'Exploring the Unknowns' at Mach 2.1

Interview by Paul Stillwell


Paul Stillwell: That was the apex of the pyramid.

Lawrence: Yes, that’s right. I never regretted going to Test Pilot School, because it really gave me knowledge of aviation and experience that I would never have gained otherwise. So it really helped me significantly in my aviation career.


Stillwell: Please describe the curriculum.

Lawrence: Well, in those days the Test Pilot School was of six months’ duration. I came in and started in the class in February ’56. In this six-month curriculum, half a day was devoted to ground school, and half a day was devoted to flying. The ground school initially gave you a foundation and refresher in math and physics. After you got this refresher, then you started having courses in aerodynamics and performance, stability and control—those specific areas where you need knowledge to be a test pilot. Then you had a flight syllabus. Over the six-month period, it was probably about 25 to 30 flights, and they covered all phases of test piloting: stability and control, flying qualities, performance testing. For every flight you had to write a flight report.

It was a very, very demanding curriculum, because you had to make the flight reports very complete and really go into detailed analysis about what the airplane was doing. The academics were really tough. Some of the things that we were doing in those days were right out there on the leading edge—the state of the art in what was going on in naval aviation at that time.


Stillwell: What do you recall about the flying part of it?

Lawrence: Well, it was really interesting. We did all of the typical things that you do in flying that are very comprehensive: the various types of stability, like the directional stability, pitch, longitudinal stability, lateral stability. You really got a good foundation in all of the parameters that contribute to a good, stable airplane and good flying qualities. So a great deal of that effort was devoted to stability and control, flying-qualities testing. About an equal amount was devoted to performance testing, where you became very thoroughly familiar with what constitutes fuel consumption and designing wings and fuselage that are most economical from the fuel-consumption aspect. So you really got a thorough foundation in all aspects of aeronautical engineering. I really enjoyed it. I really learned a lot about it.

And you had to do an in-the-class project. It was what they call a Navy preliminary evaluation, just like you were a test pilot going out to fly an airplane for the first time. You had to write a comprehensive Navy preliminary evaluation on it. I chose the F9Fs. I was given the F9F-6 model, so that was a real challenge to do a Navy preliminary evaluation on it. 2


Stillwell: That F9F-6 was one of the early swept-wing planes, wasn’t it?

Lawrence: That’s right. That was really one of the first supersonic airplanes.


Stillwell: What do you recall about flying that one?

Lawrence: Well, it was an interesting airplane to fly, but compared to the later breed of supersonic airplanes, it was very rudimentary. It basically had a fairly thick wing, and in order to go supersonic, you had to get into a steep dive and literally punch through Mach 1. 3 But it was just all a step toward the more improved quality-performance airplane.


Stillwell: We were talking earlier about psychological barriers. Ten years before that there had been a great psychological barrier about Mach 1.

Lawrence: Yes.


Stillwell: The thought was that people would be killed at that speed, it wasn’t achievable.

Lawrence: Well, that’s right. Everybody visualized a wall that you had to punch through. Of course, the early breed of airplanes, like the F9F-6 Cougar, had basically a thick wing. The thicker the wing, the more shock waves would be developed on there as the airflow became supersonic over the wing. So it was, literally, like hitting a brick wall, because as the shock waves developed on the wing of the airplane, the drag increased significantly. That’s why you see pictures of a guy going supersonic, seeing his head turn around, and all sorts of violent reactions, skidding into the turbine airflow caused by these shock waves.

I remember going supersonic in the F9F-6, which was really quite something. You had to go up, turn over, and then point the airplane straight down. Then, of course, when I came over to the flight-test division, I started flying airplanes like the F8U, which you could fly supersonic straight and level. 4 So I really saw quite an enhancement in the airplanes during that time at the test center.


Stillwell: How did that kind of grind you describe affect your family life?

Lawrence: Well, it was tough. We had two young children, and then we were building a house in the middle of all of this. So we had to accommodate all that. But my wife had grown up in the Navy; her father was a naval aviator, and she was really very positive about it all and a real good trouper. But we both had to work hard. That was just a way of life in those days. You just accepted the fact that you worked hard in those younger years.


Stillwell: And the Navy reinforced that system with its low pay scales.

Lawrence: That’s right, yes, but we were all happy. We didn’t know any better. There was tremendous professional camaraderie. And, of course, I had these exciting aspects of the astronaut program starting while I was a test pilot. I went through all the astronaut-selection tests with Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter, and all those guys.

Stillwell: Admiral [Thomas B.] Hayward told me he was in that, as well.

Lawrence: Yes. Tom Hayward went through those tests. Tom Hayward and I and all the other guys were in the final 32 for the Mercury program. They detected a heart murmur in my case. They sent me up to the top cardiologist in the Air Force at Andrews Air Force Base hospital. He pored over me for several hours and confirmed that I did have a murmur, so I got disqualified, even though I was the youngest guy in the group. But I knew that John Glenn and Al Shepard would probably be picked, because they were the best pilots we had at Patuxent at that time, I felt.


