NASA Headquarters NACA
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Jose, California –
2 October 2005
Wright: Today is October 2nd, 2005. This oral history session is being
conducted with Gene Kenner of Cayucos, California, as part of the
NACA [National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics] Oral History Project
sponsored by the NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration]
Headquarters History Office. The interview is being held in San Jose,
California, during the NACA Reunion Eleven. The interviewer is Rebecca
Wright, and we’re joined today by Gene’s wife, Patricia.
Thanks again for taking time to meet with me and talk about your experiences.
I’d like to begin today by asking you how did you get involved?
How did you become a part of NACA?
All right. It probably starts back when I finally graduated from high
school, and then being at kind of loose ends for the summer, I did
go back to Kansas and worked on a wheat farm, and then, of course,
when I left there, because farming was not exactly my forte, but I
came back to Lancaster [California] in the Valley, and I thought I’d
go back to junior college there, Antelope Valley Junior College, so
I started taking some courses there. As I was going back to school,
it seemed like all I was doing was going back to school. I thought,
“Gee, there must be something more than just going to high school
again.” That’s what the junior college was, it’s
a continuation of high school.
So a friend of mine, Earl Fisher [phonetic], his father worked for
the Army Air Force at that time, because this is back in 1948. I don’t
know exactly what his position was with the Army out there, whether
he was an administrator or in personnel, but anyway, he was mentioning
to me that this outfit called NACA was looking for some people to
go to work for them out there and to do more an apprentice position.
Actually, they were just looking for grunt help, and I think it was
because they were having problems getting people to come out from
Virginia. People from Virginia would come out, they’d work at
[NACA] Muroc [Flight Test Unit, Edwards, California] for a few months
and take one look at this place, and it’s nothing like Virginia,
so that’s all they could think about is when they could go back.
So they did hire a couple of apprentices. One fellow, whose name is
[Henry] “Kenny” Gaskins, and myself, so we started to
work in a temporary position, but it was just an apprentice. And when
I started to work there, I did all the dirty work, you might say,
in setting up the grinders and whatever.
Then as time went on, well, then I was working with other instrument
mechanics in other—they weren’t technicians at the time.
They were more or less mechanics. Because all the instrumentation
was electrical, mechanical type of instrumentation, and so they didn’t
have any electronic people, per se, working there, except that a lot
of the guys were ham operators or they were into electronics.
But you’ve got to remember that I was only eighteen years old.
I came right out of high school. I had just some basic shop courses,
and so I kind of think that they must have been desperate to hire
somebody to work out there. But it was an eye-opener. Gerry [Gerald
M.] Truszynski interviewed me when I went out there to get the job,
and he showed me around, and then he took me to the X-1, and I looked
at that. I was just kind of amazed. I was intimidated. “Wow!
What’s this all about?”
Then he took me over to a wire cage. It was in this—the NACA
was working out of just a Quonset-type hangar. All I can remember
is the X-1 sitting there, and I don’t remember any other vehicles
in that hangar at that time. But he did take me over to this little
wire cage. It was in the corner of the hangar. And a fellow named
Walter Harwell [phonetic]—he was the instrument repairman—he
was working gyros, and he was working on galvanometers in the NACA
recording instruments. He went and introduced me to old Walter, and
we called him “Rebel.”
The first thing that Rebel started in on Jerry was that, “I
can’t work in this place. I can’t work in this wire cage
doing this instrumentation work, repairing this equipment.”
He says, “There’s nothing but sand here, and the wind
is blowing.” He says, “We’ve got to get out of here.”
That stuck in my mind. At that time, on the side of the hangar, they
were building some shops, and that’s where the instrumentation
shop was going to be, the calibration and the installation shop and
a battery shop and one little room there had “Harwell.”
They’d moved Harwell in there and with some other—they
would have been more machinists than they were electrical or engineering
people. That’s when they finally got it so that it was sealed
up enough where he could do some decent instrumentation work.
So I worked there several months as an apprentice, and after about
a year, I had gained enough education and expertise to actually work
on the airplane, and I was assigned to the D-558 Phase One as the
instrumentation man. Then that became my project. I took care of the
instrumentation on aircraft. You’d think that—well, let’s
see—only after a year of working in a place as an apprentice
that you’d been given an awful lot of responsibility. But I
didn’t think too much about that. I had learned enough about
that airplane and the instrumentation in it that I could handle that
airplane without any problem. I used to do all the calibrations. I
used to do all of the installing and, of course, doing all the flight
film. You talked to John Hedgepeth. Remember you said you talked to
Now, John was the photographer out there. He was a good guy. I like
John. But he was a photographer, and he didn’t like the idea
that he had to do all the development of flight film, and this flight
film was all these rolls of negative film, fifty-foot and seventy-five-foot
lengths. It was hours of going into the darkroom and running this
stuff through developer and through the hypo and the washing of the
film. I think John thought, “This isn’t what I was hired
for. I was hired to be a photographer.”
So then what he did is he went to [O. Norman] Hayes [Jr.] and he says,
“These guys on the airplane should be doing all this developing.”
So we did. I mean, he went in there and he trained us to how to develop
all this film, and that was all right, too, because I enjoyed doing
the whole spectrum of the instrumentation.
Then working at that for about three years, working towards the permanent
position and getting into a journeyman position, NACA was—Phil
[Phillip E.] Walker over there in Personnel and even Walt [Walter
C.] Williams, the director of the station there, they were trying
to keep me out of the service. They were trying to get me deferments.
Well, that didn’t work after a while. One day Phil Walker came
over to the shop, and he says, “Kenner, we can’t keep
you out any longer. You’re being drafted. You’re to report
“Monday?” This was on a Friday. So I says, “Wait
a minute. You mean I’m out of here?”
He says, “Yeah, you’re going to have to report.”
