F E A T U R E
» People expected it to crash on take-off The first test flight took place on September 19, 1962. Jack, out of money but filled with confidence, flew left seat, waving to the press from the open cockpit window. Jack saw it all as a great adventure – after all, he’d flown through danger before, in 19 missions in a B-17, and according to Milbrey: Clay Lacy, “Jack could fly every single airplane you’ve ever heard of.”
Jack’s best friend and seasoned test pilot, would fly right seat on that first flight and many more that followed. The late Clete Roberts, another close friend, pilot and television newsman, covered the event that day. Later, he would say: “Jack tried our patience beyond reason. But he was never dull.”
were there, trepidation was in the air, but von Braun, a former Luftwaffe test pilot himself, was intrigued. By all accounts, the demonstration was a success. Some of that success was due purely to Conroy’s showmanship and sleight of hand on the controls. But records of the flight show that:
“Even with the number one and two engines out, the [Guppy] could maintain course and altitude with only light control.” Light control might have been an exaggeration. The thing felt like a heavy truck without power steering. But after viewing a fly-over, von Braun and Herman Kroger, a former test pilot and a member of the von Braun group since the Peenemunde days, were so excited, they jumped aboard the unfinished prototype for a flight. Then, overcome with enthusiasm, Kroger fell back into his native German in describing the experience to his colleagues.
Jack and Clay took their “Pregnant Guppy” on a test run, and a day later, they flew to Huntsville, avoiding major population areas along the way, just in case. Two old friends: the inventor and his best pal flying at 10,000 feet in the cockpit of a Stratocruiser with a huge, empty fuselage frankensteined on the back. The cavernous innards of the new aircraft were supported with wooden 2x4s scammed from the ANG base. After a few stops, they landed at the airstrip of the Army’s Redstone Arsenal, outside Huntsville. Von Braun and his team
» Von Braun: Friend and benefactor The passage of time obscures the indecision of the moment. But, fact is, it took an enormous leap of faith for von Braun to “come aboard” and approve the purchase of the first Pregnant Guppy. In effect, von Braun was placing the launch schedule 54
M ay / j u n e 2 0 1 0