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Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, The
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 inValley 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 milieuthe deserted airstrip, the flat expanse, the complete absence of all other aircraft anywhere in sightperspective 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 untilit seemed hugeas 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 thoughtstotally technicalinto a cassette recorder.
In a hangar at an even remoter airfield, some thirty-five miles farther down into southern New Jersey, was Aereon7'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 hangarthis 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 hoursjust 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. Itwould 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 NAFECan acronym that long ago swallowed its own meaningand 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 NAFECforty 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 inwhich 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 away609-724-2100.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.
Copyright © 1973 by John McPhee