NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Houston, Texas – 5 May
Wright: Today is May 5th, 2004. This
oral history interview with General Joe Henry Engle is being conducted
for the NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project in Houston,
Texas. The interviewer is Rebecca Wright, assisted by Sandra Johnson.
This session is a continuation of the oral history session begun on
April 22nd, where we talked to General Engle about his days with the
United States Air Force at Edwards Air Force Base [California]. We’re
going to start again today with him sharing some more memories of
those days as a test pilot.
We thank you again for taking time this morning to come in and visit
with us. You mentioned some of the aircraft that you flew in our previous
session, and I wanted to visit that topic one more time before we
moved on. Are there others that you would like to talk about, especially
the lifting bodies?
Engle: I was really lucky to get to
fly the lifting bodies. Not very much, only one or two flights, but
the lifting bodies, particularly the early versions of the lifting
bodies, were very unique flying airplanes. They were difficult to
fly. They required tremendous pilot attention to the task, because
they had very poor roll-yaw coupling in the flight controls. There
was no augmented flight control system and no stabilization in any
of the axes, so it was all manual.
In fact, the one that I flew was the M2-F1, which was kind of the
prototype, really, for all the lifting bodies. It was even made out
of plywood by a fellow named [William “Gus”] Briegleb,
who built gliders in the area out there. Paul [F.] Bikle, who was
the head of what is now [NASA] Dryden [Flight] Research Center [Edwards,
California], was an avid glider pilot/sailplane pilot, and knew him
very well and knew that he could construct a very low-cost vehicle
of the right shape to check out the aerodynamic characteristics for
So the first of the lifting bodies was a plywood version and looked
just like a bathtub. Probably flew about the same as a bathtub, too.
It was not an easy, relaxing, fun vehicle to fly, but it was challenging
and it was very, very interesting. It had a very, very low lift-to-drag
ratio, which meant that you had to glide in very, very steep, in order
to keep energy built up to flare and touch down and land then.
The flights in the lifting bodies were preceded by a course in glider
flying, mainly so that we could get some time on a towrope behind
a tow vehicle, and that was very useful. I had not done any soaring
to speak of before then, but really thoroughly enjoyed that as well.
The first lifting-body flights were ground tows, towed behind a vehicle,
behind a Pontiac GTO convertible. It had a 427 engine in it, I believe,
a souped-up 427 engine and flat racing tires on the back end so that
it had good traction out on the dry lakebed, and a five-speed manual
transmission. I remember it was every hotrodder’s dream, and
Mr. Bikle very, very adamantly forbade any of the test pilots from
driving it out on the lakebed, because he knew that we would just
have too much fun with it out there. So we were restricted from driving
the vehicle, but we were towed by that vehicle on our first lifting-body
flights. Get us off the ground, familiar with the handling qualities
of the lifting body, and then cut loose and glide back in.
Normally, the lifting bodies were towed behind a [Douglas] C-47 [Skytrain].
They were towed right up over the lakebed, circled up over the lakebed,
then you’d cut loose and glide down and land.
Let’s see. The lifting bodies were thought to probably be predecessors
to controlled entry vehicles and horizontal landing vehicles, space
vehicles. It turned out that because of the high demand on the piloting
task for control of the vehicle and for landing, they were not really
the right choice. There needed to be some wing on a vehicle to give
it a little better glide ratio, give it a little better controllability
and stability than the lifting bodies exhibited. Today, lifting body
would probably be a conceivable thing to do because flight control
systems and avionics have advanced so far that you can build in automatic
or artificial stability and artificial control, as a matter of fact.
So now it might be a more reasonable thing to pursue.
The purpose of the lifting body was to attain a very, very blunt shape
that didn’t have any sharp leading edges like a wing does, because
those small-radius leading edges are very, very susceptible to high
heating during the entry. The shock wave can stand in very close to
them and transfer that heat of reentry to the structure of the vehicle
much more efficiently than if you have a blunt body, kind of like
a blunt prow on a boat as it goes through the water, the bow wave
stands out in front of it, much the same as happens in a vehicle when
it’s reentering the atmosphere. So although the goal and the
concept was good at that time, I think they were just a little ahead
of their time.
