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Neil A. Armstrong: in memoriam.

When Neil Armstrong died on 25 August, the Navy--and America--lost not only one of its historic icons of early space exploration, but an alumnus of this country's early jet-aviator warriors as well. He was also a member of a small group of 12 men who flew the North American X-15, an all-black rocket plane that brought man to the threshold of space in the 1960s. Although Armstrong is best remembered for his exploits in space, he began his career in Navy aircraft. Interested in aviation since he was about five, he took his first ride in 1936: a hop from a local airport in a Ford Trimotor, paid for by his father. Neil later soloed in August 1946 while still in high school and before he got his driver's license.

He entered Purdue University's aeronautical engineering program in 1947, but left to enlist in the Navy and finally to enter flight training as a midshipman in February 1949. He earned his Wings of Gold and assignment as a fighter pilot in August 1950. The Navy gave him his dream assignment of jets and orders--while still a midshipman--to VF-51, which was just transitioning to Grumman F9F Panthers. He and his new squadron eventually went to war aboard USS Essex (CV 9). By then he had been designated an ensign in the regular Navy with a date of 1 June 1951.

The 21-year-old aviator flew 78 missions in Korea, including one of the first combat ejections by an American naval aviator. On 3 September 1951, during a bomb run at 500 feet on North Korean targets, his fighter struck a balloon cable, which chopped six feet off his right wing. Armstrong regained control barely 20 feet above the ground. The battered Panther managed to make it back up to 14,000 feet, and he flew it back to friendly territory before punching out near K-3, the Marine air base at Pohang. He returned to Essex and his squadron later the next day. It wouldn't be the first time he would have to leave his aircraft in this manner. In May 1968, he ejected from his lunar landing training vehicle.

Essex and its air group left the war zone on 11 March 1952. By that time, the Navy had terminated Armstrong's regular commission, placing him in the Naval Reserve on 1 February 1952. He left active duty on 23 August 1953 to resume his studies at Purdue, graduating in January 1955. He was still flying with the reserves and had been promoted to lieutenant j.g. in May 1953.

Armstrong had become interested in space exploration before joining VF-51 and spoke of it with his squadron mates. After graduating from Purdue, he wanted to become a research test pilot with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) at Edwards AFB, Calif. But with no position available, he took a job at NACA's Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio, his home state.

The work at Lewis included flying in F-82 Twin Mustangs, but he wanted more. Finally, in June 1955, a position at Edwards opened up and by July he was there. At 24, he was the youngest pilot in a group of highly experienced aviators. He started flying F-51s as chase planes to the more glamorous types like the Douglas D-558-2 and Bell X-1A, and even the big B-29 used to carry the test aircraft to its drop altitude.

He eventually made some 900 flights at Edwards, flying the F-100, F-104, F-86, the first F4H Phantom IIs, the F5D, the X-1B, and the X-5. His flight log included the X-15 (only three were built), one of America's most powerful X-planes. The young pilot was thought to be the most "capable ... and intelligent" of the X-15 cadre, which was a high compliment, indeed.

Armstrong made seven flights in the X-15, a few of which were "interesting" (i.e., dangerous). His first flight was on 11 November 1960, and the final flight was on 26 July 1962, when he flew at Mach 5.7 (3,989 mph) at 98,000 feet. In 1962, he transferred to become an astronaut with the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, NACA's successor.

Like many of his kind--military aviator, engineer, and even explorer--Neil Armstrong wanted only to focus on his work and not on the public adulation that naturally followed such history-making events as his moonwalk in July 1969. But he knew he was not simply a private citizen doing his job. He tried to maintain as much privacy as he could through the years, giving few interviews and letting others write about his work. He was a true workman in his craft. His quiet determination and competent manner will be missed by those he left behind to pursue the ongoing mission he helped start. Note: For a much more detailed account of his life, I recommend First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, by James R. Hansen.

Thanks to Warren Thompson, D.J. Kiely, Doug Siegfried, and Rebecca Marsh for help with photographs.

By Cmdr. Peter B. Mersky, USNR (Ret.)
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Author:Mersky, Peter B.
Publication:Naval Aviation News
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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