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Memories of NASA test pilot Tom McMurtry at Mojave

by Cathy Hansen, special to Aerotech News
Nearly 20 years ago, I remember seeing Tom McMurtry, working in his hangar at the then Mojave Airport.

He had the sweetest little 1939 J-3 “Cub” made by the Piper Aircraft Company. Tom’s J-3 was manufactured in Lockhaven, Penn., in 1939, and the airframe logs show that it was restored in Santa Paula, Calif., in 1987. He purchased it in 1996 to give his kids flight instruction. It had a 65hp Continental engine and two eight-gallon extended-range wing tanks, giving a total flight time of a little more than five hours.

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

Early on 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 Mechanical Engineering Degree. He served in the U.S. Navy as a carrier pilot, flying F9F Cougars and later A3D’s. He served one and a half deployments to 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 he still loved to fly. He worked as a consultant for Lockheed Aircraft for three years, and then stepped into his flight test career in 1967 with NASA’s Flight Research Center at Edwards, Calif.

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

McMurtry was also co-project pilot on the F-8 Digital Fly-By-Wire program, and on several remotely piloted research vehicle programs such as the FAA/NASA 720 Controlled Impact Demonstration and the sub-scale F-15 spin research project. On Nov. 26, 1975, the X-24B lifting body dropped from the sky for the last time, piloted on this 36th flight by McMurtry. He also co-piloted the 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft as it transported the prototype Shuttle Enterprise on its first launch on Aug. 12, 1977.

Tom flew as co-pilot with Fitz on the Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft with the Space Shuttle “Enterprise” Approach and Landing program. Before retiring from NASA Dryden Flight Research Center in 1998, Tom served as Director for Flight Operations.

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

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

A NASA F/A-18 flew chase with the CV-990 and Dryden Research Pilot, Ed Schneider did a fly-by with the Hornet after the 990 landed. 

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

Most airplane people know that the J-3’s logo is a little bear holding a sign that has the word ‘Cub’ on it. During World War II, Piper advertised in aviation magazines with this quote: “Piper Cub Points the Way to Wings for All Americans.”

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

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

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

The horizontal stabilizer, elevators and rudder were constructed with wood, glue and fabric, as well. All the flying surfaces needed rib stitching also. The fuselage frame was metal with wooden stringers. The fabric used during World War II was cotton linen that had several layers of nitrate and butyrate dope brushed on. The last couple of coats were sprayed on with the olive drab color for the Army. Traditional civilian Cubs are always yellow, kind of a school bus yellow.

Dope and fabric work is a craft that has almost been lost in time. I enjoy doing it. It is tedious, time consuming and the glue-like dope doesn’t do a thing for keeping soft hands!

The two-place, tail-dragger Cub has a wingspan of 35-feet, 3-inches and a fuselage length of 22-feet, 5-inches. It weighs only 1,200 pounds fully loaded. The stock engine is a Continental O-170, 65hp with a maximum speed of 80 to 85 mph. They land close to 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 enjoy time with his flying friends.

We miss him so much. He passed from this Earth in 2015 and now flies with God’s angels.
 
 
 

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