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My Father Liked to Tell Stories

Both my parents lived through World War II in England, then my father came to America and worked on the space program, so I have a bunch of family stories about war and airplanes. I also collect odd history anecdotes. If you have a story that ought to be here, please email me at

Through Propeller Blades
Through Helicopter Blades
How to Get Out of a Spinning Stall
How Lipstick Launched the Space Shuttle
My Mother's WWII/My Father's WWII
The Guy With the Broomstick
Fuchida and DeShazer
An Engineer Without a Degree

Through Propeller Blades

While my father worked for Boulton Paul, there was a young man who was not quite all there, who would help out sometimes on the flightline. One day was fated to be his last day there. He was plugging in a generator while the pilot was test-firing the engine. The young man then unplugged the generator, turned, and walked forward, through the spinning blades. Really through them, since the engine was idling at a very low rpm, and he walked between two of the three spinning blades. The shocked pilot immediately shut down the engine, jumped down out of the cockpit, grabbed the young man by the scruff of the neck, and dragged him into the flightline office, demanding that he never be allowed on the flightline again. As far as I know, he never was, and lived to learn from his mistake.

Through Helicopter Blades

I heard a story while I was watching "Wings" on the Discovery Channel, a program about helicopter development. They were talking about a developer who was showing off his design to some Bell executives. One executive felt he could fly it, climbed in, and tried flying the helicopter, though he had never flown a helicopter before. Fortunately for him, it was tethered, because it started to buck. It bucked him clean out of the cockpit, through the spinning rotor blades. After the show, my father called and asked if I'd watched the program and whether I saw the part about the Bell executive. I said yes. He said, "That was Bob Stanley." Bob Stanley was my father's first boss in America, the one who hired him into the country to work at Stanley Aviation. Bob Stanley was a test pilot for the Bell P-59, America's first jet; and the chief engineer of the Bell X-1, the aircraft made famous in "The Right Stuff" as first aircraft to break Mach 1, or, at least, the first one specifically designed to! Here is a web page about some of the programs Stanley Aviation was involved in.

A Wanted Man

Bob Stanley and Dick Frost hired my father into the country to work for Stanley Aviation. Some time later, Dick Frost left to form his own company, and my father decided to join him. Bob Stanley gathered his employees and warned them that if anyone left him for Dick Frost, if the new company folded, they better not plan on ever coming back to Stanley Aviation. After the meeting, though, he took my father aside and told him privately, "You know if it doesn't work out there, you've always got a place here." My father never did actually go back, but I am proud that two men with such credentials thought so highly of my father's work. (Note that Bob Stanley's grandson is carrying on the family tradition of high achievement.)

How to Get Out of a Spinning Stall

Bob Stanley, my father's first boss in America, was the test pilot of the Bell P-59, the first American-made jet. One story told about him was when he was flying a P-39 aircraft that would sometimes enter an unrecoverable flat spinning stall, from which there was no way out but to bail out. He got into just such a spinning stall and bailed out. Outside the aircraft, he was quite annoyed to find that the lack of an airstream meant that he was flat on his face on the wing of the aircraft. He started crawling to the wingtip to jump off and get away from the doomed aircraft. Then he realized that his presence on the wing had changed the center of gravity, and the aircraft was going into a conventional spin. So he crawled back into the cockpit and made a dead stick landing in the aircraft!

How Lipstick Launched the Space Shuttle

Drop Test Vehicle - droppedI sometimes say that my father used lipstick to design a spacecraft. It is one of my favorite stories to demonstrate "thinking outside the box", especially that electronic box on your desk. This is my father, after a rather spectacular failure. The thing behind him is the visible third of a drop test vehicle. The rest is buried in the desert, after hitting the ground at about Mach 1.

The parachutes failed because they were ripped, but nobody knew how. There were many sharp parts that could have done it. My father solved the mystery by buying several colours of lipstick and smearing one colour on each sharp part. It only took one more test to see which colour showed up on the parachute rip, and the problem was fixed.

My Mother's WWII/My Father's WWII

My mother grew up in London. She was 12 when the war broke out. She quit going to school when her grandmother moved in and her father got bronchitis; she helped out taking care of her two young siblings. After that crisis, she went back to school, but shortly afterward, her school was blitzed, and so she never finished school. My grandfather took his family out of London for the "Phony War", returned just in time for the bombing to start, and left again shortly after. My mother remembered V-1s, the planes going over for the Coventry raid, and being issued her gas mask. My aunt, who was a small girl at the time, remembers one day going past an area she was familiar with, and thinking, "Wasn't there a block there last week?" My aunt also remembers, one day at a train station, there was a great crunch and her father shoved her against her a wall and covered her as the glass from the roof came showering down.

My mother often told a story to illustrate, "Be careful what you wish for; you might get it." The lady across the street wanted a new wardrobe. One night during a raid, while everybody was huddled under the stairs, this lady's house was hit by a German incendiary bomb that crashed through the roof, landed in the middle of her wardrobe, and detonated. So she got a new wardrobe. My aunt also remembers that event - she remembers the firemen tramping through the house and her mother making hot chocolate for them.

