I applied at Ryan in San Diego through the mail while still living in Ohio and was accepted, providing I could pass a physical. I figured I could pass a physical so we put the house up for sale and moved. I was hired directly into the Engineering Shop, a shop most of the production workers would kill to get into.
My first job was constructing the wing of this experimental plane, the Model 92. It was a super lightweight Short Take Off & Landing (STOL) plane, created strictly for examining the STOL regime and was never intended for production. We called it the "Reynolds Wrap Special". An older experienced man and I built the wing. Other groups of two built the other components. There were only about 10 or 12 men on the project and they were all the best in the business and eager to teach me. Following the wing we built the large air deflectors located on the tip of each wing. On these deflectors my partner used the rivet gun and I "bucked" the rivets. The aluminum "skin" was so thin that the rivets could easily be punched through the aluminum. That's why the same two men always worked together, because you had to know just what your partner was going to do and how much pressure he was going to use with the rivet gun or the bucking bar. The blueprints called out for the last several rows of rivets to be blind rivets, which are installed from the outside with a special gun and are not as strong as bucked rivets. We figured out a way of "closing out" the panels using regular rivets by making special slim bucking bars, each bar tailor made for each rivet location. The design engineer, draftsmen and managers could not figure out how we did it and we didn't tell them.
I didn't get to work on it during the flight test program as it went to the Ames wind tunnel and air base in San Francisco.
Following that, I worked on the radio control installation of a small "Flex-Bee" reconnaissance drone Ryan was trying to sell to the Marine Corps. Flex-bee was a variation of the "Rogallo" wing (see following paragraph).
At the very last minute in June, 1961 Ryan decided to bid, along with two other companies, on the contract to provide the recovery system for "Project Mercury", the United States first manned space capsule. The other two bidding companies proposed conventional parachutes whereas Ryan proposed using the "Rogallo" wing. This was a flexible wing made from Mylar and capable of being packed like a parachute. It was delta shaped, and kite-like and had a very high angle of attack. The wing was named for its inventor, Francis M. Rogallo of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and was the forerunner of the hang gliders one now sees in great use. Mr. Rogallo and his wife worked with us in San Diego to make the huge wing. He had investigated the wing's unique characteristics through wind tunnel and unmanned model studies and tests at NASA's Langley Research Center. We spent many hours in a 2nd floor loft, under the direction of the Rogallos, crawling shoeless on our hands and knees cutting and joining the Mylar.
Due to the low budget and tight time restraints before biding closed, there were practically no formal engineering and no blueprints from which to work. A couple engineers and, as I recall, three technicians engineered it as we built it. We pretty much worked around the clock and were allowed to work as long as we could function, go home, get some sleep and come back to work.
A full size boilerplate model of the Mercury capsule was made and we performed testing on the runway at Brown Field (on Otay Mesa) in August. Brown Field was an inactive military base at that time. The vessel was mounted on the back of a flat bed truck and the truck raced down the runway as the deployment of the wing was tested. I have some very poor quality, short duration 8mm home movies of this testing.
My job was to devise, fabricate and install the electrical system that caused small gunpowder charges (known as Squibbs) to fire in sequence at predetermined times. These charges caused reefing lines to be severed, allowing the Rogallo wing to be deployed slowly so the opening shock would be minimized. I suggested the use of reliable, off the shelf, time delay relays powered by a battery and my suggestion was used.
While at Edward's I had a chance to see the historic "M1 Lifting Body" being air dropped from either a B-29 or B-36, I forget which, and watch it glide to a landing on the desert floor. This was a non-powered test vehicle built to gain information needed to design the Space Shuttle, still years away. I also saw the experimental X-15 being loaded under its "mother ship", a B-50. The X-15 was the direct forerunner of the space shuttle.
In early 1962 I was working at my bench in the engineering shop when something happened that would change the direction of my life. Someone from management came into the shop and wanted to know if anyone knew how to install strain gages. No one answered and I was bored and wanting a challenge so I said that I did! I didn't even know what a strain gage was! So I went to one of the engineers to find out and then got some literature from the company library. I ended up creating a strain gage shop and directing 12 people. I brought in some representatives from the strain gage company to train the employees and at the same time surreptitiously learned how to install them myself.
