A historian at Edwards Air Force Base in California from 1994 to 2007, Raymond L. Puffer documented the history of the test pilot school, unmanned aerial vehicles, and the Airborne Laser. He spoke with Senior Associate Editor Perry Turner in April.
Air & Space: What made you transition from nuclear weapons work in the Navy to academic history?
Puffer: Cold reality. I was fascinated by the nuclear weapons program and loved what I was doing. The neat thing was that the Navy wants to keep the number of officers who are nuclear qualified to a minimum. Therefore, once qualified, they get to work at one time or another in all aspects of the program: maintenance, courier, security, training, and so forth. Consequently one’s duties are varied and interesting. The only problem was that the nuclear career path pretty much ended at the commander level. As someone observed, “There are no nuclear qualified admirals.”
After five years of active duty and making the rank of O-3, lieutenant (s.g.), it was about time to either stay in for 20, or get out and go to grad school on the G.I. Bill, to see if I liked History as much as I thought I did. God help me, I did, and so I went for it.
As a byway, I sought out the CIA when it was time to muster out. After all, I had a Top Secret clearance and all the security training one could wish. I spent a week in D.C. and went through all the tests and interviews, and was offered a job. The Agency warmly encouraged me to go through grad school. But after a few years, I wanted to go into academe, so we parted company.
A & S: What did you do your Ph.D. dissertation on, and did it help you in your later career with the Air Force?
Puffer: Not in the least. When it came time, I chose a topic of convenience, one that—thankfully—my Committee was not too familiar with. “The Michigan Agricultural Frontier: Pioneer Settlement Patterns in Southeastern Michigan.” Actually, when I joined the Air Force History Program, I discovered that everyone there had degrees in wildly varying areas. Initially I worked for an Intellectual History type who in turn worked for a Renaissance historian. Two of my peers were specialists in Labor and Western history. For a while, at history conferences, I used to describe my field as “History of the Old Northwestern Territory and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.” The Air Force has the theory that if you are bright enough to get a Ph.D., you are bright enough to learn the things that really count. And they turned out to be right.
A & S: What are you most proud of in your years at Edwards? Are there still things you hope to write about from that time period?
Puffer: You have to understand that everyone lucky enough to work at Edwards is thrilled to be there. The commonest remark overheard is “When I was a kid back in ____, I never dreamed that someday I’d actually be working here.” This is the only Air Force base I’ve ever been where, when a plane goes over, people look up. You simply never know what you’re going to see, and every once in a while you find yourself saying “Now what in the hell is that?” As for me, I felt really great watching the Airborne Laser make its first flight, or when the huge laser itself achieved “First Light.” Or every time I saw a Shuttle land. Or the time when I didn’t wipe out the left wing of a Global Hawk by driving into it (those thin wings are really hard to see edge-on.) Or watching a C-5 make a successful emergency landing on the lakebed. Oh, lots of moments. Researching and recording each of the 364 flight-related deaths over the years was a real privilege.
As for writing in the future, probably not. Every single thing I learned or witnessed, I did on government time. And a steady diet of writing the official histories in rigorous academic style has dulled my enthusiasm—so far—for more serious work. We shall see.
A & S: I see you had a flight scholarship and were a CAP cadet. Did you learn to fly, and if so, how far did you take flying? Also, if you flew (or still fly), did it help your career as an Air Force historian? How?
Puffer: That was many years ago but yes, I did learn to fly, and it still remains one of the high points in my life. You have to understand that I was bitten by the aviation bug very early. When I was four years of age, I remember deciding that my new tricycle was really a P-40. For my seventh birthday by parents gave me what is still the best gift I ever had—a flight in a Piper J-3. I still can describe every road, building, and bridge that we flew over that day. In due time I took to building numerous model airplanes and following the careers of Chuck Yeager, Scott Crossfield, Bill Bridgeman and the like. When the CAP started a squadron in our small town, It was a natural for me. I went to encampments in the summer and took part in many SARCAP (Search And Rescue, CAP) exercises and a couple of genuine searches. We got lots of tagging-along time in the air with benevolent pilots. I took my flight instruction under idyllic conditions: in a vintage Cessna 120 at a small country airport with a grass strip, and an instructor named Jim. No airways, no radio, no restricted areas—just boy and man and an airplane. After soloing I graduated to a Cessna 140. It had real FLAPs. Not especially effective, you understand, but still honest-to-God flaps to yank down on final. I took it to the private ticket level, but that was as far as it went.
And yes, it was all a great help in later life. Even a modest flying ability gets you over the first and highest hurdle in talking with Air Force pilots and airmen—speaking the language with a natural accent. Understanding basic aerodynamics and airmanship—being a genuine “airplane man”—made my Air Force work much more meaningful.
