Milton 0. Thompson was a research pilot, Chief Engineer and Director of Research Projects during a long career at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center.
Thompson was hired as an engineer at the flight research facility on March 19, 1956, when it was still under the auspices of the NACA. He became a research pilot in January 1958.
On August 16, 1963 Thompson became the first person to fly a lifting body, the lightweight M2-F1. The plywood and steel-tubing prototype was flown as a glider after releasing from an R4D tow plane. He flew it a total of 47 times, and also made the first five flights of the all-metal M2-F2 lifting body, beginning July 12, 1966.
Lifting bodies were wingless vehicles designed to generate lift and aerodynamic stability from the shape of their bodies. They were flown at Dryden to study and validate the concept of safely maneuvering and landing a low lift-over-drag vehicle designed for reentry from space. Data from the program helped in the development of the Space Shuttles.
Thompson was also one of the 12 NASA, Air Force, and Navy pilots to fly the X-15 rocket-powered research aircraft between 1959 and 1968. He began flying X-15s on October 29, 1963, only a couple months after his first Lifting Body flight. He flew the aircraft 14 times during the following two years, reaching a maximum speed of 3712 mph (Mach 5.48) and a peak altitude of 214,100 feet on separate flights.
The X-15 program provided a wealth of data on aerodynamics, thermodynamics, propulsion, flight controls, and the physiological aspects of high-speed, high-altitude flight.
In 1962, Thompson was selected by the Air Force to be the only civilian test pilot to fly in the X-20 Dyna-Soar program that was intended to launch a human into Earth orbit and recover with a horizontal ground landing. The program was canceled before construction of the vehicle began.
Thompson concluded his active flying career in 1967, becoming Chief of Research Projects two years later. In 1975 he was appointed Chief Engineer and retained the position until his death on August 6, 1993.
Thompson was also a member of NASA's Space Transportation System Technology Steering Committee during the 1970s. In this role he was successful in leading the effort to design the Orbiters for power-off landings rather than increase weight with air-breathing engines for airliner-type landings. His committee work earned him NASA's highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal.
Thompson began flying with the U.S. Navy as a pilot trainee at the age of 19. He subsequently served during World War II with duty in China and Japan.
Following six years of active naval service, Thompson entered the University of Washington, in Seattle, Wash. He graduated in 1953 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering. He remained in the Naval Reserves during college, and continued flying-not only naval aircraft but crop dusters and forest-spraying aircraft.
After college graduation, Thompson became a flight test engineer for the Boeing Aircraft Company in Seattle. During his two years at Boeing, he flew on the sister aircraft of Dryden's B-52B air-launch vehicle.
Thompson was a member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, and received the organization's Iven C. Kincheloe trophy as the Outstanding Experimental Test Pilot of 1966 for his research flights in the M2 lifting bodies. He also received the 1967 Octave Chanute award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics for his lifting-body research.
In 1990, the National Aeronautics Association selected Thompson as one of the year's recipients of its Elder Statesman of Aviation awards. The awards have been presented each year since 1955 to individuals for contributions "of significant value over a period of years" in the field of aeronautics.
Thompson wrote several technical papers, was a member of NASA's Senior Executive Service, and received several NASA awards.