Seattle Flight Test
1953 – 1960
In May of 1953, when the B-47 flight loads program had been successfully completed, both Brein Wygle and I were called back to Seattle to conduct the same program on the huge new eight-jet B-52 bomber. The No. 2 B-52A, 52-004, was instrumented with more than 350 strain gages and became “my” airplane.
In the 1950s, flight testing was not the precise computerized science that it is today. We had no computers or flight simulators. We worked with slide rules and mechanical calculators. The only way to find out if something worked and to determine airplane performance was to take an experimental airplane out, fly it, and record the data for later analysis.
It was inevitable that we would encounter problems. Most of them we could handle but once in a while there would be a fatal crash. From the B-29 to the 707. We paid at least one flight crew for each new model. During my ten years in Flight Test, we buried seventeen of our pilot and engineer friends.
Why did we do it? We were young and we loved airplanes and the sky. We had faith in Boeing designers and aerodynamics engineers and we had supreme faith in our abilities to handle emergencies. We wanted to help push aviation technology to the limit.
|Boeing Test Pilot Brien Wygle|
It could be dangerous, of course, and we all occasionally had hair-raising experiences. As Brien Wygle used to say, “Flying for a living is hours of pure boredom interrupted occasionally by a few seconds of start terror!”
The closest call that Brien and I had was during the B-52 flight loads program. The B-52 had never taken off at more than 380,000 pounds gross weight and our test plan called for data at gross weights up to 410,000 lbs.
When we were to take off at high weights, Brian and I had a procedure to see if we could make it off the 10,000-foot runway at Boeing Field. We each calculated the takeoff roll separately then compared results. If we calculated less than 8,500 feet ground roll we went, more and we did not go.
On the day of our high weight takeoff we were required to take off to the south so that we did not climb out over the heavily populated Georgetown area of Seattle. To the south there was only the sprawling Associated Grocers warehouse at the end of the runway. We had a tailwind but the tower gave us only a 5-knot breeze.
It was close. I calculated just over 8,500 feet. As project pilot, Brian had the last word. His decision was to average our results and go. It would have been a good decision except that the gremlins were at work. We found out later that we had two problems. One was that the tailwind increased to about ten knots with we taxied out and the other was that there was an error in the handbook elevator trim settings at that untried weight so we had one degree too much nose-down elevator trim.
During the takeoff roll we sense that all was not well. The airplane did not want to fly after the refusal point of 5,500 feet. We went by the calculated unstick at 8,500 feet with weight still on the oleos and the big Associated Grocers warehouse was coming at us fast.
Brien heaved back on the control column so hard that the oscillography trace recording control force went off the scale at 235 pounds. He also clamped his thumb down on the nose-up trim switch. (He told me later that it was the second time in 15,000 hours of flying that he had braced himself for a disastrous crash.)
Finally, just 400 feet short of the end of the paved runway, the big bellowing B-52 got airborne and started to climb. Through the little side window at my station in the navigator’s compartment I saw the edge of the warehouse roof flash by so close that I wondered how the landing gear cleared it. I glimpsed people scattering at a dead run from the warehouse loading dock. Had we hit the building the warehouse and us would have been incinerated y the more than 200,000 poinds of JP-4 jet fuel we had in the tanks to achieve that weight.
(Later, the motion picture film from the theodolite station on the hill recording our takeoff showed that we had missed the edge of the warehouse roof by a mere twelve feet. We had been that close to eternity.)
When the excess adrenalin subsided, we went about our business of recording roller coaster maneuver data at the various gross weights as we burned off all that fuel. It was after working hours when we landed and taxied to the hangar. We found then that we were not the only ones who thought we were crashing.
Our lead Ground Operations Engineer, Ed Foster, had been parked in the radio car beside the runway at our calculated unstick point of 8,500 feet. When we went by still firmly on the ground he, too, braced himself to see the apparently inevitable crash and conflagration. Then Ed drove back to the hangar, walked silently through the offices (his face was said to be white as a sheet), and disappeared for the day.
When Brien, the Air Force co-pilot, and I walked into the crew locker room after the flight Foster was sitting at the table. He was obviously happily drunk and had a two-gallon coffee thermos in front of him. He also had glasses, ice, and a jar of olives. The thermos held not coffee, but (contrary to company regulations) very dry martinis. It was nearly midnight when I finally found my way home from that celebration of the crash that did not happen.