Supersonic Thunder: A Novel of the Jet Ageby Walter J. Boyne
From the first flight of the U-2 to the flashing speed of the famous SR-71 Blackbird, Supersonic Thunder is a portrait of the jet as it comes of age. Aviation genius is personified in famous engineers such as Kelly Johnson and Ben Rich and in test pilots like Tony LeVier and Tex Johnson in this fast moving story of military and commercial jet/i>
From the first flight of the U-2 to the flashing speed of the famous SR-71 Blackbird, Supersonic Thunder is a portrait of the jet as it comes of age. Aviation genius is personified in famous engineers such as Kelly Johnson and Ben Rich and in test pilots like Tony LeVier and Tex Johnson in this fast moving story of military and commercial jet aviation.
Under the guidance of test pilot and engineer, Vance Shannon, the reader is present at every major event in jet aviation in the 1960s and 1970s. As the ever-changing industry begins to speed up beyond Vance's grasp, he turns to his two sons, Tom and Harry, to keep the family business on the cutting edge. Though they've followed in their fathers' footsteps for many years, the stress from trying to stay ahead of the curve is destroying their families--as well as fueling a long hidden rivalry between the two brothers.
As the Shannon family struggles with their personal and professional lives, Supersonic Thunder reveals the great leaps of the aviation industry during this astonishing era, from Gary Powers' U-2 shoot down to the first flight of the Russian Supersonic Transport. With historic and dramatic detail, we are taken behind the scenes, revealing the motivations of top Russian, English, and American designers as they push the limits of engines and airframes and confront the difficulties of the pursuit of Mach 2.0 speeds.
From the luxury of the 747 to the abject despair of a cell in the Hanoi Hilton, Supersonic Thunder tells the real story of this amazing chapter of jet aviation in terms of the men and women who lived and died to make it a part of our everyday life.
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August 1, 1955
Groom Lake, one hundred miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada
Vance Shannon had made many first flights in experimental aircraft, but standing in the shadow of Kelly Johnson's latest triumph, he was glad he wasn't making this one. Called either the Angel, for its high-altitude capability, or the Article, as an informal code name, the beautifully strange aircraft was so secret that it had not yet been given an official designation.
Working with Kelly as a consulting engineer was difficult enough, for Johnson was a genius with a low tolerance for opposition or even suggestions unless they were overburdened with merit. But to be a test pilot for him was a nightmare, as the equally testy and opinionated Tony LeVier had long since discovered.
As he stood listening to their argument while trying not to appear to be eavesdropping, Shannon motioned Bob Rodriquez to his side. Bob had just been made a partner in Shannon's firm, Aviation Consultants, something Vance had not yet disclosed to his twin sons, Tom and Harry, knowing that they would not approve.
"Listen to this, Bob; it's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear a genius engineer and a genius test pilot going toe-to-toe!"
The short, dark, and handsome Rodriquez rather resembled a miniature Cesar Romero. He conscientiously cast his eyes up to the empty skies, appearing to be searching for a break in the clouds, as he listened to the increasingly loud argument.
Kelly Johnson was big, five feet, eleven inches, tall and weighing well over two hundred pounds. He had developed his stevedore build--huge chest, massive arms and thighs--as a youth working in construction, making and putting up laths for plaster work in the days before drywall. All the muscle supported a giant intellect, for Kelly had earned stellar marks working his way through the University of Michigan, doing everything from washing dishes to subcontracting out the university's wind tunnel for the design of Studebaker racing cars. Then he had talked his way into a job at Lockheed, where his first contribution was to criticize his boss's design for a new transport--and be right.
From then on there was no stopping Kelly and all his personality quirks were overlooked in appreciation of his raw genius. As a boss, he could be a genial collaborator, given to spine-collapsing congratulatory slaps on the back. He could also be a monster, reacting chemically when he discovered an error and seldom hesitating to administer a good kick to the rear of the erring engineer. It could not be said that Kelly was loved by his subordinates, but he was admired enormously--almost religiously by some--for his brilliant insights, his ability to not only "see the air" around a new design but also sense intuitively the points where heat or stress or fatigue or production costs might be a problem.
