which looked somewhat like the X-1.
“This is the Douglas Skystreak, the D-558-I,” Williams said. “It’s a Navy project.”
“Oh, yes,” I said. This was the model that killed Lilly. I recalled a few of the details of the program. “Gene May also flew that one, didn’t he?” May was a Douglas test pilot.
“That’s right,” Williams said. “We have two of these left. This one is just like the X-1 only it has a jet instead of a rocket engine. We had another D-558 version here, swept wing with a jet using JATO for take-off, called the Skyrocket. Then there also is another swept-wing version with a jet engine and a rocket engine. It’s back at the Douglas plant now being modified to an all-rocket version. We’ll air-launch it from a mother plane like we do the X-1.”
All-rocket, air-launch, swept-wing. I turned these phrases over briefly in my mind, little realizing then the impact this airplane would have on my future.
“What do you expect from that?” I asked.
“Well, the figures are classified, frankly. But in round numbers and stretching, we think she might reach Mach 2, and maybe 90,000 or 100,000 feet,” Williams said. He spoke in a low, confidential tone.
“Who is the pilot going to be?” I asked. “Gene May?”
“No.” Williams said. “Douglas has a new pilot, an ex-Navy type named Bill Bridgeman.”
“The Air Force doesn’t get this one?”
“No. This is a Navy project. They do it differently. They’d just as soon have the manufacturer establish the limits of the airplane. Good, sharp outfit to do business with. They don’t mind racking up a few records, but it is not their first order of business.”
The way Williams spoke of ‘records,’ he conveyed clearly the impression that at NACA records per se were unimportant, if not frowned upon. We wandered back to his office and sat down.
“Now,” he said, “there are about four other types in the works. Bell’s got a souped-up version of the X-1 coming out which will easily exceed Mach 2, or better. They also have a swept-wing rocket plane, the X-2, which is designed for nearly Mach 3 and about 150,000 feet. Then there’s the X-3, a straight-wing job by Douglas. It is way behind schedule and very complicated. It might turn out to be a dud. Then we’ll have the Bell X-5, a jet-powered ship with an in-flight variable-sweep capability.”
My head was swimming with figures and visions of these fantastic airplanes. My top speed in an airplane then was maybe five hundred miles an hour, clocked in a dive in a Corsair. Williams talked of 1500 and 2000 miles an hour as if those speeds were routine. I was sold.
“I would have a shot at those airplanes?” I asked.
“If everything works out,” Williams said.
“The X-2 as well?”
“If everything works out,” Williams repeated.
“When do I start?”
“We’ll let you know,” Williams said. He glanced at his watch. “You going back into Mojave to catch a train? Why don’t you hitch a ride with Drake and Carmen?”
Hubert M. Drake and L. Robert Carmen together made up the ‘advanced’ design group at NACA’s Edwards installation. They were the ‘dreamers,’ paid to look far into the future and scheme new ways to fly higher and faster. I didn’t know it then, and they didn’t discuss it, but Drake and Carmen were doing work at night in their homes on an airplane to put the best of dreamers to shame. It was a rocket-powered craft that would fly four thousand miles an hour and to an altitude of 500,000 feet. Five years later, after a tortuous journey through a jungle of bureaucracy, and endless modification, this craft became the X-15. Looking back now, I regard the fact that these two men were picked to give me a lift to Mojave as something of a coincidence.
Of pressing concern to me at that moment was the fact that I was almost flat broke. I had hitch-hiked down to the Ames Laboratory on a Navy airplane and had intended to return to Seattle that same day by the same means. The plane had long since returned; I was stranded in the desert without nearly enough cash for a train ticket to Seattle. There was no money in my checking account. However, by the time I climbed out of Drake’s car at the bleak, dusty Mojave railroad station and bid my hosts farewell, I had a plan.
I checked with the station master. There was a north-bound train scheduled to pass through Mojave at midnight. The day-coach fare to Seattle, via San Francisco, was about $20, and this was about $10 more than I had.
“What’ the next stop beyond Mojave?” I asked.
“Martinez,” the station master said. He eyed me curiously.
