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Passing the First Test

Passing the First Test

Former US Navy fighter ace Bill Bridgeman saw action in the Pacific during World War Two and eventually became a test pilot for Douglas Aircraft. The story of his day-to-day life is the substance of THE LONELY SKY, a book which details Bridgeman’s enthralling story.  In Part 2 of the series, Bill’s Navy career is over and after resigning from a stint flying DC-3’s for Southwest Airlines, he lands a job as a test pilot with Douglas Aircraft.

The summer was nearly gone when the telegram came. It was waiting for me under the door one late August morning when I came in out of the ocean after a long swim:

PLEASE CONTACT US AT YOUR EARLIEST CONVENIENCE.

TESTING DIVISION DOUGLAS AIRCRAFT CO. SANTA MONICA.

The Douglas bid was the result of some conversations earlier that year with an old Pasadena Junior College chum, Bob Brush, who was now chief test pilot for the Santa Monica company. I hadn’t heard from Bob in a couple of months.

Perhaps the future was temporarily solved. I had given up flying but testing was something I didn’t know much about. It was a new field. Besides, it could support me until I found something else. The telegram lured me back to flying, and the prospect of getting into an aeroplane again was good. It would do no harm to go see what they had to offer.

That afternoon I took the coast highway along the ocean, past the canyons that open on to the beach, Las Flores, Las Tunas, Topanga; past Santa Ynez, where Sunset Boulevard ends at the sea from Downtown Los Angeles; past Santa Monica Canyon, the wind-swept Greenwich Village of southern California where Santa Monica begins. A turn east through a low-rent district for five miles and there, in the middle of the neat, flat, stucco neighbourhood, lay Douglas Aircraft Company, sprawled over ten long residential blocks, one story taller than the houses around it.

The policeman on duty behind the desk in the small, bare main lobby okayed my appointment. I signed in, a visitor’s badge was pinned on my coat and I was escorted to the Testing Division, a block east through the plant and on the second floor.

Douglas is built like a maze split lengthwise. On one side is the assembly line cut into expansive sections by hangar walls; on the other side, narrow corridors with temporary walls reaching only halfway up to the ceiling, partitioning off tiny offices, go off from a dark central hall that leads through the plant and occasionally into large half-block-long pools of desks.

The hangar heights of the ceilings over the desk-pools are lowered nearly in half by the even striping of fluorescent tubing, the cold silver light that spread precise illumination in a room where no windows exist. These vast rooms, crowded with desks, are the Engineering and Designing departments, with their closed-off stall-like cubicles for the higher echelons shoved against one wall.

As I came into each new department it was necessary to sign in with the policeman who checks those who go in and out. Through the Engineering Department into another cut-up and fenced-off hangar, on the left, as I passed by, was the sign: RESTRICTED AREA, PROJECT X-3. Top secret stuff. The thin wooden wall around the project was twice as high as any of the other walls.

Up the stairs, another policeman at a desk, onto the second floor where again the temporary-looking partitions divide the small offices of the Testing Division. On my right was the door I was looking for: FLIGHT DEPT. A-53.

I presented myself to the secretary who was separated by a waist-high fence from the large room full of desks – the pilots’ pit. She gave me a bright smile and indicated with a gesture of her head that I could go through the open door into a private office. The heavy-set balding man at the desk got up. We shook hands. “Sit down Bill, I’m Bill Morrisey, Bob’s assistant. He’s in Canada on vacation right now, but before he left he suggested that you would be a good man to help Brownie out over at the El Segundo plant.”

“How is the old man?” I ask. “Fine. You know Lois spent a week tracking you down before we could send you that telegram.” Morrisey squinted at me. “What’s your background?” It took five minutes to go through 9,000 hours in the air. The assistant chief test pilot made no comment. “Let’s go out and take a check flight,” he suggested.

