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This Week In AFLCMC History - October 17 - 23, 2022

  • Published
  • By Air Force Life Cycle Management Center History Office
17 Oct 1957 (Hill AFB) 
The Thiokol Chemical Corporation opened its new Utah Division plant near Hill AFB, where research and development work on the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was set to occur. The Air Force started the Minuteman program in the mid-1950s, hoping to beat the Soviet Union to ICBM technology, and Thiokol saw an opportunity to get into the sol-id-fuel rocket manufacturing business. After the plant was finished, the Air Force awarded Thiokol the contract to build the first-stage motor of the Minuteman missile. The first stage was the largest of the three stages. The Minuteman I missile was first deployed in 1962. 
18 Oct 1917 (Wright-Patterson AFB) 

105 years ago, McCook Field was established as a Signal Corps experimental research laboratory for aeronautical equipment and testing by authority of the Chief Signal Officer. Located in northern Dayton, at the confluence of the Miami and Mad rivers, McCook was stood up to fill an urgent need for the United States to develop its military aviation technology as it entered into World War I. McCook Field would officially open for business on 4 December 1917, and for the next ten years serve as the U.S.’s center of military aviation research and technology. In 1927, the tiny field was closed and its engineering mission was moved to the newly-established Wright Field, which in turn would become Wright-Patterson AFB. 

19 Oct 1990 (Wright-Patterson AFB) 
Huffman Prairie Flying Field - where the Wright brothers first learned the art and science of flying an airplane - was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service. Park Service Director Mr. James Ridenour presented the Historic Landmark plaque to General Charles C. McDonald (Commander, Air Force Logistics Command) at the official ceremony on the prairie outside Wright-Patterson AFB. A replica of the Wright brothers 1905 hangar, where the Wrights stored their flyer, was completed in time for the celebration, which also honored the landmark status conferred upon the Wright Cycle Company in Dayton and the Wright Flyer III at Carillon Historical Park. 

21 Oct 1983 (Digital Dir.—Hanscom AFB) 

The Electronic Systems Division (ESD) at Hanscom AFB awarded a contract to RCA Government Communication Systems of Camden, New Jersey, for the fabrication and deployment of the Thin Line Connectivity Capability (TLCC) phase (Phase II) of the Ground Wave Emergency Network (GWEN) Program. GWEN was intended to ensure command and control communications capabilities for the U.S. government in the event of a high-altitude nuclear explosion. The fear was that such an explosion would produce an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) over a large area, overloading unprotected communication systems and interfering with radio transmissions. Dozens of GWEN sites, like the one pictured, were constructed before the project was cancelled in 1994. 

22 Oct 1976 (Digital Dir.—AWACS & Tinker AFB) 

Oklahoma City Air Materiel Area received the E-3A weapon system engineering and system management responsibility from the Air Force Systems Command. The E -3 Sentry is an AWACS, or “Airborne Warning and Control System.” Its role is to provide improved real-time command and control capabilities to the appropriate Air
Operations Center by capturing and relaying to commanders an accurate picture of the battlespace. To do this, it combines a range of capabilities, some of which are
detailed in the picture to the left, and some of which have been added to it over the years (such as GPS). It is most immediately distinguishable, however, by its huge rotating radar dome—above the fuselage, between its wings and its tail. 

23 Oct 2007 (Mobility & Training Aircraft Dir./ISR & SOF Dir./JSF Dir./Bombers Dir.) 

On this day, fifteen years ago, Air Force leaders met in Washington, DC, to discuss strategies for addressing the recapitalization and modernization of the service’s aging fleet. The resulting roadmap included the Air Force’s top investment priorities: The KC-X air refueling tanker, the Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR-X) helicopter, the
F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and the next generation bomber. Although there have been bumps along the way, the Air Force has started to see some these new airframes come into service. The Air Force’s latest tanker is the KC-46A Pegasus, the newest Combat Search and Rescue helicopter is the HH-60W Jolly Green II, which very recently has been deployed for the first time, and the newest bomber is the B-21 Raider (set to be unveiled at the end of the year). The F-35A Lightning II remains the latest fifth-generation fighter for the Air Force. 

100 Years Ago This Week in AFLCMC History: 20 October 1922 

Lt Jimmy Doolittle looked to the cool, fair skies over the city of Dayton, just across the river from where he stood on the periphery of McCook Field, home to the Air Service’s Engineering Division and its cadre of expert test pilots. His keen eyes tracked a pair of airplanes flown by his comrades more than 2,000 feet overhead, heading southeast over downtown. The buzzing of the identical V-8 engines in the Loening PW- 2A monoplane and more conventional Thomas-Morse MB-3A biplane was still audible. The aircraft lined up in a formation familiar to Doolittle and all the pilots at McCook: one on the other’s tail for a little mock air-to-air combat, with future USAF Vice Chief of Staff Lt Muir Fairchild’s MB-3A in the lead. 