So I went in the shop and I gathered up all my tools. I told Norm
Hayes, the shop supervisor there, that “I’m gone.”
So I did. I left and I was supposed to report that Monday. I went
down to the bus station, and it was awful quiet down at the bus station.
[Did]n’t seem to be too much activity. I think my dad was with
me. Did you go with me?
P. Kenner: Yes.
And Patricia, my wife, went with me. We stood around there for a while,
and then finally got that the buses weren’t running. So I called
up Mododay [phonetic] Building down in Los Angeles [California], and
I says, “There wasn’t any bus here to pick me up.”
They says, “Well, you were supposed to be on a train.”
I said, “The train?” Now, the train was right across from
the bus station over there, but what they had done is the buses had
gone on strike so they made arrangements for me to take the train.
Well, I got inducted. I went to Ford Ord [California]. When I went
to Ford Ord, fortunately, my experience at NACA, when I went there
for an interview, they were pretty impressed about the experience
I had in those three years working for NACA. So they put me in the
Southwest Signal School in San Luis Obispo at Camp San Luis Obispo
[California], and I got twenty-four weeks of field-rated repair training,
which was a big help. That probably accelerated my education towards
instrumentation, because I had all that field-rated repair training,
so that was electronic training.
So that when I did get a discharge, when I came back to NACA, I got
my job back right away. All I had to do was I called them up. I says,
“I’m on discharge on Friday. I’ll be to work Monday.”
There was no question. They said, “Okay.” So I went back
to work to NACA. Well, I got to work on all the X-series of airplanes.
I got to work on, well, of course, Phase One was my principal airplane,
but when I got back there was the Phase Two, the rocket airplane,
and then the X-1s. There was a series of X-1s, you know, X-1A, X-1B,
and X-1D. I got to work on those, maybe not as a principal project,
but as helping with the other technicians, and the X-4, and then there
was the X-3. I even got to work on the X-2. We used to go out to the
lake bed with the X-2 during the landings and take the film drums
out of it.
That always brings up a real interesting little episode. There was
another technician on the X-2, and when the X-2 crashed, when Captain
[Milburn G.] Apt lost his life and went into the desert floor, Chuck
Lewis [phonetic] was the other technician, and he went out and collected
all the films drums, which were in really bad shape. They were bent,
caved in, but he went out and he wrapped all these drums in a black
cloth, and we brought them in, into the lab, and we were going to
So I was enlisted to develop all the film from the X-2 crash. So when
I got in the darkroom, and there were all these drums in there, and
I had to pry them open and break them open and then get them out and
get the film out. And I’m in there developing away, and I was
the only one in there doing this. All of a sudden there was a big
bang on the door, on the darkroom door, on the outside. So the response
usually was you yelled “Dark,” to make sure that people
didn’t open that door. So I yelled “Dark.”
This voice comes back, “Well, when do you think you’ll
be done in there?”
I said, “Well, I don’t know, probably in about twenty
minutes, twenty-five minutes.” So I’m going along, working
away, and whistling. I’m developing all this, and finally I
get it all developed, and I get it all in the wash, and I finally
answered. I said, “Okay.” I opened up the door, and there’s
Walt Williams standing there. There’s the general of the base
standing there. [Laughs] They came in in just a rush, and they wanted
to look at the airspeed film, and they wanted to look at this. And
I was kind of taken aback, you know, all this activity. But they were
really interested in what happened to that airplane, and they wanted
to look at the data.
Was it your job, as well, to analyze the data?
No. No. No, we just produced the data, and what it was is we took
the film, and we put them on big drying racks, and it dried the film.
Then you labeled them, and then they sent them upstairs. The girls
upstairs actually received the data and reduced all the data. That’s
where you talked about [Mary (Tut)] Hedgepeth, and the other girls
that ran up all that data. I guess the engineers probably told them
what portion of that data they wanted to look at, and they would plot
it all up. But it wasn’t our job to analyze any data.
What we did is prior to a flight, we’d take what we called preflight
check records, and we’d take records of just short bursts of
all the instrumentation and make sure that all the traces were there,
the references were there. We even put inputs to the sensors to check
the deflections and even a slight calibration, just to see that things
were working properly. Then the data went on from there; went upstairs.
Well, we might take the data, the rolls of film, and we’d go
through them before we sent them upstairs to make sure that everything
was there, that all the traces were there and that all the data was
presented like it should have been, and our zeros that we took, make
sure that—what we called zeros was the deflections of all these
parameters—make sure that like if it was on a surface, on a
aileron or stabilizer or whatever, you went out prior to flight and
you made what we call zeros. You put all the surfaces in one position,
and then you put them in another position, and then you could check
your zeros against another film that you had taken beforehand to make
sure that they’re the same. Like if you moved it ten degrees,
you want to make sure that the deflection of that trace went ten degrees,
and then you compared it against a calibration that you had to make
sure that deflections were the same, see, and all the calibrations
were the same. So that was our process.
How many people did you have working with you at this time in your
You mean in the whole shop?
Yes, your instrumentation.
Instrumentation, probably about fifteen, twenty.
Were they various levels of experience, like some more apprentices,
or were they pretty much as knowledgeable as you were?
Well, they were pretty much as knowledgeable as I was, but in an any
group of people, you have different levels of abilities. There were
some people that took the initiative and would accept the responsibilities.
So what you find is—there was different grade levels. There
might be a WB-6, a WB-8, a WB-10. Then we had crew chiefs, what we
called crew chiefs, and they would have the responsibility of one
airplane and maybe have two technicians working with them, or just
one. So you worked up the line up to crew chief, and that was pretty
top level, and then you were supposed to be pretty knowledgeable.
But you still had some people that were just—they had a lot
more drive. Like out of our shop, we had one who became a heart surgeon.