CHECK FLIGHT

The field lies at the end of the long Douglas plant, where the last hangar in the row of glued-together buildings spews out from the end of the assembly line of the finished four-engine transports. And up a steep flight of ladder-like stairs in the front corner of the hangar are the flight and the ready rooms.

A schoolboy once more. I had to recite the lesson for the teacher who would listen carefully for the least hesitation. Suddenly a familiar function became something done with self-consciousness, like being stared at while you eat.

We climbed into a DC-3, an old friend. “Take it up to 10,000. Feather an engine and bring it back,” Morrisey said. At 10,000 we went through the emergency procedure: the pedestal of levers pushed and pulled in the right sequence comes from years of experience, it is done to the tune of the motor. A matter of timing.

“It was a nice ride.” Morrisey was satisfied but unimpressed. His daily work was emergency; it’s the way he sold aeroplanes. “Go over to El Segundo and meet Brownie, tell the old gent hello for me. He’ll check you out in an AD. That’s what you’ll be flying. Bob’ll give you a call when he gets back.”

TESTING A SINGLE-ENGINE ATTACK PLANE

An AD is a single-engine attack plane and I am a four-engine pilot. It was hardly the kind of assignment I expected but I decided to follow the thing through.

El Segundo is ten miles from the Santa Monica plant and is pretty much the same sort of set-up, except that the field, part of the Los Angeles International Airport, is shared by other companies who have their own individual hangars. The El Segundo plant fills orders for Navy fighters and dive bombers, while the sprawling Santa Monica plant puts out the big commercial stuff.

At the field I gave my name to the cop on the gate and was allowed to pass. Laverne Brown, the man I was to see, was sitting at a desk in a narrow little room labelled COUNTRY CLUB OFFICE. He was older than I thought he would be, around 40 maybe, tall, leanly built, and dark. His skin was brown and weathered. I introduced myself.

“Hey, I’m glad to see you.” The way he lit up I thought he really meant it. He waved his arm in the direction of the field where the attack planes were lined up with their wings folded. “I could sure use some help around here, they’ve been piling up lately.”

Despite all the newly-put-together, never-been-tried AD’s crowding the field, production wasn’t actually booming at Douglas. The entire testing staff at El Segundo consisted of Laverne Brown and now me. And there weren’t more than ten engineering pilots scattered throughout the other five Douglas plants. The manufacturing of aeroplanes wasn’t one of the more “going” industries after the war.

Brownie showed me around, introduced me to Jerry Kodear, the dispatcher, and a couple of inspectors. “Take a locker, we’ll get you something to fit you tomorrow.” He reached into his desk and pulled out a handbook on the AD. “Look this over … tomorrow we’ll try it out.”

ALONE IN THE SKY

It had been a long time since I had been in a single-engine ship, not since my days of ferrying fighters for the Navy, almost four years ago.

The next morning came up, a hot August day. By eight-thirty I was in the flight room having a cup of coffee and going over the AD manual once more when Brownie showed up. “Think you can find all the knobs?” he asked. “I think so. A few minutes in the cockpit will help,” I replied.

“We’d better go over the starting procedure together,” Brownie continued. “Those Wright engines can be rough if you’ve never been behind one before.” Brownie had the assured air of someone who has been flying for over 20 years. He knew more about how to handle a plane than any pilot I had ever met. The AD before me was the first I had seen at close range but Brownie didn’t take advantage of the fact. He left me pretty much alone.

The panel came as advertised in the handbook. Brownie leaned into the cockpit, ready to give me a hand to get her started. With a deftness that comes with 100 hours in a ship, he brought the big engine to life. I watched the first sequence of his motions, trying to memorise them.

Over the clattering roar of the engine he shouted: “If anything goes wrong, phone us. Take her up for a half hour or so and get acquainted.” He was through, the ship was mine. There was no fatherly advice. He jumped down and walked back toward the hangar.

Now I tried to remember everything I could about single-engine aeroplanes. Remember, with the power you’ve got here it’s going to take a lot of rudder to hold this thing on the runway. What else was there to remember?

