The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed
By John McPhee
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 1973 John McPhee
All rights reserved.
IN GREAT SECRECY, on a private airstrip about fifty miles southwest of New York, Aereon 7 got ready to fly. Conditions were good. It was a clear August evening in 1970, humid, but not remarkably so for that time of year near the coastal plain. In dark stands of ash and oak by the field, leaves were not moving. A wind sock, almost half a mile away, hung still; and far beyond that, on the horizon of this flat landscape, stood barracks of the state police, where no activity was discernible, and where the flags of New Jersey and the United States hung without motion from tall poles.
The 7, as the aircraft was called, was bright orange. It had no wings. It had a deep belly and a broad, arching back. Seen from above, it was a delta. From the side, it looked like a fat and tremendous pumpkin seed. Stabilizing fins, vertical and anhedral, framed the trailing edge. The aircraft's shape had been figured out by a computer in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and the computer had sought a shrewd and practical compromise between an airfoil and a sphere. The 7 stood on tricycle landing gear. Above and just behind its nose was a plastic canopy. Mounted above the aircraft's trailing edge was an engine fitted with a pusher propeller. Aereon 7 had cost about five thousand dollars. To reach this moment, though, well over a million dollars had been spent in the past eleven years. The money had been drawn from various individuals, many of them in New Jersey, in amounts ranging from five hundred dollars to three hundred thousand dollars. Nothing had been contributed by the government or by any major aircraft corporation. By training, the several men attending the aircraft were all engineers (aeronautical and mechanical) except one, and he was a Master of Theology. His name was William Miller, and he was of middle height and middle weight and had a look in his clear blue eyes that all at once seemed to be prayerful, patient, lonely, trusting, and nervous. Except in technical matters, the others deferred to him. He had brought them together, and they were in his employ.
The engine started and began to thrum. The 7 vibrated, suggesting an airliner getting ready to leave its bay. For two or three minutes, it stayed where it was, near the edge of the field, then it turned slowly and began to taxi, under remote control. It seemed to grow as it rolled. In that milieu—the deserted airstrip, the flat expanse, the complete absence of all other aircraft anywhere in sight—perspective went where it pleased. The 7 was exactly seven feet long, but, taxiing out there by itself, with no human being anywhere near it, it took on added proportion until it seemed huge—as huge as its progeny were intended to be. It waddled toward the head of the runway. Its flaps moved up and down in final checkout, its rudders back and forth. The 7 had flown a number of times before this outing, but not smoothly. It had a tendency to jackrabbit, to fly in short oscillations that frequently intersected the ground, to bounce, to bounce again, and bounce again, and flop, and skid on its nose. It had never been in a state of steady flight. It had not yet attained an altitude above fifty inches. Now, turning on the broad white stripes at the head of the runway, it sat for a while, pointing toward the far end, waiting for clearance. Then the sound of the engine rose, and the 7 began to move. Smoothly, steadily, its bulbous frame collected speed. Its engine roar cut up the summer air. After three hundred feet, the aircraft rotated around its center of gravity, gently lifting its nose wheel off the ground. Then, after five hundred feet, it firmly took to the air. It climbed out nicely to an altitude of a hundred inches, threw one blade of its propeller, sank rapidly, landed heavily, and scraped its nose. The propeller was replaced and the 7 made a few fast runs without lift-off, but there was no more flying that day. Data had been collected, despite the accident, and the data were to be analyzed before further testing. Miller said, "We want to be able to use the 7 again and not lose it in some spectacular display of virtuosity. We still have a lot to learn from it." The aircraft taxied in, wheeled around, and stopped. Its engine shut down. Debriefing, the engineers spilled their thoughts—totally technical—into a cassette recorder.
In a hangar at an even remoter airfield, some thirty-five miles farther down into southern New Jersey, was Aereon 7's fraternal twin, Aereon 26. With Sheetrock and two-by-fours, the 26 had been hidden away in a huge box that filled a large part of the hangar—this to thwart not only a paid spy but also any innocent but curious observer who, for example, might say to friends, "My God, you'll never believe what I saw today at Red Lion Airport! They've got a plane there, a big orange thing, with no wings." Stories like that tend to expand and to travel, and that is what Miller deeply feared. Aereon 26 had been built in a small shop near Lakehurst, New Jersey, by a retired airship rigger named Everett Linkenhoker. He built the aircraft in two parts, and eventually he secured them, one at a time, to the roof of his station wagon and drove them in the dead of night to Red Lion, where he put the two halves together and hid the 26 in the Sheetrock box. The advantage of Red Lion was its obscurity. Over a period of many months, various taxi tests were conducted on the runway there, always at odd hours—just before dusk, or in the early morning. A car towed the 26 around while friction drag was measured with a hook-and-eye scale of the type that is used to weigh swordfish.
