When Joe Engle joined the U.S. Air Force after graduating from the University of Kansas in 1955, he had zero inkling that his career would eventually take him to space.
“I had always had my sights set on becoming a fighter pilot and once I achieved that, I’d have been happy if they shut the spigot off then,” Joe said. “But they didn’t.”
One of the most decorated astronauts in history, Joe rose from Air Force test pilot to the distinction of being the only person to fly two different winged vehicles in space. While his career as a pilot and astronaut was long, his rise through the ranks was swift. His decorated and pioneering aviation career makes Joe the perfect candidate to be the keynote speaker at EAA’s Wright Brothers Memorial Banquet, which will be December 8 at the EAA Aviation Museum.
Born in Chapman, Kansas, in 1932, Joe can’t really recall his start in aviation all that well. All he knows is that for as long as he can remember, he wanted to be a pilot.
“I can’t remember ever not wanting to be a pilot,” he said. “My mom would tell me that she can’t ever remember me wanting to be a fireman or a cowboy, I just always wanted to be a pilot.”
Shortly after joining the Air Force, and getting experience in aircraft such as the Beechcraft T-34 Mentor, North American T-28 Trojan, Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star, Republic F-84F Thunderjet and North American F-100 Super Sabre, Joe was selected for the Air Force’s test pilot school. Following his time test flying for the Cessna YAT-37 Dragonfly and Northrop F-5 programs, Joe was assigned to the Aerospace Research Pilot School.
This was the beginning of Joe’s career as a North American X-15 pilot. Carried aloft under the wing of a modified Boeing B-52 Stratofortress and powered by a XLR99 rocket engine, the X-15 was released at around an altitude of 45,000 feet at a speed of 500 mph and was able to take pilots to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere and reach speeds of Mach 6, which is roughly 4,000 mph.
For someone who had quite a bit of experience flying cutting-edge aircraft, Joe didn’t hesitate for a second when asked what his favorite was to fly.
“My favorite airplane by far is the X-15,” he said. “That airplane was by far the most rewarding airplane to fly.”
On June 29, 1965, Joe earned his astronaut wings in the X-15 by exceeding an altitude of 50 miles, flying more than 280,000 feet in the air, and did it twice more over the next four months.
While the X-15 was a unique airplane, taking pilots to altitudes and speeds that had never before been recorded, Joe felt very confident about flying it prior to his first flight.
“The opportunities that I’d had leading up to my assignment to the X-15, I think they had prepared me for it very, very well,” Joe recalled. “I felt confident going into the X-15. I felt very, very fortunate to get assigned to it.”
In Joe’s 16 flights in the X-15, what he remembers most is the preparation that went into each flight. As a research program that would pave the way for future spacecraft development, every flight in the X-15 had a purpose and Joe needed to be ready.
“There was a level of intensity that you just kind of automatically put into preparing for each flight, no matter what the profile was — whether it was a speed or heating profile or whether it was an altitude profile just to look at and study reentry techniques,” he explained. “It was just a very rewarding airplane for a test pilot. It was a basic airplane that did not have computer controls like nearly all high-performance airplanes do today. It was really a basic airplane and that’s what made it so great.”
Joe and the other X-15 pilots, while on their way to becoming some of the world’s first astronauts and conducting research that had a far-reaching impact on American space exploration, didn’t necessarily view it as history in the making. As test pilots, their vision at the time was simply to push the X-15 as high and fast as they could while sending back data to the ground about how an aircraft performs at the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere.
“I think the profiles that we were flying were incrementally expanding both the speed and altitude profiles of winged aircraft as we knew it,” Joe said. “We knew that getting up to extremely high altitudes, you were in very rare air and the aerodynamic surfaces became less and less effective and negligible as you got up to the higher altitudes. Learning the ways and techniques that would benefit you the most as far as maintaining control of the airplane were one of the things … that we pioneered with the X-15. We knew we were doing it, but we thought it was just a matter of getting that airplane up higher. I don’t think we were thinking about spacecraft.”
Shortly after his successful stint as a test pilot for the X-15, Joe was selected as one of 19 astronauts by NASA in 1966. He served on the support crew for Apollo 10 and was backup lunar module pilot for the Apollo 14 mission. Initially designated as the lunar module pilot for Apollo 17, Joe was replaced by geologist Harrison Schmitt and missed his chance to go into space with the Apollo program when the last three missions were canceled by Congress.
While obviously disappointed by the turn of events that led to him being bumped from going to space with Apollo, Joe understood the reasoning.
“That was a big disappointment,” he admitted. “But the lunar missions were all focused primarily on geology … of the moon and learning as much as we could about the moon and its origins. When the last three Apollo flights — Apollo 18, 19, and 20 — were canceled by Congress, I had served on the backup crew for Apollo 14 and was to rotate onto the prime crew as the lunar module pilot for Apollo 17. But the science community wanted very badly to have (Harrison) “Jack” Schmitt be on the surface of the moon and make observations. Jack had a doctorate in thermogeology and that’s what the lunar missions were all about. I perfectly understood the rationale behind making that swap.”
Fortunately, although Joe didn’t have the opportunity to go to the moon with the Apollo program, he would get another crack at heading into space.
When the space shuttle program began in the mid-1970s, Joe was one of NASA’s top choices to help get it off the ground, so to speak. Joe was commander of one of two crews that flew the space shuttle approach and landing test flights in 1977. He was the backup commander for STS-1, the first orbital test flight of space shuttle Columbia. In 1981, Joe was commander of STS-2 and was mission commander of STS-51-I in 1985.
On STS-2, Joe manually flew the shuttle from orbit to landing, the first and only time a winged aerospace vehicle was manually flown from orbit through landing. Entering the atmosphere around an unfathomable Mach 25, Joe was confident in his skills and the procedure, despite being the first human to ever perform a manual reentry.
“I wasn’t particularly nervous at the time. By then we had a lot of confidence in our simulators,” he said. “We did an awful lot of work with the engineers developing and fine-tuning the maneuvers, the kinds of disturbances that we could make in the cockpit that would result in the airplane reacting as such where they could extract the most parameters as possible and the best data for those parameters. So we worked with those engineers to develop the flight test maneuvers. I’ll tell you, you’re so intense on flying those maneuvers as accurately as possible, you didn’t have time to look out the window and see the glow from the atmosphere and fire and all that stuff. There was no time to be concerned with that, which was good. You could focus on what you were there for.”
Joe retired from NASA and the Air Force in 1986 and was subsequently promoted to the rank of major general shortly thereafter. In 2001, he was inducted into both the National Aviation Hall of Fame and U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.
In reflecting on his aviation and space career, Joe is happy he was able to make a positive impact in the growth and development of the industry.
“The more mature I got and the more I learned about aviation and planes, my desire really was to make a contribution to aviation,” he said. “I just feel very fortunate to have had that opportunity.”