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Volume 46 | Issue 6 | July 2004


Mojave to the Moon: Before He Landed There, He Flew Research Aircraft Here

photo: Neil Armstrong.

Research pilot Neil Armstrong, who later became the first human to walk on the moon, served at what is today Dryden for seven years from, 1955-1962. While at Dryden, Armstrong was primarily an engineer, which he recalls as "satisfying work." He flew seven X-15 program flights, including the first flight of X-15 ship number three before he embarked on the journey that would take him to the moon.
U.S. Air Force Photo

By Gray Creech
Dryden Public Affairs

The B-29 mothership shuddered, and pilot Neil Armstrong, flying the airplane from the co-pilot's seat, glimpsed a bullet-shaped propeller hub shoot past the cockpit. He looked over and saw that the number four propeller had disintegrated.

Like pilot Stan Butchart, Armstrong reacted coolly, testing the bomber's controls. Butchart's were gone, but Armstrong still had some flight control linkage so together the two prepared the aircraft for an emergency landing. They had been trying unsuccessfully for some time to "feather" the number four propeller (alter its pitch so it no longer creates thrust). Seconds before the disintegration, they had jettisoned the D-558-II Skyrocket research aircraft for an early landing - with pilot Jack McKay aboard - because of a malfunctioning valve on the Skyrocket as well as the large workload the propeller problem presented. McKay brought the Skyrocket in safely on the dry lakebed below.

This hair-raising moment in 1956 over California's Mojave Desert, and others experienced later in space, footnote the illustrious career of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.

Before joining NASA's astronaut corps, Armstrong served from 1955 to 1962 as a research pilot at the NASA High Speed Flight Station, now Dryden Flight Research Center, located on Edwards Air Force Base.

The first airplane Armstrong flew at Dryden was a World War II-vintage P-51 Mustang fighter. He learned the ropes of airborne data collection in this aircraft, honing his techniques during many flights. Early in his tenure, in the HSFS's modified B-29 mothership aircraft, he launched more than 100 X-plane missions.

Armstrong's primary responsibilities at Dryden were as an engineer. Program development, devising simulations and researching the problems of flight while trying to identify solutions took a great deal of time.

"It was a wonderful time period and it was very satisfying work," Armstrong told historian Stephen Ambrose and newsman Douglas Brinkley in a 2001 interview for the Johnson Space Center's oral history program.

He remembered the planning for hypersonic flight - flight faster than five times the speed of sound - leading up to the X-15 program.

"In those days space flight was not generally regarded as a realistic objective, and it was a bit pie-in-the-sky. So although we were working toward that end, it was not something that we acknowledged much publicly," he said.


In those days space flight was not generally regarded as a realistic objective, and it was a bit pie-in-the-sky. So although we were working toward that end, it was not something that we acknowledged much publicly.

--Neil Armstrong,
first human to walk on the surface of the moon.

Armstrong flew seven flights in the famed X-15, including the first flight of X-15 ship number three, before continuing the journey that led him to the moon.

Leaving Dryden and the flight research community to join the space program was a trade-off.

"It wasn't an easy decision," Armstrong reflected. "I was flying the X-15 and I had the understanding or belief that if I continued, I would be the chief pilot of that project. I was also working on the Dyna-Soar, and that was still a paper airplane, but was a possibility.

"I always felt that the risks that we had in the space side of the program were probably less than we had back in flying at Edwards or the general flight test community," he said. "The reason is that when we were out exploring the frontiers, we were out at the edges of the flight envelope all the time, testing limits. We had less technical insurance, less minds looking, less backup programs, less other analysis going on."

That one small step Armstrong made on the moon 35 years ago, on July 20, 1969, followed in the footsteps his flight boots made on the tarmac at Dryden years earlier, where the abilities and temperament that suited him for space exploration were validated time and again.

Today, as a voice that continues to support America's space program, Armstrong sees value in NASA's new vision for space exploration.

  "Our president has introduced a new initiative with renewed emphasis on exploration of our solar system and expansion of the human frontiers.

"This proposal," Armstrong said, "has substantial merit and promise."