But having been there doesn't mean having experienced everything. I once checked out a book on WWII from the library at school, and found a picture of people huddled in an underground station during air raids at night. When my mother saw the picture, she was surprised; "I didn't know they did that. I went through that station every day."

My father, on the other hand, lived in central England at the time, and the closest he got to war was working at Boulton Paul Aircraft. He did have a cousin who got the Distinguished Flying Cross for flying Lancasters, but his own experience was best summed up by the British TV show Dad's Army, about the Home Guard. Though the TV show was a comedy, my father's stories of being in the Home Guard were just about as silly. What the TV show said, and what my father also said, was that it's a good thing Britain was never invaded.

The Guy With the Broomstick

Probably everyone who's seen the movie "The Right Stuff" remembers the broomstick handle. What happened in that scene was accurate - the day before the Mach flight in 1947, Chuch Yeager was riding at Pancho Barnes' and broke a rib when the horse threw him. However, it was actually Dick Frost, not Ridley, who came up with the idea of a lever to close the X-1's door and sawed off the broomstick handle. Perhaps, with seven astronauts and Chuck Yeager, they just didn't need any more characters in the film. Anyway, Dick Frost was Chuck Yeager's chief flight test engineer and is mentioned in his books and website. Dick Frost was also my father's boss, and one of the men who hired him into the United States.

Fuchida and DeShazer

One WWII story that fascinates me has nothing to do with my family, but does have to do with airplanes. This used to be a well-known story, but probably needs retelling as it seems few of my generation or younger know of it.

The grandson of a samurai, Mitsuo Fuchida led the attack on Pearl Harbor. The movie "Tora, Tora, Tora" (and also see the CAF site) shows what a war hero he was in Japan. At the battle of Midway, he jumped off the carrier "Akagi" as it was sinking. The Japanese authorities decided to sideline him from combat, as he was too important to Japanese morale to continue risking him.

Meanwhile, in America, Jacob DeShazer had joined the Army in 1939 to become a pilot, but he was too old so they made him a bombardier. He was furious at hearing of Pearl Harbor, and volunteered to be one of Doolittle's Raiders. However, as they took off from the USS Hornet for Tokyo, his plane was damaged, and after the bombs were dropped, the plane crashed in Japanese-held territory in China.

DeShazer's crew was taken to a Japanese prison camp. Life there was very hard, and DeShazer hated the Japanese. Then after two years, the whole group of prisoners were given one Bible. The Bible was passed to each prisoner in turn, and when DeShazer's turn came, he read it cover to cover, was convicted of the wrongs he had done, and gave his life to God. He was particularly struck by Jesus' words "You know not what you do". He realized his captors also did not know what they were doing, as they did not know God and His mercy. He decided if he ever got out of prison, he would return to Japan as a missionary.

Fuchida was in Hiroshima the day before the atomic bomb was dropped, and was there again the day after, to check out the situation. Even after the atomic bomb, he and others plotted to overthrow the government, thinking the government must be going against the emperor's will in deciding to surrender. Just because Japan was destroyed was no reason to stop fighting, so obviously the emperor was being betrayed by a defeatist government! Eventually, however, the plotters were convinced the surrender was actually the will of the emperor, and Japan did surrender.

Fuchida was quite lost in peacetime. He tried farming, but it didn't go well. One day, traveling to Tokyo, he was handed a pamphlet that told about DeShazer's war experiences and conversion. He read the pamphlet, was quite impressed, and on his way back through the same station, looked for the person who handed him the pamphlet. Instead, he found someone else who gave him a New Testament. Reading it, he found himself convicted by the same passage as DeShazer, thinking that he did not know what he was doing, following the militaristic Bushido code, and needed forgiveness. He became a Christian and for a while he preached in the United States (occasionally at the same events as DeShazer). Though he eventually went back to Japan, the children of the man who led the attack on Pearl Harbor came to the US permanently.

An Engineer Without a Degree

Some jobs you really need a college degree for, like engineering. You certainly couldn’t design an aircraft without knowing calculus. And “rocket science”, figuratively or literally, means something that only highly-educated people do. Right? Well, as in the case of Chuck Yeager, wartime conditions often reward skill more than formal education. I think it is interesting what my father accomplished through apprenticeship rather than college. This is the story of his career in the aviation industry.

My father, Frank Tallentire, was born in Middleton-in-Teesdale, County Durham, England, just north of the Yorkshire area made famous by veterinarian James Herriott. This is a region of mining and sheep farming, considered rather backwards by southerners (like Yorkshire) and Londoners such as my mother (at least until she met him). Maybe his technical ability came from his father, who, as a self-taught electrician, wired half the village in the early 1900s, and re-wired most of the other half done by the other electrician! Frank did well enough academically to get a scholarship to a private school in the town of Bishop Auckland (a train ride away), an honor achieved by few of the local children. Ironically, my father's evaluation book, the equivalent of US school report cards, doesn’t show any outstanding academic ability, especially in math. He was best at German and drafting, which must not have seemed a promising combination between the wars with Germany.

