This article appeared in the October 1992 issue of Code One Magazine.
As always, Beryl Erickson, the first pilot of the B-36 Peacemaker and the B-58 Hustler (among other aircraft), is well prepared. He has carefully assembled a half dozen or so stacks of photographs on two couches in his living room. The photos, large black-and-white prints, will prompt tens of stories for the next several hours. Erickson motions to a table near a window that opens onto his front yard. "We’ll do the interview there," he says. I set my tape recorder on the table and start to sit down. "No, not there," Erickson insists. "You must sit on this side of the table."
Erickson is not being difficult. He is just meticulous in everything he does. He leaves little to chance — a characteristic that goes a long way in explaining his longevity in a dangerous profession. The interview is a test flight he is orchestrating. I take my copilot position as the pilot shuffles to the living room to fetch the first stack of photos.
"First, we must figure out what to call me and how to refer to the company," Erickson says as he places the photos next to a scrapbook. His speech is measured and deliberate. "I have gone by many names during my career — B.A., Beryl, Erick, Erickson — and so has the company — Consolidated, Consolidated Vultee, Convair, and General Dynamics."
Erickson is making sure that everything is in its place and clearly labeled before we take off. We pass on assigning him a formal name and decide to keep the company’s title as chronologically accurate as possible. With these details settled, we are prepared for another historical flight.
We begin with a photo of an airplane that Erickson never flew – the Consolidated Commodore. The large, twin-engine flying boat carried passengers to and from South America for New York, Rio & Buenos Aires Line beginning in 1929. Erickson notes that the airplane, an important part of Consolidated’s early flying boat experience, was a corporate predecessor to the PBY Catalina, which he did fly.
"I began my career for Consolidated in 1940 delivering the PBY," Erickson reminisces. "The company was building many of the patrol bombers for the Netherlands, which was accelerating deliveries in anticipation of the war in the Pacific. I crossed the ocean several times, flying the PBYs from San Diego to the Dutch navy in Manila. The deliveries took five or six days of island hopping and two weeks on commercial lines for the return trip."
The date was 5 December 1941. On the last leg of one of those return trips, Erickson found himself in Honolulu. He was hurrying back to Los Angeles for his wedding. "That afternoon, I boarded the Steamship Lurline bound for San Francisco," Erickson says as he reaches into his scrapbook for a program from his fiftieth wedding anniversary. "Thirty-six hours out to sea, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor." He made it to his wedding on time. The Japanese, however, altered the newlyweds’ plans for a Hawaiian honeymoon. Erickson and his wife, Billie, went snow skiing in Idaho instead.
After telling the story, Erickson takes a deep breath, clears his throat with a long thoughtful sigh, and shifts into test pilot mode. "The PBY needed a water rudder and a water brake, but it never got them," he says. The PB2Y Coronado and the XP4Y-1 Corregidor were vast improvements. They also took off better than the PBY."
As World War II progressed, Erickson’s transpacific flying experiences led him to Consairway–a war-time air transport service set up by Consolidated under contract to the US Air Transport Command. During lulls in flight testing, Erickson flew LB-30s (British versions of the B-24) converted to transport cargo and passengers between California and the South Pacific. By 1945, Consairway had logged over 10,000 hours on seven of its aircraft and held the Honolulu-to-San Francisco speed record. Erickson himself set a couple of distance records in the Pacific.
On 10 May 1943, Erickson’s career was advanced by catastrophe. Consolidated’s first of two B-32 prototypes crashed on takeoff at Lindbergh Field in San Diego after the crew neglected to extend the airplane’s wing flaps to their takeoff position. "The plane went through a mess hall and a barracks and burned," recalls Erickson. "Several people died, including the principal test pilot, Richard McMakin. Shortly after, my workload increased."
While the tragedy opened doors for Erickson, his reputation vaulted him over the threshold. "I did things that were not required or expected, but they were beneficial," he explains. "Soon people wanted me on their projects."
