Former NASA Dryden Flight Research Center pilot and engineer Bruce A. Peterson died May 1 in Laguna Niguel following a lengthy illness. He was 72.
Peterson retired in 1981 after a 21-year career at Dryden, much of it dedicated to work with the center's legendary research aircraft. He is best known for his pioneering work with the wingless lifting body vehicles that helped pave the way for a reusable space shuttle.
Peterson joined NASA in August 1960 as an engineer at the Flight Research Center (now Dryden). After transferring to flight operations in 1962, he was assigned as one of the project pilots on the Rogallo paraglider research vehicle (Paresev) program. The Paresev resembled a tricycle beneath a hang glider and was used to evaluate the use of an inflatable and non-inflatable, flexible wing for the recovery of manned space vehicles.
Peterson made his first Paresev research flight on March 14, 1962. He was injured when the craft crashed from an height of about 10 feet during a ground tow flight. Always the consummate engineer, his first question after impact was, "What happened to the lateral stick forces?"
As a NASA research pilot he flew a wide variety of airplanes including the F5D-1, F-100, F-104, F-111A, B-52, NT-33A Variable Stability Trainer, the wingless lifting bodies and numerous general aviation aircraft as well as several types of helicopters and sailplanes.
As project pilot on the swing-wing F-111A, he performed tests related to stability and control, performance and structural loads, including engine inlet and exhaust studies, internal flow investigations and aerodynamics research.
Peterson's lifting body work included 42 glide flights in the M2-F1 lightweight lifting body and numerous research missions in the heavier rocket-powered M2-F2 and HL-10 lifting bodies.
Peterson piloted the maiden flight of the HL-10 lifting body on Dec. 22, 1966. During the three-minute descent to landing, airflow separation across the control surfaces rendered the HL-10 virtually unflyable but he managed to land the vehicle safely, a tribute to his considerable piloting skills. As a result of the data collected during the near disastrous flight, the HL-10 was modified to fix the problem and went on to become one of the most successful lifting body concepts.
Peterson was probably best known for surviving the crash of the M2-F2 on May 10, 1967. Although he regained control of the craft after it entered a violent "Dutch roll" motion, the M2-F2 struck the surface of the dry lakebed at an estimated 250 mph before the landing gear was fully down. It bounced, tumbled and rolled across the lakebed in a cloud of dust, eventually coming to rest on its back. Rescue crews extricated the badly injured Peterson. After an extensive hospitalization, he recovered from his injuries but lost sight in one eye due to a secondary infection while in the hospital.
Peterson gained a small measure of fame when his accident and subsequent recovery inspired a 1970s television series called The Six-Million Dollar Man. The storyline featured a test pilot who, having been injured in the crash of a lifting body vehicle, is rebuilt with advanced "bionic" technology. Film footage of the M2-F2 accident was used in the show's opening credits.
Despite his injuries, Peterson continued to fly NASA support missions, occasional research flights and continued his Marine Reserve flying duties until 1971. During his flying career, Peterson logged more than 6,000 flight hours in nearly 70 types of aircraft.
Peterson continued at Dryden as research project engineer on the F-8 Digital Fly-By-Wire program of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and later assumed responsibility for safety and quality assurance for Dryden until his retirement in 1981.
He then joined the Northrop Corporation, where he assumed responsibility for safety and quality assurance for testing of the B-2 Advanced Technology Bomber. From 1982 until 1994 Peterson worked in Northrop's B-2 division at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif., and at Edwards, becoming manager of system safety and human factors.
A native of Washburn, N.D., Peterson was born May 23, 1933. After attending the University of California at Los Angeles from 1950 to 1953, he enlisted as a Naval Aviation Cadet that year and was commissioned a Marine Corps second lieutenant in November 1954. He earned a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering from California State Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo in 1958, and was a 1962 graduate of the Air Force Test Pilot School.
Peterson was a fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and 2002 recipient of the Tony LeVier Flight Safety Award. He was honored by NASA with an exceptional leadership award for his work on preparations for the first space shuttle landing at NASA Dryden in April 1981. In 2003 he was inducted into the Lancaster Aerospace Walk of Honor.
A memorial observance in the Lancaster area for Peterson is pending.