There had been other Aereons. In existence still, in a basement in Trenton, was an Aereon twenty inches long. There had been a series of four-foot Aereons. Now there were the 7 and the 26; and as yet unbuilt, but much alive in Miller's imagination, were a fifty-two-foot Aereon, a two-hundred-foot Aereon, a three-hundred-and-forty-foot Aereon, and an Aereon whose length over all might approach a thousand feet. But the 26 was the key vehicle. It would nourish or finish the Aereon project. It would embarrass or vindicate the computer in Valley Forge. It would fly, or try to, with a pilot under its canopy. His name was John Olcott. Because Aereon 7 was now nearing the end of its test series, the time had at last come to take the 26 out of concealment at Red Lion, where the runway was not adequate for flight tests, and, risking exposure, move the vehicle to a major airfield.
Even farther down into New Jersey, off the southern edge of the Pine Barrens, is an airfield more or less the size of Kennedy International. Planes of all United States airlines go in and out of there, but without passengers. The place is known as NAFEC—an acronym that long ago swallowed its own meaning—and NAFEC is where the Federal Aviation Administration tests and evaluates aircraft of all sizes and types. August 13, 1970, at Red Lion, Aereon 26 was chained to the bed of a tractor-trailer ordinarily used to transport bulldozers. The aircraft's markings were covered by sheets of newspaper stuck on with masking tape. The engine and propeller were sheathed with canvas, and the cockpit's plastic bubble was masked out, too. As a wide load, the rig was not permitted to move on New Jersey roads in darkness, so it left Red Lion Airport the following morning at dawn, scraping bushes and limbs on narrow blacktop roads, and eventually moving south on Route 206 to Hammonton Circle and east on the White Horse Pike to NAFEC—forty miles, at speeds ranging from ten to twenty miles per hour. Miller shepherded the 26 in his Mercedes-Benz. As the journey progressed, he befrazzled himself with worry that sinister eyes would fall upon his creation.
The main building at NAFEC is immense, with sliding steel doors seventy feet high closing the ends of a room in which several big jets and any number of small planes can be housed at the same time. The floor personnel there have worked on just about everything, military or civilian, that flies in American sky. It is hard to imagine any sort of aircraft that would draw from them more than a glance. Around nine o'clock in the morning, though, on that August day, when Aereon 26 came in and was lifted off the flatbed trailer, men from every part of the hangar left the planes they were working on and collected in a wide circle around it. They looked at it in silence. In time, they would be making cynical remarks about the wingless orange vehicle and its trials, but now they just stood there and took it in. The 26 was placed at one side of the hangar. Two fifty-pound weights were hung from its nose, because its balance was so critical that, without a pilot inside it, the 26 would otherwise have canted backward. Stanchions were put around it. It was roped off like an exhibit in a museum. As the NAFEC men watched, the Trenton Times was peeled away from the orange fuselage. A big sheet came off the side revealing black registration numbers, "N2627." More newspaper came off the underbelly, introducing to the NAFEC people the name "AEREON 26." And still more news came off the vertical fins, where black lettering said "AERERON AEROBODY 001."
Somewhere in the administrative modules of the big building, a telephone rang, and a motorist who had been out on the White Horse Pike asked what was that big orange saucer that had gone into NAFEC by truck. The call was referred to McGuire Air Force Base, which is on the far side of the Pine Barrens, fifty miles away—609-724-2100. The switchboard at McGuire is one of the darker jungles in the topography of communication. Call after call goes in there and is never heard from again. The query about the Aereon died there.
ABOUT THE MAN who would get into the 26 and try to fly it there was something studiously, insistently Hessian. He was, in a sense, a hired gun. He had no emotional attachment to the Aereon project. He had no financial interest in the Aereon Corporation. His technical curiosity had been aroused just enough to cause him to accept the job. He was working as an independent contractor. He minimized the risk, because, for one thing, he believed in the computer. He was no stunt man. He was an aeronautical engineer, a member of a firm of consulting engineers, and his central interests were in things like equations of motion and what they might tell him about the performances of vehicles in the air. He said, "We're exploring relatively unknown areas, it's true. The vehicle is not an airship, and it is not an airplane. It is a hybrid of the two, trying to combine the benefits of heavier-than-air aerodynamics and lighter-than-air aerostatics—a vehicle that would have the capability of carrying large volumes of cargo without the operating problems normally associated with airships. A hybrid vehicle like this may have some unusual characteristics, but a pilot flies in an adaptive manner. He observes. He adapts. He achieves what he desires to achieve." Olcott hardly appeared to be the sort of creature who dances around on the lips of danger seeking the pleasures of not being swallowed. About six feet tall, trim and lithe, handsome and blue-eyed, with his hair cut short and precisely parted and combed, he looked like the president of anybody's student council some years ago. He always wore a tie and a button-down shirt and generally a plain suit, but sometimes, in this summer weather, a madras jacket. He spoke quietly, in an earnest but—at least within sight of an airfield—never an agitated voice. He seemed, in the main, to be so completely twodimensional that he might have been cut out of a newspaper, except when he lost contact with the others before a test or a debriefing—as he did from time to time—and went off into his own mind somewhere, while his eyes shot the horizon blankly or stared into a floor.
