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The Amazing Vertijet

Sixty-two years ago this month, the USAF/Ryan X-13 Vertijet completed history’s first vertical-to horizontal-back to vertical flight of a jet-powered Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft. This event took place at Edwards Air Force Base, California with Ryan Chief Test Pilot Peter F. Girard at the controls.

The X-13 Vertijet was an experimental flight vehicle designed to determine the feasibility of a jet-powered Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft. The initial idea for the type dates back to 1947 when the United States Navy (USN) put Ryan under contract to explore the viability of a jet-powered VTOL aircraft. At the time, the Navy was quite interested in exploiting the VTOL concept for tactical advantage. The service envisioned basing VTOL aircraft on submarines and small surface ships.

The USN-Ryan team worked the X-13 VTOL concept for over six (6) years to good effect. While no flight vehicle took to the skies during that time, a great deal of progress was made in the realm of hovering flight using ground-based vertical test rigs. Particular effort was focused on VTOL low-speed flight controls. However, Navy research and development funding was slashed in the aftermath of the Korean War and the X-13 project ran out of money in the summer of 1953.

Fortunately, the United States Air Force (USAF) had become interested in the X-13 and the possibilities of VTOL flight prior to the Navy running out of money. The junior service assumed ownership of the X-13 effort after securing the funding required to continue the program. A pair of X-13 prototypes were subseqently built and flown by Ryan Aeronautical. These aircraft were assigned USAF serial numbers 54-1619 and 54-1620, respectively.

The X-13 measured 23.5 feet in length and had a wing span of 21 feet. The single-place aircraft featured a maximum take-off weight of approximately 7,300 pounds. Hovering flight control was provided via wing tip-mounted yaw and roll nozzles. The heart of the VTOL aircraft was its reliable Rolls-Royce Avon turbojet. The non-afterburning powerplant used standard JP-4 fuel and produced a maximum thrust of 10,000 pounds.

The X-13 was transported, launched and retrieved using a special flatbed trailer. Hinged at one end, the trailer was raised and lowered through the instrumentality of a pair of hydraulic rams. Once raised to a vertical position, the X-13 hung on its nose hook from a steel suspension cable stretched between two mechanical arms. Rather than landing gear, the aircraft sat on two non-retractable tubular bumpers positioned on the lower fuselage.

Flight testing of the No. 1 X-13 (S/N 54-1619) began on Saturday, 10 December 1955 at Edwards Air Force Base, California. The purpose of this initial flight was to test the X-13’s conventional flight characteristics. The aircraft was configured with tricycle landing to permit a runway take-off. Ryan Chief Test Pilot Peter F. “Pete” Girard flew a brief seven minute test hop in which he determined that the X-13 had serious control issues in all 3-axes. The subsequent installation of yaw and roll dampers fixed the problem.

The next phase of flight testing involved vertical hovering flight wherein aircraft handling and control characteristics were explored. For doing so, the X-13 was outfitted with a vertical landing gear system composed of a tubular support structure and a quartet of small caster-type wheels. Thus configured, the X-13 could take-off, hover and land in the vertical. As vertical flight testing progresed, important refinements were made to the aircraft’s turbojet throttling and reaction control systems.

The first vertical flight test was made on Monday, 28 May 1956 with the No. 1 aircraft. Pete Girard was again in the cockpit. Restricting maximum altitude to about 50 feet above ground level, Girard found the aircraft relatively easy to fly and land. Succeeding flight tests would ultimately include practice hook landings wherein a 1-inch thick manila rope suspended between a pair of 50-foot towers was engaged. A great deal of experience with and confidence in the X-13 system was accrued during these tests.

Prior to flying the X-13 all-up mission, an additional phase of flight testing was required which would culminate with the events of Monday, 28 November 1956. With the conventional landing gear installed on the No. 1 aircraft, Girard took-off from Edwards and climbed to 6,000 feet. He then slowly pitched the aircraft into the vertical and hovered for an extended period. Girard then executed a transition back to horizontal flight and landed. The first-ever horizontal-to vertical-back to horizontal flight transition was entirely successful.

