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Friday, November 1, 2019

Reading List: Always Another Dawn

Crossfield, Albert Scott and Clay Blair. Always Another Dawn. Seattle, CreateSpace, [1960] 2018. ISBN 978-1-7219-0050-3.
The author was born in 1921 and grew up in Southern California. He was obsessed with aviation from an early age, wangling a ride in a plane piloted by a friend of his father (an open cockpit biplane) at age six. He built and flew many model airplanes and helped build the first gasoline-powered model plane in Southern California, with a home-built engine. The enterprising lad's paper route included a local grass field airport, and he persuaded the owner to trade him a free daily newspaper (delivery boys always received a few extra) for informal flying lessons. By the time he turned thirteen, young Scott (he never went by his first name, “Albert”) had accumulated several hours of flying time.

In the midst of the Great Depression, his father's milk processing business failed, and he decided to sell out everything in California, buy a 120 acre run-down dairy farm in rural Washington state, and start over. Patiently, taking an engineer's approach to the operation: recording everything, controlling costs, optimising operations, and with the entire family pitching in on the unceasing chores, the ramshackle property was built into a going concern and then a showplace.

Crossfield never abandoned his interest in aviation, and soon began to spend some of his scarce free time at the local airport, another grass field operation, where he continued to take flight lessons from anybody who would give them for the meagre pocket change he could spare. Finally, with a total of seven or eight hours dual control time, one of the pilots invited him to “take her up and try a spin.” This was highly irregular and, in fact, illegal: he had no student pilot certificate, but things were a lot more informal in those days, so off he went. Taking the challenge at its words, he proceeded to perform three spins and spin recoveries during his maiden solo flight.

In 1940, at age eighteen, Scott left the farm. His interest in aviation had never flagged, and he was certain he didn't want to be a farmer. His initial goal was to pursue an engineering degree at the University of Washington and then seek employment in the aviation industry, perhaps as an engineering test pilot. But the world was entering a chaotic phase, and this chaos perturbed his well-drawn plans. “[B]y the time I was twenty I had entered the University, graduated from a civilian aviation school, officially soloed, and obtained my private pilot's license, withdrawn from the University, worked for Boeing Aircraft Company, quit to join the Air Force briefly, worked for Boeing again, and quit again to join the Navy.” After the U.S. entered World War II, the Navy was desperate for pilots and offered immediate entry to flight training to those with the kind of experience Crossfield had accumulated.

Despite having three hundred flight hours in his logbook, Crossfield, like many military aviators, had to re-learn flying the Navy way. He credits it for making him a “professional, disciplined aviator.” Like most cadets, he had hoped for assignment to the fleet as a fighter pilot, but upon completing training he was immediately designated an instructor and spent the balance of the war teaching basic and advanced flying, gunnery, and bombing to hundreds of student aviators. Toward the end of the war, he finally received his long-awaited orders for fighter duty, but while in training the war ended without his ever seeing combat.

Disappointed, he returned to his original career plan and spent the next four years at the University of Washington, obtaining Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in Aeronautical Engineering. Maintaining his commission in the Naval Reserve, he organised a naval stunt flying team and used it to hone his precision formation flying skills. As a graduate student, he supported himself as chief operator of the university's wind tunnel, then one of the most advanced in the country, and his work brought him into frequent contact with engineers from aircraft companies who contracted time on the tunnel for tests on their designs.

Surveying his prospects in 1950, Crossfield decided he didn't want to become a professor, which would be the likely outcome if he continued his education toward a Ph.D. The aviation industry was still in the postwar lull, but everything changed with the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. Suddenly, demand for the next generation of military aircraft, which had been seen as years in the future, became immediate, and the need for engineers to design and test them was apparent. Crossfield decided the most promising opportunity for someone with his engineering background and flight experience was as an “aeronautical research pilot” with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), a U.S. government civilian agency founded in 1915 and chartered with performing pure and applied research in aviation, which was placed in the public domain and made available to all U.S. aircraft manufacturers. Unlike returning to the military, where his flight assignments would be at the whim of the service, at NACA he would be assured of working on the cutting edge of aviation technology.

Through a series of personal contacts, he eventually managed to arrange an interview with the little-known NACA High Speed Flight Test Station at Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of Southern California. Crossfield found himself at the very Mecca of high speed flight, where Chuck Yeager had broken the sound barrier in October 1947 and a series of “X-planes” were expanding the limits of flight in all directions.