That was Chuck Lewis. He became head of the Biomed Department at NASA
there, okay, and he came out of our shop. There was another one, Jay
Magg [phonetic], who was an FAA [Federal Aviation Administration]
Administrator. He had moved up, left our shop, and went into an air
controller position, and then moved himself right on up to an FAA
Administrator. It was kind of interesting.
Then there was others that, like a WB-6 level, which is a medium grade
level, they never did anything else, because they were task oriented.
They weren’t innovative or they weren’t people who looked
at how to do something better or how to innovate or how to move themselves
up the line. They put things together. They made wiring harnesses
and maybe did some calibrations and things like this, but that’s
all they needed to do. I remember one, he wouldn’t even accept
any more. He’d do his task, all right? He’d sit at the
desk and he’d do his task. When he did that, when it was all
all over with, that’s it. You’d have to identify the fact
that he completed what he had done. Then you’d have to assign
him another job. So it’s really an exercise in the humanities.
In personalities and the humanities. I went to this person, and I
said, “Come on, if you want to progress, if you want to get
up to a higher grade level, you’re going to have to do more
and accept more responsibility and push yourself a little bit.”
“I’m going to do that,” he’d say. “Okay,
I’m going to do that.” Nothing changed. Finally, as a
lead man—I became a lead man—and as a lead man, I became
aware that certain people had certain abilities, and you’re
not going to really change them much. So what you do, finally, is
you use these people in these positions. If you find somebody that
will accept responsibility, you push things their way, and they’ll
progress. The others are just going to do their job, and they’ll
even complain that you’re using favoritism.
That was kind of interesting. They’ll say, “Yeah, you
know, he’s getting ahead because you’re favoring him.”
They didn’t see the picture. So, as a lead man, that’s
one of the lessons I learned.
So as time went on, I became, after working in that shop, the shop
foreman. The shop supervisor, he was getting ready to leave, so I
put in for that job, and there was two other individuals that put
in for that job, and I didn’t get it. And I was a little upset,
because that was a grade—it got up in the grade increase, and
I even went to the Engineering head who made the decision, and I asked
him why. Well, they don’t have to tell you why. They didn’t
have to say that he was more qualified or I don’t like you or
whatever. They just said, “There was three people there put
in for that position. I chose him,” and that’s all he
has to say. So, okay.
To this day, he did me a favor, because that would have meant I would
have had to have been a supervisor of a shop. I was really not cut
out for that job, and I don’t think I would have liked it. In
fact, the guy who got that job did not like it. What I did is I was
working on a 727 crash program. That was the fuel additive program.
But I went to Engineering head there one time, and I said, “Why
don’t you put me up into Engineering?”
He said, “I’d love to,” and so they did.
Now, I was not a degreed engineer, but I had worked myself up enough
to doing a lot of engineering work anyway, and so they said, “Okay.”
So they just took me up in the Engineering and gave me a desk, and
I was on the same level as the rest of the engineers in there, except
I wasn’t degreed. Well, when that happens to you, it’s
not—you’re limited about grade levels or you can’t—finally
he got a GS-12, but you couldn’t go up any higher than that.
Any degreed engineer can take supervision-type positions and move
up, but you’re—that’s it. You’re there, unless
you wanted to go back and get a degree.
I even thought maybe one time that I might work at getting a degree,
and so I started going back to school. I was going back to college
and taking courses. But I was working nights, and I would get up in
the morning and go to school. But that kind of conflicted with family
life, and Patricia didn’t really care for it that much, and
she got to feeling a little about that “You’re just taking
too much away from the family, doing that.”
So I gave it up, which was all right, because I had gotten far enough
along in the engineering job that I was happy about what I was doing.
I loved working with aircraft and doing engineering work, and that’s
why I said that the Engineering Supervisor at that time that didn’t
pick me for that supervising job did me a favor, because I enjoyed
the other job so much more. In fact, I was going to say, the other
guy who took that job, he gave it up and he took the same position
I did by moving up in Engineering, see?
Well, talk to us about some of the projects that you were working
on. You mentioned you worked in the D-558, and you worked the X-1s.
So tell us some of the things that you remember working on and about
the days. How was that time period at Muroc, and of course, as the
name changed and the tasks changed? Kind of tell us about how some
of those projects affected you and your life, and what was going on
there at the Center.
Okay. Well, in the beginning, when I first went to work there and
we were working down at the old base, South Base, that job down there
was a small complement of people, and you did just about everything
on the airplane, I mean as far as instrumentation-wise. I built a
lot of stuff that went on board the airplanes. I built the power distribution
box, and I built signal-conditioning boxes, and anything like that.
In the early days, you didn’t have any problem with that. You
could do that and you could put it on the airplane and fly it. Something
that, like the Phase One, that flew some of the stuff that I built.
And you say, “Gee, as an apprentice you built things, and they
installed it on the airplane, and they used it?”
Yes, that’s the way it was then. It was a kind of a job shop
organization, like back in the 1930s when they were building race
planes, and people drew diagrams on the hangar floor and built things.
Well, when we got up to this, why, it wasn’t that bad, but it
was a lot like that. I mean, you just did things. [Laughs] You were
talking to Earl [R.] Keener out there, right?
He was a research engineer, and he was on the Phase One. He’d
come out, and then we’d work together. I’m doing the instrumentation,
and he was—well, that’s the way it was then. Research
or engineer, they would come out, and they could get involved on the
airplane and work with you and maybe do calibrations with you. But
that, as the bureaucracy built, as things got more involved, they
kind of started separating that. That’s even when instrument
engineering started getting involved, when we went up to the new base,
new hangar, and they started hiring instrumentation engineers.