A & S: You say that researching and recording each of the 364 flight-related deaths over the years was a real privilege.
Puffer: After I had been working at Edwards for a few months, one of the base chaplains came by with a query. The Memorial Chapel had a memorial plaque that had (I think it was) 64 spaces for bronze memorials, and 52 of them were filled. The chaplains were worried—had they missed anybody? I started researching, and the more I investigated the larger the number of flight-related deaths grew. It took several years before I was satisfied that the list was complete. The chaplains had, of course, been thinking of the more famous and spectacular mishaps, whereas many, many more had died in less-heralded circumstances. During World War II, Edwards (then Muroc) had been a training base for fighter pilots and for bomber squadrons being deployed to the South Pacific. Too many 21-year-old second lieutenants died in their P-38s, and the B-24 crews died in groups of ten or eleven. Working with the few accident records that had survived, with coroners and sheriff department reports, and with newspaper accounts, the picture gradually built up. There were lots and lots of forgotten accidents, and it came to be a mission to me. Sometimes all I could do for those guys was to finalize the right spelling of their names, or to nail down an accurate middle initial. The final tally was 363 men and one woman (a student at the Test Pilot School). Eventually I incorporated it all into an accident roster and into a Master Chronology, an official record of major events that have taken place at Muroc/Edwards (download the list as a Word document here). Early on, some of the old-timers working here had said that once, during WWII, three smoke pyres from separate crashes were seen at the same time. They turned out to be right. Two of those pilots had died and the third had successfully bailed out.
Later on I found the site of the third crash by accident. I was out in the boonies looking over an ancient dump site and thought that one of the hummocks nearby looked almost like an impact crater. “Let’s see…if an aircraft impacted here, it would have pushed up the soil there, and so the debris splash must be over here…” And sure enough, I found aircraft remnants including the distinctive nose cap of a P-38 gondola. One of the aforementioned old timers remembered having seen a ’38 go down on that heading, at about that location, so I was satisfied. Can anyone dispute that I had the most interesting job in the entire Air Force?
Yes, every so often we would have contact with family members. Often it happens years after an event when the relative becomes curious about the circumstances of the death. Major Ray Popson’s sister once phoned me for information about her brother’s accident. We corresponded for a while and she was delighted to find that the History Office at Edwards was located on Popson Avenue. By the time of Maj. Popson’s fatal flight in the swing-wing experimental craft, the X-5’s propensity for dangerous spins was known to the test pilots. Nevertheless, Popson successfully continued with a stall test series, knowing the hazards. Needless to say, the sister was delighted to learn of his bravery and dedication. On another occasion, Captain Joseph McConnell‘s daughter wrote. She was nine years old when the Korean War ace died while testing an advanced version of the F-86H in January 1953. As she put it, she felt she was finally able to come to grips with what happened to Joe and she wanted to know exactly what went wrong that day. She visited the office and we explained how a broken elevator linkage crippled his plane, and that he elected to try to save it by flying back to the base using his elevator trim for longitudinal control. We gave her some photos she had never seen and, at her request, one of the historians took her out to McConnell’s impact site some miles north of the base. Seeing the crater and some shards of metal allowed her to bring it to closure.
A & S: How does the role of Air Force historian allow him to document less-than-flattering moments in history? Did this ever prove to be awkward?
Puffer: When I was first approached by a friend about joining the Air Force History Program, I was not too enthusiastic about the idea. As I said: “Wow! Imagine spending a career writing squeaky-clean, sanitary, success stories for your commander’s signature! No thanks.” He replied “No, you’ve got the wrong idea. We have a Public Affairs office that does that. Your job will be to tell the truth, warts and all.” He proved to be right. It turned out that, to do his job, the Air Force historian has carte blanche access to every piece of paper, and to every mind, in the Air Force. In fact, denying the historian any information he requested would be a serious breach of AF regulations. When I asked about the “black” programs, his reply was that the Air Force had black historians too. He turned out to be completely right. (In fact, some time later I had an enlisted historian who got assigned to Nellis AFB. Do you think that guy would tell his old Sea Daddy about anything going on there? Hah!)
Occasionally someone must be reminded of the regulation but, by and large, the historian never has any problems getting the material he needs. Once in a great while we hear: “You can’t write about that!” and a second remark is like unto the first: “Who told you about that?” But cooperation is by far the norm. At one base, a retiring commander wanted me to know about a politically sensitive incident that had taken place in testing a missile. He wouldn’t say a word about it, but he called my attention to his safe and then left the room.
No, as I would always brief the new officers: “We aren’t in the business of destroying careers, but we aren’t patsies either.” If you cannot learn something one way, there is always another way to explore.
A & S: What interesting aviation failures did you work on (aircraft or components)?
