After graduation in 1965 from James B. Speed Scientific School, the Engineering College of University of Louisville, I got an invitation from the U.S. Army to come for a job interview. I knew that the Army would make me an offer I couldn’t refuse; so it didn’t take long to decide I wouldn’t look good in khaki. A blue business-like ensemble would better compliment my hazel eyes and dark complexion. My idea was to be a 90-day wonder in the Air Force. Second lieutenant to general in ten easy steps, I mused; but hastily laid plans often go astray. My dream of a climb to the top of the heap vanished when an Air Force recruiter reported Officer Training School was over its quota and closed to new applicants. The Vietnam conflict was winding down, they thought. With the Army hot on my trail, I enlisted in the Air Force. After shaving my head in basic training and teaching me how to drive a 60-man squadron all over Texas, the Air Force sent me to the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, in California. My rank was so low I could trip prairie dogs. My job as a “Scientific Aid and Assistant” was to fly on C-130 aircraft, taking gauge and sensor readings, while the air crew flew the C-130 in a modified trajectory resembling that flown by the Vomit Comet, a modified aircraft developed and flown in a manner to create weightlessness, for astronaut training. The Vietnam War and President Lyndon Johnson came to my rescue when things heated up in late 1965. I was assigned to Officer Training School just three short months after getting used to the airborne torture of my job. Commissioned a second lieutenant in May 1966, I had tours as an Aircraft Maintenance Staff Officer at Beale AFB, California, Eielson AFB Alaska, Da Nang AB, Republic of Vietnam, and Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota. Then, I was an Exchange Officer assigned to Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force in the United Kingdom, after which I returned to Edwards AFB, which was the pinnacle of my career. I was assigned as commander of a Field Maintenance Squadron. This unit almost had the technological and manufacturing capability to build a space shuttle. We rebuilt captured Soviet aircraft and kept them flying against our aircraft in staged aerial combat training and performed other technological marvels. I commanded and managed some of the top Air Force civilian service technical minds, a staff of officers and 200 or so enlisted airmen. On occasion, I discussed repair techniques with Boeing, Lockheed, McDonald Douglass and other engineers. Edwards Flight Test Center is 90 miles east of Los Angeles. In the 1970s it was often a location for movie making and other activities difficult to directly associate with the Air Force. The base was the main location of Tom Wolfe’s book and movie “The Right Stuff.” There were visits by “Superman” Christopher Reeve (our wives couldn’t hide their excitement) and by Steve Fossett, the first man to travel around the world on a hot air balloon solo flight. We met General Chuck Yeager, the first to fly through the sound barrier. I worked with Colonel Pete Knight, who in his early career was the world’s fastest man in a winged aircraft. Visits to Edwards by the accomplished and notable were routine. Perhaps most unique during “my watch” was the attempt by “Smokey and the Bandit” director Hal Needham to break the sound barrier at ground level, and set a new land speed record in a car with a Sidewinder missile as its supercharger. His driver was stunt man Stan Barrett and it was the Budweiser Rocket Car. Leading up to December 17, 1978, Barrett’s early morning practice runs kept the base population atwitter. Our Director of Safety supervised the early morning preparatory runs and was mother hen to all other rocket car operation details, throughout the day. Safety is the utmost priority at the Flight Test Center, because activities there frequently hover on the thin line between beneficial discovery and boneheaded disaster. In time, the land speed record attempt came to a bittersweet end, with Air Force measurements showing the car broke the sound barrier, but no sonic boom was heard.
Most independent observers doubt the barrier was broken, but even if this was the greatest record never set, Barrett still deserves credit.
"I was fortunate to live through that one," he said. "When you go from zero to 740 mph in 16.8 seconds, you're hauling the mail." Hal Needham, Stan Barrett and crew went home and lived happily ever after. The Flight Test Safety Director retired with his rank intact and the Flight Test Center Commander, Maj. General Philip Conley went on to enjoy another round of starlet roulette. It wasn’t enough that my supervisors and technicians wrestled daily with the intricacies of flight test and that I had to run at top speed to keep up with them, because my boss asked me to come up with a gift of “really big impact” for him to present at the farewell dinner for his retiring friend, the Flight Test Safety Director. “Why me,” rattled wall to wall in my brain, “you have other unit commanders here who need a challenge?” He must have remembered that we were close and I had demonstrated a wise ass cleverness that warranted “added duty.” It didn’t take long to decide that a scale model working version of the Budweiser Rocket Car, redesigned to hold a six-pack of Bud, which was the Safety Director’s favorite. I briefed my boss and inquired if this idea would be satisfactory: “Colonel, picture this. The model rocket car comes across the stage under its own power. You catch it, take a full can of Budweiser from the rocket beer caddy, pop the top and toast to a long life for our retiring friend.” I couldn’t make it any simpler, but I was still working on the “under its own power” part of the plan. I went looking for my Speed School text books. When the plans were drafted and the machinists and model makers were working, there was one last detail: power. We needed only enough power to propel the car 15 feet, causing it to coast to the lectern. Let’s see: a six-pack of Budweiser weighs 4.75 pounds. The car weighs about four pounds and must travel 15 feet. If that momentum (pl. momenta; SI unit kg•m/s, or, equivalently, N•s) is the product of the mass and velocity of an object (p = mv), F=d/dt(mv). Oh, where was Mr. Spock when I needed him? I envisioned needed seclusion with Lt. Ohura to get my brain straight after this effort! Oh, to hell with it, pick out a model rocket motor, fire it up and see what happens. We had success on the first trial run, so we were ready for the big time. It was dinner at eight and don’t be late, a lively farewell to a much respected officer. The Officer’s Club was packed. After dinner, it was time for the toasts, which was really a gentle “roast,” followed by our presentation. The boss is at the lectern, with the retiring Safety Director at his side. My merry men, two lieutenants, and I were backstage, waiting for the firing cue and fretting that this could be the end of our careers. When the vocal cue came, the firing button was pressed. Nothing. It was pressed again. Nothing. “Just roll the thing out here” Boss growled, but before the last word rolled off his lips, a third press of the electrical firing button gave birth to an ominous hisssssss. Shuwuuuump, the rocket motor ignited and the three foot long dagger streaked to center stage. MAGNIFICIENT! After a small initial setback the drama went according to plan, sort of. The Flight Test Center Officer’s Club was long overdue for renovation and update. The air handling equipment couldn’t get rid of the rocket motor exhaust. Instead, it dispersed the exhaust throughout the dining area, causing zero visibility, raucous cheering, wives screaming, and General Conley declaring, “They’re going to burn down the club!” I’m thankful it all ended well. I thought I’d seen the last of the Budweiser Rocket Beer Caddy, when my creation left Edwards in the arms of the retiring Safety Director; but, my squadron technicians had saved the plans and presented to me a second copy of the Budweiser Rocket Beer Caddy when I left the Flight Test Center, two years later, newly promoted. I delayed my departure long enough to witness the landing of STS 4, the Space Shuttle Columbia.
Submitted by Lt. Colonel Arley Houston McGill, USAF (Retired)