High Desert Hangar Stories: Pride, bragging rights on the line during aviation heyday

Back in the 1950s, flight test looked a lot different than it does today. Even though it was highly technical, it still had a lot of carryover from the 1940s where those involved with a program treated the project and aircraft almost like it was a homemade garage project.

Sure, the designers and the folks up on ‘mahogany row’ as they called it were the brains that made these early aircraft happen but it was those shift workers that showed up in the early morning hours that really made the drawings and blueprints take to the air.

One such aircraft that, thanks to my Dad’s friendship with many folks during his Douglas years, has found its way to my writings this week.

I was looking through some old photo albums from the late John Comini that were given to me by his daughter upon his passing. The photographs of the F4RD-1 Skyray and the men at Edwards had me thinking about what it must have been like in those days around those men, hangars and aircraft.

Just another day at the office and another record for the Skyray out on the desert at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. (Photograph from the collection of the late John Comini)

I was imagining the buzz of what it must have been like when the cars in the early morning hours were headed down Sierra Highway to Edwards, and those at the wheel were looking forward to the day’s activities when the Skyray was going to be put through its paces and see if some records could be set. Many of us go to our jobs and do some exciting things, but I can only imagine what the mood was like as all parties worked to achieve a special moment for a beloved project aircraft. A lot of pride was on the line for all these men and women who looked at these aircraft as they would their own family car, as that was truly what it was!

With all the other aircraft from other companies competing for the limelight, each person would look at their projects like they would their neighbor’s cars; they all wanted to be the top dog as there was a lot of pride and bragging rights on the line!

Looking at these photos of record flight day and thinking of what must have gone into the preparations. We know that many different players were involved. This was also during the Cold War and secrecy was a must, but to what point when bragging rights were on the line? Sure there would be no TV cameras and newspaper men, but if the outcome was one of success the look on the faces of those involved would be enough to let the secret out.

The men and women of Douglas along with the old Skyray would, for a period of time, be the top dog in the air for it was the fastest Navy/Marine Corps carrier-based jet fighter and was the only one at the time that could reach Mach 1 in level flight.

Out at Edwards, Douglas was a major player and the craft conceived and built down in Long Beach, Calif., would be trucked up to the High Desert, to the magicians of the hangars and flight test and they would be the ones who would turn over the plane to a pilot and hope and pray that it would be a day of smiles not frowns; and that old Skyray did produce those smiles.

The heroes of flight test and the backbone of the many projects that took to the air at Edwards. Moms and Dads, friends and neighbors, they made it all happen. (Photograph from the collection of the late John Comini)

In today’s world of computers and technology, we can easily forget just how basic it was back in those days but we still have a lot in common with those pioneers. For even today, as men and women cross that dry lake bed on the way to another day of work at Edwards, they are driving in the same tire tracks of generations of skilled craftsmen that carried the hopes and dreams of our nation on their shoulders and not to mention their neighborhoods!

These photos that sat in an album on John’s shelf were the same as a person’s trophy collection. I’m sure, from time to time, they were taken down on a quiet evening and the memories would come flooding back of the glory days. As the pages were turned, the definition of a man’s life and his worth during his time on earth were looking back at him and saying ‘it sure was one hell of a ride’ and ‘without you it would have been a lot less meaningful’ and ‘never forget your team that helped make these memories and the pride you all embraced.’

I can’t express how grateful I am for being born and raised in the Antelope Valley with all these great people who were involved with flight test during those amazing years, the 1950s and 1960s, and how they made our community such a special place. We will never again see the picnics and coffee shops filled with employees of Douglas Aircraft as time has moved on; but in many of our hearts, we will never forget that these men and women who were our Moms, Dads and neighbors had pride in their jobs. It was about more than just a paycheck. It was knowing they were part of something bigger than themselves, being part of aviation history, and doing that with pride.

Until next time Bob out …

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