Puffer: It is hard to think of any, because nearly all were successful in one way or another. Designing is so advanced these days, and the engineering so meticulous, that out-and-out failures are much rarer than back in the Golden Age of flight testing. Mishaps happen, of course, but usually something can be learned even then. Very soon after I started to work at Edwards, the X-31 crashed just across Hwy 58 from the base. The nearly-tailless jet was returning to base from the next-to-the-last sortie in its test series when the pilot suddenly uttered an expletive and ejected (safely). The problem turned out to be an iced-up pitot tube that caused the plane’s computer to think that it was flying slower than it was, whereupon the pilot discovered he could no longer control it. We have film of the bird pancaking into the ground just before an 18-wheeler passes in the foreground. Probably there’s a truck driver out there whose buddies still don’t believe his story.
The Dark Star, a stealthy saucer-shaped autonomous UAV, was an intriguing bird. It suddenly went out of control during liftoff on its first flight, impacted alongside the runway and immediately created what wags called the Dark Spot. That turned out to be a software error, not foreseen but certainly easily corrected.
A & S: Were there some projects you dug into with gusto, and others you dreaded?
Puffer: You bet. I was always much more interested in hardware and engineering than the planning and funding aspects of a program. Researching and writing up the administrative parts of a project, as important as those things are, was always a chore. Fortunately Dr. Jim Young, the current Chief Historian at the Flight Test Center, was always expert on resources and the decision-making processes. I’m still much more interested in how new technology works and what it accomplishes. There’s nothing more fascinating than finding out just how an aircraft or a missile does what it does, and why.
A & S: Did you ever work directly with pilots, and do any memories stand out?
Puffer: Yes, but probably not in the way you think. Most of our work was reading reports and going to meetings, occasionally contacting someone in the squadrons to clear up a point or two. You’d get to know many of them, but usually not in a formal interview situation. But one of the great delights of the job was meeting the famous test pilots from years gone by. Many of them would come by the History Office, partly because we spoke their language, didn’t fawn over them, and they could escape protocol a little. Neat things would happen. Once, Jim and I were harassed all morning with calls, visitors, and so forth. The secretary was gone for the day and people kept streaming in. Finally, Jim announced that he was going to go into his office, close the door, and try to get some work done. That sounded like a great idea, so I did the same. I was busily pecking away at my computer, back to the door, when suddenly it crashed open and a voice boomed: “Anybody home?” I gritted my teeth, snarled “Maybe yes, maybe no” and whipped my chair around to find Chuck Yeager looming over me, and Bud Anderson grinning behind his shoulder. Getting to know so many of my boyhood heroes was one of the best parts of the job. When you meet the “old” test pilots, most of them still seem to be lean, fit, and tanned. Personally, I think they’ve all sold their souls to the devil.
Which brings us to Chuck Yeager and The Right Stuff. The old movie has plenty of boners in it, of course, but its message is spot on. The film’s accolades are faintly embarrassing to the professionals and it is considered poor taste to use the phrase within the test pilot community. Yet when you get right down to it, all of them really have it. Not all test sorties are dramatic, of course, but none is ever routine either. When you consider mounting up in one of these monsters and taking it up to do something it’s never done before, it becomes obvious that something extraordinary is required of the pilot. Call it what you will, it’s there.
A & S: What are some of the interesting things that you’ve found at Edwards?
Puffer: As someone said, one can hardly spit anywhere at Edwards without hitting something historical. Thus, whenever the chance offered, it was always tempting to head for the hinterlands and explore some of the thousands of acres in the second-largest base in the Air Force (Eglin AFB in Florida being the biggest). Once, for instance, Fred Johnsen and I were trekking over a nearby expanse of desert when we noticed some bits of red glass at our feet. After some speculation, we hiked a hundred feet to the left and sure enough, there was a smear of green glass across the hardpan. Obviously, some large plane had gone in there. Fred, a recognized expert on the old Liberator bombers, picked up a bit of metal and said: “If I didn’t know better, I’d say that that is a roller bearing from the bomb bay of a B-24.” Sure enough, some brass cartridges stamped “1943” turned up next. The 60-year-old traces of an impact point lined up perfectly with the end of the World War II runway, and following the skid marks to driblets of melted aluminum completed the story of a bomber that lost power and pancaked in. Our archive then told of a Liberator on a night training sortie that had abruptly lost power on all four engines just after making a touch-and-go. All of the crew survived. Later on, someone had evidently changed the oil on his 1950s car on the skid path, and we noticed some coyote scat on top of that. History is layered at Edwards.
On another occasion, exploring the remains of a surprisingly-intact WWII rifle range, we happened upon an enigmatic object. Neatly set into the concrete of the target pit was a block of shiny black granite with the name and date of the AAF engineering unit that built the range roughly gouged into the shining surface. How did a surprisingly elegant plaque like that turn up in a rough WWII training base away out in the arid hinterlands? It’s still a mystery, but realizing that several pioneer homesteads had been in the immediate vicinity, it is easy to speculate about some long-ago home internment. I would still give a lot to see the other side of that marker.