Today the problem was that Tony LeVier dared to have a different opinion. At forty-two, LeVier was only three years younger than Kelly, and as the dean of Lockheed test pilots was confident enough to stand up to Johnson in a way few men dared. Before the war, LeVier had set the pylons blazing at the Cleveland Air Races, flying cobbled-up aircraft with tiny wings and big engines. Lockheed hired him as a test pilot, and he became an expert in the P-38 Lightning, sent around the world to show pilots how to fly it with one engine dead, the propeller feathered. After the war he was the first to fly the F-94, the T-33, and Kelly's latest product from the Skunk Works, the "missile with a man in it," the XF-104 Starfighter. LeVier had crashed at least eight times in his test work and was not a whit intimidated by Kelly. With the build of a rangy middleweight boxer, LeVier stood up straight in front of Kelly so that they went at it nose-to-nose.
Shannon dropped down and pretended to draw a sketch on the ground. Rodriquez pretended to be absorbed in it as LeVier's voice rose another octave.
"Goddammit, Kelly, you may be a great engineer, but you are no pilot. This bucket has a tail wheel, just like a Mustang or a P-47. I'm going to have to land it in a three-point attitude."
"You dumb son of a bitch, look at this airplane. Do you see three landing gears?"
Rodriquez's face flinched; in his youth, insults like this would have meant a fistfight. He raised an eyebrow at Shannon, who looked down steadfastly at the meaningless drawing he'd made in the sand.
Kelly went on, "No, you see one undercarriage strut with two wheels in the middle, and one tiny wheel at the tail. I want you to land on the main gear! But that's not the problem. Look at that wing, for God's sake."
It was an extraordinary wing to be sure, eighty feet long, narrow as a sailplane's, and seemingly too fragile to bear the weight of the fuselage. Each tip was bent down, supported by an outrigger wheel that was jettisoned after takeoff.
"I don't want you stalling this airplane! If you are just a little off in your judgment of height, or if you pick up a little lift from ground effect and stall it, you'll drop it in and it will shed its wings like a snake sheds its skin."
LeVier was getting ready to counter when Kelly said, "Look, LeVier, case closed, land on the main gear like I'm telling you to, or I'll get another boy."
LeVier said something too low for Shannon and Rodriquez to hear, but not for Kelly, who replied, "The same to you, LeVier. Now get your ass in that airplane and land it like I've told you to land it."
As the Lockheed ground crew busied itself, Shannon took Rodriquez aside.
"Don't get the wrong impression. These guys are professionals, the best in the field, and they've worked together a long time. Kelly has a lot at stake in this airplane, and he absolutely cannot afford to have something go wrong. I'm surprised at his advice--I think Tony is right; he'll need to land it like a conventional aircraft. But Kelly is a design genius, and maybe he knows something we pilots don't know."
Rodriquez nodded toward the airplane, saying, "That thing looks like they took an F-104 fuselage and bolted glider wings to it."
"Looks like it. But let me tell you the real story--it's a knockout."
The clouds were still drifting over the field, freighted with rain and threatening to postpone the first flight for another day. Moving over to his maroon Cadillac Coupe de Ville, Shannon began his story, "By all conventional standards, that airplane should not be there. Kelly had been trying to sell the Air Force on the idea of a long-range reconnaissance plane for a couple of years, but the real impetus came from the Central Intelligence Agency. Now that Russia has the hydrogen bomb, and is building big bombers and maybe even intercontinental missiles, they have to get some hard information. It isn't coming from anywhere else--Soviet security is virtually airtight."
Shannon pulled out a briefcase that contained two thermos bottles. "Water or coffee, or both?"
Rodriquez opted for coffee and said quietly, "Don't stop now."
Shannon resumed, "The Air Force gave a contract to Bell Aircraft for twenty-eight planes, X-16s, they called them. Two engines, long, thin wing, somewhat the same formula as the Angel here, but bigger and heavier."
"Didn't that freeze Lockheed out?"
"It should have, and would have anybody else but Kelly. It didn't faze him a bit. He went to the Pentagon, sold his idea to some big wheels including Trevor Gardner and General Don Putt, and they went right to the secretary of the Air Force, a nice guy named Harold Talbott. Kelly Johnson promised to furnish twenty planes for twenty-two million, and to fly the first plane in eight months."
