Winged Victory

On the night before he was scheduled to make the first flight of the strange and un-proven X-29 supersonic airplane, test pilot Chuck Sewell didn’t get much sleep. All night long he kept getting up to check the weather and, finally, at 5:15 a.m. on Dec. 14, he stopped trying to sleep, climbed out of bed and got ready to risk his life. Although he has been testing airplanes for 22 years and spends his off-days hang gliding and photographing wild sharks, Sewell seldom sleeps easy before he embarks on another adventure. “I’m never going to grow up,” he admits. “I get just as excited as a little kid before doing things like soaring or scuba diving.”

Sewell is being modest here. It is absurd to even compare testing the X-29, the U.S.’s first “X” (for experimental) series airplane in 14 years, with scuba diving. Fat tourists on vacation in Miami go scuba diving after a half-hour lesson but nobody had ever flown the X-29 or anything quite like it. The plane looks like an aeronautical engineer’s idea of a joke: The wings are mounted backward. Instead of pointing slightly toward the rear like the wings of a normal plane—or a bird for that matter—the X-29’s wings sweep forward. The X-29 and a sister ship are designed to fly at a top speed of Mach 1.7, testing the new wing and other innovations that later may be adapted to production aircraft. The engineers who designed the plane for Grumman Corp. think that these unique wings, made of stronger-than-steel boron fiber and graphite in a plastic matrix, will provide greater maneuverability and fuel efficiency. But they also agree that the wings make the plane unstable—more unstable than any airplane ever—and they could send it pitching out of control too quickly for any human to correct. That’s why they installed three computers—a digital flight-control system with analog backup to adjust the X-29’s motion 80 times a second. If those computers were to malfunction in flight, the airplane would destruct in one-fifth of a second, before Sewell would have a chance to react, let alone pray. But that didn’t worry Sewell. “It does make it a little more exciting,” he admitted. “It makes the adrenaline pump a little faster than it normally would in a conventional airplane.”

If the adrenaline was pumping furiously through Sewell’s trim, muscular 54-year-old body as he arrived at Edwards Air Force Base at 7:30 that morning, he certainly didn’t show it. But he has faced quite a few stomach-knotting situations in his 35 years as a pilot. He flew 110 combat missions in Korea. During one of them he was shot down behind enemy lines and escaped only by hiking for three straight days and then setting out on a 10-mile swim under enemy gunfire before rescue by an American helicopter. In the late 1960s he flew another 220 missions over Vietnam and Laos. Since then, during his 15-year career with Grumman, 12 as chief test pilot, he has taken quite a few hot new planes on their maiden flights and performed many inadvisable maneuvers with older planes. Last summer, for example, Sewell coolly tried to discover just what happens to an F-14 (a front-line fighter with a top speed of about 1,820 mph) when one of its engines fails at low altitude. So he took an F-14 up 7,000 feet, calmly shut down the right engine, then pulled back on his control stick to raise the plane’s nose—a maneuver that dropped his airspeed to zero. The plane promptly did a slow roll to the right, then flipped over and started spinning toward earth. The ground was only 2,000 feet away when Sewell regained control. It was all in a day’s work for the man who won the 1973 Iven C. Kincheloe Test Pilot Award from the Society of Experimental Test Pilots for devising a technique to prevent often fatal high-speed spins. He prefers to play down the heroic aspects of his job. “Oh, I think every test pilot has had many hairy incidents,” he says. “I’ve certainly had my share, and somebody else’s too.”

Dressed in his blue Grumman flight suit, Sewell climbed into the X-29 shortly after 8 that morning and fastened his seat belt. The cockpit was tiny, and the fit was snug. The control stick was wedged between his legs, and his flight-instruction cards were balanced on his knee. “It’s small,” he had said of the cockpit a few days earlier, “but I can reach everything very easily without straining or stretching.”

Sewell had already grown accustomed to that cockpit. In the previous 10 weeks—ever since he left the green ranch house he shares with his wife in Setauket, Long Island to take up temporary residence in a spartan apartment near Edwards—Sewell had spent a good many hours in that seat, checking and rechecking the plane’s various systems. He had also spent hundreds of hours in a simulator, going through all the maneuvers that he would perform while flying the X-29. Most of these preparations were tedious, but a few were fun. Like the taxi tests.

