- Captain Robert L. “Crip” Crippen, USN (Retired)
- Colonel Robert C. “Bob” Ettinger, USAF (Retired)
- Lewis A. “Lew” Nelson
- Charles “Chuck” Tucker
- George Schwartz “Wheaties” Welch
Captain Robert L. Crippen made history on April 12, 1981 as the pilot for the first Space Shuttle orbital mission on the Columbia. In 1983, he commanded the second flight of the Challenger on STS-7.
Crippen earned a BS degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas in 1960, before becoming a Naval Aviator. He graduated from the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards in 1966, and instructed there until he was selected for the USAF Manned Orbiting Laboratory Program later that year.
Crippen became an astronaut in 1969. In addition to his pioneering Columbia and Challenger missions, Crippen commanded STS 41-C on a 7-day flight which included the first retrieval and repair mission that saw the Solar Maximum Satellite safely on its way.
He commanded a fourth flight, STS 41-G, and was selected to command the first Shuttle flight from Vandenberg AFB. This was cancelled following the loss of the Challenger in 1986. Crippen took on the role of getting the grounded shuttle fleet flying again. “It was one of the toughest tasks I’ve ever undertaken,” he says, “trying to keep everyone coordinated and on a positive path to success.” Crippen says that he believes return to flight was the most significant tribute we could make to the Challenger crew.
From 1986-1989, he was Deputy Director of Shuttle Operations for NASA Headquarters at Kennedy Space Center. He was promoted to Space Shuttle Director at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. in 1990. From 1992-1995, Crippen was the Director of Kennedy Space Center. During his tenure, the Center successfully launched 22 Space Shuttle Missions.
Crippen’s longstanding fascination with aviation technology began at a young age. He recalls, “I can’t remember not being enthralled with airplanes.” After the Russians put Sputnik in space, he became confident that people would follow and wanted to take part in making that happen. Crippen has remained passionate about space travel, and believes that the space program is an important part of our future, serving to stimulate the minds of the youth and feed our desire to reach out to the unknown.
A Fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the American Astronautical Society, Crippen’s decorations include the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, NASA’s Outstanding Leadership Medal, the Harmon Trophy, National Space Trophy and the SETP Iven C. Kincheloe Award. He logged over 6,500 flying hours and more than 565 hours aboard the Space Shuttle.
Colonel Robert C. “Bob” Ettinger, USAF (Retired)
Colonel Robert C. Ettinger was the first USAF pilot to fly the Full Scale Development F-16 and became the F-16 Combined Test Force Director from 1978-1980. Ettinger received the Society of Experimental Test Pilot’s Iven C. Kincheloe Test Pilot of the Year Award for the high angle-of-attack testing of the F-16 in 1979.
Ettinger’s test pilot career began as a child. “As a boy I was interested in all aspects of aviation,” Ettinger remembers. “I made a set of wings from lath and tarpaper and experimented by jumping off the garage roof with them. I also attached the wings to my bicycle.” His interest continued into high school, where he read books about test pilots, and later in college, where he joined the Air Force ROTC.
Ettinger entered the USAF in 1959. Following tours in the F-102 and F-4, including 100 missions over North Vietnam, he graduated from the Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards AFB in 1969. In 1973, he joined the Lightweight Fighter Joint Test Force at Edwards, flying the YF-16 and YF-17.
By 1980, he had more side stick flight control research and development time than any other pilot. Ettinger returned to Edwards in 1985 as the Air Force Flight Test Center Vice Commander during one of the busiest time in its history. During his 27 year military career, he survived two ejections: a mid-air collision of two F-102s over the Sea of Japan in 1963 and an F-104 engine fire over Edwards in 1969.
He retired from the military in 1987 and joined the civilian aerospace industry. From 1997-2006 he was the Manager of Flight Test for Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk Program, for which he was awarded the SETP's James H. Doolittle Award for outstanding technical management in 2005.
Ettinger’s role in the aerospace industry goes beyond professional involvement. He has participated in sailplane aerobatics at air shows throughout the country, including the Edwards AFB Open House. He also gained notoriety as a builder of paper airplanes, winning honors for his plane modeled after the Wright Brothers Flyer that could rotate in a 6 ½ -loop flight pattern and land in an inverted position.
Ettinger’s many honors include the Distinguished Flying Cross with three Oak Leaf Clusters, an Air Medal with 12 Oak Leaf Clusters and the prestigious Legion of Merit with two Oak Leaf Clusters. He is a Distinguished Alumnus of the USAF Test Pilot School and an SETP Fellow and Past President. Ettinger has logged over 6,600 hours in over 100 aircraft and sailplane types.
Lewis A. “Lew” Nelson
Lewis A. Nelson was an experimental test pilot with Northrop from 1950-1972. He was associated with all phases of experimental testing of the F-89, N-156, F-5 and T-38 aircraft. He performed structural demonstrations, spins, flutter tests, landing tests and stability and control tests.
In 1939, while attending junior college, he was selected to participate in the U.S. Government’s Civilian Pilot Training program and continued participating in Civilian Pilot Training at San Jose State College. Following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, he joined the U.S. Army Air Forces. He left the service in 1947 after flying many successful missions and graduated with a BA in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Southern California in 1949. The same year, he joined NACA (NASA’s predecessor) as an Aeronautical Engineer, and in 1950 became a test pilot for Northrop.