In July 1941, my father was 17, old enough to start as an apprentice at the Boulton Paul Aircraft Company. There must have been a lot of competition from other young men soon to be of military age, but it seems he just applied and got it based on having decent grades from a technical school, and the drafting ability. The company’s product during WWII was the Boulton Paul Defiant. The aircraft was actually a very well-designed fighter, but government bureaucracy was stuck in outdated fighter techniques that worked in WWI, which kept the Defiant from doing much in combat. My father came on the program as an apprentice, but was recognized for good work and quickly moved up in the drafting and design departments. His job, as a fellow apprentice described it, was to take the bright ideas of the design department and put it on paper in a way that it could actually be manufactured. By war’s end, he was working with some of the best minds in the engineering department, and designing the wing of the Hawker Sea Fury, which was the ultimate development of the piston engine fighter in Britain. My father worked at the company on other projects for another decade or so before leaving England in 1956.

My father left as part of the "brain drain" of post-war Europe, where top scientists left their native countries for better opportunities on the other side of the Atlantic. He had realized that he wouldn’t be able to get the salary he wanted or the kind of work he liked in England. The low salary was due to the pay scale which was the government’s effort to control the post-WWII recession in Britain. The government developed a pay scale for various jobs, lumping related duties together, so that for instance anyone who did something mechanical was considered an engineer. The men who pumped gas, repaired cars, drove trains, and designed supersonic aircraft were all considered engineers. They couldn’t all be paid at the level of the aircraft designers, so they were all paid at the level of someone tinkering with a car. Thus, supersonic fighter designers, instead of getting something like 1000 pounds a year, were paid more like 250 pounds a year. My father's first job in the United States, at $145/month, approximately quadrupled his salary in England.

Even without the financial motivation, though, my father realized an engineering job in England at that time just wasn’t going to be very interesting. The government tended to stifle innovation, preferring the old tried and true, and to buy new technology from other countries rather than develop it at home. As an example of what scientists were up against, because of Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot (a plan to blow up Parliament in 1605, discovered just in time and still celebrated as Guy Fawkes Day), over 300 years later there were still laws restricting rocket development in England.

My father hoped that Canada would be freer while still being somewhat like England, so he emigrated and worked for De Havilland Canada in Toronto, Ontario, for about 2 years, including one year of waiting for his fiancée’s emigration paperwork to go through. (She had had tuberculosis and had to prove she was cured.) At first the department he worked in treated him as if he were one step above a draftsman, so he didn’t feel he was better off than in England. He started looking for jobs elsewhere, including Stanley Aviation in Denver, Colorado. By the time he had a job offer, though, de Havilland had my father transferred to a new department, doing more of the work he really enjoyed. But Stanley Aviation was offering him twice the salary, and he couldn't turn down that and the interesting project he was to be working on there. It was easier getting to the US from Canada than directly from England, especially if you had a job, so in 1959 my father and mother came to America.

My father worked for Bob Stanley of Stanley Aviation and went with Dick Frost when he left Stanley. He went on to work at other companies and projects, mainly with North American/Rockwell and Martin Marietta, and he worked with the Apollo and Skylab programs. For the Apollo program, he was with Rockwell, and he was the designer for the command module uprighting system—the balloons that turned it right side up after splashdown. His position in this project was so high up that he had enough personal contact to get to know astronaut Alan Bean (who complained tongue-in-cheek that the balloons worked too well on Skylab 3, causing him to bump his head on the side of the command module.)

For the Skylab program, my father was involved with a project to encourage high school students to pursue science; 25 students were picked to have their experiments fly on Skylab and be carried out by the astronauts on the mission. He got very involved in science education at that time and even wrote a textbook for science teachers (never published because, being written at a college level, it was considered to be too high a reading level for science teachers).

In all his career, my father never got a college degree—his formal education was about equivalent to the college prep track from a good school. To go on in school after the age of 16 in England you had to pay for it, and his family had very little money. (He did take some calculus in night courses while working for Boulton Paul, but that was after the war.) My father was a natural engineer because he thought technically. Knowing where to plug in a formula is a poor substitute for knowing in practice why the formula works - my father could use a computer as a tool without relying on it to think for him. (One day the electricity went out and he found young engineer sitting around doing nothing. When asked why he wasn' t working, the engineer said, "The power's out, the computers are down". My father was rather disgusted and said, "You’ve got a piece of paper and a pencil and a calculator, don’t you?") Through his apprenticeship and actual experience with real aircraft during wartime, by the end of his career he was considered one of the top at what he was doing in the aerospace industry.

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photo of Ewan Tallentire
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