Erickson was born in Bottineau, near the Canadian border in North Dakota. At age four, he moved with his family to Los Angeles. Young Beryl took an immediate interest in aviation. "We lived in the beach cities –Santa Monica, Ocean Park, Venice, Culver City — often within close range of many aircraft plants, including Douglas, North American, Vultee, and Northrop."
His parents were supportive of his early interest in flying. "Well, maybe they were more passive than supportive," Erickson elaborates. "When I was eight, I got them to promise to take me to see the Douglas World Cruisers leave Santa Monica Airport for Alaska. We drove out there four or five times and waited several hours each time to watch them take off, and they never did. My parents didn’t appreciate my holding them to their promise. They were probably more relieved than excited when the airplanes finally left the ground."
In May 1927, at age eleven, Erickson was delivering the Los Angeles Evening Herald-Express when Lindbergh completed his New York-to-Paris flight. The Herald-Express delivery truck left two bundles of extras for Erickson to hawk. "Before the evening was out," Erickson recalls with a slight smile, "I encountered people who were ecstatic about the flight. And I became rich. Two or three people gave me a dollar for the five-cent paper. I saw that it was possible to make money just by being on the outskirts of aviation."
The Lindbergh flight was a turning point for young Beryl. It proved to him that be could make a career out of something he loved. A year later, he and his friends were building and flying their own gliders. Erickson soon began work on the frame for a powered airplane – a Pietenpol Air Camper. "I was lucky that I sold the frame to a rich young man before I had a chance to kill myself trying to fly it," Erickson admits. "I made money on the deal because my time was worth little, and the materials were not expensive."
Erickson’s time appreciated when he acquired a well-connected sponsor and mentor, Paul A. "Pete" Leaman. Leaman owned and operated Culver City Airport and did primary flight training. "He hated spins, and back then pilot license applicants had to perform a spin demonstration if their planes were spin certified," explains Erickson. "I loved aerobatics, so I did all the spin instruction for Leaman. This endeared me to him."
Culver City Airport, only two miles from the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, was frequented by rich and famous people, some of whom were aircraft owners. Howard Hughes flew out of the small airport. The well-respected Leaman persuaded many of his tenants to allow his young friend and protégé to fly their aircraft. Erickson quickly gained a variety of flying experience at the airport. He did flight instruction in a Fleet biplane. He flew a Waco Custom for a doctor and a stagger-wing Beechcraft on cross-country flights for some Los Angeles investors. Through Leaman, he flew a Ford Trimotor and a small prototype plane designed for Douglas. The plane had foldable wings and was designed to be on floats and carried in a large tube aboard a submarine. He also flew refurbished Pitcairns for FAA-required demonstration flights.
Leaman introduced Erickson to the venerable Vance Breeze, a test pilot for Douglas. "Breeze would get all taped up and pull g’s to stress test dive bombers," Erickson recalls. "He’d pick up his check that afternoon. He never got hurt. He showed me all of his equipment and techniques. The experience was of great value."
In 1937, Leaman got Erickson an interview with American Airlines. The next year, Erickson was attending the airline’s pilot school in Chicago. He was soon flying DC-3s for American from Burbank to Dallas via Phoenix, Tucson, and El Paso. Erickson declined a promotion to captain because his schedule gave him free time to fly on acceptance test flights at the Douglas Aircraft plant in Santa Monica. Douglas was building DC-3s and DSTs [Douglas Sleeper Transports] for American. Erickson worked without pay on the flight acceptance program.
"I did it for the experience," Erickson explains. "I helped Douglas find and fix squawks before the planes flew. I also helped smooth out the relationship between Douglas and American and did a lot of the paperwork. The captains with whom I flew the acceptance flights hated the paperwork. I even learned how to operate the DC-3 DST’s steam cabin heating system, which must have been the only one of its kind."
During this time, Erickson witnessed the ill-fated first flight attempt of the prototype Douglas DC-5. "I learned a great deal from it," he recalls. "The plane flew out of Mines Field, now LAX. It took off after much delay. The ailerons were crossed. The pilot battled the condition by trying to use engines. The bank got worse and worse, and he finally bought the farm in a terrible cartwheel crash and explosion only a mile from the airport. I’ve always been very careful with my preflight."
