Publish date:


His F-104 was a junkyard jet, but after he set the speed mark, the only way to go was up

Some of the finest moments of history have been very brief and poorly attended. In November of 1863, Abraham Lincoln gave a short talk that he claimed the world would little note nor long remember. Because the crowd that day at Gettysburg had been numbed by a long-winded orator, Abe's two-minute address was indeed little noted at the time, but it was certainly remembered and admired for its eloquence and brevity. Flicking forward 40 years, we come to the drifting sands of Kitty Hawk. There is Orville Wright throbbing along at seven mph 12 feet above the ground in a bi-wing contraption prophetically called Flyer I. Orville's first famous flight lasted 12 seconds and was witnessed only by his brother Wilbur and five onlookers who were not overly impressed. Like Abe's Gettysburg Address, it was one of those second-page news items that in time would become front-page history.

For dramatic brevity without parallel in the horse-drawn past—and for a sample of the sort of split-second heroics still being performed far from the madding crowd today—let us move on to Veterans Day 1977 and look upon Mud Lake, a baked clay expanse in the emptiness of western Nevada. On Mud Lake that October day were about 250 engineers, technicians, timers, military observers, aviation buffs and ordinary gawkers, all waiting for a former Lockheed test pilot, Darryl Greenamyer, to fly past in his Red Baron, a homemade, needle-nosed, snub-winged jet plane whose very looks bespeak danger.

It was Greenamyer's ambition to fly faster than any man had through the thick mantle of air that swaddles this earth. Fortunately for the crowd, the international rules for low-altitude speed attempts require the pilot to make two passes from each direction through a three-kilometer time trap. If Greenamyer had crossed Mud Lake only once, anyone reaching into a cooler for a beer might have missed his act altogether. One moment Greenamyer's Red Baron was a speck above the rusty horizon. In the next instant it was a silent blur less than 60 feet above the dry lake bed. A wink later it was gone, lost to the eye a good two seconds before its howling noise buffeted the people below.

Back in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, Orville Wright traveled 120 feet on his first 12-second flight. At Mud Lake, Darryl Greenamyer covered the same distance in less than a tenth of a second. When the clockings of his four passes were averaged out, Greenamyer had raised the low-altitude record for unlimited craft to 996 mph, exceeding by 90 mph the best mark of anyone, military or civilian, on either side of the Iron Curtain.

Measured against the absolute, Greenamyer's record at Mud Lake is not much. Astronauts have tootled along in outer space at better than 24,000 mph. In the mid-1960s, while flight-testing the world's fastest jet, the Lockheed SR-71, toward destruction limits, Greenamyer exceeded 2,000 mph in thin stratospheric air. Still, his Mud Lake record is fairly secure because it would take a specialized and costly effort to break it. The best jet craft today—with afterburner on for maximum thrust—are very inefficient when ramming through dense air close to earth. Unless drastically modified, it is doubtful if any of them could make four record-breaking passes without running out of fuel. On his successful attempt, Greenamyer went up with a full load of 1,050 gallons. The total distance four times through the speed trap was less than 7½ miles, and he covered that in less than half a minute, but counting takeoff and landing and circling between runs, he traveled more than 130 miles and was aloft for nearly 20 minutes. He landed with 50 gallons to spare. At cruise speed in the stratosphere, the same fuel load would have carried him halfway across the country.

However long his Mud Lake record lasts, Greenamyer's reputation is not apt to be diminished by its passing. Despite his 41 years, Greenamyer is boyish in appearance and manner, and although he stands only 5'6", even before his jet attempt he cast quite a shadow in the aviation world. Flying a clipped-wing Grumman F8F-2 Bearcat that he drastically lightened by removing armor plate, he competed in the unlimited class at every Reno National Air Race from 1964 through 1971. In that span he won six times against about 75 different planes—Mustangs, Lightnings, Sea Furies and God knows what all. In 1969 he flew his Bearcat 482 mph to set a world record for piston machines. As a consequence, he is now in the Guinness Book of World Records, and his beloved Bearcat is in the Smithsonian along with Lindbergh's ocean-hopping Ryan, the Spirit of St. Louis, and the Wrights' Flyer I. Greenamyer's fame is so well entrenched that several months after his feat at Mud Lake, acquaintances were still pumping his hand and saying, "Hey, I hear you broke the world speed record. That's great. How much faster would you have had to go to break the military record also?"

