Memories of NASA test pilot Tom McMurtry in Mojave

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by Cathy Hansen, special at Aerotech News
Almost 20 years ago, I remember seeing Tom McMurtry, working in his hangar at the Mojave airport.

He had the cutest little 1939 J-3 “Cub” made by the Piper Aircraft Company. Tom’s J-3 was made in Lockhaven, Pa., In 1939, and flight logs show it was restored in Santa Paula, Calif., In 1987. He bought it in 1996 to give to his children a flight instruction. It was equipped with a 65 hp Continental engine and two eight-gallon extended-range wing tanks, for a total flight time of just over five hours.

Tom received his pilot’s license in 1958 and has logged over 11,000 flight hours. He also had a WACO UPF-7 open cockpit biplane. He loved to fly, low and slow as well as high and fast!

Early in his life he followed in his brother’s footsteps and joined the naval ROTC program in high school and earned a full scholarship to Notre Dame, where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering. He served in the US Navy as an aircraft carrier pilot, flying F9F Cougars and later A3Ds. He served a deployment and a half in the Far East aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, flying A3D Sky Warriors and heavy attack bombers.

Tom McMurtry’s J-3 Cub. (Photograph by Cathy Hansen)

He retired from the Navy in 1963, but still loved to fly. He worked as a consultant for Lockheed Aircraft for three years, then began his flight testing career in 1967 with NASA’s Flight Research Center in Edwards, California.

His first mission was to pilot the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter with the X-15 program! He later co-piloted the F-8 Crusader Digital Fly-By-Wire project. He participated in some of the early remotely piloted research vehicle (now called UAV) programs. One of the most well-known remotely piloted projects was the FAA / NASA 720 Controlled Impact Demonstration, with Fitz Fulton as the pilot.

McMurtry has also co-piloted the F-8 Digital Fly-By-Wire program and several remotely piloted research vehicle programs such as the FAA / NASA 720 Controlled Impact Demonstration and the F- Spin Research Project. 15 on a small scale. On November 26, 1975, the X-24B Lift Body fell from the sky for the last time, flown on this 36th flight by McMurtry. He also co-piloted the 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft while carrying the prototype of the Enterprise Shuttle during its first launch on August 12, 1977.

Tom flew as a co-pilot with Fitz on the Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft with the Space Shuttle “Enterprise” approach and landing program. Prior to retiring from the NASA Flight Research Center in Dryden in 1998, Tom was director of flight operations.

Tom McMurtry flew the last flight of the Convair 990 (CV-990) aircraft from Edwards AFB, California. Formerly used by NASA as a medium altitude research platform and Landing Systems Research Aircraft, the aircraft landed at Mojave Airport on October 24. , 1996. In the cockpit of the CV-990 were Project Dryden Pilot C. Gordon Fullerton and Dryden Chief of Flight Operations Tom McMurtry. A NASA F / A-18 flew over the CV-990 and Dryden search pilot Ed Schneider flew the Hornet after the 990 landed. (Photograph by Cathy Hansen)

It also flew with the last flight of Edwards’ Convair 990 (CV-990) aircraft, formerly used by NASA as a medium altitude research platform and Landing Systems Research Aircraft (LSRA) which landed at the Mojave Airport on October 24, 1996..

A NASA F / A-18 flew over the CV-990 and Dryden search pilot Ed Schneider flew the Hornet after the 990 landed.

In the cockpit of the CV-990 were Project Dryden Pilot C. Gordon Fullerton and Dryden Chief Flight Officer Tom McMurtry. Airport manager Dan Sabovich was there to greet the crew. This aircraft is now on display as one of the Mojave Air and Space Port Gate Guards.

Most airplane people know that the J-3 logo is a little bear holding a sign with the word “Cub” on it. During World War II, Piper advertised in aviation magazines with this quote: “Piper Cub points the way to the wings for all Americans.

The US Army designation of the Piper J-3 was originally the O-59 (O for Observation). Some were known as Piper L-4 “Grasshopper” (L was for Liaison). The army ordered these planes for liaison and observation functions in direct support of the ground forces. Piper produced over 5,000 L-4s for the U.S. Army from 1941 to 1945.

The wings were made of wood and fabric. The spars were spruce top and each rib of the fenders was constructed with wood and glue, with stitching around each rib. Rib stitching is best done with two people, one person on each side of the wing pushing the long needle with the thick thread through the wing to the other person.

Tom McMurtry and Phil Schultz at a Plane Crazy Saturday event at Mojave Air and Space Port. (Photograph by Cathy Hansen)

The horizontal stabilizer, elevators and rudder were also built with wood, glue and fabric. All flight surfaces also required ribbed seams. The fuselage frame was made of metal with wooden spars. The fabric used during WWII was cotton linen with multiple layers of nitrate and butyrate applied to it. The last two coats were sprayed with the dull olive color for the army. The traditional civilian Cubs are always yellow, a kind of yellow school bus.

The work of dope and fabric is a profession that has almost been lost over time. I like to do it. It’s tedious, time consuming, and the glue-like dope does nothing to keep hands soft!

The two-seater Cub has a wingspan of 35 feet, 3 inches and a fuselage length of 22 feet, 5 inches. It weighs only 1,200 pounds when fully loaded. The original engine is a Continental O-170, 65hp with a top speed of 80-85 mph. They land at almost 40 mph. It is a “low and slow” bird, a classic airplane.

McMurtry loved the monthly Plane Crazy Saturday event at Mojave Air and Space Port and always came to hang out with his flying friends.

We miss him so much. He passed away from this Earth in 2015 and now flies with the angels of God.


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