Olcott was thirty-five, and he had been flying since 1951, when he was fourteen and made the discovery that a fourteen-year-old could be licensed to fly gliders in New Jersey. His father was an electrical engineer who feared flying so much that he took trains on business trips. Nonetheless, he drove his son sometimes twice a weekend the fifty-mile round trip from their home, in Short Hills, to Somerset Airport. Gliding gives a pilot the fundamentals in a way more basic than any other. This is probably why the pilots of the Luftwaffe, in their time, were the world's best: they had learned their flying in gliders, because the Versailles Treaty denied them the experience of powered flight. Olcott, later on, would assign particular value to the time he had spent hunting the air for thermals. "It's good discipline," he would say. "You have to be right the first time. There is no margin for error, because you don't have an engine. So you develop a more keen awareness of the vehicle in its environment." He flew gliders over Switzerland at the age of seventeen, and in the same year got his license as a pilot of powered aircraft. He had his commercial license at eighteen and his instructor's license at nineteen. He went to Princeton, earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees in aeronautical engineering, and he flew charter flights whenever he could to supplement his income and to build up his log of flying hours. When he agreed to be the test pilot of the Aereon 26, he had well over five thousand hours in the air—a lot for a desk-job engineer. Unusual test programs were not unusual to him. He had once spent almost two years at the Indian Institute of Technology, in Uttar Pradesh, where he tested for the Indian government prototype aircraft of Indian design. Why Miller had hired him to test the 26 was in part a result of propinquity. Olcott's daylight work was at Aeronautical Research Associates of Princeton, Inc., in Princeton Junction, and a couple of rooms above a bank on Nassau Street in Princeton happened to be the home and only offices of the Aereon Corporation.
In his madras jacket, a blue button-down shirt, and a knit tie, Olcott appeared at the Princeton University airstrip on another calm, hot evening toward the end of August, for what would prove to be the penultimate test of the 7. He did not feel altogether prepared to get into the big Aereon and take stick in hand, down at NAFEC, until he had further studied the behavior of the smaller Aereon in flight under remote control. This time, Olcott sat in the right front seat of a Buick convertible, its top down, visibility optimum. The plan was that the car would race on the runway in tight formation with Aereon 7, the better to afford close observation. Miller, with a Super 8 motionpicture camera in his hand, sat directly behind Olcott. The car was otherwise stuffed with engineers, one of whom, John Kukon, held a Logictrol transmitter that would move the 7's control surfaces.
"O.K., let's get this airplane off the ground," someone said.
Miller—a gentle bit of a nag—reminded the group as a whole that they were to refer to the aircraft as an "aerobody." He said, "I'm very anxious that we preserve this semantic thing. This is not an airplane. We consider 'aerobody' to be a generic description we have coined. That's well understood, isn't it?"
"Roger. The thing doesn't know whether it's an airship or an airplane."
Miller seemed content with the definition. On both sides, there was a tenuous balance, a conscious application of patience, a sense of tolerable difference, in the relationship between Miller and these engineers. While Miller knew more than most laymen about structural analysis and flight mechanics, he did not know much more, and when he was among his assembled consultants he was not fully in the conversation. They politely ignored him much of the time, and they seldom showed annoyance when he fussed and worried. They went along with him when he prayed. They were interested in the project, and they knew that beyond question there would be no project at all, by now, were it not for him. The company had been on a low threshold for so long that its mere continuance was marvellous. It had been humbled with accident and with failure. It had been strictured by the Securities and Exchange Commission. When Miller had emerged as president, the board of directors had grown even more nervous than it had been before, but Miller was the only chrysalis willing to come out for the job. Aereon now was costing fifteen thousand dollars a month. Miller was somehow engendering the money. He worked alone—no secretary, a part-time accountant. The engineers knew, but not from Miller, that Miller had put something like three hundred thousand dollars of his own money into Aereon, almost totally evaporating his inheritance, his portfolio, and even his Navy flight pay, every cent of which he had saved. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed by John McPhee. Copyright © 1973 John McPhee. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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