With loads of experience, Erickson began looking for a job as a test pilot in Southern California. He started work for Consolidated in San Diego in 1940.
Not long after the tragic crash of the B-32 prototype, Erickson became the principal test pilot on the B-24 and then on the remaining XB-32. "At that time, the XB-36 was entirely on paper," remembers Erickson. "It had a double tail." In 1942, he followed the B-32 program to Fort Worth, where the planes were being manufactured and where Consolidated had shifted development work on the B-36.
With the end of World War II, work on the B-32 came to an abrupt halt. Erickson concentrated on the B-36. Consolidated was now Consolidated Vultee. "The XB-36 was a huge engineering task when measured by World War II standards," explains Erickson, who was in charge of all flight testing for the B-36 program. "The fuselage forebody of the XB-36 had more airframe detail parts than an entire B-24 bomber."
Erickson pulls out an aerial side view of the B-36. "The B-36 was an attractive airplane," he says. "The wing made the airplane successful. It had a beautiful wing."
On 8 August 1946, the giant airplane, with a thirty-year-old Erickson at the controls, was ready for its maiden flight. "We were behind schedule," Erickson recalls. "Our management considered the date to be a contractual imperative because the program was being threatened with imminent cancellation.
"The flight crew was ready at five in the morning, but we didn’t receive flight release until just after noon. The ambient temperature was near 100 degrees. The plane’s air conditioning system was not operable, and the temperature in the cabin was 140 degrees at takeoff.
"The engines lacked the high-ratio cooling fans required for a hot day, so they were overheated from the start. The engine oil pressure settled immediately below limits. That’s bad."
Erickson makes a lengthy pause before proceeding. "We advanced the six engines to full power and accelerated easily and smoothly to a takeoff speed of 110 knots. The XB-36 controlled nicely in the takeoff run and in the transition to steady climb. We flew conservatively with the gear down. The flight was uneventful and lasted thirty-eight minutes."
In March of the following year, Erickson flew an eventful (and in retrospect, pivotal) sixteenth flight of the XB-36. Troubles began when the main landing gear became disabled. "The left gear locked up in the correct position," Erickson remembers, "but the right was six inches from the latch. Then the retract strut of the right gear exploded, and the landing gear fell free. It pulled the side brace right out of the rear spar. The massive gear went through the lower longeron of the No. 4 engine and ruptured fuel and oil lines. Flames broke out."
Erickson’s crew put out the flames and surveyed the situation. "I recommended to the engineering department that we put the left gear and nosewheel down manually and put everybody out by parachute except for Gus Green, the copilot, and myself," says Erickson. "After we burned most of the fuel, we would land the airplane with all the gear down. Maj. Dillon, one of our crew, would follow us on the runway and tell us how to steer after we touched down.
"Everyone made the jump okay, but a number made bad landings because of the high winds. Dillon climbed into a waiting C-47 and followed us as planned. We had set everything up so we could shut the engine down with the ignition switch, which de-electrified everything except the batteries. We were concerned that the plane would burn if we ruptured the wing."
The fate of the B-36 program was riding on a successful landing. The B-36 still faced stiff competition from Northrop’s B-49 flying wing. Tooling engineers from Northrop were touring Convair’s plant in anticipation of taking it over to build their B-49 flying wing. A charred B-36 prototype at this point in the program would have been disastrous.
"The XB-36 touched down," recalls Erickson. "We didn’t have any brakes, so we had to use reverse propeller, which made an awful wind blast for Dillon behind us. His C-47 shot seventy-five feet up in the air. We did the job and came to a stop with no further damage. Afterwards, we redesigned the retract strut."
In 1949, Charles Lindbergh paid a low-key visit to Consolidated Vultee, by then known as Convair, to review the overall B-36 program for the Pentagon. "He was in my department for two days," says Erickson. "We treated him like anybody else. He flew as my co-pilot, and he was impressed with many things. He operated the overhead controls for the jet engines on the B-36D. When we told him that there was no mechanical connection between the controls and the engines, he understood that that was an innovation.