Ask any 50- or 60-year-old who Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Wiley Post were, and the very names will resurrect facts. It is possible to remember what Lindy, Amelia and Wiley did, what they looked like and how they lived and died. Ask the same person about Chuck Yeager. Chances are Yeager will be faintly remembered as one of the guys who led the world past the sonic barrier, a rocket jockey whose face and exact feats are now beyond recall. Behind almost every aerial achievement today are many nameless, faceless people. The pilots are now no better remembered than anybody else; the planes are a maze of disparate systems and backup systems that would flabbergast an oldtime tinkerer. Weighed against the best of the past and present, Darryl Greenamyer, the hero of Mud Lake, is a living contradiction. In spirit he is a solo artist of the old school, a tinkerer born too late but blessed with the wits to handle the complex machines of the red-hot present.

In fact, Greenamyer was more interested in hot rods than studies as a Monrovia, Calif. teen-ager. "I was academically terrible," he says, but after joining the Air Force and learning to fly in 1955, he settled down to earn a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Arizona. It wasn't until after his career as a test pilot at Lockheed—and after donating his Bearcat to the Smithsonian—that Greenamyer married 23-year-old Terri Croft. The two of them now live in Greenamyer's mobile home, parked most of the time at Verdi, Nev., though his latest endeavor is converting a surplus railroad car into a residence.

On the weekend he set the world jet record, Greenamyer's plane was troubled by a vacillating generator that, among other things, provided power to the stabilization augmentation system that would help keep him from flying into the ground. While Greenamyer was fussing with the generator circuitry, a college professor learned in the workings of the human sensory system informed him that because of the lag between eye and brain, anything he saw while traveling 900 mph 100 feet off the ground would already be 150 feet behind him. It was not the sort of grim data Greenamyer needed at the moment. As he recalls, "What the professor said, in effect, was that if I headed into the ground, I would never know I had." (The day after Greenamyer's record run, a pilot named Bob Reichardt did fly into the ground and was killed while traveling only a third as fast in quest of a limited piston-class record.)

Reviewing his flight at Mud Lake, Greenamyer says, "What were the risks? They scared the hell out of me. Flying that fast that close to the ground holds your attention, to say the least." If it was not fun, why did he do it? Although all of his feats had been a solid cut above the antics Evel Knievel has undertaken for fame and fortune. Greenamyer made his low-level attempt hoping it would earn him the financial support he needed for a loftier quest that was probably less dangerous and closer to impossible. An American last held the jet altitude record in 1961. Since then Soviets have pushed it progressively upward, from 103,400 to 123,500 feet. It had been Greenamyer's ambition for more than a decade to get the record back. The longer he had to delay, the more difficult it became. Because early metering equipment was not very exact, the rules laid down long ago stipulate that, to be recognized, a new altitude record must exceed the existing mark by 3%. As a result, to break the record, Greenamyer was going to have to poke the needle nose of his Red Baron almost three-quarters of a mile farther into the sky than any Russian had.

Although he is a rare creature, Greenamyer is downright commonplace compared to the Red Baron, the extraordinary plane he assembled with his own hands. If King Khalid of Saudi Arabia wanted a plane just like Greenamyer's, he could not buy one, not for all the oil in his country and all the gold at Fort Knox and all the coffee in Brazil. The Red Baron was truly one of a kind—and there never will be one like it because nobody, not even Greenamyer, is sure just where all the junk in it came from. Greenamyer is certain there were parts of at least a dozen other planes in it—five dozen is probably a closer figure.

At first sight, any aviation buff would have instantly identified Greenamyer's Red Baron as a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, a craft that since its debut nearly a quarter of a century ago has received what theatergoers would call mixed reviews. (The F-104 was glamorously described early on as "the missile with a man in it." After scores of fatal crashes, many of them of craft purchased by the West German air force, latter-day nonbelievers called it "the widowmaker.") In basic configuration and gross capability, the Red Baron certainly was a Lockheed F-104, but just what sort? An F-104-A or an F-104-B? It was part A and part B, and a hell of a lot else.