Stillwell: It was fascinating to read in Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff all the medical tests, men treated as guinea pigs.

Lawrence: Yes. Also, several of us were covered in [James] Michener’s book Space . 5


Stillwell: How did that come about? Did he talk with you?

Lawrence: Well, it surprised me. His book was not written until a good 20 years after I’d been at the test center.

Somebody mentioned to me one time, “Hey, your name is in the book Space .” I was mentioned along with Shepard, Carpenter, Glenn, and Pete Conrad.


Stillwell: It was a very favorable mention too.

Lawrence: Well, it surprised me, because I didn’t know that he would even know about me. But I was fortunate when I was at Patuxent, because I did some of the really new things in the Navy. I was in the group of guys sent out to do the competitive evaluation of the F8U-3 and the F4H, which were the first Mach 2 breed of airplanes. I had been picked to be the project pilot on the F8U-3. The F8U-3 had the same basic plan form configuration as the F8U-1—the two-position wing, everything. 6 But it had a much thicker fuselage, because it had a J75 engine, which had the capability of about 28,000 pounds of thrust. The old F8U-1 had a J57, which was about 18,000 pounds of thrust. So you had a 10,000-pound thrust increase, and so that made it Mach 2–capable. I was selected to be the project pilot on that.

The F4H had the two J79 engines, and they gave it about 30,000 pounds of thrust. 7 Lieutenant (j.g.) Dick Gordon, who later on was an astronaut, was the project pilot for that. Other members of the team were Captain Bob Elder, who’s one of the famous naval aviators; Commander Larry Flint, who went on to distinguish himself, some high-altitude records; and Commander Don Engen, who retired as a vice admiral. We were the principal members of the team that did the joint evaluation.

So we went out to Edwards Air Force Base to fly these airplanes. 8 Captain Bob Elder, as our team leader, decided he would do the first flight in the F4H, and he would let Commander Larry Flint do the first flight in the F8U-3. The manufacturer was just McDonnell in those days; it wasn’t yet McDonnell Douglas. 9 Mr. Mac, the old Mr. McDonnell who formed that company, controlled everything in that company. 10 He was very, very conservative, so—even though his own pilots had flown the F4H on quite a few flights—he laid down the requirement that on that first flight by a Navy pilot, he should only go out to 1.5 Mach number. The pilot should just do some maneuvering and come back in and do some slow flight, practice landings, and so forth.

Well, it was my plan, as the project officer of the F8U-3, that on our first flight, if it felt comfortable, we were going to fly 2.1 Mach number. Larry Flint was going to take the first flight about the same time as Bob Elder taking the first flight in the F4H. We were briefing for the flight, and Larry Flint was very hoarse. Finally, he turned to me and said: “Hey, Bill, you’re going to have to take this flight, because I don’t feel too good. I’m coming down with some laryngitis and a fever.”

I said, “Great, I’ll take it.” So I took the first flight in the F8U-3, and I got airborne just about the time as Bob Elder in F4H. 11 He went out to 1.5 Mach number, and I went out to 2.1, so I became the first naval aviator to go twice the speed of sound in a Navy airplane. Old Bob has always had his nose a little bit out of joint about that, although he did some very distinguished things as a naval aviator. I think he made the first jet carrier landing when he was executive officer in VF-5. 12 It always miffed him a little bit that we weren’t restrained in the F8U-3 and chose to go Mach 2 on our first flight.

It was very interesting, because we were the first guys, really, in military aviation to explore a high Mach-number flight in military-type airplanes, as opposed to experimental airplanes, like the X-15 and those sorts of things. Because the F-102, which was the only Air Force airplane that was Mach 2–capable, could only go out to Mach 2, and you had to try to come back and land. It just didn’t have much fuel capacity.

I did a lot of exciting things, flew a rocket airplane. We had a rocket put in an FJ?4, the first real rocket flying that we did. 13


Stillwell: Well, for those of us who haven’t had the experience, what is the sensation of going that fast?

Lawrence: Well, you notice things that you don’t sense otherwise; one thing is aerodynamic heating. The friction of the air on the plane’s skin has a heating effect that is proportional to the square of the Mach number. So if you’re at Mach 2, you’re getting four times the aerodynamic heating than you are at Mach 1. So as you get out there, you feel the heat starting to build up in your cockpit.

The other thing you see is that the airplane is much less tolerant of any vibration or anything like that. In aeronautical terms, the term for aerodynamic pressure is Q, and the high-Q flight, where there’s tremendous pressure on that airplane, any vibration or out-of-balance flight produces very pronounced effects. So the margins for error in those high-speed airplanes are really decreased. As I say, we were getting into these airplanes fairly early. The contractors had flown just a certain amount of flights. In fact, I flew the 100th flight in the F8U-3, so that was how early we were getting in these airplanes.