"Those controls," continues Erickson, "were the forerunner of fly-by-wire controls. Les Moffet, one of our quiet geniuses in the B-36 project office, came up with the idea of taking B-47 jet engines and applying them to the B-36 to increase its speed. One of the first questions he faced was how to get the control cables from the cockpit to the end of the wings, ninety feet away and completely filled. ‘We’ll wire it,’ he said.
"It wasn’t a sophisticated setup. We used small-gage wire to communicate from the cockpit to a bridge circuit on the engine. As Harry Hillaker said in your magazine, ‘The real issue isn’t technology versus no technology. It is how to apply technology.’"
Later in the B-36 program, Erickson was involved in two unusual fighter-towing projects. The first, Project FICON (an abbreviation of fighter-conveyor), had all RF-84K reconnaissance fighter attached in flight to a trapeze hanging from the Belly of the B-36. The second, project Tom-Tom, involved aerial coupling of two RF-84Fs to the wingtips of a B-36.
"FICON was a brilliant and brave attempt to extend the range of the RF-84F reconnaissance fighter," Erickson explains. "Two squadrons of fighters and twelve reconnaissance B-36s were eventually converted to the system. Also FICON was to be an improved capability for F-84F weapon delivery, though that never happened.
"The FICON system was intended to have the B-36 depart on a mission to be joined by an RF-84 carrying as much fuel as it could. Once his plane was connected and secured, the fighter pilot was extracted from his plane. He went to a comfortable quarter to rest. When his time came, he would get back into his fighter and do a preflight check. We would then lower the fighter into engine start position, which held it below the B-36 where it was not committed to leave. There the fighter pilot started the engine and operated his flight controls and electrical system. The fighter was then attached to, but totally independent of, the B-36 except for an earphone connection.
When ready, the fighter was lowered once again to mission launch position, where it was attached just by the nose. The fighter would remain in tow with its engine in idle. The fighter pilot or an operator in the B-36 would release the fighter from the latch.
"The system worked fine. It was tinkertoy easy to perform the engagement. But the fighter pilots weren’t too happy about it. I fear that they deliberately tore up the system because they didn’t like the idea of riding in a B-36.
"The idea behind Tom-Tom was to wingtip-tow fighter planes to extend their range without significantly reducing the range of the B-36. With Tom-Tom, the B-36 did not have to afford any lift to the towed aircraft as it did in FICON. The B-36 had good range to begin with because it had a quality wing with a high aspect ratio.
"Tom-Tom was a great idea and it worked. We proved it in four flights where we put one fighter on the right wingtip of the B-36 and measured drag in various flight conditions – from below cruise, to cruise, and above cruise. The fighter’s engine was shut down and the plane was towed. The attached plane would flap down at lower airspeeds and rise at higher airspeeds, but only slightly. We measured the drag at two altitudes–10,000 and 20,000 feet. The purpose of the program was to determine whether the fighter could be towed with essentially no loss in range to the bomber. We found that, as predicted, there was very little cost to the B-36 in fuel and speed. The program was successful until we broke the system when testing its limits." Erickson piloted the RF-84 on this eventful flight.
"You could attach at different attitudes in pitch and yaw," Erickson explains. "If you got into the initial receiver latch on the wingtip and you were off plumb, the fighter yawed. When we tried to be a little ambitious in the amount of yaw, we encountered a violent instability. In just over three seconds, my plane tore the wingtip right off the B-36. My wing was a lot tougher, naturally, than the bomber’s. I flew the wingtip of the B-36 home with me that day. That event ended the program because there was no money for the repair."
