Astronaut Virgil "Gus" Grissom
By Sam Beddingfield
I first met Gus Grissom in 1957 at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. We were in flight test together. I was an aeronautical engineer and Gus, a fighter pilot, was one of the test pilots. We flew several test flights together.
Capt. Virgil Ivan \"Gus\" Grissom |
U.S. Air Force portrait.
Photo: Courtesy U.S. Air Force
The most memorable was the last flight we took together. We were assigned to perform some in-flight observations and tests on a B-47 (a jet bomber.) We took off first in a two seater F-100F with Gus at the controls in the front seat. The B-47, however, didn't get off the ground due to mechanical problems.
With the B-47 tests canceled, Gus had a suggestion. "Let's see what you think of the performance modifications on this aircraft - why don't you try it out and see how you like it?"
I took over the controls, lit the afterburner and tried out a few routine maneuvers. I had the controls for almost an hour and Gus had made a few comments but was quiet most of the time.
Towards the end of the flight, Gus hadn't spoken for over 15 minutes and I had seen the fuel gage rapidly dropping, but no word from Gus. So when we got down to 700 lbs I finally said "Hey, man, we're down to 700lbs, of fuel." I didn't get an answer. So I shook the stick a few times violently left to right to rock the plane side to side and this woke Gus up. He had fallen asleep!
"Where are we?" asked Gus.
"I think we're heading back to base but I can't tell. We're down to 700lbs of fuel." I answered.
Calmly Gus said "I've got it."
Gus turned the radio to the right frequency and said, "Patt Tower, this is Drumhead 5." Drumhead 5 was Gus's call sign at Wright Patterson. "We're ready to land."
The tower responded "We don't see you."
"You soon will" Gus replied.
We were still at 35,000 feet!
With that he rolled the aircraft into a steep descent, took us into a normal flight pattern, and we went in for a perfect landing and had just enough fuel to taxi back to the ramp.
Looking back I realize the danger we were in but at the time I had no concerns, I had total confidence in Gus's abilities - he inspired that kind of confidence. His timing as a pilot was very precise, he knew exactly what he had to do in any circumstance and knew how to execute the maneuver.
Astronaut Gus Grissom in front of Liberty Bell 7|
July 21, 1961
Photo: Courtesy NASA
I got out of the Air Force just about the time that Gus was selected as one of the Mercury 7 astronauts. I went into farming in North Carolina which lasted three days when I realized that farming was not for me.
The newly formed NASA had just begun operations. I was two hours drive from Langley Field, Virginia and I'd heard that they were doing flight testing. So I went over to take a look with the hope of getting hired as an aeronautical engineer to do flight tests on aircraft, but they didn't have any open slots. They recommended that I go talk to the rocket people which was in a separate building on the other side of the runway. So I went over and the first person I ran into was Gus Grissom.
"What are you doing here?" Gus asked.
I explained that I'd come looking for a flight test position. There was an open position but I explained that I didn't know anything about rockets.
Gus said, "They don't have anybody that does!"
He noticed that I wasn't in uniform and I explained that I had just left the air force.
"That's perfect," he said, "if you don't like it you can just get up and leave."
I applied and got the job. I was only at Langley for 10 days before being reassigned to Cape Canaveral to work on Project Mercury.