Test pilot Stanley Beltz flew nearly everything Lockheed produced in the decade following World War II.
When a bang rattled the windows of the Gilbert home north of Lancaster, California, on the morning of August 31, 1955, Goldie Gilbert assumed it was just another sonic boom. Jets from Palmdale or Edwards Air Force Base routinely streaked over her neighborhood in the high desert. But then she spotted a jet engulfed in flames in a nearby field. Inside the mangled F-94B Starfire was the lifeless body of Stanley Beltz, a senior test pilot for the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation and one of the most skilled aviators of his day.
The youngest of 12 children in a Russian-German immigrant family in Kansas, Beltz had worked his way up from humble beginnings to a well-paid test pilot’s job. He and his wife Josephine mingled with Holly – wood’s elite. Beltz developed a taste for expensive clothes, shoes and Cadillacs, bought with his generous test bonuses from Lockheed. His trademark was a two-carat diamond ring, representing membership in Ye Ancient and Secret Order of Quiet Birdmen. Founded in 1921, the Quiet Birdmen was a secretive all-male organization of pilots—still active today—with membership by invitation only. Although the members gained a reputation for rowdy gatherings, the meetings always included a silent toast to fallen comrades who had “gone west.”
The thrills that came with Beltz’s job routinely eclipsed the fastest Cadillac or wildest party. He sometimes took Josephine along on test flights as an unauthorized passenger, and was known to buzz the houses of friends and family. “He seemed like the invincible type,” recalled his nephew Weldon Bauman.
Despite his flamboyant reputation, Beltz owed his Lockheed career to hard work, an abiding interest in aviation and great talent in the cockpit. He landed his first job at Lockheed in 1936, as a sheet metal fabricator on twin-engine Electras. In 1940, after tackling flight training and ground school, he received his pilot’s license.
When World War II began, Beltz left Lockheed in search of flying experience. He spent most of 1942 working for the Glenn L. Martin Company in Omaha, Neb., testing B-26C bombers. He returned to Lockheed after a crash that left him un – scathed but unnerved.
Beginning in 1945, when chief test pilot Tony LeVier promoted him to engineering test pilot, Beltz would fly almost every aircraft type produced by Lockheed until 1955. He helped to test the Constellation airliner and the giant Constitution Navy transport. But his specialty was another Navy plane, the twin-engine P2V Neptune patrol bomber. Between 1946 and 1954, Lockheed produced seven different versions of the P2V. Beltz test-flew each new Neptune model, also serving as Lockheed’s sales representative to the Navy.
Beltz piloted one of the first Neptunes from Burbank, Calif., to Patuxent River, Md. This particular aircraft was outfitted with strain gauges and other instrumentation that showed how the airframe behaved in flight. At Patuxent River he boasted to some Navy pilots that the Neptune was capable of any maneuver that could be performed by Navy fighters. When one flier asked if that included a slow roll into a dead engine—a very difficult and dangerous maneuver—Beltz promptly took off on an unauthorized demonstration. Martin Snyder, who was there, described what happened: “We saw the P2V approaching over the adjacent Patuxent River with the engine nearest us shut down and the prop feathered. At about 100 feet altitude, we saw the airplane slow roll into the dead engine with a negligible loss of altitude and certainly under full control.” Beltz circled, then repeated the maneuver with the other engine stopped. “We were all absolutely flabbergasted,” said Snyder.
Knowing that the last Neptune model, the P2V-7, would be especially risky to test because it had two supplemental turbojets for extra takeoff thrust, Beltz requested a bigger test bonus than usual. Engineering test pilot division manager Rudy Thoren balked at the request, instead assigning two less-experienced pilots to the project. When they made a high-speed dive over the Pacific near Point Mugu, they were unable to pull out in time; the ocean swallowed the plane and its crew.
Beltz again increased his bonus demand, and this time received it. He performed the high-speed maneuver perfectly—without a copilot—then turned over his bonus check to the widows of the dead pilots.
The defining moment of Beltz’s career came on August 23, 1954, when he took the YC-130 Hercules prototype up for its first flight. Beltz and copilot Roy Wimmer raced down the runway and took off after eight seconds, using just 855 feet of runway. As they climbed out of the smog of the San Fernando Valley, Beltz leaned back and said to flight engineer Jack Real, “Smile, we’re going to build a thousand of these.” In fact, to date more than 2,200 C-130s have been built, and the workhorse Hercules is still in operation in dozens of countries.
One hour after leaving Burbank, Beltz landed the YC-130 on the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base. After the Hercules came to a stop, engineers crowded around to hear Beltz’s impressions. “She’s a real flying machine,” he told them. “I could land it crossways on the runway if I had to.”
On what would be his last mission, Beltz conducted a secret test for the Air Force and Boeing, carried out as part of the BOMARC cruise missile program. Lockheed technicians mounted the missile’s long ogival nose cone on the front of an F-94B to test subsonic flight performance. During previous tests, Tony LeVier and Herman “Fish” Salmon had found that the modification made the aircraft nose-heavy. This test called for Beltz to perform three “clean” stalls and three “dirty” stalls (with landing gear and flaps extended).
After Beltz took off from Palmdale on August 31, 1955, the first tests, in clean configuration, went smoothly. But Beltz did not climb back to altitude before beginning the dirty stalls. At 10,000 feet, 8,000 feet above Lancaster’s outskirts, he dropped the landing gear and fully extended the flaps. Applying full right rudder to put the jet into a stall, he cried, “Here she goes!”—his last transmission. Test monitors waited in anxious silence for a minute. Then the pilot of a chase helicopter reported a fire on the ground 3½ miles north of Lancaster. He also reported having seen no parachute. Quiet Birdman Stanley Beltz had gone west at age 44.
An Air Force investigation concluded that Beltz had made no attempt to exit the aircraft, and officials concluded he had apparently been unconscious at the time of the crash, perhaps from hitting his head against the cockpit canopy during the stall. Why he had not climbed back up to altitude after the first round of stalls, and why he was unable to regain control of the aircraft remain un – answered questions.
At the time Beltz and Josephine were in the midst of a messy divorce, and some have suggested it affected his mental state that day. Sadly, just 10 days after the accident, Beltz’s girlfriend, Lockheed secretary Phyllis Ann Fratt, committed suicide.
The crash marked the premature end of a brilliant career. As Joseph E. Dabney commented in his book Herk: Hero of the Skies: “Possessing a love for flying that transcended earthly pursuits, Beltz looked on a new flying machine as a special challenge….He was not an engineer and didn’t want to be. He just wanted to show what he could do with an airplane.” During his years at Lockheed, Beltz got his wish many times over.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.