Chapter 3 >
Autobiography home >
NF-104 home


Chapter 3 - Flight Test  click on the links below for more of the story...
i. It's Academic - ii. New Horizons  - iii. Sun n' Fun: Weapon Systems Test - iv. Clipped Wings

Test Pilot School, Edwards AFB, CA, Jan 1956- Jun ‘56

We drove to Albuquerque to spend leave with my parents before continuing on to Edwards, California on the Mojave Desert, outside of Los Angeles. This tour started terribly for Martha, the Kids and me.  Our 5th family member, Sabre was in heat which created a serious problem under the circumstances, since we were in temporary base housing; motel-like accommodations, at their worst.  A veterinarian in Palmdale assured me it was no problem to spay her. We didn’t seem to have an option, and our very beloved Sabre died.  We lost a family member and were heart broken.

We were TPS Class 56-A, a 6-month course located at the old South Base, which had been closed to all other flight operations, with the new facility just north. We, thirteen students, would train in T-28, T-33, F-84E, F-86E and B-25J, all annotated as J-model airplanes, with special test gear.  My 13 classmates were Floyd Brown, J. K. Campbell, Ed Chaplin, Bill Haynes, Greg Mace, Al Moore, Steve Moore, Joe Schiele, Wendy Shawler, Hank Streb, Smith Swords, Bob Taylor and Kirk Wimberly. All were USAF pilots except for Mace, an employee of North American Aviation and Taylor, a Royal Canadian A.F. pilot.

Just out of AFIT, I was well prepared for the classroom work on aircraft performance, stability and control.  On the other side of the coin, however, I had two years without enough flying, but with the last couple of months to catch up, and thank goodness for that.  Our flying training entailed the gamut of flight test pilot skills and procedures, including preparations, planning and flight, but, in addition, we were required to be our own test engineers by reducing and analyzing the data and writing reports on each test flight.  We had our share of work to do, still depending greatly on the slide-rule, as I had to in AFIT.  It is almost unreal in this age to realize that we got along, not only without personal computers, even without calculators.  We worked a bit on crude analog computers, which were simply mathematical integrators, which we had to rewire to solve each particular type of problem.

Our first three months were dedicated to airplane performance. That facet of testing is more disciplined in some ways, consisting of very precise maneuvers, which must be accomplished at the absolute conditions according to the test card .... a test pilot’s flight directive.  It was those flight cards that made the knee board a prime piece of every test pilot’s gear. Whether running saw-tooth climbs, wind-up turns or cruise performance tests, every test point had to be conducted at the correct conditions of the related parameters. That meant always being at the correct combination of speed, altitude, fuel-level (=weight & center of gravity) at that precise moment it was available, which demanded the need for a good plan and correct, precise and timely maneuvers.  In a sense, such flights were like a ballet with every step from the start of the performance being an important prelude to the next step, and no way to correct a misstep. 

For the other segment of the course, we studied and flew stability and control, the far more exciting and challenging part of flight test, since many surprises came in that area of greatest uncertainty to designers and analysts.  When it comes to initial testing, it is stability and control where the most risks appear.  That was especially frequent in those days when they were challenging great new frontiers of power, speed, Mach number and configurations, all without benefit of digital computing. Thus design overreach, into only theory was exacerbated by lack of the computing capabilities for engineering, which cost the lives of test pilots.  A WW II aces, who shot down five during the Pearl Harbor attack, North American Aviation’s test pilot George Welch, died testing the F-100A, the first fighter to achieve Mach 1 in level flight.  It was the lack of calculations that cost his life, when engineers, inhibited by existing habit and the limitations and costs of analog computing, ignored a known, but theoretical coupling of instability between the three axes of aircraft.  They were so close to analyzing the data from the stiletto shaped X-3 jet, which was so underpowered it proved of little value, did provid the experimental knowledge base to validate cause shortly after his crash.

In a technical sense, the F-100 was justifiable because no airplane ever demonstrated the theory, but in intuitively it might have been treated differently. Only one parameter, “moment of inertia” about the longitudinal axis, made coupling significant, and in retrospect it was clear that F-100 had increased those risks with its especially short and light wings compared to a very heavy and compact fuselage/engine.  The result was a sudden loss of control, with break-up of the airplane’s tail surfaces at very high speed and fast roll rates. We had even studied the three partial differential equations that precisely described coupling in AFIT, in one of my graduate courses.  It required simultaneous solution of three partial differential equations of motion, which was possible but very costly for a series of data points.  To calculate it over the gamut of a fighter airplane’s performance envelope was a monumental and previously untried effort.