The final modification to the lifting bodies was the X-24C. The X-24
was the third in a series of basic lifting-body shapes that were designed
and attempted. Then the X-24 was modified and kind of a wing was put
on it, which made it a much more controllable airplane, much more
easy to land. The pilot task was reduced tremendously. And the X-24C
probably had a lift-to-drag ratio or glide ratio very similar to the
The lifting bodies eventually, after the M2-F1, which was the plywood
one that I talked about, all the rest were aluminum construction,
and all the rest had one form or another of a small rocket engine
in them, either for landing in the pattern to flatten out the approach
and flatten out the landing, give the pilot more time to land.
Or, in the case of the X-24, the engine was ignited, carried up—it
was carried up much like the [North American] X-15, under the wing
of the [Boeing] B-52. After launch, the engine would be lit and accelerated
out, and the X-24C got to, I believe, almost Mach 2, and I don’t
recall the altitude, but it expanded the envelope enough to see that
landing a vehicle of that type was very, very reasonable to proceed
That kind of summarizes what I can think of right now on lifting bodies.
I didn’t fly the lifting body very much at all. Mr. Bikle, once
I started flying the X-15, my other flying duties down at Fighter
Test Operations at the Air Force side of the ramp just about took
up all my time, so I really didn’t have any time to devote to
the lifting bodies.
Wright: Out of the three X-15 planes,
you flew numbers one and number three. Did you ever have an opportunity
to fly the modified X-15, number two?
Engle: No, I didn’t. The -2, the
modified airplane was, as you know, a rebuild of the airplane that
[John B.] Jack McKay had had the landing accident with at Mud Lake,
actually rolled over on its back and did extensive damage to the airplane.
But the airplane is pretty tough. So the decision was made not only
because the structure of the airplane, the fuselage was reparable,
but also because there was a desire to provide a platform to take
the scramjet engine, which was an engine design concept at that time
to try and have an engine that would operate in the atmosphere at
speeds up to Mach 8. The desire was to have some platform to get this
engine out to Mach 8, try the ignition, see if it could propagate
the flame in the engine, and propagate ignition.
So the decision was made to rebuild X-15-2, put tanks on it to give
it more propellant to accelerate out faster, and mount this small
prototype scramjet engine on the lower ventral fin of the X-15.
[Robert A.] Bob Rushworth had begun the initial checkout on the X-15-2
and he received his orders to go to his next assignment, which was
not imminent, but it was a few months, six to eight months down the
pike. I was the backup Air Force X-15 pilot, and so I was designated
to take over and do the envelope expansion on the number two airplane,
on -2. But before starting the checkout program, the next NASA selection
had come along and it was pretty obvious that I needed to make a longer-range
career choice, whether to apply to come down here to NASA or to finish
out the envelope expansion on the X-15 and then go to the next Air
Force assignment, which there was no way of telling what that would
I chose to take the assignment to NASA here, and when I did that,
then [William J.] Pete Knight was brought on board as actually Bob’s
replacement—actually my replacement on the program—and
Pete was the one who then eventually flew the X-15 too and expanded
the envelope on out, after Bob Rushworth left.
Wright: Before you moved on to your
assignment to NASA, you had more duties at Edwards, including one
being a chase pilot. Could you share with us the duties of a chase
pilot and how important it is to the success of the whole program
to have that person in that place?
Engle: Chase pilots and chase planes
were used extensively at Edwards, and they are very, very valuable.
They’re a safety item that provides visual observation and provides
a lot of good operational information. If you’re having an emergency
onboard, the chase pilot always had a checklist for the type of aircraft
you were flying, and he could go through and read off checklist items,
emergency items, to make sure you didn’t miss anything in taking
care of an emergency that you were having.
It was very valuable in confirming that configuration on an airplane,
particularly for any test data point, if you had flaps set in a certain
position or a gear up or down, or if you had external stores on the
airplane, confirmation that these were in place and that they were
stable, the gear was down if you were going to land, or stores had
separated, in many cases, at different speeds and flight conditions.
And if you had some sort of indication that you had either a fire
or a hydraulic leaks, the chase pilot could confirm or at least tell
you that there was no visual indication of smoke coming out of the
airplane or of a hydraulic leak, hydraulics coming out.
In the case of the X-15, probably one of the more valuable contributions
of the chase pilot was after joining up in the pattern and following
you down in the pattern, he could confirm that either the lower ventral
fin had separated so that you could land the airplane okay, then as
you flared and started to float into the touchdown and put the gear
down, he could confirm that the gear was down.