Brownie wasn’t kidding, the engine sounded as if it was ready to come out of the mounts. I pulled into the run-up position, unfolded the wings, checked the mags. A quick look at the engine instruments and I was cleared for take-off. On two-five right, the Los Angeles companion runway. Southwest was starting her takeoff roll. Friends from home. I made the senseless gesture of waving and then self-consciously pulled my hand down. Southwest ignored me as she lumbered by. My time with them seemed so long ago.

“She’s got a high rate of climb,” Brownie had warned me. I lifted her off and pointed up. A high rate of climb? That was an understatement.

At 18,000 feet I nose over, reduce power, and there it is again – the world, new, and again always the same burst of exhilaration on the first look down, like a Monday-morning flight after a long weekend. Here is a kind of freedom that I find nowhere else. You are on top of it, nothing can hide from you, an explorer in an empty sky. Up here, you’re big, you can move.

I turn the energy churning in front of me south toward Laguna. There are no passengers in back of me and there is no schedule, no place to be, just me and the AD and the coast of California edged by the mountains. The attack plane is more power than I have ever handled; it’s a big engine, a small aeroplane. At Laguna I run out to the ocean, turn north and jump the waves. The AD is a colt in a blue meadow.

Into a steep climb, the engine kicking up a storm, I pick up altitude and level off. It has been a couple of years since I have been on my back. I try a few rolls and the Immelmanns are sloppy. Some old fighter pilot down there is probably staring at the sky shaking his head.

The dispatcher calls, asking my position. I had neglected to call him and he is checking to see if his new boy is lost. I report my position. The half-hour is gone and on the way back to the field I check Channel 3 on the radio and the remaining two items that had been given me to test on this first flight.

My confidence is somewhat shaken by the sloppy way I have handled the ship in the rolls, and the landing before me I approach with caution. There is another audience, for sure, at the hangar. I kept a little more power on than usual and my approach is fast. I allow lots of room; this time I don’t try and see how close I can come to the end of the runway at touchdown. A nice, easy landing. There is no-one watching.

Brownie greeted me in the office. “How did it go?” Brownie asked. “Noisy Goddamned things aren’t they?” I replied. Brownie snorted, “You’ll think so when you get a rough one. You know the area fairly well, don’t you Bill? Now I suggest you memorise the radio frequencies of all military fields so you can warn them if you’ve got to set down in a hurry.” 

He went on in a serious voice. “We make it a rule that everybody wears a Mae West and carries shark repellent.” He caught the side look I gave him. “It’s up to you, boy, we all wear it. And another thing. Try to call in every 20 minutes or so; Jerry likes to know where the planes are.” Then Brownie smiled. “With Jerry we like to kid a little. Pick out a spot on the map that nobody has ever heard of. It drives Jerry crazy trying to find it. Everybody does it to him.” Then he continued, serious again. “If you get in trouble, let me know. If I’m on the ground I’ll try to help you out; if I’m in the air I’ll join up and give you a hand. We’ll let you take it easy these first couple of weeks until you get to know the ship.”

My first two weeks as test pilot I was allowed to take up second and third flights, after Brownie had worked the planes over first. While I was furtively trying to execute a respectable roll in a hunk of vacant sky over orange-grove 40 miles from the field, after I had completed my test items, Brownie was taking up “first flight” on six or seven planes a day. He would set one down, make out a squawk sheet, climb into the next one, go over the items to be tested, bring it back, write it up, stop for coffee, and off he would go again. It took him a little over half an hour to run through the check items on each ship. He handled the AD like a kiddy car.

Brownie’s Immelmanns and rolls were precise and unfaltering; I didn’t mind confessing to him that I was having trouble with mine. And although Brownie wasn’t one given to “hangar flying” he explained in great and careful detail how to keep from dishing out. After 20 years in the air Laverne Brown, who once portrayed the dashing “Tailspin Tommy” in a movie serial some years back, was a little bored with flying. He had long since outgrown the wild blue yonder stage, but he saw with amusement I still liked kicking it around. Flying continued to be a form of sport with me.