One of our first training flights was calibration of flight instruments on the deck, over the normally dry Muroc Lakebed flying a few feet above a white line with two poles to clock the start and stop time. In those days it was common to calibrate pitot-static systems, for airspeed and altitude, by timing such fly-bys, in one then the other direction to average out wind effects. Individual airplanes and each type of aircraft have inherent variations between ‘calibrated’ and ‘indicated’ altitude and airspeed, from differences in design and performance of the pitot static system.  The altitude and airspeed read in the cockpit are inaccurate until the data are adjusted by the findings of such testing, so all flight test programs began with calibration of individual aircraft, although simpler, more costly and accurate methods were also available by “Tower Fly-bys” using ground instruments.

We had gotten unusually heavy rains and a couple inches of water covered the perfectly flat and normally dry lakebed. I was flying and Floyd Brown was working the stopwatch in the back seat, for what would normally be a very routine flight.  On the first pass, everything looked normal to Brownie and me when the airplane suddenly vibrated heavily.  I might have reacted with a sudden pull but I just eased the stick back. I had dipped the tip of the propeller in those few inches of water ---- without touching the earth and, without dragging the tail, either of which would have put us down. The water was so still and smooth that all depth perception was lost flying so low over that broad area of smooth water. 

The aircraft required a new propeller, which was bent, tips forward, due to the sudden extra thrust, as it momentarily became a boat prop.  Thankfully it was below the level of a reportable incident, there was only muddy water to clean out, and Lt. Col. Aman, our Commandant, never even mentioned it to me.  Brownie later flew in Bomber Test at Wright-Patterson and lost his life on take-off in a B-47 at Wright Patterson AFB, due to an improper fuel loading and center of gravity too far aft to control the airplane from nosing up as it lifted off the ground.

Students in the school aspired to be one of the few chosen to remain at Edwards in Test Operations upon graduating, but that opportunity was not easy to facilitate, since the students were not recognized as peers by the test pilots, and there was little social opportunity to change that.  Our classmate, Steve Moore, was involved in a non-flying incident at the bar of the Officers’ Club. The most noted test pilot on the base at the time was the Chief of the Fighter Section, X-2 pilot Lt. Col. Pete Everett. He was cocky to the point of arrogance and of bad temper, when drinking. Steve was sitting quietly at the bar when the colonel walked up and made some remark, then nonchalantly poured his entire drink on Steve’s head and uniform and walked away.  Steve decided that no response was best since he wanted to be a test pilot. Steve had a very beautiful wife to go home to, maybe the thing that upset the little jerk, colonel.

Classmate Joe Schiele and I went to the O’Club swimming pool early one Sunday.  The only person there was Capt. Mel Apt, the other X-2 pilot. Joe, who was a flight test engineer at the base, when he entered TPS introduced me to Mel.  He was so gregarious, but quiet and reserved and I was greatly impressed by the man, not just an idol.  Mel was the antithesis of Everett.  The quiet and unassuming demeanor of this small man made it possible to feel like we were with an old friend in that brief meeting and I fondly treasure that one time with him before he died in the X-2 accident, a stability control situation where there was no escape from his uncontrollable vehicle, because, like other X-birds it had no practical escape provisions.

I also learned one of many lessons about desert winds at that pool.  Not only did the dry winds provide most efficient evaporative cooling systems at home, I froze my butt off on a warm morning swim.  One thing you had to get used to; the howling roar of winds, especially in the TV antenna, all through the night.  The wind frequently slacked before dawn making it the time most prized for smooth air and good test points, and very early missions were routine over the desert.

The Air Force restricted pilots from intentionally doing spins in jets.  I had never done a spin except in the T-6 and P-51. Because of restrictions, the average line pilot was not certain that spin recovery was likely or even possible in the jet. Those of us who had fought against the MiG-15 and saw how they could not get out of their spins really didn’t understand their problem. We were unaware of the difference in spins between them with their high-set horizontal tail and our more traditional low horizontal stabilizers.  I learned in AFIT and TPS about the aerodynamic pitch-up resulting from T-tail designs, which served me well in later tests on a jet/rocket some years later. 

It was sporting for spins to be a standard evaluation for each of the types we flew in school, which opened a whole new vista for us, and certainly added to my confidence level, thereafter.  That practice should have been an operational standard, as it was in T-6 training, at least at that time, when the fighters were more spin-friendly. It was interesting to see the difference between types, for example, the straight wing F-84E had an unusually smooth spin, with less pitch variation and an almost steady rotation, a bit like a flat spin, but not so horizontal.  The T-33 on the other hand had the more usual rise and fall of the nose as the aircraft rotated, and it displayed the typical variable rotation rates, that increased as it pitched down and decreased with the rise of the nose on every rotation.

Joe Schiele and his family became our great friends, as did Wendy and Mary Shawler and their son Stevie, who lived next door.  One week-end Joe and I drove with our boys into the desert to the rubble strewn site of a most famous, or infamous depending on the story tellers, bar and entertainment center.  That had been Pancho’s “Happy Bottom Riding Club” somewhat infamous at the time, but made famous years later in the Hollywood movie, “The Right Stuff”, in which Chuck Yeager portrayed it’s bartender. It was true that Chuck broke a rib riding one of Pancho Barnes’ horses just before the flight in which he broke the “sound barrier”.

