A&S Interview: Ray Puffer
The former Air Force historian asks, "Can anyone dispute that I had the most interesting job in the entire Air Force?"
- By Perry Turner
- Air & Space magazine, May 2010
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?