And now I liked what I was doing after the confining routine of the airlines – getting up there and breaking loose. In testing as in no other branch of flying, you are on your own; no-one is leaning over your shoulder. And even though, again, it seemed like a temporary job, with little possibilities for the future, I was happy.

FIRST ‘REAL’ TEST

At the end of two weeks Brownie gave me a never-been-off-ground AD to test. “These things have got a sensitive carburettor Bill, on first ‘go’ you have to find out quick if it’s correctly set. Take it up to 30,000. It’ll cut out and backfire if the setting is off. You’ll probably get a warning before that – the engine gets rough.” He handed me a stack of cards. They listed power-plant tests to be made; a stall-warning chart to be filled, an autopilot card with 10 items to be noted and a bunch of miscellaneous checks. The next-to-last item on the last card included climb, dive and banking manoeuvres. Brownie knocks this stuff off in 40 minutes? “Circle and stay close to the field so you can put ‘er down if she cuts,” Brownie finished.

A new plane smells like nothing else: a man-creation with its own odour-mixture of newly joined, polished parts. The AD was spotless and ready to be tried, the original model had been tested by the engineering pilots for design faults, for stability and control, to see if it would fly. It had been modified and passed and the El Segundo plant was stamping them out at a rate of two a day. Now all that remained was to see if each aeroplane, as it rolled out onto the field, had its parts put together properly. A thousandth of an inch off and the screw would cause the ship to complain and protest.

Walking up to the ship – a plane that had never been in the air – had her wings folded as if she were shrinking from her purpose, a bizarre thought occurred to me. Maybe this one won’t fly at all, the parts won’t mesh. No-one has ever proved this one.

This time I knew Brownie had his eye on me. I read over the cards carefully. Each card had items to be checked at varying altitudes, knobs to be turned at different speeds, and items to be tested in between trim alterations. There would be no sight-seeing on this flight; this was going to be work.

Before I wind it up I enter the gauge readings and set the knobs for items to be checked at take-off. The big Wright engine rips up the morning and I taxi out on the runway. She moves … now let’s see if she flies. The AD picks up over the field, points high. She flies! Things are working for the first time, the parts are circling, pumping, meshing, as they have been engineered to do. A minor miracle.

Climbing to 24,000 to 26,000 to 28,000 feet. I suck my air from a bottle of oxygen. The air is thin outside and the carburettor now must feed the engine its fuel – neither too lean nor too rich. It is set correctly. She doesn’t get rough and I turn the cards clipped to the board that is strapped to my knee. As I come to each new card with its series of tests, I drop or climb to the altitude that the item requires. The entire flight is a matter of reaching for knobs, pulling switches, checking the radio, climbing up and diving all over the sky. Two hours later I return the ship to Brownie: almost four times as long as it takes him for the same operation.

My arms and legs ached from all the activity in the new attack ship and wearily I unfolded into a chair with coffee and the squawk sheet that remained to be filled out – the pilot’s literary attempt at evaluating the ship, an aviation critique.

Brownie came in from a flight, a parachute dangling from his back. “How did it go?” He asked for the cards and my squawks. “You think she needs a little nose-down trim at cruise power, huh?” “Another half-degree will do it,” I reply. “God I’m knocked out. How many operations can a plane have … up and down, back and forth, pull this, pull that …”

He read the cards. “You’ll get used to it. Next time, you’ll coordinate your items as to altitude – it saves times.”

He looked at his watch and went out on the field again. I finished my coffee and followed after him. From the hangar door I could see him taxiing down the field in Number 48, the ship I had just brought in with eight squawks against it. Forty minutes later he landed. I waited for some comment as he headed for the flight office. He walked slowly. It was past quitting time; when he passed me he didn’t stop. Over his shoulder he said, “See you tomorrow, Bill.” He smiled.

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