Gathering of Eagles united for virtual event

Think back to the early days of the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis comedy team; Bill Gray and Jim Brown somewhat eased into those roles as straight man and sidekick, when they hosted the first-ever virtual Gathering of the Eagles, Oct. 17, which focused on this year’s theme, “Battle of the X-Planes.”

Both men often go by their call signs: Gray’s is “Evil” and Brown is “JB.” Evil and JB both flew the F-117 and are good friends. Their wives, both named Lisa, are Flight Test Historical Foundation board members, who recruit Evil and JB to put their professional skills to use at foundation events.

As Master of Ceremonies, Gray welcomed roughly online 155 participants, with Brown as his co-host and moderator for the panel discussions. Gray told participants, “Lisa and I miss seeing all of you in person.” Lisa Gray is the most recent past chairwoman of the foundation’s executive board, while Lisa Brown serves as the foundation’s director of education.

“Flight test is all about adaptation,” Gray said. “I hope you will find tonight’s adaptation — a teaser event — an enjoyable and interesting time; next year we’ll get together and do this properly.”

Gray described the night’s schedule to the first group of participants to arrive through Zoom at 4:30 p.m. for a general orientation, including a meet and greet for any newcomers and a virtual embrace between old friends.

Prior to the main event at 5 p.m., Gray encouraged participants to “join a bar” after signing in. Bars were virtual breakout sessions of about five minutes between the main portions of the nearly three-hour program. Participants provided their own beverages and snacks throughout the event, as they sat at home before their personal computers or whatever type of electronic device they used.

Gray thanked event sponsors: JT4, which has been supportive of Gathering of Eagles for more than a decade,, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin Corp.

A video from JT4 explained that the Las Vegas-headquartered firm provides engineering and technical support to multiple western test ranges for the U.S. Air Force and Navy, under the Joint Range Technical Services Contract.

They develop and maintain realistic integrated test and training environments. They also prepare the nation’s war-fighting aircraft, weapons systems and air crews for today’s missions and tomorrow’s global challenges.

JT4 has a workforce of more than 2,000 employees who adhere to the firm’s values of integrity, commitment, and excellence.

The video narrator said company’s impetus is to “expand the frontier of flight. We are proud of our rich history.”

The evening’s program featured key pilots and engineers from the X-32 and X-35 programs, the industry competition that led to the development of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The primary purpose of the Gathering of the Eagles is to raise funds that support the development of the Air Force Flight Test Museum at Edwards Air Force Base, a structure that will be situated outside the West Gate of the base.
The existing museum inside the AFB gate measures 8,500 square feet and Edwards has outgrown that facility. The new museum will be a 75,000 square foot structure with ample room for the current aircraft collection, as well as a STEM Education Center for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Another plus, the new site’s location outside the Edwards gate offers easier public access.

Construction has begun, but the foundation is still seeking help to raise $11 million in funds needed to complete the project. An online silent auction had a variety of items for people to bid on, including a Gold Rimmed X-32 Glass Coffee Mug, originally gifted to the Flight Test Director of the X-32 program when he lost his own mug in a wildfire; an X-35 First Flight LOT, containing the First Flight Challenge Coin, the STOVL X-35 Patch, a Lockheed JSF Team Patch, and an X-35 Tie Tack Pin. Also, among the auction items was an Aviation Art Print called Joint Strike Fighters by Mike Machat. It had an illustration of a Boeing X-32 and a Lockheed Martin X-35, signed by all the pilots. It is a Limited Edition. Other items included a signed copy of the book Dick Cole’s War: Doolittle Raider, Hump Pilot, Air Commando”. Cole was Jimmy Doolittle’s Crew 1 co-pilot and the last Raider to die in 2019, at age 108.

Foundation members are seeking sponsors at three levels. Those who contribute $2,500 are designated a Supporting Sponsor; anyone contributing $5,000 is named a Partner Sponsor; and contributors who give $7,500 become a Presenting Sponsor. For sponsorships, contact Rebecca Reeder at rreeder@flighttestmuseum.org.

Donors can participate in the Century Circle Paver Program by contributing $100 for a brick that will have the donor’s name or a name of the donor’s choice engraved and placed in the Century Circle, overlooking the site of the new museum.

“We need everyone’s help in these tough times to reach our goal,” said Art Thompson, president of the Flight Test Museum Foundation. In the late 1970s, he helped with the conceptual design of the B-2.

Thompson told participants it was nice to see “so many familiar faces” attending the first ever virtual Gathering of Eagles.

“The foundation’s purpose is to preserve the rich history of the Right Stuff, where a rich collection of great engineers and test pilots were the first to test and build so many great programs – the development of modern rockets, supersonic, stealth, vectoring aircraft and vehicles that break the rules of physics. The foundation is dedicated to preserving more than physical history — the people, principals and ideals.”

Combined with STEM Education programs which provide access to some of the most brilliant minds, the foundation works to create an education network between schools, government agencies, and private aerospace and research companies. They are teaching youth the basic principles of flight and a vision for the future.

Reeder said she has been with the foundation a year and a half, coming from a nonprofit background. She was excited at the prospect of helping move the museum from “behind closed doors” and making it accessible to the community. She began to understand the importance of the museum and the foundation when she realized the attachment local people have to aerospace history in the community. She witnessed people’s emotional attachment to the project and their dedication toward the military base and aerospace. She urged participants to “check out the online auction. Every single dollar helps.” Every donation counts, from $10 to $250,000.

The foundation recognizes the significance scholarships play in a student’s education.

