The Edwards Diaries
Test pilot Glen Edwards kept book on the Flying Wing. Now we know what he thought of the airplane he died in.
- By Daniel Ford
- Air & Space magazine, July 1997
(Page 4 of 5)
First a rainstorm drenched Muroc Dry Lake and put a halt to the program. Then Colonel Albert Boyd, the famously ferocious chief of the Flight Test Division, turned up with a contingent from Wright Field. What with one thing and another, it was Thursday, June 3, before they were able to resume the original pace. "What a wonderful day this has been!" Edwards wrote that evening, in what would be the last entry in his diary. "Got off two flights on the YB-49, a lovely flight on the DC-6, one on the C-74--and I'm bushed!. . . Col. Boyd flew the YB-49 for the first time today and wasn't too impressed. We all share the same views. A passable airplane in ideal conditions."
Edwards had flown the One in various configurations for nearly four hours that Thursday, stalling it with the landing gear down, with the landing gear up, and with flaps at all possible settings. Then Boyd flew it for another hour, after which the airplane was turned back to the manufacturer for a new round of tests. As Gary Pape summarized these tests in his book, Northrop Flying Wings, they were to probe "stability, control, and stalling characteristics that the AF pilots. . .felt were unacceptable."
On Friday, therefore, Edwards was back in the right seat as copilot in the Two. Over the course of four hours, Forbes and he made a high-power climb, ran speed-power tests at 10,000 feet, and calibrated the airspeed indicator. Then the two pilots telephoned Colonel Richard Horner in Dayton. Both pilots complained about the data they'd collected on aileron response, though it isn't clear whether they were finding fault with the airplane or alluding to trouble with the data collection systems. In any case, both the Dayton and Muroc contingents agreed to make an extra flight next day with "an augmented crew of test engineers."
So at 6:44 a.m. on Saturday, June 5, the Two took off on its final flight. Forbes was in the left seat, as aircraft commander, with Edwards flying as copilot on the right. Lieutenant Edward Swindell, who had the crucial task of balancing the airplane by feeding fuel to the engine from tanks that were forward and aft of the center of gravity, was behind them in the rear-facing flight engineer's seat. Two civilian engineers, Claire Leser and Chuck LaFountain, made up the "augmented crew."
Because it was Saturday, no chase plane was available, so the only first-hand reports came from Forbes himself. Just after 7 a.m., he radioed that he was over Bakersfield and climbing; half an hour later, that he was "over north end of Antelope Valley, 15,000 feet, and descending." As Northrop test pilot Fred Bretcher recalled the mission, it should have involved a climb to 40,000 feet and a series of performance tests--too many tests for Forbes and Edwards to have completed in 30 minutes. Probably the auxiliary power unit had pooped out before the Two reached its service ceiling, so Forbes had returned to an altitude where the APU could generate the power he needed to operate the electrical systems.
Their next chore was a series of stall tests at 15,000 feet, where the air was smoother. According to technical files from this series of tests that are preserved in the National Air and Space Museum archives, an Air Force civilian, Robert Coleman, said that the plan for this flight was to keep increasing engine power and angle of attack as the tests proceeded. "If the airplane proved to handle cleanly during [low-power] stalls," Coleman recalled, "stalls with higher power settings were to be obtained. . .. It is known," he added, "that the pilot was reluctant to attempt the higher power stalls."
If Forbes was reluctant, he had reason. In addition to repeated stalls as copilot to Edwards, he'd had a terrifying experience in February with Major Cardenas. That particular flight, Cardenas recalls, "resulted in a gyration that was abnormal. And I wouldn't stall the airplane again. Forbes knew that." In Test Flying at Old Wright Field, Cardenas gave more details: After stalling the One, he found himself at the controls of an airplane that was pointing almost straight up; refusing to respond to the controls, it was falling tail-first at 5,000 feet per minute. "The aircraft then tumbled over backwards," he wrote. After landing, he urged that no one perform intentional stalls in the YB-49. Forbes, he added, "heartily agreed" with that recommendation.
Wind tunnel tests had predicted just such a possibility, but Jack Northrop had dismissed it. "A vertical tail slide is hardly a maneuver to be courted [in] a 100-ton bomber," he'd told the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1947.