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M2-F1 on lakebed with Pontiac convertible tow vehicle M2-F1 on lakebed with Pontiac convertible tow vehicle

Photo Number: ED96-43663-1
Photo Date: Apr. 23, 1963

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The M2-F1 lifting body, dubbed the "flying bathtub" by the media, was the precursor of a remarkable series of wingless flying vehicles that contributed data used in the space shuttle and the X-38 Technology Demonstrator for crew return from the International Space Station. The early tow tests were done using the 1963 Pontiac Catalina convertible modified for the purpose. The first flight attempt occurred on 1 March 1963 but was unsuccessful due to control-system problems. It was not until 5 April 1963, after tests in the Ames Research Center wind tunnel, that Milt Thompson made the first M2-F1 tow flight.

Based on the ideas and basic design of Alfred J. Eggers and others at the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory (now the Ames Research Center), Mountain View, Calif., in the mid-1950s, the M2-F1 came to be built over a four-month period in 1962-63 for a cost of only about $30,000 plus perhaps an additional $8,000-$10,000 for an ejection seat and $10,000 for solid-propellant rockets to add time to the landing flare. Engineers and technicians at the NASA Flight Research Center (now NASA Dryden) kept costs low by designing and fabricating it partly in-house, with the plywood shell constructed by a local sailplane builder. Someone at the time estimated that it would have cost a major aircraft company $150,000 to build the same vehicle.

Unlike the later lifting bodies, the M2-F1 was unpowered and was initially towed until it was airborne by a souped-up Pontiac convertible. This vehicle needed to be able to tow the M2-F1 on the Rogers Dry Lakebed adjacent to NASA's Flight Research Center (FRC) at a minimum speed of 100 miles per hour. To do that, it had to handle the 400-pound pull of the M2-F1. Walter "Whitey" Whiteside, who was a retired Air Force maintenance officer working in the FRC's Flight Operations Division, was a dirt-bike rider and hot-rodder. Together with Boyden "Bud" Bearce in the Procurement and Supply Branch of the FRC, Whitey acquired a Pontiac Catalina convertible with the largest engine available.

He took the car to Bill Straup's renowned hot-rod shop near Long Beach for modification. With a special gearbox and racing slicks, the Pontiac could tow the 1,000-pound M2-F1 110 miles per hour in 30 seconds. It proved adequate for the roughly 400 car tows that got the M2-F1 airborne to prove it could fly safely and to train pilots before they were towed behind a C-47 aircraft and released.

In this photograph, the Pontiac with its NASA markings is shown next to the M2-F1. The pilot in the M2-F1 is Milt Thompson. The crew chief at the nose of the lifting body is Orion "Bill" Billeter. The individual standing in the center of the group is John Orahood. Dick Eldredge is in the back seat of the Pontiac. The man to Orahood's left is unidentified, as is the driver of the Catalina, but the man in the driver's seat is probably "Whitey" Whiteside.

NASA Photo by: Bertha M. Ryan (private photo)

Keywords: M2-F1; Pontiac; Catalina; convertible; Space Shuttle; Alfred J. Eggers; Ames Aeronautical Laboratory; Ames Research Center; NASA; Flight Research Center; Dryden Flight Research Center; Rogers Dry Lakebed; Walter Whiteside; Boyden Bearce; Bill Straup; Milt Thompson; Orion Billeter; John Orahood; Dale Reed; Dick Eldredge

Last Modified: February 6, 2002
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