There was kind of a conflict with some of us on the floor, because
we had been doing a lot of stuff that all of a sudden became instrument
engineering responsibilities, and they kind of pulled it away from
us. It was kind of a—I don’t like that, you know. You
had been doing it all these years, and all of a sudden that’s
not your responsibility anymore. So it was kind of a conflict.
But working on the aircraft, yes, Phase One. The environment down
at the old hangar was not the best. There was no cooling. When I first
went to work there, there was very little heat. They didn’t
even have any heat out there in that hangar. It was cold. I can remember
working out in the shop, going out and working on a airplane for a
while, and then get so cold that you had to come back in the shop
and stand in front of the heater just to warm up. [Laughs]
In the summer, if the airplane was on a ramp, you couldn’t touch
that airplane, hardly. Fortunately, the Phase One was painted white,
and so that it didn’t absorb all that heat. But some of those
airplanes, boy, like if it didn’t have any paint on it and it
was just shiny aluminum, you couldn’t go out and touch that
airplane, it would be so hot. So you didn’t have to do much
outside the hangar.
P. Kenner: You need to go through all the different airplanes that you
worked on, though.
Well, all the different airplanes that I worked on, like all the X-1s,
they were down in that hangar, the X-4, the X-1. The X-2 wasn’t;
it never got to NACA. It crashed before it ever got to NACA. Although
we had instrumentation in the airplane, the airplane never got to
the installation. But let’s see, there was the X-1 and X-2,
the X-3, the X-4.
Now, the X-4, that had terrible engines on it, screaming engines.
When that thing rolled up to the hangar. They’d bring it up.
After a flight, they’d roll up, actually up to the hangar door.
Boy, it would almost make you sick, listening to the two engines in
that thing just scream. You’d almost have to cover your ears
or go somewhere till they shut that thing down. But it was a terrible
noise. And to this day, things like that, people who worked at NACA
in the early years, have hearing problems, and a lot of it is due
So there was all the X-series airplanes. Then there was a whole other
bunch of programs. I worked on the deep stall. That’s a sailplane
that had a horizontal that shifted into a very high angle [of] attack
that the airplane would stall and just drop like a leaf. I worked
on that, and then I worked on the 100, the F-100s and the 104s.
Basic instrumentation kind of moved around. It wasn’t like you
had somebody who worked directly on a vehicle, like a mechanic, that
had other systems. Instrumentation systems were basically all the
same. You could go from one airplane to another airplane to another
plane, see, and they were all about the same. So it was easy for myself
or any other technician or instrument mechanic—that was our
label back then. You could go and help somebody else, or you could
almost take over their vehicle, because the instrumentations were
basically all the same, all the same type of recorders, the airspeed
recorders, the turn rate, gyros, whatever. All you had to know is
where they were in the airplane. But even the electronics—or,
the electrical hookups were all the same. You have a power distribution
box. You had this or that, and that was it. It all went in the same,
all around to the different airplanes.
Did you have a lot of projects going on at the same time, or once
one project started, you stayed with it until that one was finished
and you got another one? Were you working on a lot of different airplanes
at one time?
Well, you primarily had your vehicle that you were primarily assigned
to. Like I say, the D-558 Phase One was my primary airplane. But I
could go and move over to X-1, or I could move over to the X-4 and
help them. Or if they were gone or the technician was gone or whatever,
go over there and do that one. So you could move around, but you did
have a primary project.
Tell me about when they went up for testing. What were you doing during
that time period, when they took the flights?
Oh, at that time, in the early years you just cooled your heels until
the flight was over, and then you went on and unloaded the airplane,
the film drums out of the airplane, and you brought the film into
the lab and took it into the darkroom. Developed all the film, dried
all the film, checked your rolls of film, like I was saying you checked
the zeros and whatever, and then you sent it.
Then a lot of times after that, well, they would want to make modifications
or changes or maybe they’re adding. The program would come down,
because they’re going to change the program—what do I
want to say—they were changing what they wanted to do. Maybe
they wanted to go into a temperature program and measure temperatures.
Or maybe they were going to do a pressure program or something else.
So after a few flights, they got the information they need, and then
they want to move to a different task. Then your job would be to make
those modifications and changes.
But you always had repair work. Sensors would fail; you’d have
to repair them. Or you had recalibrations; you had to go out and recalibrate
an instrument. So this was an ongoing thing all the time.
Was there kind of like a cloud of secrecy of the work that you were
doing while you were there? Did you feel like things that you were
doing were classified or secretive?
Not in my area; not in instrumentation. Maybe the information and
maybe the data they’re working up and maybe the reports became
classified. I just don’t remember any really secret—maybe
classified information. But the actual gathering, the way we did our
job, or what we were doing was never classified. I was never told.
We didn’t have a secret clearance. We had a security clearance,
but I never had a secret clearance. I suppose there are some jobs
that maybe they did get a secret clearance on, but I don’t even
remember any. NACA was pretty open. They weren’t really hiding
anything. We didn’t have high security in there.
More of an exchange of ideas?
Yes. Yes, I never felt uncomfortable about going out and telling people
what I was doing, and I didn’t think I was ever divulging anything
that I shouldn’t have been.
What kind of interaction did you have with people with the military
or with the industry? How closely did you work with those two groups?
Well, I worked with the Air Force on the TACT [Transonic Aircraft
Technology] Program and then the IPCS [Integrated Propulsion Control
System] Program. In fact, I got a letter of recommendation from the
Air Force from that Colonel that I always kind of revere, because
they wanted to do a program on the F-111, and they wanted to move
right along, and I think they didn’t have a lot of funds, and
they wanted to do this.
So we already had an instrumentation package for the F-111, and I
said, “Well, shoot, we’ll just use that package and modify
it a little bit, and we can have you going in no time.” And
we did. We moved that project right along, and he was really, really
happy about that, and he sent me a letter of recommendation. I always
kind of, “Gee, that was kind of nice.” He singled me out.