On the X-15, it was very critical that the gear come down, of course
like in any airplane, but particularly the nose gear, because the
main gear, the skids, were located at the very aft end of the X-15,
so as soon as they touched, there was no fulcrum for the horizontal
stabilizer to allow the pilot to ease the nose down slowly. The nose
was going to slam down very hard. It was designed to do that for stability
on the lakebed. The nose wheel had no steering, so the skids in the
back created drag and that created the stabilization for the slideout.
But the nose came down so hard, that without the shock absorbing of
the nose strut to absorb that impact, it would have crushed the pilot,
vertebrae certainly, and done damage to the airplane. And the gear
was not put down until after the flare and the float into touchdown
because of the additional drag. So if the nose gear didn’t come
down, the chase pilot would call that out, and the X-15 pilot really
had no recourse but to then punch out, bail out, right there, just
before the airplane touched down, to avoid injury.
You couldn’t tell how high off the ground you were and you didn’t
have power in the X-15—it was an unpowered landing—so
being able to go in while your air speed was bleeding off very rapidly
and get down close to the ground, be ready to touch down at the right
speed, was very important in the X-15. And the chase pilot would fly
in very close formation with you all the way down to touchdown and
call out the height of the skids above the ground so you knew how
high you were. It was a skill that good test pilots really developed
in calling a very steady chant and a very even chant on height above
the ground, every three feet, two feet, one foot, six inches, six
inches, and if you ballooned a little, they’d call one foot,
back to one and a half, so that you knew exactly what was happening
and how far off the ground you were, and that was very useful. In
fact, we did that on the initial flights on the Space Shuttle, using
chase pilots to call the height of the gear above the ground, because
at that point in time we didn’t really have confidence in the
calibration of the radar altimeter in the Space Shuttle, and we didn’t
have radar altimeters in the X-15.
Other instances, we spoke earlier of chasing [Jacqueline] Jackie Cochran
when she set her speed record, the chase pilot could be a tremendous
help in offloading the prime pilot, in this case, Jackie. She was
flying closed course, which meant essentially a continuous circle.
She had to go outside of the imaginary pylons, which were determined
by radar points on the ground, and had to hold a certain altitude.
She had to end up, after completing the 15 kilometer closed course,
she had to end up at an altitude equal to or higher than what she
entered or it would be an invalid run. So it was a matter of her accelerating
into the tangent of the circle she was going to fly, rolling in, holding
a certain G-load, which meant a bank angle and back-stick pressure,
not too much so that she cut inside the course, and not too little
so that she drifted outside and had a longer course to traverse and
therefore take her more time. In addition to that, she had to hold
the altitude or at least end up with a positive altitude.
When she was developing her proficiency in this maneuver, the chase
pilot, while she was concentrating on whichever variable she wanted
to concentrate on, whether she wanted to concentrate on Gs or bank
angle or altitude or what, there were a lot of variables shifting
around, and the chase pilot was really valuable in helping the pilot
develop those skills by calling out her altitude precisely if she
started to drop a little, calling out the G-load if she started to
deviate from the Gs at all.
It was interesting from the chase pilot’s standpoint as well.
In fact, it was probably more work from the chase pilot’s standpoint
than it was from the pilot flying the speed course.
Wright: Did you have an opportunity
to work as a chase pilot with her?
Engle: I did. Jackie and [Charles E.]
Chuck Yeager were very, very close friends. They had flown together
a lot. Jackie had taken Chuck on several overseas—in fact, one
round-the-world trip in her [Lockheed] Lodestar—because they
both loved to fly. And I think because everybody knew Chuck Yeager,
too, that she didn’t mind having some doors opened whenever
she needed to have doors opened, although she could open all of them
she needed to herself.
But she also had a very strong desire to set the world’s speed
record for women. She did it in a [Northrop] T-38 [Talon] initially,
and then it was broken again by Jacqueline [Marie-Thérèse
Suzanne Auriol], a French aviatrix. And Jackie was determined to take
it back in an [Lockheed] F-104 [Starfighter]. She was not current
in the F-104, but was able to get permission to check out and fly
one of Lockheed’s bailed F-104s. It didn’t belong to the
Air Force, but it was a standard F-104. She had asked Chuck to help
her get ready for it, practice and get ready for this run, and Chuck
was working with her very, very intensely, and had a commitment—I
think some weather delayed the attempt, the FAA [Federal Aviation
Administration] attempt. It slipped into a time period when Chuck
had a commitment on the East Coast, and I can’t recall whether
it was a Pentagon commitment or some kind of a commitment that—he
was very good about keeping commitments. It was going to be practice
weekend, so he asked if I would like to—he didn’t ask
me if I’d like to; he told me I was going to fly chase for Jackie
that weekend. And I was really thrilled to death. He briefed me on
the things to watch, things to do, things to tell her.
