Test Pilots and Survival

The Society of Experimental Test Pilots (SETP) held its first annual awards banquet on October 4, 1957. These men sat at the top of the piloting profession, crossing the border between engineering and flying skills. They had been rocketed to fame by Chuck Yeager's epochal supersonic flight nine years before. The atmosphere in the banquet hall was electric as the group celebrated its new society epitomizing professional maturity. Six hundred and fifty people attended, many of them making the drive from the dry desolation and professional focus of Edwards Air Force Base, a few hours north in the Mojave desert, down to the cosmopolitan fashion of the new Beverly Hilton. This was Southern California at its 1950s best, as the serious, focused flyers enjoyed an evening in the heart of mid-century Hollywood glamour (figure 2.1).

The fledgling society was barely a year old. To bolster its reputation the SETP associated itself with great names in aviation. On this evening, the group awarded honorary fellowships to Air Force General James Doolittle, the Ph.D.-educated test pilot who led the famous raid over Japan, and to Howard Hughes, the eccentric aviator and manufacturer. Charles Lindbergh had been offered a similar honor, but declined it, perhaps because he had never heard of the society (he would eventually accept the award twelve years later).1

''Honored guests, ladies and gentleman,'' the evening's keynote speaker began, quieting the room. He was Richard Horner, assistant secretary of the air force for research and development. Horner was himself a pilot who had flown in North Africa in World War II, earned a graduate degree in aeronautical engineering at Princeton, and worked as a test pilot (two years later, Horner would become NASA's first associate administrator, the agency's highest civil service position).

Horner began with an anecdote. When he had been invited to speak, he asked a test pilot he knew what subject would be of most interest for the inaugural banquet. ''His answer was one word—SURVIVAL—and it was so immediate as to leave no doubt in my mind that indeed was the uppermost thought in his mind,'' Horner said. He

Figure 2.1

SETP inaugural banquet, October 4, 1957. (SETP, History. Reprinted by permission.)

Figure 2.1

SETP inaugural banquet, October 4, 1957. (SETP, History. Reprinted by permission.)

therefore thought it logical enough that the test pilots in the audience would be interested in ejection seats, escape capsules, pressure suits, goggles, helmets, and the like. Indeed the SETP charter listed safety and escape devices as the society's primary interests. As Horner relayed his thoughts on these devices to his test pilot acquaintance, however, he realized that they were talking at cross purposes. The young pilot had in mind a very different kind of survival—''the survival of the cockpit itself.''

What could he mean? In this, the golden age of test flying, with test pilots energetically organizing for a professional society, what could threaten their existence? Horner immediately realized that ''my opposite number in this conversation was thoughtfully considering such names as Bomarc, Matador, Snark, Thor, Atlas, Titan, and perhaps a little wistfully, Navaho.''2 These names referred to the variety of missiles then under development by the U.S. Air Force. Some were rockets;others had wings and flew like airplanes. Each had the dreaded modifier, ''unmanned.'' The question of survival, then, was not simply for individual pilots, but for their very profession.

Usually in his speeches Horner extolled the virtues of automation. Here he was speaking to 650 people whose livelihoods would be determined by this question. For Horner, the U.S. national posture of deterrence, and the necessity for specialized weapons, virtually required unmanned systems for certain missions: ''It is perfectly obvious that one of the pre-requisites for taking the man out of the systems operation must be the capability to describe very carefully, and in some detail, the characteristics of the operation before it starts. Of course, in some instances the man can be included by leaving him on the ground and providing him with necessary intelligence.''3

Horner prophetically acknowledged the potential of remote control (which the pilots themselves rarely did), but he also tried to mollify the audience, declaring that ''there is a place for manned aircraft in our military systems, now and as far as we can see into the future'' and that ''it is difficult to postulate a military engagement of any kind where the flexibility and discrimination of man's judgment and power of reasoning wouldn't be superior at some stage of the conflict____The strongest advocates recognize missiles as complementary to, rather than a replacement for the manned air-craft.''4 To the SETP audience Horner presented an articulate, nuanced analysis of the engineering trade-offs between manned and unmanned systems, emphasizing that ''the real justification for the inclusion of a man in a system is to capitalize on his reasoning, judgment, and flexibility of response.''

Still, Horner also raised arguments against the presence of human pilots, and he did not dismiss them out of hand. ''In manned vehicles, the same performance goals come easier in a system not handicapped by such idiosyncrasies of the human being as a desire to come home.''5 Technology would continue to progress, Horner concluded, but human operators would always be the same old folk: ''We must recognize... that the one link in the manned system which we have that improves the least in successive generations, is the man himself.'' Horner notably avoided the position that the human presence in military aircraft was inevitable, claiming only that it would be a matter of engineering decision to incorporate human abilities into a particular mission.

The SETP banquet left its members with a new sense of professional camaraderie and growth, but it also left unresolved questions about their future. The next morning, as they read their morning newspapers, the world had changed. For on October 4, 1957, the day of that first SETP banquet, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, dubbed Sputnik, into orbit. The space race had begun, and its first hero was a machine.

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