The all wood lifting body, called by many a “Flying Bathtub”, was the first manned vehicle of its type and helped lead the way to the Space Shuttle.
According to a NASA paper the lifting body concept evolved in the late 1950s as researchers considered alternatives to ballistic reentries of piloted space capsules. The designs for hypersonic, wingless vehicles were on the boards at NASA Ames and NASA Langley facilities, while the US Air Force was gearing up for its X-20 Dyna-Soar program, which defined the need for a spacecraft that would land like an airplane.
Despite favorable research on lifting bodies, there was little support for a flight program. NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center engineer R. Dale Reed was intrigued with the lifting body concept, and reasoned that some sort of flight demonstration was needed before wingless aircraft could be taken seriously.
In February 1962, he built a model lifting body based upon the Ames M2 design, and air-launched it from a radio controlled “mothership.” Home movies of these flights, plus the support of research pilot Milt Thompson, helped persuade the facilities director, Paul Bikle, to give the go-ahead for the construction of a full-scale version, to be used as a wind tunnel model and possibly flown as a glider. Comparing lifting bodies to space capsules, an unofficial motto of the project was, “Don’t be Rescued from Outer Space — Fly Back in Style.“
The construction of the M2-F1 was a joint effort by Dryden and a local glider manufacturer, the Briegleb Glider Company located at El Mirage Airport, some 40 miles from the center. The budget was $30,000. NASA craftsmen and engineers built the tubular steel interior frame in a curtained-off section of a hangar with a sign reading “Wright’s Bicycle Shop”.
Its mahogany plywood shell was hand-made by Gus Briegleb and company. It was a product of craftsmanship that was nearly obsolete in the 1940s. Ernie Lowder, a NASA craftsman who had worked on the Howard Hughes H-4 Hercules, better known as the “Spruce Goose,” was assigned to help Briegleb. To keep cost down many parts were off the shelf including the Cessna 150 landing gear. Final assembly was done back at the NASA facility in early 1963. The M2-F1 did not have ailerons. Instead, it had elevons which were attached to each of the two rudders. A large flap on the trailing edge of the body acted as an elevator.
Because the M2-F1 was unpowered, a tow vehicle was required. Walter “Whitey” Whiteside, a hot-rod enthusiast who worked at the center, was sent to purchase a new 1963 Pontiac Catalina convertible. Following modification at two race shops, the car was capable of reaching 110 miles per hour with the M2-F1 in tow. (The museum is currently looking for a 1963 Pontiac Catalina convertible to display along side the M2-F1. (Any leads would be greatly welcomed!)
The first flight tests saw the M2-F1 towed aloft by the Pontiac driven at speeds up to 120 mph across Rogers Dry Lake. These initial tests produced enough flight data about the M2-F1 to proceed with flights behind a NASA R4D tow plane at greater altitudes. The R4D (the Navy designation of the C-47 or civil DC-3) towed the craft to an altitude of 12,000 ft. where it was released to fly freely back to Rogers Dry Lake. NASA research pilot Milt Thompson flew the M2-F1 during the first series of tests. Typical glide flights with the M2-F1 lasted several minutes at speeds of 110 to 120 mph. More than 400 ground tows and 77 aircraft tow flights were carried out with the M2-F1 before it was retired. Chuck Yeager, Bruce Peterson and Don Mallick also flew the M2-F1.
The success of Dryden’s M2-F1 program led to NASA’s development and construction of two heavyweight lifting bodies based on studies at NASA’s Ames and Langley research centers — the M2-F2 and the HL-10, both built by the Northrop Corporation, and the X-24 program. The Lifting Body program also heavily influenced the Space Shuttle program.
The “Flying Bathtub” is currently on display at the AFFT Museum.
Milt Thompson – 45 flights
Bruce Peterson – 17 flights
Chuck Yeager – 5 flights
Donald M. Sorlie – 5 flights
Donald L. Mallick – 2 flights
Jerauld R. Gentry – 2 flights
Bill Dana – 1 flight
James W. Wood – 1 ground tow
Fred Haise 1 – ground tow
Joe Engle – 1 ground tow
Span: 14 ft. 2 in.
Maximum speed: 150 mph
Length: 20 ft.
Range: 10 nautical miles
Height: 9 ft. 6 in.
Gross Weight: 1,000 lb.