The Testy Test Pilots

In 1955, Ray Tenhoff, a test pilot for Northrop Aircraft, brought together a small group of his peers. The seven men met in a restaurant in Lancaster, California, a town in the Mojave desert about halfway between two major test flying centers—the air force's Plant 42 in Palmdale (where the space shuttles were later built), and Edwards Air Force Base, a few miles to the north. The men worked at these facilities or at the numerous aerospace contractors that dotted Southern California—companies like Northrop, Lockheed, Convair, or Douglas Aircraft. Tenhoff wanted to create an organization of pilots and a forum for informal exchange of tips and tricks of the trade. Test piloting was a dangerous profession and anything that one pilot learned could help save the lives of others, he reasoned.

Soon Tenhoff and his peers organized a larger meeting. The group dubbed itself the Testy Test Pilots Society and now attracted seventeen members. All agreed that ''the primary purpose [of the organization] should be in the area of personal equipment, escape and survival, and safety of flight''—matters of life and death of interest to all test pilots. Despite this seemingly uncontroversial charter, the members were concerned about ''the distinct possibility of misinterpretation of the purpose of the new society by industry.'' They took pains to assure their employers that this was not an ''advocacy group.''

Why this concern? The founders wanted to make clear that the new group would not be a labor union but rather a professional group—their model was the prestigious Institute for Aeronautical Sciences (IAS). The group also set its own boundaries, limiting its membership to ''engineering type pilots'' (i.e., pilots involved in ''experimental'' or ''flight research''). After some heated debate, a few of the production-oriented members withdrew their participation. At the next meeting, the group dispensed with the flippant Testy Test Pilots and adopted a more sober name: the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, or SETP. Soon they had the trappings of a professional society: committees, dues, even stationary, lapel pins, and a logo—a gold X on a blue background (figure 2.2).

In the following years, the friendly group grew steadily and met frequently to incorporate and organize. The society's first roster in 1956 listed more than a hundred members, most representing the variety of aircraft manufacturers working on advanced projects for the U.S. government—North American, Lockheed, Chance-Vought, Curtiss-Wright, and others. Only nine were government employees—six worked for NACA, and one each for the air force, navy, and marines. Curiously, among these early

Figure 2.2

SETP logo (SETP, History. Reprinted by permission.)

Figure 2.2

SETP logo (SETP, History. Reprinted by permission.)

members, only one would become an astronaut, a young pilot who had just begun flying for NACA at its High Speed Research Station, located at Edwards Air Force Base. His name was Neil Armstrong.

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