To be honest and give every material contributor his due, the Red Baron would be designated today as a USAF GE-powered Greenamyer-Lockheed F-104-A-B-C-D-G Starfighter Junkyard Special, and therein was its particular glory. Compared to Greenamyer's dedication, the Wright brothers' effort back in 1903 was slapdash indeed. Orville and Wilbur did not start building their Flyer I until 14 months before it flew. Greenamyer began collecting and putting together the myriad parts of his Red Baron 13 years ago. From year to year he roamed the land, from junkyard to junkyard, from one Air Force dump to another, from one Lockheed surplus-parts bin to the next, picking up pieces large and small. The cockpit side panels and some control column bearings of the Red Baron came from the very first production F-104-A, which crashed in Palmdale, Calif. 22 years ago. The tail of the Red Baron, minus stabilizers, came from a junkyard in Ontario, Calif. The stabilizers and some nose wheel parts were from scrap piles in Tucson and Homestead, Fla. The idler arm for the elevator controls, the ejection seat rails and some electrical relays came from an F-104 that crashed and burned at Edwards Air Force Base on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Greenamyer got his throttle quadrant from a Tennessee flying buff he met at the Reno National Air Races (the Tennessean had been using it as an office decoration).

The trunnion mounts for the nose gear, some of the cooling-system valves and a few relays on the Red Baron were no doubt the most unusual parts on any interceptor plane with front-line capability. To get those items at Eglin Air Force Base in north Florida, Greenamyer had to pay $7,500 for a 25-ton pile of junk that included ammo cans, missile cases, several segments of a helicopter, a Continental piston engine and a refrigerator. What Greenamyer got out of all this was a badly dented F-104 fuselage section that he hoped to patch up and smooth out.

In this day when legal harpies abound and anybody who kisses his mother runs a risk of being sued for doing so, liability naturally is a concern of the government and large corporations building supersonic machinery. For example, back when Greenamyer was trying to soup up his Grumman Bearcat for a go at the piston world record, he suspected that Pratt and Whitney, manufacturers of the engine, had done destruction tests on it. Indeed they had, but they were not willing to let Greenamyer have the data. "If you don't tell me," Greenamyer said, "I will have to find out for myself." Injecting nitromethane into his fuel and exceeding prescribed manifold pressure, he found out what he wanted to know by blowing up three engines, two of them in flight. On the worst occasion, from an altitude of 10,000 feet, he made it dead-stick nearly 40 miles back to a safe strip with 1,000 feet to spare.

There is no law, other than that of logic, to keep anyone from trying to build a plane like the Red Baron. The government, however, is against the idea of civilians possessing such evil war machines, and for that reason, whenever a craft is obsolete or too badly damaged or worn to warrant repair, the major sections of it are usually cut up in such a way that piecing them together would be harder than starting from scratch. As a consequence, in building his Red Baron, Greenamyer had a harder time coming onto major components than the little bits and pieces.

Eight years ago, while he was still casting about for a forward and central fuselage section on which to hang wings and other such necessities, Greenamyer got a hot tip from a Lockheed technical representative. An F-104 of the Puerto Rican Air National Guard had run off a strip in Savannah. After being shipped back to Puerto Rico, the plane was deemed too far gone for repair. Assured that he could have the fuselage. Greenamyer packed suitable work clothes and flew from his home, which was then in Sun Valley, Calif., to San Juan. When he arrived, the Guard commander—a Colonel Guillermo or Guillermini, as Greenamyer recalls—was partying with friends. "They continued to party for three days." Greenamyer remembers. "I drank so much rum, after three nights of two hours sleep I was a basket case." To ease Greenamyer's impatience to get at the rumpled F-104, the colonel promised to have the fuselage stripped, crated and shipped to California. Two days after returning home, Greenamyer heard from the colonel. "Gee, Darryl, I gave you that fuselage," the colonel said, "but I forgot to tell the fire marshal, and he just burned it for fire practice." As consolation the colonel added. "Don't worry, Darryl. We'll probably crack up another one, and I'll save it for you."

