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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Minuteman Missile Project


1958 – 1959
Minuteman Missile in Silo

While I was still on a two-week vacation following my return from Eniwetok I was calle back to the plant for a new urgent assignment.  Boeing was going to bid for a new and secret program, the minuteman solid fuel intercontinental ballistic missile designed to deliver nuclear weapons from the U.S. to the Soviet Union.  I knew from nothing about rockets (few at Boeing then did) but was assigned to help write the test section of the proposal.
This, too, resulted in absences from home.  Much of our work was done at the top secret Space Technology Laboratories in Los Angeles—a “think tank” so secret that a visitor without clearance bade had to have an escort to go to the men’s room!
We struggled with the test proposal, learning about rockets and nuclear weapons as we went (one reason that I was selected was that, at least, I had seen many nuclear explosions.)  When the proposal was complete I happily went back to my job in Flight Test Operations.  My comment was, “Boy, we don’t know diddly about rockets at Boeing.  We have all the chance of a snowball in hell of getting that contract!”
I could not have been more wrong.  Boeing got the contract and the next thing I knew—over my protests because I wanted to stay with my beloved airplanes—I was drafted into the original Minuteman organization.  (A man named “Tee” Wilson, whom I had known since Wichita Flight Test, was to help develop the test plan for Minuteman and the hardened underground “silos” in which the missiles would be based.
The original Minuteman organization was chaotic to say the least.  We were fumbling in the dark and often more than one group would be off to STL to discuss the same problem.  Finally, I had enough.  In early 1959 I called my old boss, B.T. Johnson, who by then was Chief of Flight Test Operations in Seattle, and begged him for a job back in Flight Test.  My call was timely.  He needed a replacement for his Chief of Military Operations in Flight Test because Bel Whithead was transferring to the new Aero-Space Division.  All I had to do was get released from Minuteman.
In the next Minuteman staff meeting I listened to the usual bickering between department heads and confusion in coordination until I was disgusted.  I stood up, slapped my folder shut, and said, “Gentlemen, in my humble opinion I do not believe the Minuteman manager has one idea what we really contracted for!”  (It was well that the Minuteman manager was not at that particular meeting.  Tee Wilson went on to make the Minuteman contract one of the largest and most lucrative for Boeing and became president of the company then chairman of the board for years.)
I stalked out of that staff meeting and straight to my immediate boss’ officer where I asked for a release.  I believe I told him, “Look, Minuteman is simply an artillery shell a rocket motor strapped to its butt.  If I wanted to be in the artillery, I would have joined the damned Army!  I want to go back to airplanes where I belong!”  He signed a release and I reported back to Flight Test the next day where I became Chief of Military Operations.
The juxtaposition of 1960s models and the missiles is so telling of the era.

It was sometime during the early sixties that an association developed that exists to this day.  There was a bond between those of us who had shared the years of B-47 testing in Wichita that was, if anything, stronger than the kinship I always felt for my Navy shipmates in VP-11. We often said that we all had the same sort of mental screw loose or we would not have been in the flight test business.  As I mentioned before, we worked hard and we played hard.
After I returned to Seattle, I became close friends with one of the old Wichita hands who became as close as a brother—B.A “Smitty” Smith.  He taught me to fish for salmon, we backpacked together in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, golfed together, and were on the bowling team.
We also loved playing poker.  One time we agreed that we should form a regular poker group.  We recruited six other kindred souls and formed what we called the “F.I.C.M.P.G.A.”—the “Fukawe Indian Chowder, Marching, Poker, and Golf Association.”  There could be only eight Fukawe Indian chiefs because that is a full poker table.  The others Clare Adriance, Howard Burnite, George Hair, Howard Montgomery, Al Mathy, and (although he had not spent time with us in Wichita) Herb Tollisen. 
It was Smitty who created the name for our group and also the name for the rotating trophy that the winner of a Fukawe  poker game is stuck with until he has a poker game and passes it along.  It is the “Dratsab”—and you find the meaning of Dratsab if you spell it backwards!
Although at this writing two of our Fukawe chiefs have passed on to that great golf course in the sky (both Smitty and Howard Burnite passed away in 1989) and George Hair is in failing health, the Fukawes still meet for “council meetings” even though the table is down to five.  We have tried inviting substitutes, however, there can never be another Fukawe Chief who shared all those long years with us.  I suppose the descendants of the last surviving Fukawe chief will inherit the Dratsab.
By the early 1960s the Boeing 707 became a great commercial success and the airlines were into the jet age.  Flight Test Operations had two organizations, Commercial and Military.  Military Operations was winding down.  I was responsible for only two airplanes—the prototype of the 707, the 367-80, and completion of testing of the military version of the 707, the KC-135.
It was a good job for a year then I had to make a decision.  My old friend, B.T. Johnson, had gone on to Vandenberg AFB.  He had been replaced by one Bryan Mahon as Chief of Flight Test Operations.  Bryan and I got along by the simple expedient of my visiting his office only for staff meetings and he seldom came near Military Operations.
The decision I had to make was what happened next in my career.  Military Operations was stagnating and would soon be finished.  The only Flight Test job that would be a promotion would be that of Chief of Flight Test Operations and Bryan Mahon seemed determined to make it a lifetime job.
I had acquaintances in Preliminary Design with whom I worked on the proposal for the Air Force C-131 (which we lost to Lockheed.)  They urged me to get out of a stagnating position in Flight Test, come to Preliminary Design for a couple of years for a “retreading” in engineering design, then take off into one of Boeing’s new airplane programs.  The new airplane coming along was the 727-medium haul tri-jet.  They felt that it was going to be a real winner.
It was a difficult decision.  I had by then been in Flight Test for nearly ten years.  Finally I decided that I was getting stereotyped which would be restrictive in the future.  One day I walked into Bryan Mahon’s office and stated that I would like a release from Flight Test to accept a job that had been offered in Preliminary Design.
The short conversation is still reasonably clear in my memory.  Bryan professed to be shocked, “You don’t want to leave Flight Test, Con.  Man, you are part of the framework around here—one of the “old-timers”.  What sort of offer would it take for you to stay on?”
I looked him right in the eye.  “Bryan, if I stay in Flight Test, there is only one job I want next—and I will get it—yours!  The release from Flight Test was on my desk the next morning, signed by Bryan and Dix Loesch who was then Chief of Flight Test.

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