I guess that’s one thing that made me feel good is he singled
me out personally about helping them get that project going.
Oh, let’s see what else I would want to say that might reflect
what it was like then. The problem—and you probably got this
from John, I’ll bet you, a little bit. Back in the old days
we got things done. We didn’t have a lot of money. I remember
in the old base that there wasn’t that lot of money to spend
on connecters and things like this, and what we did, if a project
come down, we really salvaged everything. We salvaged all the connectors;
we salvaged the wiring, because we could use it in another aircraft.
Well, when Sputnik came along and the X-15 came along, well, they
had some money to spend, and so we were able to buy a lot of stuff
and a lot of test equipment.
And then the complexity of the instrumentation. See, I lived, or I
worked, from the very—what do I call it—evolvement of
instrumentation, the evolution of instrumentation, from electrical-mechanical,
which was nothing but galvanometers and gyros and mechanical type
on film, it evolved right on up to PCM [Pulse Code Modulation] systems
or electronic systems there at the end. So there’s a big technology
change between 1948 and 1985. I mean, it was huge.
So I see on your questionnaire, “What challenges did you have?”
It was always a challenge to stay up with technology. I went to a
lot of government-sponsored courses in instrumentation and electronics
that they provided, and that’s probably where I got primarily
my most education. I have to admit that they did a good job of that.
When things were starting to change and move into electronics, well,
they made these things available to you so you could stay on top of
it. It was great. Now I suppose, from the time I left there and the
time now, I don’t think I could hold that job anymore, because
it would be such a technology change. You had to be retrained all
Your best friend and worst enemy at the same time, wasn’t it?
Yes. Yes. That was the challenge, to stay on top of it. Because innovative
things were happening on the outside. Away from NACA and NASA, you
had to keep track of them. I even took a course in FORTRAN, that computer
programming, and boy, that was taxing. That was a tough course. But
I didn’t really ever use FORTRAN. I never used it in my job.
But it made you understand what other people were confronting, what
they had to do, and so that you could adjust your job to fit theirs
and move up.
The computer generation, you see. Patricia, she’s into computers.
She does all that. She just loves computers and she’d worked
with software all the time. She gives me a bad time that you’re
not literate, you know, if you’re—
P. Kenner: Illiterate. [Laughs]
Illiterate, she says. [Laughs] But I watch her and I kind of keep
up with what’s going on with her, and in fact, it’s wonderful
that she does that. So I can say, if she ever disappears, I’d—uh-oh!
Beside her being gone, I got a problem with everyday living. [Laughs]
You mentioned about the technology changing, and then earlier you
talked about bureaucracy. Can you pinpoint when you noticed the change
of bureaucracy starting to mount and your normal way of doing informal
work, to get things done, started to move into more of a bureaucratic
Like I say in the very beginning, there was a small contingent of
people. The instrumentation people and research engineers used to
work together very closely. In fact, the research engineers almost
moved over into the instrumentation, like he would help do calibrations
and things like this right on the airplane.
But as time went on, see, and sections and groups built up, became
more and more, well, then this conflict of people moving over, doing
other people’s jobs became an irritant to a lot of people, especially
people shuffling for their positions. Okay? “You’re not
supposed to be doing that, and you’re not supposed to be doing
this.” It happened both ways. A technician that was doing something
or he might be doing something in an engineering aspect would be confronted
with “But—but—,” from doing it, and would
be confronted by another section, and that other section was called
To me, Inspection was a deterrent. It took away responsibility from
like a technician if he had to present everything he was doing to
inspection to make sure that you’re doing your job right. That
really didn’t go over well. That didn’t go over well with
me. I didn’t like somebody, “Well, you can’t do
this. The procedure says you got to do it this way,” and when
you knew, maybe, that that procedure wasn’t really accomplishing
what it should be, or I’ll do it a different way. Oh, no, you
don’t, see. There he goes. So we had this conflict, and then
bureaucracy built up that way.
I can remember simple little things like on the D-558, the crew out
there, old Raskowki [phonetic] and McLanahan [phonetic], they were
cleaning the airplane, right? They were polishing the white paint
on the airplane. They were giving me a bad time. “Why don’t
you give us a hand?”
I said, “Oh, okay,” see? [Laughs] I went out there and
I got this polish and I’m polishing the airplane.
My supervisor came walking by, and he says, “Kenner, come here.”
“Huh? Okay. What is it?”
He said, “Come into the office for a minute.” [Laughs]
And he says, “You don’t do that.”
I said, “Well, I had the time.”
“You don’t polish airplanes. You’re in instrumentation.
You don’t polish airplanes.”
So you have these things. They wouldn’t let you intermingle
and have camaraderie between groups. They would start to divide. Well,
as time goes on and bureaucracies get bigger, and more and more of
that happens, and responsibilities are pulled away to this group and
pulled away to that group, and so you have conflicts. And so efficiency
You mentioned, too, that you had stayed there till 1985, so you definitely
went through the transition from NACA to NASA. Tell me about the differences
and when you started to see the impact of NASA on the Flight [Research]
Yes, okay. During the transition, there wasn’t any transition.
Okay, we’re NASA; we’re not NACA anymore. That’s
fine. There’s no problem with that. But I think other Centers
got involved a lot in what we were doing, and when you get other Centers
and other groups of people, again you have conflicts between Centers
and whose responsibility is what. So NASA, all of a sudden Houston
[Manned Spacecraft Center, Texas] is developed, right? Kennedy [Space
Center, Florida] is developed, right? And we had the Lunar Landing
Vehicle, and we’re doing research and training on that, but
I think I had to work with Houston and the astronauts. So what happened,
the picture became very large.