Stillwell: One of the other themes that Tom Wolfe developed was the repression-of-danger aspect of test piloting, that you figure you’re not going to be the one that crashes, because that only happens to people who screw up, and I won’t screw up. Was that the kind of attitude that was prevalent?

Lawrence: Oh, yes. In order to be a good military pilot, jet pilot, I think you have to be very much of an optimist. I think we all basically had that attitude. But I wasn’t naïve; I knew it could happen to me, so I always tried to have my personal affairs all organized. But it was a very high-risk time. And, of course, I was the first guy to come to the test center that had gone through safety school. So I became the safety officer for flight test, and we had a tremendous amount of our accidents while I was there.

We had an F8U-1 in which the pilot, Tim Kean, a Marine major, and I were working together on a control project where he kept the airplane in afterburner at low altitude. About five miles after takeoff, he got into what we call a pilot-induced oscillation. It just pulled the wing right off the airplane. He was killed, and then we found out that the ejection seat had an incompatible firing pin that was supposed to fire to release his seatbelt and shoulder harness to allow the ejection to take place.

In those days, in the ’50s, we were introducing about six or eight new airplanes. Nowadays, the F-18 has been the only airplane we’ve been able to introduce into carrier aviation in the last 15 years. 14 So for the test pilots of that time, our opportunities exploring the unknowns were far greater than those today.


Stillwell: Well, you got your wish. You said that the reason you sought aviation out of the Naval Academy was to get in on this cutting edge.

Lawrence: It was really an exciting time to be in the aviation game. We lived a lot with imminent danger. We lost a lot of people. Just like Tom Wolfe said, it seemed you were going to funerals all the time. It’s a very heartwarming thing that naval aviation is so much safer today than it was in that time. We’re about 25 times safer today, statistically, than we were in those days, if you look at the number of accidents per 10,000 hours.

1. Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California.

2. The Grumman F9F-6/F9F-7/F9F-8 Cougar was first delivered to operational units in November 1952. The F9F-6 model was 42 feet long, wingspan of 36 feet, gross weight of 20,000 pounds, and top speed of 690 miles per hour. It was armed with four 20-mm guns. The Cougar had swept wings and was a substantial improvement over its straight-wing predecessor, the Panther.

3. A Mach number, named for Austrian physicist Ernst Mach, represents the speed of an object divided by the speed of sound, 768 miles per hour. Thus anything above Mach 1 is described as supersonic.

4. The F8U Crusader was a jet fighter built by Chance Vought Aircraft Corporation, Dallas, Texas. It first entered fleet squadrons in 1957. The F8U was 54 feet, 6 inches long; wingspan of 35 feet, 2 inches, gross weight of 34,000 pounds, a top speed of 1,120 miles per hour. It was armed with four 20-mm cannon and could also carry bombs, rockets, or Sidewinder missiles. In 1962 the plane was redesignated F-8.

5. James A. Michener, Space (New York: Random House, 1982).

6. The plan form is the view looking down from above the airplane.

7. The McDonnell Douglas F4H Phantom II first entered fleet squadrons in 1961 as the F4H and was redesignated F-4 in 1962. It was a two-seat airplane with the pilot in the front and the radar intercept officer (RIO) behind him. The F-4B version had the following characteristics: length, 58 feet; wingspan, 38 feet; gross weight, 54,600 pounds; top speed, 1,485 miles per hour. It was armed as a fighter with either Sparrow or Sidewinder missiles and also could carry bombs. It had a maximum external-stores capacity of 16,000 pounds.

8. Edwards Air Force Base is on the border of Kern County and Los Angeles County, California, about seven miles east of Rosamond. It is located next to a dry lake that provides an extension of the base’s runways. Edwards has long been used for experimental flight testing.

9. In 1967 the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation merged with the Douglas Aircraft Company to form the McDonnell Douglas Corporation. A merger with Boeing in August 1997 produced the Boeing Company.

10. James S. “Mac” McDonnell (1899-1980) founded the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in 1939.

11. This test was in September 1958.

12. On 21 July 1946, LCDR James Davidson, USN, made the first jet carrier landings and takeoffs in a McDonnell FD-1 Phantom; the ship was the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVB-42).

13. The FJ-4 Fury, built by North American Aviation, was a swept-wing carrier-based jet fighter. It had increased fuel capacity and range over the FJ-3. Squadron delivery, mostly to the Marine Corps, began in 1955. Two of the planes were converted to the FJ-4F version to test auxiliary rocket engines.

14. The F/A-18 Hornet, originally built by McDonnell Douglas, is a jet aircraft capable of both fighter and attack roles. It first entered operational service with VFA-125, a fleet readiness squadron, in May 1980.


Paul Stillwell is an independent historian and retired naval officer. He worked for thirty years at the U.S. Naval Institute as an oral historian and editor of Naval History magazine. He is the author or editor of a dozen books, including four on battleships and an award-winning volume on the Navy's first African American officers, The Golden Thirteen.

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