Chapter One – Boondocking and the Co-op Rockets

Funny how small events can change your life, make such an indelible impression on you that they guide and shape you for years to come, and how circumstances often alter your dreams and aspirations, leading you in directions you could never have imagined.

Growing up in Inglewood, California, practically under the landing pattern of planes arriving at Los Angeles International Airport, I knew by sight the airliners of the time and the airlines they represented. DC-3’s from United, the beautiful Lockheed Constellation of TWA, the chubby Boeing Stratocruisers of Pan American and the DC-4’s and -6’s of airlines come and gone.

Just a few blocks south of my home on 113th street lay the city of Hawthorne, home of Northrop Aviation. Northrup Field was a favorite bike destination in those days, when as kids we could hope to see strange airplanes land and take off. Planes like the Northrop F-89, one of America’s first jet fighters. And, if truly lucky, we might even catch a glimpse of the most stunning airplane of its day, the magnificent Northrop XB-49 Flying Wing.

I was fortunate to witness a take-off of Jack Northrop’s pride and joy, and I remember it’s near vertical climb, the smoke pouring from the jet engines and the roar. Oh, that incredible roar of power. That night at dinner, I could talk of nothing else. I would become a pilot and fly the Flying Wing. No matter I was a skinny girl with glasses. No matter my parents were poor. Somehow, someday I would fulfill my dreams.

My father was killed during the Second World War, and his legacy to me as a surviving child, was access to a portion of his veteran benefits. Under the provisions of the GI Bill, veterans received a fixed monthly sum of $110 from which they could to pay for their tuition, fees, books, and living expenses in order to go to college. My stepfather worked for the US Post Office and money around our house was tight. Without those GI Bill benefits, college might have been unaffordable. Mom and Dad wanted me to go to a local state college, live at home and use that $110 a month for books and supplies.

I had other ideas!

I wanted to travel, see the world, and I still harbored a secret desire to become a pilot. I wanted to go away to college and to chart my own course. In high school, I became enamored of the sciences, particularly chemistry. Math however, was another story! Thank God I had fingers and toes. But undeterred by small details, I decided I would become a chemist or perhaps a chemical engineer.

New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, located in Las Cruces, New Mexico had a co-operative program for engineering students offered though the Physical Science Laboratory. PSL entered into its first contract with the Army Ballistics Research Laboratory on May 15, 1946 to supply services to the army at White Sands Proving Ground, the nation’s first test center for rocketry. ( Under the “co-op” program, students worked full-time, usually at White Sands and went to school part time for six months of the year. The following six months the students went to school on A& M’s campus full-time and worked part-time. Salaries earned were applied to tuition, room and board, books and other incidentals. I applied and was accepted, first being assigned to an Askania cine-theodolite tracking station at WSPG and later to the microwave propagation branch of the Army’s Electronic Research and Development Agency (ERDA).

Those of us fortunate to work “out on the range” filled our days with a little bit of work and a whole lot of adventure. Being assigned to a tracking station had its merits. If the station did not have a clear angle to photograph the launch or the flight of a missile, the crew “stood down”. One could twiddle one’s thumbs, drink coffee or sit quietly. Most however engaged in the time honored pastime of “Boondocking”. One or two folks would be selected, threatened with bodily injury or even paid, to stay behind at the tracking station to answer the phone on the off chance it rang. It hardly ever did!

The rest would head out into the boonies to get as close as possible to an active launch pad, hunker down and wait for the fireworks to begin. In those early days, when the button was pushed, rockets had a disturbing tendency to blow up! Those that didn’t explode, rarely flew straight and true. Bits of hot metal raining down or an errant flight path, sometime uncomfortably close overhead were always an adventure.

Corporal was a surface to surface artillery weapon and the first designed to be nuclear tipped. I remember a Corporal lifting off on a bright Spring morning, getting maybe fifty feet in the air, slowing nearly to a stop and dancing around on its tail of fire. Several of us were in the same gully and we didn’t know if the bird was going to recover, fall, explode or dance our way prior to its demise. All we knew for sure was that somebody was going to catch a whole lot of grief.

I got up and ran like the wind. Back in high school I was pretty speedy, but a fat little Army Captain, flew by me, huffing and puffing like a steam engine. He disappeared and I knew he had found a deep hole to hide in. I didn’t stop to ask if he wanted company, I just jumped in on top of him! That MGM-5 danced around long enough to put some distance between us and the launch pad and for the Captain and I to find suitable accommodations. When the bird finally blew up, I am sure there were quite a few fricasseed rabbits in the area. We didn’t stop to collect lunch.

One of the more embarrassing failures was precipitated by the launch of a Navy shipboard anti-aircraft missile called TALOS. We often joked that TALOS stood for “try and launch on schedule!” This particular bird launched, dipped low to the ground, about 10 feet as I remember, leveled out and headed up range. About two or three miles out, it changed its mind and turned 180 degrees. It flew hot and straight and true right back over the heads of the launch crew. It impacted quite
close to the Commanding General’s office at Headquarters, digging a substantial hole in the lawn. The entire flight, from beginning to end was faithfully documented by a tracking crew.

Co-op students on work phase were an inventive lot. With few homework assignments the weekends free to head for the Rio Grand and drink beer and we were left plenty of time to get in trouble,

Honest John was a solid fuel missile whose propellant was cast in stick form and then the individual sticks were packed into the missile’s body. These sticks were several feel long and with a shaped cross section about an inch and a half across. Small pieces could be lit with a match.

Not content with lighting and tossing small chunks of “John” fuel at one another, some enterprising soul invented the “Co-op Rocket”. Being long before the days of pop-top beer cans, a can opener, known back in the day as a “church key”, was required. Also needed was a stout nail. A can would be opened and with the contents disposed of (usually down the throat). A second large hole in the top of the can was opened opposite the first. A 16-penny nail was then used to puncture four holes equidistant around the base of the can, about a quarter inch above the bottom. The nail was given a sideways push after the initial penetration. This resulted in an orifice that pointed tangentially away from the axis of the can. The beer can was then filled with shavings of “John” fuel, and when packed fully, was upended on a small stick of fuel that served as an igniter. The fuel would burn, combustion gasses escaped through the two large openings imparting a great amount of thrust. Gasses would also escape through the four small openings and because of their tangential twist, a spin was imparted, thus stabilizing the flight (sometimes). The can would perhaps reach an altitude of three or four hundred feet before exploding!

Coors cans were said to fly the highest and farthest…

Flying the Co-op Rocket did not last long. The FBI got involved when somebody tried to bring a jeep load of Honest John propellant through the front gate and cart it to the college for safekeeping. His defense was the need for further flight tests to perfect the trajectory of the Co-op Rocket. Dorm rooms were searched, miscreants punished and the days of watching Coors cans rise majestically over the Rio Grand river came to an end.