“Okay,” I said, “give me a ticket to Martinez.” It was about $7.00. I then placed a telephone call, collect, to my sister, Elena Ruth (‘Babe’) Brown, who lived in Sierra Madre, just outside Los Angeles. When she answered, considerably surprised to hear from me, I told her I was taking the midnight train to Martinez and asked her to wire me $25 in care of the station master there. I had not often borrowed money in my life, but I didn’t mind asking her. Many years before, when she was a student at Berkeley, I had hocked my camera in order to lend her $40 for flying lessons, for which my father refused to pay. After Babe assured me the money would be sent immediately, I hung up and retired to a corner to count my remaining fortune.
I spent another dollar at the Silver Dollar Cafe for dinner, then blew the rest on a ticket to the local movie. By still another coincidence, the picture was about a test pilot and Humphrey Bogart was the star. I plumped into a seat and watched while he wrestled with a rattling control stick, braving the frontiers of flight. Hours later I was still deeply absorbed, not in that turkey of a movie but in what I had seen and heard that day, when I felt a hand on my shoulder. A voice spoke:
“Are you Mr. Crossfield?”
Startled, I broke out of my supersonic reverie and spun around. It was the theater usher.
“Yeah. I’m Crossfield.”
“There’s a gentleman out front to see you.”
I followed the usher up the aisle wondering who it could be. No one on earth knows where I am, I thought. To my astonishment, I found Babe’s husband, Claude, and behind him, my mother, Lucia, waiting in the lobby. My mother had been visiting my sister when I called. After I hung up she talked my brother-in-law into making the three-hour drive to Mojave to surprise me.
“But how did you know I was in there?” I asked.
“Well, I cased every bar in town first, while your mother waited in the car. I didn’t see you in any of them so I figured in a town of this size the only place left was the movie.”
We laughed and made our way to a nearby restaurant. At midnight, $25 richer, I boarded a day coach on the train.
Back in Seattle, I collected my Master’s degree in aeronautical engineering, resigned from my Naval Reserve unit, packed up the family—Alice, Becky, age two, and our new addition, Tommy—traded my 1941 Ford for a ‘49 Ford, and drove to the desert to begin a new life.
Three weeks later many of my Naval Reserve comrades were mobilized and shipped off to Korea.
A HARSH, BITTERLY COLD December wind, gathering momentum over miles of flat desert, lashed the ramp behind the NACA hangar. I buttoned my jacket close and bowed my head as I pushed against it toward the airplane. Here and there I saw that the small puddles were frozen to solid ice. The desert warms up during the day, but on a winter night it is like the North Pole. Sometimes it snows at Edwards.
I climbed into the cockpit and pulled on my crash helmet, grateful to be shielded at last from the frigid blast. Ralph Sparks, who, on that blue-cold morning, looked as though he was born before the Wright brothers, closed the canopy and removed the aluminum boarding ladder. I smiled and waved my hand sharply. Sparks claimed personal authorship of most of aviation’s achievements, but there were few mechanics at NACA, or anywhere for that matter, more able than he. He stood by while I wound up the engines. They caught, and I taxied out for my first X-4 flight, the first of a series of hurried checkouts in NACA’s stable of thoroughbreds.
My first six months at Edwards had been a tumultuous time of hurry and change. Walt Williams, as a matter of routine, kept a fast pace. When the Korean War broke out, our outfit, like all of the aviation world, worked with a new sense of urgency. At the climax of the dramatic shift, NACA’s top pilot, John Griffith, resigned to take a job at Chance-Vought. In the new climate of the industry, journeyman test pilots were desperately needed. I checked out in a couple of jets, the F-84 and the Douglas Skystreak.*
Image: A Douglas Skystreak, seen here in this 1949 photograph.
THEN, IN THE FINAL days before Griffith’s departure, I gathered what information I could about the foibles of our temperamental champions. Suddenly, then, I was completely on my own. The entire NACA Edwards test program was dumped in my lap.
Actually, I couldn’t have been more pleased. Looking back, I believe now that the months that followed were, professionally speaking, the happiest days of my life. I was then too new and too young to concern my mind seriously with government and industry politics. My approach to the job was completely starry-eyed. I could move at my own pace, always fast. I flew morning, noon, and afternoon in the strangest and most unpredictable airplanes man had ever devised. These flights were never long. Experimental airplanes are like powerful rockets. They blaze furiously for a few moments, during which the pilots strive to probe an unknown area, and then they sputter and die. The one big difference between the manned plane and the missile is that the pilot brings the multimillion-dollar plane back to earth for another flight. Usually.