So Jackie and I flew together I think about eight flights over that
weekend, with her practicing the techniques to use to polish and refine
the course, the ground track, and the altitude that she would fly
a couple weeks later on her attempt, and she successfully smashed
the world’s record for women with that 104 flight.
I was very thankful to Chuck in many ways, because I had known and
admired her very much anyway, and it gave me an opportunity to get
to know her, and she invited us down with Chuck to her ranch on several
weekends, several times, several occasions, and it was really a good
friendship. She was a great aviatrix.
Wright: Another time as a chase pilot,
[Milton O.] Milt Thompson gives you credit for saving Bob Rushworth’s
life from a potentially serious accident by a timely call just before
touchdown. Do you recall the situation?
Engle: Oh, boy, I sure do. It was during
one of the envelope expansion flights on the -2, on the number two
X-15, the one that had been rebuilt. The landing gear was deployed
by a purely mechanical cable and hook mechanism, very simple thing,
where you just pulled on a handle and the cable went over some pulleys
and released a hook and the nose gear would drop down.
In the rebuilding of the -2 airplane, there were some parts of the
airplane that were extended and expanded to accommodate for more fuel
on board. The X-15 would expand, stretch, or swell up and stretch
just like any metal does when you heat it up, so at high speeds it
would heat up, it would expand in length. In fact, at Mach 6, it would
expand over two inches almost, two and a half inches. And this cable,
of course, was inside where it wasn’t exposed to that heating,
so it didn’t expand as much.
In the rerouting of this cable, they forgot to take into account that
the airplane was going to expand and the cable was not, so at about
Mach 4.5, 4.2, I believe it was, the airplane expanded enough to release
the cable and the nose gear had come down. There was a modification
made to it, so Bob went up to get the next datapoint. And on this
one, the little door which extends first before the gear came down,
it was released, although the gear didn’t come down. It had
opened up and the hot gas had gone inside, so we knew there was some
damage in the nose wheel well.
I was Bob’s chase for landing that day, so he came across the
field, I joined up with him, with the F-104, and flew down with him
and told him that the little nose-gear door was open and that we ought
to be ready for some kind of anomaly on the nose gear extension.
So as he floated in to touch down, he pulled the landing gear handle
and the main gear came down and the nose gear did not. It just hung
there because there’d been enough heating damage inside and
he was at a high enough angle of attack that it didn’t fall
down into the air stream; it just sat there and it kind of bobbed
back and forth a little bit.
I was calling to him to “hold it off. Don’t let the airplane
touch down. Hold it off. Just keep holding it off. Hold it off.”
In fact, I think I said, “Hold it off. Hold it off. Get ready
to bail.” And I had just said, “Get ready to bail,”
and I saw the nose gear finally start to come down, and I said, “Don’t.
Don’t bail. Hold it off. Hold it off.”
He held it off as long as he possibly could, and it turned out that
the nose gear finally latched and dropped down just before or about
the same time the main gear touched and the nose slammed down. So
he avoided some injury that day, but it was only a matter of precluding
him touching down at the normal time, I think. If he’d touched
down at the normal time, the nose would have come down before the
gear was extended and then he would have had that problem of a very
hard slapdown and either a very serious injury or get killed.
Wright: On a completely different set
of circumstances, Milt Thompson also tells of a special delivery that
you made to a group of pilots stationed up in the High Sierras [Sierra
Nevada Mountains] one time. Would you like to share that story with
Engle: Oh, you bet. Chuck Yeager and
[Clarence] Bud Anderson, every year they would go on either a ten-day
or two-week backpacking trip up in the High Sierras to fish; fish
for golden trout. That was a delicacy and they were only found in
the headwaters of the Kern River up there. So Chuck would pack up
there with nothing but a backpack, and as I recall, it was a forty-four-pound
backpack or fifty-four-pound backpack. I went with him a couple times,
so I should remember. But you carried only your tent and enough dried
food to last you for two days, because that’s how long it took
to hike to up to where the lakes were where the fish were, and then
you ate fish for the rest of the time.