"Jesus, nobody could buy that."
"Well, that's what Secretary Talbott thought. He said, 'How do we know you can deliver?' And General Putt says, 'He's already proved it three times on previous projects'--meaning the XP-80, the P-80A, and the F-104. That did it! Talbott agreed to give Lockheed the contract."
"What about the Bell contract?" Rodriquez, almost compulsively straightforward, didn't like what he was hearing.
"They canceled it, and it is sinking Bell; it may put them out of the fixed-wing business. That's why Kelly is so fired up. His name, his reputation, maybe even his ass is on the line with this airplane. If this doesn't work, he won't be able to peddle apples in the Pentagon courtyard."
There was activity over by the Angel. Tony LeVier, wearing his customary immaculate flight suit, was in the cockpit, with Kelly uneasily leaning from a maintenance stand, still talking a mile a minute.
Three days before, LeVier was making some taxi tests when a wind gust forced the Angel into an inadvertent takeoff. It flew for half a mile with the throttle at idle, then bounced heavily into the ground and spun around, blowing both main tires and setting the brakes on fire. For a breathless moment it seemed that the Angel might go up in flames, but the fire trucks, Johnny-on-the-spot, quickly suppressed the fire.
Remarkably enough, the damage was slight and easily repaired, but the incident made Johnson nervous and put LeVier under the gun. Both men had to prove themselves today.
Despite the lowering clouds and the prospects of a thunderstorm, LeVier applied power at five minutes to four and the Angel shot down the runway into a threatening sky. Climbing out steeply, to keep the airspeed below the gear retraction limits, LeVier called, "It flies like a baby buggy," to Bob Mayte, the pilot of the T-33 chase plane. Johnson was airborne right behind him, flying chase in a C-47.
LeVier climbed to 12,500 feet and went through a series of gentle basic maneuvers, easing the Angel around the sky with kid gloves. The aircraft handled conventionally enough and LeVier cycled the landing gear and the flaps, then made a few entries to the stall. After about forty minutes he set up an approach for landing, determined, despite his gut feel, to land the aircraft on its main gear, just as Kelly had demanded.
Lining up on final approach, LeVier closed the throttle and checked with the chase plane to confirm that his gear was down. He slipped in twenty degrees of flaps, but the airplane was so low-drag that it kept on flying as if nothing had happened. Shrugging his shoulders, LeVier extended the fuselage speed brakes, and the nose dropped slightly enough to force him to apply a little back pressure to maintain the correct airspeed.
LeVier brought it in over the end of the runway and greased it in at about seventy knots, touching down on the main wheels, just as Kelly ordered. The aircraft immediately began to bounce down the runway in great leaps that both LeVier and Kelly knew would be fatal if sustained. LeVier advanced power, and the Angel leaped skyward, its high power-to-weight ratio sending it up so fast that it seemed sure to stall. LeVier brought it around for another approach, listening to a constant stream of advice from an agitated Kelly Johnson.
Rodriquez nudged Shannon in the ribs with his elbow, saying, "Look, he's trying the main gear again."
Once again LeVier put the Angel down perfectly on the main gear, and once again the Angel bounded back in the air, forcing LeVier to make another circuit.
Inside the cramped cockpit, LeVier checked the setting sun and the thunderstorm-ringed horizon and knew he had to get the airplane on the ground on this attempt. He contemplated making a wheels-up landing but decided against it. The absolute requirement for saving weight had left the Angel with a frail structure, and a wheels-up landing would probably destroy it.
Murmuring to himself, "OK Kelly, this time we'll do it my way," he set up the third approach. He came down finally at ninety knots, then bled the speed off, raising the Angel's nose just above the horizon and looking at some buildings far down the runway to keep his depth perception accurate.
Crossing the runway threshold at seventy-five knots, he kept flying the airplane until he touched down, main gear and tail wheel simultaneously, at about sixty-five knots. On each side, cars bearing men with steady hands raced out to meet him, one man on each side ready to insert the outrigger gears into the wingtip. LeVier shut the engine down, popped his canopy, and began formulating the "I told you sos" for Johnson.
Shannon and Rodriquez watched with amusement as LeVier began jawing at Kelly as soon as he arrived. They were too far away to hear, but they knew the subject was how to land the Angel.
