The image of Tehachapi test pilot Bill Dana wearing a gleaming silver pressure suit, flying alone in a black X-15 rocket plane hurtling toward the edge of space, is practically the definition of the iconic phrase, The Right Stuff.
Dana, one of the nation’s most respected aerospace pioneers, and a distinguished research pilot and aeronautical engineer, died Tuesday after a long illness, according to a NASA spokesman. Dana was 83.
His long and illustrious career at NASA’s Armstrong — formerly Dryden — Flight Research Center in eastern Kern County, spanned nearly five decades, during which Dana logged more than 8,000 hours in some 60 aircraft ranging from helicopters and sailplanes to the hypersonic X-15 rocket plane, according to NASA spokesman Peter Merlin. Several of the airplanes Dana flew are displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
These aeronautical experiments were not done in a vacuum. Research flights in the X-15 completed by Dana and other pilots laid the foundation for the development of the space shuttle, America’s signature manned space program for three decades.
The X-15 “was the first airplane to leave the atmosphere and re-enter the atmosphere, yet it preceded the shuttle by years,” NASA historian Christian Gelzer told The Californian in 2011.
Like the shuttle, the X-15 landed unpowered, as a glider.
But unlike the shuttle, it launched from beneath the wing of a B-52 mothership. Another famous aircraft, Virgin Galactic’s privately owned SpaceShipTwo, owes much to the X-15 and its pilots as it too launches from a mothership and lands like a glider.
"Bill was one of the premier pilots ... someone to be emulated,” Gary Krier, a former NASA test pilot who later became the director of Dryden’s flight operations, told The Californian in 2003.
Krier came to NASA in 1967 as a new research pilot. He remembered Dana as the gold standard, a consummate pro new pilots looked up to.
“He was the model,” Krier said.
Born in Pasadena in 1930, Dana grew up in Bakersfield and graduated from Bakersfield High School in 1948.
But Dana was still in the sixth grade at Roosevelt Elementary School when he caught the aviation bug from his teacher, Marguerite Holcomb.
“She had us build a glider and a balloon,” Dana told The Californian in 2003. “She inspired my interest in aviation.”
After graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1952, Dana served four years as a fighter pilot for the U.S. Air Force. He later earned a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Southern California.
Dana went to work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on Oct. 1, 1958, the same day the agency was formed. The space race had officially begun and flight research had become a national priority.
“It was Russia’s launch of Sputnik (in 1957) that caused NASA to be formed,” Dana recalled during that interview. “I was probably NASA’s first hire.”
Judi Dana, Bill’s wife since 1962, told The Californian more than a decade ago she had refused to dwell on the hazards of her husband’s profession.
Bill was flying when they met, so she went into the marriage with her eyes wide open.
“I really had a lot of faith in the engineers out there,” she said of the NASA team. “They are personally invested. They really cared about him.”
During his research missions in the X-15, Dana recorded a top speed of Mach 5.53 — about 3,850 miles per hour, fast enough to fly from Los Angeles to New York in less than 35 minutes.
“You’re basically a baseball that’s been thrown up there; it’s going to come down in its own time,” he said. “You can control the plane’s attitude and yaw, but you're pretty much along for the ride as far as flight path goes.”
Dana qualified for astronaut’s wings by piloting the X-15 to 306,900 feet — nearly 59 miles above the earth. The Air Force defines the 50-mile threshold as the boundary between the atmosphere and space, but in typical fashion, Dana remained down to earth when considering such information.
“I never attached much significance to that astronaut status,” he said. “If the flight lasts less than 15 minutes, you’re probably not an astronaut.”
In 1986, Dana became Dryden’s chief pilot and in 1993, he was named the center’s chief engineer. He retired from Dryden in May 1998.
And lasted seven months.
Dana began writing analytical histories of various research programs for NASA as a contracted employee. Then, during a period of budget reductions,
Merlin said Wednesday, Dana gave up his salary and continued to work as a volunteer in hopes of saving someone else’s job from the chopping block.
That’s just the kind of person he was, Merlin said.
Dana spent the final chapter of his life in an assisted living center near Phoenix. He is survived by his wife and four grown children, seven grandchildren, his sister and many other relatives and friends.
Funeral services will be held 10 a.m. May 20 at the Lancaster United Methodist Church, 918 W. Ave J in Lancaster. Donations can be made in his name to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.
Dana's presence will long be felt at the NASA outpost in the Mojave Desert where, over a period of some 48 years, he helped refine, push, bend, expand and transform the miracle of flight.
Sometimes if you’re lucky, he once told a reporter, the miracle can lift the spirit as well as the body.
“I still remember, as a pilot in the Air Force, flying into a towering thunderstorm,” he said. “For a few moments I felt one step closer to God than the average guy.”