Stanley, Robert Morris
Test Pilot/EngineerEnshrined 1990 1912-1977
After leaving Bell Aircraft to start his own company, Robert Stanley accepted a contract with the Navy before he even had a facility. Working from his home in the first floor and the basement, Stanley hired 45 people for two shifts. After a short time, they moved to the top floor of an old school building. Working with many handicaps, including a large door through which an airplane could pass, Stanley put his ingenuity to work. Tasked with a contract to rebuild the nose of the F-80, the staff removed the tail, slewed the wheels sideways, and towed it by wingtip five miles to the schoolhouse. Once there, they hoisted the plane up to the second floor and stuck the nose out of a window.
- While at Douglas Aircraft Stanley participated in the design of the DC-1, 2, and 3, XF D-1 Navy fighter and the TBD-1 torpedo plane.
- Patented a mechanically controlled reversible pitch propeller.
- After receiving his naval aviator wings in 1936, one of his first exploits was to fly from the USS Lexington in search of Amelia Earhart.
- In 1939 Stanley, as an instrument-flight instructor at Pensacola, proposed development of a guided missile which eventually became Project Kingfisher.
- On October 1st, 1942, Stanley made the first test flight of an American jet.
- After World War II, Stanley was engineering vice president at Bell and was responsible for the world’s first supersonic airplanes including the Bell X-15, X-1a, and X-2, the first to exceed mach 2 and 3.
- Pioneered the principle of launching aircraft from a “mothership” at high-altitude.
- Led the development of the USAF first downward ejection seat and the B-58 encapsulated seats.
Robert Morris Stanley, business executive and aeronautical engineer, was born in El Reno, Oklahoma, August 19th, 1912, the son of George and Jenny (Coffman) Stanley. He received his preliminary education at public schools in El Reno and in Venice, California. He attended Los Angeles City College in 1930-31 and completed his course in aeronautical engineering at the California Institute of Technology. Eventually he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 1935 as a member of the Honors Section.
An aptitude for building model ships and skills that he learned as a Sea Scout helped the 19-year-old Stanley to gain employment as a loftsman with Douglas Aircraft Corporation. In 1931, this company installed the first model loft in the aircraft industry. In the Experimental Department, Stanley participated in the creation of the DC-1 and DC-2 aircraft, the forerunners of the long line of Douglas transports. To finance his college education, Stafford retained a part-time position at Douglas, participating in the design of the DC-3, DF-I (flying boat), Y-1043, XFD-1 (Navy fighter) and TDD (torpedo plane), which was the Navy’s first low-wing monoplane designed for shipboard use.
During his student years, Stanley invented and obtained U.S. patents on a mechanically controlled, reversible pitch propeller. Although this propeller never reached production in the United States, the Germans adopted it and mass-produced it for their Luftwaffe (Air Force) during World War II.
Immediately after graduation in 1935, Stanley entered flight training at the Naval Reserve Elimination Base in Long Beach, California, and was sent to Pensacola, Florida, for further training. He received his wings as a Naval Aviator in 1936. Stanley’s first assignment was to the aircraft carrier USS Ranger, which conducted fleet exercises in Hawaiian waters in the summer of 1937. On its return to San Diego, Stanley reported for duty aboard the USS Lexington to search for the missing Amelia Earhart. He received a commendation for his work as the ship’s cartographer for the search in the vicinity of Howland Island, an effort which was abandoned after seven days. During the course of the search, the Navy developed a technique which continued to be the standard operating policy of looking for aircraft downed at sea.
Stanley was an instrument instructor for the Navy’s flight training program at Pensacola for the 15 months prior to his discharge in October 1939. While in the fleet, he disclosed to the Bureau of Aeronautics details of a guided missile. This ultimately turned into Project Kingfisher, one of the Navy’s earliest guided missile efforts. Late in 1939, Stanley took a position with United Aircraft Corporation, demonstrating the company’s new dive bomber in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. On his return, he was assigned to its Vought-Sikorsky Division as an aircraft designer. Stanley left that position in June 1940 to become the chief test pilot and to establish the flight research department of Bell Aircraft Corporation in Buffalo, New York. He hired and supervised an aerodynamic section, and directed hangar mechanics and test pilots, overseeing up to 20 test airplanes flying simultaneous programs.
During World War II, Lawrence Bell was developing a jet airplane in secrecy, and Stanley was given the task of establishing the experimental flight program for the jet. He was also in charge of completing living and working facilities for the crew. This was an especially demanding task in the desolate desert area where the crew was based, near Muroc, California. On October 1st, 1942, Stanley made the maiden flight of the XP-59A jet fighter. He reported that, except for sluggishness in takeoff, the airplane’s performance was “quite ordinary.” From this beginning, the jet aircraft industry became a major endeavor in the United States. In the middle of the U.S. participation in World War II, the government selected Bell Aricraft to operate a plant in Marietta, Georgia, for the construction of the new Boeing-designed B-29 bomber. Transferring some of his staff from the Niagara Falls plant to Marietta, Stanley established the flight test operation there.
