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Volume 46 | Issue 6 | July 2004


photo: Richard Day.

In a career that spanned more than four decades, former Dryden engineer Richard Day was a pioneer in both flight simulation and in the aircraft design concept of roll, or inertial, coupling. The Indiana native, shown here instructing colleagues in use of the inertial coupling demonstrator he built, came to work in 1951 for NASA's predecessor at Edwards Air Force Base, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. During his tenure at what eventually became the Dryden Flight Research Center, his work influenced virtually every U.S. manned spaceflight program. Day died July 4.
NASA Photo

Day Leaves Behind a Rich Legacy

By Sarah Merlin
X-Press Assistant Editor

At his death on July 4, NASA engineer and researcher Richard E. "Dick" Day left behind a legacy that touched virtually every manned space program in U.S. history.

Day, who was 87, had been a member of the NASA family since leaving college in his native Indiana after World War II. From a long list of achievements - which included pilot, flight instructor and flight test engineer along with significant roles in multiple high-profile research projects - he is perhaps best known for his pioneering work with flight simulation.

Retired Dryden engineer and test pilot Bill Dana enjoyed a personal and professional relationship with Day that spanned more than four decades.

"We opened a relationship when I first came here (in 1958) - he was my very first boss at NASA - and it lasted until the very end," recalled Dana, who as a young pilot was among those who worked with Day and his early flight simulator.

"Dick was the warmest person. And he combined that warm personal friendliness with great technical capabilities. I will miss him a lot."

Day began his aeronautical career in the pre-war Civilian Pilot Training program, receiving his pilot's license in 1938. In 1940, he volunteered to join the Royal Canadian Air Force and graduated from the RCAF aviation cadet program, in which he also served as a flight instructor after graduation.

Following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Day was allowed to transfer from the RCAF into the U.S. Army Air Forces and flew combat missions over Europe in B-17 and B-24 bombers. After the war, he earned a bachelor's degree in physics and mathematics at Indiana University in 1951 and went immediately to work for NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

Day's work at what began as the NACA High Speed Flight Research Station on Edwards Air Force Base and eventually became, evolving through various incarnations, Dryden Flight Research Center had an auspicious beginning with early assignments on the X-1 rocket research aircraft and the XF-92 delta-wing projects. Then in 1953, Day found himself with access to the U.S. Air Force's analog computer at Edwards. He programmed the computer with the characteristics of an airplane - as those characteristics had been recorded in flight - then added a control stick and a cathode ray tube, which served as the pilot's display. With this configuration, he effectively became the first to construct a rudimentary flight simulator.

photo: Richard Day interview.

Day discusses use of the inertial coupling demonstrator in a 2003 interview at his home.
NASA Photo by Tom Tschida

Day's handiwork became an integral part of research in the X-2 program. After a 1956 crash in which both pilot Milburn G. "Mel" Apt and the X-2 aircraft were lost to an uncontrolled tumble, Day was able to recreate with the simulator the conditions leading to the crash, defining new controllability prediction techniques that would prove invaluable in preventing future accidents.

"Mel crashed because they hadn't figured out yet what caused those kinds of (flight) conditions to occur," said Dana. With his simulation research, "Dick gave them the ability to identify those conditions so they could prevent crashes like that one and others from ever happening again."

Concurrently with his work on the X-2 program, Day became involved in similar testing with the Douglas X-3 jet-powered aircraft, designed to accommodate research at speeds around Mach 2. Simultaneous research with Air Force F-100As offered still another environment for Day's simulator work with roll coupling and resulted in a flight configuration that was to give the F-100 aircraft series satisfactory resistance to roll coupling divergence.

But his invention and his capabilities were never put to better use than in the X-15 program, in which Day planned the legendary aircraft's envelope expansion with both the interim and production engines. Using the simulator, he analyzed the X-15's stability and defined key aspects of the aircraft's performance at high speeds.

His thorough understanding of the X-15's capabilities put him in a unique position to serve with mission planning, pilot training, development of operational procedures and energy management studies. He also possessed the right combination of engineering and communication skills - the latter hearkening back to earlier work as a flight instructor - to allow him to work closely with the X-15 pilots as they learned to fly the ground-breaking aircraft.

In 1962, Day had yet another occasion to train young pilots when he left California for the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston (now Johnson Space Center) to become assistant division chief for astronaut training on Project Mercury. There, in addition to training astronauts on the simulator, he developed training programs, wrote skills tests for the astronauts and served on the astronaut selection board.

From 1964 to 1969, Day worked for the Aerospace Corp. on the Manned Orbiting Laboratory project, again as an astronaut trainer. But in 1975, he was asked to return to NASA and the Flight Research Center (now Dryden) to help guide simulation work for the Space Shuttle. From 1975 until his death he worked continuously for Dryden as either a civil servant or a contractor. In 1997, he was awarded the Milton O. Thompson Lifetime Achievement Award.

photo:First flight simulator.

n 1953, he was the first to develop a rudimentary flight simulator, at which he is pictured here. Day's work helped engineers develop controllability prediction techniques that were invaluable in preventing aircraft accidents. NASA Photo

Day authored or co-authored many technical reports and papers in his career, the last of which, titled "Energy Management of Manned Boost-Glide Vehicles: A Historical Perspective," was completed in May. Dana edited the work, and in the process had still another opportunity to appreciate Day's skills as an engineer.

"Editing the paper gave me an appreciation for just how early Dick got aboard energy management for boost-glide vehicles," Dana said. "I had just assumed that people understood energy management intuitively - but of course that wasn't the case. I came to realize just how fundamental Dick was to the development of that technology."

Day's work on that paper spoke volumes about his approach to his career and to life in general.

Undeterred by age and illness, he worked tirelessly to see the paper completed, striving to finish using the latest technology available. While he was convalescing, editorial assistant Debbie Phillips worked with Day via email from his hospital bed. She found Day's dedication to the task inspiring, including his efforts to master electronic editing software that facilitated his paper's progress.

"That kind of pioneering spirit - and his real passion for flight research - was so evident throughout his work on the paper," said Phillips, SCSC, of the Dryden Technical Publications office.

"Countless test pilots have benefited from his extensive work. It really is true to say that his work was, essentially, the wind beneath their wings."

Day died following a long illness. No services were held. After cremation, his ashes will be interred in a Palmdale cemetery. Arrangements for a memorial are pending.

He is survived by his wife of 62 years, the former Dorothy Hungate of Palmdale, two sons, two grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and two brothers.