Though the Tom-Tom concept was aerodynamically successful, it had several practical drawbacks. "The fighters would have cabin air pressure and electrification supplied by the B-36," Erickson explains. "This was no big deal. However the design included such hair-raising ideas as the RF-84s lending their fuel to the B-36 until the fighters were ready to detach. The B-36 could carry the fuel at lower drag than the fighters. The swept-back wings of the RF-84F presented another problem: the pilot had to look back over his shoulder to the latch. This was fairly easy in daytime in smooth air. But at night it caused vertigo. The greatest disadvantage to wingtip towing was, of course, that the pilot was locked in for most of the trip. If the target was eighteen hours away, the pilot would be in that small cockpit for eighteen hours before he would fly his mission."
Though the Tom-Tom concept never became operational, its aerodynamic success bolstered an idea for drastically increasing the big bomber’s range. in place of fighters, ninety-foot wing extensions could be attached to the B-36’s wingtips. The extensions would contain extra fuel and improve the plane’s high-altitude maneuvering characteristics as well as its range.
"Near the end of the B-36 program, the Chinese were giving us serious trouble in Korea," Erickson recalls. "The Pentagon became serious about extending the reach of the B-36 so it could operate against the Chinese from bases in the United States. The floating wingtips would increase range by about thirty percent. The idea was taken seriously. Fortunately, it was never adopted. The extensions would have increased the wingspan to over 400 feet. The modified plane would have required 400-foot-wide taxiways."
Erickson also participated in the flight testing of the first (and only) aircraft to carry a live nuclear reactor–the NB-36H. "The flight tests were simply to measure the radiation flux in actual flight in the surrounding air," Erickson says. "We had four instrumented chase aircraft that measured the flux very precisely.
"The reactor was equivalent to 1,000 horsepower, which is nothing when it comes to nuclear reactors. However, the aircraft was designed to handle a much larger reactor. The crew of the B-36 was protected adequately for a huge nuclear source. They were over-protected, almost to a fault. For example, the windshield was leaded glass twelve inches thick. It was pretty strange to look through. The nose section that contained the flight crew had a great volume of lead in the back. That section alone weighed 105,000 pounds."
On 23 November 1947, Erickson was the copilot on the first flight of one of the largest landplanes ever built–the XC-99. "The aircraft was a far-out idea that had some merit," says Erickson. "It was designed to carry 400 infantrymen in full battle dress seated in bench seats. It would use a special track landing gear to land the troops in a plowed field or on a beach. The gear produced a big footprint and had been proved on the XB-36."
Pan American expressed interest in a luxury version of the XC-99 (without the track landing gear) for a New York-to-London route. This led to some preliminary flight tests conducted for the FAA. "During those tests, we found that the flying characteristics were okay. But they wanted to test the strength of the wing," says Erickson, "so we performed a structural integrity demonstration flight for them. It was the first time that any airplane had lifted 100,000 pounds of cargo. And we pulled limit g. First a straight pitchup limit g and then a rolling limit g." As he explains the flight, Erickson mimics the associated turning motions in his chair.
"An FAA inspector sat to my right with a big qualitative g meter device," Erickson continues. "After we did the two g maneuvers, he said ‘You’re one hundredth of a g short on the symmetric pull-up.’" Erickson stops and cracks a slight grin before finishing the story. "I told him we had noticed that and that we were going to do the maneuver again! The man replied, ‘Oh no, don’t bother.’"
Erickson flew 7,000 hours in B-36s of various types. Those hours include three flights of more than 10,000 miles. "We were very fortunate in the B-36 program," he sums up. "We never suffered a crash of any kind despite around-the-clock test operations in all types of weather."
Ten years after flying the first flight of the world’s biggest bomber, Erickson flew the first flight of the world’s fastest bomber–the B-58. Of all the planes he has flown, the B-58 is his favorite.
Erickson walks to the living room and returns with a B-58 model. "Aren’t the nacelles lovely?" he asks before shifting the conversation to specifications. "At full gross weight, the plane weighed almost 160,000 pounds. That is about 100 pounds per square foot on the wing of the B-58, which is a big load. And the plane had no lift augmentation. The maximum lift coefficient of the delta wing was only about 0.6. Ask someone what you get on the F-16. It is a big number. On the F-111 it is about 2.8. In other words, for a given condition, the F-111 has over four times the amount of lift–with the swing-wing extended and augmentation employed."