As they watched the two men, alternately shaking hands and shaking fists at each other, laughing and walking around, their arms around each other's shoulders, obviously delighted with themselves, with the Angel, with everything, Rodriquez asked, "Do you think it can do what it's supposed to do?"
"You mean fly unescorted over Russia and take photographs?"
"Yes--and, more important, bring them back."
"Sure, at least for a couple of years. It will take the Russians time to get an interceptor that can climb to where this baby will fly--it has to be designed for over sixty thousand feet, don't you think?" Shannon had been heavily involved in the tricky cockpit layout of the Angel, but secrecy was so tight that he was still unaware of the aircraft's potential performance. Kelly ruled with an iron hand, and if there was something you didn't need to know, he made sure that you didn't know it.
"Yes, and it may be that they won't be able to track it on their radar at that height. The cameras they are planning to use are fantastic--maybe they will let us see just how far ahead of us those blasted Commies are."
The thunderstorms had finally reached Groom Lake, and they bolted into Shannon's car just as the deluge hit. Rodriquez, a car guy, paused to run his hand over the subdued fins of the Cadillac. As he slid behind the wheel, Shannon asked, "Bob, what do you think we just witnessed?"
"Vance, it's a new era in reconnaissance, that's for sure, if the blasted thing holds together in turbulent weather. It's built very lightly and it is going to be very demanding on the pilots. But more than anything else it's just a first step in the right direction."
"Well, if this works, there'll have to be a follow-on airplane in a few years, depending upon how the Soviets react. Lockheed won't be able to refine this design much--it seems to be at the absolute limits in terms of structure. And it's not going to be nearly fast enough. So I suspect Kelly and the boys already have some drawings of something a lot bigger, stronger, faster, and maybe harder to see."
Vance listened approvingly. "You mean like camouflage?"
"In a way, but far more refined than just using paint schemes. They tried a lighting system during the war that would make a plane invisible, and it worked, too, under precise conditions. But it didn't work for radar, of course. That's the big thing. The Germans were way ahead on that. They were using radar-absorbent material on their periscopes and snorkels, and they had one airplane that flew, the Gotha Go 229, that would have been virtually invisible to radar."
Shannon knew all about the Go 229, had even supervised the packing of its prototype, a Horten design, for its return to the United States. He commented, "The Mosquito was almost invisible to the Germans."
"Yes, for a while, but it still had the propellers and the big Merlin engines up front. Why couldn't Lockheed make an airplane that was covered with radar-absorbent material? For that matter, why couldn't you use radar-absorbent material for some of the structure, say the skin?"
Rodriquez was getting wound up; he dove into his briefcase and brought out a drawing pad and began making sketches. "They could shape it to deflect signals, just like they shape armor on ships or tanks to deflect shells. They could--"
Vance tapped him on the shoulder. "Slow down, Bob, one airplane at a time. We've had ours for today, the Angel. Say, are you a drinker? And can you arm wrestle?"
Rodriquez looked blankly at him. "I don't drink much, a beer once in a while. And I guess I can arm wrestle, depends upon who it is."
"Well, tonight plan on doing a lot of both. Kelly always throws a big shindig after a successful flight like this, and he'll take it amiss if you don't keep up with him--or try to. And don't feel bad if he beats you arm wrestling--he will; he wins every time; nobody ever beats him."
Copyright © 2006 by Walter J. Boyne. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
WALTER J. BOYNE is the former director of the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, he retired in 1986 to pursue a career as a novelist and consultant. He is one of a select few authors whose books have made both the fiction and the nonfiction bestseller lists of The New York Times. His recent books include Dawn Over Kitty Hawk and Roaring Thunder, which begins the story of the ascent to the modern Jet Age. Walter J. Boyne lives in Ashburn, Virginia.
WALTER J. BOYNE is the former director of the National Air&Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. Boyne's books have made both the fiction and the nonfiction bestseller lists of The New York Times. His novels Roaring Thunder and Supersonic Thunder cover the first forty-four years of jet aviation. His critically acclaimed nonfiction book, Dawn Over Kitty Hawk, recounts the story of the Wright Brothers. A retired Air Force Colonel, Boyne was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame class of 2007.
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