In spring 2020, two STEM scholarships of $1,000 each were awarded through the Antelope Valley College Foundation to Jacqueline Montoya and Denilson Freitas.

Then, as customary annually at this event, two engineering scholarships were presented to students. This year’s recipients were Gillian Chatfelter who received the Colonel Charles Gordon Fullerton Memorial Scholarship. Fullerton was an astronaut and graduate of the USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards. The second recipient was David Bushmeyer, who received the William J. “Pete” Knight Excellence in Engineering Scholarship, also in memory of the late U.S. Air Force test pilot who served as first chairman of the foundation. Chatfelter and Bushmeyer each received $2,000.

Chatfelter is enrolled in the Antelope Valley Engineering Program of California State University, Long Beach in Lancaster. Bushmeyer is a student in the Mechanical Engineering program of CSU, Long Beach in Lancaster.

Gray questioned Michael Jorgensen, producer of the PBS Documentary The Battle of the X-Planes, about his perspective on the Joint Strike Fighter program. Jorgensen said he always had an interest in fighter aircraft. “In 1995, I first heard about the Joint Striker program. I did a little bit of research” Then he contacted government officials with his intention of creating a documentary.

“In July ’98 we started filming.” The public doesn’t know what it takes to build a fighter aircraft, Jorgensen said. “We had a small crew: myself, a sound man and one other guy. On Monday morning we were at Skunk Works. They discussed whether to put a weapons bay in the X-35. They decided against it. They were not going to take that risk. It would add another $3 million to make this happen. I’d do it all again, in a minute.”

Kevin Renshaw, a participant in Fort Worth, Texas, was in a breakout room between the main sessions. He was with Lockheed for 41 years, initially hired at General Dynamics when they built the F-16s. At General Dynamics he was in the Advanced Design Group.

“Overnight, on my badge, it said Lockheed.” When Lockheed bought it, he ended up in Skunk Works. “Several years later it became Lockheed Martin. I worked on the X-35. That’s one of the things I did in my career.”

When the panelists gathered for the Celebration of the 20th Anniversary for the Battle of the X-Planes, JB Brown took charge in a question and answer format.

He asked Tom Morgenfeld, X-35 Chief Test Pilot, to name his favorite plane of the two JSF candidates. “I like X-35 a little bit better, but they’re both excellent aircraft,” Morgenfeld said.

“Any surprises in first flight?” JB asked.

“We went through Raptors. We were going through test points. A switch caused wheel doors not to close,” Morgenfeld said.

The objective is “to land,” JB said.

Fred Knox, the X-32 Chief Test Pilot, said in a video, as he was getting into the cockpit, he noticed a small bag of tools on the seat. He handed them off to someone on the ground. He “felt quite relaxed.” Then he saw a leak. There was a hydraulic leak. The tools needed to fix the situation were in the bag he handed to the person on the ground. He described it as “a bit of a challenge” to make the aircraft fly smooth.

“We had a delay before the first take off,” Morgenfeld said. “After the landing, we had the customary wedding gown. We went from the highest point to the lowest point.”

In the first flight debriefing, Morgenfeld said he sat “sweating in his skivvies.”

JB asked the panelists about their initial reactions to the X-32.

Everything went “pretty much as we planned it. First flights were scrutinized,” said Ad Thompson, an X-32 Director of Flight Test. He noted the only exception was a hydraulic leak caused by a loose fitting.

Paul “TP” Smith, with the U.S. Air Force X-35 Team, recalled beginning to taxi off the runway when informed he was headed in the wrong direction and had to turn around with an entourage following him. But, he said, the aircraft flew smoothly.

JB asked panelists about any challenges.

“I did carrier approaches,” said Phil “Rowdy” Yates, U.S. Navy (JFT Commander) on the X-32 Team. “Those were the most challenging. We painted a carrier deck on the runway at Edwards. That’s what they used for testing. I tip the hat to General Reynolds.”

“At some point,” Yates said, “the Navy decided the program would move to Pax River” (NAS Patuxent River in Maryland.)

From Palmdale, there was a sea level closer than Pax River, Morgenfeld noted.

“It seems it was a mandate from the program officer,” Yates said. “Both programs had to do it,” he added, referring to the X-32 and X-35.

“Rowdy is correct,” said one of the panelists. “The government told us we had to do it. It was a requirement we had to fill.”

JB reflected on his own experiences.

“I was a relatively young contract test pilot. It was the first time when pilots were going to see what the cockpit was going to look like,” JB said. “There were some glaring issues with the placement of controls.”

Morgenfeld described the X-32 as the “easiest plane I ever refueled.”

Smith said the scheduled deadline for the X-35 was the “most challenging for refueling. Generally, there was no issue with the program.

“What was it like to hover the X-35?” JB asked.

“The left hand was actually harder,” Justin “JIF” Paines, RAF with the X-35 Team, said. “You were chasing a moving target with your left hand all the time.” He found the right hand much easier.

Then JB questioned the hover capability of the X-32.

“We went in first hover with all eyes on performance,” said Dennis O’Donoghue, the X-32B Project Pilot. “It was a pretty good day. We hovered four times, great day. Great airplane. Easy to fly. One of the most memorable moments of my life.”

“I’ll never forget the day I was sitting in a room at Edwards,” said Art “Turbo” Tomasetti with the U.S. Marine Corps on the X-35 Team. “A light goes on in my head. This is the Mission X profile. I’m really going to do that. It was great. I had the opportunity.”

Now he’s in the air. “We were looking down at the dry lakebed at Edwards.”

“You look out the window,” JB said. “That makes it all worthwhile.”

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