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VINTAGRAPH • WPA • WWII • CUBA: HOLIDAY ISLE OF THE TROPICS

Test Pilot: 1958

Test Pilot: 1958

May 1958. "Lt. Commander George Watkins in flight suit in cockpit of jet fighter." Kodachrome by Frank Bauman for the Look magazine assignment "Navy Test Pilot." View full size.

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A Full Life

If he was a test pilot in the 1950s, he's lucky to have lived long enough to die of a heart attack.

I worked at Edwards AFB for a little more than a decade and let me tell you the streets of Edwards are paved with dead test pilots: many are named after somebody who died testing aircraft. My coworker once calculated that in the '40s and '50s, the mortality rate was 1 every 11 months. In my first two years, there were two crashes and several "in flight emergencies". One time some landing gear got stuck and the plane had to "belly it in". My friend's husband was flying and she got called to the mission control room, just in case that was the last time she got to speak to him. (Thankfully it wasn't.) People talk about "watching a trainwreck" but you can't imagine the excruciating fear of being in a control room when the spin chute won't pop, much less being the pilot in that circumstance.

Humans learn from trial-and-error and the science of safe flight test had to grow up alongside the new airplanes. Working as a test pilot was beyond dangerous back then. (And it's still dangerous now.) The work and sacrifice these people made expanded the envelope for *all* flight. So if you've ever flown in *any* airplane, you owe a debt of gratitude to the pilots of military aircraft.

Nerves of Steel

I don't know why, but I LOVE this photo. To be willing to strap yourself into something moving faster than a bullet for Uncle Sam to see if it'll fly speaks volumes to this man's courage and character. It reminds me of America's "can do" attitude that made it great!

Set Altitude Records - Served U.S. Presidents

"Capt. George C. Watkins, who had a singular career as a record-setting Navy test pilot in the 1950s and later delighted in unnerving a new generation of swashbuckling pilots at his aerobatic-glider school near Palmdale, has died. He was 84. Watkins, who served three presidents as a White House social aide, died Sept. 18 of a heart attack at a hospital in Lompoc, Calif., said his wife, Monica.

"Over a 30-year military career, the pilot set records for speed, altitude and number of landings on an aircraft carrier. He never planned on being a pilot. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy during World War II, he served in the Pacific as a battery turret officer on the battleship Pennsylvania."

The quote above is from his 2005 obituary.

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