If the world altitude record was to be broken in any kind of F-104 (an F-104-C once held it at 103,400 feet), Greenamyer was the man to try. Before becoming an experimental test pilot in fancier stuff, he was a production test pilot who flew more than 100 F-104s. "That kind of a job is essentially to nitpick about everything," he says. "I fired the guns, checked the radar, checked the max speed acceleration, the air conditioning, the emergency gear extension, literally everything except the ejection seat." To attempt the altitude record, in his words, "I would travel at 38,000 feet at 2.6 mach [about 1,550 mph]. Then I would rotate upward pulling three Gs until I got a 12-degree angle of attack on the wing. I would hold a 12-degree attack angle until I got a 60-degree climb angle, and I would hold 60 degrees until I got back to a 12-degree angle of attack. Then I would hold the 12-degree angle and it would lead me over the top." Increased thrust would come from a fuel additive of Greenamyer's own conception, and a water-injection system at the engine inlets that, in effect, fools the machinery into thinking it is flying in cooler, more efficient air. Twenty-two miles up there, losing power with very, very little thin air flowing over his control surfaces, a little too much of this or that at the wrong instant and the plane might flop over. If that were to happen, it would tumble six or seven miles back down out of the sky before Greenamyer could have any chance of controlling it.

This was the plan last February: if he failed in his attempt at the record the first time, Greenamyer would tinker with the Red Baron and try again. After so many years and so much effort, his only real way out was up.

So four months after Darryl Greenamyer broke the world low-altitude speed record, friends were shaking his hand again—only this time they were offering condolences. He had made four test flights in his Red Baron in preparation for a try for the altitude record. On the last of these flights, toward dusk, he went up from the Mojave airport to test the power-boosting water-injection system. It worked flawlessly. Exhilarated, Greenamyer made one low, slow pass for photographs: then with 20 minutes of fuel left on the downwind leg of his approach, he lowered the landing gear.

The indicator lights for the right wheel and the nose wheel went on, but the one for the left wheel did not. Greenamyer changed bulbs, and he raised and lowered the gear half a dozen times, but could not get a safe indication that the left wheel was locked down. While he made another 200-mph pass at 50 feet, a former crewman, Bob Flaherty, stood in the middle of the strip trying to see if the dime-size locking pin of the left wheel was in place. In the failing light, Flaherty could not see the pin of either wheel.

Greenamyer flew 30 miles to Edwards Air Force Base. Because there was no time left for a chase plane to scramble up and try to spot the pin from directly below, Greenamyer bounced the Red Baron along the Edwards strip at 200 mph to try to ascertain if the left wheel was locked. The wheel felt spongy to him; the control tower reported that it was collapsing slightly on impact. Because of the heat generated by friction, if an F-104 is belly landed, conflagration is almost a certainty. Because the wing tips are a scant six inches above the belly, total destruction is also very likely. With 10 minutes of fuel left, Greenamyer headed for the Edwards ejection area, 20 miles farther out in the desert. As he climbed to 10,000 feet, he remembered with irony that he had tested every component of more than 100 F-104s, but never an ejection seat, and now he would be using one he had made himself out of scraps.

With five minutes of fuel left, he throttled back to 200 mph, shut down the engine and pulled the ejection ring. The seat rocketed violently out of the plane and broke away from his tumbling form just as it was programmed to do. The parachute streamed behind him and filled. As he drifted down, he saw his Red Baron sinking rapidly below him in straight and level flight as if still manned.

Five miles in front of him, the Red Baron did a 180-degree turn, passed low to his left and out of sight behind him. In another minute all the bits and pieces of the Red Baron, all the junkyard scraps and surplus parts Greenamyer had carefully assembled for 13 years, were scattered among the tumbleweed and Joshua trees of the Mojave, this time beyond re-collection and repair.


Surrounded by bits and pieces of planes, Darryl Greenamyer has both feet on the ground, for now.


Flashing along in the "Red Baron" at 990-plus mph, Greenamyer allows that "flying that close to the ground at that speed certainly holds your attention."