NASA honored members of the NASA family who lost their lives while furthering the cause of exploration and discovery, including the crews of Apollo 1 and space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, during the agency’s annual Day of Remembrance Thursday, Feb. 7.
In addition, NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center in California recognized the loss of four pilots who died at the controls of a NASA, formally known as National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), aircraft.
“On this solemn day, we want to pay tribute to the pilots who were pursuing the agency’s mission of advancing the technical boundaries of aviation through flight as well as recognize the sacrifice of the families of the deceased,” said David McBride, Armstrong center director.
Howard C. “Tick” Lilly became the first NACA engineering pilot assigned to the Muroc Flight Test Unit, now known as NASA Armstrong. He served as a Naval aviator before joining the NACA’s Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia in 1942. In 1943 he transferred to the NACA’s Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland (renamed Glenn Research Center) and then to the NACA’s Muroc unit in 1947.
There he flew the Douglas D-558-1 transonic research aircraft and the Bell X-1. Lilly was the fourth person to exceed the speed of sound. He died May 3,1948, when components of the D-558-1’s engine compressor failed, severing control cables, causing the airplane to crash. He was the first NACA pilot to die in the line of duty.
Joseph A. “Joe” Walker was a chief research pilot at the NASA Flight Research Center (NASA Armstrong) during the mid-1960s. Walker flew P-38 aircraft for the Army Air Force in North Africa during World War II. He joined the NACA’s Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Ohio in 1945 and transferred to the High-Speed Flight Research Station in 1951.
Walker made the first NASA-piloted X-15 flight March 25, 1960, and flew the aircraft 24 times, achieving its highest altitude (354,300 ft.) Aug. 22, 1963. He made the first flight in the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle in 1964 that led to the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle used in Houston to train astronauts to land on the moon. Walker perished June 8, 1966, when his F-104 was caught in the wingtip vortex of the North American XB-70.
In 1982, Richard E. “Dick” Gray was killed on a pilot proficiency flight while flying for NASA Armstrong. Gray joined NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, in 1978 after completing his service in the U.S. Navy. He flew 48 combat missions in F-4s over Vietnam while assigned to squadron VF-111 aboard the USS Coral Sea in 1972.
After joining Kennedy Space Center in Florida, he flew as chief project pilot on the WB-57F high-altitude research aircraft and served as the prime chase pilot in the T-38 aircraft for video documentation of the landing portion of space shuttle orbital flight tests.
He was fatally injured Nov. 8, 1982, in the crash of a Cessna T-37 aircraft while on a flight to hone his skills flying the airplane.
Air Force pilot Major Michael J. Adams was selected in 1962 for the Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He also was one of four Edwards Aerospace research pilots to participate in a series of NASA moon landing practice tests.
Adams joined the joint USAF/NASA X-15 program in July 1966 and flew seven flights. On his last flight Nov. 15, 1967, Adams died when the rocket plane disintegrated following reentry and crashed. An investigation concluded that the distraction of malfunctioning systems, coupled with possible vertigo, led to the accident.
He was flying the 191st flight of the X-15 program, his first suborbital mission. Adams was the 27th American to fly more than 50 miles above the Earth’s surface and was awarded astronaut wings posthumously.
His accident was the only fatality of the 199-flight program. His name was added to the Astronauts Memorial at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., and a memorial was established at the crash site in 2004.