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Contrails Over the Mojave: The Golden Age of Jet Fighter Testing at Edwards Air Force Base

by George J. Marrett, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 2008, $29.95.

There is always an “inside” story behind the testing of military jet aircraft before they are released into the active inventory. After the usual sequence of design and production, each new jet trainer, fighter, bomber and transport must be put through the most rigorous flight tests that can be devised to assure crew safety and mission capability.

The golden age of jet testing, according to George Marrett, was the period following World War II when military and civilian pilots, at great personal risk, sought to determine the limits of the latest flying machines in the skies over the California desert as they explored the new frontiers of flight. It was a time when the U.S. was facing ever-daunting challenges to remain supreme in the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union.

Marrett, who was one of those pilots, recounts his days in flight school and experiences flying McDonnell F-101 Voodoos and Lockheed F-104 Starfighters, the hottest fighters of that time, followed by assignment to what was called “Yeager’s Charm School.” He was subjected to six months of test pilot training and six months of space training that included probing the mysteries of orbital mechanics, bioastronautics, aerothermodynamics and spacecraft design. His graduation flight as a “space cadet” involved taking an F-104 to 80,000 feet, the very limit of the plane’s maneuvering boundary.

Marrett not only delves into his own experiences but also reveals mishaps that befell fellow pilots, illustrating why test piloting is one of the most dangerous occupations. He pulls no punches about the treacherous short – comings of some aircraft that never made it past initial flight-testing and several that did so only due to political pressure.

One of the latter was the General Dynamics F-111A, the fighter that Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara wanted to have commonality of parts and fulfill a requirement for an Air Force supersonic strike aircraft as well as a Navy fleet-defense interceptor. “He rammed the concept through despite the opposition of practically everybody in sight,” Marrett writes. “It was a colossal mistake.” He recalls the F-111A was “a maintenance nightmare” and half of his flights in it had to be canceled due to component failures.

Military jet pilots will especially identify with Marrett’s book. It is an excellent companion to Test Pilots: The Frontiersmen of Flight, by Richard P. Hallion, former Air Force chief historian, who traces test piloting back to the Wright brothers. Marrett reminds us that it was Wilbur Wright who first observed, “If you really wish to learn [to fly], you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.” That advice is still valid today.


Originally published in the September 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.