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.