Responsibility for flying the experimental research aircraft at Edwards was divided three ways. When a new plane was delivered, its first flights would usually be conducted by company test pilots from its manufacturer. These pilots would have been involved in the design process and worked closely with the engineers responsible for the plane. During this phase, the stability, maneuverability, and behaviour of the plane in various flight regimes would be tested, and all of its component systems would be checked out. This would lead to “acceptance” by the Air Force, at which point its test pilots would acquaint themselves with the new plane and then conduct flights aimed at expanding its “envelope”: pushing parameters such as speed and altitude to those which the experimental plane had been designed to explore. It was during this phase that records would be set, often trumpeted by the Air Force. Finally, NACA pilots would follow up, exploring the fine details of the performance of the plane in the new flight regimes it opened up. Often the plane would be instrumented with sensors to collect data as NACA pilots patiently explored its flight envelope. NACA's operation at Edwards was small, and it played second fiddle to the Air Force (and Navy, who also tested some of its research planes there). The requirements for the planes were developed by the military, who selected the manufacturer, approved the design, and paid for its construction. NACA took advantage of whatever was developed, when the military made it available to them.

However complicated the structure of operations was at Edwards, Crossfield arrived squarely in the middle of the heroic age of supersonic flight, as chronicled (perhaps a bit too exuberantly) by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff. The hangars were full of machines resembling those on the covers of the pulp science fiction magazines of Crossfield's youth, and before them were a series of challenges seemingly without end: Mach 2, 3, and beyond, and flight to the threshold of space.

It was a heroic time, and a dangerous business. Writing in 1960, Crossfield notes, “Death is the handmaiden of the pilot. Sometimes it comes by accident, sometimes by an act of God. … Twelve out of the sixteen members of my original class at Seattle were eventually killed in airplanes. … Indeed, come to think of it, three-quarters of all the pilots I ever knew are dead.” As an engineer, he has no illusions or superstitions about the risks he is undertaking: sometimes the machine breaks and there's nothing that can be done about it. But he distinguishes being startled with experiencing fear: “I have been startled in an airplane many times. This, I may say, is almost routine for the experimental test pilot. But I can honestly say I have never experienced real fear in the air. The reason is that I have never run out of things to do.”

Crossfield proceeded to fly almost all of the cutting-edge aircraft at Edwards, including the rocket powered X-1 and the Navy's D-558-2 Skyrocket. By 1955, he had performed 99 flights under rocket power, becoming the most experienced rocket pilot in the world (there is no evidence the Soviet Union had any comparable rocket powered research aircraft). Most of Crossfield's flights were of the patient, data-taking kind in which the NACA specialised, albeit with occasional drama when these finicky, on-the-edge machines malfunctioned. But sometimes, even at staid NACA, the blood would be up, and in 1953, NACA approved taking the D-558-2 to Mach 2, setting a new world speed record. This was more than 25% faster than the plane had been designed to fly, and all the stops were pulled out for the attempt. The run was planned for a cold day, when the speed of sound would be lower at the planned altitude and cold-soaking the airframe would allow loading slightly more fuel and oxidiser. The wings and fuselage were waxed and polished to a high sheen to reduce air friction. Every crack was covered by masking tape. The stainless steel tubes used to jettison propellant in an emergency before drop from the carrier aircraft were replaced by aluminium which would burn away instants after the rocket engine was fired, saving a little bit of weight. With all of these tweaks, on November 20, 1953, at an altitude of 72,000 feet (22 km), the Skyrocket punched through Mach 2, reaching a speed of Mach 2.005. Crossfield was the Fastest Man on Earth.

By 1955, Crossfield concluded that the original glory days of Edwards were coming to an end. The original rocket planes had reached the limits of their performance, and the next generation of research aircraft, the X-15, would be a project on an entirely different scale, involving years of development before it was ready for its first flight. Staying at NACA would, in all likelihood, mean a lengthy period of routine work, with nothing as challenging as his last five years pushing the frontiers of flight. He concluded that the right place for an engineering test pilot, one with such extensive experience in rocket flight, was on the engineering team developing the next generation rocket plane, not sitting around at Edwards waiting to see what they came up with. He resigned from NACA and took a job as chief engineering test pilot at North American Aviation, developer of the X-15. He would provide a pilot's perspective throughout the protracted gestation of the plane, including cockpit layout, control systems, life support and pressure suit design, simulator development, and riding herd on the problem-plagued engine.

Ever wonder why the space suits used in the X-15 and by the Project Mercury astronauts were silver coloured? They said it was something about thermal management, but in fact when Crossfield was visiting the manufacturer he saw a sample of aluminised fabric and persuaded them the replace the original khaki coverall outer layer with it because it “looked like a real space suit.” And they did.

When the X-15 finally made its first flight in 1959, Crossfield was at the controls. He would go on to make 14 X-15 flights before turning the ship over to Air Force and NASA (the successor agency to the NACA) pilots. This book, originally published in 1960, concludes before the record-breaking period of the X-15, conducted after Crossfield's involvement with it came to an end.

This is a personal account of a period in the history of aviation in which records fell almost as fast as they were set and rocket pilots went right to the edge and beyond, feeling out the treacherous boundaries of the frontier.

A Kindle edition is available, at this writing, for just US$0.99. The Kindle edition appears to have been prepared by optical character recognition with only a rudimentary and slapdash job of copy editing. There are numerous errors including many involving the humble apostrophe. But, hey, it's only a buck.

Posted at November 1, 2019 01:08