Finding My Way

by Terry J. Larson


I have written this story not to glorify my career but to illustrate how one’s path in life can lead to success and happiness without thoughtful planning. This, one can say, is something that happens all the time, like the lucky person who wins a million dollar lottery or is left with a will that takes care of him for the rest of his life.

But everyone’s path to a successful life or otherwise is unique. I’m sure mine has been; and, by the way, mine hasn’t led me to spectacular riches, only experiences that I deem to be more important than wealth.

As a youngster, because my stepfather was a traveling salesman, I lived in several states and attended a number of schools. I wasn’t a great student but did well enough to think I should continue my schooling. When I was a senior, I was invited to have an interview with my counselor. He asked me what were my plans after I graduated. I answered that I thought I would go to a junior college about five miles from my home. “And what do you want to major in?” he asked.

I hadn’t thought much about that but because I knew he would be asking this, I had one that I had hesitatingly reserved: “I kind of like weather forecasting,” I said.

“Oh, you want to be a meteorologist?”

Again, after I hesitated before nodding, he told me that maybe I should be thinking about going to UCLA. At that time the tuition was only $36 a semester and the academic requirement was a high school grade average of “B,” which I could barely meet.

I hadn’t even thought about it before, but I agreed.

Four years later , I graduated with a B.A. in meteorology with an overall average of C+. Nothing to brag about, but I was rather proud that I had competed against a class of a high percentage of GI vets who had already gotten their college B.A. diplomas and were desiring to become weathermen.

The daunting thing was that for the year I graduated, 1953, government hiring of new weather people was practically zero. I did manage to find a part-time job as a weather aide for a private forecasting company in Altadena, California. I was hoping that if I was successful at my job, my two hours per week would be extended to full-time. It didn’t happen.

Fortunately, my mother was acquainted with a woman she had gone to school with who was married to a man that worked for the California Employment Agency. After contacting him, he set me up with an interview with the NACA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards, California, which is located in the Mojave Desert.

After driving 75 miles from my home, I was interviewed by Donald Bellman, who was the branch head of the Performance Branch of the Research Division. He began by asking me about my schooling, the last question inquiring about my familiarity with rawinsonde balloon measurements, which then and still today are the standard measurements used for weather forecasting. Thankfully, I was able to tell him that I had had some experience with them at UCLA.

“Good,” he said. He then continued to explain that his branch used these measurements for the purpose of airspeed calibration requirements and that the engineer doing this might need some help.

The only other employment opportunity was to become a “calculator.” What he meant by that was a person who spent eight hours a day working with a group of about twenty women in an office doing nothing but performing calculations using mechanical calculators and graphing the results by hand. Mr. Bellman didn’t have to ask me which job I preferred.

When my interview was completed, I was given a tour of the facility. The shops and labs were interesting, but the hangar was a dream. Inside were all the current X-series rocket ships from the X-1 through the X-5 as welI as a some military craft. I knew nothing about them other than what I learned from a few newspaper articles that I had read. I felt like I was on another world.

About a month later I checked into the NACA men’s dormitory on the North Base, bringing my suitcase and acceptance letter for employment. I was to share a room with another employee for the biweekly price of $3.69. I could have had a single room, but I didn’t think I could afford $6.00. Breakfast and dinner were served for moderate prices. By the way, months later I took over the dormitory management in order to get everything free. What a deal.

My first day on the job, which was a Monday, was both somewhat a letdown and a bonus at the same time. I was informed by the other two occupants present in the office to which I was assigned that my immediate boss was away for a week of vacation. Since I had been told that I was to help Mr. Stillwell with airspeed calibrations, I knew which of the many available technical reports to read. By the time my boss arrived, I had a pretty good background on what was required.

Although I was assigned as a physical science aide, I soon learned that my activities would soon advance to the duties of an engineer. What was great in working for NACA were the opportunities and possible advancements. The other thing that helped immensely was how easy it was to get tutorship and knowledge from the personnel. Everyone was eager to help.

One of my related jobs was to determine the exact location of the new radar reflector to be used for range calibration. I hadn’t even heard of a phototheodolite before. That was the optical device I was to use, I was told.