Nelson became Northrop’s Chief Experimental Test Pilot in 1952, responsible for the supervision of Northrop engineering test pilots. While at Edwards, he piloted numerous Northrop tests from the 1950s through the early 1970s, and earned an MA in Engineering from UCLA in 1960. He completed the first flight and was responsible for preliminary safety-of-flight demonstration testing on the N -156F Freedom Fighter, F-5 and T-38, exceeding Mach 1 in each. In addition, he made the first flight of YA-9A on May 30, 1972. Nelson held a number of senior positions with Northrop, including Director of the Flight Test Engineering Section, until his retirement in 1986 as Program Manager of the T-38/F-5 Programs.
A native of California, Nelson has been interested in aerospace since childhood, beginning with flying models at a young age. His first experience as a pilot came in high school, when he had the opportunity to fly a Piper J-3 Cub. After that, Nelson knew that he wanted to become a pilot.
A recipient of two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the IAS Student Awards and four Air Medals, Nelson is a founding member and Fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. Throughout his career, Nelson logged over 5,000 hours on a variety of aircraft.
Charles Tucker made the first flight of the X-4 at Edwards on December 15, 1948. He later flew all subsequent Northrop flights of the X-4 research plane. An experimental test pilot for Lockheed and Northrop, Tucker also piloted the extremely high-risk stall and spin tests on the YB-49 Flying Wing jet bomber.
Tucker first developed an interest in aerospace while attending Pasadena City College, when a classmate who had completed a Civilian Pilot Training Program invited him on a flight. After that flight, Tucker became determined to learn how to fly. He received an Associate’s Degree in English in 1941, and joined the U.S. Army Air Forces in January 1942.
During WWII, Tucker was assigned to the 23rd fighter group in China, where he scored four air combat victories. He returned to the United States in 1943. It was then that Tucker maintains he became a test pilot. “I’ve felt that I was a test pilot since I came back from China, being assigned to the 412th fighter group in the Air Force,” he recalls, “we had P-59s, America’s first jet, and every flight was an adventure.” He separated from the service in 1946 and flew production tests on P-80s for Lockheed. In 1948, Tucker became an experimental test pilot and Assistant Chief of Northrop’s Missiles Division, where he flew on F-89 and YB-49 Flying Wing bomber programs. He also participated in the National Air Races from 1946 - 1949.
Tucker gained notoriety for his stall and spin tests in the YB-49 and for his test flights in the highly experimental X-4, a small twin-jet airplane that had no horizontal tail surfaces. He flew a total of 30 flights in the X-4. His experiences with this aircraft inspired him to design the first full-face shield helmet, for which he was awarded a U.S. patent.
In 1955, Tucker became an experimental test pilot for Lockheed, working with XF-104 and T2V projects. He retired from Lockheed as Chief Pilot in 1975. Tucker spent a great deal of his career at Edwards, and considers watching Muroc Army Airfield grow into the Edwards AFB we know today to be one of his fondest memories. Tucker logged over 10,000 hours on a wide range of aircraft, including over 2,000 hours in jet aircraft. He is a founder and Fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.
George Schwartz Welch (1918-1954) became the first civilian pilot to exceed Mach 1 in a jet-powered plane while flying the XF-86 on April 26, 1948. Among his many other pioneering test flights at Edwards Air Force Base were the first flights of the North American XF-86 on October 1, 1947 and the YF-100 Super Sabre in May 1953.
Born May 10, 1918 in Wilmington, DE, Welch became interested in aerospace as a young boy, spending much of his time building model airplanes. He joined the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1939, where he acquired the nickname “Wheaties” for his ability to generate quick energy. On December 7, 1941, Welch was one of the first pilots to shoot down a Japanese plane at Pearl Harbor; the first of four victories he scored that day. Welch was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for these actions, which were portrayed in the 1970 Rick Cooper film, Tora! Tora! Tora! Welch flew three combat tours before malaria retired him from the war. By the time he ended his combat career, he was credited with 16 confirmed victories- ranking him among the top 35 U.S. Army Air Forces aces of World War II.
Welch left the USAAF in July 1944 and became Chief Test Pilot for North American Aviation. From 1944-1947, he flew engineering tests on P-51, P-82, XSNJ-1, FJ-1 and AJ-1 aircraft. In September 1947, he was sent to Muroc (now Edwards Air Force Base), to become NAA’s Chief Test Pilot for the F-86 test program. Welch piloted the first flights of the F-86D and XF-93A. In addition, he made the first flight of the YF-100A Super Sabre on May 25, 1953, when this airplane became the first in history to exceed Mach 1 on its maiden flight. During the Korean War, Welch was a Chief Test Pilot, engineer and instructor for North American Aviation. He returned to flight testing after the war.
Welch’s life was tragically cut short on October 12, 1954 at EAFB during a structural demonstration flight of the F-100A Super Sabre when the aircraft tumbled out of control during a Mach 1.5 dive, due to a design flaw in its vertical tail. He ejected, but later died from injuries. Welch is buried in Arlington Cemetery. His honors include the David C. Schilling Award (posthumously) and a Presidential Citation.