Editor’s note: This is part two of a series on Neil Armstrong, as told by Cam Martin at Plane Crazy Saturday, Aug. 17.
MOJAVE – Before he was the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong spent a good portion of his days flying through the skies above the Antelope Valley and Mojave desert. Cam Martin knew Armstrong and was also a technical advisor on the movie First Man, adapted from the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen. Martin presented Neil Armstrong “Before the Fireworks,” program at the Aug. 17 Plane Crazy Saturday at Mojave Air and Space Port.
“In 2005, when the book First Man was came out, Neil was interviewed by 60 minutes, Ed Bradley,” said Martin. “Typical of everything else, the focus went to Apollo 11 and the moon landing. In the course of that interview, this was Neal’s comments, to Ed Bradley: ‘We all want to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks, but for the ledger of our daily work’.”
The author of the book is an aerospace historian who compiled a history of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor organization to NASA.
In the spring of 1955 Armstrong was working for NACA in Cleveland, Ohio specializing in icing research and aircraft propulsion, after being rejected for a job with their work being done at Edwards Air Force Base. Armstrong started work in Ohio as a pilot for research projects for transportation and engineering in the free flight rocket missile section.
Back in California, the preliminary work for what becomes the X-15 program was being done.
“So the center that didn’t have a place for Neil when originally applies, sees that he’s doing really well in Cleveland and hopes that before Cleveland notices what this guy’s capacity really is that they can re-recruit them and have him come back,” said Martin. “NACA’s approach for test flight was you take an engineer, And then you transition them into flying the airplane. Because in the NACA world, Anybody can be a pilot. But not everybody can be a competent engineer.”
Armstrong stays in Ohio for less than five months before coming to NACA at Edwards.
“March 22 1956, Neil has been on the job for about eight months,” said Martin. “They are climbing altitude to launch a Douglas skyrocket. Jack MacKay is the pilot who was flying it.”
B-29s were used as motherships for the rocket which required a long slow climb to altitude that would tax the engines. Armstrong was co-pilot of the B-29 on this mission.
“On this particular flight, they had a series of in-flight emergencies,” said Martin. The first in-flight emergency that they had was when Jack MacKay went to pressurize the fuel system immediately before the launch, he realized that he had a stuck valve. So he had two problems. One was that he couldn’t run the engine. And number two, he couldn’t dump the propellant oxidizer to get down to a landing.”
At the time, the emergency procedures for problems like this was simply to drop the research airplane. To complicate matters, the number four engine on the B-29 stops and the propeller begins to do what’s called runaway.
“The fix for a runaway propeller is the feathering mechanism that will walk the propeller blades’ narrow edge into the wind so the propeller stops turning,” said Martin. “You get three cycles to make this happen. They go through all three cycles and the blades never stop.”
At this point, the crew is pretty sure that no matter what they do now, the propeller was going to disintegrate. The cockpit for the skyrocket is almost in a direct line with the likely path of a disintegrating propeller.
“So they told Jack MacKay, you’re going to have to figure it out, because we have to drop you,” said Martin. “The instant they dropped Jack MacKay, the propeller disintegrates and misses MacKay and the Skyrocket by inches or feet, depending on you was telling the story.”
When the propeller fails it slices through engine number three and continues on through the fuselage to also take out the number two engine on the opposite wing.
“They have one good engine - it’s the number one engine. All the way out on the left wing, the most outboard engine.”
They also discover that the blades have sliced through the control lines. They have rudder pedal control, but no aileron and no elevator controls.
“Pilot Stan Butchart looks over at Neil and says, ‘do you have control’ Neil wiggles things around a little bit and he says “I have some’” said Martin. “Because the cables that got completely caught on stand side were only partially cut on Neil side. So eight months into his job at this place, Neil gets to land a crippled bomber on one engine that they’re not too sure about.”
The Skyrocket landed safely on the dry lakebed.
“Moving on a little bit, throughout the early 50s industry was building the best airplanes, they knew how to build with the best information that they had,” said Martin. “They were they were coming into military service and the Air Force welcomed them.”
Armstrong does some 350 flights, collectively, in the century series of aircraft, so named because they started with the F-100. On Oct. 1, 1958 NACA officially becomes the National Aeronautics and Space Agency.
“Another program that Neil flew was the JF-104 with reaction control system thrusters,” said Martin. “The higher you go, the thinner the atmosphere gets and all your moving control surfaces become less effective.”
The aircraft was configured with hydrogen peroxide thrusters for control in the thinner atmosphere, Armstrong flew a total of 30 missions. Armstrong flew the X-15 seven times, including the flight shown in the opening minutes of the move First Man.
“Neil’s job on this flight was to do the final qualification for the MH 96 adaptive flight control system,” said Martin. “The test point was to pull back to try to pull five G’s to see if the system would intercept and not let you pull five G’s on the airplane.
“So Neil is coming down the backside trying to get that test point trying to get them to engage and it is not engaging. Where all of the other X-15 pilots are coming in and getting into the pattern to land and Edwards Neil is still trying to pull and getting off altitude. When it gets down to where the air starts to get thick and the nose starts to dig in and the pilots can actually get into the Edwards pattern and land, he realizes that he’s scooting across the top of Edwards like he’s a hockey puck.
“In the movie, it shows Neil bouncing back into space, like he jumped off a trampoline or something. It’s not really as exciting as they show it. He gets to about 90,000 feet before he makes his turn. He gets on the landing trajectory and just makes a straight in approach to the lake bed, Runway 25.”
Armstrong left the Dryden Flight Research Center with a total of 2,400 flying hours in September 1962 when he is selected to be an astronaut. Over his career, he flew more than 200 different models of aircraft in 900 flights. On March 14, 2014 the Dryden facility was renamed the Armstrong Flight Research Center in his honor.