The Birth of Wingless Flight
The original idea of Lifting bodies was conceived in 1957 by Dr. Alfred J. Eggers JR. then the assistant director of Research and Development Analysis & Planning at what later became the NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California. NASA had earlier been investigating the problems associated with re-entry of missile nose cones. H. Julian Allen, another Ames engineer, determined that a blunt nose cone was a desirable shape to survive the aerodynamic heating associate with re-entry from space. During his research, Eggers found that by slightly modifying a symmetrical nose cone shape, aerodynamic lift could be produced. This lift would enable the modified shape to fly back from space rather than plunge to earth in a ballistic trajectory.
Dale Reed, the Father of the Lifting Body
The individual who carried the idea of the lifting body concept forward was Dale Reed, an engineer who began working for the NACA in 1953 at the NACA HIGH SPEED FLIGHT RESEARCH STATION, Edwards AFB, California. Aircraft such as the X-1, X-2, X-4, X-5, Douglas D-558-II and Convair XF-92A were being tested to the maximum of their flight envelopes at Edwards. Reed’s first job assignment involved measuring aerodynamic loads on the wings and tail surfaces of the Bell X-5 variable sweep wing airplane. Over the following years, Reed became a specialist in this sort of measurement work, doing flight research with the X-1E, F-100A, D-558-II and X-15. During this period, Reed became fascinated by the possibility of an airplane that could fly without wings. In 1962, Reed decided to construct a free flight model, which was of a half-cone shape design. Over a period of time the flight testing of the model progressed from hand launching to being towed aloft by radio controlled model airplane. Reed knew it was time to show his peers and bosses how stable this new concept was, so a film was made of the model in flight with the help of Reeds wife Donna.
Joining Reeds lifting body cause was Dick Eldredge, between them they knew that to get backing for the project, they would need the assistance of a NASA research pilot. Milt Thompson was a very bright, gifted, wild and handsome guy. All the women at Dryden seemed to be in love with him. When Dale & Dick presented their ideas for testing lifting bodies, they asked Thompson if he would join them and fly a lifting body (if and when one was constructed). Milt gave a resounding “YES”.
Paul Bikle backs the project
First presenting the plan to Eggers & Flight Research Center Director Paul Bikle. The plane was approved to build a very lightweight vehicle what could be towed across the lakebed with a ground vehicle, and later aloft with a light plane. This craft was called the M2-F1. There was an article on the M2-F1 in the November 12th 1962 issue of the Los Angeles Times. The article stated “FLYING BATHTUB MAY AID ASTRONAUT RE-ENTRY”. A photograph of Milt Thompson sitting in a mock-up of the M2-F1 accompanied the article and it looked very much like Milt was sitting in a bathtub. The name stuck!
Construction of the craft was of a tubular frame to which would be attached the seat, flying controls and undercarriage. The shell of the lifting body was constructed by sailplane builder Gus Briegleb for the cost of $10,000 and weighed less than 300lbs. It took exactly four months from the day Bikle instructed Reed to go ahead with the project to the rollout of the M2-F1. Total cost for the world’s first lifting body wingless aircraft was less than $30,000.