After a career spanning five decades, dozens of aircraft and flights that took him all over the globe, research pilot Gordon Fullerton has elected to retire.
But in retrospect, he says there's only one way to sum up his experiences at Dryden and everywhere else his work has taken him.
Image above: Fullerton gets a welcome home after his last flight in the F/A-18. (NASA Photo by Tony Landis)
"My career has been about flying. Consistently. And I couldn't ask for more."
Fullerton has been at Dryden for 21 years, coming here in November 1986 after 17 years in the astronaut corps at Johnson Space Center, Houston. He served most recently as Dryden's associate director of flight operations in addition to piloting a variety of research planes.
He divides his career into three chapters, the first beginning with his 1958 entry into the Air Force. Next came the astronaut years, and finally there was the Dryden phase.
With more than 16,000 hours of flying time, he has piloted 135 different types of aircraft, including full qualification in the T-33, T-34, T-37, T-38 and T-39; F-86, F-101, F-104, F-106, F-111, F-14 and F-15; X-29; KC-135; C-140 and B-47. At Dryden, he most recently flew the T-38, F-18, NB-52B, 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, DC-8, Gulfstream III and T-34C.
Looking back over his Dryden experiences, though, Fullerton says a few projects jump out of the logbook as having been the most memorable. Asked to point up the highlights, he starts with the projects that involved dropping various experiments from the workhorse NB-52B, known as "Balls 8" for its tail number of 008.
"There was the Parachute Test Vehicle," he recalled, referring to a project designed to test decelerator systems for the F-111 crew escape module during several series of drop tests between 1978 and 1992. "More than 50 tests - lots of flying there."
There were the high-speed landing tests for the space shuttle orbiter drag chute in 1990. Then there were the six air launches of the commercially developed Pegasus, in the 1990s, marking the first time satellites were deployed using an air-launched rocket. That one entailed just one of many firsts for Fullerton.
He ticks off a few more. From 1993 to 1997, the NB-52B carried a special test fixture that added two J85 engines for supersonic cruise emissions environmental studies, making 008 the first aircraft to fly with 10 operating jet engines. In the early 1990s, there were tests with the Convair 990 Landing Systems Research Aircraft to test space shuttle braking systems and tire wear. The tests were significant because they allowed the landing crosswind limits of the orbiters to be increased from 15 to 20 knots.
"We really expanded the envelope on landing large aircraft at very high speeds with that one," he noted.
Working with the Russians was another highlight, in 1998. Assigned to evaluate the flying qualities of the Russian Tu-144 supersonic transport during two flights, he reached a speed of Mach 2 and became one of only two non-Russian pilots to fly that aircraft. "Truly unique" was the comment there. "I enjoyed being involved on that one from the planning stages up through the flying."
The list continues. "High on my list as a bomber pilot was the chance I got to fly fighters," he said. Working at Dryden gave him the opportunity to fly a wide variety of jet fighters, from the venerable F-104 to the modern F-15, as well as the Navy's swing-wing F-14, and a highly modified F-111A with a Mission Adaptive Wing.
In August 1995 a revolutionary Propulsion Controlled Aircraft program was completed at Dryden, designed to test the feasibility of landing an airplane using only engine thrust for control in the event of a malfunction of conventional control systems. Fullerton first flew a PCA-modified F-15 fighter, and later a wide-body MD-11 airliner. Sharing credit for the project, he said, "Bill Burcham and I landed both a fighter and a transport using only thrust control." Burcham was the project engineer who came up with the PCA concept, while Fullerton was in the cockpit. "That was really something."
But he considers the three flights of the hypersonic X-43A to be a kind of big-finish milestone.
"I flew chase for the first attempt, and watched [the test vehicle] spin wildly out of control then crash," he recalled. "The other two [both successful], I saw from the [NB-52B]. That was sort of a grand finale."