The big day came on Thursday, 11 April 1957. Edwards Air Force Base again served as the test site. This time using the No. 2 X-13 (S/N 54-1620), Pete Girard took-off vertically, ascended in hovering flight and transitioned to conventional flight. Following a series of standard flight maneuvers, Girard transitioned the aircraft back into a vertical hover, descended and engaged the suspension cable on the support trailer with the aircraft’s nose hook. The first-ever vertical-to horizontal-back to vertical flight of a jet-propelled VTOL aircraft was history.

Both X-13 aircraft would go on to successfully conduct additional flight testing and stage numerous flight demonstrations during the remainder of 1957. However, innovative and impressive as it was, the X-13 did not garner the advocacy and backing required to proceed to production. A combination of bad timing, a risk averse military and combat performance limitations resulted in the aircraft and its technology quickly fading from the aviation scene.

Remarkably, both X-13 aircraft survived the type’s flight test program. The No. 1 aircraft (S/N 54-1619) is displayed at the San Diego Aerospace Museum in San Diego, California. The No. 2 X-13 aircraft (S/N 54-1620) is on display in the Research and Development Gallery of the United States Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

Posted in Aerospace, History

The Men of Mercury

Sixty years ago this week, NASA held a press conference in Washington, D.C. to introduce the seven men selected to be Project Mercury Astronauts. They would become known as the Mercury Seven or Original Seven.

Project Mercury was America’s first manned spaceflight program. The overall objective of Project Mercury was to place a manned spacecraft in Earth orbit and bring both man and machine safely home. Project Mercury ran from 1959 to 1963.

The men who would ultimately become Mercury Astronauts were among a group of 508 military test pilots originally considered by NASA for the new role of astronaut. The group of 508 candidates was then successively pared to 110, then 69 and finally to 32. These 32 volunteers were then subjected to exhaustive medical and psychological testing.

A total of 18 men were still under consideration for the astronaut role at the conclusion of the demanding test period. Now came the hard part for NASA. Each of the 18 finalists was truly outstanding and would be a worthy finalist. But there were only 7 spots on the team.

On Thursday, 09 April 1959, NASA publicly introduced the Mercury Seven in a special press conference held for this purpose at the Dolley Madison House in Washington, D.C. The men introduced to the Nation that day will forever hold the distinction of being the first official group of American astronauts. In the order in which they flew, the Mercury Seven were:

Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr., United States Navy. Shepard flew the first Mercury sub-orbital mission (MR-3) on Friday, 05 May 1961. He was also the only Mercury astronaut to walk on the Moon. Shepherd did so as Commander of Apollo 14 (AS-509) in February 1971. Alan Shepard succumbed to leukemia on 21 July 1998 at the age of 74.

Vigil Ivan Grissom, United States Air Force. Grissom flew the second Mercury sub-orbital mission (MR-4) on Friday, 21 July 1961. He was also Commander of the first Gemini mission (GT-3) in March 1965. Gus Grissom might very well have been the first man to walk on the Moon. But he died in the Apollo 1 Fire, along with Astronauts Edward H. White II and Roger Chaffee, on Friday, 27 January 1967. Gus Grissom was 40 at the time of his death.

John Herschel Glenn Jr., United States Marines. Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth (MA-6) on Thursday, 22 February 1962. He was also the only Mercury Astronaut to fly a Space Shuttle mission. He did so as a member of the STS-95 crew in October of 1998. Glenn was 77 at the time and still holds the distinction of being the oldest person to fly in space. John Glenn was the last member of the Mercury Seven to depart this earth when he passed away in December 2016 at the age of 95.

Posted in Aerospace, History

Final Flight: Lady Be Good

Seventy-six years ago this week, a USAAF/Consolidated B-24D Liberator and her crew vanished upon return from their first bombing mission over Italy. Known as the Lady Be Good, the hulk of the ill-fated aircraft was found sixteen years later lying deep in the Libyan desert more than 400 miles south of Benghazi.

The disappearance of the Lady Be Good and her young air crew is one of the most haunting and intriguing stories in the annals of aviation history. Books and web sites abound which report what is now known about that doomed mission. Our purpose here is to briefly recount the Lady Be Good story.

