John P. “Jack” Reeder (1916 – 1999) exemplified the ultimate engineering test pilot, possessing an extraordinary ability to analyze the most complex flying characteristics of aerospace vehicles. He could communicate with research engineers, industry, and the military in a professional manner — in complete contrast to the swashbuckling, scarf-wearing, arrogant test-pilot image created by the media. He was highly respected and admired by his pilot peers in the international aerospace community. In his autobiography, astronaut Neil Armstrong called Reeder “the best test pilot I ever knew.” Following his career as an active test pilot, Reeder became a highly effective advocate and manager of NASA research efforts to improve the operational efficiency and safety of civil aircraft.
Reeder was born in Houghton, Michigan. His love for aviation started in the early 1920s, when as a boy he witnessed overflights of flying-boat biplanes flown by the Canadian forestry service. He eagerly absorbed aviation literature of the day, and built and flew model airplanes.
He studied aeronautical engineering at the University of Michigan, where he joined a flying club and soloed in a Franklin glider during his junior year of 1936. He graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering and a high academic standing, including election to the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society. Although he had been smitten by a potential career as a pilot and had personally aspired to enter the Navy’s flight training program, he was influenced by his family and university professors to accept a position with the NACA at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.
When Reeder arrived at Langley in 1938, his first choice for an assignment was working in the Flight Research Division as a pilot; but, the organization already had a full complement of research pilots. Instead, he was assigned to the Langley Full Scale Tunnel, where he worked for four and a half years as a junior aeronautical engineer in the areas of applied aerodynamics, stability and control, engine cooling, and drag reduction. Working with famous NACA engineers Clint Dearborn and Abe Silverstein, he was a major contributor to wind-tunnel studies of the XP-40 and XP-39B fighters, the XTBF torpedo bomber, the A-20A attack bomber, and the radical V-173 “Flying Flapjack.”
His passion for flying did not diminish during his wind-tunnel career. He earned his pilot’s license, accumulated flying hours in general-aviation airplanes, and bought an airplane. In 1942, his career aspirations were finally fulfilled when the NACA expanded its operations with two additional laboratories — the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory at Cleveland, Ohio, and the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory at Mountain View, California. Staffing the new labs depleted Langley’s pilot reserves, and his request for a flight-research pilot position was approved.
During World War II, flight research at Langley was conducted at a frantic pace, as evaluations of prototype airplanes and problem-solving activities for production aircraft carried high priority for Reeder and his peers. He flew over 35 different single- and multi-engine Army and Navy aircraft, including fighters, trainers, bombers, and torpedo bombers, identifying potential problems and providing recommendations for improvements. He commented that his favorite WWII airplane was the P-51 Mustang, especially the prototype XP-51 which he flew in evaluations at Langley. After he retired from NASA, Reeder was thrilled to visit that airplane, which is now restored and on display at the AirVenture Museum of the Experimental Aircraft Association at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. After the war, he served as project pilot for pioneering work at Langley using a P-51 test aircraft with wing-mounted models to obtain aerodynamic data at transonic conditions. He also participated in flight evaluations of the Bell L-39 swept-wing research airplane for the Navy, to evaluate the effects of sweepback on handling qualities at low speeds.
In recognition of his demonstrated superiority as a research pilot, in 1946 Reeder was chosen by the NACA to be the first civilian pilot to fly the legendary X-1 rocket-powered research aircraft with the NACA Muroc Flight Test Unit at Muroc, California (now Edwards Air Force Base). However, after visiting the primitive Muroc environment, he turned the opportunity down for personal and family reasons. Back at Langley, he flew evaluations of emerging jet aircraft ranging from the sleek Navy F7U Cutlass to the Boeing B-47 jet bomber.
Reeder became Head of Flight Operations and Langley’s Chief Test Pilot in 1951, and became an Assistant Division Chief in 1958.
In 1960, NASA decided that all high-speed flight research would be conducted at its Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, and that Langley would lead research on rotorcraft and V/STOL (Vertical/Short Takeoff and Landing) aircraft. Although Reeder spent the majority of his time in airplanes, he became an international legend for his expertise and contributions to the understanding of helicopter and V/STOL handling qualities. (He had qualified as NASA’s first helicopter pilot in 1944. In addition to being a member of the team that drafted the original military specifications for the flying qualities of helicopters, he was a founding member of the Twirly Birds — the society of individuals who flew helicopters prior to V-J Day at the end of World War II.) When V/STOL aircraft became of great interest for military and civil applications in the 1960s, he flew and evaluated virtually every conceivable type of vehicle, including the British P.1127, which became the world’s most successful V/STOL aircraft and later evolved into the AV-8 for the U.S. Marine Corps.
In 1970, Reeder became the Chief of the Research Aircraft Flight Division and developed an intense interest in advanced cockpit technology for more efficient and safer operations in the terminal area near airports. He helped advocate a new program, known as the Terminal Configured Vehicle Program, which brought the prototype Boeing 737 to Langley where it was to become a world-class research platform. Arguably Reeder’s most important contribution to Langley, the airplane became a vital research asset that was used to develop breakthrough technology for over 20 years.
Reeder retired from NASA in December 1980, but the seeds planted by his efforts continued to be productive long after his departure.
Reeder received many prestigious awards, including the 1959 Octave Chanute Award of the Institute for Aeronautical Sciences for notable scientific contributions by a pilot, the S.A.E. Wright Brothers Medal in 1964, and the Burroughs Test Pilot Award of the Flight Safety Foundation in 1967. He also received the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal. In recognition of his superior contributions to aviation, he was inducted into the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame in 1992 and the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame in 2005.
During his 42-year career with the NACA and NASA, Jack Reeder flew 235 different types of aircraft, including 38 single- and multi-engine jets, 40 fighters, 62 rotary-wing aircraft and 8 V/STOL vehicles. He also published over 60 technical paper and reports.
After a six-year courtship, in 1944, Reeder married Langley stenographer Frances Winder. Frances had worked for the NACA at Langley as a stenographer for several famous research managers, including Abe Silverstein and Henry J. E. Reid. Jack and Frances were married for 55 years and had two daughters, Shirley and Carol.
Jack Reeder died on May 23, 1999 at the age of 82.