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“The Righteous Stuff” – Chapter 16

November 2, 2009

The Righteous Stuff

by Jeffrey D. Waggoner

based on characters and situations in the

“Domination of the Draka” novels written by S.M. Stirling

 

CHAPTER 16

USAF EXPERIMENTAL AIRCRAFT TEST FACILITY

RODRIGUEZ DRY LAKE

CORUM, CALIFORNIA

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

DECEMBER, 1952

 

General Boyd walked into the cinderblock office building that housed the Pacific Aircraft offices. It was almost comfortable, although the aging air conditioners made the air a lot more humid than it ever was outside, on the desert. He smiled at the receptionist. “Alice, is Jack Ridley here?”

“Yes, sir, just one moment.” She picked up the phone, spoke quietly. “He’ll be out in just a moment, General.”

“That’s okay, Alice, I know the way.” Boyd breezed past the secretary, who was too in awe to protest. He walked back down the narrow hallway to the last door on the left, and met Ridley as he was coming out the door.

“Sit down, Jack. I’d rather speak to you here if I could.”

“Well, sure.” As Ridley backpedaled into the small office, he had to make room for Stoddard, who was right behind him. The three men shuffled around the room, already full of papers, a drafting board, and a filing cabinet. Stoddard went out into the hall and returned with another metal folding chair.

Once the dance was over, and all three were seated, Boyd handed a thin manila folder to Ridley. “Jack, I need a favor, and I’d like it to be kept quiet.”

“Whatever you need, sir.” Ridley glanced down at the folder, opened it and scanned the contents.

“Now, I know you’re not Air Force any more, Jack, and I can’t order this. Still, I think I can help you and you can help me.” He paused, while Jack finished leafing through the pages in the folder. “You know we’re eating up pilots ’way faster than we wish we did out here. People in New York are actually starting to notice. The Congress has made some inquiries, and I’m afraid some loudmouth Congressman is going to start an investigation. We lost sixteen pilots this year, out of a total of only about fifty. That’s too many good men gone, and too many planes lost as well.”

“General, you know as well as I do that you have to test prototype planes until they break. That’s how you reduce your losses in the field. You have to accept that some of us aren’t coming back. We don’t like it either, but we all know that it’s the way it is. Nobody is more careful than an old test pilot.”

Stoddard snorted. “Jack, there are no old test pilots. You’re not even forty!”

“And I plan to be older. Anyway, what does any of this have to do with this Northfield guy?”

Boyd sat back and waved at the folder in Ridley’s hand. “This young man is the most intuitive pilot our folks have ever seen. He started flying at fourteen, near as we can figure, and was flying old Stout trimotors commercially before he was out of high school­–legal or not. Lots of stuff like that happened during the war, in out-of-the-way places like that.” He shook his head. “He’s been prime test pilot for the Navy for the past six months at Pax River, wringing out all their new carrier planes.”

“A squid?” Jack, all Air Force, raised an eyebrow.

“Some of my best friends are Navy, Jack,” Stoddard reminded him.

“Went to engineering school at Patrick Henry U in Cleveland, of all places, and they only had Naval ROTC. Naval ROTC, on a lake! It was his ticket off the farm, I gather. Lots of farm boys join the Navy, for some reason.” Boyd chuckled. “Probably better than lookin’ at the ass end of a mule all day, even bein’ a squid.”

“So we get this Navy hotshot. Am I supposed to babysit him?” Ridley was starting to get annoyed at the prospects of taking care of some Admiral’s fair-haired boy.

“Nope. I’m assigning you two to the same team. I just thought you would like to know more about him, and maybe help him feel a little more at home. Us blue-suiters could give him some serious trouble, and I don’t want him getting killed trying to prove himself to you guys.” Boyd was about to go into commanding-officer mode, Ridley knew, and even if Ridley was a civilian contractor’s employee, they served at the pleasure of the Air Force. Ridley never forgot that, nor did he ever forget his Air Force training.

“Yes, sir. I’ll watch out for him. But if he’s as good as this says–and you say he is–I won’t be much use. Squid or no squid, he’s a pilot. He’ll test himself, as well as the planes.” He paused, then said thoughtfully, “But you mentioned assigning us to a team…”

“Right. You, he, Hoover, Ehricke, Stoddard here, two guys from out west. You’re the test team for the X-14 prototype. It’s time to get it out of the hangar and into the air.”

“You’re joking! The bomber…”

“Is just about ready. It should be out here in February. Before that, you get Al checked out in the X-7a. It should be ready to go for hypersonic the end of January, after the deck is tight again.” The winter rains would begin soon, and the hard desert surface they used for runways would be mud for a couple of weeks to a month. It was the closest thing to a vacation anyone ever got, here.

“Hoover and I were supposed to fly that one…”

“Hoover’s going to be checked out by the Convair boys as test pilot for the bomber. At Mach two, carrying that monster on its back, that’s the real problem–not flyin’ a plywood glider.” Boyd stood, and the others stood with him, old military reflexes kicking in. “I know Bob Hoover won’t like it, but it’s the biggest high-performance airplane in the world, and I think he’ll get over it once he sees the thing. It’s pretty impressive.”

Suddenly a tremendous boom rattled the windows and bounced the coffee cup on the file cabinet. All three men looked out the window, even though it faced away from the flight line. The sound of the fire trucks and ambulances came almost immediately.

“Take care of this one, Jack,” said Boyd. “We need all the great pilots we can get.” He sighed. “ I best get out there and see.”

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