I worked at Hughes Tool Company-Aircraft Division in Feb 1962-Oct 1963, flight testing small helicopters. This was the organization used by Howard Hughes to do all of his plane experiments and new ideas, even making Jane Russell’s high-lift bras. But that’s another story.
In the Flight Test Dept, you worked with experimental aircraft mechanics who really knew planes and engines. As a young engineer, you kept your mouth shut around these guys because they had deeper knowledge and more practical experience than I ever dreamed. I’d listen and learn and they were open to teach a 23 yr old kid. Two mechanics stood out, Rowland Howard ( Howie) and John Thomas, the best I ever saw. In those days, everyone smoked and cussed and worked hard. You were judged by your hands-on accomplishments on the job, not by resumes or words or presentations.
One day, the boss said, “kid, fix up a set of these pontoons on to a 269 for a cg test” (Hughes model 269 helicopter, named for it’s length in inches from tip of main rotor to tail rotor). I had a drawing of the installation hardware designed by an aircraft draftsman in the office who came from Canada. We installed the inflatable pontoons that attached to the skids. Mort, the Boss, told me to go to Sears and buy the largest Doughboy swimming pool they had, bring it to the factory and erect it. That took one day. We filled it with water from a garden hose so it was 3’ deep. The idea was to lift the helicopter by crane and gradually lower it into the water so it would float and check the pitch attitude for cg balance.
All the bosses came out to watch and I was the young test honcho that day. I signaled the crane to pick the helicopter up and swing it over the pool. Then slowly, I waved to the operator to lower the ship over the water. All eyes were glued to the pontoons as they approached the water surface. They kissed the surface and I motioned to go lower. Half the pontoon was in the water and the crane cable wasn’t slack yet. I told him to go lower. Pretty soon, the pontoons were ¾ submerged and poof, they broke off the skids and the helicopter sank in the water. The big Boss turned and asked “who the hell designed this thing”? The Canadian raised his hand and was immediately fired on the spot. The Boss looked around at me and said, “kid, fix it!” I took two days and redesigned the pontoon attachments so you could hold a freight train and redid the test successfully. In those days, technical people were held to their performance. If you designed something and it didn’t work, you were gone. They hired you to do a job and it had better be right, period.
In flight testing, you flew with a test pilot and my general job was to direct the pilot and record data for later analysis. We had about 6 test pilots and one day, a new one was hired; Walt Atherton. He was ex-Marine and flew helios in Korea, although he didn’t discuss it. Walt was well over 6’ tall and I was short in comparison at 5’-7” He went into the pilot’s changing room while I waited outside. I wore a t-shirt and shorts cause it was summer and carried a pair of earphones; that was it. When Walt emerged, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There was an astronaut! He was dressed in an orange flight suit with a clipboard strapped to his knee and lots of small pockets and tight leather gloves. Tucked under his arm was a space helmet, well it sure resembled one as it had orange flames painted on it and a dark visor that pulled down. He looked at me with disdain as we walked out to the ship; it was Mutt and Jeff, going for a ride and I was the lowly Mutt.
We took off over Hughes field and as was typical for a new team, the pilot had to test out my worthiness by doing full autorotations to the ground from 1000’. If you didn’t flinch or throw up after three runs, you passed. As I knew this was coming, I resolved not to do anything shameful and acted non-chalant, didn’t puke, and Walt accepted me as his test engineer. We flew many missions together and truly liked each other. What a business!
And what great people worked in it.
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