Ridley, Jackie Lynwood
Flight Test EngineerEnshrined 2004 1915-1957
It was enshrinee Chuck Yeager who broke the sound barrier, but Yeager wouldn’t even have gotten into the plane if it hadn’t been for “Jack” Ridley. Ridley is well remembered as one of the architects of modern aircraft flight-testing. He made a wide range of contributions to the science and methodology of flight testing which are still in effect today.
Jack Ridley was born in Garvin County, Oklahoma, not long after the airplane had made its first hesitant appearance on the world’s stage. On that date, June 16th, 1915, the warring powers in Europe were still uncertain about the role which their awkward flying machines would play.
In school, the young Oklahoman had a natural taste for mathematics and even in early life he showed an unmistakable aptitude for studying and analyzing the way that machines worked. Following high school, he entered the ROTC program at the University of Oklahoma where he received his Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering in 1939. In July of 1941, our enshrinee, a young engineer, received a commission in the U.S. Army Field Artillery and began a military career which continued for the rest of his life.
The science of flight soon attracted Ridley, and it was not long before he transferred to the Army Air Forces. Lieutenant Ridley received orders to the Flying Training School at Kelly Army Air Base in Texas, where he earned his pilot wings in May 1942.
The Air Corps had great need for engineering-trained pilots and, instead of being sent into an operational combat unit, Ridley was ordered to the Consolidated Vultee plant in Fort Worth, Texas. His initial assignment there was to conduct acceptance tests on four-engined B-24 Liberator bombers. Soon thereafter, he was assigned to both the B-24 and B-32 programs, and then the B-36.
After attending the Army Air Forces School of Engineering at Wright Field, Ridley was sent to the California Institute of Technology. There, he received his master of science degree in aeronautical engineering in July 1945.
Even as Ridley was attending the Flight Performance School, the revolutionary X-1 rocket research airplane was making its initial unpowered check flights and, within a year, the AAF would assume control of the supersonic research program. Colonel Albert Boyd, the legendary chief of the Flight Test Division, had to select the project team that would attempt the world’s first supersonic flight. In the spring 1947, Boyd selected three volunteers who were considered very junior in terms of their flight test experience: Captain Chuck Yeager, First Lieutenant Bob Hoover, and Ridley. He named Yeager and Hoover as primary and backup pilot respectively, and Ridley as project engineer. Boyd believed that, with Ridley’s test pilot experience and his unique ability to translate abstract concepts into everyday terms, he would be able to provide Yeager and Hoover with all of the engineering expertise they would need.
Ridley’s task was to analyze all of the technical data that was generated during the X-1 flights as it proceeded toward the unexplored region of supersonic flight. As Yeager later explained: “I trusted Jack with my life. If Jack had said, ‘Chuck, if you fly in that thing, you’re not gonna make it,’ that would have been it for yours truly.”
Ridley was a problem solver. One such problem was a complete loss of elevator effectiveness which Yeager experienced during his eighth powered flight as his machmeter indicated a speed of Mach 0.94. At that speed, the little research plane stopped responding to all elevator control inputs, leaving the pilot unable to change his pitch angle, or to raise or lower the plane’s nose in flight. Ridley determined in that speed range that the X-1’s entire horizontal stabilizer, which could be adjusted for trim changes, could be used for pitch control. The idea worked, and Ridley’s concept was eventually incorporated in all supersonic aircraft — the “flying tail.”
On October 14th, 1947, the trio of Ridley, Yeager and Hoover led the world into the supersonic age. The Air Force recognized Ridley’s efforts three years later by awarding him the Commendation Ribbon for meritorious achievement.
Returning to the high desert, Ridley applied his razor-sharp reasoning skills to many of the new generation of jet and rocket aircraft then arriving on the ramp. His responsibilities included planning flight test programs for various aircraft, identifying the stability characteristics and gathering the performance data which would later be used in writing Pilots Operating Handbooks and compiling standard aircraft characteristic charts.
Ridley became Chief, Flight Test Engineering Laboratory. The responsibility of this division-level organization was to carry out the research and engineering phases of all of the experimental flight test programs assigned to the AFFTC. This included overseeing such details as the human factors program and the weighing and balancing of aircraft. It was in this post that he made his longest-lasting contributions to the science of flight-testing. He also established training and indoctrination procedures for new military and civilian flight test engineers. Jack Ridley is still credited for creating the Flight Test Center’s basic philosophy in use today.
The Army promoted Ridley to full Colonel in 1956 and became a member of the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group. Then, while flying as a passenger in a C-47 over Japan on March 12th, 1957, Col. Ridley died at the age of 42 when the transport crashed into a snow-covered mountainside northwest of Tokyo.
In 1980, the Ridley Mission Control Center at Edwards Air Force Base was dedicated in Jack Ridley’s honor.
For sharing his great mind and talent, and for his many contributions to flight testing, Jack Ridley has earned his place in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
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