Look how large it is today. We’ve got a space program now, and
astrophysics is getting involved. But aeronautics is kind of waning
a little bit. After all, how much can you do with aeronautics? After
a while, you’d almost say we’d done it all right then.
So we’re going into a whole new realm with astrophysics. But
the transition between NACA and NASA was just a matter of technology’s
still changing, right? That’s what changed things, not becoming
one from the other.
Technology has changed things.
Had you worked with the other Centers, like Ames [Aeronautical Laboratory,
Moffett Field, California] and Langley [Aeronautical Laboratory, Hampton,
Virginia], a lot before the transition, when you were still just part
of NACA? Did you do a lot of interaction with—
Well, all the information on things like that came out of Langley
Field [Hampton, Virginia\, I mean, for the X-1. It was combined. The
NACA outfit, the High-Speed Flight Station, was just a part of Langley,
to begin with, right? Then Ames, we became part of Ames, see? Then
we became a Center, and then I think we kind of lost that position.
I kind of think that we lost that position and became just part of
Ames. But, sure, I worked directly on the vehicle there at the Station,
so I didn’t interact with any personnel at Langley or Ames,
except on occasion.
But I worked on two of Dr. [Richard] Whitcomb’s programs, the
supercritical wing, that was primarily my airplane. The winglets program,
I put all the instrumentation in there for the winglets. They did
the base flights and the winglets flights. Of course, then, the crash
program, the 720 fuel additive program, was working with the FAA,
but I worked directly on aircraft, putting the downlink instrumentation
in the 720.
So I didn’t have to work directly with anybody. We had our own
systems. We had our own instrumentation system, and we put it in there,
and we did all the checkout and all the calibrations. We didn’t
have any technicians from other Centers working on it. It was primarily
Tell me about some of the fondest memories that you have working out
at the Flight [Research] Center. When you look back and you think
about some of the good times, what’s some of the good memories
that you have from being out there?
Well, Rebecca, you know what? They’re all good memories. I don’t
remember a time when I had a difficult time. I was happy about doing
everything. There were so many things to do, and one thing about working
for NASA out there, especially in my own situation, nobody challenged
me that I should be doing this or I should be doing that or this is
your responsibility, like that. It was just that I might be given
a project, and then they walk away, and you just did it. You had your
schedules to go to. You go to your projects meetings and things like
that and report on where you are with your instrumentation and how
far along are you and what more time do you need or whatever. But
it was all great. I loved it, every minute of it. I can’t remember
anytime—well, I was upset one time; I didn’t get that
But that worked out.
That worked out beautifully. [Laughter] The supervisor’s name
was Jim Tehann [phonetic], and if I see him next time, I’m going
to say, “Boy, Jim, you did me a big favor by not giving me that
position.” But at the time, it meant a promotion, see, and I
was a little upset about it.
P. Kenner: Wasn’t NACA out there kind of a stepchild and left alone
out in the desert because nobody much wanted anything to do with the
desert? And you guys became such a close-knit group, and family-wise,
it was a very close-knit group then.
Yes, it was.
P. Kenner: It was small, and they had all sorts of family things, and
everybody knew everybody, until it started growing faster and faster.
Yes, just outside of NACA, in our personal lives, we knew everybody,
and we had our parties. We’d have the X-15 flight party, or
we’d have the Station parties, and all the wives were involved.
No, it was very family oriented back then.
Were the parties held on base? Like the X-15 parties, were they held
there or were they held off-site?
Oh yes, you wouldn’t dare hold them any of those parties we
had on the base. [Laughs] Woops.
P. Kenner: They were held at one of the local watering holes, usually.
Yes, it was at Roseman. What was the—Juanita’s at Roseman.
That was a great place to have—
P. Kenner: That and The Office.
—yes, and The Office—have parties, after-flight parties.
But no, you wouldn’t dare have it on Base at night. [Laughs]
But we had, what was it, the NACA—
P. Kenner: We had bowling teams and baseball teams.
Yes, and then we even had parties out at [Florence Lowe]
“Pancho” [Barnes’] Happy Bottom Riding Club. [Laughs]
Now, I’m sure you’ve heard of Pancho’s Happy Bottom
Well, you could tell me your experiences there. [Laughter]
The only experience I got, is one time I went out there and Cliff
Morris—do you know that name?
Cliff Morris was a technician in our shop, or an instrument mechanic.
He was a very good friend of Pancho’s. Well, the Air Force,
they were getting ready to take Pancho’s place out there, and
they were going to confiscate it. Eminent domain type thing. So she
wanted to get the general of the base into court, so Cliff, and this
is in a book by—I forget what her name was that wrote that—but
he, Cliff, knew Pancho, so she subpoenaed the general, but she couldn’t
get on base, right, to serve it. So she got Cliff to go down there,
and fortunately, it was lunchtime. He went down there and served those
papers to the general.
Well, when he got back to the shop, there was a call to Walt Williams
at the Station there, at the hangar, and, “Who was that guy?
Who was that guy who came down there and served those papers? I’d
like to see him fired.” Well, Cliff, he didn’t do anything
illegal. He did it at lunchtime, and it was on his own time. So that
was a big flap, you know. Oh, that was good. We had a good time with
Well, I guess Pancho finally got them in. But I had gone out there
with Cliff one day, and I met Pancho. He was talking to her there,
and then Cliff says, “Well, why don’t you join the Happy
Bottom Riding Club?”
Now, this is before I knew Patricia. I said, “Okay,” and
signed up, and I got this little Happy Bottom Riding Club card, and
I carried that around.
Well, I met Patricia, and I—why was you going through my wallet?
P. Kenner: I don’t think I was going through it.
Yes, you was. You were going through my wallet for something, or I
was and I had it open for something, and she said, “What’s
I said, “Well, that’s my club membership to the Happy
Bottom Riding Club over at Pancho’s.”