Due to this knowledge of strain gages I was picked to start on a new airplane from its conception to flight. Before the plane could be designed, a new flight simulator facility needed to be built. The simulator had the first 3-D wrap-around screen on the west coast. It was connected to analog computers through a closed loop system and displayed a moving image of the terrain as the "pilot" flew. It had six degrees-of-freedom and made you think you were really flying. I was asked to transfer to this new "Flight Simulator Facility" and work with the analog computers. We built a structure that represented the airplane that had hydraulically actuated moving control surfaces with strain gages that fed information to the computers. I also operated the console during testing. I remember the time T. Claude Ryan "flew" the simulator, he was like a kid with a new toy. My photo was on the front cover of Western Aerospace magazine, January 1963 issue, shown operating the console of the flight simulator.
From this I went to the actual construction of the plane which was the United States first jet vertical take-off and landing airplane that was capable of lifting straight up like a helicopter, hovering and flying backwards or sideways. It was designated the XV-5A and funded by the Army. Two were built.
I was a Senior Research and Development Mechanic at the time and according to company and union rules, my job was supposed to be performed by an assistant foreman since I had 12 men under me (the Senior Research and Development Mechanic was Labor Grade 1, the highest paid hourly labor grade at Ryan). The factory manager's son was working in another part of the plant and he was selected by his father to be the assistant foreman, instead of me. He was brought down and introduced around and I was asked to show him what I was doing and how we were doing things.
After a couple hours he disappeared without a word. He had gone back to his father and told him he could not take the job that I had worked so hard to create, that every thing was running like clockwork and the men resented his presence; so I was promoted to assistant foreman.
The former Convair workers approached me with an idea. The conventional way of constructing an airplane is to install the wiring as the plane is built. One problem doing this is the wiring gets scuffed and shop-worn by the assemblers as they crawl over the plane. Another problem is getting metal chips or shavings down between the wires that can cause short circuits. Since this plane was of an unconventional design, they suggested constructing the wiring harnesses on the bench then installing them at the last possible minute.
This lack of wiring in the plane made management very nervous and at every morning meeting wanted to know when the wires were going in. Finally, on the big day, while every one was at lunch and without telling anyone, we brought out the wiring harnesses and installed them. When everyone returned from lunch they found the wiring magically installed. With most of the construction finished there was now no danger of the harnesses becoming damaged. It made quite an impression with management.
The day came when there was to be a big ceremony to show off
the plane to politicians and the military, with all kinds of company
officials present. The plane was tied down loosely for what we
called "tethered flight" and the pilot was supposed
to demonstrate the engines running and conversion to vertical
flight. Some self-important man I had not seen before took charge
and ran the show. Usually during this type of testing I wore a
headset and microphones and talked with the pilot as he performed
the various procedures so I could answer his questions, as I was
the person most familiar with the electrical/avionics systems.
But this time he wore the headset.
When they were about to start I tried to remind everyone that the "Auto Stabilization" box had not been installed, but I was ignored! So nothing worked when they tried to change to the vertical mode. Engineers and management brought out pages upon pages of blue prints and spread them out on the ground studying them to try and figure out why it wouldn't work.
After quite some time I finally went to the store room, picked up the box, went out to the plane, opened the access panel and installed the box as everyone stood there with their mouths open. I walked up to "Mr. Important" and said, "now try it"! No one ever said I word about the incident.
After completion of the XV-5A's in the spring of 1964, the two planes were trucked to Edward's A.F. Base and once again I headed north. I stayed at nearby Lancaster during the week and drove home for the weekends. The workers at Edward's were all factory types and no one had any recent flight line experience. The first shift lead man's lack of skills on the flight line around operational aircraft was quite evident and he embarrassed the Ryan people in front of high-ranking visitors.
One day he was late for work and I filled in for him. When it became evident that I was experienced and "at home" around the flight line, the 1st shift manager wanted me on his crew, since the planes flew during the days and were worked on at night.