So at that time we would fly up in whatever airplane was on the ramp
that we could get, just to check and make sure that everything was
okay, and they had emergency signal mirrors that they could signal
us and let us know exactly where they were on the ground. We’d
fly down low and wave and everybody would know that they were okay.
Chuck had said that it gets pretty old eating fish for two weeks.
Not that he was complaining, because he really liked to fish, but
pretty much well along into their trek, their routing around up in
the Sierras, I was going to go up and check on them one day, so I
went over to the commissary and picked up some really nice thick steaks,
and I was going to put them in a helmet bag and put the helmet bag
in the speed brake of the 104, which opened up kind of like a clamshell
in the back end, and close it, and then drop them to him, open the
speed brakes and drop them to him. And I thought it would be kind
of fun to give him something just as a joke, so I got some frozen
fish sticks and put them in another helmet bag on the other side.
The speed brakes opened up on either side of the 104. So on one side
there were the steaks and on the other the frozen fish sticks.
I flew up and saw the flashing mirror and saw them, and went down
low and wagged the wings, and they were waving. And I came back around
real slow with the flaps down, and that normally means you’re
going to make a drop of some kind to them. When I got just about there
to them or where I thought it was about right, I popped the speed
brakes open and the bag of steaks came out just like they should,
and fell and they hit very close to them on this high mesa where they
were at. The other bag kind of hung up on the actuator, the hydraulic
actuator that opened the speed brake, hung up for a while, flapped
around until it tore the handle loose, and then it finally came out,
but it fell down in a very steep canyon, down into the Kern River.
So Bud and Chuck ran over and picked the helmet bag up and saw these
steaks and they were just beside themselves, Chuck said, that they
knew the other bag had fallen down there and they were discussing
whether or not it was worth going after those steaks or not, because
it was a very steep climb down into the deep, deep Kern Valley, but
they decided, yeah, for steaks it was. They spent the best part of
a day going down, looking for that bag, because it was olive-drab-colored
and didn’t really stand out. But they found it, and then when
they found out that they were frozen fish sticks, that was a good
gotcha. That was one that Chuck hasn’t equaled yet, but he’s
Engle: And I couldn’t have planned
it any better, because they had the steaks. That was the hook. They
had the steaks and they thought there were steaks in the other bag.
Well, that’s a nice relaxing time for them. Were there other
trips that you guys took together to help relax and just get away
from your tasks?
Engle: Yes. A lot of times we would find—there
would be times when there was no particular flight testing that had
to be done on a particular day and it was a nice day to fly, the airplanes
were available, and they really encouraged us to fly as much as we
could at Edwards, just to develop proficiency.
Chuck would call and say, “You want to go up north, make a run
up north?” Well, that always meant a low-level run, because
he had gone through gunnery school in World War II at Tonopah [Nevada],
which is near Mud Lake, which is one of the prime dry lakebeds that
we used for the X-15 emergency landings. He really got to know the
area well, because they would fly low level and strafe at anything
that they could with the [Bell] P-39s [Airacobras], when they were
going through gunnery school.
So he loved it up there. He knew a lot of people, a lot of ranchers,
and he knew a lot of fascinating things about areas, old mines, old
cable cars that would go up over, haul ore up and over the mountains
and down into Owens Valley, and he never ran out of new things to
show me at low level. We’d fly up there, take a couple of 104s
or a couple of whatever was on the ramp, and fly up and he’d
point out these things to me. It was very fascinating, and the interesting
thing was that we still fly together at Edwards. We get to fly the
[Boeing] F-15s [Eagles] to open the [Edwards Air Force Base] Air Show
every year, and one of Chuck’s favorite past times is to get
a couple of airplanes and fly up there north, over Panament Springs
and Tonopah and look at all the old places that we used to fly in
World War II.
Wright: You mentioned to us that you
spent some time with the Confederate Air Force, but those were not
high-speed airplanes. Tell us about the difference in flying the vintage
Engle: Those were World War II airplanes
and I, of course, grew up wanting to be a World War II fighter pilot,
so for me, to get the opportunity to fly those airplanes was just
a real thrill, a real nostalgic thrill, if there is such a thing.
And actually, Chuck had been flying with them. He was the one who
took me down and essentially introduced me to the Confederate Air
Force and got me started flying down there, flying the airplanes down
there. No, they’re not fast, but they’re our heritage.