Before my flight in the X-4 that morning, Walt Williams and Joe Vensel clucked around the hangar like two old maids grooming their niece for a grand debut. I had read all the flight reports on the X-4 and had picked Griffith’s brain thoroughly. I knew the weak points of the airplane: its two engines were erratic above 30,000 feet; at Mach .88 the plane became unstable; it broke into a steady porpoising motion, like an automobile cushioning over a washboard road. Beyond that, nearer the speed of sound, no one knew what would happen. The X-4 had never been flown there. Williams and Vensel added a fact I knew quite well: the plane was equipped with barn-door-sized speed brakes. If popped in flight they would slow the X-4 abruptly and allow her to withdraw from any zone of trouble.
The X-4, by then, was a veteran of Edwards. The plane was conceived in the postwar years by Jack Northrop, an imaginative inventor and an unyielding advocate of the ‘tailless’ concept. The X-4 was first flown by Northrop’s renowned test pilot, Charlie Tucker, in 1949. After considerable modification, it had been turned over to the Air Force. Chuck Yeager, Pete Everest, Colonel Richard Johnson, and Al Boyd flew it. Thirty flights later, NACA inherited the plane and its mechanic, Ralph Sparks, who had been with the project from the outset.
I pushed the twin throttles forward and as the fuel surged into the burning chambers, the X-4 leaped toward the runway. In the distance I could see a plane leaving Air Force Fighter Ops, headquarters for the military test-pilot group. Pete Everest was the pilot of the Air Force craft, an early-model F-86. He would join me to fly ‘chase,’ observing the performance of the X-4 and watching for danger signals from close quarters.
Officially, no rivalry existed between the pilots of the Air Force and the NACA group. As Williams had said, the two jobs were poles apart. Once contractor pilots, such as Tucker, had demonstrated that the plane could fly, the Air Force flew it to evaluate military applications. Then NACA pilots put the plane through an exhaustive aerodynamic dissection, learning every new fact possible.
In fact, there was a natural rivalry between the test pilots. Each day at Edwards, the pilots played out a kind of small scale Olympic Games of the air. Occasionally these were major battles to break records, staged by rival Navy and Air Force.
More often, they were small but significant demonstrations of a new flying technique or a daring maneuver into the unknown, a step beyond the previous pilot of the airplane. For example, some of the planes had vicious weaknesses. If, on a given flight, the pilot was able to skirt these, he had achieved a minor triumph, worth a toast at Pancho’s. Edwards was not the place to attract non-competitive pilots.
Some of the reason for the keen rivalry lay in the Air Force’s approach to flight test. Along with its triumphs in the X-1, the Air Force, first at Wright Field, later at Edwards, had set out to create a cadre of schooled engineering test pilots on a par with the best in NACA and industry. For example, Yeager was not an educated engineer. He was an intuitive engineer, one of the best. He could feel in an instant a deficiency in an airplane and come close to pin-pointing its fault technically. A rare pilot, born to fly, like a figure-skater born to skate, Yeager set standards of conduct in the air that were emulated for years afterward at Edwards. The pilots adopted even his understated West Virginia drawl, and ever afterward the radio talk at Edwards reflected this. The pilots at Edwards—to judge by the radio talk—were raised on hominy grits and corn fritters.
But Yeagers are rare. Later the Air Force sent vast numbers of its pilots back to college to study aeronautical engineering and, still later, founded a full-blown test-pilot school at Edwards, which in recent years has graduated a fine group of young, educated test pilots. But before this ambitious, challenging program, many Air Force pilots, resisting the engineering approach, died needlessly. We gave them little reverence: “Hell, he was dead before he took off.”
I was not a member of the ‘inner circle’ that morning in early December. I had met Yeager, Everest, Jack Ridley, Boyd, and the rest, but I had yet to prove my ability in the air. I knew that the moment Everest locked wingtips, he would be watching every move. He had flown the X-4. He would know when I goofed, and the word would soon get back to the others. Conceivably, some leeway might be allowed for the first flight, but it was not likely. Yeager gave little quarter in the air. On his first flight in the X-1, he says, he had been tempted to roll the ship in front of the Edwards tower, scant feet above the ground.