Due to my own fault I later ended up on 2nd shift, since that crew did all the maintenance and modifications. A modification to the vertical stabilizer was needed which consisted of stiffeners being fitted and riveted in place. I did one plane myself and two other men were to do the other plane. They couldn't figure out how to do the job and I was already finished with my plane. So I ended up doing both planes and going on 2nd shift.
During the construction of the two planes the general manager
was a man with absolutely no experience with airplanes, having
been the manager of Ryan's machine shop. He had no idea as to
what was going on and resented my being invited to the daily management
meetings where problems and schedules were discussed. He thought
an assistant foreman (my title) did not belong there. He was much
incensed that my opinion was solicited and listened to.
Because I was the assistant foreman I was asked to select the men that would go to Edwards, since the entire crew would not be needed there. After selecting whom I thought would be the best crew based on their work building the plane I was told by the general manager that he would not need a foreman or lead man and I would go as a technician. At a pre-move meeting he made sure to tell the men I would not be in charge and he would direct them. When we went to Edward's he maintained his same title and did his best to keep me in the background. Unfortunately, he wasn't the only inept individual on the project! As I mentioned, most of the workers, supervisors and managers had no flight line experience with operational airplanes.
On the first day of high speed taxi runs on the runway I was
in the bed of the pick-up truck along with other workers as we
left the hangar area. The general manager looked back and saw
me in the truck and told me to jump out and go back to the hangar,
that I was not needed. I told him I was not about to jump out
of a moving truck onto the concrete. During the testing the plane
experienced violent nose gear shimmy as they gradually increased
taxi speeds. I suggested that the testing should be canceled,
as the nose gear Houdallie shimmy damper was not beefy enough.
The nose gear had not been designed for this plane, but was an
"off the shelf" gear designed for another lighter plane.
(Note: I had not too long ago studied shimmy dampers at Aircraft
& Engine School at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas and was
taught how to size them to a particular plane's needs).
No one listened and on the next speed run the nose vibrated violently, the scissors broke, the wheel castered and the nose gear collapsed, buckling the fuselage and setting the program back several weeks. I was in the bed of the pick-up truck that was pacing along side the plane and kept asking the general manager who was in radio contact with the pilot, to tell the pilot to throttle back, but he wouldn't listen. Both of the planes later crashed and burned during flight testing, killing the pilots.
When we first left for Edward's I told my wife that the first test pilot would not return. He was just not test pilot material and did too many dumb things during tethered flights at the factory.
During this time at Edwards I was again on the fringe of another historic event. Our hangar was directly across from Lockheed's so we had been watching the still secret Lockheed SR-71 "Blackbird" being readied for test flights. One day, much to our surprise, we were all herded into our hangar and the base was closed to the public. President Linden Johnson and a host of press and dignitaries arrived to formally unveil the plane and announce its existence. I left Ryan when the first plane crashed and things were slow at Ryan.
After leaving Ryan I was out of work only one month when I started at Convair. This was another strange twist of fate. While I was working at Ryan on the XV-5A, Convair management had approached Ryan's management and asked them to give temporary employment to a group of their engineers and managers. Convair had some work coming and wished to keep the group together rather than lay them off. Ryan found temporary work for them on the XV-5A project and I worked closely with one of the engineers, Don Hall, on instrumentation and telemetry and we got along very well together. The group went back to Convair when their new project opened up.
Don happened to meet a Ryan employee at a grocery one day and asked about me. The man told him I had quit Ryan and was looking for work so Don called me and said he wanted me to come to Convair.
The day I reported to Convair the employment office was closed, the lights out and the chairs up on the desks. They were doing no hiring and only his position as a manager got me in.
Just as at Ryan this was in Convair's Engineering department, not production. I went to work on their "Little Joe" missile, a research missile that was launched into space at White Sands, New Mexico.
One day I happened to come up to a fellow when he turned around and it was almost like looking into a mirror. It was the foreman my crew at Ryan had been talking about; we did indeed resemble each other. People were constantly walking up and talking to me, thinking it was the other man.
Convair decided to start up a new division in some of the empty hangars. They were going to convert the reciprocating engine, prop driven "Convair Liner", models 240 and 340 to prop jets. These planes were made in the 1950's and hundreds of them were out there in use in developing countries. I was borrowed to help them rewire the planes. They didn't have anyone who knew what they were doing and I could see the project was doomed from the start.