The weeks went by fast those first couple of years. Nights at the dorm I would play ping-pong or poker with the guys. Sometimes I would get ambitious and study in my room. Weekends I would drive home to see my mother or occasionally go to a party at my old fraternity.

Then one day at work I chanced to see the new young woman standing in a doorway of one of the offices. As there were only a few unmarried women employed at the time, any new female was of prime interest to the bachelors. Was she married? was the first question that came to my mind.

As soon as my eyes took in this lovely woman, my overeager mind registered the thought that that was the woman I was going to marry. About a year later, Jean and I were indeed married — and we still are, thank God. Another well-planned venture in my life.

Now back to work: The airspeed calibration techniques used then were well documented. All I had to do was to follow the procedures. Although I had the use of the women calculators, I still spent many hours doing my own calculations and graphing.

It would be a few years before electrical computers would replace the mechanical and human ones. Each engineering office was equipped with a Frieden mechanical calculator, allowing one to multiply, divide, add and subtract. I remember how satisfied I felt when I learned the trick of how to calculate square roots.

I must admit that I was not quick to learn how to program my own necessary equations when the station was finally equipped with a programmable computer.

There were many other things for me to do than calculations. For examples, I participated in determining the flight data requirements, the flight briefings — both pre- and post-flight — the instrumentation calibrations of the test aircraft, flight monitoring in the control room, pilot briefings and data presentations.

Then there was much coordinating with the providers of necessary supporting data, such as the weather men on the base and the radar people. For the most accurate measurements, such as needed for airspeed calibration, one needed to be fully familiar with how to make final adjustments to the indicated readings of the radar range and angular measurements. Likewise, similar knowledge was necessary for determining accurate rawinsonde measurements.

As the aircraft flew to higher altitudes and at faster speeds, advancements also had to be made for determining accurate Mach number, pressure altitude, and velocity. Before the X-15 program began, NACA’s single radar was increased to two more located at Ely and Tonopah in order to monitor positioning data at the increased ranges.

For flights in excess of 100,000 feet rocketsonde data from Point Mugu, California were used for the required atmospheric measurements. This advancement, of course, required coordination and familiarization for obtaining accurate data from the sources.

During the course of the 33 years I spent working for the NACA station, which became a NASA center in 1958, I was privileged to help develop more accurate airspeed calibration techniques, do aircraft performance engineering, coordinate some X-15 programs with the Air Force Flight Test Center, publish statistical studies of rawinsonde measurements at altitudes to 100,000 feet for the NASA Flight Test Range, coordinate some of the sensor testing on the X-15, write technical reports and attend conferences as well as take technical courses.

What I enjoyed highly in my work was co-publishing over two dozen technical reports. But, again, I had lots of help. One thing that used to make me angry was inspecting my edited draft after it came back from the editorial office and finding that every one of my original sentences had been altered! But then I would realize that very probably none of my work would have been published otherwise.

The other thing I enjoyed was working with such distinguished people. The following is a short account leading to an experience I had with one of these persons; it is one that no one could forget:

I had been working at NACA for a couple of years before Neil Armstrong signed on with the Pilot’s Office in 1956. Neil stayed in the Men’s dorm for a while, and we became friends. I learned that he was a very serious man, rather quiet and reserved, but I also got the idea he must be sort of smart too. Otherwise, why would he sign up to take an atomic physics course on base. What does a pilot have to know about atomic physics? I wondered.

After Neil and I both married our fiancees, we visited each other with our wives a few times. Now the interesting part: Neil and his wife had invited Jean and me over for dinner at his new residence out in the desert on the foothills of the Sierra Madre.

When we had finished eating, Neil and I went outside. The stars were shining brightly and so was the moon. Neil looked up at it and said in his usual calm voice, “You know, someday soon, man will walk on the moon.” I probably shook my head in agreement but this was the first time I had heard anyone mention such a thing.

Neil soon became an astronaut. This became possible when a NASA engineer was able to sneak Neil’s late application into the still-on-time pile of submissions. From this happenstance, I see some resemblance between Neil Armstrong’s career path and my own.


Copyright © 2008 by Terry Larson

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