She grabbed that, and she said, “You don’t need that.”
She ripped it up. To this day I am thinking to myself, “That’s
grounds for divorce.” [Laughter] So that would be a rare old
collector’s item. I would like to have that now.
The only other time I met Pancho, I was out there. I was learning
how to fly a Cessna 170 that we had bought—I had bought with
another partner. I was in there, and I had enlisted a instructor out
there at the field, out at Fox Field [California], and Pancho come
sailing in the door. She was getting pretty old about that time, but
her son was the fixed base operator at Fox Field, and she went in
to see him. She was talking about she was going to renew her license
or she was going to get a license, and she was talking to her son
about it. I’m sitting there, and I’m looking at Pancho,
and I says, “That woman wants to get back in the air? I don’t
think so.” [Laughs] She never did, but she was talking about
it. She was going to do that. Oh, boy.
Speaking of pilots, how much were they involved with the work that
you did? Did you work with them closely?
Really, as far as instrumentation went, really not closely. The pilots,
they didn’t get involved in primarily what we were doing. In
fact, other than our research engineer, somebody directly on a project
really didn’t involved with the instrumentation people or group
on the airplane. There was a few mechanics there that used to call
us a bunch of old women, because instrumentation people, you know,
we had our job, and we did, and I don’t think anybody really
kind of understood what we were doing, see, and so they kind of left
That’s why I got along pretty well out at NASA in all those
years of moving up from the very basic position clear up to Engineering,
is that nobody really challenged me much. If I wanted to do something
or I wanted to accept responsibility, I’m like that, and they’re,
“Fine. Go ahead.” Or I was given a project, and I worked
with the project engineer very closely, people like Wen [Weneth D.]
Painter or John [G.] McTigue or Gene Matranga. There were a bunch
of project engineers, and that’s who you worked closely with.
Except maybe an engineer that was doing something specifically on
airplanes, some measurements, you might work with him. Bill Birchham
[phonetic], I remember working—he was in Propulsion, so I’d
go up and talk to him about transducer ranges and positions and what
we wanted to measure, what did he want to measure and whatever. Then
I’d just go off and do it, you know, get him what he wanted
to know. That’s what the instrumentation engineer did. You went
and got a parameter from a researcher. “This is what I want
Say, “Oh, okay. You want to measure pressures. You want to measure
temperatures, accelerations, or whatever.”
Then you went back, and you assigned the ranges, and you assigned
the type of transducer that was going to fit in the instrumentation
system and its resolution. And later on the PCM systems, where you
had bitstreams, or data bitstreams, and you assigned a parameter to
these different words in this data bitstream, and then you assigned
a resolution and the accuracies of what they wanted, and that was
Then you’d get that all in the airplane, and then you’d
make up these line-up sheets, and then I’d send that up to High
Range, and High Range, they would set up their whole range system
from these line-up sheets, because they’d pick out the parameters
they wanted put on the strip charts and what they wanted to record.
So that was primarily my job there in the last, was setting up the
instrumentation system. Well, and specify what type of transmitters
we were going to put in there, the size of the wiring, and how it
was going to be hooked up. I used to make up all the wiring diagrams
for the technicians on the floor to wire the airplane.
P. Kenner: But it didn’t matter whether they were test pilots or
secretaries or Personnel, when they had a party, everybody was there.
Oh, you bet. [Laughs]
The whole team.
P. Kenner: Yes, everybody was there. There was no difference, and everybody
Well, there were a lot of successful days at the Center, but there
were those days that were bad, when you had bad news came back. Can
you share how the Center handled that, and how long it took for the
morale to feel like it was good to work again?
Are you talking about when we’d lose a pilot?
When you’d lose a pilot.
Well, we lost Joe [Joseph A.] Walker, okay, and that was an unfortunate
accident, and I think everybody felt pretty bad about that, because
it didn’t need to happen. But I guess you can probably say that
about any pilot. But we only lost—we lost Joe Walker and there
was Captain Apt. He was an Air Force pilot. Boy, I tell you Rebecca,
I don’t remember us losing—we lost another pilot, but
he was flying a sailplane up there at California City. It wasn’t
even on a project at the Center.
P. Kenner: Bruce [A. Peterson] got injured, but he came back from that.
Yes, he came back.
Yes, he got injured; he very likely would have got killed. But the
success rate—you say there’s failures, and we had failures,
and I can probably tell you a lot of aircraft test failures, but we
didn’t lose a lot—any people.
We lost more people flying sailplanes at that place. I used to fly
sailplanes. I got involved in that. Patricia got me involved in that.
[Laughs] She’s the one that got me into flying sailplanes. But
we used to fly sailplanes out at El Mirage [California]. But you think
about the people that had accidents in sailplanes out at NASA—not
related to the job, necessarily, just in their private lives—there
was Wen Painter. Did you ever talk to Wen Painter?
P. Kenner: He’s not NACA.
Oh, he’s not NACA, I guess. You’re just talking to NACA
people? Yes, okay. Then there was John Williams. He was the second
in command at the Center there under [Paul F.] Bikle. Then there was
a girl engineer; what was her name? She was killed. Then there was
a couple of engineers; it was an engineer and his brother was killed
in a sailplane. God, it was amazing. Somebody told me one day that,
“Ah, flying sailplanes is benign. It’s not a big deal.”
You can very well make a mistake in a sailplane that can kill you.
But getting back to your original questions, yes, I guess when we
lost Joe Walker, that was kind of disheartening. But again, if you’re
doing those kind of things, if you’re flying research airplanes,
or even if you’re working at a Station in situations which can
be very dangerous, and something happens like that, I always felt
like, “God, that’s really bad. But we’re doing those
things; things happen.” You kind of take a matter-of-fact approach
to it. But that may be me personally. There may be people that feel
more emotional about those kind of things and they get upset about
them. You never saw depression or demoralized. They’re always
same thing, you know. Straight ahead, let’s go.
