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Friday, April 21, 2006

Scott Crossfield
When I was a kid in the aftermath of the Big One, when jets were dangerous
New Things and rockets had men for guidance systems, I read avidly about the
exploits of Bill Bridgeman, Joe Walker, Al White, Mel Apt and many
others--real heroes forging new paths in engineering and
aeronautics--dreaming that some day I would do the same. I, too, wanted to
be an experimental test pilot, the guy in the pointy end, a renaissance man
of aeronautics, part engineer, part Leonardo, part athlete, part warrior, a
man of intellect, daring and skill.
Scott Crossfield was one of my heroes.  I'm a Seattle boy and he had studied
aeronautical engineering at the University of Washington, in my home town.
Boeing was a bomber and airliner factory, it was the Cold War, Seattle was a
hard core airplane town and us kids designed and built tons of models, read
the books and magazines, drew pictures of airplanes all day long in school
and thought "Strategic Air Command" was the best movie ever made.  We all
wanted to fly.  I even had a hobby shop in the basement because no store
would stock the stuff we needed to build competition models.  My AMA number
was 10124.  We were boy engineers, control line and free flight test pilots,
too poor to afford radio control, longing to grow up and do the real thing.
Two airplanes really captured my imagination:  the F-104 and the X-15.  Those
were the airplanes I hoped to fly someday, or more powerful, faster, higher
flying successors.  I wanted to go Mach 6, too.
Years later, dreams partly fulfilled, watching and listening to Crossfield
on TV describing test running the XLR-99 rocket engine in the X-15, the first
throttleable rocket engine, he again personified my idea of what a pilot and
man should be.  He told a story that went something like "the airplane is
firmly chained to the ground, they strap you into the cockpit, get
everything prepared and then all go inside a concrete block house before you
actually fire the thing off.  This is called building the confidence of the
pilot."  Code words describing the potential for violent death that awaited
the unlucky, unprepared or less skilled.  "The Right Stuff" wasn't just the
title of a book or movie, it was what you hoped would keep you alive and
Scott Crossfield was the man on the leading edge of the the greatest
adventure ever.
You've seen the film:  after they all go to the block house, Crossfield
fires the XLR-99.  Everything seems to be going well, then it looks like he's
throttling it back, but the fire sputters and goes out.  After what seems
like a very long pause, the whole thing blows up in no uncertain way.
Miraculously, Crossfield was unhurt.  A crewman, mistakenly thinking
Crossfield was in great danger and probably seriously injured, rushed to the
cockpit.  Crossfield tried to wave him off, he was OK, but the crewman
opened the canopy with bare hands, suffering terrible burns and dragged
Crossfield to "safety."
Later, during an early test flight, he encountered control problems and had
to return to land, still heavy with fuel.  On final approach he got into
serious pitch PIO, finally landing on the skids attached to the aft fuselage,
then the nose slammed to the ground and the fuselage broke in two just
behind the cockpit.  Again, Crossfield was unhurt.
When the Wright brothers centennial came around there was Crossfield again,
working on a replica.  He was at Oshkosh.  He was in Seattle at the Museum
of Flight.  He was on TV.  After almost fifty years, almost forgotten, he
had made his way back into the spotlight.  He owned a Cessna 210.
I was in the hangar when a friend came by to ask if I knew who Scott
Crossfield was.  Yes, I knew who he was, why?  He was dead.  Killed in an
airplane accident, no details.  When I checked my email later, EAA had a
bulletin saying it was true.  Killed in his 210.  He was 84.
A lousy way to die.
I didn't know you and you didn't know me, but you meant more to me than you could ever know, Scott, and I will miss you, but I won't forget you.
9:30 pm pdt

Thursday, April 6, 2006

May 8-13 7-10pm $150
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9:21 am pdt

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