Editor’s note: This is part one of a series on a presentation by Cam Martin about Neil Armstrong from the Aug. 17 Plane Crazy Saturday event at Mojave Air and Space Port.
MOJAVE – In the opening minutes of the movie First Man Neil Armstrong is piloting the X-15 – a hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft – when it’s dropped from under the wing of a specially-modified B-52 some eight miles above the Mojave Desert. A few seconds of rocket burn sent the X-15 climbing to the edge of space at 26 miles or 140,000 feet. The aircraft begins to descend then begins “bouncing off the atmosphere” before finally reentering the atmosphere and landing on a dry lake at Edwards Air Force Base.
“Just to connect the dots, you have films that are made for entertainment, that people pay money to go see,” said Cam Martin. “Then there are documentaries that are factually pretty good – you watch those on your own time, you don’t pay to go see them.
“And then there are technical briefings that have all the details you can possibly want – but somebody else is paying you to attend those.”
For people who haven’t seen the movie, Martin said it’s important to remember that it is a film meant as entertainment. As a technical advisor on the movie – which was adapted from the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen – Martin has a unique insight into the real events and those depicted in the movie.
Martin also knew Armstrong personally and presented “Neil Armstrong ‘Before the Fireworks,’ 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 comment, to Ed Bradley: ‘We all want to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks, but for the ledger of our daily work’.”
Martin said most people know about Armstrong is summed up in a painting by Robert McCall hanging at the Armstrong Flight Research Center. The painting depicts Armstrong in front the X-15 rocket powered aircraft, the Earth, the Moon and the lunar lander.
“He was a test pilot,” said Martin. We don’t know what the test pilot stuff was, except the big Black rocket plane he flew – the X-15. So that’s where most people come into the story.”
Armstrong got his first airplane ride in a Ford Trimotor when he was six- years-old.
“ It was a Sunday morning, his mother thought that his father was taking him to Sunday school, they took a detour,” said Martin. “So everyone who reads the story makes this the anchor point of ‘Oh, Neil’s passion with aviation starts with this flight on this Ford Trimotor.’ And that’s great until the oral historian interviews Neil about the flight and he said, ‘I don’t remember that’.”
According to Armstrong, his interest in airplanes started between the ages of eight and nine because he had friends and relatives who were into building model airplanes.
“August of 1946, Neil Armstrong turns 16 years old,” said Martin. Two weeks after his 16th birthday He solos in an Aeronca Champ. Shortly after that, he makes two significant cross country flights that are significant because this is a new pilot at 16 years old.”
The first trip is 215 miles round trip in a rented Aeronca so that he could take a Navy qualifying exam for a scholarship. He flies from his home in Wapakoneta, Ohio to Cincinnati, Ohio.
“So he takes another cross country trip that is about 300 miles,” said Martin.”He’s going to West Lafayette, Indiana, and that’s because he is there to pre register for classes at Purdue University.”
There were three huge influences that preceded Armstrong becoming commander of the Apollo 11 mission, according to Martin.
“Those influences are Purdue University, the United States Navy and the NACA high speed flight station at Edwards,” said Martin.
Armstrong attended Purdue under the Navy’s Holloway Plan.
“The Navy gave Neil his foundation in operating high performance aircraft in a demanding environment,” said Martin. “Then there is the Korean War. Neil flew 78 combat missions. In September of 1951, he’s on a bombing run. The way the Navy combat report still records this is that he gets hit by anti-aircraft artillery which takes off three feet of his right wing tip.”
The real story is a bit different.
“He hits a cable strung across the valley, intended to cut him and his aircraft in half,” said Martin. “The cable takes off not three feet, but six to eight feet of his right wing tip.”
The Grumman F9F Panther Armstrong was flying has a total wingspan of 38 feet.
“When you scale it out, the aileron on a Grumman Panther is six feet long,” said Martin. “So he lost all of his aileron and maybe a little more.”
An aileron is a hinged flight control surface usually forming part of the trailing edge of each wing of a fixed-wing aircraft. Ailerons are used in pairs to control the aircraft in roll, which normally results in a change in flight path due to the tilting of the lift vector.
“But he wasn’t measuring how much wing did I lose,” said Martin. “He’s trying to figure out how do I keep this airplane flying. He realized that as long as he flew fast, he could keep the airplane wings level and flew to a place that they hadn’t just attacked.”
Armstrong ejected over the water, expecting that the Navy would come pick him up.
“Instead, there was enough wind that he was that he and his parachute were blown ashore,” said Martin. The wind proved fortuitous as the North Koreans were mining the harbor where Armstrong would have landed.
The third major influence in Armstrong’s career was the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics - predecessor to NASA at Edwards.
“This was the place to be if you were interested in the cutting edge of technology,” said Martin. “They had high performance aircraft. They did engineering research. This was what Neil’s aspiration was when he graduated Purdue. That’s the good news. The bad news was he makes application here they don’t have any openings, so things are looking kind of grim.”
Fortunately, NACA also had another program in Cleveland, Ohio specializing in icing research and aircraft propulsion. In the spring of 1955, Armstrong started work there 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.
See Part two in the Sept. 5 issue.