In those tests—there were about six of them—Sewell goosed the throttle and steered while the X-29 blasted down the 15,000-foot runway at speeds approaching 160 mph. He came away impressed with the power of the $64 million plane: “You put the final thrust on it, and it just slams you back against the seat.” The final taxi test was truly thrilling. For seven seconds the weight of the plane lifted off the wheels as the big bird begged to fly. “It feels great,” Sewell barked into his radio that day. “The airplane is ready to go.”

And now, at 9:30 in the morning of the first airborne test, Sewell had finished his preflight checks and he was convinced that the plane was really ready to go. He slowly taxied into position and then radioed to the control tower: “Am I cleared for takeoff?”

“Ready, X-29,” came the reply. After a brief pause the plane began to creep forward, slowly at first and then faster and faster until it hit 179 mph. Sewell pointed the nose up, and the X-29 began to climb gently and gracefully into the perfect blue sky. The brand-new plane and the cagey veteran pilot were flying at last.

As much as any animal not equipped with wings can possibly be, Chuck Sewell was born to fly. For as long as he can remember, Sewell has had a recurring dream in which he flaps his arms and, after much painful struggle, takes off and soars above the trees. When he was 4 and growing up on a farm in Valley View, Texas, Chuck recalls that his grandfather took him to see a light plane that had landed in a nearby cow pasture. The sight of that magical flying machine did something to the boy, and he screamed and hollered so much that his grandfather scolded him. A decade later, at 14, Sewell was working on construction gangs in northern Texas and southern Oklahoma when he started taking flying lessons in an old Aeronca 7 Champion. “I couldn’t land that silly thing to save my neck,” he admits. At 17 and still hot to fly, he joined the Navy. He sweated through boot camp and the college equivalency courses he needed to gain admittance to the flight school in Pensacola. He still remembers the exact date when he finally won his wings: Dec. 13, 1950.

In the next two decades he flew in Korea; spent two years as an exchange fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force in England and several years in Japan as a fighter pilot; taught fighter tactics at the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, N.C. (where one of his students was a young major named John Glenn); and then did his two-year stint in Nam. In 1968—after 20 years in the service, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Purple Hearts, 15 Air Medals and the Legion of Merit—Lt. Col. Sewell retired to become one of Grumman’s test pilots. That job is “the ultimate in flying,” says Sewell, who faces mandatory retirement at age 60. “The top of the ladder is the experimental test pilot for a contractor who builds military airplanes—the most high-performance airplanes in the world.” In that intensely competitive world Sewell is considered one of the best. “Chuck’s our best test pilot,” says Hank Spinks, supervisor of Grumman’s Flight Development Group. “I’ve seen him do power climbs and 10 spins when others couldn’t do two. I’ve seen him do programs that even better-than-good pilots can’t touch.” Bonnie Sewell—his wife of 32 years, and the mother of their children, Rick, 31, an engineer, and Cynthia, 30, a social worker—has a slightly different way of attesting to her husband’s love of flight: “If he hears an airplane, he still, to this day, will run outside and see what kind it is.” Anyone looking up at the X-29 that morning would certainly have wondered what kind of strange extraterrestrial bird it was. But under Sewell’s guidance, it performed magnificently. Flying at 15,000 feet, the X-29 and its two T-38 chase planes ran into strong turbulence. The T-38s were shaken, but the X-29 just “sliced right through it,” Sewell said. He let the plane soar at an easy 270 mph with no trouble. “It’s a nice flying airplane,” he said, via radio, to the ground crew. “It flies better than the simulator.” The flight plan called for Sewell to spend 44 minutes in the air but he was having such a good time that he lingered for an extra 14. Then, at 10:33, he eased her down. The landing was perfect, soft and utterly smooth. “It was outstanding,” Sewell said when he emerged from the cockpit. “Not a single problem.” He couldn’t help smiling. “The flight was very uneventful, which is the way I like it.”

Before turning the plane over to other test pilots, Sewell plans to take the X-29 up on three more test flights, each one a little more eventful than the previous one. “Each flight from now on will get more demanding until we reach some high-speed, high-G maneuvering,” he promises.

With a satisfied grin curving all the lines on his weather-beaten face, Sewell looked more relaxed than he had in weeks. What, he was asked, did you think when you pulled the stick back and finally got the plane off the ground? Sewell’s grin grew bigger and brighter. “Climbs like hell with the gear down,” he answered.

Related Articles