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After 50 Years of Memories, the Dryden Center Continues Its Work in Aeronautic Research : Dreams in Flight

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The most famous person ever associated with the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, which is about to mark its 50th birthday, will probably not be invited to speak on its behalf any time soon.

Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier here in 1947, but he’s made no secret of the fact that he believes cautious government officials with NASA’s precursor--the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics--delayed the project unreasonably.

“NACA did not contribute a hell of a lot,” said the retired Air Force general, speaking last week from his home in Northern California. “They only reduced the data for us.”

Yeager did acknowledge, however, in his best-selling autobiography that the data NACA collected in its 500-pound instrument package on the X-1--the rocket-powered craft in which he made history--provided invaluable feedback.

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That was the job of NACA, as it is now NASA’s, at the Dryden center, which in characteristic low-profile style plans no public commemoration of its golden anniversary. Gathering data for basic research may not be the sexiest part of aviation, but it has played a vital role in landmark projects at the center, beginning with the X-1 and including the legendary X-15 that flew at six times the speed of sound, the lunar landing vehicle and the space shuttle.

Currently, engineers, programmers and pilots at Dryden are conducting research on numerous projects, including systems that could be used on civilian supersonic jets and high-altitude pilotless aircraft that would have the capability of staying aloft for days at a time.

Looking ahead, it was announced this year that Dryden will be the primary testing site for the X-33, a prototype for the next generation of reusable spacecraft.

Dryden has had its ups and downs over the decades, but the need for basic research is unending.

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“There is a lot we still don’t know about aerodynamics,” said Dryden spokesman J. D. Hunley, “even though we have been doing it for almost a century.”

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The remote, high-desert air base that is home to Dryden was not the first choice for a national flight test center. Prior to World War II, most of this work was done at Wright Field near Dayton, Ohio, according to “On the Frontier,” a NASA-sponsored history of Dryden by Richard Hallion.

But Wright was too near residential areas to allow for hazardous test flights, and the Army, which ran most of the testing at the time, wanted a more private locale where secret aircraft could be put through their paces. Also, they wanted a place with better year-round flying weather than Ohio.

NACA did early test flights of the X-1 at Pinecastle Field in Orlando, Fla. “They didn’t have clear enough conditions,” Hunley said. “They wanted open skies so that they could monitor flights at all times.”

In the fall of 1946, the X-1 team arrived at Muroc Army Air Field, which became known as Edwards Air Force Base in 1950. Yeager had previously been there in 1945. “For a pilot, it was a godsend,” he said.

“You couldn’t ask for better weather, clearer skies most of the time, plenty of room. It’s a dream place.”

At the heart of Edwards is the largest dry lake bed in the world, a 44-square-mile area now known as Rogers Lake. Dry lakes are not only the flattest of all land forms, they also have an extremely hard surface, making them ideal as natural runways.

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Edwards does get high winds, but they generally come from one direction. “It’s a predictable element,” Hunley said, “so that is OK for aviation.”

The crew chief on the X-1, Jack Russell, loved the area, but not just because it was ideal for flying.

“I had come from Buffalo [N.Y.],” said Russell, who was working at the time for the Bell aircraft company, which manufactured the X-1. “It was such a complete change, I really enjoyed it. I had had enough of that Buffalo snow.”

The fact that temperatures on the dry lake bed can hit 115 degrees in summer didn’t faze him. And this was in the days before air conditioning.

“The dry heat didn’t bother me,” said Russell, who retired 17 years ago and lives in nearby Lancaster. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”

Others believed they had gone in the other direction.

“There was a story about an engineer,” said Betty Love, who began work at the flight test center in 1952 compiling test data. “He signed in at administration, got his desk, and an hour later he was gone.”

The engineer, who had come to Muroc from Virginia, found the remote Mojave Desert landscape unnerving.

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“It was pretty desolate compared to what they had come from in the East,” said Love, who grew up in the area.

“I really felt for them.”

Yet the center grew and officially became known as the Muroc Flight Test Unit in the summer of 1947. Yeager’s cracking of the sound barrier on Oct. 14, 1947, still reigns as its most significant flight. In 1954, the testing unit left its hangars and buildings on what is known as Edwards’ South Base and moved northward to build its own facilities on the east side of the lake bed. The flight research center was still a tenant of the base but now a more independent operation.

For many who worked there, it was a great time in their lives, even though the conditions could be difficult. Swamp coolers, which made everything damp, were the only devices available to cool down interior work spaces. Sandstorms were a frequent nuisance, and grit got into everything.

But the worst of times were when a pilot died in a test accident. “The only way we could get data was sacrificing lives,” Yeager said. “It’s that blunt.”

Many streets on the base are named for test pilots killed in crashes. One, in the Dryden complex, is Lilly Avenue.

“It was a family atmosphere in the old days,” said Don Borchers, who started there in 1947 and was crew chief of an X-1. “Everyone knew everyone. Everyone loved Howard Lilly.”

In May 1948, Lilly was flying a D-559-1, better known as a Skystreak, when the rocket-powered engine broke up shortly after takeoff and the aircraft plunged into the lake bed and exploded.

The cause of the accident was determined to be engine failure, and the crew was not to blame. But Borchers, who at the time was chief inspector of the unit, took it hard.

“I had to leave. I was devastated,” said Borchers, now 74 and a Lancaster resident. He eventually went to work for the U.S. Postal Service and retired in 1977.

The center was named in 1976 for the late Hugh L. Dryden, a pioneering aeronautical scientist who was NACA’s highest-ranking official at the time of Yeager’s historic flight.

The current staff roster includes about 450 full-time government employees and an equal number of contract workers. The most recent annual budget for which figures are available totaled about $240 million.

Among the aircraft now used at the center for tests is the SR-71, the famed Blackbird spy plane that once flew from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., in 68 minutes and 17 seconds.

Instead of slide rules, employees now use computers. Thanks to highly advanced simulators, flight testing is more predictable. And all the buildings are air conditioned.

But some veterans miss the old days. For women, especially, the center offered a rare chance to break into new fields.

“I was going to go to nursing school, but then like most young girls at the time, I got sidetracked by marriage and a family,” said Love.

A friend told her that jobs were available at the flight research center. She became what was known as a “computer.”

The job of extracting and analyzing information from test instruments involved spending long hours over a small light box, measuring marks made on film during a flight. “You would get maybe 12 to 16 rolls of film from a test flight,” said Love, now 74 and another Lancaster resident. “They would tell you the speed, altitude, acceleration.”

All the “computers” in the days before electronic calculators and digital readouts were women. Love admitted the work was repetitious and at times tedious.

“I imagine a man would get very tired of that,” she said.

But it gave her the chance to be a part of an exciting endeavor, and eventually she advanced to become an aeronautical engineering technician. She worked at the center for 25 years, until she retired.

“I just feel real blessed I got to be part of it,” she said. “Reading the pilot notes, checking the test results. I was fascinated by everything.”

The Dryden history, “On the Frontier,” is available at no cost on a NASA World Wide Web site on the Internet: https:// www.dfrc.nasa.gov/History/Publications/SP-4303.


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