Not Just Fly Boys Pilots in Space

For pilots, the systems men could represent a threat—they had engineered a fleet of air force weapons that had no pilots at all and their abstract, analytical approach to engineering could seem to crowd out the ''human factor.'' These issues came to the fore as the test pilots began to contemplate spaceflight. As one flight test engineer remembered this period: ''The 'head shrinkers' and the 'spasmatologists' had decided that man had reached the limits of his capabilities. There followed the great millennium of concentrated effort to design man out of the cockpit to make room for bigger and better 'black boxes.' There was much gnashing of teeth and waving of arms but alas, the day of the 'icy B.M.' was upon us. No one wanted the pilot around.''55 The metaphor ''icy B.M.'' carries a triple entendre: it refers to an ICBM, the computers of IBM, and a pilot's view of a ballistic missile as a frozen bowel movement.

Early SETP publications did not so much as mention space, but in the wake of Sputnik the topic began to appear, and soon it came to dominate. It was first brought up by Al Blackburn, in his second appearance in the Quarterly Review in its first three issues. He retained the outlook of an earlier era while looking ahead, explaining the sources of the pilots' early anxieties about space, later obscured by the topic's sheer ubiquity.

Blackburn argued that the ballistic missile, so vaunted by the systems experts, was a transitional technology, ultimately to be replaced by human-operated rockets: ''Tomorrow's space explorer will no more yield his place to canines or automatons than would Mallory have been content to plant his flag on Everest with an artillery shell.'' His analogy elaborates the limitations of ballistic missiles—inflexibility, complexity, and prescribed trajectories, and their incompatibility with heroic exploration (notwithstanding that Mallory never made it home). Blackburn went on to propose a flight test program for manned spaceflight, using as a reference von Braun's book laying out a mission to Mars. Critical to this process, he wrote, would be the pilots' involvement at an early stage: ''Let him delay too long in joining the initial design phase and his craft will have been automated sufficiently to relegate its occupant to a human guinea pig, along for the study of cosmic radiation effects or ennui at zero ''g,'' a stunt rider contributing only biological interest.''

For Blackburn, the presence of human pilots in space had direct consequences for the pilot breed in particular and ''the dignity of man in general'': ''This pilot must prove his worth not just in terms of the weight of computers, servos, amplifiers, and actuators he can replace. More positively, he must show that no degree of redundancy can replace his reliability, no array of transducers can match his perception, nor can IBM's whole inventory of computers supplant his judgment.''

Here one human characteristic begins to appear that will remain throughout Apollo: reliability. The pilot must insist on instrument displays that will show him all the details of the machines' operation so he can monitor automatic systems and take over at a moment's notice in case of malfunction. The pilot is the ultimate backup system. The pilot will ensure the success of the mission.56

Blackburn's flight test plan was well conceived and prescient—manned spaceflight programs would soon incorporate the steps he described. But he also moved the debate forward in a critical way: far from representing a threat to the test pilots, the space age offered the possibility of putting their biggest rival out of business, by putting pilots into ballistic missiles. As he put it: ''Indeed, before its [the ballistic missile's] perfection, we may see it pass into obsolescence, outmoded by man's conquest of space.'' Elsewhere Blackburn wrote that ''the era of the large intercontinental ballistic missile is merely a phase the duration of which is a matter of speculation but the demise of which is nonetheless certain.''57

The pilots, of course, recognized that they could not stand still in the face of ballistic missiles, and their creators, the systems men. The answer lay in professional development. ''We have also experienced a change in the make up of a test pilot,'' Blackburn concluded. ''Doctors have their medical boards, lawyers have their bar examinations, and there seems to be no reason why professional aviators should not have similarly stringent tests of their qualifications.''58

General Elwood Quesada expanded on this theme at the third SETP banquet. A decorated military pilot who had recently become the first administrator of the newly formed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Quesada told the group that given the recent hype about space travel, ''It is not strange, then, that we hear a lot about crew-less aircraft, about airpower without manpower . . . as pilots, we must not let ourselves be caught in this mass sentiment.'' Quesada's solution to the dilemma was to improve the professional background of the pilots, emphasizing, ''The day of the throttle jockey is past. He is becoming a true professional, a manager of complex weapons systems'' (italics mine). Some testing of unmanned vehicles was necessary, he argued, but people should fly into space as soon as possible. ''The test pilot is a remarkable combination of servo-mechanics and complex computers, integrated with human judgment. The computer element is packaged in a bone-encased box of 75 cubic inches. The servo-mechanical element of this complicated machine reaches its ultimate efficiency in the operation of the human hand.''

The pilots' professional qualifications must improve to maintain their status in this new world, Quesada implored, to the point that ''the test pilot, especially the experimental test pilot, is usually a graduate engineer, a superb pilot, a dedicated man, and more importantly, a thoughtful man.''59 Steeped in the imagery of cybernetics, Quesada's language also employs the white-collar keyword of the 1950s: manager.

General Charles Blair, a pioneering air mail and airline pilot who had flown the first solo flights over the North Pole, also addressed the issue head on. Blair speculated on the practicalities of spaceflight, where the astronaut ''better have a good autopilot, perhaps a couple of them.'' He said: ''We all realize we can't operate a space ship by the seat of our pants. This contraption will be loaded with automatic equipment, star trackers, horizon scanners and sensors, inertial navigators, accelerometers and gyros, digital computers and numerous other long-haired devices . . . the further out we venture into space, the more automatic and precise our equipment must be.''

''But it's also a fact of life,'' Blair continued, ''that pilots of all shapes and sizes are allergic to complete reliance on automation. Somehow we like to think that our grey matter isn't just going along for the ride.'' He concluded with a concise statement of the test pilots' professional ambitions at the dawn of the space age: ''This space man must be an educated chap, not just a fly-boy.''60

The SETP publications were not the only or even the most important forum where these debates took place. Its pages doubtlessly reflected numerous informal conversations in hangars, cockpits, and bars as pilots related nightmarish experiences of failing electronics, autopilots going haywire, and nerdy young men with computers who misunderstood their craft. Still, the SETP offered a forum where test pilots could talk freely among themselves while disseminating their ideas to the profession (in effect, creating their profession);its records provide a rare glimpse into the self-image and anxieties of this group of highly trained machine operators. As the decade closed, the experimental test pilots felt keenly the precariousness of their position: automation was making its way into the cockpit and analog computers were changing the basic stick and rudder skills, with digital computers not far behind.

Moreover, systems men were gaining prestige, authority, and experience in laying out the specifications and managing the largest projects. In the military, ballistic and guided missiles were making headway into traditional aviation missions. The systems-oriented mindset of the missileers was threatening to dominate the frontier of spaceflight. For some, the prospects looked gloomy and called for pilots to fight these threats at every new black box. For others, however, the rise of automation would engender a rise in education and professionalism among pilots, the ''throttle jockey'' to be replaced by the ''systems manager.'' Just at that moment, a new aircraft was emerging that would push these skills to their limits.

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