Flight Testing Jet Bombers, A Boeing Wichita Story
|Chapter 1: Wichita, Kansas 1951
Wichita in 1951 was recovering from a post war recession caused by the termination of wartime aircraft production. In 1951 Boeing began building up for production of the B47 Jet Bomber. The Korean War was on, and the US was again building up it’s armed forces.
Wichita was like a boomtown with new houses being built all over the place. New areas were generally brick bungalows surrounded by dirt or mud, depending on the weather. The contrast between old and new was distinct; greenery or no greenery.We moved to Wichita, Kansas from Kansas City, Missouri in February 1951. It was a cold and windy day. A cold front had just gone through. The temperature was 20 degrees and the wind was 25kts out of the northwest. The week previous had been mild and sunny. That is typical of Wichita in the late fall and winter. The temperature can drop 40 degrees in a few hours.
Most of the workers being assembled to engineer, build, and test the B47 were veterans of World War II. Some were local farmers or ranchers who were supplementing their farm income. Many would work their farms by day and work at Boeing at night. It was an interesting group, because they were all new to each other. They had many past adventures to relate and many new jokes to tell to each other. They were all off on a brand new adventure together.
My first day at Boeing was hectic. New jobs always are anyway, but on this day there was a snowstorm. I got off work at 5pm and got out of the parking lot at 7pm. I later found I had parked in the wrong parking lot. I could have parked much closer to my job site. I think I finally got home at 8pm that night.
My reason for seeking work at Boeing was to get back into flying. After 4 years of Navy flying during World War II, I had gone to work for an airline as a co-pilot. I got furloughed so many times I decided it wasn’t worth it. I went back to college and came out two years later with a degree in engineering. So many people had advised me that a college degree was a necessity in life that I believed it. I went to work for an engineering-manufacturing firm as a junior engineer. After 18 months on the drawing board I was fed up with that phase of engineering and longed to get back into the air. I read about Boeing’s work with the B47 in Wichita, so I decided to give it a try.
When I applied for work at Boeing I asked for work as a test pilot. I was escorted over to flight test and introduced to Mr. John Fornasero who was the chief of flight test and a test pilot. He told me he would hire me as a flight test analyst and I would have the opportunity to get into piloting later when the flying increased. I later found that there were many other individuals around who had been given the same prospectus, and it wasn’t necessarily going to happen unless it was pursued further.
I used to go talk to Mr. Fornasero whenever I had the nerve and he had the time. I would remind him of my continued desire to fly as pilot. I was so nervous and intent that I must have seemed a little stupid. Once I asked him how the flying was going. He said, “Oh it has it’s ups and downs.” I didn’t catch on until later that that was a joke.
In the meantime I was working in ground operations. This was the group responsible for seeing that the airplane was prepared in the proper configuration for the next test flight. We would write items in the work book stating the job to be done; for example,” install ballast in the tail of the airplane to move the c.g. aft.” The liaison engineer would engineer the installation and the shop mechanics would perform the work. An inspector would check the work and sign it off. The ground operations engineer would inspect the installation and sign it off if it was satisfactory.
After working the ground ops job for a couple of months under supervision I was soloed on second shift. I was, more or less, the man in charge for a few hours each night. This led to a few interesting experiences. For example when I specified the location for some instrumentation on the wing of the XB47 and the mechanic drilled holes in the wing spar, a primary structural member. This was not good. The next afternoon when I came to work I found that I had created a crisis. It was later resolved by filling the holes with blind rivets. I was not fired. I guess I was considered too inexperienced to be responsible.
Twice more I came to work to find exciting things had happened. Each time I wondered if some malfunction on my part had caused them. One time the normal brakes had failed on landing of the airplane and the pilot had used the emergency brakes to keep from running off the end of the runway. Unfortunately there was no anti-skid protection on the emergency brakes so all of the tires blew out. Another time the co-pilot had passed out for lack of oxygen at high altitude and the pilot had to make an emergency descent.
Second shift was not tightly supervised, so if you didn’t have anything to do you didn’t have to look busy. There were a few nights when the mechanics and I rested on the bomb bay instrumentation platform with a lookout posted. This was when we swapped jokes or World War II experiences.
Tex Johnston was the test pilot on the XB47 at that time. He was well liked by the ground crew because he didn’t nit pick their work. He just climbed aboard and started the engines. At one time he reportedly chided a co-pilot, Doug Heinburger, who was carefully inspecting plane, “oh come on Hamburger lets go fly.”
Tex was not well liked by his supervisor because he liked to show off and disregarded a few rules. For example he occasionally taxied across the road to the hanger, and once even into the hanger. Airplanes were supposed to be towed over this route. Later he reportedly barrel rolled a B47, and several years later the first 707-jet transport. This reportedly almost led to his demise at Boeing, because a lot of company money was invested in the airplane.
I worked alternate first, second, and third shifts for several months. This really tore my stomach up. I found I could adapt to the change in sleeping hours, but not the change in eating hours. Also it was discouraging to come from work, go to bed, get up and get ready to go to work again.
My opportunity to fly came with a tragic accident. I had almost given up and was looking for work elsewhere when two B47 airplanes collided and all four pilots were killed. One crew had an unsafe landing gear warning and asked the pilot in another airplane to fly close to check the landing gear. When the second airplane flew underneath his vertical fin struck the first airplane and both airplanes went out of control and crashed. At that time the B47 Airplanes did not have ejection seats for bailout. The collision occurred at low altitude so the pilots did not have time to get out of the airplanes and use their parachutes. The accident occurred Friday evening about 5pm. My family and I were leaving town on our way to Kansas City about 8pm and passed near the area of the accident. The airplanes were still burning. I believe the accident occurred the later part of November 1951.