When I received radio permission to take off, I firewalled the throttles. As the X-4 wobbled down the long, bumpy runway, I gingerly felt out the controls. Then the churning jets took hold, and the small X-4 abruptly lunged into the air. Backing off the stall point, I nosed her over gently and leveled out. Then I eased back on the stick and the tiny, tailless craft zoomed skyward like a winged rocket. Behind me, Everest had opened his F-86 wide, trailing a long, black snake of soot, but he could not keep up. I waited for him at altitude, rolling and stalling the plane, getting to know its special strengths and weaknesses. When Everest locked wingtips, I opened the throttle wide, once again leaving him far behind. As predicted, at Mach .88 the X-4 broke into its gentle but potentially dangerous porpoising motion. I opened the air brakes, and the X-4 slowed instantly, throwing me forward against my shoulder restraint straps. Everest hurtled by, chortling on the radio.
The Edwards base now lay far below us, nearly obscured in the vast wilderness of the Mojave wastes. Here and there on the desert floor I could make out the mottled outlines of the curiously shaped ‘dry lakes.’ These ‘lakes’ are stretches of fine, closely packed silt, left behind eons ago by the retreating seas and bleached almost white by the hot desert sun. The soil of the lakes is quite unusual. When mixed with water, it becomes slimy like oil. Industrialists mined the soil as a lubricant for well drills. When the lakes are completely dry, the surface is hard and flat, like concrete, and thus ideal natural landing areas for airplanes.
When it rains in the desert, the lake beds are temporarily put out of commission. The water, unable to penetrate the fine, self-sealing surface soil, collects on top in small pools, or sometimes, after a hard rain, in vast, shallow, real-life lakes. This water is swept back and forth by the brisk desert winds until it evaporates. The gentle movement of the water smooths the surface of the lake beds, eliminating bumps and ruts. During this ‘re-paving’ process, the surface becomes mushy and slick, dangerous for a heavy airplane. There is sometimes a little rain in July which temporarily closes the lakes. But the hard rainy season usually begins in mid-December. Frequently, but not always, the intermittent rains keep the lake beds either flooded or soft until March or April. No one can predict the capricious desert weather.
The Edwards base was set directly alongside one of these lakes—Rogers Dry Lake—which in earlier times, appropriately enough, had, like the great salt flats of Utah, been an automobile race track. During the rainy season, at times, I have seen the water on the lake so deep that it was lapping at the edge of the parking ramps, and so penetrating that shrimp eggs of some prehistoric age worked loose from the soil and came to life, mysteriously attracting sea gulls from the distant California coast. To maintain year-round operations, the Air Force had built a normal concrete runway at the base, butting against the dry lake. In the dry season, if required, the lake bed, marked by parallel black lines, could be used as an extension of the concrete runway. For the rocket planes, which required long take-off and landing areas, another runway, lying in the opposite direction and seven miles long, had been painted on the lake bed. Still other nearby lakes—Rosamond, Harper, Three Sisters, Cuddeback—were designated emergency landing areas. When flying experimental planes at Edwards, the pilots always kept within easy reach of one of the dry lakes.
After about fifteen minutes in the air, I felt at home in the X-4. The plane responded so well, in fact, that it was hard for me to keep in mind that I was piloting a marginally stable, experimental racehorse. Had all that talk of danger been the product of some public relations mill? I was beginning to feel my oats now, and a determination that hardly struck me as daring at the time seized me. I would loop the X-4.
Heading back toward Edwards, the check-out virtually complete, flying wing to wing with Everest, without warning I pulled back hard on the stick. The X-4 climbed rapidly, leaving Everest far below. The desert disappeared from my windshield, replaced by the deep blue of the clear sky. In a few seconds the X-4 was flat on its back at 27,000 feet. Suddenly all hell broke loose. A noise like the sound of a fifty-caliber machine-gun exploded through the cockpit. My maneuver had disrupted the smooth flow of air into the two engine intakes. Starved for air, and sensitive anyway at my altitude, the engines had rebelled, and after a flash of uneven running they gave up completely. I righted the plane and sheepishly called Pete Everest on the radio.
“Lost both engines.”