Pictures confirm that Pancho invented ugly, and was said to be crude and rough, but a famous aviatrix in her own right during early flying days.  Her place had been the hangout for base officers and ladies from the Los Angeles areas. Edwards base property stretched for miles and the bar was actually on that property.  Before we arrived, the commander, General Hugh Manson, ordered Pancho to leave and had the place leveled, leaving mostly foundation. An interesting side note is that in recent years the place has taken on a cultural aura and there is an annual celebration held at the site’s remains by the Test Pilot School, after graduations.  General Manson would have fits!

The general was noted for another of his early orders: Uniform jackets to be worn at work.  That was an unpopular change in the desert heat, after years of informality. It wasn’t long before I saw how that general operated.  He called a meeting of all officers to vote on whether the civilian test pilots who worked for the aircraft companies and flew on the base, would continue to be special members of a nearly completed officers club at the new base. Their membership was a standing tradition. It was made clear that the general opposed civilians in the club but the military charter required membership majority vote on the matter.  The vote was tallied in favor of the civilians but the general closeted with senior personnel before a recount. A miscount was declared and a closed recount assured that civilian memberships were history.  Who said the military is a democracy? … No one who’s been in it, and it never should be!  But grousing is an honored and valuable outlet, as well.

A unique “tumble” response of the T-33 jet trainer, occasioned by excess sideslip, caused some fatal accidents in landing approaches and all those birds were modified with a short segment of a 90-degree metal slip strip, added to the wing-root leading edges. Those inhibited tumble, by disturbing the laminar flow of air at the wing roots, under slow speed flight conditions.  We, aspiring test pilots, heard of a program in which the Canadian Air Force intentionally flew tumbles and there was no real recovery technique except to wait it out while falling into denser air.

Naturally, we had to give it a go, which was possible with full sideslip in a deep stall.  I can report that all hell broke loose with the most violent maneuver, short of flying into the ground and I really can’t vouch for that one. The airplane really did tumble end over end combined with roll in a random and unpredictable ways, throwing you around the cockpit.  Once I had the experience I didn’t need more, because a maneuver outside the pilots control is not fun.  I learned about that in my one and only P-51 spin, when it went flat, but at least that was eerily, tranquil.  I do admire the Canadian pilot who sat through a whole test series including one with 25,000 feet of uncontrolled fall without bailing.  I didn’t realize that I was practicing for a day I would repeat a similar tumble in a rocket-powered airplane, though not violent in the thin air of 100,000 feet, but without guarantee of recovering.

Iven Kinchloe

Iven Kinchloe, whom I had flown combat with in Korea, had gained fame as test pilot of the X-2, rocket and was at Edwards.  The last time I saw him was a TPS class party at Bill Haynes’ home on base. Kinch and his wife Dottie were there with U-2 test pilot, Pat Hunerwadel, who idolized him, which was easy to do.  Iven was a very special guy.  Not long after we graduated, he was killed in an F-104A test, flying an early model that had a downward ejection seat, which passed through an explosively opened hatch, below the cockpit.  He was flying so low and slow when the engine failed that he didn’t have enough altitude to open his chute.  In my very next tour, I watched another, George Smythe take-off in a similar F-104 at Eglin AFB and die in a repeat of that accident.  They really had no option but to attempt ejection with the high take-off speed and low lift of its small wings and no structure to protect a pilot crash-landing at over 250 knots, with full fuel. The pilot’s choice provided a dichotomy with little time and less chance. Ironically and sadly, only months after Iven died, Pat Hunerwadel followed him closely for the last time.  He crashed while testing a U-2.

Upon graduation, Ed Chaplin’s and Bill Haynes’ families, along with mine, were assigned to the Air Force Armament Center near Ft. Walton Beach, known for its beautiful gulf beaches, weather and family atmosphere.  It would be a great place for us and they had most of the current aircraft in test.  We would part from Joe Schiele and Wendy Shawler with their families who were transferred to Wright-Patterson.  Wendy years later became the Test Director and Chief Pilot for the F-15 program and we saw him only occasionally, until recent years. 

On our way driving to the new assignment in Florida we joined Joe and Lillian, Little Joe, Cathy and Stevie for a week in Vidalia, Louisana with Joe’s parents, and Lillian’s folks, who lived in adjacent homes.  We had stopped a while in Albuquerque with my folks on our way to Florida.  We had a great time learning an important skill necessary for Florida, water skiing. It was a wonderful bonding for our two families, begun at test pilot school, and to be carried on at an even higher plane of family affection some years later in our next test assignments. 

previous section next section