The B-24D Liberator nicknamed Lady Be Good (S/N 41-24301) and her crew were assigned to the USAAF’s 376th Bomb Group, 9th Air Force operating out of North Africa. Plane and crew departed Soluch Army Air Field, Libya late in the afternoon of Sunday, 04 April 1943. The target was Naples, Italy some 700 miles distant.

Listed from left to right as they appear in the photo above, the crew who flew the Lady Be Good on the Naples raid were the following air force personnel:

1st Lt. William J. Hatton, pilot — Whitestone, New York
2nd Lt. Robert F. Toner, co-pilot — North Attleborough, Massachusetts
2nd Lt. D.P. Hays, navigator — Lee’s Summit, Missouri
2nd Lt. John S. Woravka, bombardier — Cleveland, Ohio
T/Sgt. Harold J. Ripslinger, flight engineer — Saginaw, Michigan
T/Sgt. Robert E. LaMotte, radio operator — Lake Linden, Michigan
S/Sgt. Guy E. Shelley, gunner — New Cumberland, Pennsylvania
S/Sgt. Vernon L. Moore, gunner — New Boston, Ohio
S/Sgt. Samuel E. Adams, gunner — Eureka, Illinois

The LBG was part of the second wave of twenty-five B-24 bombers assigned to the Naples raid. Things went sour right from the start as the aircraft took-off in a blinding sandstorm and became separated from the main bomber formation. Left with little recourse, the LBG flew alone to the target.

The Naples raid was less than successful and like most of the other aircraft that did make it to Italy, the LBG ultimately jettisoned her unused bomb load into the Mediterranean. The return flight to Libya was at night with no moon. All aircraft recovered safely with the exception of the Lady Be Good.

It appears that the LBG flew along the correct return heading back towards their Soluch air base. However, the crew failed to recognize when they were over the air field and continued deep into the Libyan desert for about 2 hours. Running low on fuel, pilot Hatton ordered his crew to jump into the dark night.

Thinking that they were still over water, the crewmen were surprised when they landed in sandy desert terrain. All survived the harrowing experience with the exception of bombardier Woravka who died on impact when his parachute failed. Amazingly, the LBG glided to a wings level landing 16 miles from the bailout point.

What happens next is a tale of tragic, but heroic proportions. Thinking that they were not far from Soluch, the eight surviving crewmen attempted to walk out of the desert. In actuality, they were more than 400 miles from Soluch with some of the most forbidding desert on the face of the earth between them and home. They never made it back.

The fate of the LBG and her crew would be an unsolved mystery until British oilmen conducting an aerial recon discovered the aircraft resting in the sandy waste on Sunday, 09 November 1958. However, it wasn’t until Tuesday, 26 May 1959 that USAF personnel visited the crash site. The aircraft, equipment, and crew personal effects were found to be remarkably well-preserved.

The saga about locating the remains of the LBG crew is incredible in its own right. Suffice it to say here that the remains of eight of the LBG crew members were recovered by late 1960. Subsequently, they were respectfully laid to rest with full military honors back in the United States. Despite herculean efforts, the body of Vernon Moore has never been found.

A pair of LBG crew members kept personal diaries about their ordeal in the Libyan desert; co-pilot Toner and flight engineer Ripslinger. These diaries make for sober reading as they poignantly document the slow and tortuous death of the LBG crew. To say that they endured appalling conditions is an understatement. The information the diaries contain suggests that all of the crewmen were dead by Tuesday, 13 April 1943.

Although they did not made it out of the desert, the LBG crewmen far exceeded the limits of human endurance as it was understood in the 1940’s. Five of the crew members traveled 78 miles from the parachute landing point before they succumbed to the ravages of heat, cold, dehydration, and starvation. Their remains were found together.

Desperate to secure help for their companions, Moore, Ripslinger and Shelley left the five at the point where they could no longer travel. Incredibly, Ripslinger’s remains were found 26 miles further on. Even more astounding, Shelley’s remains were discovered 37.5 miles from the group. Thus, the total distance that he walked was 115.5 miles from his parachute landing point in the desert.

We honor forever the memory of the Lady Be Good and her valiant crew. However, we humbly note that theirs is but one of the many cruel and ironic tragedies of war. To the LBG crew and the many other souls whose stories will never be told, may God grant them all eternal rest.

Posted in Aerospace, Final Flight, History
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