Robert A. Champine was a research pilot with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from December 1947 to 1979, when he retired as Langley Research Center's senior research pilot. He began his career with the NACA at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia (as Langley Research Center was then called). He transferred to the NACA's High-Speed Flight Research Station in the Mojave Desert of California in October 1948, where he flew the X-1 and D-558-I and -II research airplanes.
On December 2, 1948, Bob became the 6th man and 3rd civilian to break the mysterious sound barrier. He exceeded Mach 1 on NACA flight 23 checking handling qualities and pressure distribution on the XS-1 #2, after having been dropped from the B-29 mother ship, above the Rogers Dry Lake in Calif. On August 4, 1949, NACA flight 32, he again exceeded Mach 1 performing rolls, pullups, sideslips, and check of stabilizer effectiveness. This was his 13th and last flight in the XS-1. He flew the first NACA research flight of the D-558-I #3 (Skystreak) on April 22, 1949, and the first NACA research flight of the D-558-II #2 (Skyrocket) on May 24, 1949, beginning the supersonic research program for these aircraft on June l, 1949.
In 1950, after two years in the supersonic flight research program, flying the hottest planes in the world, Bob returned to resume his career at Langley. His reason, Langley had about 40 to 50 planes in active flight research while at Muroc the research flights were sparse with a great deal of time between flights due to modifications to the research aircraft and necessary data reduction and analysis. Flights in Naval Reserve aircraft kept him current and when Langley beckoned, he returned and became heavily involved with humankind's venture into the unknown hazards of space flight, the development of helicopter handling qualities and capabilities, and extensive research into V/TOL aircraft (including the XC-142A).
At that time, the Flight Research Division at Langley was heavily involved in the study of flying qualities of airplanes. It had made arrangements with the Air Force and Navy to send the third airplane of each new design (later the fifth) off the production line to Langley for studies to improve its performance, stability, and handling qualities. Champine flew many of these airplanes to perform specified maneuvers and to discuss his opinions with the flight engineers for correlation with the characteristics measured in flight. Typical examples of such tests were those made on the Vought F8U-1 Crusader. This new supersonic fighter had experienced crashes due to flaws in the design of a variable-incidence wing and to instability under high-G conditions caused by interaction between fuselage bending and control linkages. The NACA tests discovered the causes of both problems and led to solutions allowing the airplane to be flown safely.
During the mid- to late 1950s the NACA seriously began the quest for flight into space and Bob traveled to the Naval Air Development Center's centrifuge at Johnsville, Pa., in order to determine pilot tolerance to unknown "G" forces and for performance studies of orbital re-entry acceleration. He "flew" many flights in the centrifuge's gondola strapped into his own form-fitting couch. Each day he had to call back to Langley to get permission (from Mel Gough) to go a little faster. After Bob had reached the level of 18Gs in the centrifuge, he was called away to participate in a conference for the early development stages of the X-15 experimental aircraft research program.
On October 1, 1958, the NACA became the core around which NASA was formed. NASA's Langley Space Task Group believed that the most important prerequisite for astronaut status was to be a test pilot. Bob and Langley engineer Charles Donlan played important roles in the astronaut screening and selection process. The process of choosing the first astronauts was rigorous and elaborate. Bob, at 37, in excellent physical condition, with an aeronautical engineering degree and 5,680 hours flying time, certainly qualified as a jet pilot, especially with his X-1 and D-558 test flight experience, but he was too tall. He would not fit, at 6 feet, into the small Mercury capsule. Bob is classified as a NASA Test Pilot-Astronaut and his continuing research activities helped to paving the way for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts into space flight and for the others that were to follow.
Early in the 1960s, Bob performed many flights with the Rendezvous Docking Simulator suspended high above the hangar floor at Langley to perfect the docking and rendezvous maneuvers of spacecraft that we see being performed flawlessly by today's astronauts. Training in the Rendezvous Docking Simulator improved significantly the chances of mission success by giving astronauts the opportunity to pilot dynamically controlled scale-model vehicles in a safe and controlled three-dimensional environment, very similar to the conditions of space.
Bob retired from NASA Langley in January 1979 having spent many years during the mid-60s working with the space program to develop the concepts of space flight, flight simulation, and the vehicles to achieve a successful lunar landing, which included making the first flights at Langley's Lunar Landing Research Facility (LLRF) simulating landing on the moon's surface. He dangled 250 feet above the ground and flew the experimental Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) simulator to help prepare the astronauts for the final 150 feet of their lunar landing mission. This was done by simulating the lunar gravity environment with a full-scale LEM vehicle using an overhead partial-suspension system that provided a lifting force by means of cables acting through the LEM's center of gravity, and then flying it down to the surface which was modeled with fill dirt to resemble the landscape of the moon. Before beginning his flights, he said he was not comfortable with the set up until he could go to the top of the gantry and walk around to get a feel for the research facility before starting the flights (he always has to kick the tires before a flight). Once he had investigated every nook and cranny of the LLRF, he began his flight experiments. As with all space missions, the successful completion of Apollo 11, and those missions following the landing of the first two astronauts on the moon depended heavily on the development of and continual flight testing of exotic equipment like Langley's Rendezvous Docking Simulator and the Lunar Landing Research Facility, both of which were used for training the astronauts for their successful missions.
Bob continued his last research flights on the VALT (V/TOL Approach and Landing Technique) Program with the CH-47C Chinook helicopter right up to the time he needed to check out on his day of retirement. Even after retirement, he was asked, as a favor, to return to Langley to "fly" the shuttle simulator to furnish Langley engineers with data in preparing for the launch of the Space Shuttle.
Bob flew far too many aircraft for them all to be listed here, but in addition to the ones mentioned above, he flew the Paresev, L-39-1, G-159, JRF-5, F8F-1, F-51D, XF-82, XF-88B, F-86D, F-80, F-100, F-101A, F-47D, T-38, B-57A, B-80, CV-720, CV-880M, C-47, and a large number of helicopters and vertical takeoff and landing platforms including the XC-142A. During his Naval career, he had also flown a variety of aircraft including the SNJ-5, SNB-2, PBY-5, AD-5, F4U, F6F, F8F-2, and F9F. In all, he tallied some 11,300 flying hours in all these aircraft and many others. For his distinguished contributions to national aviation progress, Bob was elected to the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame in 1979.
Bob graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1943 and was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Navy, where he flew many World War II fighter aircraft before joining the NACA at Langley. His flying career with the Navy, the NACA, and NASA covered 36 years from 1943 to 1979, and he flew as a private pilot for 56 years from 1939 until making his last flight in a Fairchild PT-19 in 1995.