Baptism by Ramjet

How I survived my first test at the “rocket ranch.”

(Josue Evilla)
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In 1977, I got a job at the Chemical Systems Division “rocket ranch,” a subsidiary of United Technologies Corporation, just east of San Jose, California, fulfilling my dream to be a rocket test engineer. Two months in, during the development of the Advanced Strategic Air-Launched Missile for the Air Force, I experienced my first ramjet test. Solid- and liquid-fuel rockets contain both the fuel and the oxidizer for combustion; ramjets carry only fuel and use oxygen from compressed air as an oxidizer.

“Mark, T minus 60 seconds, auto sequence start,” I said, hitting a switch on the test conductor console. Outside, huge valves on the ramjet opened and clouds of steam billowed from the ejector. The control room rumbled.

“Good steam pressure,” a tech said.

“T minus 20 seconds.”

The air temperature was stabilizing. The test facility was now simulating high-speed, high-altitude flight. Next: ramjet start.


The roar and vibration in the control room escalated. Technicians and engineers continuously checked their gauges. I glanced at the magnetic tape reels recording the ramjet data. For 15 seconds everything went fine. Suddenly I heard a roar over my headset. On the TV monitor: FIRE. The ramjet casing had ruptured.

I hit the fuel shutdown switch and turned on a water deluge to douse the ramjet. Another unsuccessful test.

Art, a supervisor, came at me with scissors in hand. He swooped in, clipped off my necktie, and added it to the collection on the control room wall, each with date, test, and the tie owner’s name. I had soloed as a ramjet test conductor!

One of the positions during ramjet tests was roof observer, the guy who kept an eye on the ramjet from the control room roof. To notify the test conductor of a disaster, like a ruptured ramjet casing, he would open his microphone. The blast of noise in the conductor’s headset would be a hint that something was amiss—a blast of noise like the one I heard in the headset during my inaugural test.

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