These lift figures lead into a detailed review of the B-58 flight control system, the transcript of which would fill many pages.
Erickson returns to the B-58 model: "The final design of the B-58 was the culmination of 100,000 specific design studies. Up to the point where we were about to start cutting metal for the plane, we had not decided whether the engines would be above or below the wing. While the materials were conventional, the way we used them was entirely unconventional."
Erickson now has several samples of B-58 wing structure in front of him–scraps of sandwiched honeycomb and a small section of beautifully formed wing leading edge. "The wing had no ribs," Erickson says, holding a piece of the sandwiched honeycomb. "It was constructed of spars and thick plates bolted into the spar caps. The wing skins were very stiff and almost an inch thick. They had to be precisely formed or you couldn’t bolt them to the spars.
"The wing was a tremendous engineering feat. The plates, some of which were quite large, had to go into giant autoclaves for baking. The intention was to use as little structure as possible to get a wonderfully small ratio of empty weight to fully fueled weight. Most airplanes can carry their own weight. The B-58 could carry twice its own weight. The structure had to be just right, with no dead weight."
On 11 November 1956, the B-58 made its first flight. "We planned a first flight that was the epitome of simplicity," Erickson recalls before rattling off a checklist of preparations as if the event happened the previous day.
"We flew without the bomb pod that is part of the basic airplane. We were not yet authorized to fly with it.
"The airplane had two basic fuel tanks, a small 4500-gallon front tank and a main tank. We elected to use only the front tank. The main tank was empty. The configuration of the fuel system remained unchanged during the flight. The fuel pumps feeding the engines were on and they would stay on. No valve was actuated.
"The powerplants were fully operative, including the afterburners. But we did not use the afterburners. Configured for a return component [flying without a bomb pod], the airplane’s weight was so small that it did not require afterburner. But they were available for an emergency.
"We had faith in the landing gear. And we retracted it, but not until everything else was lovely, and we were at 20,000 feet.
"We also had confidence in the flight control system. But we did not use the automatic mode. Auto mode provided g limiting. The plane was so light that we weren’t concerned about g limiting. We used only the manual mode, which was normally used during takeoffs and landings."
The Monday before the first flight scheduled for the following Sunday, Convair telegrammed invitations to VIPs and made personal calls to invite community leaders to the event. Takeoff time was planned for 1:15 p.m., after church. Carswell AFB agreed to close the runway to all other traffic for two hours for the event.
On Sunday, just before flight time, Erickson, Charles Harrison, the flight test engineer, and J.D. McEachern, the system engineer, mingled with the VIPs and handed out printed programs that explained the first flight. Public address speakers were set up so that the crowd could hear the crew’s radio transmissions.
"Everything went smoothly," recalls Erickson. "There was no tension or confusion. We were absolutely confident when we climbed into the plane. As soon as we were latched in and the hatch was closed, we started the engines in rapid order and notified the tower that we were coming out. We had free access to the runway. We didn’t have to ask for takeoff approval. We taxied north towards Lake Worth, with our F-102 chase aircraft following. We turned around, as did the chase aircraft–then told the chase aircraft to take off. Moments later, we set our engines to takeoff power and took off smoothly with the chase coming in trail position behind us.
"We did a pitch pulse, which was called Condition 1. Condition 2 was a rudder kick. At 20,000 feet, we retracted the landing gear and accelerated to 350 knots and did several more conditions, which were all listed and described in the printed programs. In no time at all, we decelerated back to 250 knots and put the lending gear down.
The chase aircraft made sure that the latches were secure. We slowed to 170 knots to simulate a final approach, then accelerated back to 250 knots for the lending pattern.
We lowered the nose gear, made a good landing, and released the arresting chute, which was not a necessity, but we thought it would look good.
"When we taxied back and turned in and stopped, we hadn’t been away for more than forty-seven minutes. Everything went as planned. We got a good grade from everyone. Afterward, I went to the home of Frank Davis [the chief engineer and, later, president of Convair] and had a cup of coffee and a cookie and said, ‘See you in the morning.’" Just another day at work.
