George J. Marrett: Contrails Over The Mojave

Contrails Over The Mojave cover

Some pilots, though probably due to the luck of the draw, always seemed to get the plane that comes apart in the air.

George J. Marrett was a United States Air Force (USAF) test pilot in the Fighter Test Branch of Flight Test Operations at Edwards Air Force Base during the 1960s, and Contrails Over The Mojave: The Golden Age of Jet Flight Testing at Edwards Air Force Base (2008) is a volume of autobiography dealing with that period of his life.  It’s a sequel to Cheating Death: Combat Air Rescues in Vietnam and Laos (2003) and Testing Death: Hughes Aircraft Test Pilots and Cold War Weaponry (2004), which describe later periods of his life—his time in Vietnam and at the Hughes Aircraft Corporation, respectively.

It starts with his childhood in the 1940s. (The first photograph in the book is of a very cute seven-year-old Marrett and his friend, sporting leather flight helmets, goggles and contented smiles, looking remarkably like the two kids at the start of the film Up.) The book follows him through flight training, Aerospace Research Pilot School, and fighter testing at Edwards until he departs for Vietnam.

Marrett’s keen on detail—well, with a job like his he would need to be, wouldn’t he? So we learn the production history and tail numbers of most of the aircraft he writes about. We also get the full names, ranks and potted biographies of his fellow pilots. What is it with American pilots and their endless nicknames? Once I’d sat through Captain Herbert F. “Herb” Brightwell, Major Robert H. “Bob” Lawrence Jr. and Captain James W. “Jim” Hurt III, I began to fantasize that Marrett would perhaps write something like, “Everyone just called him ‘John’—I never knew his full name.” But no luck on that front. However, as I got farther into the book I began to notice that many of the people Marrett name-checked went on to die, either in combat or aircraft accidents—so I can see why he wants us to get their names right. The ’60s may have been a Golden Age for flight testing, but they were also pretty lethal for fighter pilots and test pilots.

The book is a nice primer on the practicalities of test-piloting. I came away with a better idea of what the job entails—systematically and carefully testing the performance envelope of new aircraft, rather than just throwing them through a few manoeuvres and seeing if anything bad happened. And I hadn’t fully appreciated the pivotal and demanding role of the chase-plane pilot, who sometimes has to get in very close to the test aircraft to check the behaviour of landing gear or control surfaces. This is not without hazard, especially in supersonic flight, when the shock wave from the test aircraft not only generates turbulence for the chase plane, but subtly refracts light so that neither pilot sees the other aircraft in its true position.

I found out what it was that gave the F-104 Starfighter its nickname, “The Widowmaker”. At high angles of attack the wings robbed the high tail-plane of lift, so the tail would drop, making the aircraft pitch up and spin. Marrett was also not very happy with my other childhood favourite aircraft, the F-4 Phantom. It became unstable in various flight modes, and McDonnell Douglas did not adopt all of Marrett’s suggested revisions to the aircraft. He feels that many F-4 crashes in Vietnam were probably because pilots lost control during vigorous combat manoeuvres.

We also read about some seriously strange design decisions. The swing wings on the F-111 Aardvark were operated by a lever in the cockpit that had to be moved forward to swing the wings back, and backwards to bring the wings forward, prompting the test pilots to stick a label on it reading, “Fore Is Aft, Aft Is Fore”. And the XB-70 Valkyrie had landing gear of such complexity that it had multiple failure modes, one of which positioned the wheels inconveniently transverse to the axis of the aircraft.

And there’s quite a lot that ties into the early American space program. Some astronauts, like Bill Anders and Fred Haise, came through the USAF test pilot system at the same time as Marrett. There’s a lot about the X-15 rocket plane, and a little about the politics behind the cancelled USAF space projects, the X-20 Dyna-Soar and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory.

It was while reading about Bruce Peterson‘s crash in the M2-F2 lifting body (a test platform for the later Space Shuttle) that I suddenly thought: I know this crash. A lack of roll control on descent, leading to repeated side-to-side oscillations; then a sliding, gear-up impact with the ground that quickly converted to an end-over-end tumble. Watch the video of the crash, and be amazed to learn that Peterson survived to fly another day:

Yes, it was Peterson’s crash that featured in the opening titles of The Six Million Dollar Man, a TV series still remembered fondly by many of us in Late Advanced Youth:

As Marrett reports in the Epilogue to this book:

Peterson complained that he disliked having his accident repeatedly played on television. He hated reliving his accident week after week as he watched the show […]

Fair enough, really.

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