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
(Page 2 of 2)
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.”