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Tom Morgenfeld graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering and received his master’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the US Naval Postgraduate School in 1973. A fighter pilot in Vietnam, he flew 90 combat missions and amassed more than 500 carrier landings. He became a test pilot and flew top secret missions in Soviet MiG jets. Morgenfeld then joined Lockheed and helped develop the F-117.
As told by Peter W. Merlin in his book Dreamland The Secret History of Area 51, he experienced a hairier situation on Jan. 27, 1982, when he took off from Area 51 for an avionics test flight in Ship 782 (the third YF-117A full scale development test aircraft, FSD-3 #79-782). As soon as the YF-117A left the ground, the nosewheel fell off and bounced down the runway toward the lakebed. Observers immediately alerted the pilot, and some discussion ensued as to how to proceed.
“When it became apparent what had happened,” Morgenfeld recalled, “the control room set about developing a recommended plan of action.” There were serious concerns that if he attempted to land without the wheel, the bare nose gear strut would get snagged by a joint in the concrete runway and collapse. Attempting to land on the dry lakebed would be equally hazardous. With true professionalism, Morgenfeld took the situation in stride. He left the gear down and simply proceeded with the flight as planned.
“Because I had a full tank of gas and no real pressing emergency, I just continued to fly my test cards,” he explained. The mission that day primarily involved an evaluation of improved cockpit displays, so it made no difference whether the gear was up or down.
After a while, the test conductor advised Morgenfeld to proceed to a designated area and abandon the aircraft. ‘They were worried the airplane might somersault on landing,” he said, “but, having been a [Navy F-8] Crusader pilot in the fleet, I had seen several nose gear incidents and wasn’t at all worried.” In fact, he added, “The F-117A drag chute gave a bit of nose-up pitching moment, which would also mitigate some of the imagined problem.”
So, he informed the test conductor that he would continue to burn off fuel for a while and then attempt a landing. “The end result was visually rather spectacular, but otherwise pretty benign,” he recalled. After about an hour or so of flying, emergency crews had coated the concrete runway with fire-retardant foam, and Morgenfeld landed safely with sparks shooting from the gear strut and a white drag chute billowing behind to slow the aircraft as the photo in this post shows.
Although he lacked nosewheel steering, the airplane tracked the centerline nicely and the only damage was to the nose gear strut.
According to Dick Klein, word of Morgenfeld’s adventure spread to Burbank even before some of the officials at Det 3 knew about it. This resulted in an “isolation switch” being installed in the control tower to cut off all outside communication from the base in the event of an incident.
When Morgenfeld returned to Burbank two days later, he was ordered to report immediately to Ben Rich‘s office. There, he found both Rich and Kelly Johnson glowering angrily, and all thoughts of congratulations or some sort of certificate of appreciation quickly evaporated.
Rich said, “I heard you had a little problem this week.” Morgenfeld replied sheepishly, “Yeah, but it turned out OK.” Johnson was just shaking his head, and at this point the pilot felt his guts churning as he asked, ‘Is there a problem?” Johnson replied, “There sure is; we’ve got this to deal with,” and he handed Morgenfeld a union grievance sheet for grinding a nose strut without training and for removing 2 inches from the strut without proper documentation or engineering approval.
Rich and Johnson struggled mightily to keep their composure as beads of sweat formed on the pilot’s forehead. Finally, when the two aeronautical-engineering giants could no longer contain their laughter, Morgenfeld realized with no small amount of relief that it had all been an elaborate joke.
Dreamland The Secret History of Area 51 is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Lockheed
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