When Tony LeVier flew the first flight on the airplane, that’s what he encountered. He had been told by Kelly Johnson “now this is the way I want you to land it,” and he had told Kelly, “No, Kelly. That’s not the way you do it. This is a taildragger, and you land it tailwheel first.” Kelly said no, I want it done this way. You bring it in and land it on the main gear.
Well, Tony had a terrible time. The first few attempts doing it Kelly’s way didn’t work, and he’d bounce back up in the air, and he was about to get the porpoise going and he had to add power to it and take it around. So he got tired of listening to Kelly he was there, flying alongside of him in the C-47 with [test pilot] Ray Goudey, so he yanked the cord on his headset so he didn’t have to listen to Kelly or anybody else tell him how to land it. He went back to his way of landing it tailwheel first, got it on the dry lake bed runway, and then when he jumped out, the story went that Kelly came over to him and was barking at him, and Tony flipped him the bird. And Kelly Johnson said “U-2.” So now you have a designator for the airplane. I don’t know how true that is, I wasn’t there. But that’s the story I got.
How did you get to fly in the Century Series jets?
I was assigned to the Aerospace Research Pilot’s School. When I went to Navy test pilot school at Patuxent, I knew about the astronaut program and never dreamed that I’d have a chance to do it. Shortly after I graduated from Navy test pilot school and was at Flight Test at Pax River, NASA opened up the program for the second astronaut selection. I applied and went through that process and got into the 32 finalists, along with Neil Armstrong and Jim Lovell and Tom Stafford, and whole bunch of other incredible guys. I failed the selection; I was one of the 23 NASA rejects from that group; they picked nine. I analyzed it and tried to find what shortcomings caused me to fail, and it came to be really apparent to me that this nine they had selected were absolutely gifted academics. They all were in the top 10 of their classes. Intellectual giants. So I went to headquarters, Marine Corps, and said, “Look, if you want to get any more Marines in this program, you’re going to need to get them some serious education. You ought to start by getting a billet for a Marine out there at that Aerospace Research Pilot School. Well, they had a selection process, and I get a phone call. I was thrilled. And I went out to Edwards, and that’s were I got to fly the F-100, the -101, the -106, and spent an awful lot of time in the -104. And I got my first flight in the U-2, and the first flight in a B-52, of all things.
How interesting that was. I’d been flying the F-4 at Pax River. When I got to Edwards and was flying the F-104, that was a whole different thing. I didn’t get to fly the -105; they didn’t have one available there at the school. Well, anyway, I failed the selection the second time, while I was in the school out there. And when I graduated from that, the Marine Corps said, “We had enough of you.” and sent me overseas to be a staff secretary at the First Marine Aircraft Wing.
How did you like that?
Aw, I thought that was terrible. It was awful. It was one of the worst jobs ever. To go from being a big fanny test pilot to a staff secretary was just awful.
Of the airplanes that you flew at Edwards, which did you like the best?
The -104 by far. It went fast, it looked great. Sitting on the runway, it looked like it would go a million miles an hour. And it was fun to fly. It had a great cockpit. The control system was spectacular; it was so much better than the F-4.
Was the F-104 a difficult airplane to fly?
I didn’t feel that way. It had very tiny wings and a very high landing speed. You were smokin’ all the time, but it wasn’t difficult. If you got it into a stall or into a pitch-up, then you had a handful. You were in trouble. Chuck Yeager [who ran the Aerospace Research Pilot School] had to jump out of it because he got one into a pitch-up, and he recovered from the pitch-up and the spin by using the drag chute, but he jettisoned the drag chute after he recovered, and he pulled too hard on the recovery from that, and got it into the pitch-up again, and then he was too low to recover, and he had to eject.
He wasn’t much of a pilot, was he?
[laughter] He was a terrific pilot. I really had a great deal of admiration for him. He was our boss there at the Aerospace Research Pilot’s School. He really treated me awful good. There are a lot of folks who disagree, but he treated me awfully good as one of his employees out there. But there’s a funny story. He was waving at a busload of school kids one day, as he taxied in, in a B-57, and ran into the bus. And they got that on film.
Did you always know you wanted to fly?
Oh, yeah. My dad was a Marine aviator. My earliest memories are Marine airplanes at North Island, and I always wanted to fly, and the first airplane I flew was an N3N floatplane at the Naval Academy, when I was all of 16 years old. I remember watching my dad and a whole bunch of Marine pilots taking off in formation of maybe 12 airplanes abreast at North Island, and I thought that was pretty spectacular. I was under 5 years old, and I still remember it.