"It was a very uncomplicated use of the plane. We didn’t go out of our way to advertise that we kept the first flight as simple as possible. No one asked, outside of the technical field. And they all concurred that it was wise to keep the flight simple because this was a brand new airplane. Everything on board, except the core of the engines, was new.
"Looking back on the B-36, we wished we could have made its first flight in the same manner. The first flight of the B-58 was a different ball game, and only ten years separated these events."
Such simplicity disappeared as the B-58 matured. In 1959, Erickson flew the B-58 for the ride of his life. The flight involved a cross-country, low-level dash from Carswell AFB in Texas to Vandenberg AFB in California. The B-58 flew between 100 and 500 feet above the ground for 1,400 miles, never slowing below 600 knots.
"We successfully demonstrated that flight testing can be fun," says Erickson, looking very serious. "We did several seemingly impossible things in that flight. We flew without a navigation system.
"We wanted to fly down the runway at Edwards on our way to Vandenberg. We wanted to hit the runway and go straight down it without turning. We did this with the help of a Convair pilot in an F-106. He was flying Mach 1.2 above Las Vegas into a head wind. He boomed the heck out of the place. He refined our heading so when we were within ten miles of Edwards, which was only one minute at our speed, we didn’t have to make another heading change. We went right down the runway and disappeared into the mountains to the west.
"We gave up on going to Vandenberg because the nimbus clouds were right down on everything. So we turned toward Bakersfield. We scared the bejesus out of a lot of migrant workers in the San Joaquin valley. They looked right at us, hurtling along 150 feet above them at Mach 0.95."
Following the flight, Convair held a briefing back in Fort Worth. During his presentation, Erickson formally pronounced the mission F-U-N. The assembled engineers scratched their heads, trying to make sense of the unfamiliar acronym. They had to suffer through one of Erickson’s trademark pauses before he let them in on the joke.
Even though it may have been his favorite plane, the B-58 is not immune from an Erickson critique. "SAC [Strategic Air Command] didn’t want the plane in the beginning," he explains. "It didn’t have enough range. It had no copilot. How were they going to train pilots? Training was an afterthought.
"The basic mission lasted eighteen hours or longer. How strong is your bladder? What about a hot cup of coffee before you make the final run against an enemy’s defenses? If you aren’t successful, the blast from the bomb may end your career. Shouldn’t you have a hot cup of coffee? There were no such provisions in the initial design of the B-58. There were no provisions for carrying spare socks or a toothbrush. No provision for carrying papers or a handbook or even your orders.
"At the time," Erickson continues, "some engineers from NASA told me that they considered human amenities first. For them, adequate amenities spelled mission success. Through a lot of jawboning, I managed to get many of those amenities as retrofits.
"General LeMay [then commander-in-chief of SAC] did not like the plane. The people who flew the plane, though, liked it. If I were to be offered a chance to fly the B-58 to heaven, I’d go right away. It was absolute pure joy to fly."
Erickson may have flown half-way to heaven during his almost 3,000 hours flying the B-58.
Erickson retired from General Dynamics in 1962. He has over 25,000 hours of flight time in more planes than he has time or desire to count. A few not mentioned in the preceding text: DeHavilland Gypsy Moth, Spratt roadable aircraft, Convair YB-60 (first flight), Convair 880 and 990, Grumman Bearcat, Boeing B-17, DeHavilland Mosquito, Avro Lancaster, Douglas A-20 Havoc, and Boeing B-47 Stratojet. He currently owns and flies a Cessna 210P Turbo Centurion.
"I got into flight testing by being interested," Erickson says. "I never received a formal degree in any science."
This seasoned test pilot credits his success to preparation and understanding. "Eddie Rickenbacker said that accidents are the penalty for motion," Erickson says with his usual deliberation. "For people who indulge in any hazardous contest or profession, it is important to know when to take a big risk. I have understood that all my life."
Article by Eric Hehs, Managing Editor/Code One