Tuesday, August 15, 2023

M2-FI First Flight Anniversary


It was 60 years ago today that test pilot Milt Thompson piloted the world's first lifting body aircraft, the M2-F1 on its first flight.

Towed behind an R4D (the Navy version of the Air Force C-47 which was the the civilian DC-3) the M2-F1 was taken to an altitude of 12,000 feet. Jack McKay and Don Mallick piloted the tow plane while Vic Horton monitored the M2-F1 by way of the R4D's plexiglass bubble in the aircraft's roof. The plan was to make a series of wide 360 degree turns over the lakebed attached to a 1,000 foot long tow line. The line itself had a primary release on the M2-F1 and a backup release on the R4D. Fred Haise was flying chase in a T-37. After reaching 12,000 feet and completing the turns, pilot Thompson was sure that the aircraft was flying well. "NASA 1" the mission controller gave the go ahead and Thompson cut loose. Down on the ground Dale Reed, the father of lifting bodies and creator of the M2-F1 saw the vehicle drop like a stone!

Reed had come up with the concept of a an actual manned lifting body aircraft. In order to convince his boss to let him make that project come to life, Reed, a long time R/C model airplane builder and flyer made a model of his concept, attached it to one of his R/C airplanes and towed it aloft as his wife shot 8mm movies of it. When his boss, Paul Bikle, saw the footage he agreed to to fund the project on a shoestring.
Reed and his flying M2-F1 model
Dale Reed and his flying M2-F1 model

Since the M2-F1 had to be very light weight it was constructed of plywood by sailplane maker Gus Briegleb. 
Likewise the under carriage was in-house made with steel tubing and landing gear from a Cessna 150 aircraft. At the demand of NASA management an ejection seat was also added.

Famed test pilot Milt Thompson became a part of the lifting body program very early on. He spent hours in a kluged simulator and when the actual aircraft was completed he actually sat in it and flew it in the wind tunnel. So, when the time came to start flying it, no one else was gonna do that.

The early flights were "car tows" where a sup'ed up Pontiac pulled the M2-F1 fast enough to get it flying. Thompson did scores of these where the aircraft would lift off  the lakebed, climb a few hundred feet and then cut loose, flair and land. Fred Haise often did the car driving and by way of doing so got to do some of the tow flights. When asked about the driving the car he told me, "...it was fun, but then I got to fly that thing!"

So, on August 16, 1963 the M2-F1 was flying on its own. Although the steep "dive bomber" approach caught the observers on the ground, including Dale Reed, by surprise, Milt Thompson was fully in control. He did a simulated landing flair at 9,000 feet and then went right back into the descent profile. Landing exactly on his planned touchdown point he let the bird roll to a near stop before turning to roll clear of the desert runway.

When I was in high school in 1976 I designed my own lifting body "shape." It was a part of my 11th grade drafting class final project. While I was working on it- along with a model rocket booster and launch service tower with a retracting service structure (that I'm sure NASA stole from me), my drafting teacher the late Dan Craig came up and looked at the project.

"What's that wedge thing?" he asked.

"It's a lifting body," I replied as if he should know what I meant, "it's a wingless aircraft."

He simply shook his head and walked away. I go a "C" on the project mostly due to assorted tiny drafting errors, and on the lifting body he scrolled a message,

"Aircraft can't fly without wings- you should know that!"

Mine flew. Many years later my college roommate saw one of my lifting body balsa wood models and was so fascinated I gave him one. He went on to work as a NASA contractor at then Dryden, and Dale Reed's deck was just a short distance from his. So, he showed Mr. Reed my lifting body. The father of lifting bodies was impressed and said, "That would also make a great hypersonic shape."

But not constructed of balsa wood... of course

My original high school lifting body

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