They were assigning a single wire to a man to install; say, from the cockpit to the left engine nacelle. He would crawl all through the plane and cut the wiring bundles, put in his wire and retie and re-clamp the bundles. Along behind him would come another man with a different wire, cutting what the first had done and retying every thing. This might happen a dozen times in the same area. I went to the manager and suggested the logical approach of putting all the wires that go to the same place in a common bundle and do the job once. He thought this was a fantastic idea and tried to get me transferred to his division, but I refused to go.
The whole thing folded up after a few months.
Beginning March 19, 1964 at Convair some thirty engineers and production workers dropped out of sight and were not seen on the job again for six months. Eventually approximately 200 Convair people "disappeared". What happened to these people? Where did they go? What were they doing?
Inside the building was the framework of the new aircraft, but the project was in deep trouble. Convair, in laying off hundreds of people by seniority the previous couple years, had only older men left that had been foremen, superintendents and managers. They had all, years ago, forgotten their working skills. In actuality, Convair was out of the airplane manufacturing business by this time. Even the general foreman on this project had never before worked on aircraft, only production lines.
The plane was far behind schedule and work was coming to a standstill because they were ready for the wiring, instruments, instrumentation and electronic components but the assemblers working on these systems didn't know what to do and they had no one to direct them. Keough asked me if I could help. I told him to provide me with all the electrical blueprints and a part's list and let me alone for three days, to which he agreed. After the three days I told him how many men I needed and to give us one week and we would have the plane ready to continue construction.
As a reward for getting them back on schedule, Keough gave me an on-the-spot promotion to labor grade 1, the highest company hourly paid labor grade, ignoring the time-in-grade requirement. He called me into his office one day and told me he wanted me to be a foreman if the aircraft went into production but it was not to be, as you will find out later! From the beginning the previously mentioned general foreman disliked me, an outsider, and he wasn't very congenial. He resented my participation in the project and my recruitment and acceptance by management. It was his job to hand me the promotion papers. He just said, "This is for you" and handed them to me as I walked past him. No congratulations! He did finally come around and get friendly and even asked me to explain some things to him concerning the cockpit controls. One day he asked me what the black boxes were that he kept hearing about during the morning meetings.
Every Monday morning at 0800 hours, a short, to the point, no rambling meeting to iron out problems, conflicts, parts shortages, etc., was held. Each of us lead men were queried and gave a brief rundown of our progress. In just six months a fully completed, ready for production aircraft was rolled out. For the rollout ceremony, they had coins (get the connection - COIN.) printed up that said, "A Bird in Hand is Worth Two in the Bush".
Enough parts for two aircraft were fabricated but only one plane, designated the Model 48, was built. Its first flight was from Lindbergh field to nearby North Island Naval Air station. On it's 196th flight it was being flown by a Navy pilot performing an evaluation flight when it crashed and burned at Lindbergh Field. The pilot ejected at the last second and landed on top of one of Ryan's hangars but no one saw him eject and it was a while before he was found as he was hidden from view due to all the smoke from the burning aircraft. He broke his foot when he ejected when it became entangled under the instrument panel.
The project was full of petty jealousies by the older, long
time company employees. With all the articles in the company newsletters
where "key personnel" were getting recognition for their
effort and the part they played, I was never mentioned. I was
never invited to be in any of the many group photos. Nick Keough,
the manager of engineering was never given any publicity. To my
knowledge, Bill Gregory, after enlisting me, never again stepped
foot in building 69 or worked on the project but continued to
be listed as a participant. Following the first flight, general
manager made sure I was removed from the plane's flight test crew.
During the test flights I was assigned to assist a long time flight
test instrumentation technician, Bill House, in maintaining the
tape & telemetry and camera systems.
North American Aviation got the production contract, not due to the crash but to politics, which is another story. North American's aircraft was known as the OV-10 Bronco and was identical to the Convair version.
That was the last flying aircraft I ever worked on. I then spent 31 years working at General Atomics.