They were what won World War II and kept us from speaking German or
Japanese today, I guess. [Laughter]
So I’ve always had a fascination with the aircraft that were
used in World War II, both sides, as a matter of fact, and to fly
those airplanes, it’s a real thrill. It’s a thrill for
me, and I’m awed every time I think that people fought an entire
world war in such basic equipment as those airplanes. It gives me
a lot better appreciation of what they were up against when they flew
Wright: Did you have one in particular
that you liked to fly more than others on those vintage planes?
Engle: Oh, I think my favorite World
War II fighter was the [Curtiss] P-40 [Warhawk], because that was
what I initially wanted to be, was a P-40 Flying Tiger pilot, and
that was the first airplane that I really got to know anything about.
It was not the best flying airplane. It was not the highest performance
by any means, nor was it the easiest to fly, although it was a very
easy, straightforward airplane to fly.
The P-51, I think, was probably the most enjoyable World War II fighter
that I have had the opportunity to fly. I did get to fly a lot of
the airplanes; the P-40, the [Republic] P-47 [Thunderbolt], the [North
American] P-51 [Mustang], the [Bell] P-63 [Kingcobra], P-39, and the
[Lockheed] P-38 [Lightning], and all of them are very, very fun. They’ve
all got their own unique personality, and I wouldn’t trade any
of them. I wouldn’t trade the flights in them for anything else.
But my favorite airplane was the P-40, and probably the nicest flying
Wright: Were there some during your
time at Edwards that you had to check out in and be responsible for
taking up that you just didn’t like?
Engle: No. I never met an airplane I
didn’t like. Some of them are less relaxing and less enjoyable
and less fun to fly, and some of them are a lot more work to fly than
others, but they’ve all got their own characteristics, they’ve
all got their own personality, and I really, really enjoy any new
airplane, any airplane.
Wright: Just a few months after you
took your final flight in the X-15, you became part of NASA in the
astronaut corps. Tell us about how that transition occurred and how
you made that move, and why you decided to take that path instead
of staying with an Air Force assignment.
Engle: Well, as I mentioned, I knew
that my flying at Edwards wouldn’t be open-ended. I couldn’t
stay there as long as I wanted. I knew that I would probably be reassigned
within a year, because I’d been there for quite some time and
that’s just the Air Force policy of rotating you around to other
assignments so that you have a good diversified career. So I knew
that I was going to be reassigned.
I did apply and was accepted on that particular class of astronauts,
and it was not without some reservations. I had some mixed feelings
because I was leaving a very, very good flying job, the best flying
job in the world at Edwards, for something that was unknown and something
that was known it would not be as good airplane flying. But at that
time the emphasis on selection of astronauts was on test pilots because
of the type of the programs and missions that were being flown and
the nature of the missions.
To me, it was somewhat an extension of the test pilot discipline,
of the test pilot career. There was talk of controllable reentry vehicles,
flying a vehicle back into the atmosphere, because we were working
on the lifting bodies at Edwards at the time. So I kind of had that
in my over-the-horizon view, I think, that I did want to go to the
Moon, and that was the main purpose for the selection of our class.
I did want to go to the Moon. I thought that would be a tremendous
envelope expansion and wanted to do that, and then had hopes of being
able to be part of whatever the vehicle was that came along that would
be the reentry vehicle, which eventually was the Space Shuttle.
Wright: You already had space experience,
basically, because you had received your astronaut wings when you
reached that threshold in the X-15. You were the only astronaut of
your kind to come across to NASA. How were you and your class received
by the astronauts that were already in place? What were some of your
first assignments and tasks that you began working with them?
Engle: I sure didn’t notice anything
but a very warm welcome by all the people who were already selected.
I think the feeling was that any new guy that came in—and our
class was certainly the new guys—when the new guys came in,
they went to the end of the line as far as getting a flight anyway,
so there wasn’t real concern on that. And I don’t think
at that time there was quite the feeling of flying and then turning
around and flying again right away that there is now with the Space
Shuttle, just because of the nature of the flights. You know, we fly
much more often now and you’re expected to fly a number of times
now. So I don’t think that feeling was there.
I know that we had a very large class, a class of nineteen, and after
our class, the selection of astronauts continued to grow faster than
the number of seats that we could see opening up downstream, and even
[Donald K.] Deke Slayton at the time would tell new classes, he said,
“I don’t really need you, I didn’t really want you,
but you’re here, so here’s what I’m expecting of
you,” and that was pretty much your welcome speech. Of course,
eventually just about everyone did fly.