“Rog,” he said. Then I heard him calling Edwards Tower to report an emergency. I could visualize the reaction there: sirens screeching, fire trucks racing out to the runway, NACA’s Walt Williams and Joe Vensel perched on the edge of their chairs. Now working desperately to restart the engines in the air, and mentally locating the position of the emergency dry lakes, I silently cursed my boldness. I could imagine the talk that night: “That new fellow, Crossfield, down at NACA. Pretty green . . .”
I managed at last to win half the battle. One engine coughed to life. If it kept running (a big if, indeed, at that point), I would have sufficient power, at least, to reach the Edwards base runway. Without the engines the X-4 would come in with a low lift over drag (L over D)—in other words, it would glide like a brick, but I would be spared the ignominy of landing on a lake remote from the base. Vensel was taking no chances. By radio he ordered me to land on the lake.
As we lined up for the approach, I could see the emergency trucks parked along the edge of the lake; quite embarrassing. The X-4, already sluggish, began to settle toward earth. As we descended, I was further chagrined when Everest began to call altitude readings, interspersed with occasional helpful hints on how to fly a plane. He was ribbing and I had it coming, so when, finally, the X-4’s tires screeched on the lake, I switched off the radio receiver.
Joe Vensel was waiting anxiously on the NACA ramp when I rolled to a stop in front of the hangar. I climbed down the ladder.
“Well,” Vensel said, “what happened?”
“I looped it and lost both engines,” I said. “Got an air start on one and stop-cocked the other.”
“Damn,” Vensel muttered. He stalked back to his office.
“YOU MIGHT AS WELL TRY a rocket flight,” Joe Vensel said.
We were sitting in his office, which faced the NACA hangar workshop. His tone lacked enthusiasm. His whole attention seemed focused on the pencil he was twirling between his fingers. It was the day after Christmas, twenty days since my first X-4 flight. The Chinese Communists had entered the Korean War, splitting and decimating our armies on the peninsula. The President had declared a state of national emergency. In the Pentagon the economizing Secretary of Defense, Louis Johnson, had been replaced by General George Marshall. The aviation industry, now overwhelmed with money, was gearing for a future freighted with uncertainty, perhaps a global war with the Soviet Union. Its engineers desperately needed data. Wind-tunnel results from scale models of the newly designed, supersonic, Century Series jet fighters—the F-100, the F-101, F-102, and F-104—had foreshadowed critical instability at high speed. Every man at NACA was anxious to press ahead.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll tell them to get 945 ready.”
The number 945 was our mundane designation for the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, a research airplane with an impressive background and a sensational future. It requires much time and planning to prepare a rocket plane for a test flight. This was especially true in those pioneering days. Rocket engines are complicated and temperamental, something like the engines of expensive high-speed racing cars. They burn a powerful, dangerous fuel combination of liquid oxygen (Lox) and water-alcohol, and sometimes even more exotic fuels, which eat into the pipes and fittings, corroding or unsealing joints. The fuel is pumped into the engine through a complex maze of plumbing, which forever leaks and loses pressure.
The liquid oxygen is very cold, approaching minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit. This intense cold forms a coating of ice on the outside of the tanks and the plane, and permeates everything, sometimes freezing systems not designed for extreme temperatures. The preparation of a rocket engine for flight was always an adventure for our mechanics. I made my way into the hangar to pass on the word to Eddy Layne, our crew chief on 945.
“How about it, Eddy?” I said. “Can we fly tomorrow?” The skin of 945 lay about the hangar floor. The bare skeleton was under siege by half a dozen mechanics, who appeared to be devouring the plane like so many piranha fishes. It hardly seemed possible that it could all be reassembled in one day.
“Sure thing, Scotty,” Eddy said. “Got a leaky regulator in the fuel tank, but we’ll get it squared away in a while. Go ahead and plan on it. Is this a speed run?”
“No, just a check flight,” I said.
“I think Bridgeman and the Douglas people will be flying 943 in the morning. You might want to touch base with them.”
“Right,” I said. It was obvious that I had not yet scored among the mechanics. What Eddy meant was that I had better check with Bridgeman and find out how to fly the 945. I had already done that. I remained in the hangar for some time, looking over the ship and recalling the plane’s history.
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