Fullerton flew many other flight projects, including laminar flow control studies in the C-140 JetStar and F-14 Variable Sweep Transition Flight Experiment testbed; X-29 vortex flow control; and the F-18 Systems Research Aircraft. As a pilot for NASA's DC-8 Airborne Science flying laboratory, he deployed worldwide to support a variety of research studies, including atmospheric physics, ground mapping and meteorology. The project goals were as diverse as the aircraft, but for Fullerton a common thread runs through them all.
"It's not just putting the project entry in the log book," he said. "It's working with the people here, getting to contribute to the design of an experiment, then taking it through the flying part right on through getting the data. It's a package deal with each project, and it's really, really satisfying."
If there's anything he won't miss, he says it's "the managerial stuff - the meetings."
"That part," he emphasized, "really isn't my bag."
Most of all, though, he says he will always be mindful of the opportunities he's been given and the kaleidoscope of experiences such a diverse career has afforded him.
"Lots of people have applied to work here and been turned down," he noted. "I was so lucky to have had the chance.
"The string of really challenging, interesting and satisfying projects - from an engineer and test pilot's perspective, it's been fantastic."
Retirement will give him the chance to pursue some leisure-time activities that have gotten short shrift while working full time: hiking, biking, family travels and two grandsons in Northern California.
"It's time to move on," he says. "There are lots of things at home that I'll have time to do now."
Fullerton graduated from U.S. Grant High School, Portland, Ore. He earned Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in mechanical engineering from the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, in 1957 and l958, respectively. He entered the U.S. Air Force in July 1958 after working as a mechanical design engineer in the Flight Test Department of Hughes Aircraft Co., Culver City, Calif.
After flight school, he was trained as an F-86 interceptor pilot, and later became a B-47 bomber pilot at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, Ariz. In 1964 he was selected to attend the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School (now the Air Force Test Pilot School) at Edwards Air Force Base.
Upon graduation he was assigned as a test pilot with the Bomber Operations Division at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. He was selected to be a flight crewmember for the Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory program in 1966, but the program was cancelled in 1969.
After assignment as an astronaut to the Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center), Fullerton served on support crews for the Apollo 14, 15, 16 and 17 lunar missions. In 1977, he was assigned to one of two flight crews that piloted the space shuttle prototype Enterprise during the Approach and Landing Test program at Dryden.
Fullerton, who has logged 382 hours in space flight, was the pilot on the eight-day STS-3 space shuttle orbital flight test mission March 22-30, 1982. The mission exposed the orbiter Columbia to extremes in thermal stress and tested the 50-foot Remote Manipulator System used to grapple and maneuver payloads in orbit.
Image above: Gordon Fullerton was a space shuttle astronaut, a key part of shuttle cockpit development, flew the shuttle Enterprise prototype with Fred Haise and piloted dozens of flight research projects. (NASA Photo)
Fullerton was commander of the STS-51F Spacelab 2 mission launched on July 29, 1985. This mission, with the orbiter Challenger, was the first Spacelab-pallet-only mission and the first to operate the Spacelab Instrument Pointing System. It carried 13 major experiments in the fields of astronomy, solar physics, ionospheric science, life science, and materiel science (a superfluid helium experiment).
In July 1988, he completed a 30-year career with the U.S. Air Force and retired with the rank of colonel.
Among special awards and honors Fullerton has received are the Iven C. Kincheloe Award from the Society of Experimental Test Pilots in 1978; Department of Defense Distinguished Service and Superior Service medals; Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross; NASA Distinguished and Exceptional Service medals; NASA Space Flight medals in 1983 and 1985; and the General Thomas D. White Space Trophy.
He also is the recipient of the Haley Space Flight Award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics; American Astronautical Society Flight Achievement awards for 1977, 1981 and 1985; the Certificate of Achievement Award from the Soaring Society of America; and the Ray E. Tenhoff Award from the Society of Experimental Test Pilots in 1992 and 1993.
Fullerton was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2005 and the International Space Hall of Fame in 1982. He is a Fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots; member of Tau Beta Pi, an honorary engineering fraternity; honorary member of the National World War II Glider Pilot Association; and a Fellow of the American Astronautical Society.
Dryden archivist/historian Peter Merlin contributed to this article.
X-Press Assistant Editor
Dryden Flight Research Center