But I didn’t notice any resentment at all on the part of other
astronauts in the office. In fact, much to the contrary; very warm
reception, very much one of willingness to help get started, get your
feet on the ground, and get running.
Wright: Chuck Yeager was such a mentor
to you in the Air Force. I’m curious, was there another figure
of that type when you came into the astronaut program, someone that
you worked closely with?
Engle: I think Deke Slayton was. Deke
commanded the respect of everybody, the old guys, the new guys, and
everybody, because he was very, very straightforward, very honest,
very straightforward. I can’t really remember for sure, but
I know when we were selected, if you made it, if you were selected,
Deke called you, and if you weren’t selected, it seems to me
like somebody else called and I can’t remember who it was, to
tell you that, you know, “Very impressive résumé,”
and all this, “but we’d like for you to try again next
But if Deke called you, you knew you were in, and it was not a real
emotional high-grade sales pitch; it was, “This is Deke Slayton.
Want to come down and work for me?” And that was about it. You
said yes or no. [Laughs]
Wright: How soon after you got the phone
call did you report to Houston?
Engle: I don’t really remember
that. Probably a couple of months. I would think about two months,
but I really don’t recall. It wasn’t an awfully long time,
but long enough to get the transition made okay.
Wright: And quite a difference in location
from being out in the desert to the [Texas] Gulf Coast.
Engle: Well, it sure was. There were
a lot of differences in reporting down here, positive and some not
so positive things. I think the weather was not so positive. I was
down here over the summer. While our home was being built, I was down
by myself, and I just stayed out at the BOQ [bachelor officer's quarters]
out at Ellington [Air Force Base, Houston, Texas], the old BOQs, and
they didn’t have air conditioning out there. Got down here in
the middle of March, so I was here in April, May, June, July, the
hot, muggy part of the summer, and didn’t know a whole lot different
at that time, so although it was uncomfortable, I wasn’t miserable.
But it was sure a shock. The weather was a lot different than the
dry heat of the high desert.
NASA was a much bigger organization than what I had ever been exposed
to before. It was kind of a cultural shock for me. In the first place,
it was a nonmilitary environment and I’d never worked in a nonmilitary,
other than down at NASA Dryden, which, since it’s located on
an Air Force base, the culture is a little bit more military there.
But I remember my first feeling was that they’re just paying
way too much attention. The media and, in fact, the people in the
residential areas, meaning well, but my impression was they just paid
way too much attention to the new guys when they got here, before
they’d done anything. The guys that had flown, that was okay,
but when you just check in and you’re getting ready to start
training, and all that media attention, and all of the things that
were done for you, I was very uncomfortable with that, I remember.
Wright: How did your experience as a
test pilot and X-15 pilot help you with the training as an astronaut?
Engle: It probably gave me a little
confidence and self-assurance that I was going to be working in an
environment that I had at least been exposed to; high altitude, high
task demand, tasks that demanded a lot of attention and concentration.
The environment of living in a spacesuit, a full-pressure suit, were
all things that I really had no qualms, didn’t have to think
about, really, which was good. I think I was the only one in my class
that did not have an advanced degree, didn’t have a master’s
degree or higher, I had only a bachelor’s degree, and so probably
it was a good thing. I would have been very, very concerned, I think,
if I didn’t feel that I at least had something to counter the
academic levels of my counterparts.
I was very surprised, in fact, when I was selected, because of that,
after looking at the list of guys who hadn’t been selected,
very surprised that—the trend had already been started toward
focusing more on education, and there were more and more test pilots
who did have advanced degrees. So I was a little pleasantly surprised
when selected, because I didn’t have an advanced degree. I perhaps
had the opportunity for more flight test experience, but my academic
background was not as strong as others’.
Wright: It wasn’t too long after
you joined NASA that the [Apollo/Saturn, AS-] 204 fire occurred. Could
you share with us your thoughts of that event, how it affected you,
and how it impacted the astronaut corps? Then if you’ll tell
us how you were involved in the role of the investigation, if at all.
Engle: I wasn’t involved in the
investigation at all, because at that time, our class of nineteen
was still in our training cycle, and our time was totally focused
on the training program, the training curriculum.
