7 Strike Two!
On a later max zoom I was unable to get a
relight of the jet engine, so I faced a
dead-stick landing. This was of no significant
concern, since I had the dry lakebed and runway
for landing. I always intended to use the
runway, if I could achieve radio contact with
Edwards Tower, which was sometimes difficult
because the small “Mickey Mouse” radio offered
poor contact at times. It replaced a standard
radio for weight and space savings. I had
planned to land on the runway, if possible in
such an event for two reasons, both of which I
felt were significant enough to warrant the
shorter length of runway than extended dry lake
bed, as was used by the X-15. Both concerned
damage to the aircraft.
My first concern was the need to quickly attach
special ground equipment to the rocket engine or
major damage would result. We were blessed with
two of the best crew chiefs I ever had and they
were amazing in being able to support this one
pilot, three airplane test program, with very
limited resources, so there was no way I wanted
to risk losing an engine, or overburdening them
And, I would always make an emergency landing on
the runway in preference to the Muroc dry
lakebed, because weather effects damaged the
dirt surface with risk to tires, gear,
ultimately the aircraft. Sure, the X-15, used
the lakebed as the primary site for their
landings because they needed the extra margin of
length, but the lakebed runway was carefully
examined by a multi-man walkover, and even
“resurfaced”, whenever necessary, before their
every mission. The last thing our “shoestring
program” needed was major damage due to collapse
of a main gear in a hole. What the Hell? I
didn’t need that added risk either, since a gear
torn off at over 200 knots in that little
airplane was not healthy!
I was able to contact the tower and I set up the
landing approach so I could stop right by the
crew on the apron of the runway, where I had
requested they have the necessary equipment.
Assuring that the airplane got serviced quickly
enough to save the engine and not having risked
damage landing on the lakebed had me feeling
real good, after I got out of my pressure suit
and returned to Test Operations. That feeling
was not to last for long.
Col. Guy Townsend, Deputy Test Director, jumped
on me severely for this “failure to use good
judgment and violation of regulations”, when in
fact, there was no regulation against making a
dead-stick landing on the runway. No command in
its right mind would author such an order!
Furthermore, this was as long a runway as any in
the Air Force, 15,000 feet, and ended with a
smooth feed-in to the lakebed in the direction
that I chose to land, so I had the best of both,
surface and length.
I never really knew the colonel that well, only
that he had been the Air Force test pilot for
the B-52 program, and he always seemed pleasant
with a southern accent, even after years in the
service, that would put Scarlet O’Hara to
shame. I was, however, getting a different
slant, since this was the second time he tore
into me for what I truly believe were proper
judgments on my part. Both served the interest
of the Air Force, beyond doubt.
In the prior case, I was directed and performed
a perfectly legitimate test on an F-104A that
proved to save many million dollars for the Air
Force, only to be chastised for doing what I was
assigned to do. Had I not done that, every
F-104 in the world would have been modified, by
adding costly strakes, which proved
unequivocally of absolutely no value, contrary
to invalid contractor and
Pilot School tests.
It struck me at that moment that, although
terribly agitated, he seemed from his mannerism
to actually be frightened and furious more than
commanding in tone. Visions of career risks
must have shaken him more than concern for the
outcome. That kind of thinking, “political
correctness”, was not as prevalent in government
then, as now, but certainly not unknown. My
dear friend from my first squadron, and later
Edwards test, “Bud” Evans, mentioned seeing
Townsend at a fairly recent event, at which Guy
brought this episode up to him. Forty years is a
long time for that memory to stick in the mind
of the “Guy” who did the ass-chewing, so it must
have meant a great deal to him.
That dead stick was strike two for me with Guy
Townsend, and I am glad to hear it still bugged
him, because he was to hit me with a Strike Out,
in short order, from which I wished him years of
conscience trouble, and maybe his recollection
of the event indicated that.
I had another failed air-start in the AST around
that time and was planning to land on the runway
again, when I got restarted at lower altitude.
Damned if I would take unnecessary risks, just
to coddle that colonel.