Rearing up out of the flat shore of Edwards Dry Lake is a monolithic structure that looks like it came straight from Babylon. It is a pentagonal structure close to three stories high, built out of adobe bricks and just large enough to contain a B-29. There had been proposals to erect adobe windbreaks to shelter the bombers that were beginning to use the captured Pacific islands, and an engineering battalion was directed to make the experiment. Not only did the adobe make such a fine wind barrier, quickly built and surprisingly long-lasting, that the engineers proceeded to use it to construct other shelters for local use, and also the first base commander’s house. Apparently, however, what worked in the Mojave didn’t necessarily apply to the coral islands. Edwards was left with a nifty protected area to shelter the first rocket engine test bed for the X-series aircraft. Even the engine sounds would be directed away from the base. The primitive stand with its tiny blockhouse is still there, with its long-shattered safety glass, entirely given over to the lizards and rattlesnakes.
As vast as it is, the Edwards lakebed itself holds many surprises. Opportunities to explore come seldom for access to the entire area is strictly controlled by the tower, for obvious reasons. Consequently, a legitimate reason to go out there is never wasted. On my first trip out there, to witness parachute extraction tests on the C-17, I hopped down from the truck to find a 20mm German shell from WWII lying at my feet. Some testing of Axis weaponry had been carried out in the hills to the east during the war, and some of the ammo had eroded out onto the lakebed and rolled around there for decades. I was just about to grab this really neat desk souvenir when stark reason intruded: live explosive…fifty years of baking in the sun…best to leave it right here. Presumably it is still there, but it sure would have been nifty to have.
Actually, the hinterlands of the base are studded with the remains of long-ago-completed projects, purpose-built for one or two programs only. Surrounding the natural runways are miscellaneous launch platforms, concrete foundations, and enigmatic structures whose purpose is long-forgotten. Few records have survived from even comparatively recent programs, and many hours can be spent out there, poking around and speculating. Most of these little “settlements” had their own fuel storage tanks, above-ground or buried, which posed an environmental threat never dreamed of back in the day. Much more environmentally friendly, and just as interesting, are the remains of the old Army Air Corps Muroc Bombing and Gunnery Range. Every rainstorm erodes some artifact or another out of the hard sand—a scrap of a canvas legging, a row of tarnished uniform buttons, once even a half-pint liquor bottle hastily jammed into the sand, cork still in place. All have their stories, and all are guarded by the nasty-tempered Mojave Green rattlers.
A & S: Do you remember any other high points of your time at Edwards?
Puffer: There were lots of highlights. The day a C-5 leaving Texas for Europe found that its nose wheel would not extend. Like many another stricken aircraft, it made its way to Edwards and our giant emergency landing field. Figuring the direction of the wind, some of us found a vantage point overlooking the likeliest landing direction and were treated to one of the finest emergency landings one could imagine. The pilot kept the huge nose high off the ground for seemingly forever, then gently cushioned it onto the only patch of soft mud on the lakebed. There was also the time when the Forest Service reported finding the wreck of a twin-engine plane in the high Sierras and wanted some identification. Our office determined that it was a wartime Cessna AT-17 Bobcat that had disappeared on its first flight after being sold as war surplus at Chino. The new owner was flying it home and his seatbelt, still fastened in the wrecked cockpit, mutely told us that he did not survive.
Taking an 84-year-old man over the homestead where he lived as a boy—hearing him describe a .22 rifle he once owned, with a firing pin he fashioned from a nail. Handing him a brass cartridge from the dirt at our feet, having him look at it and say, yeah, it was one of his, and then casually tossing it aside. Or hearing some unpublished Pancho Barnes stories from a woman who, as a youngster, lived in the ranch right next to the Happy Bottom Riding Club. Or hearing Don Thompson, a young instrument technician in 1942, tell of riding in the improvised jump seat in the gun bay of the XP-59A Airacomet, the world’s first and only open-cockpit jet plane.
Or the time spent in the altitude chamber, getting qualified for the occasional flight to come an historian’s way. Most striking of all, however, was getting to ride along in one of our C-135 tankers slated to refuel an SR-71. Lying on my belly beside the boom operator, we watched the incredible bird bank steeply and slide into position behind the tail…and realized that it was a woman’s voice coming from the Blackbird. Marta Bohn-Meyer, riding as crewman in NASA Dryden’s bird. After taking on fuel, the bird slid back and seemed to stand on its tail as it went for altitude. From the tanker’s cockpit: “Has she entered her high-Alpha, high-energy phase yet?” And the other pilot sighed “Yeah.”