Keep moving. We got a job to do. Let’s do it.
As we start to wind down our conversation today, when I talked to
you on the phone to set the appointment up, one of the comments that
you made was that during that time period, you never realized the
kind of history that was being made, that you were being involved
in. Looking back on it now, what do you think about the fact that
you were so involved in so much historic aviation progress and success?
I look at it as you probably, at your age, and the things that you
do, and you don’t think too much about history. You maybe do,
because you’re working in the history industry. But people are
working their everyday lives, and they’re doing this and that,
and you’re accomplishing this, you know, like that. Then you
go to the next project, and then you do this. You never think too
much about history of it or what’s going to happen when I’m
out of here or when I look back.
But then when you do finally get there, and I finally quit and retired
in ’85, and then I started looking back about the things that
happened. And other history you watch it on television. You see the—“There’s
old Dryden [Flight Research Center, Edwards, California]. They’re
doing a program on Dryden.” And you just watch. “Well,
I worked on that program,” or, “I did this,” and
like that, and then you get to realize that there’s a whole
lot of other people out there in this nation that are looking at that
that are in awe about what happened and what’s going on.
You see the X-15 being dropped, and to me it says oh, yes, now we’re
dropping the X-15, and we’re going to do this or we’re
just going to land. But then later on, there was a lot of history
and a lot of effort that went behind there, and a lot of people worked
on that program to get it to that position. It’s amazing.
P. Kenner: You realized how much history you were in when you went to
the Smithsonian [National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.]
and saw all the projects you worked on hanging in the museum.
It’s pretty awesome, isn’t it?
Yes, we went to the Smithsonian, and I’m going in there, and
gee, the Smithsonian’s got the X-15 hanging up there. The Phase
Two is hanging up there, and there’s the X-1. There’s
the Lifting Body M2F3. What other airplane was hanging up there? There
was five airplanes. The 818 and the [F]-104-818 was hanging up there.
They’re considering that enough of a history to be hanging in
the Smithsonian. Now, I worked on some of those things. Then you can
get kind of emotional about it. You think, “Wow!”
Quite a success.
Yes. So anyway, that portion of it, working in history, I’m
sure the family. “Well, gee, my dad did this.” I can hear
them now. “My dad worked on that, or did this.” They’ll
take a little bit of pride in that. But when you’re doing it,
Rebecca, no big deal.
Doing your job. Is there some things, Patricia, you can think of that
maybe we didn’t talk about today or some other things that come
to mind that you thought about that you’d like to mention?
P. Kenner: I can’t think of anything.
Thanks for bringing up the family atmosphere, too, because it tells
something about the Center.
P. Kenner: Well, it was, and I’ll have to say that when he talks
about it, when NACA became NASA and as it grew, and I guess it’s
because there’s more personnel getting involved, so then it
has to become a whole department, and that’s the beginning of
this close-knit group. I’m not saying it’s wrong or right,
it’s just that the beginning of a different atmosphere. Then
the parties got separated. You didn’t interact with the people
as much, and, of course, there were more people. So that was the change
in dynamics that we were kind of sad to see change, but that was just
the way it was.
It all kind of started with the X-15 Program, I think, after the X-15
and after the Lifting Bodies. After those two programs, then you saw
a little bit more of a separation or whatever. But it was just—any
organization that expands and gets bigger becomes a bureaucracy, and
efficiency goes down. Then I’d always hear people say, “Well,
you know, it isn’t like it used to be.” Well, hell, no,
it’s not what it used to be. You don’t want it to be like
it was or like it used to be, because if it was, you’re not
making any progress.
No. You’re back in that hangar where there’s no air. [Laughter]
Back in that wire cage with all the dust.
That’s right. But they were talking about their responsibilities,
their personal feelings about the place, and it isn’t like it
used to be. Well, you have to grow with anything. When it grows, you
have to grow with it, and some guys just couldn’t do it.
P. Kenner: And there are good and bad with the growth. The good part
will overcome the bad, but the bad is. It becomes less—
It was less efficient, and less gets done. It gets to the point where
a lot of people are standing around waiting for somebody else to do
their portion of it.
P. Kenner: Well, a perfect example was your doing the work for the Air
Force. If that had to got through an approval by the Senate Committee
before you could give the—
[Laughs] It still wouldn’t be there.
P. Kenner: So those things change.
Yes. But anyway, I don’t know if you’re interested in
looking at any—I have my old pay records and stuff like that,
back, that shows you the progression. I don’t know if that’s
any interest or not.
Well, not even maybe for us, but it’s certainly something to
talk with the History Office at Dryden about, because I’m sure
they have an archives that they would like to keep some of those things.
It’s getting harder and harder to find older items, because
a lot of times people don’t know what to do with them, so they
throw them away.
P. Kenner: They just toss them, yes.
Yes. I’m sure most of that stuff has been tossed and like that,
but I kept all my wage increases and all my promotions and all that
stuff. I’ve got it all. But you’re right. I mean, probably
Dryden. Of course, I’ve got a ton of pictures. You’ve
already got a ton of pictures in there, and probably all of them filed
there at NACA, anyways.
Could be. Could be. We just don’t know, because sometimes when
budgets start to [decrease], History Offices start to disappear. Or
they become shoved under something else, and then things aren’t
kept or things get lost or they get moved to another place. So you
could at least—and Betty [Love’s] a good person. She knows
what’s in that office. She could tell you if some of that stuff
is worth filing there. And if not, you let us know, and we’ll
see if the Headquarters Office wants some of it. So we’ll do
what we can.
Well, thanks for talking with me today.
P. Kenner: Oh, you’re welcome.
I appreciate it.