Engaged, Fairchild banked to the left, heading northeast over the neighborhoods to the west of McCook Field. As the Loening turned to follow, something went wrong. Doolittle frowned as he saw something flutter away from the monoplane. Next to him, McCook Field commander Maj Thurman Bane began wringing his hands and repeating, “Oh my God….” 

Up in the Loening’s cockpit, all hell was breaking loose. Its pilot, Lt Harold Harris, felt his plane shudder violently side to side. The control stick slammed repeatedly from left to right against his thighs. As one of McCook’s most experienced test pilots, Harris immediately suspected the trouble. His PW-2A was recently outfitted with experimental balanced ailerons, the moveable parts on the wings’ trailing edges that control the aircraft’s roll. The slipstream air was causing those to flap rapidly up and down, each side in opposite directions - a phenomenon now known as flutter. The stick pounded against Harris’ hand as he futilely struggled to regain control. He quickly closed the throttle and tried to pull back on the stick in an effort to slow the plane. 

To his horror, Harris saw, as Doolittle did below, sections of his fabric-covered wings ripping away. The roll oscillations had wrecked the wings’ internal wooden structure, leaving the collapse of one or both of them inevitable. More than a few of his predecessors had found that it was all but impossible to save an airplane or your own life with that sort of structural failure. In fact, just seven months earlier, Maj Bane’s assistant Lt Frederick Niedermeyer was killed nearby under eerily similar circumstances, practicing dogfighting in a monoplane when the wing collapsed. But in dying, he had just saved Harris’ life. 

On March 13, 1922, “Niedie” had just finished a flight test and stripped off his flight gear when fellow pilot John Macready invited him back up for some combat practice. He chose a Fokker V.40, a derivative of a First World War-era monoplane like the PW-2A, but with a reputation for poor build quality. Its unusually small cockpit made wearing a backpack-type parachute impossible and a seat-pack type chute uncomfortable because it lifted the pilot’s head above the front windscreen. Such excuses were typical; US pilots were not yet habitually wearing parachutes, first because none were available during World War I, but now because they trusted their own skills more than this new life-saving technology and they considered either type of pack a nuisance during routine flying. 

Whatever his reasons, Lt Niedermeyer went up without a parachute and paid for it with his life. The accident report suggested he could’ve escaped had he had one, which spurred McCook commander Maj Bane to issue an edict on March 29th that all pilots flying from his field must wear a parachute on every flight. After all, it was McCook’s Parachute Branch that developed the first practical American parachutes for aircraft and the world’s first free-fall, ripcord-operated parachute - the standard Army Air Service “Type A.” 

Thanks to Niedermeyer and Bane, Harold Harris was sitting on his Type A parachute as his plane shook apart around him. While more than a few of the McCook pilots had tried parachuting, Harris had not. He had, however, piloted for dozens of test jumps by his backseaters, so he had some idea what to expect. 

With his plane in a shallow, but shaky, descent, Lt Harris unbuckled his safety belt and stood up. The 250mph wind blast instantly blew him clear of the airplane and sent him into a tumbling freefall. Witnesses on the ground watched the plane’s wings rip free just as Harris jumped. He recalled not being fearful, even though he was upside down, spinning headfirst toward a residential neighborhood. He reached down to his left and pulled at the ripcord’s D-ring near his hip that would release his parachute from its pack. Nothing happened. He yanked again. Nothing. A third time yielded still no parachute as the ground rushed up at him. In a moment of clarity, he realized he had been tugging on the metal ring for his leg strap. He quickly located the correct ring, and pulled. 

Bane and Doolittle watched with relief as they saw the beautiful white silk “blossom out” above Harris’ head and slow his fall. He disappeared from sight beyond the houses, as a rising pillar of smoke marked his airplane’s crash somewhere nearby. 

Harris looked up at his life-saving canopy, casually wondering how it had stayed so clean amidst the dirty, oily McCook Field, then glanced down at the houses beneath his feet. He didn’t have far to fall because he had dropped precipitously to just 500 feet before he managed to open his chute. To his relief he was headed toward a backyard grape arbor with a spindly wooden latticework that could break his fall. Indeed it did, though he still felt the hard brick sidewalk beneath it as he crashed through the trellises. 

Three thoughts rushed through Harris’ head. First, he wasn’t dead, or even seriously hurt. Second, he hoped his plane hadn’t killed anyone when it hit the ground. And lastly, he had just torn his best pair of pants. 

On that October 20, 1922, Lt Harold R. Harris became the first person to be saved from an airplane crash using a manually-operated (ripcord), freefall parachute. He is also believed to be the first American pilot to successfully escape an impending crash using any kind of parachute. A few weeks later, Lt Frank Tyndall (for whom Tyndall AFB is named) became the second person saved by a chute. Their experiences led Army Air Service Chief Gen Mason Patrick to make parachutes mandatory for all his flyers in January 1923.