We’ve all, or at least a certain generation of us, have seen “The Six Million Dollar Man.” The TV series is about a pilot, Steve Austin, who, after nearly being killed in a crash landing, is rebuilt with bionic parts to become a superhuman secret agent of the American Office of Scientific Intelligence.
The opening credits show a real crash, but unlike the fictional pilot, the actual pilot, Bruce Peterson, survived without needing extensive reconstructive surgery.
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In the 1960s, NASA and the U.S. Air Force started exploring lifting bodies. These awkward-looking wingless vehicles are designed to generate aerodynamic lift by virtue of their shape; rear fins and control surfaces similar to those on a conventional aircraft allow a pilot to stabilize and control the vehicles in flight to a safe landing.
The M2-F1 — M for manned and F for flight — was a sufficiently successful proof of concept that NASA decided to move forward and build a heavier version. The M2-F2, which drew on research from NASA’s Ames and Langley facilities and looked just like its predecessor, weighed 4,620 pounds, was 22 feet long, and about 10 feet wide.
The first flight of the M2-F2 was on July 12, 1966. Lifting body champion Milt Thompson was the pilot. The same B-52 that air launched the rocket powered X-15 dropped Thompson from an altitude of 45,000 feet on that successful maiden glide flight.
As the program racked up successes, NASA added an engine to see how a lifting body would fare on supersonic flight paths. The chosen engine the XLR-11, the same one that powered Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1 and the early X-15 flights. The very same engine in fact; they weren’t in production by the late 1960s so program managers took the engines from X-planes mounted in museums and refurbished them for lifting body flights.
Glide flights with the engine preceded powered flights to see how the vehicle handled the added weight. May 10, 1967, was the sixteenth glide flight of the M2-F2 and the last scheduled gliding flight before attempting a powered flight.
Bruce Peterson was at the controls that day. He separated from the B-52 cleanly and glided towards the dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base, but as he started lining up with the runway the M2-F2′s preexisting lateral control problems surfaced. The nose veered sharply to the right. Peterson instinctively engaged his rudder to cancel out the movement but it was a bad move as the vehicle started rolling sharply side to side. He leveled out the roll only to see a helicopter seemingly blocking his path to the runway. He cleared it by more than a thousand feet, but the distraction cost him time. He hit the lakebed hard with the landing gear still retracted.
The M2-F2 bounced back up. Airborne again, Peterson fired the engine in an attempt to buy time and lowered the landing gear but it wasn’t enough. The landing gear had only partially deployed when the vehicle hit the lakebed again more than 80 feet down the runway. It skidded, turned sideways, and started rolling end over end. Six full revolution tore off the landing gear, the cockpit canopy, and the right rear vertical fin. It finally stopped, resting upside down on its left rear fin and seat support.
Peterson was found hanging from his seat straps, calling for help. Though he looked bad to those who found him, he emerged with minor injuries: a broken bone in his right hand and a loss of skin from his forehead and the area surrounding his right eye likely sustained when his head hit the lakebed after the canopy was torn off. The damage to his eye cost him his eyelid, which in turn resulted in a staph infection that cost him sight in the eye. Undaunted, he returned to the cockpit, with some restrictions, just 18 months later.
Peterson’s survival was chalked up to an engineering decision not made with the pilot’s safety in mind. Because of their irregular shapes, lifting bodies have very tight center of gravity limits — its balance point is in a much smaller area than, say, that of a jumbo jet.
The M2-F2 was back-end heavy meaning engineers had to add weight to its nose, and instead of just adding ballast, they decided to reinforce the area around the pilot with enough material to add the missing weight. The result was a steel-framed cockpit that could protect a pilot from a 300g impact. A normal cockpit would have disintegrated on the 260 mile per hour rolling landing Peterson experienced. The M2-F2 was able to keep him safe.
The vehicle was rebuilt after the crash and re-designated the M2-F3. A third rear vertical fin between the two tip fins was added to improve its lateral controllability. And it flew successfully, ultimately adding to the knowledge base that helped NASA settle on the unpowered gliding reentry it used for three decades during the space shuttle program.