It certainly was a shock. We certainly followed the tragedy and the
investigation, and the causes for it. In fact, I think, as I recall,
my first meaningful assignment after our astronaut training session
year was to be assigned to the crew of—it was called 2TV-1,
a thermal vacuum test. It was an eight-day test to put the newly designed
vehicle in the big thermal vacuum chamber here at NASA and put a crew
in so that all of the life-support systems were exercised and tasked
and all the electronics were tasked, and many of the things had to
be done manually from inside the vehicle anyway.
So [Joseph P.] Joe Kerwin and Vance [D.] Brand and I were selected
as the crew of 2TV-1, to go into the chamber for eight days or ten
days? I think it was eight days. The chamber was pumped down to a
vacuum and heat lamps were turned on, and we lived inside the Apollo
Command Module for eight days. So that was really, as I say, that
was my first meaningful what I considered contribution to the program.
Wright: What was that like? Because
that was quite an event at that point in the history of NASA, to spend
that much time in that module as a testing.
Engle: We didn’t think of it as
being quite such a monumental thing. We were kind of bored in there,
actually. [Laughter] I think I pulled on my hunting and camping skills
to living in a confined area. Being confined in a tent while it’s
raining for several days, with a couple of guys, that was good training
for 2TV-1. [Laughs]
We did learn. We did learn a lot about living in a confined area like
that. We were really busy operating all of the systems, going through
the checklist every day to operate the systems that needed to be exercised
and checked out, so it wasn’t a real bad experience.
Wright: Just a memorable one.
Engle: A very memorable one.
Wright: The progress did occur, though,
through the Apollo Program, and Apollo 7 was launched and 8, 9. Describe
what you were doing during the times of these missions and what you
were doing as part of your training program and preparing for your
Engle: I think even after our training
period as a new class of astronauts, we were exposed to geology, because
at that point in time everyone was a potential lunar surface crewman.
The geology training I really thoroughly enjoyed. It was one of the
most valuable pieces of new knowledge, and a discipline that I had
not been exposed to before, and I really thoroughly enjoyed it. Plus,
it meant traveling literally all over the world to different geologic
sites, because at that time they weren’t certain at all what
kinds of geology would be found on the Moon, whether it would be sedimentary
or volcanic or just what. So we were exposed an entire spectrum of
geology and geology features, and by doing so, we did, in fact, go
to Hawaii and Alaska, Mexico. We did go to Germany, but that was for
specific training with regards to the Apollo 14 crew site. But the
geology was one of the things that I really enjoyed the most.
In addition to the thermal vacuum testing on 2TV-1, I was given a
task to monitor and evaluate different concepts for a lunar surface
transporter, it was called at that time, crew vehicle. The rover we
call it now, but at that time the concepts for how to get around on
the lunar surface, beyond walking distance, really hadn’t focused
in at all on what type of vehicle it ought to be. And one of the more
interesting ones was a rocket flyer that you strapped on your back,
and I think you may have probably seen at football games or demonstrations,
the rocket man. He’s flying this rocket-powered vehicle. That
was one of the concepts that was being considered at the time, and
I think one of my more interesting flights was up at the Bell [Aerosystems
Company]—no, it was at [NASA] Langley [Research Center, Hampton,
Virginia], I guess it was. Bell built the rocket pack.
But I convinced them that if I was going to give it a fair evaluation,
I really needed to fly it. So they did let me strap it on, although
I was tethered on a big rig and only got to fly up and around a very
limited area, but I did get to fly that. That was a lot of fun.
I spent a lot of time at [NASA] Marshall [Space Flight Center, Huntsville,
Alabama] in the development of what is the lunar rover now. That was
interesting, fun and interesting, too. I like mechanical things, and
that was very interesting to consider the requirements that were going
to be needed on the Moon and the limitations, and factor those into
the design of the rover vehicle. Not only the mobility of the vehicle
itself and the type of suspension, the type of wheels that would be
used, the type of tires that would be used, but the type of controllers
that would be used, because in an inflated suit on the lunar surface,
you had very restricted mobility and so all of the controlling functions
had to be done with very limited movement, and with as few levers
and things as possible so you didn’t bump into them when getting
in and out of the vehicle.
Wright: So did you have an opportunity
to take it out to the back forty and use it?
Engle: Oh yes. [Laughs] Oh yes. Yes,
we did. We really worked it out and learned a lot while we were developing