As World War II neared its end, Stanley earned a promotion to the positions of Chief Engineer and, subsequently, Engineering Vice President at Bell, guiding the transition from airplane production to guided missiles, rockets, avionics and helicopter engineering. In his new capacity, Stanley was responsible for a number of “firsts”. These included the design and manufacture of America’s first swept-wing fighter aircraft and the design, manufacture and flight testing of the world’s first supersonic airplanes, the rocket-propelled X-1 and X-2. In connection with the X-1 and X-2 projects, Stanley supervised the design and testing of the first liquid-oxygen rocket motor in America. It exceeded 10,000 pounds of thrust, and was responsible for the design and manufacture of the world’s first supersonic airplane to exceed Mach I, Mach II and Mach III. Both the X-1 and the X-2, having speeds in excess of 1,500 and 2,500 miles per hour respectively, pioneered the airplane launch and retrieval systems that later aircraft such as the North American X-15 utilized.
Stanley left Bell Aircraft in July 1948 to form Stanley Aviation Corporation, of which he was President until the end of his life. Founded in the basement of his home in Buffalo, the company’s first contract was executed there with the Office of Naval Research, for development and manufacture of highly sensitive seismometers. With these, the Navy planned to detect the explosion of the first atomic bomb tested by the Russians. After the modification, in an old school building, of a jet-propelled F-80 fighter to receive a prone pilot, a move to a building adjoining Buffalo Municipal Airport afforded space in which to manufacture guided missile devices, target drone parts, training devices, and various electronic instruments.
The year 1949 saw Stanley Aviation’s entry into what was to become its principal field of activity, the saving of human lives on disabled high-speed military aircraft. For many years, the company was preeminent in the design of escape and survival systems. The first, a downward ejection seat, was built for the B-47, B-52, RB-66, FJ-3, F-102, F-104, and other modern jet fighters and bombers. To enable safe ejection at supersonic speeds and to ensure survival under any and all conditions after ejection, Stanley Aviation designed and manufactured the world’s first encapsulated escape system. The last of the 300 supersonic escape capsules produced for the B-58 were delivered in 1963. To separate the pilot from his ejection seat subsequent to ejection, Stanley designed, patented and mass- produced (in tens of thousands) automatic-release safety belts which were installed in all jet airplanes of that period.
To facilitate crew escape at low altitudes and at low and medium airspeeds, where conventional ejection seats encounter formidable stability problems, Stanley personally invented and patented the Yankee Escape System. The system uses a tractor rocket to pull a crewman from a doomed airplane, with the rocket thrust providing the velocity required to quickly deploy and inflate the parachute canopy. For the United States Navy and Air Force, Stanley Aviation manufactured more than 700 Yankee systems, which were credited with saving over 150 lives during the Vietnam War. All of the metal fabrication, welding, plating, tool design and manufacture were accomplished in the company’s 137,000 square feet of plant space.
The company also became known for the manufacture of Gamah couplings, a precision item used in all types of aircraft, missile and space systems where absolute sealing is required. Never one to waste time, Stanley designed and built the Nomad in 1937-38. A sailplane of advanced design, it gained distinction by its all-metal fuselage and by Stanley’s own invention, the V-tail, which later was used by airplane and soaring plane designers all over the world. At his first soaring meet in 1938, he piloted the Nomad through a rapidly gathering storm, becoming an authority on thunder flight research. He broke the American altitude soaring record in 1938 on a flight from Elmira, New York, to Philadelphia. Suffering the misfortune of losing the stabilizers from his craft to souvenir seekers, Stanley borrowed a sailplane and established a new distance record, soaring from Elmira to Washington, D.C. He earned the Golden C award, issued by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, by soaring a distance of more than 300 kilometers and climbing more than 3,000 meters above the point of release from the tow plane. In response to interest shown by his soaring companions, Stanley left a record of the Nomad in his articles “The Stanley Sailplane” (Soaring, Oct. 1938), “Critique of NOMAD” (Soaring, Sept. 1939), and “Vee Tail” (Soaring, Jan. 1944). The sailplane Nomad has been donated to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, where it joined two other aircraft closely associated with Stanley’s work: the XP-59A jet fighter and the first supersonic airplane, the X-1 Glamorous Glennis.
Stanley was a member of Tau Beta Pi (National Engineering Honor Society), a member of the National Aviation Hall of Fame, an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and an Honorary Fellow of the Experimental Test Pilots Association. He was elected to the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame in 1973, and to the Soaring Hall of Fame in 1977. Among Stanley’s special interests were water sports, hiking, mountain climbing and photography. He was married in Glendale, California, September 18th, 1942, to Katherine Minerva Norman, daughter of John and Karin (Stadig) Norman, and had three children: Karin Jane, Robert Morris, Jr., and Stephen Eric.
Robert M. Stanley died in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, July 16th, 1977.
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